Category Archives: Steelheading

A Dangerous Time for Steelhead Fishing on the Clearwater River

Clearwater River steelhead

A Clearwater River steelhead, circa 1980’s.

As I pulled through the small town of Kooskia, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, I noticed a scarecrow-like fisherman dummy, hanging, with a noose around his neck. There was a sign taped to his front, that, could I have read the native language, may have deterred me from the fishing trip I was about to undertake.

It was the late 70’s or early 80’s, and steelhead fishing had just been opened back up on the Clearwater River on the Nez Perce Reservation. It had been closed for quite a while to sport fishermen, and relations were, to say the least, unsettled.

Nevertheless, on a crisp clear Friday afternoon in early March, my dog Jake and I were destined for a cheap motel that was thirty more miles up the road in Orofino, Idaho, just inside the northern border of the Reservation. My intent was to entertain Jake with a boat ride while chasing large B-run steelhead from sun up to sun down on Saturday and Sunday.

I was excited to fish for the B-run steelhead. The size of these ocean-going rainbow trout is phenomenal. They can weigh between 10 to 20 pounds and range in length from 26 to 42 inches. Returning to their breeding grounds after one to three years in the ocean, the deep red and shimmering silver spawning colors are absolutely brilliant, and they are thrilling to catch. I was looking forward to putting my fishing skills to the test.

After checking into the dingy motel in Orofino, I went to bed early – the hanging fisherman all but forgotten. Saturday morning I was up before dawn and headed to the river. With headlamp on, Jake and I loaded into my 14 foot aluminum boat and shoved off into the steely morning glow to the sound of the river waking.

Jake the Mistake

One of the few photos I can find of Jake the Mistake. This was taken at my parents’ house.

Jake was my constant companion. He was a black Labrador Retriever, and I’d nicknamed him “Jake the Mistake.” He was cross eyed and full of character. He was one of those dogs that would smile when he was happy, but he wasn’t much of a barker unless something startled him. He was a fine fishing buddy, and we drift fished with sammies, as planned, all day long.

Sammies were the ticket back in the day. They had dual-hooks with a piece of balsa wood painted in two colors and a floss tail. Sometimes I painted my own and called them “clowns” because I painted them pink with a white stripe.

Using one of my home-made lures, I was able to pick up two nice fish in a good run at the head of the Black Rock hole above the Pink House hole. It was tough fishing back then, so landing two steelhead was cause for celebration and constituted an excellent day.

Since I’d had such good luck, I wanted to lay claim to the Black Rock hole again on Sunday at first light. I decided to camp on the sandy beach nearby, across the river from the highway, near some railroad tracks.

I pulled my weather-beaten boat onto shore. It screeched over the coarse sand, and clanked loudly when Jake finally decided to jump out. Exhausted and hungry, I set to the task of building a fire and ate some sandwiches I’d bought at the convenience store earlier in the day. No tent was necessary, as the weather was clear and cool. I tossed my mummy sleeping bag on the ground and commenced to drift off to sleep under a star-studded sky.

I was startled awake when I felt the tug of the drawstring on the hood of my sleeping bag zipped up, covering my whole face. Someone lifted my head, and another person picked up my feet. I heard no voices, just feet shuffling and the rippling sound of the river. The thought occurred to me that this was just a scare tactic, but I was panic stricken and fumbled around the inside of my bag trying to find the zipper. Before I could manage to do anything, I felt a synchronized swinging, like in a hammock, and I was pitched into the river.

My encased feet sank and began thumping on the river bottom, so at least I knew up from down. I figured out the flow of the river and tried to get my feet going downstream. I realized I could tick the bottom with my toes and bob my head above the water’s surface. I continued to do this while trying to get my shaking hands to work well enough to unhook the zipper which bound my face, as well as my arms and legs and the rest of my body.

The stars were out, but the river was dark and I had little idea of what lay ahead except for the sound of more rushing water.

Intermittently holding my breath, gasping for air, and tugging and pulling the zipper, I finally managed to get free. I abandoned the bag and made my way to the river’s edge and back onto the beach. There was Jake the Mistake, curious as all hell. He’d followed me down the river but had made no sound of warning or surprise whatsoever. Surely he was thrown a piece of meat to keep him quiet. Incredulous, I grabbed the scruff of his neck, partially leaning on him for support, and we made our way back to the camp fire. Nobody was around.

I loaded up the boat, and Jake and I went across the river in the dark through the Pink House hole. My adrenaline was rushing, and I seemed to be on auto-pilot. I suddenly remembered the warning of the hanging fisherman. As quickly as I could, I got the boat on the trailer, and we headed for home.

My steelhead fishing season was closed.

Editor’s Note: This is a story of Ron’s, as told to and edited by Tracy Watt.

Fishing Deep Fast Water

Waters West Quick Release Indicators

The Waters West Quick Release Indicators worked well on the Nilan Reservoir.

A question was posted to us about the Quick Release Indicators we recently used on the Nilan Reservoir. The question was, “Would these work in deep fast water?”

These little gems were awesome when fishing still water with small nymphs in deep water, because they slip free and slide down the leader, making it much easier to land fish. But I’m afraid the small ones we used would not be able to hold the weight needed to get down in deep fast water.

However, after consulting the Waters West Web site, they do offer the Quick Release Indicators in large and extra-large sizes. They state that these indicators can be used in deep water and have been used successfully in rivers for trout and steelhead.

Honestly, I wish I had known about these years ago. I think the large or extra-large indicators might just work for deep fast water, but just in case, here’s an alternative I came up with for steelheading.

The year was 2007 or 2008, and a buddy and I were fishing for steelhead on the Clearwater River in Idaho. I marked a hole that had a shallow shelf, was very fast, and dropped off quickly – 14 feet at the head of the hole right off the shelf, to 20 feet at its deepest point. I drifted through the hole with my Humminbird Fish Finder that attaches to the rod (what a great little tool!) and marked several fish located right off the bottom of the shelf.

On this particular trip, I tried drifting through the hole using a balloon (indicator), which is what we used at that time, to no avail. Frustrated, I went home and schemed a plan. I remembered an article in Salmon Trout Steelheader magazine on Micro Nymphs. These nymphs are hand-made and a lot of fun to tie. Unfortunately, I do not remember who the author of the article was, but what a great idea!

Micro Jig

Micro Jig used for steelheading.

Using a #8, 3X heavy 3X long hook, and bending it so that it was shaped like a jig, super gluing a BB-sized split shot with no ears onto the bent portion, then heating it just enough with a torch without melting the lead so it could be dipped into Pro-Tec powder paint, we were able to make some awesome little Micro Jigs.

Then there was the issue of being able to get it to the right depth, while still being able to land fish successfully. Using a small balsa wood slip bobber on 16 feet of 0x fluorocarbon leader with a bobber stop, we headed to the hole.

Steelheading Micro Jig set up

A small balsa wood slip bobber on 16 feet of fluorocarbon leader with a bobber stop above a Micro Jig.

Again, we marked fish, this time in about the middle of the hole, with a few in the tail end where it shallowed up. After making a few casts, I could tell the Micro Jig was not getting down fast enough. I adjusted the weight by placing split shot on the leader approximately 18 inches above the jig, and I was then able to cast onto the shelf.

The balsa wood slip bobber, floating horizontal in the water, indicated that it was dragging on the shelf. As soon as it cleared into deep water, the bobber went vertical, and on the third drift, down she went! The results are evident (see photo).

Ron Steelhead

This steelhead was caught using a Micro Jig, underneath a small balsa wood slip bobber on 16 feet of fluorocarbon leader and a bobber stop.

Although the mechanics of this technique are different than the Waters West Quick Release Indicator, it provides similar performance in that the balsa wood bobber slides down toward the hook as you reel in, making it much easier to land fish.

This solution definitely works in fast deep water. Although it’s a little awkward to cast, with my 8 weight Sage, after a few casts, it felt just fine.

Give it a shot if you find the Waters West large or extra-large indicators won’t hold for you. Styrofoam Slip Bobbers (often used with a bait casting outfit for steelhead) are also an option.

Items mentioned in this post.

Items mentioned in this post. Clockwise from top: Humminbird fish finder, Humminbird rod attachment, Micro Jigs, Bobber Stop string and bead, large Styrofoam Slip Bobber, small Balsa Wood Slip Bobber, and the small Waters West Quick Release Indicator.

And I know, I know … the swinging fly advocates might poo-poo this technique, but we like to catch fish!

Ron Watt, 06/22/14