January 03, 2016
By Ben Romans
The upper Salmon springs from one of the most scenic and wild regions in Idaho and meanders through an idyllic backdrop for any Rocky Mountain fly-fishing adventure. The longest free-flowing river entirely contained within the borders of a Lower 48 state, it's truly one of the country's most majestic treasures, offering something different with every turn for fly fishers willing to exchange tranquility for notches on the measuring tape.
While the Salmon doesn't have the true trophies or high numbers of wild fish compared to other nearby jewels like the Henry's Fork, the upper river does hold large trout worth pursuing. And the absence of dams makes it easier for the same salmon and steelhead running the gauntlet of anglers on the lower river to end their journey in the pools, gravel runs, and tributaries of the upper river between the towns of Salmon and Stanley.
Trout in the early summer; steelhead in the fall, spring, and winter; and now recovering salmon runs filling the space in between (a recent development) make the upper Salmon River a year-round fishery.
What's more, it's a terrific place to travel with your family. Wilderness hikes, camping, scenic tours, whitewater rafting, or treks to nearby natural hot springs are just a few of the side dishes nonfishers can enjoy. And with services in the towns of Stanley, Challis, and Salmon close by, you can have the aura of a wilderness adventure and never be far from the modern conveniences of restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores.
Idaho's Salmon River begins deep in the high mountains of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) just north of Sun Valley, and quickly empties into Sawtooth Valley.
At this stage, the river is an intimate piece of water with plenty of pockets, pools, and other structure that lends itself to wading anglers. Use any of the public pull-offs along Idaho 75, or the intersecting forest service roads, to access the river. Once there, don't be afraid to walk up- or downstream to find extra isolation.
Idaho's stream access regulations allow anglers to stay below the high-water mark on navigable streams bordered by private property. Just remember to be mindful of fences or signs. Although the SNRA is public land, there are pieces of private property sprinkled throughout.
After the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, the river flows into a short, steep canyon, and intersects with Redfish Creek. The Buckhorn Rest Area off Idaho 75 (downstream of the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery) is a popular access point for both wading and floating, but as flows drop, the water is much softer and it becomes a great alternative for anyone with a personal pontoon boat. There is a takeout between Stanley and Lower Stanley near the Salmon River Lodge bridge.
The river from Stanley to the old Sunbeam Dam, nearly 15 miles downstream, shifts east and into a mountainous corridor, following Idaho 75 and at nearly every turn affords wading anglers plenty of opportunities to jump into the water.
If planning an overnight trip, there are several public camping sites between Stanley and Sunbeam with both drinking water and restrooms that are also close to some of the area's natural features. The beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains is just one highlight—other geologic wonders like the Sunbeam Hot Spring are great distractions, especially if you're traveling with family.
Between Sunbeam and Clayton, the river's fast chutes attract the whitewater crowd, but the fish don't care. I've floated during the height of the whitewater season, with fly rod in hand, and despite the never-ending surge of screaming paddlers, the fish were not difficult to find with attractor dry flies.
Most of the fish you catch in this area are hatchery-raised rainbow trout. While Idaho deposits thousands of Kamloops triploid rainbows in the river annually, there is also a fair portion of wild rainbows and westslope cutthroats.
"The fishery in the Stanley area is mainly supported by hatchery fish," Idaho Fish and Game biologist Greg Schoby says. "The state stocks quite a bit around Stanley because there are so many people who come up there and just fish for a weekend, or they're on vacation with their family. The fish are often easy to catch, so they're perfectly suited for camp dinners or an outing with the kids, and they take some of the pressure off the wild fish populations downstream."
From Clayton through Challis, the Salmon turns north along some rocky mountainsides and around private ranches. Much of this section of river is swift, but there are plenty of access points and pull-offs near slower wadable areas that also hold fish. Furthermore, the river shifts from a predominantly hatchery-supported fishery to one dominated by wild fish.
"The Salmon is one of the unique places where both rainbows and westslope cutthroat are native," Schoby says.
"They've evolved in this system together, so when and where they spawn are separated. Wild rainbow trout spawn earlier than cutthroat, generally in late March and early April, and are concentrated in the middle reaches of the river, in and around the Pahsimeroi River and smaller tributaries. Cutthroat trout spawning peaks around the end of May or early June and is farther upstream, mainly in tributaries between Challis and the Yankee Fork."
The river after Challis is broad and easy to approach, but I like it mostly because of the abundance of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) boat access ramps. U.S. 93 works its way along the river, connecting anyone towing a boat with an improved site to put in or take out. That's not to say wading anglers aren't without opportunities. In fact, since much of the water is viewable from the driver's seat, and roadside pull-offs are plentiful, most fly fishers drive along and simply window shop until they see something they like.
I think there's a general conception that the upper Salmon trout fishery is sub-par, and yes, some days are tough. I've had as many good days as bad days.
Unfortunately, trout populations dramatically taper off near the Pahsimeroi River junction, so it's not your typical trout fishery. Warm summer temperatures and lackluster aquatic hatches are mostly to blame, but you can still find areas where clusters of wild fish congregate, including some very large rainbows and bull trout. The upper Salmon is just one of those places where you have to put in your time and you'll get have enough good days to make it worth your while.
"Challis is kind of the breaking point where summer water temperatures get excessive," says Idaho Fish & Game Regional Fisheries Manager Tom Curet. "In a big water year, the temperatures can stay comfortable for trout farther downstream, through Salmon, but I'd say in a normal year, and definitely in below-average water years, the main stem can approach and exceed 70 degrees F., so most of the trout have to go somewhere else or die. A lot of them move into tributaries, then they move back into the main stem in the early fall when the water cools off. So seasonally the river can be good for trout, but the times that it's good, people are typically focused on steelhead."
Salmon & Steelhead
In its heyday, Idaho's Salmon River was a steelhead and salmon factory. As recently as a century ago, thousands of wild sockeye from the Pacific Ocean made their way upriver to spawn in Redfish Lake, aptly named for the water's red hue when nearly 40,000 sockeye returned annually. But a variety of manmade factors decimated salmon populations, nearly eradicating them from the system. Recently, however, the fish have enjoyed a rebound of sorts, and with the help of state biologists and hatcheries, sockeye return numbers have increased slightly in recent years.
Chinook salmon on the other hand, another native Salmon River fish once on the brink of disappearing, are faring much better. Since 2009, the first year Chinook weren't off-limits to anglers, runs have exceeded many biologists' and anglers' expectations, and fish returns in 2010 eclipsed previous records. If the forecasts are correct, the predicted returns of fish in 2012 will be similar. In fact, in early 2012, a surge of 18,436 fish pushed over Bonneville Dam in a single day, making it the fifth largest single count of Chinooks in a day for the past decade, and the sixth largest since the 1930s.
"In 2009 we had enough salmon return that we could allow an open season on the river from the city of Salmon all the way up to the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery," Curet says. "Typically, the Chinooks start to show up in mid-May, and in the past few years we opened the season by the second or third week in June. A lot of fish arrive on the big spring runoff, and then as the water drops, I think they just hunker down in the deep holes until they're ready to spawn and that's where anglers are finding them."
The confluence of the Pahsimeroi River is a high-traffic area when salmon and steelhead pass through. Considered one of the most important salmon spawning tributaries in the upper Salmon, the Pahsimeroi is also home to a fish hatchery, so wild as well as hatchery fish stockpile where the two waters meet.
In the early spring, it's common to see dozens of RVs along the shoulder of the road, and dozens of anglers plying the pools below the Pahsimeroi's mouth. Though I'm sure anglers catch fish, seeing so many combating for space along the shoreline, or anchored in aluminum drift boats, is for those that enjoy the madness. I prefer to explore downstream.
According to Sawtooth Fish Hatchery records (from more than 30 years ago), the run peaks around July 4, but Jane McCoy, owner of McCoy's Tackle and Gift Shop in Stanley, says the last few years the peak was closer to July 20, probably due to weather patterns and stream flow.
The majority of caught salmon are hatchery stock, but there are many wild Chinook in the system. Curet says that's why the IDFG makes a strong effort to conduct a daily creel census and tries to set up the open seasons to minimize any detrimental effects on the wild fish.
Because stretches of river can close or open with little notice, check the IDFG website (fishandgame.idaho.gov) or call the Salmon field office (208-756-2271) for up-to-date information.
If you want an accurate gauge for how strong or weak the steelhead and salmon runs are during a given week, the IDFG's weekly creel census shows the number of hours an average angler is on the water before hooking a fish. The reports are available on the IDFG website and are a terrific resource if you're considering an impromptu trip to the river.
Steelhead are likely the most sought-after fish in the system, however, most of the fish reaching the upper river are 4- to 8-pound "A-run" hatchery fish, and most of the larger 10- to 15-pound "B-run" wild fish typically remain in the lower river. Water temperature and stream flow affect the fish's mood, and while fall fishermen are productive, anglers venturing out in March or April are typically more successful, especially between Challis and Stanley.
"If it's 15 degrees outside and you're going steelhead fishing, I figure you're in for a great morning," Silver Creek Outfitters guide Julie Meissner says. "Two springs ago I worked a few weeks where the average morning temperature was between zero and negative 10 degrees. You have to come prepared for really cold water and the potential for rain or snow."
Coincidentally, the steelhead and salmon fishing picks up where the trout fishing leaves off. Downstream from Challis, through the town of Salmon, and past the hamlet of North Fork, anglers are more likely to find migrating fish than trout—for nearly six months out of the year.
"Steelhead show up in September through November, and then they overwinter downstream of Challis, primarily downstream of North Fork. But this past fall people caught fish all the way up to Buckhorn Bridge near Redfish Lake, so sometimes they really spread out," Curet says.
"Then in the spring the steelhead move up through the canyons toward Stanley and the anglers just follow their progression. There's a lot of guys Spey fishing, bait fishing, and fly fishing, so there is opportunity for all types. It draws a lot of attention from throughout the Northwest."
Look for steelhead to congregate in the downstream half of deep pools. In most cases the fish bolt through shallow-water rifles and chutes, then rest in a calm pool before blasting through another run. It's possible to spot fish moving up through the current, but look to the softer water around boulders and along the banks to find fish pausing on their journey. These fish are more apt to strike a fly than those moving full throttle through fast water.
"I almost always fish on the swing," Meissner says. "I usually recommend a slow-sinkingline and some bright, traditional steelhead flies in the early season. But as the days go by, you might have to refine your pattern selection and presentation."
Egg patterns are always effective, though it may take some trial-and-error to discover the hot color for the day. Streamers—particularly purple egg-sucking Woolly Buggers and Green Butt Skunks—play a close second and have always worked well on the river's A-run fish, but feel free to experiment with other size and color variations, as well as other "classic" steelhead patterns.
"We sight-fish to some steelhead and it is an amazing event to watch," McCoy says. "But it's important to know how to identify a redd. We ask all anglers to not fish to spawning steelhead since they're essentially providing the next generation. The upper river is their breeding grounds, so once the fish are actually spawning, we need to let them be."
Despite the strong presence of wild trout, the state stocks 10- to 12-inch rainbow trout in the upper river. These fish lack the smarts and fighting power of their wild brethren, but satisfy those anglers seeking a put-and-take fishery.
Aside from the stockers, wild cutthroat, rainbows, and bull trout are the predominant trout species (though there are many brook trout in the tributaries). The cutthroats have no qualms rising to dry flies from textbook hangouts, so don't over-think your strategy when it comes to fly selection or presentation.
Meatier meals attract bull trout, an endangered species, and they run down streamers with ferocity. If you catch a bull trout, keep the fish in the water while gently releasing it.
Hatches on the upper Salmon are diverse, but not heavy compared to other Rocky Mountain freestone rivers. In the heart of the season, you'll see mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies—but the bread-and-butter is terrestrials. Depending on where you're fishing, the forests, fields, and willows play home to ants, beetles, and hoppers. During the summer, I've had no trouble finding fish with a simple hopper, and a beetle or ant as a dropper. Nymph droppers are effective, but faced with fish so willing to feed off the surface I have a hard time adding a beadhead nymph.
Second to terrestrials, caddis are plentiful, though the heaviest concentrations appear in the evenings. Don't wait until you see naturals before tying on an imitation. Probing the water with a Goddard Caddis, Elk-hair Caddis, or X-Caddis (#10-16) is a great way to find fish, especially the less-than-discerning cutthroat.
The upper Salmon lacks some of the nutrients and habitat to support burgeoning mayfly hatches so their numbers remain sparse, and you can match most hatches with nothing more than a Parachute Adams (#10-18). The same goes for stoneflies. Though these large bugs don't explode upriver like they do on places like the Madison River, there are enough to turn heads in June and July. A simple Stimulator or foam-bodied imitation (#6-10 ) should be all you need.
"We get a salmonfly hatch, and you can see it progress up the river," Meissner says. "Some years it's incredible, and some years it's only around for a few days. Then there are also some Golden Stones and Yellow Sallies."
More than anything else, don't forget attractors. Upper Salmon trout have an affinity for foam-bodied creations with hair wings and rubber legs, and on many outings, flies like a size 8 Trixie the Hooker Hopper or size 6 Black Magic work better than anything else.
"So many people come here and say 'well, I don't see any hatches.' Well, that doesn't mean the fish won't be attracted to something on the surface," Meissner says. "When I get to the water, I look around and make sure there's nothing specific going on regarding hatches. If there isn't, I pretty much use attractor patterns. If you're going to come here and fish, be sure to bring attractors."
I second Meissner's advice. A few seasons ago, one of the most spectacular early season caddis hatches I've ever seen stretched as far as I could see near the mouth of the Pahsimeroi River, but nary a single trout broke the surface. It took a #8 Chernobyl Ant skittering across the surface to get fish to reveal themselves.
The deep pools, boulders, and other structure also lend the upper Salmon well to streamer fishing. Egg-sucking Woolly Buggers, Fowler's Nervous Minnows, and small (#6-8) natural and white Double Bunnies are some of my favorites. I use short leaders of non-tapered monofilament (3 feet or less) tied to a sinking-tip line. The water is deceivingly swift and in order to get down where the fish are hanging, I like all the weight I can manage.
"Look for riffles that drop off into deep holes, and fish the edges where it drops off into deeper water. The fish like to hang right on those edges, and usually if you pull a streamer back up or across those riffles, you can pick up fish," Schoby says.
For trout in the upper Salmon, a light 3- to 5-weight rod and floating line should suit you just fine. When it comes to steelhead, salmon, or streamer fishing to the river's larger trout, a 6- to 8-weight rod with a sinking-tip line and short, stout tippets are in order.
Waders, especially if you plan to dunk your feet in the fall or spring, are a necessity, though in the summer you can get away with wet wading. Even while wet wading, use studded wading boots or other cleat-soled shoes. The rocks are slippery and there's nothing worse than taking a dunk when air and water temperatures reach the lower half of the Fahrenheit scale.
Lastly, given the upper Salmon River supports such diverse fish species and populations, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's a fragile ecosystem. Anglers can keep up to six fish a day as long as they have a clipped adipose fin (proving they are hatchery stock). There is no harvest of wild rainbow, cutthroat, or bull trout so the Salmon is a catch-and-release fishery when it comes to wild fish. With that in mind, use barbless hooks and encourage other anglers to do the same.
"A lot of the trout people catch here are wild—fish that should be caught and released—and I don't think many people know that. A better job could be done of protecting the wild fish if we could encourage Idaho Fish and Game and local outfitters and shops to push people to use single, barbless hooks for all fishing," Meissner says.
"The bull trout are a good example. You can fish for them or any trout (not steelhead) in this area with a barbed treble hook and bait, yet you are expected to release them to live. We need to do a better job of protecting the native fish that are here and single, barbless hooks would be a good start."
Ben Romans is a former Fly Fisherman staff member and author of Montana's Best Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, 2010). He highly recommends the upper Salmon River corridor for fishing trips with youngsters.