Fly Fishing for Salmon River Steelhead

Steelhead Fly Fishing on the Salmon River

There is something special about pursuing and catching a fish that’s traveled nearly 800 miles to the ocean, spent one to maybe even three years swimming out past the Aleutians, then returning another 800 miles up the Columbia, the Snake, and into the upper Salmon River country. Hooking a steelhead on a fly rod is a thrill you never tire of and taking one of these sea-run rainbows on a skating or waking fly on the surface will almost red-line your ol’ ticker – it’s the ultimate! Your bucket list is not complete without a check next to steelhead fly fishing on the Salmon River.

Contrary to what some of the elitist pundits would like you to believe, there’s nothing mysterious about catching a steelhead on a fly rod, an I.Q. just short of Einstein’s isn’t required, you don’t need a zillion dollars of fancy equipment, and you don’t need to be able to cast a mile.

If you have equipment suitable to the task, can reliably cast and control 20 to 40 feet of line, and have a fish out there that wants to play the game, you’ll do all right.

The two most important items for success in my view? Man, without patience or persistence you’re not going to weather those days – often numerous – when every fish in the river has “lock jaw” and make it to those magical moments when the stars align, you feel that heavy surge at the end of your line, and…”fish on!”

Line control, line control, line control! If you can control 20 feet of line, you have a good shot at a fish. If you can lay out 60 feet with ease but have no clue what your fly is doing out there, all bets are off.

Your outfitter and/or guide will supply fly fishing equipment if you don’t already have your own. Check out my posts for a list of basic gear and advice or recommendations if you are looking to buy your own gear.

Steelhead Fly Fishing

Contact Silver Cloud for steelhead fishing information

Fly Fishing Gear for Salmon River Steelhead

Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear

Hooking a steelhead on a fly rod is a thrill you never tire of and taking one of these sea-run rainbows on a skating or waking fly on the surface will almost red-line your ol’ ticker – it’s the ultimate! If you are planning to buy your own steelhead fly fishing gear, let’s take a look at some of the equipment you might consider.

None of the following is set in stone so, for example, if you already have an 8 ½ foot rod, don’t think you have to shell out bucks for a new one just because I’m suggesting a 9 to 10 footer.

Rods – Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear

There many good moderately-priced rods (say, $150 to $250) on the market. Even the most discriminating fly rodder, if blind folded, would likely have difficulty selecting one over another. There are even some low-priced rods out there that will certainly be adequate. For example, I wouldn’t feel like I was being terribly abused if I had to use a Cabela’s “Three Forks” ($50-$70), a Redington “Crosswater” (about $70), or a St. Croix “Rio Santo” ($100 – $120).

I would look for a medium-fast to fast-action rod in the 9′ – 10′ range matched with a 6 – 8 weight line. A good all-around rod would be a 9 – 9 ½ ‘medium-fast action in a 7 weight. Many of the newer medium-fast to fast-action rods will load and cast easier with a line one weight higher than what the rod is rated for. It can vary by rod, however. For example, the Loomis GL3 6 weight I used to have (crunched it on an ice shelf!) was a joy to cast with a 7 weight line whereas it’s replacement – a GL3 7 weight – is a true 7.

Spey-rods are the sexy “in-thing”. For the most part, however, the size and character of the Salmon River – especially above North Fork – isn’t really conducive to getting the most out of a spey rod. Certainly, there are runs where a spey rod would shine over a single-handed rod but there are more runs where one wouldn’t be of any particular advantage. There also are a lot of small tight runs next to shore where it may actually be a disadvantage to use a spey rod. The bottom line is if you own a spey rod and are proficient with it, bring it. On the other hand, if you don’t own one, don’t think you are short-changing yourself. A single-handed rod will do nicely.

Reels – Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear

There are many excellent reels in the $100 to $200 range and even a number made by reputable firms for under $100 that will do an adequate job. Regardless of who makes it, it should have a disc-drag, a variant thereof (like the Pflueger Medalist), or a conical drag system like Lamson reels. The simple “click” pawl drag (often plastic) won’t quite do when a big hen or buck blows up on you! Rim control is nice but not critical. The reel should also have capacity for the line 75 yards or more of 20# – 30# backing. The Loomis “Venture”, Lamson “Konic”, and the Scientific Angler’s “System 2” are examples of moderately priced reels with proven records.

For years, the venerable old Pflueger Medalist 1495 and 1495½ was the standard for steelhead reels. I’ve caught a lot of fish on one including steelhead, barracuda, bonito, and bass. Rim control is the only difference between the original and the newer, 1500 series. The Medalist isn’t the smoothest nor the prettiest reel on the market but it is strong and unfailingly dependable. You can still get a reel and spare spool for under $50. If you’re only going to have one outfit, an extra spool would be advised – makes it a whole lot easier to switch between your floating and sink-tip line.

Lines – Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear

If the water temperature is in the mid to high 40’s or above, it’s time to hunt steelhead on the surface with waking or skating flies. It can be pretty scary!! A double taper (DT) works well as do weight forward (WF) lines that have a longer rear taper to the head. An example of this type WF line is Scientific Angler’s Steelhead Taper. Rio, Cortland, Cabela’s, and Airflo all make similar profile lines. A regular WF will do but the short stubby head and thin running line makes mending more difficult if you have much line out.

Productive fly rodding is strictly a subsurface proposition below about 45 degrees. Most of our water is relatively shallow and a 10′-15′ sink tip works very well. A 20′ sink tip is probably maximum and a full sink is a “no-go”. Type IV (3.75 – 5.25 isp) and V (5.5 – 6.5 isp) sink tip lines are very effective on our water. Type II’s and III’s will work ok if you already have one, but you’ll probably have to add extra weight for effective deep swing work. Floating lines and long leaders (with or without strike indicators) can also be used very effectively using essentially a dead-drift “nymphing” or “high stick” technique. This technique is ideal for running egg patterns through those close tight narrow runs that are difficult to fish any other way.

Leaders – Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear

The old Ritz formula (60% butt, 20% hinge or taper, and 20% tippet) is hard to beat if you tie your own leaders. As with all aspects of fishing, however, there are no absolutes and with the very short leaders typically used with sink tips (3′ – 5′), a butt to tippet ratio something like 65:35 will work as well as anything. Butt sections should be stiff – made of Mason, Maxima “Chameleon” or other leader material with spine. Material like Orvis “Super Strong” nylon makes excellent tippets. I’m not sure it’s worth the cost to use flourocarbon – Chris Swersey has reports that it tends to get brittle in very cold water and abrades a bit more than regular nylon. At least on the Salmon, steelhead are generally not especially leader shy and tippets of quality material in the 10# – 15# range will do the job most of the time. Leaders for surface work and “nymphing” are necessarily longer than those for subsurface fishing and will run from about 8′ – 10′.

Flies – Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear

In any given gang of fish there may be a few who are downright aggressive, some that have to give it some thought, and others (often it seems, most) who could care less about hitting anything. You are looking for the player and, if the truth be known, the player will probably take anything that approaches at the right depth and speed. An old duffer once told me that if you have some big and little dark flies and some big and little colorful flies, you are all set. True, some flies show up better under certain water and light conditions, there are situations where a big gaudy flashy fly may spook fish, and some flies “swim” better than others in certain currents. For the most part, however, the particular pattern is of secondary importance.

With few exceptions, the individual who fishes with confidence, persistence, and at the right depth and speed will be rewarded regardless of what bug he has on the end of the line. That being said, there are some patterns used with some consistency in this area. The green-butt skunk, egg-sucking leach, purple or black bunny, and some bright patterns along the lines of the polar shrimp in sizes 6 – 2 are common.

Egg patterns – either plastic or yarn – are a must! My eggs run from about 3/6″ to nearly 5/8″ in diameter. As for surface patterns, the Waller waker, bomber, the venerable old muddler, and a thinly dressed riffle-hitched skunk should get any fish willing to go top water. Very small patterns can make the day, especially when it seems the majority of fly rodders are throwing monster bunnies, buggers, and flesh flies. You should carry a few patterns like the green butt skunk, shrimp, and bead head prince nymphs in sizes 8 – 12. You,ll frequently find me fishing one of these tied in a loop trailing a larger gaudier fly. More often than not, the ol, fish will snap a lip over the small trailer – working it,s way up the food chain? Whatever pattern a person chooses, the hook should be barbless and sharp!

Strike indicators / Bobbers – Steelhead Fly Fishing Gear

The only time I use an indicator or bobber is when using the technique variously termed “dead drifting”, “nymphing”, or “high sticking.” If you believe the stories, you’d be convinced “real” fly rodders never use bobbers, only strike indicators! Mmmm…not really. If you’re suspending your bug at a certain depth for whatever reason, hate to tell you but, you’re using a bobber. True, it will also function as a strike indicator but an indicator really doesn’t do anything other than help you detect the take. If I can get by without using one, I will. In some situations I think they are actually less sensitive to subtle takes, and depending on what kind you use, they may not be the easiest thing to cast. If wind, rain, snow, lighting, or distance makes it difficult to sense a light take, I won’t hesitate to put one on. There is an amazing array of indicators out there! I’ve tried a good many and have pretty much settled on a little rubber balloon called a “Thingamabobber.” They are easy to put on/take off, very reliable, and will certainly catch your eye on the take. I use either the 3/4″ or 1″ but an ace fly rodding friend of mine will often use the 1 ¼” model.

Read my post giving advice and suggestions on gear that every fisherman should have for a day of steelhead fishing regardless of whether you have your own equipment or not.

Steelhead Fishing on the Salmon River

Contact Silver Cloud for steelhead fishing information

Basic Gear and Advice for Steelhead Fly Fishermen

Steelhead Fly Fishing Advice

Read on to find steelhead fly fishing advice and suggestions on gear that every fisherman should have for a day of guided steelhead fishing regardless of whether you have your own equipment or not.

Fly Casting Clinics – Steelhead Fly Fishing Advice

Most guides I know hate to burn up good fishing time trying to teach someone the rudiments of fly casting – we can do it but would much rather see you doing battle with a big ol’ fish! Folks, if you’re not already comfortable with a fly rod, please take advantage of fly-casting clinics (many are free) offered by fishing clubs and/or fly shops. If that’s not an option where you live, pick up one of the many good fly-casting videos available and spend some time getting tuned up – it’ll be well worth it!

Waders – Steelhead Fly Fishing Advice

Few things take the enthusiasm out of a guide quicker than to have clients that have no clue how to use a fly rod and show up in tennis shoes or loafers – you know it’s going to be a long frustrating day! Man, at least wear some water proof pacs, knee-highs, or hip boots! Better still, bring waders.

Your choices are neoprene or breathable, boot foot (the boot is part of the wader) or separate boot, and either waist or chest high. I have no business wading in to my arm pits so wear waist highs. I also find them more comfortable – especially when nature calls! The water can be very cold during late fall and early spring fishing and most folks find neoprene boot-foot waders most comfortable.

Neoprene chest waders (especially, 5-mm) are awfully nice in cold water and weather but they can be almost unbearably warm for balmy days in the late spring and early fall. Breathable chest waders are light and comfortable, especially if you have room for additional insulation under them during cooler water and weather conditions.

Felt Soles – Steelhead Fly Fishing Advice

Some of the slickest rocks on the planet live in the Salmon River so whatever kind of chest waders you bring, they should have felt soles…at least for now! Rumor has it that many states – including Idaho – may outlaw felt soles to try and stem the spread of noxious weeds and critters. Cleats or studs work well but don’t use them if you plan on spending any time in a boat – they really chew up boat floors! Most of the wading boot companies are hyping their respective alternatives to felt. The ones I’ve tried are better than racing slicks but not by much! The most innovative boot I’ve seen is made by Korkers. In less than about 30 seconds you can switch soles from felt to studs or to their felt alternative sole.

Clothing – Steelhead Fly Fishing Advice

Salmon weather – especially in the spring – can change in an instant. You may have dead calm one moment and howling winds the next. You can be chilled to the bone and then have to start shedding clothes. It can be dry and sunny and change to pouring rain or wet snow. Much of the time, a raincoat and good fleece jacket (especially the new “wind block” types) will keep you comfortable. A heavy coat and stocking cap would also be good to have along in case the weather really turns brutal. Fingerless gloves can save the day if it turns cold, wet, and windy. Neoprene and either wool or synthetic gloves – especially if they have a Gortex liner – will work fine.

Handy Odds ‘n’ Ends – Steelhead Fly Fishing Advice

Hook hone – as they say, “don’t leave home without it!” Want to miss or lose fish? Use dull hooks!

Split shot – carry a small selection of removable shot from BB’s to around #5 to make sure you’re getting down to the fish. I think a lot of fly rodders “assume” they’re getting deep enough when they really aren’t.

Leader clipper – save your teeth, use a clipper!

Pliers of some sort – want to ruin a nice day of fishing? Get a ticket for using barbed hooks!

Hand and foot warmers – those small heat packets you tear open can save the day. Few things are worse than frozen hands or feet. I put a hand warmer in each pocket and toe warmer in each boot during cold weather.

Surgical gloves – great way to waterproof and windproof your hands. I wear them under fingerless wool or neoprene gloves.

Miscellaneous – Steelhead Fly Fishing Advice

Don’t forget sunglasses! A bright sunny day, snow background, and no sunglasses can give you a searing headache like no other! The Salmon has enough color that you can’t sight fish most of the season, so there’s not much advantage to polarized lenses. When fish are staging for, or exploring potential spawning grounds in early April, however, they can be very helpful.

If you are the least bit sun-sensitive, be sure to throw in some sun lotion and a SPF rated lip balm of some sort.

Bring a camera if you want to record your memories. A waterproof bag or box for the camera is a good idea, particularly one you can access fairly quickly.

A small set of binoculars are also nice to have to take a close look at the otters, deer, mink, bald eagles, etc. commonly seen along the river.

Steelhead Fishing on the Salmon River

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Steelhead: A-run or B-run?

Is This Idaho Steelhead A-Run or B-Run?

Steelhead A-run or B-run – can you tell? Idaho’s steelhead are classified into two groups, A-run and B-run, based on their size and ocean life history.

Steelhead are actually rainbow trout that are anadromous fish, meaning they migrate to the ocean and return to fresh water similar to a salmon. Idaho’s A-run steelhead are most commonly found in the Snake and Salmon rivers. Their return from the ocean usually starts between June and August and most often they return after spending one year in the ocean. Due to their early return and length of stay in the ocean, they weigh 4 to 9 pounds and are generally 23 to 28 inches long. Salmon River steelhead average 7 pounds and 27 inches.

The B-run steelhead are more commonly found in the Clearwater River, but some return to tributaries in the Salmon River. These fish usually spend two years in the ocean, and begin their migration to their spawning grounds later in the summer or fall of the year – usually late August or September. Due to the extra year and summer of growing in the ocean, they return as much bigger fish.

B-run steelhead average between 10 and 13 pounds and are 31 to 34 inches long. A steelhead can grow very large if it spends a third year in the ocean before it returns to Idaho to spawn. These steelhead are on average larger than 37 inches and can weigh more than 20 pounds. The Idaho state record steelhead weighed 30 pounds and was caught in 1973 in the Clearwater River.

Steelhead Fishing on the Salmon River
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