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In search of the steelies

Steelhead fishing on the Main Salmon


"Your objective is to make the fish pissed off," says Chris Swersey as we load into our drift boat. Swersey is teaching me the basics of steelhead fishing on this cold, early morning on the Main Salmon River in Salmon, Idaho.

Swersey, a good friend and my fishing guide for the morning, tells me that conditions today are not the best for catching steelhead. The barometric pressure is not optimal, the 34-degree water makes the fish less tempted to bite, and the only slightly warmer temperature of the air makes anglers like us less tempted to fish. But, as Swersey says, conditions like this are the essence of steelhead fishing, and even if I don't land a big one today, I'll at least have a grasp of what this sport is all about.

Steelhead are ocean-going rainbow trout that grow to be over 20 inches. Idaho's wild steelhead are threatened, but you can fish for hatchery steelhead in a number of places throughout the state fall through spring. Steelhead fishing does require a special tag from Idaho Fish and Game, a worthwhile purchase if you take home a big fish.

Wearing three layers and a pair of neoprene waders, I'm fairly certain that if steelhead fishing requires any sort of agility on my part then I may perform poorly. Fortunately the first type of fishing we try requires little movement. It is called "hot shotting," or plug fishing. First, we find a likely pool, or eddy. Swersey rows the boat backwards to control our speed so that we move downstream at the rate of about an inch per minute. I sit in the front of the boat, holding two rods with "plugs" on the end of the line. Then we wait, slowly making our way downriver.

The hatchery steelhead that we're trying to hook are not hungry, but they are irritable. These fish are returning from the ocean to spawn and are usually not interested in bait, so Swersey says the trick is to invade their bubble until they bite. The plugs that we use are flashy and annoying with an obnoxious rattle inside. Even on a chilly day like this, a territorial steelhead might stir from a nap in a comfortable, eddy to strike at a flamboyant intruder.

We work our way downstream until my fingers are about to fall off. Swersey tells me that the eddy we're fishing probably holds a couple hundred steelhead, but apparently we're not doing enough to get their attention. Hot shotting, I'm discovering, is a great way to enjoy the river scenery and let your mind wander. But there's nothing hot about it--it's mostly sitting and holding your rod while your guide does all the work.

About an hour into our excursion, it starts to rain. Swersey tells me that this is the worst weather that he has fished in this year. He and I pull on our rain jackets, and he turns on a small propane heater, brand name, "Mr. Heater," at the front of the boat. Swersey is a full-time river outfitter, and keeping his clients warm and interested is a big part of his job, he says. He keeps mini Hershey bars and a thermos of warm tea or coffee on hand to encourage disheartened fishermen and fisherwomen that might want to give up.

Swersey shows me how to cast using "spoons"--another type of flashy lure. He demonstrates how to cast and move the line through an eddy and back to the boat. In these conditions, we're less likely to actually catch a steelhead with spoons, but I wanted to learn how to do it. This method, at least, is a little bit more active, and my toes are staying pretty warm with the help of Mr. Heater.

Still, no luck. The rain lets up a little and we move downriver. The best time to fish for steelhead in this area is mid-October to early November, but with the right conditions, the fishing can be good through early December. At least if we don't catch any steelhead, this river is a lovely place to spend the morning. Pink and cream canyon walls surround us. Except for a few deer that we spot on the banks, we have the Salmon River to ourselves.

We try one more round of casting from the banks of the river. The rain has let up and a vibrant rainbow spreads across the canyon. Just as I'm about to reel in an embarrassingly short cast, I feel a little tug on the line. Wait for it--there it is again! I yank on the line to sink the hook, but the fish is gone.

Swersey sees my momentary excitement. "You get a bite?" he says. I tell him I think I did, and I cast again in the same spot. It might be that I momentarily caught my lure in some weeds, but I'm very willing to believe that I just barely missed a fish. I cast a few more times in the same direction. My prize steelhead must have gotten over his irritation and sunk back into his watery nap.

Our morning of fishing is about over, but we give hot shotting one last shot from a hole that Swersey says is often productive. Swersey asks if I'm warm enough, saying, "You usually don't catch your first fish until you're as cold and as miserable as you can possibly get."

When people ask if I caught anything on this day, I realize I'll just have to tell them that I'm too tough for these wintry conditions. "I was never quite miserable enough to catch my steelhead," I'll say. For now, at least I've got the basics of steelhead fishing down, and when a colder, rainier, more miserable day is forecast on the Salmon River, I'll have to try my luck again.

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