Oct. 24–SALMON, Idaho — Where will you be this Halloween?
Perhaps you’ll be spooked by ghoulish costumes, thrilled by a good slasher flick and delighted with handfuls of candy corn.
If you’re a fisherman, perhaps you’d prefer a different creature feature.
On All hallows Eve, you too could be spooked by lurking steelhead, be thrilled by the oncorhynchus mykiss’ aerobatic strikes and gorge on the delight of snagging one of the most sought-after fish in the Northwest.
“Halloween at the North Fork is perfect,” said Dale Quigley, Twin Falls steelhead fly fishing enthusiast.
Steelhead, which are sea-run rainbow trout, arrive in the upper reaches of the Salmon River in late October and early November.
“Usually it’s kind of a slow ooze,” said Jon Hansen, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional fishery biologist. “The fish will start coming up this time of year, and it’ll slowly start to build.”
One of the best places to fish — opportunity and access considered equally — is the stretch of the river from its confluence of the Lemhi River at the city of Salmon downstream beyond the North Fork to the confluence of the Middle Fork.
The Salmon River’s fall steelhead spend the winter scattered throughout the system waiting for spring spawning when they’ll make a beeline for their native hatcheries.
“They’ll catch fish all winter down by Riggins even, and some of those fish are probably from our upper-river hatcheries at Pahsimeroi and Stanley,” Hansen said.
Although the majority of fish winter below the North Fork, that doesn’t necessarily translate into angler success. Hansen said the aforementioned river section is one of the more successfully fished and increasingly popular portions of the river. That has lead to more fishing pressure and a trend toward more fly fishermen (more and more using the two-handed spey rod) along its banks and in drift boats, he said.
‘Make Them Mad’
There is no right or wrong way to catch steelhead, but traditional spin reel methods are being challenged by the influx of crafty fly fishermen.
“It is an interesting fishery in that people will throw a lot of things at the fish and it’s amazing what they’ll catch them on,” Hansen said. “They’ll use some gaudy-looking flies — that’ll be a chartreuse woolly bugger — spinners and there are some anglers that’ll just fish with gobs and gobs of worms.”
For Quigley and fellow fly fisherman Les Reitz, there’s one “magic” steelhead fly: the green-butted skunk.
The pattern, which Reitz demonstrated at a recent meeting of the Magic Valley Fly Fishers, looks a little wacky, kind of like something Walt Disney might dream up.
Its red tail and neon green plastic butt wrapped over silver tinsel sparkle underwater, he said. A collar of dyed guinea feathers and some prominent white hair wings set the rest of the fly. Reitz prefers to tie the pattern on a size four hook but ties it “short” so it will fish like a size six fly.
Although some steelhead can reach 40 inches in length, don’t think you have to fish large patterns to get their attention, especially this time of year. As the winter progresses, steelhead will find a deep, dark hole to hunker down in and wait for the spring.
“Big is not better,” Quigley said. “The great big flies are what you use in the really cold water when you have to put them on their nose.”
In the fall, as steelhead are still salty and full of life, your fishing should appeal to their aggressive, almost salmon-like behavior.
“You are trying to draw their attention,” Reitz said. “They are not eating. You are trying to make them mad.”
As you work down the river and swing your fly, the fish either has to slide back giving up its territory or draw a line in the sand and strike, Quigley said.
“What you are looking for is a player — somebody that’ll say, ‘I’ve had enough and I’m going to get you out of my way,'” he said.
At the end of your swing, Reitz suggested slowly stripping the line in on the dangle.
“When it gets down there (to the dangle), I’ll let it pause and I’ll drop my rod tip and let it go back again in case something is behind it,” he said. “Then, the first couple of strips I’ll go slow with it before I really start ripping.”
Seek Soft Water
Reitz said the North Fork area sports some wonderful water. The rule of thumb is water, flowing at a pace similar to a relaxed walk, two to six feet deep. Don’t wade out too far as steelhead sometimes like to hug the banks.
“Fly fishers are going to know the water and tell by the width, depth and speed,” he said. “You are looking for soft water that they’ll pull into.”
Reitz said 45 degrees is a good water temperature — if it’s much colder, fish tend to slow.
“If I can find 50-degree water, those fish are hot,” he said.
Look for an outside bend, where two current seams converge or near some structure, he said. Don’t target deep holes because you’ll need a split shot weight and an indicator to reach deep enough to interest the fish.
Reitz said he also covets gravel bars.
“If you get a nice, big, long gravel bar, I’ll fish it all day long,” he said. “Normally what you have on a gravel bar is that you are going to be on the bend of the river or someplace where you are going to find that two- to six-foot-deep water.”
Steelhead in the Salmon River range from 20 to 40 inches and weigh anywhere from 3 pounds to 20 pounds, Hansen said.
The bag limit is three per day with nine in possession. Those fish must be hatchery fish, which are marked by a clipped adipose fin. Natural steelhead must be released immediately.
Anglers should make sure their fishing license is current and check Fish and Game regulations before heading out.