Thanksgiving is a time to reflect back on all those things we can be thankful for. Even through all the busy and hectic schedules, it’s a time for families and friends to detach from the business world and unite around a finely prepared meal and fellowship. Late November is also known to many outdoor anglers as a special time to chase saltwater trout that migrate their way inland to eventually spawn and complete their circle of life. This chase is known as the Steelhead run.
I started planning this trip months in advance. Because RnA is about DIY adventures, my intent was to do as much research ahead of time that would be necessary for a successful journey. But what is a measure of success? To some, it’s always notching their tags and going to the far ends of the human body to do so… Others are content with having fun and spending time with the guys at elk camp. For me, it’s somewhere in between both spectrums. My motivation for this trip was to help my nephew land a B Run steelhead that he would always remember.
Blake and I set out to Orofino, Idaho the day after Thanksgiving. He is an avid outdoorsman who loves to spend time fishing and normally found carving fresh powder on Brundage Mountain in McCall, ID during the winter months. When I invited him to go pursue Steelhead during the renowned B run, I could hear the exhilaration in his voice how excited he was. Orofino is a town of approximately 3000 people that sits in North Central Idaho off of Highway 12. With its geographical position split by the Clearwater River, it’s no wonder when you drive through town the pace of life revolves around fishing. The streets are lined with mom and pop fishing stores and gas stations that are loaded with angling gear. Hotels are packed with trucks pulling drifts boats set up to land big fish. If you are visiting Orofino during this time of year and not wearing chest waders into the local café, you may be in the wrong place.
Steelhead are a species of rainbow trout; the only difference is Steelhead have transitioned at some point to saltwater versus rainbows that are land locked in fresh water. They will spend 1 to 2 years out at sea and return to freshwater to spawn. Steelheads are like salmon and are anadromous, meaning they return to the original location where they hatched to spawn. All Steelhead coming from the Pacific Ocean, make a right hand turn into the Columbia and start their journey back home. The next big decision for them is to go left into the Clearwater or make a right and stay in the Snake River which eventually flows to the Salmon River. Many factors go into why the fish make the turn they make, but most important is water temperatures at the confluence of the rivers. Steelhead prefer very cold waters and will pursue those areas upstream. This helps define the different types of runs that occur each year on the Clearwater River.
‘A’ runs occur typically in the first part of August and are those saltwater trout that only went out to sea for 1 year or less. They are usually found in the Snake and Salmon rivers and range in the 5-7lb range based on less time to feed and grow in the ocean. In addition, these fish travel over hundreds of miles so they normally start out much bigger but end up losing weight based on the environment and distance they travel.
‘B’ run Steelhead are what every angler in the November wants to hear the Idaho Fish and Game predict. These are the traditional hooked jaw, red bodied beasts that require your full attention when they strike. This run of fish stays in the ocean at least 2 years (sometimes 3 years) and grow to
average sizes of 12-15lbs. They most often return to the Clearwater and start their migration later in the fall.
As Blake and I arrived into Orofino, it was a cold and overcast afternoon to start our fishing adventure. After having done some research, we stopped by the local fishing shop and picked him up a Steelhead rig. The set-up is very simple but requires:
Medium flex rod (minimum 7ft) with an open face reel equipped with 12lb tensile line,
1 oz. weight
10lb leader spool
Floating bobber with a stop
Before making our way to the sub 40 degree water, we made one more stop that proved to be a very valuable one. After turning off of Hwy 12 at the Peck junction, we drove up to a small red shop off the side of the road that appeared to be an abandoned old outbuilding. As we pulled in, there was a wooden sign that points to the red shed stating “The Fly Shop”. We walked into the ‘Red Shed’ and was amazed at the amount of fly tackle and gear loaded into this small shop. It was a full service fly shop owned and operated by one of the legends of the Clearwater, Poppy. We spent some time chatting with him about various locations on the river and effective flies and techniques. The best advice we received was, “Use what you think is best and have the most belief in.” Although this was not a secret or hidden gem, it gave us some confidence that these fish will bite just about anything we throw that them. With that, we thanked Poppy and headed to the river.
Friday evening was exciting as we found some river access on the South Fork. My one and only fly that I lost all weekend was drifting over a deep pool and immediately felt the pole tip arc over 180 degrees. As I went to strip line and in an attempt to set the hook, I felt all the tension release and my fly line came back and wrapped itself over my shoulder. I had just been introduced to the massive strike of a Steelhead.
Saturday proved to be another learning lesson for both of us. We started our morning down past Lenore at Cherry Lane Bridge with remnants of many fish carcasses and spawned Chinook Salmon that had previously expired on the banks. We battled the wind all morning and was just too much to be effective, so we headed back upstream to find some less choppy water. On the way, we made a stop in to see Poppy and drop off some tackle we had the previous day. In his infinite wisdom, he gave up a few pearls of river knowledge which proved to be essential for success.
I owe my passion for the outdoors to my father. He taught us how to be respectable stewards of the land and use what you take. It just so happened that one of my dad’s lifelong friends was camped in the area and had been fishing the river for the past 3 weeks. So that afternoon, we met Brady at the local café in Kamiah for lunch and put together a plan to wet a line that afternoon. The day preceding, he had told us how he had landed 5 good size fish with one being close to 40”. With that said, we caravanned down to his honey hole and gave it a try. We fished that evening that didn’t get a bite but rather was shoulder to shoulder on the bank sharing the limited real estate the South Fork has to offer.
Sunday was the day to get that first fish of the 2016 B run. Our tactic was to get to the spot before light so we would not have any interference with other anglers. We started back out that morning on the South Fork where the temperature indicator in the truck displayed 29 degrees. Although none of us wanted to get out of the warm running truck, we knew it was time to start our luck in the cold water. We fished a great strip of the river up and down, only with a few strikes and mild bites but no landed fish. With that said, we packed up and headed to Orofino with hopes our luck would change.
As Brady, Blake, and I walked up the banks of the North Fork, I was thinking back on the last few days and how much fun it was chasing big steelhead in the cold wet Northern Idaho weather. We found a spot that looked promising as you could look down into the river from the rock bluff and identify large moving shadows wading in the deep pools. Additionally there was remains of steelhead on the banks which is a good sign that someone recently was successful in the area. It was kind of like spot and stalk fishing as you could see the giant trout through my polarized lenses, but it was another feat to try and get them interested in what we were throwing. I continued to whip Green Butt Skunks with a long 12 foot tapered leader in hopes I could trick one of these fish in being a bug they couldn’t resist. I recall on many occasions roll casting out way in front of the fish and allowing the sink tip line to take the fly down to their level and not a bump. In one instance, my GB Skunk tapped one of the fish in the nose as it drifted by and could not get them enticed. It was time for plan B.
Brady and I walked farther down the river to an area where fresh water outfalls out of the Dworshak Dam that exists in the distance. As most know, fish love to sit behind large boulders in a ripping stream as that water turns over with good oxygen content. This was a similar case so we thought let’s give this pool a try. As I casted, the rain began to fall which made for limited visibility in the river. Fish were coming in and out but was blinded by the large droplets of moisture protruding down from the sky. I continued to sling my 8 wt. system and drift through that hole and then it happened… Wham, I felt line immediately stripping out of my Redington Rise reel and my Sage Flight rod bend in an 180 degree angle. Once I was through my fly line, the nylon backing began to appear as this gigantic fish was working me on the wet rocks of the bank. I began to gain some leverage as I worked the fish down the river and regained my fly line in the spool. I continued to strip more line till he was close enough to the bank where Brady was able to land him in the net. Just like that, I had my first steelhead with fly fishing tackle on the bank. It was a gorgeous hatchery clipped fin male with nice red coloring and spots. We measured him out to 33 inches and was right at 15lbs.
When Blake and I returned to Poppy’s shop late that Sunday afternoon, we were all smiles. As usual, he was busy getting a few bugs tied up, but I told him of our success. We thanked him for all his help and was sure glad we made that stop by the Red Shed. As we walked out, I glanced over at the white board with some information about the river and hot bugs biting, and came across a saying that I will forever remember… “One cast can change your life”.
This blog is dedicated to my nephew Blake and my Dad's friend Brady. Thanks for making an enjoyable weekend both fun and successful.