Salmon River steelheads

A history and a little fishing

Posted 2/22/23

As an angler more than a student while at the University of Montana, I was always looking for a new adventure. So when my friend Ed told me that steelheads were in the Salmon River, my ears perked up.

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Salmon River steelheads

A history and a little fishing


As an angler more than a student while at the University of Montana, I was always looking for a new adventure. So when my friend Ed told me that steelheads were in the Salmon River, my ears perked up. 

The Salmon River is located in central Idaho, and flows through the Frank Church Wilderness Area. It is made up of several large tributaries, of which the Middle Fork is the most famous. Because there are no roads along the Middle Fork, and because it flows through a steep-sided canyon with a number of dangerous rapids, it is called “The River of No Return.” More than one boater has lost his craft and some their lives, floating this section of the river. 

The Salmon is a large river that flows a long way before entering the Snake River. The Snake eventually joins the Columbia River in Washington State. 

Steelheads enter the Salmon River in late summer; they overwinter there and then move into the tributaries to spawn the following spring. For steelheads to reach their spawning grounds, they must leave the Pacific Ocean, travel up the Columbia, through the Snake and into the Salmon. That is a distance of almost 400 miles.

During their journey, steelheads must pass through the fish ladders operated as passage structures around eight dams—four on the Columbia and four on the Snake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) operates all the fish ladders. 

Steelheads entering the Columbia/Snake/Salmon system are counted while navigating the fish ladder at Lower Granite Dam. 

Over 100,000 steelheads made it through that facility in 1963, and only 20,000 in 2021. Dams, loss of habitat, and warming trends are documented causes of steelhead decline in the Salmon River.

Historically young steelheads (called smolts) on their way to the Pacific had to survive the turbines being operated in the dams. For a while, the COE used large barges to move steelhead smolts around the dams. Those fish were collected below Lower Granite Dam, then released downstream. 

A discussion with staff at the Idaho Fish and Game department revealed that steelhead smolts have now gone past the dams by the time the reservoirs are spilling. That occurs from April to June. 

Steelheads remain in the Salmon drainage area for one to five years before migrating to the sea. These fish spend one or two years feeding and growing rapidly, before returning to the Salmon River and its tributaries to spawn.  

It was during spring break in mid-March that we left Missoula, MT, and began our journey to the Salmon River. That trip took us south on Route 93, over the Lost Trail pass, and into Idaho. At North Fork, we turned right onto a dirt road and continued about 25 miles, before we found a suitable place to camp and fish. 

On the way, we stopped at a small general store for gas and provisions. In order to purchase gas, it was necessary to hand-pump the fuel into a large glass cylinder. The gas was then allowed to flow into our gas tank by old-fashioned gravity feed.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon joined the Salmon River across from a large sandy beach, which is where we pitched our tent. That area would be our home for the next several days. 

For mid-March in the Idaho Rockies, it was fairly warm, but there were still large sheets of thick ice along the shoreline, rising several feet above the river. 

We walked along that ice while fishing. Thinking back, that was probably not very wise. A dunk in the Salmon River at that time of year likely would not have ended well. 

During our short stay, the nights were cold enough that spring runoff had not started. So the river was in good shape from a flow standpoint, and eminently fishable.

While anglers do fly fish for steelheads, we did not. Instead, we used nine-foot baitcasting rods with Garcia reels, loaded with a 20-pound test monofilament line. For bait, we used a lure called a Spin N Glo, with a steelhead fly attached behind. Those two were tied to the line as a dropper, about 18 inches above a long, thin, lead weight. The lead was needed to keep the lures deep, at the level where we believed the steelhead lay. 

A Spin N Glo is a small, oddly shaped lure with fins on both sides. When subjected to water pressure, the lure spins and vibrates, attracting fish. At least in theory. We fished the lures by casting them upstream, allowing them to sink and bounce the bottom, while raising the rod tip, constantly reeling, following the lures downstream. 

Although the weather held and we had a very enjoyable outing, no steelheads were caught. Fortunately, there were good populations of rainbow and cutthroat trout available. We caught several with a few destined for the frying pan.

As a follow-up, Ed went back to the Salmon River the following spring. During that trip, he landed two steelheads, one at 12 pounds, the other, at 18 pounds. Perhaps timing is everything?

While no steelheads were caught on our trip, we were most fortunate to have had the privilege to fish for these terrific game fish. And at the same time, we spent a few days in this remote, rugged, unspoiled wilderness, where few people get the opportunity to fish. As it turned out, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

angler, middle fork, salmon, fishing


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