Outside: Salmon River Steelhead

FredThomas-2017 - Salmon artwork

This is a featured article in BigSkyJournal.com written by Greg Thomas and illustrated by Fred Thomas from February 2017.

I grew up along the Pacific Northwest’s coastal salmon and steelhead streams where it was easy to spot the rookie anglers: These were people who proudly posed for photos with fish that had begun the inevitable freshwater deterioration process, indicated by their dull gray scales, deep red sides, and soft bodies.

Those were fish that experienced anglers allowed to swim past. We targeted fish that arrived on incoming tides and carried bright silver scales and bluish backs instead. These were firm fish and great fighters, and they were the best to eat.

When I moved to Idaho in the 1990s, it was difficult for me to get excited about the area’s salmon and steelhead runs. If I’d lifted my nose at “darkish” coastal fish just a few miles from saltwater, what made anyone think I wanted to cast at something that swam 500 miles inland to spawn in the Rockies? Plus, in the mid-1990s, there were very few steelhead returning to Idaho. Most anglers and some biologists professed that these fish would soon be extinct.

I’m not a guy who buys into Kurt Cobain’s line that “it’s OK to eat fish ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.” If that were true, I ask, why do they often jump so high when you hook one? I think they feel pain. That doesn’t keep me from casting to them. But I also don’t think it’s right to harass a fish that’s on the edge of the endangered species list that swam 500 miles inland to keep its kind alive. Which made my decision to resist Idaho’s steelhead in the 1990s that much easier to make.

One day, however, I pulled off Highway 93 between the towns of Challis and Salmon. I parked next to the river, put down the tailgate, and stared at the water. Right away I saw a large fish’s back slice through the surface, then another. This activity continued for 15 or 20 minutes, and I estimated that 30 steelhead were in this single pool. My natural angler’s reaction was to grab a rod and try for those fish, but I didn’t have a rod stashed in the truck, and wouldn’t have known if the steelhead season was open or not if I did. So I logged that experience to memory and promised to return. I also acknowledged that I’d likely been burned by local anglers who painted the possibility of catching an Idaho steelhead as an impossible task. This is a common angling ploy to keep the competition off the water and your own chances of catching a fish as high as they can possibly be. Encountering this kind of attitude is exacerbated when you’re known as a fishing writer and a swipe of a pen might summon the hoards.

In the early 2000s, Idaho’s steelhead runs had recovered a bit and anglers were saying that fishing was “productive” if not really good. These steelhead arrive each fall, some as early as September, but the bulk come later, sometime in November, and they remain in the area into April. Fishing for them can be good from late September all the way into April, although the quality of these fish and their fighting abilities diminish as the season progresses.

In 2006, I followed up on my promise to fish the Salmon and cruised from Ennis, Montana, to North Fork, Idaho, in February and met friends at a campground. By this time, I’d switched from single-hand rods to spey rods for steelhead, and the Salmon is a perfect size for using these long rods and casting techniques. In some places you can cast across the river; in the broad sections you don’t stand a chance. But to catch steelhead you have to cover a lot of water and spey rods give you the best chance to do that.

At the time, I was going through a divorce and was as touchy as I’ve ever been. With a house and kids on the line, it didn’t take much to set me off. Consequences really had no bearing, as a man going through divorce often feels like self-inflicted pain will somehow alleviate the situation. The most common place to see people in this condition is on the road, running their socks off, as if at 40-some years old they had decided to try out for the Olympics. I talked to one guy who ran every morning right along a stretch of road where his wife and her new boyfriend would pass. Each time, as he tallied sub-six-minute miles, he’d see their rig, shake a fist and yell, “You’re a son of a bitch!” I wasn’t a screamer, but I ran every morning, never slept, never ate, and lost 25 pounds in about 30 days. And that’s when I landed on the Salmon.

We camped near the river and rose early to stake out a long run where my friends had caught steelhead previously. Etiquette on a steelhead stream says one angler leads, makes a cast, and then takes a step or two downstream before making another. The other anglers file in behind, under the same conditions. Of course the first angler has the best chance of finding a grabby steelhead, but anglers following behind have an opportunity to catch a steelhead practically off the lead angler’s boots.

On this run, I led. And just when I was about to reach the end of the run, right where some slick, shallow water dumped into a rapid, the line came tight. I felt a headshake — which meant I hadn’t hooked a rock — and yelled, “Yeah, got one.”

I enjoyed the fight, which included a couple long runs, but there were five-foot-high ice shelves lining the banks and chunks of ice floating by, so this fish didn’t exactly rip up the river. When I got the fish to the bank, however, I had to admire its size. Sure, it was a small steelhead, perhaps 6 or 7 pounds and average for the Salmon, but when you compared it to a rainbow you might catch on one of Idaho or Montana’s top trout streams, this was a giant. After taking the fly out of its mouth, I held it in the current, and then let it go. I couldn’t help but consider the irony of that fish and myself having lived most of our lives on the saltwater, only to meet 500 miles away in Idaho.

That evening we got a big bonfire rolling and passed various bottles around the campfire. One was a Mason jar full of homemade moonshine that had been given to me by a Salmon local. I’d met up with him earlier when he’d showed me an array of pets, including a crow and a skunk (not decommissioned, by the way). I sampled the moonshine, and asked, “Is this stuff pure and safe?” The distiller said, “Oh yeah, it’s safe.” I nodded acceptance, but it was tough to believe him; this cowboy was in his 30s but he looked like Keith Richards riding in on horseback. At the end of the night, I crawled into the back of my truck, under a canopy, and settled into a pile of padding and blankets and a minus-20 rated sleeping bag.

In the morning the temperature registered 7 degrees. I knew we wouldn’t fish anytime soon. So I walked over to a pal’s truck to find him asleep, open to the elements, lying directly on the metal bed, nestled into a three-season bag. A pile of chains, some firewood, a surveyor’s pole, a half-eaten sandwich, and two frozen-solid hatchery steelhead surrounded him. I understood that he, too, was in the middle of a nasty divorce. Wasn’t eating. Custody dispute. So, on account of he probably wanted to feel pain, I let him sleep.

Later that day, he and I hit the river again. By midafternoon I’d landed eight steelhead and would end the day with 12. Then I drove away from the Salmon, heading back to Ennis, knowing that I’d missed out on something unique for more than a decade.

These days, sometime in September, I start calling my contacts. When they say they’ve seen some guys on the water, I know it’s time to load up the spey rods, head down that twisting highway, and cast for steelhead. They may be a little darker and worn-out than the fish I grew up with on the coast, but when I see a photo of someone hoisting one for the camera, I don’t raise my nose anymore. I just say, “Yeah, nice fish.”