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Man holding large steelhead

Plan B For B-runs

Tucked back in the hills and featuring great access, the Clearwater’s South Fork produces good fishing for nice steelies.

By Mike Wright

For a number of years my high school had a tradition of starting out the softball and baseball season with a two-day tournament in Orofino. The tournament was always scheduled for mid-March, when snow covered the fields of North Idaho and far Eastern Washington. It also coincided with the latter part of the steelhead run on the Clearwater River and its tributaries. Since I helped with the coaching duties I would always make the trip, but unfortunately I never had the opportunity to do any steelheading.

Man holding large steelhead

The lure of large steelhead in small water attracts gear and fly anglers to Idaho’s South Fork Clearwater River. (MIKE WRIGHT)

Then one year I decided to take a fly rod along and try my luck between games. The schedule would give me enough time for a couple hours of fishing between contests. Someone suggested the nearby North Fork of the Clearwater, which had a lot of fish in the river at the time. So between games I made my way down to the North Fork, walked to the water’s edge and started to cast into a very clear, slow-moving section of the stream. To my delight, very quickly a nice 24- or 25-inch fish followed my fly – until he got close enough to inspect the offering and abruptly turned and swam away. As I continued to work this section the same thing happened three more times. Even though I changed flies, tried different retrieves and speeds, the results were the same: no takes. I even switched to a sink-tip line, but all that did for me was a couple hook-ups on rocks and the loss of two flies.
That evening I went into a grocery store to buy some snacks and drinks for the next day. While in the store I ran into one of my former students, who was working for the U.S. Forest Service out of Orofino. I told him my tale of woe and he said I was really fishing in the wrong spot. He went on to tell me that the Clearwater’s South Fork was the preferred destination for most fly fishermen. He stated that it was a smaller river with well-defined holes and generally much easier to wade.
The next morning I left just after dawn to make the relatively long drive to Kooskia and the South Fork. Although we had a game at 11, I felt there was enough time for a couple hours of fishing. Unfortunately, just after I arrived at the river the heavens opened up. After only a few casts it was very apparent these were not the ideal conditions for steelhead fishing. Nor was it ideal for softball or baseball either. The rest of the tournament was cancelled and I went home with nothing to show for my efforts.

SINCE THAT ILL-FATED journey to the South Fork I have fished it several times, learning a great deal more about it and gaining much more respect for this outstanding fishery. The river forms at around 4,000 feet, just outside the old mining town of Elk City. Its upper reaches flow through a narrow, heavily timbered canyon on Forest Service land. Steep and full of rapids and pocket water, you might catch cutthroat, rainbow, brook trout, mountain whitefish and possibly bull trout here.

Clearwater river

The South Fork features great access, thanks to Highways 13 and 14, which parallel it all the way from Kooskia to Elk City. (MIKE WRIGHT)

The water in this section is cold and very clear, even though a number of mining operations have worked the area in the past. The swift current, higher elevation and shade trees help keep water temperatures cooler through the warmer summer months. Further downstream, the gradient becomes more level and the river bed widens. Water temps rise in this section with a consequent negative impact on the fish, particularly cutthroat and bull trout. There is considerably less streamside vegetation and shade in this lower section. The river flows through more private land the closer it gets to where it empties into the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River.
The main attraction in this part of the river is steelhead, which start showing up en masse this month and in April. For the most part, these are B-run fish, meaning they have spent an additional year in ocean and thus are older and bigger than their A-run counterparts.
“Big fish in small water is the major allure for the South Fork,” says Mike Beard of Northwest Outfitters (nwoutfitters.com). in Coeur d’Alene, these steelies often run in the 12- to 20-pound range, with the As coming in at 6 to 10 pounds. Shallower, wadeable water punctuated with deeper help make this stream a destination fishery for flyrodders from all over the Northwest. But even though it can provide excellent steelhead fishing, the South Fork can also be rather fickle, requiring knowledge of the river and fish habits. Often the steelhead remain downstream in the Middle Fork until conditions are just right. The best time to fish is after a rain or melt-off has created a push of colder water, then stabilizing at around 350 to 500 cubic feet per second.
In addition, nymphing is a more effective method than the usual swing fishing approach. An egg pattern or beads are probably the most productive approach during March and April. One of the most popular set-ups is to tie a pinkish color bead on the line an inch or two up from the eye of the hook and another on the hook itself. Since larger hook sizes are required (size 10 or perhaps larger), heating the bead may be required to slip it past the bend of the hook. Although other egg and nymph patterns are effective, this particular set up has been effective for me. Beard uses this same bead arrangement, but ties on a Kilowatt fly with the beads as a dropper. He feels the Kilowatt can be an attractor for the beads, but sometimes the steelhead will be more active and take the lead fly.
The South Fork is excellent fly water, but other methods are effective on the river too. Bait is very popular and productive, and probably the most effective technique is a jig baited with a shrimp below a bobber. While bait fishing with a treble is popular in many spots, it should be pointed out that only single-point barbless hooks are allowed when fishing for steelhead or salmon in the South Fork.
This time of year it may be advisable to linger longer in a particular hole, as the fish are often rather lethargic. Considering the popularity of the South Fork in March and April, if you fortunate enough to be fishing a suitable hole and move, chances are someone will take your spot and you may not be able to find an empty hole.

STATE STEELHEAD MANAGERS recently instituted a new program to help improve the number of fish returning to the South Fork for spawning. Enlisting the river’s anglers, each are given a long plastic tube of sufficient size to safely hold very sizable steelhead. Starting in February, a tanker truck cruises the highway along the river, collecting the tubes and steelhead. The fish are then transported to the national fish hatchery in Orofino, where the eggs are fertilized and the hatchlings can be reared for release. Releases back into the South Fork are staggered in order the better equalize the run.
According to Joe Dupont, Idaho Fish & Game fisheries biologist for the Clearwater Region, four years of work and study have gone into the program and at this time it seems to be working fairly well. Last year, all 225 needed pairs had been collected by March 7. It is probably too soon to tell what affect this will have on the overall number of steelhead in the drainage, but indications are encouraging.

Man holding a fish just out of the water

In addition to steelhead, the river also holds cutthroat, rainbow, brookies and mountain whitefish, as well as bull trout. (MIKE WRIGHT)

Another program that has many anglers excited involves Chinook. In 1927, the former Lewiston Dam was constructed, effectively ending the migration of king salmon into the Clearwater River and its tributaries. The dam was removed in the 1970s, but the recovery of the fish has been exceeding slow. To help out, IDFG has expanded its stocking program and are planting during the summer as well as the spring and fall. The number of Chinook has been increasing throughout the drainage, including the South Fork. If this trend continues it would be a great addition to the fishery.
Although the South Fork is best known for steelhead fishing, and justifiably so, the river provides excellent fishing for a number of species. It might be considered a river for all seasons.
To reach the South Fork, simply follow the Clearwater River out of Lewiston and turn onto Highway 13 south out of Kooskia. The highway follows the river all the way to Hapston Grade. There, stay to the left on Highway 14, which goes all the way to Elk City. Daily limit is three fin-clipped steelhead, and the season runs through April 30.