Solitude on the steelhead rivers

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Teresa Beard with a Snake River steelhead, caught on a sunny day in December a couple winters ago near Asotin, Wash. Courtesy photo

Reduced bag limits of B-run steelhead continue through spring on local rivers

Anglers planning to wet wade the Snake or Clearwater rivers or float Northcentral Idaho’s iconic steelhead waters beginning Jan. 1 will be subject to a daily bag limit of two steelhead.

Fish and Game commissioners this month extended the reduced bag and possession limits for the 2018 spring steelhead season, that includes two daily and six in possession statewide.

Only adipose fin-clipped steelhead may be harvested and steelhead longer than 28 inches cannot be harvested on the mainstem Clearwater, North Fork Clearwater, Middle Fork Clearwater, South Fork Clearwater, or the Snake River from Lewiston upstream to Couse Creek.

All other 2018 steelhead rules still apply. An updated brochure is available on the Idaho Fish and Game website under its steelhead fishing rules.

The number of hatchery steelhead returning to Idaho is sufficient to provide a harvest fishery for adipose fin-clipped, hatchery-origin steelhead under reduced harvest limits through the spring season, according to IDF&G.

Earlier this year the department closed the catch and take steelhead fishery because too few returning fish were coming over the dams into Idaho.

That changed in October when the department opted instead to open the fishery, but limiting the number of hatchery fish anglers could keep or have in possession.

The size restriction on the lower Snake and Clearwater rivers protects the larger “B-run” steelhead from overharvest and ensures enough will return to replenish hatcheries, according to IDF&G.

— Ralph Bartholdt

When winter hits, Mike Beard doesn’t fret a lot about ice conditions. He knows what parts of his waters to stay away from, and where the getting is good.

By January, ice often forms above Orofino, and Washington’s Grand Ronde can be jangly with ice sheets that prevent a spey caster like Beard from plying his 13-foot, two-handed fly rod.

He may nose upriver for a look, anyhow, just in case, by following Highway 12 east of Lewiston past Ahsahka where two forks of the Clearwater meet, and meander a bit farther upstream past Orofino.

He may traverse the wiggly Highway 129 out of Asotin, Wash., for a peek at the Grand Ronde, or more likely follow the Snake River Road upstream.

Both destinations are a few hours south of Coeur d’Alene, but for Beard — co-owner of Orvis Northwest Outfitters — and many like him, fishing for sea run steelhead is worth the time it takes to find them.

And finding them in winter — when B-run fish mill in the Clearwater and Snake systems — is less daunting than locating them earlier in the season, Beard said.

“The fish are already there,” Beard said.

Most of the B-run fish (that spent two years or more in saltwater) move upriver from the ocean in fall and arrive by Christmas.

“They are in the system, so you don’t have to wait for them to arrive,” Beard said.

Finding them is less hit or miss. Catching them can be another matter.

Earlier this year the Idaho Department of Fish and Game closed the steelhead harvest season because of a lack of fish — with a caveat. Biologists would wait, watch the numbers coming over the Bonneville and Lower Granite dams, and determine if counts warranted opening the fishery for harvest. Numbers that originally seemed dismal, started to increase by October when the department announced it would open the harvest season, but limit take.

So far, this year, 61,468 steelhead have returned to Idaho over the Lower Granite Dam, the last dam on the fish’s route to the Gem State. The number is far below the 82,639 counted last year and about half of the 5-year count to date, tallied at 102,053 fish.

From the ocean, migratory steelhead must cross eight dams before finning across the Washington-Idaho border at Clarkston and into the Clearwater or Snake rivers inside the Gem State.

Despite an increased number of fish returning to Idaho from the woebegone early fall months, angler numbers have not caught up.

For long casters like Beard, who prefers to cast into the Clearwater River in winter, fewer fishers means quiet times on the Clearwater.

“The number of anglers is less,” Beard said. “It’s been a dynamite year because of that.”

Because the Snake River tends to be a few degrees warmer in winter January, anglers often target the river upstream of Asotin. It offers an opportunity to fish the mouth of the Grand Ronde River as well.

But the Clearwater has been king for Beard since he was a kid growing up in Moscow, tagging along with a friend whose father taught the boys how to fish the river downstream from the confluence of the North Fork, and below Dworshak dam.

“I got lucky and got to fish the Clearwater quite a bit growing up,” Beard said. “Seeing those big fish early on … It’s something I’m passionate about now.”

Winter fishing is weather dependent, but for the most part neither the Snake nor the Clearwater below Dworshak get much ice.

Beard prefers a 13 or 14-foot, 7 or 8-weight spey rod with a Skagit head at the end of his line to add casting power. And a sink tip. He usually swings an unweighted fly. Color patterns vary.

“Black and blue, purple, purple and green, pink and blue,” he said. “The best fly is the one you have confidence in.”

He doesn’t usually keep fish. The tug is the drug. Going the extra distance to catch a 17 to 20 pound fighting steelhead is worth braving the cold, he said.

“If you’re willing to join the fraternity,” he said. “You’ll be welcomed.”

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