Early Trout and Spring Steelhead
As our spring steelhead season draws to a close in March and April
(with some exceptions), many anglers wonder where in the world did all those autumn fish go. Upstream, of course. If you want to do well in March and April on migratory steelhead and trout, you’d best head for Idaho’s "headwaters hills" as well.
2008 Shaping up to be Big Year!
by Richard North
Actually, most steelhead fanatics know perfectly well that steelies concentrate in upper river stretches this time of year. After all, spawning in headwaters gravel is what their migratory trip up from the sea is all about. As this year’s run reaches its reproductive climax, you can be sure the season’s last good fishing action will be mostly in "thin-water" streams like the upper Salmon between Stanley and Salmon, the Clearwater’s South Fork, and the Little Salmon near Riggins.
Catching upriver steelies is a sport unto itself. I call it "thin-water steelheading," since you can often see fish holding visibly over shallow gravel, usually behind a rock or other current-breaking obstruction. At that point you begin a careful stalk as heart-stopping as sneaking up on a bedded muley buck. If you don’t spook the fish with noise, splashing, shadows, or clumsy casting, keep drifting a lure carefully past its nose. Steelies may seem uninterested in the first drift or the tenth, then suddenly turn and slam your offering the next time by!
What kind of lure? Everything works fairly well on these spring fish when you can actually see your quarry and place casts precisely--spoons, plugs, spinners, jigs, and bait-and-drifters. The ultimate sport, though, is flipping a bright fly past these holding fish and watching the take. I can’t prove it, but I’m also inclined to say the natural drift of weightless flies appeals especially well to near-spawn steelies. A biologist at the Sawtooth Hatchery once told me steelhead are "egg crushers"--that is, they crush and spit out other fishes’ eggs to provide more room for their own progeny. An egg-fly pattern might therefore work especially well on thin-water steelies this time of year.
In mid-spring, word spreads fast on top steelhead action. This is much less true for "lowly" rainbow trout, which must wait for summer flyflippers to give them due attention. Few March/April anglers realize it, but scads of big rainbow spawners also run upstream now from big reservoirs and major rivers. True, most such streams are legally closed at this time to protect spawning runs, but some remain open year-around. Check the Idaho Steelhead Fishing Rules & Information (PDF), or the
Fishing Seasons & Rules Regional Booklets
Actually, you don’t have to locate a tiny headwater stream to take advantage of rainbows’ spawning runs. On the massive Snake River, every major reservoir will experience spring trout "runs" at their upper ends where the river pours in.
Because trout spawning runs and muddy spring runoff usually occur together, a few tackle adjustments are needed. Fish can’t see very well in discolored streams, so they’re less apt to spot and hit small flies. A flashy spoon, spinner, or plug is better, providing you don’t fish it too fast and erratically for chilled trout to catch. Odor-emitting bait is even better, especially when combined with a bright fluorescent mini-drifter to draw visual attention from fish through discolored water.
Spring currents are apt to be cold, murky, and strong, so rainbows typically are holding near bottom or along the edges behind rocks and logs. This is true for both small tributary streams and major rivers like the Snake. Fish these places just as you would in the summer, but more slowly and repeatedly to give trout there a chance to respond.
Another good "headwaters" location in the spring is just below major dams. downriver trout instinctively move up-current this time of year. When they hit a dam, naturally they just hang around in swirling, tailrace waters looking for a good place to spawn. You’ll need to hit both reservoir headwaters and dam tailrace fisheries before spring runoff begins in earnest, however, since almost nothing bites in the chocolate torrents of late April and May! March and early April are usually about right for tailrace fisheries, since the dam above slows down spring runoff for a while.
Early spring trout and steelhead fishing can be great--if you’ll just move upriver with the fish!
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