Driftboat Fishing: Silent Steelheading
A popular saying among Idaho steelhead anglers is that "life begins at 40." That is, these giant sea-run rainbows keep migrating upstream till water temps hit about 40 degrees, then stop and pool up. When water temps again top 40, steelies resume their upriver travels. Even then they don’t travel far or fast till river temps reach the mid-50s and above.
by Lew Watson
What does that have to do with catching steelies? For starters, it means chilled fish are less active and less inclined to chase fast-moving lures and baits. To get strikes in cold weather, you need to bounce small, slow-moving offerings almost off a steelhead’s nose!
Even more important, non-migrating steelhead require that you go to them, since they’re not swimming upriver anymore for your convenience. Yet each year I see shore anglers tossing spoons endlessly into fished-out pools. Or they sit for hours in bitter cold weather with Hot Shots dangling from a side planer, waiting for non-moving fish to swim upstream. They’d do better to rock-hop upriver or down and hit unfished pools where dozens of steelies are inactively holed up.
Better yet, cold-weather anglers might try drift-boating to those bottom-hugging steelhead. From a quietly-rowed boat backed slowly downstream, you can trail diving plugs downcurrent to every upstream-facing fish in the river. If the water is warm enough to encourage migration, even better -- that means hundreds of steelies are headed your way as you drift toward them, which multiplies chances for a rod-bending collision! Lures backtrolled from a dory also rarely snag and remain productively in the water rather than being recast constantly.
This method of "Hot-Shotting" is so deadly that some anglers and guides say it’s too easy. It can be practiced from jetboats and even prop-driven craft in long, slow pools, but an easily-rowed dory is quieter and more maneuverable for extended floats through shallow riffles.
My wife and I recently learned how a real "pro" combines dory-drifting with backtrolling Hot Shots (made by Luhr-Jensen) for steelhead. We went on a one-day steelheading trip down the Clearwater with Joel Mensik of Northwest Dories based in Lewiston, Idaho. The well-run
24-dory company specializes in unpowered whitewater wilderness floats, but autumn steelheading is also high on their list.
Joel and his fellow guides proudly point out that their wide, stable, rocker-ended rowing craft offer an unusually poetic and ecologically pure river experience. After a full day of bobbing gently through Clearwater rapids in dry comfort with Joel’s strong presence at the oars, Sharon and I agreed. When several big B-run steelies also smacked our backtrolled Hot Shots, the phrase "Silent Steelheading" came to my mind as a good description of Hot Shotting from a drift-dory.
Mensik met us at Hells Gate Park south of Lewiston. From there we used Joel’s truck to trailer his dory up the Clearwater to Big Eddy for launching. Along the way we were pleased to find we shared similar ideas about Idaho steelheading -- mainly the use of light, high-quality tackle and careful catch-and-release fishing to preserve the Clearwater’s precious B-run resource. As a top-notch steelhead guide, Joel also strongly condemns streambank litter, "noise pollution," and boaters’ interference with hard-working bank anglers.
Shortly after launching, Sharon and I started trailing two small-to-medium Hot Shots about 30" downcurrent. Joel’s oars held the dory in place above each potential "lie" just long enough for a lurking steelhead to hit, then eased the boat cross-current or downstream to another spot. This method clearly let us present our lures to maximum fish numbers in the shortest possible time.
Sharon got the first strike, but she failed to drive the lure’s single barbless hook into the steelie’s jaw. Joel thought she struck too hard and fast, not giving the fish time to grab her lure solidly. He reminded us that steelhead often short-strike Hot Shots from territorial annoyance, not hunger, so it’s better to really feel a fish on before striking back. I noticed Mensik always held the boat steadily in place after a missed strike, hoping for a second slap from the same fish or a first strike from another member of the same pod. (Steelies often travel upriver in small schools or "pods.")
As a long-time bass angler, I wasn’t sure I believed this delay-your-strike stuff till a nice steelie yanked my rod tip down and I reflexively yanked back -- another missed fish! Joel patiently suggested again that we back off on our hook setting. I started thinking creatively about long-shanked razor-sharp hooks that would grab any smart-aleck steelhead that came near. Or maybe a sharp "stinger" hook slipped over the bend of the first...
About then, Sharon’s rod tip throbbed hard three times before she set the hook and started hollering. The surface glide foamed downriver with a solid hookup, and a fine Clearwater B-run took off on its first strong run. We had never boated an Idaho steelie over 12 pounds before, so we were hoping for one of the Clearwater’s world-famous 20-plus pounders.
Sharon’s hefty male hatchery fish turned out to be "only" about 15 pounds and 35 inches in length, but on a delicate 8 foot graphite stick and 12-pound line, that’s fish-power aplenty!
We wanted lots of pictures, but it was still catch-and-release season on the Clearwater. Joel was absolutely firm about slipping the steelie back into the water unharmed within 60 seconds. Thirty seconds after that, he said, and oxygen starvation can lead to brain damage and eventual death. We got some really quick shots of Joel holding the fish, and slipped it back into the water. Blood trickled down from the top fin. Joel said it was from someone previously violently net-scooping the fish.
The day continued to slip by gently and quietly as our dory bobbed warm and dry down beautiful rapids and glides bordered by dark firs and flaming-gold cottonwoods. Now and then we passed solitary fly anglers enjoying this river’s world-class catch-and-release steelheading. Joel always made a careful detour around these wading fishermen, asking them only how they were doing.
"Got one good hit this morning," was a typical happy answer. "Good fishin’ doesn’t always mean catchin’," Joel would then grin quietly to us.
The day’s float was so pleasant overall that I absolutely agreed, even though I wound up not boating a fish. I had three strikes for sure, and maybe a couple more hits I was less sure of. The last came just before we headed for shore -- a fine fish rolled up and socked my floating plug right on top, while I was still freespooling slack line out! With several coils of loose line bobbing downstream, I had no chance of getting my hooks into that one.
If you’d like to take a Clearwater dory trip, contact Jim Cook at Clearwater River Co.; 18835 Fir Bluff Lane, Lenore, Idaho 83541. Call: 208/ 276-3199.
Other contacts and information:
Clearwater Drifters and The Guide Shop
Montana, Idaho, Wyoming Top 45 Fishing Waters
Accommodations and Services for North Central Idaho