Steelhead Fishing in Idaho
Steelhead fishing in Idaho officially begins late in summer, then picks up speed into the fall. Here are some important points to keep in mind as we anticipate the homecoming runs of our most spectacular fighting fish.
Idaho steelhead

Safe handling of steelhead that may have to be released unharmed
begins with barbless hooks but does not end there.

How to Keep Them Alive

With the exception of where steelhead are planted in the Boise River and the Snake River below Hells Canyon and Oxbow Dams – all steelhead fishing now requires barbless hooks.

Be sure to check the exact Seasons and Rules for both spring and fall seasons on Idaho Fish & Game’s web site. If anglers use pliers to press down on barbed hooks to eliminate barb, they should be prepared for a conservation officer check to make sure it is smooth and completely barbless. Whether rules allow single or multiple hooks depends on the fishing water: for example, single hooks are required on the South Fork and the Clearwater.

Barbless hooks help ensure the safe release of wild steelhead in order to preserve a secure genetic pool. If we ever lose our wild fish, we may eventually lose steelhead runs altogether in Idaho.

A spinoff value of barbless hooks is the easier and safer release of more steelhead in general, including otherwise keepable hatchery fish. Yes, a few fish will shake free of barbless hooks on their own prior to landing, causing some anglers much dismay. Still, steelies aren’t as acrobatic as smaller rainbow trout, and “early release” is a minor problem if you’ll keep a snug line at all times.

If you’re steelheading in water or seasons specifically designated as “catch and release,” note that you’re required to use artificial lures only with single barbless hooks. Bait in any form isn’t allowed in catch-and-release steelheading, since fish sometimes swallow natural foods, making safe release a problem.

Whether you’re releasing steelhead voluntarily or as required by law, you’ll keep more of them alive by never touching the gill area. It’s important not to lift this large fish from supportive water, since to do so may cause internal damage from weight alone. Squeezing a struggling fish may also cause eventual death.

If you can’t remove your hook without much handling and probing, cut the line up close and allow the hook to rust out naturally. Otherwise, use long-nosed pliers to roll out the barbless hook point; then move the exhausted fish back and forth gently in the water in an upright position, causing water to flow through its gills. If you use a net, select one with a soft, knot-free mesh to avoid scraping off protective slime, which makes a fish vulnerable to deadly fungus attacks. New plastic nets are now available. Since touching fish with dry hands causes the same problem, conscientious anglers these days employ wet wool gloves to handle slippery fish during release.

Fortunately, steelhead are big, tough fish somewhat harder to kill by accident than are their smaller trout cousins. With reasonable attention to the above details, you’ll insure that virtually all of your released steelies will survive to fight another day.

What is a Steelhead?

Steelhead are rainbow trout longer than 20 inches in length during steelhead seasons. Only steelhead with a clipped adipose fin evidenced by a healed scar, may be kept. These are hatchery fish which have had their adipose fin removed as juveniles. If the adipose fin is still in place, these fish are considered wild and must be released because they are listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Some hatchery fish will still have their adipose fin, but still must be released.

Some Important Seasons and Rules Regarding Steelhead Fishing

Fishing for steelhead requires a valid Idaho fishing license and steelhead permit. Children under the age of 14 do not need a fishing license, and can buy a steelhead permit if they want to keep their own steelhead. Under the age of 14 can catch steelhead without a permit, but then the steelhead caught must be recorded on the steelhead permit of an adult who is with them. In either case the young steelhead fisherperson must be accompanied by an adult license and permit holder. This also goes for non-resident children except the non-resident under the age of 18 must still purchase a fishing license.

A non-resident 3-day salmon & steelhead license and permit is also available which saves them the expense of a full-year license and permit.

Once bag, possession, or season limits have been reached, anglers must cease fishing for steelhead. Once the season is closed, anglers can no longer fish for steelhead deliberately even in catch-and-release sections of rivers. Your gear will tell the story if you are checked by a conservation officer.

Do not transport any steelhead with head or tail removed unless: angler not in a boat, is ashore and done fishing for the day, or until the steelhead have been properly recorded on the angler’s steelhead permit, or if the fish are processed or packaged with the skin naturally attached to the flesh including a portion with a healed, clipped adipose fin scar clearly visible. Fish must be processed in a manner that the number of fish harvested are easily determined. Processed steelhead cannot be transported by boat.

Once again, check the Seasons and Rules on Steelhead Fishing at Idaho Fish and Game’s web site. Or, call the headquarters office in Boise at: 208-334-3700. See Fish and Game’s Contact Page.

More Information:

Idaho Steelhead Fishing Report


Steelhead & Salmon Drift-Fishing Secrets by Timothy Kusherets

Illustrated Rigging: For Salmon Steelhead Trout

Steelhead University: Your Guide to Salmon & Steelhead Success