Hunting Big B-Runs On One Of Idaho’s Great Rivers.
By Gary Lewis
The first time I stood in the icy waters of the Clearwater River, it was at the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery where we checked the big male Chinook salmon for spawning readiness, then matched them with females in a matrix.
That day I walked the bank of the river and spotted more fish on the redds and cataloged the carcasses laid up on shore. I knew I’d be back with a fishing rod in hand when the time was right.
The Niimiipu (Nez Perce) call the river the Koos-Koos-Kai-Kai. The big steelhead we call B-runs. As smolts, they’re swept downriver on floods to the Columbia and to the ocean. When the Clearwater calls them home, they find their way back to the mouth of the Columbia, where they catch the scent of their native stream.
I explained these things to Kristy Titus and Sam Pyke as we sped east toward Idaho.
The B-runs are some of the biggest steelhead in the Northwest. They’re headed back to the Clearwater after years in the ocean. At an average 12 to 13 pounds, they are twice as big as most summer-runs.
The Clearwater is open for steelhead fishing from January 1 through April 30 and from July 1 through December 31. Bag limits vary during those seasons, with a catch-and-release period in effect during the summer and early fall.
Michelle Peters, with the Hells Canyon Visitors Association, recommended January and February when the river is loaded with returning summer-runs.
We stayed at the Quality Inn, in Clarkston and after a hurried breakfast and bolstered by hot coffee, we drove back up that Clearwater canyon toward Orofino.
We met up with third-generation fishing guide, Toby Wyatt of Reel Time Fishing and Toby introduced us to his dad. Jim “Jake the Snake” Wyatt shook our hands, then told us he’d show us the Snake Jake Fishy Shake – if we caught a fish.
They introduced us to Toby’s boat, a 27-foot Whitewater custom-built by his dad, Snake. The Snake has built 244 boats in his career. We saw several on the river that day.
A 27-footer, I thought, seemed too long for a river the size of the Clearwater. But, I was wrong. In fact, this could have been one of the best-designed jet boats I’ve ever been on. But we were there to fish, not admire boat architecture.
Before we left the bank, Jake showed Kristy how to cast the spinning rod and put the bait down, lift and feel the weight bounce on the bottom. It had to be a short learning curve if she was going to catch a fish. This lifelong outdoors girl has a lot of experience in the elk woods, but there are still big gaps in her fishing education. She’d never fished for steelhead before.
“All the fish seem to be stacked up close to the hatcheries right now,” Toby said. “We’re going to have a lot of boats around us.”
He fired the big engine, backed the boat away from the beach and we ran upriver around a couple of bends to the confluence of the mainstem Clearwater and the North Fork. There was a state hatchery on one side and a federal hatchery on the other. A mile up the North Fork, Dworshak Dam towered above us like a mountain cliff.
Outflow streams from the hatchery ponds poured into the rivers on both sides and, we guessed, there were steelhead piled in the seams of the riffles.
We each were armed with a spinning rod, rigged with a Corky (mine was fire orange) and steelhead roe cured with Pautzke’s BorX O’Fire. When our boat slid into position, I felt the motor go into reverse. Toby shouted, “Throw ‘em,” and I threw. The weight ticked bottom a couple of times and a fish tugged. Bam-bam-bam. I missed him.
Most often the bite we feel is actually the un-bite, when the fish is trying to spit out the hook. We don’t feel the gentle take as the fish expels water through its gills and sucks the bait in. We feel the movement as it tries to let go.
Toby was first to connect and he brought in a rainbow-striped hatchery male of about 13 pounds. Soon after that, Kristy struck a fish and lost it close to the boat.
After she lost her second fish, I told her, “Some people try their whole lives and never catch one.”
With that bit of helpful wisdom imparted, I put my bait back in the water, bounced it downstream through a hundred yards, felt the tug as a fish chewed the bait, felt its weight in the rod and set the hook. Five minutes later and several hundred yards downstream, Wyatt slid the net under my first Clearwater steelhead. The tape said it was 36 inches long. At the mouth of the Columbia it probably weighed 17 pounds. We guessed its winter weight at a bit more than 14. It was a hatchery fish and we kept it.
There’s a thing guides do. They call it a hand-off. They’ll fish, hook one and hand the rod to the client to land. It’s in good grace to take a hand-off, but it’s up to the client if they want to call it their first steelhead or not. We watched Kristy take and land a couple of hand-offs. We brought more fish to the boat. Kristy hooked her own fish and lost them.
Downriver, after lunch, she hooked a steelhead, a big adipose-clipped B-run and she battled it to the boat while Toby coached and Snake scooped it into the net. We guessed it at 13 pounds. Kristy had earned her first one and a fishy handshake with Jake the Snake.
The November before, we’d stood in the icy Koos-Koos-Kai-Kai and helped spawn wild Chinook. We gave back to the river before we fished it. Now, with six hatchery steelhead in the box for Kristy, Sam and me and four wild ones turned loose, we’d come full circle on the Clearwater.
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