When he returned, he presented a crazy fish story. He said he hooked a monster steelhead and described the battle as epic! He went on to say that he had little control over the fish and he guessed it was close to 40 inches; which made his trout net a joke. Eventually it broke him off. Eager for redemption, he did a little research and discovered that the prime time to fish the South Fork of the Clearwater was late winter. A few months later, we choose a weekend, loaded up our gear, picked up my best friend Camron and headed to the South Fork of the Clearwater.
We were complete steelhead rookies; I had landed one steelhead on my fly rod on the Little Salmon when I was 13, my dad had only caught a few on conventional gear and Camron had never even fished for steelhead. We had heard the fish on the Clearwater system were big, but all we had for rods were a couple of single handed 8 weights and one 6 weight. Also, as a backup, I brought my 6 1/2 foot bait-casting rod. We made it up to the South Fork and stopped in at Dales Cashway for some advice.
"Here are a few flies guys like to use for them around here," Eric said as he pulled a few egg patterns out of a bin.
Eric was the manager of Dales Cashway near Kooskia, Idaho. He was very friendly and eager to help us.
"We have a bait-casting rod as well. What should we use on it?" I asked.
"Bring it in, I'll rig it up for you." Eric said with a big smile.
I brought in my rod and Eric rigged it up, explaining how to fish a bobber and jig.
We left Dales Cashway with high hopes of catching a monster steelhead. We pulled up to what looked like a decent spot to fish and started fishing. We fished the spot for a while with our fly rods and eventually decided to move to a different spot. There was a fair amount of people on the river, so we struggled to find places to fish. The next place we fished, I tried the bobber and jig for a bit. It didn't produce anything for us either. Before we knew it, the first day was over and we headed back to our motel.
The next morning we awoke to snow. It had snowed a couple inches overnight and it was still snowing. Staying in the motel until it stopped snowing sounded temping, but we knew we wouldn't catch any steelhead that way. We headed out to the river and began fishing. We waded into the water as large chunks of ice and slush drifted past us. These chunks made fishing very difficult; you had to time your cast perfectly or else you would snag the ice and often break your fly off on the sharp chunks. After awhile, I became very frustrated and suggested we move on.
"We should move. I can't fish with all these fricken Titanic sinking FRICKEN ice burgs!" I said in pure frustration.
My dad and Camron laughed. We decided to move on. It had stopped snowing, but the iceburgs continued well into the afternoon. We tried another spot with no luck as well. Were we doing the right thing? Were there even fish in here? Despite people around, we had yet to witness a steelhead landed.
We drove back downriver and slowed near a promising looking spot. Our truck came to a screeching halt.
"That guy's got one on!" Camron yelled.
Below us, on the other side of the river, a man was battling a fish. His buddy was ready with the net. We all stared intently waiting to see what was on the other end of the line. The fight carried on, and after several minutes, they netted a steelhead.
"Wow! That thing's big!" I said in excitement.
"I think that's where we should fish. And look, he's using a bobber and jig, Ryan." said my dad.
We had about an hour of daylight left, so we hurried down there and began casting. Camron and I took turns casting the bobber and jig, while my dad stuck with the fly rod. We hammered the water with new optimism. It's amazing what seeing an actual steelhead will do to you. We casted until it was so dark we couldn't see our bobber anymore. Despite not catching any that evening and not seeing another one landed, we knew the next day was going to be different.
The next morning was bitter cold. So cold in fact, the river was full of ice burgs again. It was cloudy, but not snowing. We hiked into the fishing hole where we finished the night before and began casting. Once again, the ice burgs made for difficult fishing. Despite our struggles, Camron and I kept taking turns. He'd cast the bobber for half an hour, while I took the fly rod and fished the run down below, then we would switch. Our "friends" across the river had not hooked any either and were showing signs of boredom. Several would reel in and stand by the fire and talk for bit before picking up the rod and giving it a go again. The morning wore on and the ice burgs began to thin as the air warmed to the low 40's. The clouds slowly began to dissipate and we wondered if we might see the sun today. My dad, who had been fishing downriver, came up to eat lunch with us. He hadn't hooked or seen a fish either.
We had almost finished our lunch, when the sun finally broke through and shone it's marvelous warmth on us.
"Maybe the sun will make fishing better?" Camron said optimistically.
"Everything I've always heard is that the nastier the weather, the better the steelhead fishing." I replied with a frown on my face.
"Well, we won't catch any sitting here!" My dad chimed in.
I decided to go fish the run down below with my dad and leave Camron with the bait caster.
I hadn't made many casts when I heard someone yell in Camron's direction. I looked up to see Camron waving. Does he have one on? I quickly reeled in my fly line, set my rod on a willow and started running up to the hole. I made it up to Camron, whose rod was bent and his bobber was nowhere to be seen.
"Dude, I think I've got one." He said, partially unsure.
"Are you sure its not a snag?" I said, giving Camron a doubtful look.
"No, it's moving. Just not moving very much."
"What? Let me feel."
"No, I don't want to lose him!"
"Just let me feel the rod and then I'll hand it back."
Camron slowly passed the rod over, making sure not to lose any tension on the line. I felt the bend of the rod and tried to decyfer if there was indeed a fish on the other end, and not just the bottom. Feels like bottom to me. I almost said those words, when I felt the rod slowly flex and the "snag" came to life.
"Dude, it's a fish!"
I passed the rod back over to Camron and ran to get the net. I was so excited I didn't stop to realize we wouldn't actually need the net for quite some time. Camron's fish woke up and began to peel line off the reel. The "dinky" bass rod was doubled over and the reel was making noises I'd never heard before.
The fish ran 50 yards upstream and then stopped. It was all Camron could do to gain line on the fish. Slowly, Camron brought the fish closer, only for it to take all the line back out he had just gained. Camron could hardly move the heavy fish, going wherever it pleased. Ten minutes passed and it seemed the moving snag had hardly expended any energy. Camron began pumping the rod and slowly gaining line on the fish.
"I'm getting somewhere now!" Camron said as the fish got closer. "Look! I can see the bobber!"
The orange bobber neared the surface. Just when it looked like the bobber would break the surface, the fish made a screaming run. The reel began to screech as the undersized drag was tested. This time, the fish decided to run dowstream towards a riffle. The fish continued to pull line as it neared the faster water. Just when I thought we might have to chase the fish, it stopped. Camron managed to bring the fish back into the pool and close to netting range. My dad had made it up to us by now and was also very eager to see the fish Camron had hooked. The bobber had now broken the surface and it looked like we might get a glimpse of the fish.
"There he is! Holy Crap, he's big!" I said, as the fish darted back into the depths.
Like kids on Christmas, Camron and I both looked at each other with wide, excited eyes. We then looked at the net I was holding and laughed. This fish was so big it didn't look like we could get it in the net. We would have to make it work, it was all we had.
Once again, the fish came close to shore. This time it showed signs of tiring. I made an unsuccessful thrust at the massive fish, making Camron nervous. The fish came close again and I made a lunge with the net. The massive fish thrashed as I attempted to lift it out of the water. The last third of the steelhead hung out of the net.
"Wooooo! Look at that thing!" Camron laughed in pure joy.
"Dude, he's huge!" I shook my head in disbelief.
The excitement I felt at that moment is hard to describe. Maybe pure joy, or elated happiness comes close. There's a magical feeling when the mysterious object at the end of your line comes to life and begins to pull. I knew this was just the beginning of a long, enjoyable battle.
I played the fish for quite some time before we maneuvered him into the undersized net. We took a few pictures and measured the fish out at 35 inches. What a dandy. Before I could even slip the fish back into the water, Camron was already standing on the small sand island making his first cast.