SNAKE RIVER: STEELHEAD & RAINBOW TROUT
LURES AND RIGS for steelhead include: (1) dropper rig, tied with a three-way swivel, a Sammy Special baited with an unpeeled shrimp tail pushed onto one of the two hooks, and a 1/2-ounce parachute cord sinker on a 6-inch dropper; (2) Wob-Lure; (3) Hot Shot "S.E." (4) Bomber; (5) Green Butt Skunk; (6) Wooly Bugger.
When you see a sleek, silvery steelhead rocket from the water, making a half-dozen leaps in rapid succession, it's easy to understand why western anglers are so infatuated with this magnificent fish.
Powerful swimmers and world-class leapers, steelhead have been clocked at speeds of 21 mph, the fastest of any fish that swims in fresh water. They easily leap 6-foot waterfalls on their upriver spawning migration.
Some of the West's most famous steelhead rivers, such as the Salmon and Clearwater, empty into the Snake River. During the migration, steelhead must swim up the Columbia and then up the Snake, a distance of 500 miles or more, before entering their home stream.
Although steelhead do not spawn in the Snake itself, they return to the tailrace of the Hells Canyon Dam, where they were stocked. Snake River anglers have a chance to catch these fish, as well as those destined for other steelhead streams.
Stocking has become necessary to build up the steelhead run, but conservation agencies would prefer that steelhead reproduce naturally so their wild nature is preserved. To promote natural reproduction, only stocked fish can be kept; wild ones must be released alive. Stocked steelhead are easy to identify because the adipose fin has been clipped.
Steelhead are stocked as yearlings with the hope that they develop a migratory urge and begin swimming downstream within a few days. The process by which they develop this urge is called smolting, and the young fish that migrate are called smolts.
But few of the smolts make it back to the sea on their own. The lakelike environments created by the dams present a major obstacle to migration. Because there is very little current to follow, the smolts tend to stray, or even get lost. Even if they make it through one reservoir, they soon encounter another. They retain their migratory urge for about 30 days, but their chances of overcoming all of these obstacles in that amount of time are virtually nil.
Fishways have been installed to allow migrating adults to pass upstream, but for smolts to reach the sea, they must be captured before they pass through the turbines, transported downstream by truck or barge, then released below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Unfortunately, no more than 40 percent of the smolts are captured. The others become resident rainbows, spending their entire life in the river and never reaching the size or attaining the fighting ability of their sea-going cousins.
The steelhead season on the Snake opens September 1. Migrating fish arrive in early September, but at that time, water in the Snake is normally in the mid-60s. So, many steelhead duck into the Clearwater River, where the water is considerably colder. There they wait for the Snake to cool before resuming their migration. Many also hold in the coidwater plumes from the tributaries. The plumes may extend downstream for several miles below the confluence. By early October, the Snake has cooled into the mid-50s, so many steelhead move out of the Clearwater, and fishing in the Snake starts to pick up. The action peaks from early November through Thanksgiving.
Steelhead caught in the Snake run 5 to 9 pounds. A larger strain of steelhead, fish running 13 to 15 pounds, enters the Clearwater River, and a few of these fish are caught in the Snake below Lewiston.
To locate steelhead, look for areas of moderate current with a bottom of grapefruit- to cantaloupe-sized rocks and water at least 3 feet deep. Usually, the fish lie along a current seam, in the tail of a pool, in troughs on the bottom, or in a "soft spot," a slow area surrounded by fast current.
Once steelhead enter fresh water, they stop feeding, but they occasionally strike lures as an instinctive response or in defense of their territory. Anglers are often frustrated when they see fish tailing all around them but fail to get a single bite. While steelhead fishing can be a challenge, there are many ways to improve your odds and tempt even the most uninterested fish.
One of the deadliest techniques is backtrolling, not to be confused with the same term meaning trolling in reverse. Anglers run a small outboard in forward gear to keep the bow pointed into the current while allowing the boat to slip slowly downstream. This technique enables you to hang a lure in the current so it practically brushes the fish's nose, provoking the fish to strike.
Backtrolling gives you excellent boat control. By turning the motor slightly, you can slide sideways in the current without losing ground. Then, by turning the motor back the other way, you can slide back to your original position.
Some refer to the technique as hotshotting because the lure most commonly used is a trolling plug called the Hot Shot. It dives rapidly, has an erratic darting action, and comes in the bright colors that steelhead usually prefer.
When fishing is tough, natural bait often works better than lures. One of the most productive live-bait rigs is a floating spinner tipped with a piece of shrimp or a cluster of salmon eggs. This rig is also fished by backtrolling.
An 8-1/2-foot, medium-power baitcasting rod with a soft tip is the best choice for backtrolling. The soft tip allows you to observe the plug's action more easily. Match the rod to a level-wind reel spooled with 10-pound, abrasion-resistant mono. The reel should have a smooth drag.
Other effective methods for steelhead include casting spoons and spinners with light spinning gear, or fly casting with wet and dry steelhead flies.
Steelhead fishing is best when the water is low and the fish are confined to deep pools and runs. Otherwise, they're scattered and difficult to find. Of course, your odds are greatest at the peak of the run. Conservation agencies closely monitor the progress of the run, and the number of fish passing through the Lower Granite Dam is published daily in local newspapers.
Weather and time of day are of little importance in steelhead fishing, but the first person of the day to fish a hole or run generally has the best chance.
Although most of the rainbow trout found in the Snake are technically young steelhead, there are major differences in when, where and how you fish the two. You can catch rainbows year around, but the best time is in spring - either in March, before the snowmelt begins, or in late May, when the water starts to clear after the snowmelt. Another good time is September and October, when low flows concentrate the fish and make wading much easier.
Rainbows are found throughout the Hells Canyon area, but the 16-mile stretch from the Hells Canyon Dam downstream to Rush Creek Rapids produces the most fish. These rapids are imposing enough to stop most anglers coming from downstream, so this upper section receives less fishing pressure.
In spring, you'll find rainbows in holes with slow current and water from 3 to 5 feet deep. One of the best locations is a deep eddy alongside a steep cliff or below a rapids. Some remain in the holes through fall, but in hot weather, many move into shallow riffles over gravel bars. They feed in the riffles during the day, then move to deeper runs in the evening. They return to the holes in early October.
Rainbows bite best when skies are overcast and the water is stable or starting to drop. Rising water slows the action considerably.
Most rainbows in the Snake are yearlings that measure 9 to 12 inches. A few hold over to the next year and grow much larger, from 15 to 18 inches and occasionally more than 20. Legally, however, any rainbow over 20 inches is considered a steelhead. If the steelhead season is closed, the fish must be released.
The most popular lure for rainbows is a small, beaded-shaft spinner tipped with a piece of nightcrawler. Squirrel-tail spinners and small spoons also work well. Using a 51/2-foot, medium-power spinning rod with 6-pound mono, simply cast into a hole and retrieve slowly. Use the same tackle for fishing the gravel riffles.
Fly-fishing is also effective when rainbows are in the gravel riffles. Dry flies work well early and late in the day, but you'll get bigger trout on nymphs and streamers. Use a 6-weight graphite rod from 8 to 9 feet long with a weight-forward floating line for dry flies; a weight-forward sink-tip for nymphs and streamers.
LURES for rainbows include: (1) Wedding Magic spinner baited with a piece of crawler and weighted with a split-shot to run deeper, (2) Shyster, (3) Kastmaster, (4) Elk Hair Caddis, (5) Hare's Ear, (6) Muddler Minnow.
How to Work a Gravel Riffle for Rainbow Trout
WADE to a position somewhat downstream of the head of the riffle. Using a spinner-worm combo, (1) angle your cast upstream and reel rapidly, gradually slowing your retrieve until the lure is (2) at a right angle to the current. Then, stop reeling and allow the lure to drift to (3) a point somewhat downstream of your position. When the current catches the lure and lifts it to the surface, reel up and make another cast.
Prime Locations for Steelhead
TAIL-OUTS of pools are classic steelhead locations. The fish rest in the tail-outs after fighting through the rapids.
SOFT SPOTS may form above or below points. The current is slower in these areas, so they make good resting spots for steelhead.
CURRENT SEAMS form where a point diverts the flow. Steelhead hold along the margin between the fast and slow water.
How to Backtroll for Steelhead
POSITION your boat at the upper end of a likely run with the bow upstream. While holding the boat's position, let out 60 to 70 feet of line. Mark the line to show the right amount.
PLACE each rod in a holder, then allow the boat to slip slowly downstream. It's important to let out the same amount of line on each rod so you present a "wall" of lures.
CONTINUE slipping down the run. Some anglers feel that the wall of lures pushes the steelhead down the run, trapping them at the end and forcing them to strike.
Steelhead Fishing Tips
BOONDOGGIN' means casting to the side and upstream of the boat while backtrolling. This technique allows you to cover more water and reach fish that have not been spooked by the boat.
SIDE PLANERS allow you to backtroll from shore. Feed 30 feet of line through the planer, secure it to the line, let it plane outward, then walk slowly downstream. You can also use planers to cover more water from a boat.