One of our all-time best steelheads off the Salmon River.
One of our all-time best steelhead of the Salmon area.

Salmon River Steelhead Fishing

Our most exciting fishing is for steelhead. These 5- 15 pound fish have a life history similar to salmon, coming into the Salmon River from the Pacific in early fall. They over-winter and spawn in early spring. Some of these fish are “wild” fish, which must be released, but many are hatchery-raised, and can be kept.

Steelhead Fishing Day Trips in Salmon City Area

From October through early April, water conditions permitting,  we fish for steelhead near Salmon, floating in drift boats through ranch lands with only limited road access. We fish Hot-shots from the boat, and stop to cast from the bank for variety. The river is smaller in this area, so fish location can be predicted with more precision than farther downstream. This benefits the fly fisherman in particular. Since a drift boat carries only two fishermen, a guide can provide more individual attention than on a boat with larger capacity.

This is a very scenic area, with frequent views of the Continental Divide. We may see otter, deer, geese, or bald eagles as we float. Fishermen usually stay in a motel in Salmon, and fish one or more days. We furnish lunch, rods and tackle and carry a heater in the boat.

Best Time to Steelhead Fish in the Salmon Area

Though the steelhead season opens the first of September, fishable numbers don’t usually arrive in the Salmon area until the middle of October. Fish remain in the area until late March or early April, roughly the beginning of spawning. After this, most steelhead are upstream, in the Challis or Stanley area. Ice interferes with steelhead fishing in winter, though there are ice-free days and afternoons scattered throughout the winter. While ice may arrive in the Salmon area in early November in some years, we usually expect to fish until mid-November, and sometimes later. The ice jams typically break up in late February or early March, allowing fishing through the March.

Salmon River Steelhead Fishing Methods

Fishing methods can include fly fishing, casting spoons or bouncing lead, but using hot-shots, or plugs, from the drift boat is a very effective method, especially for fishermen who are relatively new to steelheading. The drift boats provide access to water that can be difficult to reach from the road. Especially in the Salmon area, there are frequent changes in the river bed that mean changes in steelhead holding water. A guide who is current on these changes can be a great advantage. A good fisherman who hasn’t fished this water for a few seasons will have a fair amount of catching up to do.

Fly Fishing for Steelhead

In recent years, fly fishing for steelhead has become more popular. Some of the best fly fishing in Idaho for steelhead is in the Salmon area, where the river is smaller and fish can be more easily pinpointed than in the larger water downstream. Fly fishing for steelhead is best in mid-fall, while water temperature is still in the 40s or higher. Often this becomes a balancing act. If you fish too early, there may not be enough fish to be productive. Too late results in water temperatures that are too cold for best response to a fly. Usually the last half of October provides a good opportunity for fly fishing. Still, fishermen are learning that steelhead can be caught on flies in cold water, using rigging and methods that begin to resemble bait-casting methods–just as bait-casting fishermen are beginning to use flies on their leaders below the weight.  Not so many years ago, fishermen thought fly fishing for steelhead was hopeless when the river temperature dropped into the 30s.

Fly rods for steelhead should be heavier than for trout, usually 7 or 8 weight, capable of handling fish from five to possibly even 15 pounds.  In the Salmon area, where the river is relatively small,  I usually use a floating line with a sink tip.  Spey rods are becoming more popular in recent years, reducing the concern about back-casts tangling in brush.  The long rods  are also less tiring over a days fishing than a single-hand rod.  While they also allow a longer cast, that is not as important in this area as it might by on larger rivers.

Multi-day steelhead fishing/Main Salmon lodge Trips

We can arrange steelhead fishing trips on the Main Salmon River in mid-to-late October on which we stay in lodges each night instead of camping. We use the McKenzie boats on these trips. The lodges offer a degree of comfort over camping at this time of year, especially if the weather turns marginal. We do not have much bird hunting opportunity on this section of the river. It is within the River of No Return Wilderness Area, and more isolated than the Lower Salmon Gorge. We see bighorn sheep and other wildlife here. We will see some jet boats, but they thin out a few miles from the launch sites. Usual trip length is 5 days. This type of trip has been popular for years on the Rogue River, but has not caught on here. Several jet-boat outfitters fish this area from riverside lodges, but drift boating this water is a unique experience, and very effective.

Fall steelhead / chukar cast & blast

From late September through mid-October, we offer five-day trips on the Lower Salmon, fishing for steelhead and hunting chukar partridge. We may also fish for small mouth bass, trout, or sturgeon.  This is primarily a combination trip–on a particular trip focus will depend on interests of the participants and which activity is productive at the time.   There is some good whitewater, primarily in a half-day segment of the river.  Click here for more details on our Cast & Blast Fishing Trip


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