I just returned from three days in Idaho where the Clearwater River and I elected to continue our love/hate relationship. I love that river...and it hates me. True, it is one of the more notorious rivers in the PNW when it comes to finding steelhead willing to take a swung fly. Finnicky. Tempermental. Call it what you will, but Clearwater steelhead love to kick ass and take names, especially when it comes to us fly-pole-swingin' hippies from over the pass. What haunts me about the Clearwater is that those fish will take a swung fly (I've seen 'em do it), and a lot of them are BIG. It's just that they choose to eat said flies with maddeningly unpredictable infrequency. With cool fall weather in place, low, clear water conditions, and fish counts over Lower Granite Dam through the roof, conditions this past weekend seemed ideal for hanging in to one of those big B-runs...
And yet, after two full days of flogging the water with everything from skaters and little traditionals on dry lines to egg-sucking string leeches on heavy tips, Karl and I had yet to have a confirmed encounter with a Clearwater steelhead. Hadn't even talked to any other fly fishermen who had touched a fish either. By the morning of day three, we were hungry and pulled out all the stops.
We launched the spam-can at Ahsahka at dawn and immediately pushed downstream to nymph the outlet pipe of Dworshak Hatchery. Classy, I know, but when you're itching to connect with some Clearwater steel of any sort there are few better bets than dead-drifting egg patterns through the outlet of the largest steelhead hatchery in the country. It's worked before. This trip, however, it was not to be.
In search of greener pastures, we moved downstream and swung flies through a historically productive run. Karl has caught several fish in this water, and made good swings through the deke...to no avail. There ain't no steelhead in this river.
To ease the unending monotony of not catching anything, I broke out the stove and cooked up some bacon and eggs on the bow of the boat for breakfast. Certainly a highlight of the weekend, so far!
Well-fed and full of foolish optimism, we moved on to Plan C and set the plug rods out. Utilizing Karl's expertise following several seasons of guiding fly and tackle anglers on this river, we pulled his favorite plugs through some of his favorite water. Nope. Ain't gonna happen.
After going through the motions of fruitlessly swinging flies through yet another beautiful, "historically productive run," all the while listening to bait chucking locals whoop and holler fighting yet another fish from the next run downstream, we'd had it.
Out came the side-drifting rods and cured eggs. We aren't purists, we're fishermen. And when all you've caught after the better part of three days fishing with more noble tactics is a sucker, a squawfish, a small jack salmon, and one trophy whitefish, all bets are off. We threaded the needle between two big jet-sleds full of Real-Tree clad enthusiasts and moved in to the next run. Drifting our tasty egg morsels in to the bucket, the rod tip registered an unmistakable tug and...wait for it...low and behold, a steelhead miraculously manifested itself on the end of my line. No shit. A short, but heated five minutes later and a 12-pound hatchery hen was on the beach. It felt pretty good just to grab one by the tail.
When you've found a biting steelhead, chances are that fish has friends. Rowing back upstream to make a second pass, we pushed in to the run and started another drift. About fifty yards below where we had caught the first fish, the rod tip once again responded; this time, there was no tugging...it was a yank. Actually it was several yanks, and after a solid hookset and 100-yard run upstream, a big buck went airborne, cartwheeled over the river, and streaked downstream. This fish was pissed-off and had no interest in remaining in the county, much less the run we had hooked him in. Karl pushed the boat downstream after the big boy, and after a couple more heart-stopping jumps and having to manipulate the fish through a fast, boulder-strewn riffle, we slid him in to calm water and put the net under him. A solid, 18-pound hatchery buck swimming in the net is a welcome sight for two battle-weary anglers on the brink of mental instability.
We may have had to resort to less-than-ideal tactics, but putting two big steelhead in the boat back-to-back at the end of the trip sure made the four-hour drive home back over the pass a little easier to swallow. Next trip might have to be to the Salmon, where the steelhead have been known to actually eat flies...