We had a new steelheader on the boat with us in January. His name was Gus Smith. Fifteen-years-old. First time steelheading. Remember all that stuff about fish of a thousand casts? Yah. Not today.
All last summer, all through the fall, from the mouth of the Columbia at Astoria, all the way to Idaho’s Clearwater, fishing for steelhead had been closed until the hatcheries had enough fish to meet hatchery brood stock production requirements.
Then the Clearwater reopened to steelhead fishing on January 1. We spent the night in Lewiston and were at the launch at dawn on January 2.
It was a rare opportunity to fish over steelhead that may never have seen a hook in the 500-mile journey up from the salt. It was a rare opportunity for Gus.
We were on Toby Wyatt’s boat. Wyatt didn’t tell us we should have been there yesterday, but his boat accounted for 18 steelhead landed on the day the river reopened.
It was going to be good. Gus probably didn’t need any help, but everyone on the boat wanted to make sure he landed his first steelhead today.
We motored out into Black Rock, the first run just upstream of the launch.
Wyatt had his hand on the tiller. Sam Pyke stalked back and forth with the camera. Fifteen-year-old Gus leaned into gray-bearded Phil Jost, who spoke steelhead truths in low tones.
On the first drift I felt a fish chew the bait and when I lifted the eggs out of the water, I put a new clump under the egg loop.
On the next drift the rod loaded and I swept the tip up and found myself hooked into the first B-run of the morning. I lost it five minutes later with just a glimpse of rainbow in dark water.
Every other boat had a fish on. It was awesome.
I switched from fishing eggs and cast a clown corky with chartreuse yarn, and a shrimp, hooked once through the tail, eyes looking back, the way shrimp swim, the way steelhead eat them in the ocean. It’s not the way you’re supposed to hook them, but hey, it worked.
I had a secret, a good luck charm. Pro-Cure anise crawfish. My reasoning: These fish were way upriver and they had been here awhile. No doubt they would eat a crawdad if they had a chance. And anise, that’s a steelhead no-brainer.
They crushed it. They grabbed and held on. Over the next four hours and fifteen minutes, I landed five steelhead. The biggest was 15 pounds, the smallest 10 pounds.
Wyatt kept us in sync with a flow of water beneath the faster top current, our baits dead-drifted, the weights bumped through pod after pod of big B-run Idaho steelhead.
In the bow of the boat, Gus concentrated on feeling the bottom of the river in the graphite. He set the hook and missed fish and landed fish that Wyatt and Jost handed him, but he yearned to earn that first honest fish. No one could help him.
We didn’t stop for lunch. Wyatt cooked bacon burgers on the stern while we backtrolled plugs. The right rear rod buried with the weight of a big fish. Gus landed it, big smiles all around, and we estimated it at 13 pounds, a beautiful red-striped B-run steelhead. Gus wasn’t through. He needed to feel the side-drift bite and set the hook.
He had landed his own first fish but now he wanted to get one on bait.
It wasn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. But people kept handing him the rod with fish they had hooked. He concentrated. We concentrated with him.
His feet locked under the lip of the bow, Gus focused on the tip, felt the bump-bump of the weight, visualized the silver corky and chartreuse yarn and the backward shrimp down in that dark water and then the rod got heavy. He set the hook. Five minutes later he returned the 12-pound crimson-striped steelhead back to the river. Maybe he used my good luck charm. Maybe he didn’t. He never said.
Steelhead fishing on the Clearwater will continue through April 30. The daily limit is one steelhead 28 inches or less. We didn’t catch any steelhead under 30 inches. That was good with us.
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Gary Lewis is host of Frontier Unlimited and is the author of John Nosler Going Ballistic and other titles. To contact Gary, visit www.garylewisoutdoors.com