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Steelheading on the Salmon River

Or not catching fish in the cold

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As with any successful fishing trip, this one began with a good beer and a good friend. Ted Koch and I left Boise on a recent Friday afternoon to meet up with our friend, Scott Grothe, for some early spring steelhead fly fishing on the Salmon River. Fall archery hunting had brought the three of us together for years. Yet, somehow, this was our first joint fishing adventure.

On the drive toward Stanley, Ted and I began spotting herds of elk near Garden Valley. We discussed at length: elk vs. wolves, elk vs. roads, steelhead and dams, sage grouse and West Nile Virus, and how fire management and climate change may trump them all. The discussion made the windshield time remarkably pleasant.

After a quick pit stop at Stanley, we continued our drive down river toward Challis. We reached our rendezvous point with Scott an hour after dusk. Ted and I hastily made camp, ate a bite then hit the rack. We awoke Saturday morning with great anticipation; then the bone-chilling temperature hit us. According to our fishing thermometer, the air temperature was 23 degrees! Fingers and zippers fail to function well and threading a fly rod with gloves becomes problematic. Sweet Jesus, what the hell was I thinking, tent camping in April at 5,500 feet?

Winter steelhead fishing (December to April) involves somewhat unorthodox techniques. Ted and Scott, both seasoned steelhead anglers, hoped to educate me on the finer points of catching these sea-run trout. Two principal angling methods exist: 1) spot-and-stalk, whereby the angler carefully walks the shoreline attempting to spot steelhead holding in the shallower currents, or 2) dredging, which involves using weighted sink-tip lines and "fishing blind" through the deeper holding pools. The former is the preferred method given that the angler targets visible steelhead. It's important, however, to avoid fish actively spawning or guarding their redd (fish nest).

Scott successfully utilized both methods landing three steelhead (the largest, a 32-inch male) over the course of the day. Ted managed to catch a lone male he spotted from shore, carefully working his weighted fly near the fish to entice a solid take. My efforts were met with less stellar results. To paraphrase author David James Duncan, "I couldn't catch my own ass in a fish hatchery!" While trying both techniques, I had particular difficulty spotting fish.

I did, however, learn several important points regarding spring steelhead fishing. For one, fly pattern is the least important consideration. You aren't trying to match any particular hatch. In fact, the techniques, while effective, are somewhat unsophisticated, relying more upon triggering a fish's territorial nature than imitating a food source. Secondly, a quality pair of polarized sunglasses is paramount to success.

In the end, we toasted the river with bourbon. If nothing else, like the wild Salmon River, it washed away any regrets.

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