The Clearwater River is home to some of the finest steelhead fishing in the world, a place where anglers gather from around the globe for the opportunity at true world-class fish. When Gary Lewis, a long-time friend and mentor, author and the host of Frontier Unlimited TV approached me to film a fishing show with him on the Clearwater, I knew I was in for a “reel” good time.
The Clearwater steelhead journey is nothing short of a miracle. The fish, is hatched in the icy waters of the Clearwater River and many will make their way to the Pacific Ocean heading towards the coast of Japan, while others will arrive in the Bearing Sea.
The steelhead run remains diverse because some of the fish remain in their home waters and never travel to the ocean; those that stay—the smallest variety—are rainbow trout. The hatchlings that make their way to the ocean may stay there for a mere year or two before returning to spawn—these are considered an A-run fish.
We were there to fish for the giant B-run steelhead that stay in the ocean waters for 3-4 years, loading up on nutrition and becoming some of the biggest steelhead in the world, before they make their run.
The miracle is somehow these fish locate their home waters from the mouth of the Columbia, passing over eight dams, countless tributaries and gill nets—an estimated 500-mile trek to their spawning waters.
Landing The B’s
Our outfitter Toby of Reel Time Fishing and his deck hand (also his father) Rattle Snake Jake—or just simply Snake—are experts on the Clearwater. After many years of fishing and guiding experience, they know every nook and cranny where the fish like to congregate.
Drifting at speeds of up to 7 mph can be hard on bottom-dragging gear and if you are not getting hung up on a regular basis, you’re probably not where the fish are. My drift rig was complete with two No. 4 red Gamakatsu barbless hooks and a slinky weight. For bait, we used orange or pink Corky’s and cured eggs.
Bouncing along the bottom of the river during our drift, the vibration was awfully similar to the bite of a fish. It was enough to keep me constantly second guessing if I should set the hook or remain at the ready. It was a test of my patience for sure.
With a heavy pull of the line, I knew it was either snag or the bite of a steelhead. A flittering movement confirmed that it was indeed a fish, and the fight was on. We were in the swiftest of waters and this was the third time I had locked horns with a fish, none of which has made it into the net.
It was close enough to clearly see it was an A-run fish, and at this point, I just wanted to get one in the boat. Toby quickly grabbed the net and just as he went to dip into the swift waters, somehow the fish managed to jump out and spit my hook at me. I quickly became the boat “loser”, but I was determined to lose the unnecessary nickname and win a battle, or two.
Circling back around for another drift, I could see other anglers landing fish, and Gary had put two in the boat already. Suddenly, as I was lost in my thoughts, I felt it. A bite. Quickly, I set the hook and the fight was on! I began to crank in my prize, but something wasn’t right. I managed to catch the second stick of my day. And due to my apparent lack of angling ability, I joked about keeping it to later use as smoke fodder for my steelhead, should I be so fortunate to actually land one.
The time came for a break and at that moment, there was nothing that I wanted more than to catch and land a giant. I could hardly wait to get my gear back in the water for our next drift.
Fishing Is Conservation
Thus far we had been blessed with 3 keeper steelies. Being able to take part in the renewable resource made the experience all-the-better. The wild-caught fish were to be released to promote the spawn, while hatchery-raised fish—identifiable with a clipped adipose fin—were to be kept. Biologists encourage anglers to keep the hatchery fish for eating and the eggs harvested from the hens can even be cured and later used for bait.
The Secret Spot
My first drift was off to a great start. Toby had just hooked and landed a beautiful fish, but his gut was telling him there was better fishing to be had down river.
Toby’s secret spot held true to her promise. Well, kind of. Along the way, we hit a spot seemingly filled with the big B’s. I was the first to get a bite, and with a firm hookset, the fight was on. The mighty fish tugged and fought with incredible strength, running towards the boat and then under. The line nearly wrapped around the outboard prop. This is just my luck: I actually get a fish to the boat and it gets literally hung up on the boat!
Thankfully, Toby’s quick reaction avoided yet another lost fish, and I finally landed my first giant B-run steelhead. The massive fish felt nearly as big as me and had to be nearly 14 pounds, if not more! I was elated!
By the days end, I had lost three steelhead at the boat, caught three whitefish and landed two wild steelies, which we released, and one hatchery steelhead that I kept. By all accounts, the day was a complete success!
Thank you to Gary Lewis and Frontier Unlimited TV, Toby and Snake with Reel Time Fishing and Clarkston WA visitors’ bureau for putting together this amazing adventure on the Clearwater. If you haven’t set a hook into a giant B, you need to. I promise that you will have the time of your life.