A very old classical Great Highland Bagpipes tune (called, in Gaelic, a piobaireachd) that we listened to in the pick-up while driving to the river appropriately ended up being the theme song to our spring break fishing trip. The tune “Scarce of Fishing” is about a Scottish fisherman on Loch Sligachan on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and his lack of catching fish. The fish we lacked catching were steelhead on Idaho’s South Fork of the Clearwater River.
Steelhead are native rainbow trout that migrate to the ocean as juvenile fish after about two years of rearing in the stream. Some steelhead spend about one year in the ocean before heading back to their birthplace in either the Snake or Salmon rivers to spawn. These fish are the A-run steelhead and are about 4-6 pounds and 23-26 inches in length. The B-run steelhead spend two to three years in the ocean, and as adults average between 10 to 20+ pounds (depending on how long they’re in saltwater) and up to 38 inches long. They will swim back to their birthplace, usually the Clearwater River, and some go to the Salmon River. The South Fork of the Clearwater steelhead migration back to Idaho takes them up the Columbia River, the Snake, the main Clearwater, and finally to the South Fork of the Clearwater. If about 500 miles of migration isn’t enough for these tenacious fish, along the way they must pass through eight large concrete dams.
The South Fork of the Clearwater River is a 62-mile beautiful stretch of crystal clear water. Most of its banks are open to the public with many pull-outs to park your vehicle and in some cases even setting up your tent next to the road for free camping. This practice seemed dangerously close to the road with cars zooming by within a few feet. We planned our trip during the week and easily found a Forest Service campsite with beautiful views of the river for only twelve bucks a night. This campsite was also within easy wader walking distance of nice looking steelhead waters.
Steelhead fishing on the Clearwater can also be very crowded, where combat fishing and fist fights over favorite holes have been rumored. Big fish, big crowds.
Catching steelhead is especially hard because the fish are not feeding normally as they wait to spawn. Instead you try to annoy them with your fly long enough that hopefully they will strike the fly and be hooked in the mouth. If you are lucky enough to hook one, bringing them to the bank is another story because of their size and strength. Check out the video below of Bob from last year on the South Fork of the Clearwater. This fish is somewhere near 20 pounds and 3-feet long.
Steelhead are attracted to colorful flies like bright red, hot pink, orange, purple, or blue, for example. Getting a response from them is your goal. Every day is different and it’s hard to predict what they’ll go for. The one with the red eyes below, a classic steelhead pattern called “The Boss,” got their attention this year.
In Idaho, you can only keep steelhead that are hatchery born. The wild ones have to be released back into the river. The only way to tell if a steelhead is hatchery born is if its adipose fin has been clipped. According to the Wild Steelhead Coaliltion today only about 25% of the fish that return to the Snake system are wild origin. The other 75% are hatchery born.
On our second day of fishing, I noticed two steelhead resting in a hole. Casting out to them I drifted my colorful fly right in front of them several times but they didn’t even look at it. Giving up after about a half hour I headed back down the long river bank to the campground for lunch. A fisherman just down the bank from where I was fishing had just hooked a steelhead. I was very envious that he did it so quickly since he’d only been there a few minutes and everyone in our group had been fishing all morning and not a single hit.
As he reeled the struggling steelhead onto the river bank I ran to the edge of the river to get a better look since I’d never seen one up close. The angler had hooked the steelhead on its back near the adipose fin. The fish, a wild one, would have to be released, so he unhooked the hook. Before he released it back into the river, camera already in hand, I asked him for a quick photo. He obliged and bragged that in the same spot the previous year he’d caught twelve fish. As he put the fish back into the river I noticed a white milky substance oozing from site of the hook holes. “Poor fish,” I thought.
It wasn’t until later that day that I heard of term, “snagging.” It’s a type of fishing when you attempt to take a fish in a manner other than enticing or attracting it to strike or become hooked in its mouth or jaw. Typically, with the gear you use when you snag a fish, you’re going to do harm. It’s not considered a sporting way to catch a fish. I think it’s very disrespectful to these amazing fish that have journeyed so far and have gone through so much just to get home to spawn. It made me sick to my stomach that someone would purposely do this type of illegal fishing and injure the native fish that they can’t even keep. I didn’t realize how naive I was earlier in the day when I thought the guy accidentally snagged the fish. Thinking back, I’m not sure why he even let me take his photo as evidence. Besides, even if someone kept one of these fish, they wouldn’t be any good to eat because they’re beginning to degrade as they get close to spawning.
After three-and-a-half days of fishing we didn’t see a single Idaho Fish and Game officer monitoring the riverbank or checking fishing licenses. During the time on the river we came across a couple of anglers that quickly put their fishing set-up away when they saw us coming. Very suspicious if you ask me. I’d like to think that fellow fisherman are ethical.
In over twenty hours of fly-fishing Bob hooked two fish on a fly rod. Our brother-in-law, Dave, a very experienced fly fisherman and award-winning fly tier, fished with his Spey rod more than 20 hours and didn’t hook a fish. The first one Bob hooked he fought for 25 minutes before it busted the fly from the leader, and the other one came off the hook after about the same amount of time. I’m not complaining about not catching fish. A good day of steelhead fishing is just being in the river. Patience is required for this type of fly-fishing. Scarce of fishing for sure.
I wonder about that big steelhead that busted Bob’s line. Is it still swimming around with a hook in its mouth? He assured me that the hook will eventually fall out. I hope so.