Upper Salmon River Has Lots of Water
by Roger Phillips
Steelhead fishing is winding down in most parts of the state, but around Stanley, it's just getting rolling.
The Upper Salmon River hosts some of the longest-running steelhead in the United States.
These hardy fish swim about 900 miles upstream and about a vertical mile during their marathon migration from the Pacific Ocean.
And anglers are there to greet them when they arrive.
Brad Wright of Boise and his girlfriend, Kristin Ellsworth, braved the fickle spring weather, which goes from sunny to Arctic, to entice steelhead with a fly last weekend.
Wright regularly fishes the Clearwater River and Lower Salmon, and he tries to make an annual spring trip to the Salmon's headwaters.
"I like the water better," he said. "I think it's a little more friendly for fly fishing."
While far removed from the other steelhead hot spots like Riggins, Orofino and Kooskia, the stretch of river between Salmon and Stanley provides about 120 miles of fishable water, most of which is accessible by road.
It draws hundreds of anglers from Idaho, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and other Western states who want a chance to catch an ocean-run fish on the edge of the Rocky Mountains.
The fish trickle into the upper river in late fall, but most spend the winter downstream before making their final push to the headwaters in the spring.
They disperse throughout the upper river, giving anglers a chance to escape the steelhead circus at the South Fork of the Clearwater or the Little Salmon when those rivers hit their prime.
"You got your big holes ... where bait fishermen are stacked in, but if you get away from there, there's plenty of room," Wright said.
Ellsworth was making her first fishing outing of 2009 near Challis. While steelhead eluded her, she did catch a whitefish, and she's ready to try again.
"I'd like to catch one because I haven't caught a steelhead yet," she said.
Ellsworth said the upper Salmon is easier to wade and fish than the larger rivers, which makes it a good place for beginners to try their luck.
Ellsworth said she also enjoys seeing the wildlife in the area, including a bald eagle that landed in a tree near the spot where she was fishing.
The drive from the Treasure Valley to the Upper Salmon country can be like an Idaho safari.
Deer and elk graze along the hillsides around Lowman before Idaho 21 enters a dead zone after grassy slopes turn snowy. When you meet the river at Stanley, the wildlife comes back out.
You're likely to see more deer and elk, bighorn sheep or wild turkeys.
It's a cool bonus with the steelhead fishing, which can be challenging.
It's considered great fishing if you catch one every few hours, but other times it might take days of casting before you land one.
There's always the chance of a weekend skunking, especially when the river wildly fluctuates between rainstorms, snow squalls and snow-melting sunshine.
Wright said it's important to know what type of water attracts resting steelhead. The fish can be dispersed throughout the stretch of river between Salmon and Stanley, and finding where they're likely to be hanging out can greatly improve your chances of catching one.
Steelhead fishing lasts until April 30 in the upper river, from a marked boundary near the Sawtooth Hatchery near Stanley down to Long Tom Creek near the Middle Fork of the Salmon.
It's a good spring getaway and a chance to catch one of Idaho's most prized fish while other anglers are waiting for warmer weather before they dust off their fishing poles and hit their favorite lake, reservoir or pond to catch fish a fraction of the size.
"There's something to be said for steelhead trips," Wright said. "They're long, tiring and expensive, but I wouldn't trade them for anything."
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