Steelhead Fishing Washington & Idaho

Steelhead Fishing Washington & Idaho

A Wild Hair & A Few Beers, Last Minute, No Expectations, First Time Steelhead Trip

I’m not sure how to even begin this report, what exactly to say or even to write it. Ultimately, we decided the story must be told.

Photos have been edited to remove known landmarks. If you are a psychotic stealheader and still feel inclined to send hate mail, bomb or death threats as a result of this report, please send to the following….
Minturn Anglers
ATTN: David Budniakiewicz
8353 Willow St., Unit D
Lone Tree, CO 80124

If you are an experienced steelheader than I doubt your going to find the useful information  in this report, so move on to the next site. If you are new to steelhead or just want a really good laugh than keep reading. I promise, this is how it went down….no way I could make this stuff up!

This report comes from two Colorado trout bums, who over a few beers decided to jump on a plane the next morning, and find out what steelhead fishing is all about. So it begins….

We just finished our final day of the season guiding in South Park, and wanted to go fish somewhere cool (nothing against South Park but one month of that place is about enough!) We considered the lower Colorado, maybe the Miracle Mile, Williams Fork Reservoir inlet, etc. We were set on hitting the Miracle Mile for one day, and the Reef for another until we looked at the weather forecast. DANG!!! Snow and wind is the last thing you want in a Wyoming weather forecast this time of year.

So on a wild hair we decided to call in a favor for some buddy passes and go somewhere really cool that we hadn’t been before. Red fish in Louisiana, the White River in Arkansas, Deschutes, the Sacramento River, Pacific Northwest Steelhead. We looked at flight loads and the Pacific Northwest is what we dialed it down to since Spokane was the only flight we would get on. Luckily, the Grande Ronde runs right through Spokane, or so we thought. Actually, it’s about three hours south as we would soon find out after booking a hotel for three days in Spokane which we later had to eat. Luckily, they let us out of two nights of our last minute Priceline booking.

With a destination decided, and a projected budget of only $250 a person (hahaha) for 3 days of fishing we were in panic mode grabbing skagit heads, sink tips, heavy tippet, big streamers and everything else that we thought we might need for an area and fish we knew absolutely nothing about.

This is what 2AM crunch time looks like in a fly shop when two guides decide to go fishing.

At 3AM we finally called it a night so we could get 2 hours of sleep before heading to DIA to catch an 8AM flight to Spokane. If we could do this one over, the best thing to do would have been not to go to bed, because as standby passengers you must check in an hour early to check bags. Long story short, we missed our free ride to steelhead country. Still determined to make this trip happen, we pulled out the laptops and found $200 one way tickets to Spokane on Priceline for an 11:30AM Departure.

At 3PM we were in our rental car cruising to the local fly shop to dig up whatever info we could find. As a fly shop owner, I know what it’s like to be hounded for info only to have someone walk out with not as much as a thank you for good info. So we made sure to make it worth John’s taking the time at Silver Bow Fly Shop to give us some good info and some local insight on the area. If you are ever in the area, be sure to check out Silver Bow. It is a first class fly shop with some great guys working there. $200 later and a bunch of flies we were off to the Snake River Grande Ronde confluence to try some night fishing for steelhead. We pulled into a lot with some campers not knowing where we were exactly and asked some guys what river we were next to. The Grande Ronde they said, which was good enough for us. We found a run, got all geared up, froze our butts off for 30 minutes and got back in the car. That was some wasted energy…we will just leave it at that!

We checked into Motel 6 in Clarkston, WA an hour north and called it a night at 12AM. The next morning we got an early start and were on the Grande Ronde just north of Bogan’s Oasis at 6AM. Thirty minutes later, we were back in the car letting our hands thaw out. After 4 hours of throwing hail marry spey casts, swinging flies, and trying to figure out what steelhead water is, or isn’t we were starting to feel like this was a bad idea.

Driving along the Grande Ronde trying to decide what steelhead water is or more like what it “isn’t”

After fishing licenses, missing a flight, booking a hotel in the wrong town, etc. we were pretty well invested in this last minute trip to Washington and were not about to leave without catching a fish. So we did what Colorado boys do best and what makes steelhead purists vomit….nymph. Just to see if there was actually fish in the water we were fishing because at this point we were lost. We pulled into a new spot that seamed to make sense through our logic which was “an obstacle in the river that would have to make the steelhead stop and think about their next move.

We found that spot and 15 minutes later Brandon hooked a fish that by the time I got there had just broke off. Not knowing if we would catch another fish, this was pretty heart breaking. Two casts later Brandon came tight with another fish which we landed. If not another fish was caught this was already a victory…we caught a steelhead!

A couple casts later I came tight on one and landed a nice steelhead. I had caught one which was good enough for me! At this point, I made a choice to swing flies for the remainder of the day. We caught several other fish both ways and had a blast on the Grande Ronde. What a remarkable river this is.

We headed back to Motel 6 feeling that this trip was already a victory so we decided that on our final day we would hit one of the bigger water systems in the area in search of a really big steelhead. Even if we didn’t catch one, we had to try.

The morning once again began slow, but once we found fish we found fish. What we ran into we would later find out are called B run steelhead. The fish were so stacked we could pretty much catch them at will using whatever fly or method we wanted. This was the type of day people go years in search of, and we found it on our first trip. If this means we go the rest of our lives and never catch another steelhead I think I can live with that, because it was simply amazing. Cookie cutter 30-36 wild fish that swam 700 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The power of these fish is simply unexplainable. These are saltwater fish that spend most of their lives running from Killer Whales, and all sorts of crazy specimens in the ocean. Needless to say, OX tippet and some little 5-7 weight rods is no match for them. I broke two fish off that simply just out fought me. Just when I thought I had them to hand, they would make one last frantic run and break OX like it was hair against a jagged rock. If I could do this one over again, I would bring an 8 weight some saltwater hard tippet and a net! Grabbing a ballistic 36 inch fish on the end of an 11 foot rod isn’t for us amateurs. An experience steelheader told me that steelheading isn’t about statistics so I’m not going to say hooked this many, we landed this many and measure this fish at this length and weight. I’ll leave it at we hooked a lot fish, lost fish, we broke rods, and we landed some fish that I will never forget as long as I live.

For Those Thinking About Steelheading for the First Time….

They say steelheading will ruin you and that you will never want to catch a trout in Colorado again. I don’t know about that. I feel like I most definitely want to catch another steelhead. Our experience finding fish, and fighting fish all the time in Colorado is the only reason we caught fish on this trip. So to that I say, go fish no matter where it is or for what because when you do get a chance to do something like this you will be more prepared.

Nymphing or Swinging for steelhead

Having now done both, here are our thoughts. There is no doubt hitting a steelhead on a tight line swinging is way more challenging, fun and rewarding than nymphing. I would say do both until you get it dialed. If we had another week to fish and the right gear to do it with, we wouldn’t even think about bringing a nymph to the river. BUT….if two days is all you have, you have no idea if there is even fish in the water you’re fishing, you’ve never fished for this species, completely under equiped, and are not with someone who has experience steelheading….do what you have to do to find fish and then get picky about how you catch them. I would imagine as we learn more about these fish, catch more on the swing, and pay the price to do so like so many do, our attitude will change.

Above all else, have fun. Fishing is supposed to be fun so don’t let someone tell you what is or isn’t fun. We will till you steelheading is challenging and it’s fun. Go with people you enjoy fishing with and make it a team effort not a competition. Learn how to throw a spey rod (it will serve you well around here as well) and probably do some research before you head out!

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

About the Author

Justin Nolan

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