Clearwater Steelhead Fly Fishing | About the Fishery

Clearwater Steelhead Fly Fishing | About the Fishery

just before dark…gopro needs a head lamp feature!

There are somethings you can control, Mother Nature and Clearwater steelhead are not amongst them.  I fished hard dawn to dusk for seven days, got a few tugs, saw a B-Run Steelhead boil on a dry and I managed to get a few to hand.  More importantly, I learned a lot about this remarkable fishery and what steelheading is really about during this trip.

First Things First… A Fair Warning to Our Fishing School Guides: I am personally going to take you all out to the river and dunk your heads underwater for loaning my aluminum rock grip boots out to the fishing school a night before I went on my Clearwater steelhead trip! One dunk for each time I took a dive.  The number one thing you need above everything else to effectively fish the Clearwater River is the right boots.  Aluminum star cleats at the minimum, but probably Patagonia’s Rock Grip boots!

So it Begins…

There Wasn’t Going to be a lot of fish captured on gopro on the Grande Ronde Running chocolate Milk.  So we decided to mount it to the cork of a spey rod and get a down the barrel view…pretty cool!

As originally scheduled we were to be on a six person four day overnight float on the Grande Ronde. When we showed up at Bogan’s Oasis, the situation wasn’t looking pretty.  Heavy rain shot the stream flow up from a steady 800 CFS to over 4,000 overnight. When the guides showed up to meet us they were a little worried as well. Rising water, low visibility and steelhead don’t mix.  Wanting us to have a good experience, we took the rain check until next year.  BUMMER!

What Are A-Run & B-Run Steelhead?

After having fished both the Grande Ronde and Clearwater last year, I was looking forward to a few days after our float on the Clearwater.  All steelhead are amazing, but those B-Runs on the Clearwater will change your life.  For those unfamiliar with steelhead, their are two types of steelhead.  Their are A-Run fish that spend 1 year in the ocean before returning to spawn and will weigh 5-10 pounds on average.  B-Run fish spend an additional year in the ocean and when they return to their home spawning waters 12-20+ pounds.

The Clearwater Wasn’t So Clear…

Unfortunately, the Clearwater didn’t dodge mother natures bullet either, and the Clearwater exploded from the comfortable October swing water of 1,800 CFS to around 12,000 CFS. The rest of the crew I was going to float with had already been around for about a week and decided to pack it up and head home.  I’d been thinking about this trip since they day I left last year, and I was just going to make the most of it.

After the water rose, the Clearwater was pretty much unfishable for any species let alone steelhead for two days, but I still fished (unsuccessfully).  When the water comes up, it triggers a sense of urgency in steelhead to move, and they will travel up to 20 miles a day without stopping as long in their typical holding water along the way.  If by chance they do stop to take a breather, they wouldn’t have seen a swung fly in that water anyway. Steelhead also, don’t move into a river system with the intent to eat like trout that we are familiar with.  While in the ocean, they build up enough fat reserves to withstand without food from the time they enter the Columbia in late summer until they spawn the following spring.  That is 8 months without food.  Then how can you catch a fish that doesn’t eat you ask?  No one really has a concrete answer as to why steelhead will miraculously decide to chase a fly and eat it, but fortunately for us they do from time to time.  The best I have ever hear it explained is that once a steelhead spends more time in freshwater, their trout instincts slowly come back.  They see a fly swinging across the current, and every now and then it triggers their instinct to eat it.  This is especially true in summer run fish that enter the river systems sexually immature. In the course of the time they migrate back into freshwater they will develop their reproductive organs.  Winter run fish enter later in the season sexually mature and they come in with only one thing on their mind, reproduction.  It seams for this reason summer fish are more “trouty” than the winter run fish.

Clearwater Steelhead “Fighters” In Every Sense of the Word

As for the steelhead that return to the Clearwater, I learned a lot about these fish.  Why are they so remarkable?  Let’s start with the fact that they swim 500+ miles from the Pacific Ocean , climb over 7 dams make and make it through a gauntlet of anglers/fishing nets just to get to their home water.  Within the Clearwater their are wild steelhead and hatchery steelhead marked by the clipped adipose fin.  Why are their hatchery steelhead?  The answer is a result of a ridiculous Park Barrel Government project to build Dworshak Dam on the N. Fork of the clearwater. This effectively wiped out one of the largest wild population of B-Run steelhead in the world.  To keep this strand alive, a hatchery was built at the confluence of the two stems.  When steelhead migrate from saltwater, they follow the scent of minerals in the waters that leads them to their native spawning grounds. North Fork fish come home after a 500 mile journey to find a big concrete wall.  The hatchery uses North Fork water to return these hatchery fish to collect eggs, but most swim around aimlessly at the dam and will not spawn.  There are other strands of Clearwater B-Run fish as well, Lochsa Steelhead and South Fork Steelhead that move farther upstream of the North Fork but their population of wild fish is nothing like what the North Fork once had.

Fishing for Pacific Northwest Steelhead- “Effective Tactics vs. Fair Chase Tactics”

A year ago, we stumbled upon this fishery half hazard and really lucked into some amazing fish. We certainly didn’t deserve two days like that, nor should we ever expect them again.  Steelheading isn’t about numbers, it’s about the pursuit of a truly remarkable species that is as tough and resiliant as anything you will catch in freshwater. They are fighters, in every sense of the word. They fight for survival to get to sea as juveniles, they fight for survival from sharks and whales at sea, they fight to return home, and if you so happen to hook one, they fight you for everything they have.

This year, I learned what steelheading and the pursuit of this fish is all about.  I fished from sun up to sun down for 7 strait days battling less than ideal river conditions and casted a 14 foot log as far as I could while fishing down a river of greased bowling balls. In 70 hours of fishing,  I touched two fish, got a few grabs and saw a fish boil on a dry. Simply unreal.  I swung flies this entire trip.  Is it the most effective way to catch steelhead? Absolutely not.  Nymphing is definitely the way to put your fly right in front of a fish.  I guess what I’ve come to realize over this trip is that fishing for steelhead isn’t about what is the most effective way to catch them, but more about what is a method of fishing that gives this fish the respect they deserve making it a battle between equals.  When a fish eats a swung fly, it’s because they wanted to chase the fly across the river and eat it.  Nymph fish, I’m not sure.  I think the fly roles right into their face and triggers a sudden defense mechanism to eat the fly whether they wanted to or not.  A swung fly, is on their terms.

Clearwater Steelhead Fly Selection & Tactics



As for swinging flies, here is where I personally have to draw the line.  The way most fish the Clearwater is with a traditional long belly floating line, no sink tip & a traditional dry or wet fly.  I have to tip my hat to the guys who don’t stray from this technique.  I don’t think they fish this way because they feel it’s the most effective way to swing a fish on the Clearwater. They fish traditional lines & flies if a fish is going to eat the traditional fly, it’s because they truly want it.  I could be totally wrong about this, but when I look at a traditional salmon/steelhead wet fly that comes recommended, I think of the guy who just started fly fishing and brings in his box of flies. Without fail, there is always a hairwing/Green Butt Skunk of some sorts in it.  When I fish these flies, I look at the fly in the water and then look across a river a mile wide, and say how is this little fly from 1842 going to move one of these fish?  The answer is they do, which makes me the guy who is recommended an Rs2 for the first time and says, “what, that little fly!?!?!” Even so, I just can’t keep casting a fly all day that I have zero confidence in.  So I generally found myself fishing string leeches and intruder style flies on a light sink tip. From time to time I do think that these flies end up right in a fish’s face and induce that nymph type defensive strike.  For the most part though, I feel the fish follow and chase these flies because they want it.  That being said, I was fishing a river for seven days that was twice it’s normal size this time of year.  Normally the river is a lot clearer, shallower and in most swing water, a tip probably wouldn’t be necessary.  Bottom line, their are guys out there who have caught a hundred more steelhead than I have ever or will catch and I am by no means an authority to speak on the best way to fish for steelhead.  What I do know is if you find a fish that really wants to play, they are going to chase a lot of different things.  I personally feel, that even on the Clearwater, a tip and a bigger fly with some movement finds the “undecided swing voter” a little more often.  The drawback of a bigger fly and a tip is that you just can’t cast it as far with a traditional line.  The alternative is a Skagit style line, but on a river that wide you will be doing a lot of stripping between casts. Personally, I don’t think that is a bad thing.  The time spent stripping between swings gives me a chance to think about the strategy of my next cast and give me time carefully take a few more steps downstream without falling on my ass in that slippery river.

Closing Thoughts

If you have never been to the Pacific Northwest or Experienced steelheading in Idaho, than it’s something you need to do.  That being said, I would urge you to do some research before you go.  Learn about these fish and the factors that threaten their survival so that you go with a real respect for the fish you are pursuing.  Learn how to use a two handed rod before you go.  It will serve you well in your single handed trout fishing, and it really is a blast to hammer big casts with these rods.

It’s time to nail down your 2024 fly fishing trip with Minturn Anglers.

About the Author

Justin Nolan

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