Swinging for Steelhead on Idaho's Infamous Clearwater

Swinging for Steelhead on Idaho's Infamous Clearwater

Story and photos by: Joseph Evans; IdaaFly

My best friend Bradley and I hadn’t been in touch for quite some time, until he sent me a photo of a massive 35” B-run steelhead he recently swung up, his first on the swing. 

For a guy like myself, that produces this sort of light-switch effect. Meaning, I pack my bags, email my teachers about my absence and prepare for an impulsive road trip.

The Setup 

From Missoula, the drive is about four hours over to Moscow, ID where Bradley was at. I made the drive a few days after we talked and planned a couple days to fish together on the mighty Clearwater. My strategy was using a Spey rod with a Scandi fly line. This long, 13ft rod allows you to make bombing casts to swing a fly across the entire river, hopefully presenting that pattern to as many fish as you can per swing. I use a poly intermediate leader attached off of the fly line to help keep the fly underneath the surface in the perfect column to imitate a bug, like a hatching October caddis. Off the poly, some 12lb. fluorocarbon is perfect as steelhead are extremely strong, yet not too line shy. Before I left, I tied up a handful of my favorite Hair wing patterns in a size six. Hair wings are traditional steelhead flies that are meant to be swung on a spey rod.

The Bora Vest was all I needed on an early September morning until the sun came up to keep me warm.

The Clearwater River 

The Clearwater river from Lewiston to Orofino in western Idaho has some of the best steelhead fishing in the state hands down. The run can be incredible when the fish are in the river systems from the Pacific Ocean, then within the Columbia River Basin. Steelhead are defined as anadromous, swimming up a freshwater water river system coming from saltwater to reproduce or spawn. Sadly, over the last couple decades, the numbers of fish have decreased significantly from a list of factors. A handful consist of the increased placement of dams, warmer river temperatures and worsened ocean conditions. However 2020 fall statistics over Bonneville Dam in Oregon brought some good news, counting more steelhead pushing into the river than the past ten years had seen. When I heard this news before I left Montana, my excitement only grew with higher hopes as these fish are hard to catch as is.

The end of a D loop being thrown across the Clearwater River.

The Strain and Migration 

The best part about steelhead are that majority of them are B-run steelhead. The A–run breed is known for being a smaller strain whereas the B-runs get real large, over 30” and 10lbs. The fall run kicks off in late August when the fish are leaving the warmer ocean temperatures to swim up Northwestern rivers. They are most aggressive while traveling in the summer months, being known to feed too. Anglers stick to their scandi lines and poly leaders through October until the temperatures drop, then they transition to Skagit lines with sink tips through the months of November and December. Steelhead tend to enjoy October caddis or minnows, two different options I attempted to imitate with my Orange Pearl pattern.

The Grind

The morning after I arrived in Moscow, I woke up at four AM to go chase the fish of 1,000 casts. The drive was about 45 minutes down to Lewiston where we’d be fishing. The goal waking up so early was to time the first light, one of the best times to hook a steelhead as they are usually transitioning to a new run, aggressive after a night’s cooler temperatures. The forecast for every day I fished was bluebird skies and warm, 70 degrees plus. I had four days to hook and land a fish, I was both confident and determined to say the least.

I got on the river on the first day and fished right outside Lewiston just a tad upstream. With spey fishing, you are looking for runs that are walking speed with depth around four feet or deeper. Cast, step and repeat goes through the mind of a spey fisherman, all day long. On my fourth day, I was fishless and began to believe this fish was no longer a fish of 1,000 casts, but 10,000. Every day I stood in the river, fishing the same run multiple times in a day or testing new ones, from sunrise to sun down with leaking waders and sunburns only to find myself driving back to Missoula empty handed. 

I may not have caught a steelhead on the swing when everyone else had the week before, but I learned so much about where steelhead hold and how much rising water temperatures impact these fish on their feeding habits. They were completely lockjaw as the river was at its warmest while I was there. On the bright side, I will be even more prepared next season to get to the correct water with the right setup and water conditions to connect with a steelhead, coming from the ocean to meet with me in Idaho.

Steelhead, the fish of 1,000 casts.

Posted in Tips & Tactics