Missoulian Article Steelhead Fishing with Aggipah’s Idaho Fishing Guides

In a technique known as "hotshotting" for steelhead, an angler lets a 4-inch plug wobble in the current. The fish aren’t feeding during the run, but the plug essentially makes them angry enough to snap at it. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian
In a technique known as “hotshotting” for steelhead, an angler lets a 4-inch plug wobble in the current. The fish aren’t feeding during the run, but the plug essentially makes them angry enough to snap at it. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Fishing Salmon River Steelhead Like Picking a Fight
SALMON, Idaho – In shark movies, the excitement starts when the fin breaks the water.

With steelhead trout, it’s when a tail as big as a man’s hand swirls out of a coffee-brown river. Every fish on a line weighs a ton when you’re reeling, but seeing that fin fly reminds you this is the big-game version of angling.

Throw out most of what you know about fishing when you go after steelhead. There are no bug hatches to wait or match. Don’t look for root wads and shady holes. In fact, skip everything involving food – steelhead don’t eat.

At least not during their spring and fall migration runs into Idaho’s Salmon and Clearwater river drainages. Like salmon, steelhead are born in mountain streams, grow up in the Pacific Ocean, and return home to breed. On that return trip, the big fish live off their fat supplies.

So catching steelhead essentially involves picking a fight with one. In a productive technique known as “hotshotting,” the angler drops a shiny, 4-inch plug in the current and lets it wobble. The plug fights the water so much, it feels like a mid-sized brown trout when you retrieve it.

There are 100 ways of catching steelhead, and this is probably the simplest,” said Aggipah River Trips owner Bill Bernt. “We don’t cast. Just let the current carry the line out. The fish are likely to hook themselves.”

When that happens, it helps to have good teammates. A two-foot steelhead yanked a client’s rod down with an unmistakable strike. Bernt rowed his driftboat out of the current and grabbed a net big enough to land a small kindergarten student. Everyone else got their lines out of the water and started yelling (in no particular order) encouragement, directions and locations.

This fish didn’t jump, although steelhead are known in the fall migration to make “circle-jumps” high out of the water in rapid succession. It swirled in its own whirlpool, slapping that big tail like some gangland hand gesture. Then it charged toward – and under – Bernt’s boat. The memory that these fish aren’t hungry – they’re angry – returned in its torpedo-like wake.

“That’s when we lose a lot of them,” Bernt said. Steelhead demand deep-sea fishing tactics, like the pump-and-reel motion of raising the rod and then gathering line as fast as possible before it can shake off the hook. Bernt advises keeping a thumb on the reel as a drag, so the fish can rip line when it bolts but the angler can put on the brakes when it changes direction.

And in fact, as soon as Bernt had the fish in his net and the tension went off the line, it spat out the barbless treble hook.

“Steelhead are absolutely premium,” said fishing client Beth Waterbury of Salmon. “We’re 850 miles from the ocean, and they come to us. They were born and raised here, make the run through all those dams, and when they come back, they’re bright and beautiful. They’re beautiful to hold and they’re good to eat.”

This spring promises to be an exceptional year for steelhead fishing, according to Idaho Fish and Game regional fisheries biologist John Hansen.

“In 2001, we had one of the largest runs in 30 years,” Hansen said. “This run is surpassing that run. We’ve counted 313,000 fish coming up by the end of December.”

About 12,000 of those will likely reach the Salmon tributaries. It’s a number high enough to prompt Idaho authorities to lift the limits from three fish per day to five on the Salmon, Little Salmon and Snake rivers. It remains three per day on the Clearwater and Boise rivers. Only hatchery-raised steelhead, with a clipped-off adipose fin, may be kept.

Steelhead migrations still puzzle biologists. Some spend two years in the ocean before heading up the Clearwater. Others spend one year and head for the Salmon. Hansen said these are not subspecies or otherwise different fish, except the two-year ocean fish tend to be 30 inches or longer while the one-years range between 20 and 25 inches.

They make a big surge in late summer as far as Lewiston, Idaho, and then stop for the winter. When the ice clears in February or March, they make the final half of their run to spawning grounds. Many will come right back to the hatchery where they were born to lay their eggs.

Written by ROB CHANEY Photographed by TOM BAUER of the Missoulian | Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2010 7:00 am

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com. Photographer Tom Bauer can be reached at 523-5270 or at tbauer@missoulian.com.

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