2014 Fishing Guide: Where lunkers lurk and brave anglers go forth

Idaho has lots of places to catch big fish, but prepare to be tested

rphillips@idahostatesman.comFebruary 27, 2014 

You know it’s special when you catch a big one. Those fish become permanently etched in our brains and set the standard for all future fishing trips. You may not top it, but you can always look back and say, “Remember that time ... ”

I would never be so bold as to guarantee you a big fish, but here are some places where you at least have the opportunity to catch them.

The rest is up to you.

CLEAR LAKE

If you want to get a head start on your fly fishing season and also catch big trout, this private lake near Buhl is a good place to do it.

There are lots of trout in this lake in the 2- to 5-pound range, and some even bigger.

But beware: These fish were born and raised in hatcheries, even the big ones, so they’re going to look a little different than wild fish.

They will also act different. You might as well leave the dry flies at home. OK, there’s a chance one might take a dry, but you’re better off going subsurface.

Woolly buggers, mohair leeches and other streamers will usually work, but not always.

Remember this is a catch-and-release lake, and these fish see a lot of flies chucked their way. You might want to mix it up. A classic stillwater pattern (again, buggers and leeches) trailed by a small nymph is a good combo.

Plan to spend some time on the water. These fish are on a rhythm all their own, and it’s probably tied to some kind of a hatchery feeding schedule with which we’re not familiar. They may go on and off the bite at seemingly random times.

They’re also likely to concentrate in certain areas, so move around the lake.

You’re better off with a sinking line than a floating, but it’s not real deep so you can still get down where the fish are with weighted flies.

In short, use your usual stillwater tactics, but vary them. Don’t be afraid to reach into your bag of tricks. You never know what fly may trigger a response from these fish.

Use strong enough line to land them quickly. It defeats the purpose of catch and release if they die from exhaustion or mishandling.

Part of the fun of this private lake is that it’s country club fishing for bargain basement prices. It’s $10 a day to fish there, and you don’t even need an Idaho fishing license.

There’s also the golf course clubhouse nearby for a burger and brew.

For directions to the lake, see Page O4 or call 543-4849.

SNAKE RIVER

This river is littered with big fish. I’m particularly talking about the stretch through Southwest Idaho from C.J. Strike Dam down to the upper end of Brownlee Reservoir.

It has an interesting mix of warmwater fish as well as a few trout immediately below Strike dam.

Smallmouth bass are abundant, and there are some doozies. For better or worse, there are also thousands of small and medium-sized bass, which can make catching the larger ones a challenge because you’re having too much fun catching the smaller ones.

But the big ones are out there, and spring is traditionally the best time to hook one.

The river is also home to thousands of channel catfish, many of which probably die of old age without ever feeling the sting of a hook. You might also hook into a flathead catfish that dwarfs the river’s biggest channel cat.

These fish take some effort, but those who learn where and when to catch them can land a lot of big fish.

There also are sturgeon throughout the river, and these beasts live up to their reputation as big, hard-fighting fish. But we will leave most of the description of sturgeon to Hells Canyon downstream.

Don’t overlook carp, especially for fly anglers. You can sight-fish for them, and it’s common to cast to dozens of them in a day. When you hook one, it’s like you snagged the back of a tow truck.

The Snake has some bank access, but boats are the best way to fish it. Nearly any boat suitable for slow-moving water will do.

Pick a stretch of river and learn it well. Where you find fish, you can typically return and find them again. And with enough time and effort, you will learn where the big ones lurk and hopefully land a few.

And here’s a quick tip. The bass fishing turns on a lot sooner than most people realize, so when you see the water temperature creeping into the high 40 and low 50s, get out there and get fishing.

LAKE BILLY SHAW

This reservoir on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation rarely disappoints me, and sometimes it blows me away with the quality of fishing.

Because Idaho is blessed with so many places where you can catch nice trout, it’s hard to single out just a few places. But this one has to make the list because of the consistency and quantity.

This may not be the place if you’re looking for a rainbow to break the 20-inch mark. Surely some are there, but they’re hard to find.

But if you want a place that produces football-shaped, 14- to 18-inch trout that seem to be angry at the world, you can find them at Lake Billy Shaw.

Mark your calendar for May or early June, depending on whether we have an early or late spring, and get to this reservoir.

The three Duck Valley reservoirs are owned and managed by the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, and it costs a very reasonable $15 a day for adults to fish there.

Billy Shaw is limited to fly fishing, and a strict harvest limit keeps the reservoir well stocked.

Why aren’t there more larger ones? My best guess is because when you have that many trout competing for food, it’s hard for some of them to get really big.

But this place consistently hits the sweet spot between quality and quantity. As a bonus, it’s a fun place to camp in the spring.

Bring your float tube or pontoon boat and hold your rod tightly. Something on the other end doesn’t like you, and when it hits your fly, you will learn what it’s capable of doing.

To learn more about fishing at the reservoirs and tribal rules, go to shopaitribes.org.

SOUTH FORK CLEARWATER RIVER

Steelheaders know this river is chock full of big steelhead every spring. At times, it seems like every steelheader in Idaho, Southwest Washington and Montana is there taking a crack at them.

Call it a steelhead festival or a zoo; it’s no secret why they are there.

Those big Clearwater B-run steelhead make their way up this small tributary and become much more accessible to bank anglers.

If you’re in the right spot, you can land multiple fish, but this is definitely a case of the early bird getting the worm.

I’ve driven along this river an hour before daylight and seen people standing in the middle of the river to stake their claim to the best holes.

Then there are the river flow fluctuations. It can rise and fall quickly, going from clear to muddy overnight and back again, or it can stay blown out for days.

So why go there? Well, obviously there’s a reason it draws so many people. You can catch a lot of big steelhead. Ten-pounders are common, 15- to 20-pounders possible.

You also get the combo of fighting a big fish in a swift river, which means they’re going to give a good tussle.

These steelhead also seem to strike flies as readily as they take jigs or bait, so you get a real mix of anglers.

Late February and March is the prime time to be there, and if you miss it, you have to wait until the next run of fish in the fall.

SALMON/LITTLE SALMON RIVER

Another spring favorite is the Salmon and its smaller tributary, the Little Salmon.

Both have reliable steelhead runs, and the fish make their final upstream push in early spring.

The Main Salmon, as it’s known, is both a bank and boat show, with boaters having the advantage because they can cover more water.

The Little Salmon is strictly bank fishing because it’s narrow, swift and rocky.

The fish are smaller in this river system than in the nearby Clearwater because most of the Salmon River’s steelhead are A-runs that spend a year in the ocean, compared to B-run fish that spend two or even three years in the ocean and grow larger.

Steelhead fishing typically winds down by mid-to-late April, and then there’s a lull for about a month before the spring chinook move in.

Chinook are considerably larger than steelhead, with most averaging over 10 pounds.

You also have to contend with high spring flows, which makes landing those big fish more challenging.

Many chinook get caught every spring on the Little Salmon, and depending on the run size, it can be a short, intense season that comes and goes in a couple of weeks or a prolonged one that lasts several weeks.

Either way, you want to be ready to go. The first week in June is traditionally the prime season. If it’s an early spring or a low water year, it might be the end of May.

This year’s run is projected to be larger than last year’s, which was pretty modest. But projections have been wildly wrong in recent years, so cross your fingers and keep an eye on the fishing report.

I try to track dam counts on the Columbia and Snake rivers so I’ll know when the fish will arrive in the Salmon.

LAKE LOWELL

Brownlee and C.J. Strike get most of the glory for bass fishing honey holes, but I give the nod to Lake Lowell when it comes to largemouth bass.

Why? Because when I think of bass, I think about lots of cover, and this lake has it. There also aren’t that many lakes or reservoirs around that are dominated by largemouth bass, and this is one of them.

Depending on reservoir level or the time of year, you can be casting in flooded timber or into a mats of weeds during late spring and summer.

Coaxing those largemouth bass out of there is always a fun challenge, and there are some big ones there.

Experts routinely catch large bass out of Lake Lowell, but what’s cool is you don’t have to be an expert to catch fish there.

Concentrate on the shorelines where there’s lots of cover, and eventually you will cross paths with a hungry largemouth.

The fish at Lake Lowell aren’t going to tip the scales like those southern hawgs, but they’re still pretty respectable fish.

When you add the easy access for both shore anglers and numerous launches for boaters, not to mention the close proximity to the Treasure Valley, this is a place nearly anyone can fish.

Catching one of those big bass is probably going to take some effort, but the opportunity is there.

Bass tournaments typically start in April, so it’s not far away for some early season fishing.

SILVER CREEK

This river is famous for its prolific insect hatches and finicky rainbow trout that are experts at detecting fake insects.

That’s the reputation, anyway, and it’s not far from reality. When the creek opens on Memorial Day weekend (some sections are open year-round), the fish can be gullible and possible for the average fly angler to catch.

Rainbows are larger-than-average for other waters in the area, probably averaging in the low to mid-teens with some breaking the 20-inch mark.

But those aren’t what puts the creek on the list.

Big brown trout also live in Silver Creek, and they can be caught by stripping streamers that imitate smaller fish, skating mouse patterns (especially at night) and even on tiny dry flies.

Because Silver Creek has a reputation for finicky fish, long, light leaders and tippets are commonly used, so some anglers are overwhelmed if they hook a large brown trout.

Take that into consideration, and also realize if you want those big fish, you have to find them and hook them, and they’ve grown that big by fooling people like you.

But if you want an additional challenge on a creek that’s already famous for being challenging, try your luck at catching a big brown trout.

HELLS CANYON

When you get below Hells Canyon Dam, the Snake River is much different with different fish than it is above the three reservoirs in the Hells Canyon Complex.

The canyon is famous for its giant sturgeon, and people travel from throughout the U.S. to catch them in one of North America’s deepest canyons.

The fish lurk in deep, emerald-green pools in the big, broad river with pulse-pounding rapids. Sturgeon in the 6-foot to 9-foot range are common.

These are strictly for catch-and-release, but the fish live for decades and grow to truly epic sizes.

Spring is among the best times to catch them, but the river is typically high and murky, which makes landing these huge fish in big water a real challenge.

Summer and fall are both popular times and a really fun time to be in Hells Canyon.

Sturgeon are the marquee fish in Hells Canyon, but not the only big ones. The river has a solid steelhead run with fish ranging up to 10 pounds, chinook salmon up to 30 pounds.

Spring chinook return in April, May and early June.

Then the steelhead return in late summer and fall and stick around through winter and into early spring before spawning.

The canyon has seen a surge in fall chinook runs in recent years, and based on early forecasts it could be a record return this year.

So to bring Hells Canyon into perspective, a 20-inch trout that you would brag about in most rivers won’t even raise an eyebrow, and that pan-sized trout you catch at your local pond or reservoir may be what you use for bait in Hells Canyon.

There’s also good trout and bass fishing in the river, particularly in early summer.

The fine print to this fishing paradise is the preferred method of fishing is from a jetboat, and chances are good you don’t own one.

But there are numerous outfitters who will take you on one of Idaho’s most thrilling fishing/whitewater trips.

PAYETTE LAKE

Surprised to see this one in here? I can understand why. Payette Lake is among the most beautiful lakes in Idaho, but ask most anglers about it and you’re likely to get a blank stare.

But if you ask someone and get a smirk and the subject quickly changes, he probably knows about the lake’s secrets.

So here’s letting the cat out of the bag. Payette Lake has huge lake trout, commonly known as Mackinaw.

That’s the good news. The bad? They can be as tough to find as a Russian sub in the North Atlantic.

A boat is mandatory. Deep trolling gear and electronics are probably crucial, and even then, don’t expect it to be easy.

Some guys are also learning to catch them through the ice, and depending on ice conditions, there still might be time to give that a try this winter.

But did I mention that they’re big? You catch the one of the bigger fish in the lake, and you will be smirking at the chinook that guys pull out of the Little Salmon.

Lake trout harvest is limited to one fish under 30 inches in Payette Lake, so the biggest ones should remain there for others to catch. They can live up to 40 years and they grow big and heavy.

How big?

That’s for you to find out, and report back.

Get busy.

DEADWOOD RESERVOIR

This reservoir is almost like Payette Lake’s cousin, but instead of a town and trophy homes on its shoreline, it’s deep in the Idaho mountains.

Getting there can be a chore, and it’s common that roads into the reservoir aren’t even open until late spring.

But the reservoir has a respectable trout and kokanee population, and it also produces some monster rainbows and land-locked chinook salmon that give you the chance at a trophy fish.

If you go up there expecting to catch one, you may come back disappointed.

Consider these bonus fish. Go up there and have a great time fishing in a beautiful place.

If you catch one, great. You could have the trophy of a lifetime.

If not, hopefully you will catch some smaller ones and have a great trip into the mountains and a camping trip to savor all year.

Either way, you really can’t lose.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service