Idaho's Steelhead & Salmon Runs!

Salmon River Steelhead Fishing Is Fun!Recovery..

It Is A Lot Of Work!

Thoughts on Dam Removal & Steelhead Fishing In Idaho!

One easy way the current administration could bring some sorely needed jobs to Idaho would be to recover the salmon & steelhead runs to Idaho's many rivers for fisherman and hotel owner's. A full recovery of the fish runs in Idaho, to near pre dam levels,  would make us the new Alaska, and a lot closer to home as well. It would also restore a great west coast salmon fishery to Oregon and Washington Coast! Alas, I fear that it will be 4 more years before any action is taken with the current state of affairs politically. These probably aren't the kind of jobs potus will think are important. In the mean time we get by with the status quo. Just like in National Treasure. Steelhead and salmon fishing in Idaho is alive. Maybe not well, but alive. If you time it right and dedicate yourself to figuring out what works for you, the zing of the reel awaits! Spectacular indeed, not just the fish themselves, but the journey of the fish, including the scenery where you will find these sturdy fish. From the explosion of a “B” run giant of the Clearwater to the Stanley area fish that fight their way 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon Rivers, hooking one of these lunkers is unforgettable. There are a hundred ways to get it done. Swing flies in the fall or sink a fly west coast style in the winter and spring. Cast a lure’s, back troll plugs, drift bait. No matter your fishing style they can and all do work.

Fish Numbers & Saving The Wild Fish
Steelhead Fishing In Idaho

Here is a little history for those of you that are moving to Boise and want to experience the thrill of catching one of these freaks of nature. There are some old family stories of the Bear Valley days before “the dams” went in. The salmon were everywhere. People dried them, smoked them, pickled them and later filled the freezer with them. They were so plentiful they used pitch forks to scoop them out of the creeks high up in the Salmon river drainage. The sockeye that returned to Redfish lake were so thick you could “walk across the river on their backs”. Old timers like my grandpa used to salt them and fill 5 gallon Kerosene cans with them on the Lochsa. The good news is that the potential to return to those days are there. Just look at the dams recently removed along the west coast as evidence of that. With some minor exceptions, the habitat to rear the young is there. The biggest issue is getting the smolt and fry out to the ocean. The lake like environment along the lower Snake river leads to the young getting lost and slows the outward migration to a point that many young just run out of gas, or in some cases get picked off by terns and other birds. Farther downstream they have to fight their way past sea lions and seals as well. These fish need our help. Many have advocated removal of the 4 dams on the lower snake. Since the 4 lower Snake river dams went in the numbers of returning fish, both salmon and steelhead, have dropped and then dropped some more. The first response to save them was to help them get back to the spawning grounds. The fish ladder at Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork Of The Salmon river is a great example of that. The fish are still jumping the falls instead of using the fish ladder. Turns out getting back is not the biggest problem. Many a band aid have been applied to trying to restore the runs. For example, making rafting outfitters drive their boats around spawning beds near Stanley, while admirable, is never going to get more smolts to the ocean and may not even result in more eggs getting fertilized. More and bigger hatcheries will bring back a few more hatchery fish, but it won’t get any more smolts to the ocean. Barging the smolts has been proven to be an unproductive waste of money. About the only thing that is left is removal of the 4 dams on the Snake river that many biologists agree are the bulk of the problem. These dams provide very little power generation and mainly provide Idaho with a sea port at Lewiston. In addition there is some acreage along the Snake river that utilizes the water to irrigate crops high above the river. We can plant apples just about anywhere. Fish only live in one place. We can ship the wheat from Montana on the trucks that bring it to Lewiston, just keep driving. Even better than shipping by truck would be to use the underutilized railroad tracks that parallel the river. Rail is nearly the same in cost as barging and doesn't need a taxpayer subsidy to keep it operating like barging does. We can save a bundle on running the four dams as well. Everyone needs to do a little fact checking and then some soul searching to decide if they want cheaper wheat for China and more acres in apples for Washington. Or a river loaded with fish. I know where my opinion lies, how about you? Apples v Salmon. Yank those dams, give the farmers and shippers free fishing licenses for life and lets get on with some serious fishing! Not mention the added benefit of restoring the river back to being a river.

So in a nut shell for those new to Idaho, Oregon, Washington and especially the Federal government and the Bonneville Power Administration have been dragging their feet for years, hoping the salmonids all die I think. The judges keep telling them the plans that they come up with are inferior and try again. The dam lovers and electrical sphere come up with another lame idea and around and around we go. If you really want to help out, scratch a check to one of the great advocacy groups fighting this fight for us! Like Idaho Rivers United, they work their butts off to protect our rivers, including fighting to remove the dams and keep the clear cuts that our governor loves to promote as far from the banks of our rivers as possible! Thank you guys! Who knows if it will ever get it done, but in the mean time we have fishable runs that where once world class. Instead of thousands swimming by in a day of fishing it might be 10 or 50 or there about. Love me some steelhead!

Where, When, How-Steelhead & Salmon Fishing In Idaho

Steelhead Fishing Idaho Most of the rivers upstream from Lewiston have runs, but some do not have hatchery fish and so do not have a season open, while others have dams blocking the passage and have no fish. The Snake river upstream from Hells Canyon Dam and tributaries like the Boise river and Payette river systems are fishless. The good news is there is still some great fishing to be had. Here is a rough outline of what rivers have steelhead and salmon seasons and while you can use any technic on them all some work better on one than another. Sometimes it is related to time of year, others it is related to the size of the river, the flows or even the temperature of the water. I will try and break down when they get there and what are the most common methods to lip one when there is one technic that stands out. I personally like using my fly rod, but depending on what where and when, I have been known to drift bait, toss spoons and back troll plugs as well. In addition it is fickle, the fishing is often weather dependent and when the water temperatures drop to low or storms bring the river way up it can shut the fun off like someone flipped a switch.


The Clearwater River

Steelhead- From the confluence of the Snake upstream the Clearwater is a favorite of fall steelhead fisherman. Peaks October-November. The huge “B’” run steelies can get well over 40 inches in length, so if you are used to smaller coastal steelies like you will find on the Rouge, bring a little bigger gear! Long popular with fly fishing enthusiasts who “swing” a dry fly across the surface, skittering the fly to entice a ferocious strike from these reasonable fresh fish. Tip up is the key and dropping it when you see the swirl appear. Then hang on as they will have your reel screaming if you manage to hook on of these studs. The Clearwater is also popular with anglers in motorized boats who will back troll both wiggly plugs and tuna filled super baits and cut plugs. Of course there are lots of jiggers and folks who drift bait with a bobber from shore as well. Whichever one is best suited for your style, the fish start to show up in September and she all hits full swing by the first part of October.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Spring

The Grand Ronde

Steelhead- A tributary of the Snake river that is runs through both Washington and Oregon, it is ever popular with fly fisherman because it is smaller and more manageable to wade and cover the runs in depth. Peaks October-November Fall for top water fly fishing, later in the year on the upper sections in Oregon near Troy and La Grande use wet flies, spoons and jigs with shrimp.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Spring/summer.

The South Fork Of The Clearwater

Steelhead- Small freestone river popular with both fly fisherman and spinning crowd. Peaks February-March. Top water flies early. Nymphing late. Corkies and yarn bounced on bottom by spin fisherman.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Spring/summer.


Lochsa River

Steelhead- I assume there is a remnant run but no hatchery for steelhead here so not fishable numbers.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Spring/summer time.
I did see a fall run chinook in the Lochsa around Saddle Camp road when I was a younger man. We were taking a break from chasing elk and went down to see about hooking a few of the westslope cutthroats and there it was. Huge to say the least. I hope that someday we will see the kind of runs here that were historically present. Before there was a road up the Lochsa, my grandfather and his dad would pack in over the Lolo trail from Wieppe with as many horses as they could muster. They would bring 5 gallon kerosene cans, one on each side, they had the lids rolled back like an old fashioned sardine can. They would hunt elk and catch as many steelhead as they could fit in the cans, salt them up and when it came time, load it all up and travel the 50 miles over the trail back home to Weippe. I lament the fact that progress has screwed it all up. Too much value placed on the dollar, not enough on keeping it whole.

Snake River Hells Canyon

Steelhead– Fall-winter steelhead fishing mostly from jet boats and from bank near dam.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Summer and fall possibilities.


Salmon River Mouth to Vinegar Creek

Steelhead– Starting in October you will find jet boaters working the eddie lines and tailouts for some action while dragging hardware. The river is so big not so many fly guys here. Lots of roadless, below Whitebird so bank fishing better upstream from there with jigs capped with shrimp

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Spring/summer.


Salmon River Vinegar Creek To Salmon

Salmon River Steelhead & Salmon FishingSteelhead- Arriving in large numbers typically in late October with numbers increasing all the way through December. A lot of the fish will winter over between Riggins and Salmon waiting for spring to finish the journey and spawn. Fishing can be good here all the way into March. Not so good for fly fishing and typically too late in the year to swing flies on top. Dead drifting everything from green butted skunks or a big hares ear with a roe pattern on a 12 inch dropper would be what you want to try. All the crane and cable applications can work when you get it in front of one’s nose. Back trolling from jet boat or drifter seems really popular.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Early summer.


Salmon River Salmon To Challis

Steelhead- The fish may or not make it all the way to Salmon before the winters icy grip hits the pause button on upstream migration. Mostly float boats here, but some smaller jet boats. The size of the river encourages more fly fisherman from here on up. Along with a strong contingent of bank fisherman throwing and drifting about everything you can imaging, the hot spots can get a little elbow to elbow here.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Early summer.


Salmon River Above Challis

Steelhead Fishing Riggins IdahoSteelhead- Once the water warms and comes up they will move. Once Challis has fish they will filter into Stanley in a day or two. You will see a fair number of floaters below Clayton, but very few from Clayton Upstream. This is fly fisherman’s country. A lot of stalk and spot action can be had. Many of the best spots are well known and figuring these out can be a boon. When I first started fishing I learned what vehicle a few of the best guides drove and then made a mental note of where their truck was parked. I learned a few of my favorite spots this way. Later in the season more and more spin cast types arrive, most of the deep holes become congested and people can be overly aggressive. Landing a fish at the dam or finding a spot at the boat ramp just downstream can be a fiasco. Timing is everything and weekends are to be avoided if at all possible. You can check the pit tag information online to see where the fish are and how many have passed which electronic reading stations.

Salmon- Seasons and limits set annually depending on run size and strength. Early summer.

South Fork Of The Salmon River

Steelhead- No hatchery, no season.

Salmon- Seasons set annually. Mayhem x 2… We raft the lower south fork (no salmon season down there) and driving down the road from Warm Lake is nearly impossible when salmon season is open. It is a one lane road with few turn outs for 30 miles, people just pull over, half on, half off the road. It is solid cars for most of the 30 miles. Doors open, kids playing in the street, camp fires practically on the pavement. It is a little teeny river, 20 to 30 yards wide. I have no idea how that many people can fish in that small space. No fun for me. I will say it is a testament to the demand there is to return this fishery and others back into what they were before the last 4 dams put the death knell on the sea run trout and salmon runs.




Posted by Mike and Erica Carr on


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