An unusually large run of steelhead that's muscling its way up the Salmon River toward Stanley is causing a lot of excitement among local anglers.
For the time being, the highest catch rates are being reported along the stretch of river downstream from Challis as far as Salmon and the outlying hamlets of North Fork and Shoup.
Fred Anderson, owner of River Run Auto Parts in Ketchum, said that over a four-day period last week, he hooked into more than two dozen of the powerful game fish in the stretch of river between Shoup and the confluence with Panther Creek. The area is a popular early-season spot for steelhead anglers.
"I hooked 25 and landed 22 of them," Anderson said.
He said two other anglers in his party landed 18 and 14 steelhead, respectively, over the four-day period. He said others fishing in the popular stretch of river flanked by steep hillsides—known as "The Canyon" among steelhead anglers who return to the spot year after year—have reported even greater success.
"I know guys that were landing 15 to 18 fish a day," Anderson said.
Anderson said it's been elbow-to-elbow, combat-style fishing along the best stretches. That's why savvy steelhead anglers are using boats.
"You've got to get away from the crowds," he said.
A devoted steelhead angler for 25 years, Anderson said he recognized many Wood River Valley anglers along the Salmon River. He said he'll return to Challis and Stanley in the coming weeks to fish for steelhead as the run makes its way higher up the storied waterway.
This season's excellent fishing conditions may even improve if moderate weather continues, said Tom Curet, Salmon Region fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. However, Curet said, if spring temperatures should spike, the resulting rise in river flows and more turbid waters could result in reduced catch rates.
All Idaho steelhead are summer-run fish, which means they leave the ocean and head upriver in the late summer. According to Fish and Game, the bulk of these fish arrive in Idaho by early fall. The state's steelhead runs overwinter in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers, and then spawn the following spring.
Fish managers have broadly grouped Idaho steelhead into two run types, A-run and B-run. The state's A-run steelhead originate as smolts mainly from the Snake and Salmon rivers and typically spend one year in the ocean, before returning to their freshwater birthplaces as five- to 10-pound adults. Idaho's B-run fish originate primarily from the Clearwater River, typically spend two to three years in the ocean, and return as larger 10- to 20-pound adult fish.
The 2009-10 steelhead run broke records last fall as about 312,000 of the bright silver fish surged past fish counters at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in southeast Washington. Lower Granite is the first of four dams on the lower Snake that all Idaho-bound steelhead must pass before reaching Lewiston.
Last fall's count from Lower Granite was more than double the yearly average for the past 10 years and easily broke the previous high of 262,000 counted in 2001.
According to Joe DuPont, Fish and Game's fisheries manager for the Clearwater Region, this season's large Salmon River returns are likely the result of excellent ocean conditions that existed when the fish hit salt water as smolts in 2008. Those conditions provided the young fish with prime foraging conditions.
"We think that resulted in really good survival," he said.
DuPont said the 2008 smolts also benefited from higher springtime river flows that whisked them along to the ocean faster.
"You combine those two and you have the makings for success," he said.
Fisheries officials say this year's run of Idaho steelhead is mostly made up of smaller, A-run fish bound for the Salmon, Snake and Little Salmon rivers. Total numbers for the B-run, bound mostly for the Clearwater River, are down considerably from last year's run.
Fish and Game officials estimate that B-run numbers on the Clearwater will be about half the previous 10-year average of 30,000 fish. DuPont said fisheries biologists aren't certain why this year's run of Clearwater steelhead is down.
Because of the unusually large A-run surging through the rivers of central Idaho this year, Fish and Game set the daily bag limit for steelhead in this region at five fish on the Salmon, Snake and Little Salmon rivers. However, only three can be greater than 32 inches long.
The daily limit on the Clearwater River remains unchanged at three fish per day for the spring season, which began Jan. 1. The statewide season limit for steelhead is 40 fish, with the stipulation that only 20 may come from the Clearwater River.
Jason Kauffman: email@example.com