It’s October, and to me that only means one thing, steelhead on Idaho’s Clearwater River! The Clearwater River is the flagship steelhead fishery in Idaho and its B-Run steelhead are its shining star. Averaging 12-15 pounds, and with fish in the 18-20 pound range not uncommon it’s easy to see why I consider the Clearwater to be the crown jewel of Columbia Basin steelhead rivers. During October and November there is no place I would rather be. Idaho’s Clearwater River is located in North Central Idaho. The Clearwater drains the vast, wet, mountains that stretch from the border with Washington all the way to the Montana State line. Flowing east to west, much of it along highway 12, through the towns of Kooskia, Kamiah, Orofino, and finally Lewiston the Clearwater beckons anglers with its great access and beautiful waters.
Steelhead anglers from all over the country travel here each fall to chase these incredible fish. With its great access and varied water types the Clearwater is the type of river where everyone can find great areas to fish. The Columbia River basin, which the Clearwater is part of, has two distinct runs of steelhead.
The A run which begins to enter the Columbia in June are mostly made up of 4-8 pound fish that have only spent 1 year in the ocean. These fish are heading to locations throughout the basin, and the Snake and Salmon River steelhead returns are largely made up of these early timed fish. The B Run begins to enter the Columbia in August and continue to cross Bonneville Dam through November. B Runs spend two years in the ocean, and it’s these larger B Run fish that are the reason the Clearwater is so special. The Clearwater is the main destination for these fish and come October I will be waiting.
There are two distinct “seasons” on the Clearwater. July 1 - October 15th the river is only open to catch and release steelhead fishing. This catch and release season is a great time for anglers that prefer to fish away from the crowds to experience the area. While steelhead can be encountered throughout the duration of the season, the period from the last week of September-October 14th is the absolute best for the opportunity to catch high numbers of B Runs without the added pressure of keep season. This part of the catch and release season is my absolute favorite time of year on the Clearwater. The weather is still warm, there are lots of fish, the pressure is light, and the action is fantastic!
Catch and keep steelhead season opens on October 15th. This is the much anticipated opening day, and the aluminum boat hatch is out in full force. Opening day and the week following is often very busy, as anglers have waited for the opportunity to catch and harvest these awesome fish. The fishing is usually good, and this is the prime time to harvest Clearwater steelhead, as their meat quality is still excellent.
During the fall I mostly utilize two techniques to put customers on fish. Back trolling plugs, and side drifting bait are my preferred methods. Both side drifting, and back trolling allow me to put my gear in front of large numbers of fish. River conditions are the primary variable when deciding which technique will be used for the day. When the water is low and clear I will generally be looking to back troll, and when the water is up and just starting to drop after a rain I often will break out the eggs and get my side drift on. My plug of choice is without a doubt the 3.5 Maglip from Yakima Bait. These lures just absolutely do it all. They will dive well in current, and also let me fish the super slow often “frog” type water that our Clearwater fish seem to love. It’s these slow pockets that often produce some of the best action.
For side drifting in the fall nothing beats a small cluster of cured roe on a pair of number 4 hooks. Add a small amount of yarn to this setup and you are in business. Keep baits about the size of a quarter and good things will happen. I can’t think of a better feeling than when a hot steelhead picks up your egg cluster and explodes out of the water when he feels the sting of your hook set.
As it was said earlier one of the best things about the Clearwater is the insane amount of access to the river. Highway 12 runs along the river for almost its entire length from Orofino to Kooskia. There are countless pullouts and parking spots and an immense number of holes to be fished from the bank. We are also incredibly lucky to have nice concrete boat ramps scattered about every 10 miles on the river. Our ability to access this incredible resource is one of the reasons so many people find this place special.
If you’re looking to visit the Clearwater area there are many hotels, restaurants, outfitters, and just plain great people that absolutely appreciate your business. Lewiston, Orofino, Kamiah, and Kooskia all have places to stay that will put you just minutes away from fantastic Steelhead Fishing. Idaho’s Clearwater has become a top destination for countless people and I have no doubt that once you experience this incredible place you will be planning your next trip before you even leave.
By Kyle Jones