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Written By: Mike McNeilly, December 17, 2013
I spend a lot of time in the winter chasing steelhead. I also catch a lot of winter steelhead for my efforts, but I have been cursed when it comes to catching big trophy steelhead in California waters.
For one thing embellishment runs rampant on the steelhead stream. You’ll hear a lot of guys talking about the 14-15lbers that they catch on a regular basis. There certainly are fish in the mid teens and above in California, but those fish are exceptionally rare.
Personally, I’ve witnessed one big chrome buck flossed in early March on the Mad River that was probably all of 14 lbs. That fish was the biggest steelhead I’ve actually seen landed in California. Last year I decided to make my own luck.
A few friends and I headed to Idaho’s Clearwater River where the fish were rumored to be some of the biggest in the lower 48. Vance, JW, and I all caught our biggest steelhead ever last year with fish ranging up to 38.” The trip was so good that we decided to tow my driftboat back up there this fall and do it again. Now with two trips under my belt, I’m clearly an expert and it’s time to write about it.
For all the snobs out there that immediately turn their noses up when they hear the words, Idaho and steelhead, in the same sentence I say, feh! “Aren’t those fish tired out and beat up?” “Man, those fish are a long ways from the ocean.” “They must be like reeling in an old boot.”
Wrong! Idaho’s summer steelhead have the genetic makeup to be strong for the long haul. It’s amazing that a fish that’s 450 miles from the ocean can be so strong. Unlike a winter steelhead on a coastal stream that’s going to dump it’s load 9 miles from the ocean in a two week time frame, these fish have the fat and energy reserves to enter the Columbia River in August and spawn in the Clearwater in March or April; without feeding.
When you hook a big strong Clearwater River B-Run steelhead you have to be on your toes. Clear the other rods in a hurry. They will often times come sky rocketing out of the water. Some of them go on uncontrollable runs. Last year I hooked the single hardest fighting fish I’ve ever entered the octagon with. I felt the tell tale “womp, womp” bite of a steelhead chomping on my roe.
I set the hook and a few lazy half hearted headshakes ensued. I commented to Vance and JW “This one doesn’t feel that big guys.” About the time I made that statement, 12lb Maxima Chameleon just started peeling off my Shimano Sahara 3000 on a sustained upriver run. I’ve never seen a freshwater fish rip line off a reel like a greyhounding marlin, but this one did.
All I can say is that line just was dumping off my reel, and I told the guys, “hold on to your butts, I’m going to have to chase him, hold on, hold on!” I slammed the boat in gear right in the nick of time. The fish literally pulled every last wrap of mono off my spinning reel right down to the knot holding it to the spool.
I felt the line pull tight as the rod maxed out, and we raced upriver at full speed. I knocked Vance to the floor of the boat in the process, but the fish was still on. For what seemed like an eternity the only thing that connected me to the fish was the rubber band stretch of the mono and the knot at the end of my spool. Yep, steelhead snobs that only are interested in chrome, these fish are tired out. I eventually landed that beast.
It is to this day the most memorable fight I’ve ever had with any gamefish. It was a remarkable wild buck with an adipose fin like a sail and a bright crimson red stripe below a green back. It stretched the tape to an amazing 37x18 inches. It was bigger than any California steelhead I’ve ever caught by a large margin. It is important (to me) to mention that I caught the biggest fish on that trip, but we all caught fish in that same size bracket.
The fishing was so good last year that we decided to come back this year. I’m glad that I don’t do my homework and leave preparation for the birds. Before the season the Idaho Fish and Wildlife decided that the escapement predictions looked too low to even allow harvest of hatchery B-Run steelhead. If you’re planning a trip, the last thing you want to see is an emergency closure based on low returns. We may not have even gone had I known before hand how slim the run was looking.
Luckily for me, I was bolstered by the confidence of last year’s success and I didn’t even check any reports. When we arrived in Orofino the word was that there weren’t many fish in the system, and not many people were trying for them since it was essentially a catch and release only fishery.
The current regulations allowed for harvesting one hatchery steelhead per day under 28”. These fish are considered “A-Run” or one salt steelhead, and they are by far the minority on the Clearwater. The big 2-3 salt “B-Runs” that make up the bulk of the run would be off limits.
Those regulations may have been the best thing ever for us. This year we found low flows and exceptionally light fishing pressure. Last year the river buzzed with jetboats and guides. This year there would be from 0-3 driftboats on the massive river on any given day.
The Clearwater is about the size of the Feather River, and three driftboats on a 5 mile float isn’t exactly a crowd. I’ve came to the conclusion that less fish in the system is just fine if there isn’t much pressure.
On our first day we didn’t even hit the water until 11:00 a.m. as we had to get our licenses squared away, and by 1:00 p.m. we were lighting them up. We found a huge tailout about the size of two or three football fields that was just stuffed with steelhead.
There were steelhead rolling everywhere, and the fish were on the bite. We just pounded them until I had to pull the plug and get us down through the whitewater rapids with the last bit of daylight. In a three hour stretch we had gone 10 for 13 steelhead hooked.
Half the fish were A-Run fish from 22-27” or 4-7lbs. These fish look just like a Klamath/Trinity steelhead. The other half were the big B-Run tanks that we drive 630 miles to get. Those pigs ran from 30-35” and 9-14lbs.
Every evening our hotel, the Helgeson Place, was a bustle with hunters and fishermen. Whitetail deer hanging out the back of a pickup truck is a common sight. When you add in the great fishing with the great hunting, the hospitality of local businesses, and the relative ease of the trip, this is a must do for me every year. Put Orofino, Idaho on your list of places to fish or hunt.Back To Reports
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