Idaho’s Little Salmon is prime for spring steelies

ON THE LITTLE SALMON RIVER, Idaho — Let’s face it, it’s not the most picturesque of Idaho’s steelhead rivers because U.S. 95 hugs it for much of its length, and you’re more likely to hear the whoosh of semi trucks than chirping birds.

The Little Salmon lacks the long, postcard-perfect steelhead runs, or the deep, jade-green holes that you find on other steelhead rivers.

The river is also rocky, snaggy, and swift, and bank access can be tricky (watch out for those no-trespassing signs and rocks painted orange).

But despite those challenges, it produces a lot of steelhead, and most of them are caught during spring with March being the biggest month.

While some anglers turn up their noses at spring steelhead fishing, the hatchery fish in the Little Salmon River are there to be caught.

“We expect anglers to catch most of the adipose-fin clipped fish in there,” said Pete Hassemer, Idaho Fish and Game’s anadromous fish manager.

There’s no hatchery on the river that needs replenishing with adult steelhead. Every year, trucks bring about 850,000 steelhead smolts to the Little Salmon River, which were spawned from adults trapped from Hells Canyon.

Those smolts wash out to the ocean during spring run off, and then return to the Little Salmon one to three years later.

The nearby Rapid River Hatchery is a chinook hatchery, and those fish show up later in the spring.

Having no hatchery to return to, steelhead may try to spawn in the Little Salmon, Rapid River, or Hazard and Hard creeks, but prime spawning gravel is limited.

“We manage that as a terminal fishery as part of the dam mitigation,” Hassemer said.

When dams were built and steelhead runs lost or reduced, hatchery runs were implemented to offset them, or at least attempt to offset them.

So what about the steelhead in the river with adipose fins intact? It would be a stretch to call them wild, native fish. They’re probably mutts — a mix of unclipped hatchery fish and naturally produced fish from hatchery ancestors. Steelhead with adipose fins still have to be returned to the river unharmed.

But that still leaves you with a lot of fish to catch in the Little Salmon, and what makes it an interesting place to fish is the access you have to the steelhead.

It’s a small stream, typically flowing a fraction of the size of the Main Salmon, and you won’t have to worry about competition from boat anglers (although whitewater kayakers may occasionally float by).

The shoreline is a mix of private and public land, or publicly accessible land. Remember that you’re allowed to hike the river banks below the mean high water mark. If you’re wading or walking on water-polished rocks without vegetation, you’re probably legal so long as you didn’t trespass to get to the river.

Unlike salmon fishing that mostly takes place on the lower few miles, steelhead travel about 25 miles upstream to the falls that block their upstream migration.

Fishing the river can be tricky. Be prepared to fish swift water, which means lots of pocket-water fishing. With a well-aimed cast, there isn’t much water you can’t fish in the river.

Drifting bait is probably the most productive tactic, but fly anglers also catch fish swinging streamers and drifting nymphs and egg patterns.

Lures will also work, but it could get expensive because you will probably snag a lot of rocks.

Flows yo-yo throughout spring depending on the air temperature and rainfall. Sunny, warm days melt snow upstream and raise the river flows, and obviously, so does rain.

Fishing is typically best when the river is dropping and clearing, but people catch fish during high water, too. (Hint: Fish hug the shoreline.) The river can get crowded, though typically not as bad as the shoulder-to-shoulder fishing you see during chinook season.

But to secure prime spots, plan on getting there early in the day on weekends and popular times, and you can still expect company.