Fishing is a funny thing. A good day makes you want to head back, while the frustration of a bad day will call you back even more. Passion is more than simply doing something that makes you happy. Passion is the emotional faith that holds you strong during every fall and picks you up when anyone else would throw in the towel. Angling at its most rewarding peak takes this passion and responds so sweetly that it is forever etched into your being. For the Steelheaders not fortunate enough to grow up around the fabled coastal rivers, catching one has been, and always will be, a dream. No matter how many and how big the Steelhead I've managed to touch from the Great Lakes, there's no doubt that I'd trade my biggest five for just one that came from the ocean. So once again that thing called "Passion" came into play. It took me to beautiful British Columbia over two years ago and with sea-run Steelhead now somewhere within reach, my long-time ambition would finally start its journey. And so it began. Countless nights spent with Google investigating the obvious: Skeena, Kitimat, Olympic Peninsula, the Rogue, anywhere on the coast from BC to Oregon. Along the way somewhere in the search results revealed Idaho. Idaho? I had no idea Idaho held Steelhead, likely because it doesn't sit anywhere near the coast. In fact, Idaho is the only in-land state that has sea-run Steelhead and is home to the world's largest Steelhead Hatchery. After calculating travel times, odds of hooking up and costs, I settled on my first attempt to be the six hour drive to the Clearwater in Idaho vs the closest coastal river, the Vedder (aka Chilliwack), which was 12 hours. And so last April armed with only Internet notes and printed maps, I arrived on the shores of the Clearwater in Orofino only to find the river 4 feet and more higher than normal (talk about driving far to check conditions for yourself!) Plus, I was so late that the fish were pretty much gone. Depressed doesn't even begin to describe it. I spent three days on the Clearwater and did manage to get one a couple hours before I headed home. It was an old tired out hen and though I was relieved, it simply wasn't what I hoped for. This is the Dworshak Dam. The water was gushing and you can see the difference in a picture further below. I was very lucky to catch this one! I was on my two week vacation and when I got home late that night, the call for Steelhead still beckoned. The next day I left at 9:30 p.m. and headed for Chilliwack. Just over 11 hours later I was fishing. Three days later, I left with a skunk, losing three fish along the way. Those bad trips burned me to no end. But something called me about Idaho and the Clearwater. It doesn't hold the same cachet as say the Skeena and in many ways rightfully so. But the Clearwater has a certain charm. The river is nestled down in the heart of potato country surrounded by golden hills. It is far removed from major cities, with many towns along its edge home to no more than a few hundred. The river is also followed by the highway. That makes finding fishable water for a rookie like myself that much more practical. As the saying goes, "If you're driving, you're not fishing." And while the highway reveals the river for 200 miles and the hatchery does its best to ensure strong runs every year, I would learn the hard way it doesn't make for easy fishing. Up until last week I made three more trips to the Clearwater totaling over 3,000 kms and 10 days. One produced a single fish in the final hour of the final day. Another gave me a single hookup only to have the hook pop out at shore, and another had me driving home with a skunk. However, on my first trip I met a man who could smell the dejection as I walked back after two days of trying to catch fish in near impossible water. His name was Rob and he was well aware how bad the Clearwater can beat up an angler. He is also as avid of an angler as they come. Spey is his game, something he's spent his life swinging. My centerpin intrigued him. We became friends, really good friends. Rob in his "office." While Rob's passion is on the Spey, with the crowds this river can receive and the water where many Steelhead stack, the Clearwater isn't always conducive to swinging flies. He's also not one of those Spey guys that snubs their nose at gear. He knows to fully experience everything the Clearwater has to offer, you need to be able to adapt and sometimes gear is the way to go. My last trip I spent two days pounding the river with Rob from his drift boat. We skunked both days. The Clearwater has a reputation for holding back its riches. We met a guy who landed one and said it was his first Steelhead in 5 years! My first trip saw the water up to the rock lines. Fishable it was not! Clearwater Steelhead are much different beasts than those from the coastal rivers and our Great Lake transplants.
By the time they reach Orofino, they've crossed eight dams and travelled 1,000 km. By spring, some fish have been in the river for seven months. From the ocean these fish enter the Columbia, scale eight massive dams before entering the Clearwater. This changes their feeding habits and makes Idaho Steelhead like no other. First light bite works sparingly at best and all the tricks I learned in Ontario like switching baits to trigger lock-jawed bites just didn't work. Grinding it out on a run seemed to be the only way. Even though many of the runs would be filled with fish rolling on the surface, it only guaranteed a false sense of hope. You could drift that pool for hours of denials. With my past experience, I would have moved on long before. But here by the flick of some unexplainable switch, the fish would start biting. Knowing that made leaving fish to find fish a very tough decision. With all my bad luck, despite doing what seemed to be exactly the same as those who were catching, we determined the only difference was time on the water. And with that belief I set out last week for another assault on the elusive Clearwater Steelhead. What kept me going was the faith in earning the chance to catch more than just one fish during a trip. These B-Run Steelhead average 10-13 lbs with 20 pounders a real possibility, so anything you hook will be big. And having tackled with some in the fall (one broke my size 1 hook clear at the bend), the power and brute force these fish possess to arrive in Idaho kept the motivation strong. Even though going solo with the cost of hotels, fuel, licenses, food and time adding up fast, I just could not stay away. I left at dark, arrived at 1:30 pm., met up with Rob and hit the river for some quick action before the official start. Rob drops a beautiful hen minutes in. I skunk and my past trips are starting to creep in. Notice the dam this time . . . no water! The first official day starts out strong, strong for everyone but me! Rob hooks two fish before noon, while I'm still spectating and getting more paranoid with each drift.
We fished alongside a veteran local who we affectionately called "Grampa" and his nephew AJ all the way from Montana. Grampa was a superstar! He grew up on the South Fork of the Clearwater where we started this trip and he had four fish before anyone had a single hook up. Worst part was he was right beside me! Then AJ hooked three fish in about two hours. I, however, was relegated to watching in envy. They both saw how hard I was trying and did all they could to help. They gave me their special shrimp, matched our rigs, everything short of giving up their spot! Still I managed to go fishless and with just an hour to go, I was already thinking of a fresh start for day two. Then finally way out in the fastest current of the run, my float shot down so fast I didn't even see it. I just noticed that my float was gone, set the hook and for the first time I landed a fish on my first day. One thing about Idaho are the people. I don't think I've met friendlier anglers anywhere! The next day I hit the main stem and North Fork and skunked. However, having got my fish on day one, the pressure was somewhat off and exploring became easier to do. We decided to hit the same run on day three. First light was cold! Nothing a fire can't tame. Rob got into fish straight away. So did Grampa followed by AJ. Average Idaho Buck. Once again, I watched all day while everyone caught fish but me! I barely stopped for lunch to keep my float in the run. When you stare at your float all day, it becomes surreal when after 10 hours it actually shoots down. Finally as my friends would say, "FISH ON BUD!!" The result. Notice her sea lion battle scar. I had just switched to a bead and roe and it was the ticket. No more than five drifts later I hook into an even bigger hen. I had her beat easy, but the hook popped out as it rolled around near shore. But I got the fight and left very happy. Rob and I had one day left together so having accomplished what I set out to do, we went exploring so I'd be armed with spots to hit while solo. We both blanked, but it didn't matter. After all my previous trips, everything from now forward was a bonus. In Ontario, going 4 for 5 is decent, and dare I say common for an experienced Steelheader. To accomplish the same here, I'd almost be willing to pay money for it! And for the first time I had the day I wished for, multiple fish and hookups throughout the day. I'll just let the photos roll here. Top of run. Middle End I earned a riverside nap! It was needed after four days of light up to light down fishing. And two shots of the last one of the day. On the second last day I decided to start on the same run. It's hard to leave a spot you have confidence in. The river is also busy this time of year and most holes were crowded. I fished from first light to noon with nothing to show and decided it was time to explore. I hit a few runs that quickly got crowded, so on a whim I decided to drive way up river to a spot I found on my first trip. There was a chance the fish had made it up that far. Things weren't looking positive. There were barely any people up this far and looking at all the obstacles the fish had to pass to reach the 25 km I travelled up river seemed to say bad decision. This is the easy stuff. Lots of white water for these fish to get through below. When I found this hole on my first trip, something about it called to me. It was at the top of a long rocky incline in the river and the perfect resting spot after a tough swim. With no buildings and just mountains as far as the eye could see, this would be the icing on the cake if I was to hook up here. With just a couple hours left in the day I decided to fish it regardless of the outcome. When I started to see fish roll, my heart started pounding. Still it took two hours before finally one hit. I couldn't help myself. I had to take the quintessential pin shot. It was the only one. I was beside myself when 20 minutes later I got another hit! One guy saw me land the first fish and of course he decided to fish the hole too. At least he was there to take a picture for me and he turned out to be a super nice guy as well. On my final day after all my good fortune, I decided to take it easy and just enjoy myself without the pressure of catching fish. I slept in a tad, I even took breaks! I enjoyed the scenery and took pics. It was almost fitting that after only ever managing a fish on the last day of my previous trips, I ended this one with a skunk. Still hard to believe there wasn't a willing fish in any of this awesome looking water! Passion is a lot like having a job you love. There's a misconception that if you love your job, every day is blissful and happy, but it's not. That love, much like passion, is about having the faith and dedication to grind it out no matter how great the challenge even as it attempts to depress you into submission. Fishing for me is a reflection of life. This trip and the memories forever etched reminded me that life's rewards always come at a cost. To be rich, you sacrifice your personal time. To live the lifestyle, like many ski bums in BC, you give up good jobs and financial security to pursue what you love. I came to BC because the mountains and all its splendour grabbed hold and just wouldn't let go. For a guy who's a natural-born worrier, it made absolutely no sense to leave the security of my past to venture into the unknown just because the "fishing" was supposed to be good. And while it may not always be evident in the present, looking back 10 years from now, I know I'd do it all over again. Special thank you to Rob and his wife Linda for treating me like family. Your company and friendship made all my trips worthwhile, with or without the fish.