Sixteens Hours in Salmon
Salmon, Idaho is a lot of things. Gloriously podunk, an outdoor enthusiast’s hub, and the destination for your next steelhead fishing trip. A local by proxy, Emerald LaFortune gives you the beta needed to enjoy 16 hours fishing for steelhead in Salmon.
You’ve already been fishing for seven hours and haven’t had a bite, with the exception of a suckerfish and a lot of cottonwood branches. The weather in central Idaho in November is usually pretty awful, and you might have a leak in the right foot of your waders. Luck might change by tomorrow but until then, there’s no need to hang out in your humid tent as it pours rain. After a long day of pretending “there’s fish in this river!” thaw your frozen fingers enough to operate the turn signal in your rig and head into town.
A bustling metropolis of 3,100 people, 3,400 dogs and chickens and too many cows to count, Salmon, Idaho is a sleepy ranch town that draws out-of-towners twice a year: rafting season and when the steelhead run. Nestled near the confluence of the Lemhi River and the Salmon River with the Beaverhead Mountains as a backdrop, Salmon, Idaho doesn’t lack in natural beauty and outdoor opportunities. But if it’s raining and the fish aren’t biting, make the best of your skunked and sulking mini vacation by finding Salmon’s best restaurants, activities and to-dos.
First, you can only live on tortilla chips and Miller Lite so long. All I’m going to say about the Pork Peddler is: fried macaroni and cheese wedges. Also, BBQ. Why are you still standing here? Sweet potato fries too! Catch Wednesday night trivia to see if you have more facts up your sleeve than the local fish biologists (you probably don’t) and keep an eye on the specials board for something delicious dreamt up by Sarah and Devin themselves.
The Junkyard is Salmon’s other favorite lunch and dinner location, with a more diverse bistro menu including my favorite, the Coconut Thai Chicken Curry bowl. Hungry river guides flock to the Junkyard after trips on the Middle Fork to devour their favorite, the Junkyard Garlic Burger. But if you’re one of those picky eaters, or you just like to have it your way (don’t worry, I won’t send you to Burger King), the Junkyard offers build your own pastas. You read that correctly, start with their classic marinara or alfredo sauce and add all the ‘junk’ you can imagine. From prosciutto to shrimp, asparagus to capers, bleu cheese to gouda, they have it all. (Although, I wouldn’t recommend the Krab with a K, you are in Central—landlocked—Idaho, you know.)
After a hot lunch, the River Cinema is a great option for an after fishing warm up or to help you forget you drove all the way to Idaho to sit in the rain and slap a line all over the river catching lunker branches and rocks. Walking down Salmon’s Main Street feels like a stroll through decades past. The River Cinema is no exception. With only two or three movie options, I can’t promise this week’s showing will be a box office hit, but tomorrow could be a bluebird day and tonight’s movie could be the latest Brad Pitt masterpiece. It could happen.
If the only movie playing is “Trolls,” or it’s not free popcorn Tuesday, there’s the option to go soak your tired fishing elbow. Somewhere in the general vicinity of Salmon, Idaho, nestled within the mountains, lie some beautiful natural geothermal hot springs. I’m not going to post photos or mile markers, do you want me to get attacked the next time I try to walk down Main Street? With a little work you can find ‘em yourself. Pack out all your trash and don’t be obnoxiously [drunk, creepy, political, clothed, etc.].
If you’ve had enough of hydrology in all its forms, swing over to the Salmon River Fly Box to shoot the breeze about the (dismal) fishing report.
I get the impression that Steve, owner of the Salmon River Fly Box is a STEELHEADFISHERMAN. Any steelhead fisherman knows that there are “people who steelhead fish sometimes” and then there are “STEELHEADFISHERMAN.” You know the difference.
Throughout the summer Steve stocks a variety of flies for the trout fisherman en route up the Lemhi or over to the Middle Fork of the Salmon. But as soon as September hits, he sets out the steelheading flies and is out swinging almost every morning before work. There’s no better place in town to pick up a few extra supplies and wiggle around the latest fly rod models. I won’t tell you where to head out fishing (see earlier comment about losing friends and getting mobbed) but Steve might, in person. The Fly Box can also be a great place to hob knob with the locals and be invited out to a favorite run or get passed a hand-tied fly.
When it’s time to cuddle up and dream of ocean-run trout, the best accommodation in Salmon is to make friends with that local you met at the fly shop and sleep in their guest room. You’ll probably get to drink beer on their nice porch and listen to stories about their day at the “office” rock climbing to find a wildfire charred bighorn sheep collar. If you’re more the hotel type, however, there are a variety of options in Salmon. The Stagecoach Inn is where all the river companies put up their guests (read: closest to a Holiday Inn). While the Bear Country Inn and Sacajawea Inn give more of a funky “I didn’t know appliances like this still existed” vibe. Really, it’s all about the hot shower and if you were a real STEELHEADFISHERMAN you’d be suffering out in the rain so don’t get too picky here.
After a good eight hours you’ll be ready to hit the river again, but not until you’ve indulged in a hearty breakfast. Incontestable fact: Oddfellows Bakery is the best bakery in Idaho and probably Montana too. It’s so good the owners can shut the doors every October for vacation, leaving the entire population of the town in a gluten-less panic. When you spot a local muttering about “80 Mile Bread” and “Muffaletta Sandwiches” you’ll know why. Luckily, they ramp back up for the steelhead season in November and open early so you can hit the river with a sandwich and fancy latte in hand. Or, uh, I mean some black coffee and grub.
If your travel companions want to get out of your boat and explore Salmon’s other outdoor options, the Hub can outfit them for a day of mountain biking on Disco Hill and Rawhide Outfitters offers whitewater rafting and horseback riding depending on season.
Turns out a bit of R&R and a lucky muffaletta sandwich is all you needed. The sun pops out from behind the Beaverhead Range and your friend had some duct tape for that leaky wader. You catch the fish of the year, snap your photos, high five your bored travel companions and promise to come back every year until the end of time.
When your fly connects with a steelhead, no matter how many hours it took, you deserve a successful-steelheading-trip brew. Bertram’s Brewing is located in the old Redwine building built in 1898. It’s a working brewery, pumping out eight different, handmade craft brews, including my favorite, award-winning Mt. Borah Brown, and a rotating seasonal beer. In full-disclosure, Salmon has almost as many bars as it does chickens, but if you’re not a tobacco fiend be careful in your selection—Salmon ordinance still allows smoking indoors. Check out the Owl Club for a low-key vibe or hit your Patsy Cline high notes during karaoke at the Salmon River Inn.
Steelhead season is open in the Salmon area from early fall until late May, although fishing conditions will vary greatly depending on how the steelhead are migrating. A popular season is late October to mid December, or so I’ve heard. Check out the Idaho Fish & Game Regulations for closed seasons and additional permit information. The Idaho Fish & Game Fishing Report, which includes creel study data regarding hours fished per caught, is also helpful.
Good luck, tight lines, and don’t let the big one break you off!