Idaho is a landlocked state but what few realize is that it’s connected via one of the longest river systems in the US to the Pacific Ocean. For millennia, a certain species of traveler, the steelhead trout, has migrated through this river corridor, the Salmon, from the mountains of central Idaho to the ocean and back again. And a mere hour drive from Sun Valley lies the headwaters of the Salmon River, the origin of the steelhead run. Set amidst the awe-inspiring Sawtooth Mountains, these freestone waters play host to spawning spring steelhead.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that are not content with living their lives sitting in one place. These fish make a monumental journey from the Stanley Basin to the Pacific Ocean where they spend roughly 1-3 years growing from fingerlings into a slab of pure muscle. Something in the water triggers their homing mechanism and they gather for the return home to perpetuate the cycle. Often times pushing ten plus pounds of pissed-off, hormonally imbalanced wildlife, the steelhead are one of nature’s finest examples of survival of the fittest, facing the gamut of challenges just to return home and procreate. Once they’ve survived 900 miles of roiling aquatic chaos, your run of the mill natural predators, the infatuation of the Army Corps of Engineers with their eight hydroelectric dams, and the gauntlet of shivering fisherman in Carhart overalls and flannel shirts dredging the waters with every variety of sharp, decorated object, they wriggle into the gravel beds of the headwaters of the Salmon to lay the eggs which will provide the next generation with hope of another run. Which is where we meet.
While the steelhead has an undeniable struggle to get to Stanley, we on the other hand, have a short 62 mile drive from Sun Valley for our shot at meeting these fish face-to-face. As an angler, this is an incredible opportunity to fly fish for one of the most coveted fresh water fights. As if being an active participant in one of nature’s true miracles weren’t enough, the stage is set against a backdrop of the Sawtooth Mountains, one of the most ominous and primal ranges anywhere.
It takes hours of shivering in a freezing river waving a cold stick to touch one of these elusive creatures. If your thing is instant gratification, save yourself the effort and find another quarry, the steelhead are not known for jumping into your net.
These fish can be extremely difficult to catch. Stories of folks not catching one for 5-10 years is not in common. The best solution for this potential problem is to pack ample amount of whiskey & beer.
Oh yeah, and it’s April in Idaho. The weather can change on a dime. One minute you’re basking in the sun and the next you’re in a blinding snow storm. Layer-up. Gore-tex is your friend.
you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. From whiteout to bluebird weather cycles hourly.
If you’re luck to hook in to one for the first time, your life will be changed. There’s a saying that, “the tug is the drug”. The only treatment, more fishing.
The prized catch, a hormonally irritated, territorial and primal creature that wants to take your fly on.
The Salmon River delivers one way or another. Views, fish, or a heady buzz and sometimes all three. Either way, steelheaders are a special breed, much like their quarry.
At the end of the day, you just can’t go wrong. Bring your warm clothes, hot toddy, and cold beers. Even a bad day of fishing is still better than a great day of work. No one is telling you what to do, so when in doubt, sit back, crack a beer and look around you…
Should you prefer to have a little more luck at catching and little less frustration from wondering, it’s never a bad idea to hire a guide. Silver Creek Outfitters and Lost River Outfitters both have years of experience on the Salmon and a roster of some of the best guides anywhere. So get after it. Just don’t forget your sense of humor and patience. Both are virtues in the game of steelheading. After all that fish is wiser, wilier, and plays harder to get than you ever could.