Saturday, April 29, 2017
My annual, late winter trip to the Clearwater River almost didn't happen in 2017.
"Dude, have you left yet?" I spoke into my phone as Camron picked up.
"Yeah man, just left." Camron responded with excitement.
"Sweeeeet...." I replied hesitantly. I had called Camron last minute to see if he thought we should push our trip back another week due to water conditions. However, now that he had already left his home in Utah, I thought I'd better not bring any of that up. I forced myself to think positively and finished the awkward phone call with, "Makin' memories, 2016!"
Since we began chasing steelhead in Idaho, we've learned that there are several very important factors in consistently catching late winter and spring steelhead. Timing is perhaps the most important and the reason I had almost called off our trip. To understand why timing is so important, you have to understand the nature of steelhead in Idaho.
Many Idaho steelhead enter the Columbia River in late summer and migrate upstream, continuing into Idaho in early fall. Some are here as early as August and others don't arrive until December. Once they enter the Clearwater, Salmon and Snake rivers, they tend to slow down as they get closer to the smaller streams, where they will eventually spawn. As winter approaches and the water cools, they tend to "hunker down" or "hole up" until the water warms or increases in flow.
Towards January and February, many of the steelhead will be staged close to their spawning rivers or their spawning grounds, simply waiting for the water to reach ideal levels for traveling. Typically this means a substantial increase in flow. Many steelhead will rush up the smaller tributaries like the Little Salmon River when flows increase. When flows drop again, the fish will either hole up or boogey back downstream into larger, deeper water. I call these, transitional steelhead. They will "flirt" with these streams until April, when they will spawn. April steelhead are spawning steelhead.
The prime time to target transitional steelhead on a fly rod is in the late winter and spring when these fish enter the smaller streams. The higher water pushes them in and it's when the flows start dropping back down that fishing becomes insane! The flows become better for fly fishing and water clears to that magic "steelhead green" color. When you hit it just right, it can be downright awesome. Many of these same rules apply to spawning steelhead; clear water equals better fishing in general. The extent of my knowledge pertains to transitional steelhead and will be my focus in this blog.
"Do you think the water will be too off color?" Camron asked, as we left my house in the dark and began our drive North.
"Hard to say, but if we can figure out how to catch fish at these higher flows, then we should be able to catch fish anytime." I replied with confidence.
The flows were significantly higher than "ideal", but were forecasted to drop based on the cool, dry weather coming. If flows dropped 200-300, I knew we would hammer the fish.
When we arrived on the river, we were pleasantly surprised to find the flows and the clarity to be better than we expected.
"This doesn't look that bad. I bet visibility is 2 feet." Camron said, rubbernecking as we drove down the river.
"Yeah, we'll catch fish. I have no doubt." I replied, practically squirming in my seat like a kid on his way to Disney Land.
We selected our spot, parked, rigged up and began walking up to the hole.
Camron and I got into position and began casting.
"Fish on!" Camron said, startling me as I intently watched my indicator at the end of a long drift.
"Nice! That didn't take you long." I said, as his steelhead came thrashing to the surface.
After a decent battle, I scooped the fish into the net and we were on the board. With an enthusiastic flop, the steelhead slipped back into the river before we could get a picture.
It didn't take Camron long before he was hooked into another. However, this one shook the hook before we could net it. We fished this spot a couple more hours before we decided to move downstream.
Our optimism was off the charts as we pulled up at one of our favorite holes and no one was there. The water was pretty dirty with maybe 1 foot visibility, but we knew exactly where the fish lay. It only took a few casts and Camron was into a fish.
That afternoon we hooked into numerous fish but only landed a few. Despite the higher flows and cloudier water we had caught fish. It made us realize how important the higher water had been in filling the river with fish. We had caught fish because we knew where the fish were. Now that the flows were starting to drop, the clarity would start to improve. We knew the next couple days would only get better.
We started the next day at a different location, crossing the river to ensure we'd have some water to ourselves. The locals had pointed out a small run that they'd seen fly fisherman auto-load steelhead in. I figured I'd start there and give Camron the prime water below. I fished my area for a while before giving up and heading back down to where I'd caught fish in the past.
"Cam, maybe you should try that area up there. The locals say it's dynamite, but I can't figure out how to fish it." I exclaimed in defeat.
"I'll try it out." Camron said, reeling in his line and exiting the water.
About a half hour later, I heard Camron say the magic words.
I ran up to him with the net just in time for his fish to pop off.
"Get another one!" I said, as I threw the net down and walked back downstream.
"Fish on!" I heard Camron say, just as I began to walk into the water and begin casting.
I chuckled out loud as I waded back to the shore and made my way up to Camron.
We netted his fish, took a picture and released it. I began walking back downstream and didn't even make it to my fly rod before I heard Camron again.
I walked back up to him and helped net his fish.
"Ok, we're taking turns. Move over." I said, as I grabbed my rod and weaseled my way into his honey hole.
"That's fine. Dude, I think I figured this spot out." Camron said with a big smile.
"You think?!" I chuckled back as Camron and I compared the depth of our indicators.
"Cast up there and let it drift down next to the rock. They're stacked in there."
My indicator took a plunge right where it should. "Fish on!"
The power of this fish was impressive. I imagined a 45 inch wild buck as it began to release it's fury and take me downstream. I followed the fish into some deeper, slower water where it only showed me my strike indicator twice before my line went slack and the fish was gone. I wanted to throw my rod down and quit, but only for about 2 seconds until I realized there were many more fish waiting to be caught.
Camron was into the next fish.
We put on a clinic that morning, hooking and landing numerous fish. At one point, we even had a double! I had given up on that spot and Camron hadn't, teaching me a valuable lesson. He took the time to figure out the topography of the hole and as a result we hammered the fish. If you have confidence in a spot, take the time to study the dynamics and topography of the river bottom and you will catch more fish.
By 3 pm, it seemed we had exhausted the honey hole, so we decided to finish the day at a different location. By now the clarity had improved to around 3 feet. The pretzel hole was close by and always good for a fish or two. As we pulled up we noticed that the run down below, which was always occupied with people, was vacant.
"Hey, I might try that water down below the pretzel hole. Might as well fish it since no one is there." I said, as I grabbed my rod and sling pack.
"Ok cool, I'll fish the tail-out here." Camron replied, unloading the net.
The pretzel hole was a deep, sandy hole bordered by a steep rock ledge that rose nearly 20 feet. It narrowed and surged through a tight but deep gap full of large, submerged boulders. After that, the river widened and slowed to form a perfect, brisk walking speed run bordered by soft, but deep edges. Fish could be lurking anywhere in here. It was time to prospect for steelhead and map out a new run. I started in close, working the inside seam and slowly casting further out. The run was mostly a consistent depth of 5-6 feet with only a couple of rocks throughout. Halfway across the river, my indicator took a dive just past a submerged rock. I heaved back on the rod and felt the slow head pulses of a steelhead. Camron reeled in his line, grabbed the net and walked up the steep bank to the road. He ran 100 yards down the road and then descended the steep bank behind me. We netted the fish and shot a picture.
"We're tied up now for the day. That was your 3rd, and I caught 3 at the first spot this morning. I'll leave the net here with you." Camron said, as he turned around and climbed back up to the road.
"Ok, hopefully you'll need it next." I replied, pulling line out of my reel to proceed fishing.
A few minutes later, the small upstream figure, know as Camron, was back in position casting. I looked up just in time to see him set the hook. Rock or fish? His body position was one of excitement and his line appeared to be pulling away from him. Fish. I grabbed the net and made my way up to him. We netted his fish, shot a picture and released it.
"Ok, you're on top now with 4! The net is staying with you." I said, challengingly.
I dropped the net and made my way back down to my spot. With the fly rod back in my hands I decided to work some of the pocket water at the top of the run. The current was very funky and it was hard to get a dragless drift. Current lines shot in different directions and at different speeds, pulling my line this way and that. To combat this, I perched myself atop an odd shaped boulder to ensure good line mending abilities. My indicator drifted next to a refrigerator sized boulder and sunk below the surface. I set the hook, felt the slight give of a fish's mouth, and then felt nothing. Strange, that had to be a fish. I spent the next 15 minutes trying to duplicate that drift. When I finally did, I was rewarded with a fish. No doubt the same one that had grabbed prior. Camron came running down with the net.
"I guess we're tied up again!" Camron said, hoisting my steelhead up in the net.
"Your turn! Leave the net here with me. This is great!" I said, releasing the fish and proceeding to cast.
The sun was getting close to setting and closing out a very fishy day. I made my last cast and was reeling in my line when I looked up to see Camron hooked up again. I gathered everything together, including the net, and made my way up to Camron.
"You just had to get one more fish!" I shouted from the road as I approached.
"Sorry." Camron chuckled, heaving the fish close to the net.
We netted his fish and released it. What a day! 9 steelhead landed.
We decided to start the next morning at the same location as the previous. We crossed the river and began fishing "the bucket" as we began to call it. The morning was cold, forcing us to take frequent breaks and short walks to warm up our feet.
It wasn't until about 9 am when the sun finally poked it's warm self out from the clouds. No one around had even touched or seen a fish. As far as we could tell, our "bucket" was only full of water.
"Sun's out gun's out!" Camron said, coming back from a short walk. "Get your line in the water."
It was true. In the past we'd had remarkable fishing coinciding with sunshine, and since, we always made it a point to fish hard when the sun was out. The sun's rays felt great as we worked the water, renewing our optimism.
"Fish on!" I said, as my snag came to life and began pulling back.
"It's that sun!" Cam said, grabbing the net.
After a great battle, we scooped the fish into the net.
We released the fish and looked downstream to see a guy hooked up, then a fly fisherman upstream of us hooked up.
"Sun's out gun's out!" Camron said, laughing and moving into position to catch a fish himself.
"They really love that sun." I said, sliding in above him and fishing.
"Fish on!" Camron said, smiling.
We landed his fish and sent it back.
I responded next with a fish of my own.
Others downstream and upstream of us were also hooking into fish.
"That sun is magic. It must have just warmed up that water a single degree." I said, just in time for the sun to disappear behind a large cloud.
"There it goes." Camron said with a frown. "It was nice while it lasted".
The action ceased, and after a couple hour lull with no one around into a fish, we decided to try some other water upstream.
Upstream, the river was busy. Cars occupied nearly every pull-out, including the one we wanted, forcing us to try a new location. The new location looked promising, but after an hour without a sighting or tug of a fish, we left to check the availability of our spot. As we approached, we noticed it was unoccupied.
"Just drop me off Cam. We'll do a drive and drop!"
I hopped out of the rig, grabbed a couple rods and hurried into the spot. No one would steal this spot from us!
After parking the vehicle, Camron got into position. We fished hard for several hours with only one hook up. The sun was nearly set when we decided to leave. We didn't have time to fish the next day and we didn't want to pay for another night at the hotel either. So we geared down and drove back to Boise that night.
We learned several key things from this trip:
1) The first was that we could catch fish on this river even at high flows and lower visibility. We just knew where the fish travel and like to lay. Later fishing reports at even higher flows also confirmed this. Identify where steelhead travel and rest, put your hooks in front of them and they will bite!
2) Never give up on a location if you think or know fish are there. There's a chance you're just not putting your hooks in front of them. Camron used his bait caster and bobber without a hook to map out the topography of the bottom so we knew where the fish were. When in doubt, go deeper!
3) The sunlight in late winter and spring can bring magic! A warming of the water by just a degree or two can put lethargic, inactive fish in the biting mood. Sun's out, gun's out!