Conservation Corner: Clearwater Daze

Guest post by writer Mark Holterhaus and photographer Andrew Nepsund for Wild Steelheaders United. All photos Andrew Nespund.

Idaho steelhead are just built differently. They have a special kind of folk hero status in my brain, partly driven by their “Mariners and Mountaineers” reputation. Even the data points are epic. Imagine, after grinding through endless miles at sea, each Idaho oncorhynchus mykiss irideus must travel at least 900 river miles and 6,000 feet of vertical to rest for a moment in the “Stink Hole” above Lewiston. And those were the good ol’ days. Today’s Clearwater fish also must climb no less than eight dams and their corresponding fish ladders. Wow.

Editors Note: SOME, but not all Idaho steelhead travel the full nearly 900 miles and 6,000 vertical feet to the headwaters of the Salmon River. Lewiston, Idaho, where the Clearwater River separates from the Snake River, is approximately 470 miles from the ocean. Nothing to sneeze at! +DR

A smolt making its first journey downstream will encounter legions of invasive walleyes and other predators before joining (hopefully!) the complex, changing ocean ecosystem. A mature steelhead might run this upstream-downstream gauntlet a couple of times.

I remember the first time I saw a full-size B-Run roll on a muddler. It is the singular reason I keep coming back to the Clearwater. I was casting well, wading deep and there was a notable delay between the blurred visual of a pink-striped slab taking flight in the distant tail out and the dull, abstract thump of the floating head loading up with twelvish pounds of big buck energy.

Andrew was beyond stoked to plan and execute a pilgrimage to the land of long bellies, delicious potatoes and humongous, trouty steelhead with an occasional taste for fine feathers. “Do you think we can get a pizza delivered to this run?” is one of the more important questions we discussed while resting on a classic cobblestone bar during a perfect, windless, “magazine drizzle” afternoon. On the good days we found ourselves shaking from low blood sugar, wet sleeves and the rare Type 2 fun that only exists when the team translates a “scenario” into a proper net job. The hard days are how you get there.

As committed Great Lakes steelhead bums, we spend countless days swinging the small pools of our local tributaries, meditating on the promise of bigger, choppier runs full of grabby steelhead looking up at steel gray PNW skies. When a person commits to getting one on flies, on a spey rod, any western steelhead trip becomes an endurance event with mystical elements. To interact with a wild fish, on a barbless iron, is to complete a vision quest of the highest order. But the beatdown potential is real. For instance, I distinctly remember a recent nine day stretch with high water, no hope and zero feedback.

The fish emerged from the depths slowly, like a very sleepy shark. I had to squint to see it, but the pale form circled the small, dark hairwing – a full 360 degrees – before plucking it out of the surface film and attempting to descend into what we later nicknamed the “Grease Pit.” The hen was airborne as soon as it felt the hook point and we danced for less than two seconds. Classic dryline heartbreak.

At one point, I called my mom to say hello and give her the latest fishing report (she cares about these things). I told her to “Pray for Andrew” and, after hearing about his fishless days and another strenuous afternoon of casting, she exclaimed “Tomorrow will be Andrew’s day!” Sure enough, about 24 hours later, I gently slipped his first B-run steelhead (a thick wild hen!) into my favorite net. The Bouglé was still warm from the RPMs.

Image: Andrew Nepsund

The Clearwater River also supports one of our favorite fishing communities. There are few summer steelhead fisheries where a gritty, ambitious steelheader can still scratch out a DIY trip with world-class potential. This includes frequent visits to Poppy’s Red Shed for flies, English hooks, loaner shooting heads and chill conversation with the local river rats and some of the best casters in the world. It is also possible to rent a no-frills place near a fishy run and make regular stops in Orofino for groceries and Mexican food. When you fall asleep at the end of another huge day of wading and casting, it’s easy to start dreaming about fewer dams and more fish. #FreeTheSnake