They say variety is the spice of life, and that’s definitely true when it comes to fishing.
Here in Idaho, we fishermen have it good. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place with more freshwater fishing variety than the Gem State.
Want to spend an afternoon up to your waist in a crisp, clear stream, fly-fishing for wild, cunning trout? Piece of cake.
Want to fire up your boat and spend the day flinging top-water plastics to hungry largemouth bass? No problem.
Want to wear out your drag tangling with monster, sea-run steelhead and chinook salmon? Or wrestle an eight-foot sturgeon from the depths of the Snake River? Done and done.
No matter what your preferred method of fishing is, you can find it within a day’s drive of the Treasure Valley, if not in your own backyard.
We all have our favorite fish, but 2016 is all about diversification. It’s about venturing out into the great unknown, crossing species off your bucket list and maybe even discovering a new passion. With that in mind, I present to you the 2016 Species Challenge.
Here’s how it works: Below, you’ll find locations, info and useful tips for catching 25 species you can fish for in Idaho. We’ve covered all the bases, from bluegill to walleye. We even threw in a couple “non-game” species, just to keep you on your toes.
Participating in the Species Challenge will lead to new experiences, new destinations and new thrills. Maybe you’ll take a road trip in search of that last fish, or gain some new fishing buddies as you learn the ropes of chasing a new species. You could even create your own mini-challenges, like seeing how many species you can catch in one location. Lake Cascade and C.J. Strike Reservoir, for example, each contain 12 — 12! — of the species included in the challenge.
I, for one, will be working hard to see how many species I can catch in 2016. I’ll provide Species Challenge reminders throughout the year, so good luck, and tight lines!
Where to catch them: Boise River, Payette River, C.J. Strike Reservoir, Treasure Valley Ponds and Lake Cascade, just to name a few.
How to catch them: Rainbows are the most commonly caught fish in Idaho, which comes as little surprise given Idaho Fish and Game’s extensive stocking program. You can find rainbows just about anywhere, and they are fairly active year-round. Some of the most popular offerings include Mepps and Panther Martin spinners; flies such as Adams, drakes, caddis, hare’s ear nymphs, hoppers and minnows; and baits ranging from live night crawlers to marshmallows and PowerBait.
Useful tip: Planted rainbows are usually sterile and are meant to be harvested by anglers. Wild rainbows, on the other hand, are an important natural resource throughout the Boise and Payette river systems. If you can learn to tell the difference — larger size, brighter coloration and full, white-tipped fins are a few key indicators — and release wild fish, it will help sustain natural populations.
Where to catch them: Boise River, South Fork Snake River, Owyhee River (Oregon).
How to catch them: Brown trout are scarcer and larger than rainbows. While most trout feed primarily on insects, browns prefer to forage on fish and also will eat crayfish and small rodents. The best lures include minnow imitations such as Rapalas; large spinners and spoons; big flies like woolly buggars, muddler minnows, Mickey Finns and mice; and live worms, dead minnows or shrimp. On the Owyhee, browns will hammer dry flies and nymphs, so be on the lookout and match the hatch!
Useful tip: There are browns in the Boise River, but if you want to specifically target big browns, the Owyhee River in Oregon or the South Fork Snake in eastern Idaho are your best bets. Both streams are renowned for producing 20-inch browns. Also, browns are highly active at dusk and after dark. Throwing lures and flies that imitate small fish, large insects or mice can lead to exciting nighttime fishing action.
Where to catch them: Alpine lakes and streams, South Fork Snake River, Henry’s Lake.
How to catch them: Cutthroat are a stunningly beautiful native species. They are distinguished by the dramatic orange “throat slash” under the gill covers. Cutthroat are abundant in Idaho’s alpine backcountry, which makes them a favorite target of fly fishermen. Throughout the spring and summer months, cutthroat will eagerly take flies ranging from caddis, mayfly and stonefly imitations to terrestrials like ants, grasshoppers and woolly worms. Panther Martin spinners also work well, especially in alpine lakes. Red and yellow are popular colors. Live worms and grasshoppers also are very effective, though they aren’t recommended for catch-and-release fishing.
Useful tip: When stalking cutthroat in remote streams, you often can spot fish holding in channels and pools. Cutthroat have bright orange or reddish fins that can be spotted by the trained eye, especially with polarized glasses. The farther apart the fins are, the bigger the fish. Once you’ve spotted your quarry, cast your fly or bait upstream of the fish and let it float naturally to your target. If you’re fishing with spinners, make the lure appear to be “running away,” but don’t cast too close to the fish — backcountry trout spook easily.
Where to catch them: Alpine lakes and streams, Warm Lake, Henry’s Lake.
How to catch them: Brook trout are one of the most colorful fish in Idaho. Their backs are a dark blue or green with wormlike patterns, their sides are covered in colorful spots and their bellies are orange, with orange or red fins edged by thick bands of black and white. In most habitats, brookies are abundant and easily caught on small nymphs and dry flies, tiny spinners or live worms. They are great table fare, but 10-12 inches is about as big as they come. Fortunately, brook trout bag limits are usually larger and separate from other trout species in Idaho, so keeping a stringer full isn’t a problem. A brookie stream is a great place to get kids interested in fishing, as action tends to be fast and furious.
Useful tip: Brook trout are sometimes considered a bait-stealing nuisance by fishermen targeting bigger species. But at Henry’s Lake in eastern Idaho, brookies regularly reach 2 pounds or more. The state record is a 7-pound Henry’s Lake beauty, and anglers catch brookies in the 20-inch range every year.
Where to catch them: Payette Lake, Warm Lake, Palisades Reservoir, Bear Lake.
How to catch them: Mackinaws, also known as lake trout, are actually char, like brook trout. But unlike brookies, mackinaws reach massive sizes. Fish in the 10-to-20 pound range are fairly common, and the Idaho record weighed 57 pounds. Mackinaws are only found in a handful of Idaho lakes, and they prefer cold water, so they hang out in the deepest, coolest water they can find during the summer months. Deep trolling or jigging with spoons, tubes, flukes and other minnow-imitating lures — or dead fish — are the best ways to catch lake trout in the summer. Trolling or casting to shallower depths will work in the spring and fall, and anglers also can jig for mackinaws through the ice.
Useful tip: Mackinaws feed almost exclusively on smaller fish like perch, chubs, suckers and other trout. Most mackinaw anglers swear by lures in silver and blue combinations, and some anglers like to tip their jigs with a minnow or chunk of sucker meat. A fish finder also is key for gauging depth and seeing where fish are holding.
Where to catch them: Lucky Peak/Arrowrock Reservoir, Deadwood Reservoir, Anderson Ranch Reservoir.
How to catch them: Kokanee are a popular species of landlocked salmon found in lakes and reservoirs. Most fish are in the 10-to-14-inch range, but kokanee are great eating and fishing for them is fun and relaxing. Almost all kokanee fishing is done by trolling from a boat using downriggers or leaded line. Most anglers use trolling “pop gear,” a long contraption featuring multiple spinning blades. Wedding rings or small jigs are tied to the end of the line, often tipped with bait like shrimp, corn or salmon eggs. In the fall, adult kokanee turn bright red and journey up small inlet streams to spawn. The fish are beautiful, but difficult to catch as they stop feeding and focus on completing their life cycle. Patient, savvy anglers can catch red-phase kokanee using bright spinners, spoons, streamers or salmon eggs.
Useful tip: Silver-phase kokanee salmon have notoriously soft mouths. A light hook set is required to avoid ripping the hook out, and a skilled net person will help avoid heartbreak at the edge of the boat. When netting kokanee (or any fish, for that matter), the key is to keep the net out of the water until the fish is near the surface. Then, net the fish head-first using a quick but controlled stabbing motion.
Where to catch them: Salmon River, Clearwater River, Snake River, Boise River (planted).
How to catch them: Chinook salmon are an awesome, majestic and powerful fish. We are truly lucky to have a native population in Idaho, not to mention the stocked salmon Fish & Game adds to the run. Fishing for chinooks requires a salmon permit, barbless hooks and adherence to special seasons and rules. During summer and fall, adult chinooks return from the ocean to Idaho rivers, where they spawn and complete their life cycles. Anglers can take advantage of this unique opportunity to pursue fish that are regularly in the 10-to-15-pound range and can reach 30 pounds or more! Wild fish, marked by an unclipped adipose fin, must be released. Chinook are notoriously finicky, and catching one usually requires hundreds of casts. Shiny spoons, brightly colored jigs and yarn, streamers, salmon roe and tuna balls can entice the occasional strike, and then anglers must hang on for dear life. It’s a thrilling fight!
Useful tip: Chinook do go on the bite, but those brief periods of mayhem can be separated by hours of lock-jawed frustration. If the fish aren’t biting, try locating fish by sight and casting shiny, colorful presentations right in front of their noses. Sometimes, repeated annoyance can elicit a reaction from the fish and break the slump.
Where to catch them: Clearwater River, Snake River, Salmon River, Boise River (planted).
How to catch them: Steelhead are giant rainbow trout that return to Idaho to spawn after spending most of their lives in the ocean. The Clearwater, Salmon and Snake Rivers have natural steelhead populations (boosted by hatchery fish), and Fish and Game also stocks several hundred hatchery steelhead in the Boise River to provide a unique urban fishing opportunity. There are both spring and fall seasons for steelhead in Idaho. Specific rules and seasons vary by river, but in general, October and November are the prime fall steelhead months, followed by a secondary spring season from January through April. Wild steelhead must be released, while hatchery fish may be harvested. A special permit and barbless hooks are required to fish for steelhead.
Useful tip: Like salmon, steelhead don’t eat much once they enter the rivers. Catching them requires great patience, and the only way to get better at unlocking their secrets is to gain firsthand experience. It seems every diehard steelhead angler has a favorite method, but some of the most popular include fishing with roe or shrimp under a bobber; brightly colored jigs and yarn that can be fished with or without a bobber; large, brightly colored streamers and nymphs for fly-fishing; or big, wobbly plugs that can be retrieved, trolled from a boat or back-trolled from shore using side planers. Experiment with different methods until you find one that’s most enjoyable and effective.
Where to catch them: Boise River, Snake River, Payette River, Grimes Creek.
How to catch them: Mountain whitefish are a native Idaho game fish with silvery sides, white bellies and pudgy noses. Most anglers seldom target them and some people consider them trash fish, but they actually behave very similarly to trout, feeding on insects, larvae and other small invertebrates. It is illegal to kill whitefish unless you are keeping them — and they are considered good eating, especially when smoked. So if you catch one by accident, catch and release is the way to go. You can catch whitefish using small nymphs, live worms or salmon eggs.
Useful tip: Whitefish do most of their foraging near the bottom of the stream bed. Your best bet for catching one is to find a deep pool and fish along the bottom with a pheasant tail, hare’s ear or prince nymph pattern. Non-fly fishermen can achieve a similar presentation using a small split shot. Bouncing a salmon egg or chunk of night crawler will work, too. Whitefish have smaller mouths than trout, so scale down your presentation.
Where to catch them: Alpine lakes.
How to catch them: Arctic grayling, common in Alaska and northern Canada, are hard to find in Idaho. They are most often found high in Central Idaho’s Sawtooth and White Cloud mountain lakes. Grayling share similar characteristics with trout and whitefish, but they are distinguished by a huge, colorful dorsal fin covered with iridescent spots and patterns. If you find a lake with grayling in it, you are likely to catch one — they are aggressive feeders and will snap up spinners, dry flies, nymphs and bait. Most Idaho grayling are on the smaller side. Anything over 14 inches is noteworthy.
Useful tip: For harvest purposes, grayling are included in an angler’s daily trout limit. Many fishermen prefer to release grayling — their meat is similar to whitefish, which most consider inferior to trout. Grayling are a great “bucket list” fish, though, so be sure to snap a quick photo of your catch with the fish’s dorsal fin on full display.
Where to catch them: Snake River, Payette River, Lucky Peak Reservoir.
How to catch them: Northern pikeminnow are common throughout Idaho. They are considered a nuisance by many anglers, but they are included in the challenge because you’ll likely catch at least one by accident. Pikeminnows are notorious bait stealers who will nab spinners and flies aimed at trout; crankbaits, jigs and live baits intended for bass; and chicken livers, cut bait and stink bait intended for catfish. On the bright side, pikeminnow are decent fighters that can reach sizes of 20 inches or more. They also make good cut bait and garden fertilizer.
Useful tip: If you enjoy catching pikeminnows, Oregon and Washington actually have bounty programs that pay anglers to catch them. This is done to protect trout and salmon populations. There’s no bounty in Idaho, but if you catch a pikeminnow in the Snake River, try cutting it up and sinking a piece to the bottom of an eddy for a big channel catfish.
Where to catch them: Snake River.
How to catch them: White sturgeon are the largest freshwater species in North America. Specimens up to 8 feet in length are fairly common, and big ones can exceed 10 feet and weigh several hundred pounds! Sturgeon cannot be harvested in Idaho, and anglers must follow special rules to fish for them. Heavy tackle, line with at least 50-pound breaking strength, single barbless hooks and sliding sinkers attached with lighter line are required. Circle hooks are recommended. Almost all sturgeon fishing is done using large chunks of bait sunk to the bottom of deep holes. Popular baits include shrimp, squid or pieces of dead herring, pikeminnow or sucker. In spite of their massive size, sturgeon are wild, acrobatic fighters! When you hook a sturgeon, it is illegal to remove it from the water. Jump in alongside your prehistoric catch for a quick photo, help the fish recover and watch it swim off to fight another day.
Useful tip: Sturgeon can be found from the American Falls Dam all the way up stream to the Hells Canyon Dam. The Swan Falls Dam is one local hotspot. If you’re interested in tangling with a 100-pound giant but unable to amass the necessary equipment, try tagging along with an experienced sturgeon angler. There also are several guide services in Hells Canyon that can put you on a sturgeon. Landing one could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience — or it could get you hooked on an entirely new fishing passion.
Where to catch them: Lake Lowell, C. Ben Ross Reservoir, Crane Falls Lake, C.J. Strike Reservoir, Treasure Valley Ponds.
How to catch them: Largemouth bass are America’s most popular game fish. They are an ambush, apex predator that will readily attack a wide range of lures, from deep-running crankbaits and spinnerbaits to soft plastics, jigs and top-water frogs, flies and buzz baits. Fishing for bass is all about finding cover. They love to lurk in the shadows and safety of sunken trees, logs, rocks, underwater vegetation or overhanging bank foliage. Cast your lures toward or into the cover (weedless setups are helpful) and experiment with different colors and styles of lures until you find the bite. Once you figure out what the fish want to eat, they will entertain you for hours on end with their high-flying, head-shaking acrobatics.
Useful tip: In Idaho, bass are relatively slow-growing because of the shorter warm season. Largemouth typically spawn in May or early June, and that’s when you’ll catch many of the biggest fish of the year. Many lakes have special seasons and slot limits in place to protect spawning-sized bass, and it’s always a good idea to release big fish. Pretty much all largemouth bigger than 2 or 3 pounds are females capable of laying thousands of eggs every spring. So when you catch that big, beautiful bucket mouth, take some pictures, get a quick measurement and let her swim off to have her babies.
Where to catch them: Snake River, Payette River, C.J. Strike Reservoir, Lake Lowell, Lake Cascade.
How to catch them: Smallmouth are one of Southwest Idaho’s most abundant species. They dominate the Snake River, including the reservoir systems at Brownlee, Swan Falls and C.J. Strike. Smallies are the ultimate sportfish — aggressive, hard-fighting, high-flying and hearty enough to catch and release many times over. From March to October, anglers can enjoy the sound of smallmouth peeling line off their reels for hours on end using crankbaits, jerk baits, jigs, soft plastics, streamers, leeches, live worms and pretty much anything that looks like a crayfish. When the bite is on, double-digit bass days are common and landing 50 isn’t out of the question. Smallmouth are distinguished from largemouth by their green/bronze coloring, vertical striping and smaller mouths. Some specimens also have red eyes. In Idaho, 12-to-14 inch bass are the norm, and anything over 16 inches is a really nice fish.
Useful tip: Bass are warm-water fish, so they become sluggish during winter. Early spring, however, is one of the best times to catch big bass. Target shallow smallmouth hangouts like rocky points, ledges and outcroppings, and slow your retrieve as much as possible while maintaining your lure’s proper action. If your lure stops, set the hook! The big fish are eager to feed and put on weight for spawning season, but they won’t pack their usual punch until the water warms and their metabolism speeds up.
Where to catch them: Brownlee Reservoir, C.J. Strike Reservoir, Paddock Reservoir, Treasure Valley ponds.
How to catch them: Crappie are a popular, schooling panfish that are fun to catch and delicious to eat. Anglers who locate schools of crappie can catch fish by the dozen using small tube jigs or hair jigs. Many fishermen like to use two jigs at a time. When you hook a fish, let it swim for a few seconds, and a second fish often will grab the second jig for a double-up! Crappie fishing picks up in late winter or early spring and stays steady through summer. Idaho is home to both white and black crappie — they are distinguished by lighter and darker markings. Fish in the 10-inch range are keeper-sized, and anything over 12 inches is a fine catch. Anglers using bass lures or live bait occasionally catch a crappie. If you do, tie on some small jigs and you might be in for an afternoon of non-stop action!
Useful tip: Idaho doesn’t have harvest limits on crappie (or bluegill and perch, for that matter). Panfish are prolific breeders, and most populations are more than sustainable. Crappie fillets are delicious, so by all means, keep a stringer full. But think about releasing the smaller ones, or capping your personal haul at a dozen or so. That way, there will be some fish for the next guy (or for your next outing) and crappie populations will remain strong. Nobody wants to clean 50 fish in one sitting, anyway.
Where to catch them: C.J. Strike Reservoir, Brownlee Reservoir, Halverson Lake, Crane Falls Lake, Treasure Valley ponds.
How to catch them: Bluegill are one of the most enjoyable species to fish for. They are strong fighters, they make great table fare and they usually are pretty easy to catch. Many young anglers have become hooked on fishing at a bluegill pond. The old worm-and-bobber setup was pretty much invented for catching bluegills, and the aggressive little panfish also will attack live crickets, small jigs and crankbaits, top water poppers and a variety of small dry flies, terrestrials and nymphs. Southwest Idaho is loaded with bluegill fisheries, from the big Snake River reservoirs to local ponds and fun day-trip destinations like Crane Falls and Halverson. Even for experienced anglers, a hot day of bluegill fishing is hard to beat.
Useful tip: Small bluegill can be serial bait stealers. If you’re catching lots of small fish and suspect bigger ones are lurking nearby, try upsizing your lures, or fish deeper and closer to cover — that’s where the big ’gills like to hide. When fishing with bait, a quick hookset will avoid having fish swallow the hook. Bluegill are tenacious, so chances are if you miss the initial hookset, they will come back for another bite.
Where to catch them: Crane Falls Lake, Treasure Valley Ponds, C.J. Strike Reservoir.
How to catch them: Pumpkinseed sunfish are very similar to bluegill, and the two species are commonly confused. Pumpkinseed have bright blue, spider web-like markings on their faces and gill plates. Bluegill, on the other hand, have a duller blue, solid coloration near the bottom of the gill plate. Pumpkinseed are brilliantly colored, with greenish-yellow sides and a bright orange belly. They can be distinguished by the bright red spot just behind their gill plates. ’Seeds like to hang out in shallow water near aquatic vegetation, and methods for catching them are virtually identical to fishing for bluegill. Live worms, crickets, small jigs, flies and top-water poppers will do the trick.
Useful tip: Pumpkinseeds and other members of the sunfish family (bluegill, crappie and bass) have a spiny dorsal fin that can deliver a painful spike to unsuspecting anglers. When young fishermen handle pumpkinseeds and other panfish, holding them flat on their sides against the palm will help avoid getting spiked. Or, starting near the head and running a hand gently down the fish’s back toward the tail will pin down the spines and allow for easier hook removal. The spines aren’t poisonous, but it’s a good way to teach youngsters how to gently and properly handle a fish.
Where to catch them: Lake Cascade, C.J. Strike Reservoir, Lake Lowell, Magic Reservoir.
How to catch them: Perch are another panfish that thrive in many Idaho lakes. They are sought after year-round, as anglers pursue them throughout spring, summer and fall as well as through the ice. Perch love live bait, especially worms. They’ll also attack mealworms, cut bait, small crankbaits and plastic jigs. Like most panfish, they hang out in big schools, so if you catch one, anchor up and canvas the surrounding area. In most bodies of water, fish in the 10-to-12-inch range are keepers. The exception is Lake Cascade, which is developing a national reputation for producing jumbo perch in excess of 14 inches. Some of the biggest fish are caught through the ice by jigging small lures tipped with bait.
Useful tip: Perch are aggressive feeders, and they are highly cannibalistic. Many of the top perch crank baits, jigs and ice fishing lures are made to look like a smaller perch. If you run out of bait while perch fishing, using a smaller perch as cut bait will usually keep the good times rolling.
Where to catch them: Oakley Reservoir, Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir, Oneida Lake.
How to catch them: Only three Idaho lakes have walleye populations. Fortunately for Treasure Valley fishermen, the top two options — Oakley Reservoir and Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir — are within range for a day trip. Walleye are relatively large fish known for their scrappy fight and delicious fillets. They’re also a schooling fish — their closest Idaho relative is the perch — so you can catch a pile on a good day. Walleye will take a variety of artificial lures, many of which look similar to bass gear. Crankbaits, grubs, jigs and soft plastic worms are on the list. Many anglers tip their lures with night crawlers, leeches or dead minnows, and some fishermen fish with straight bait, using either a slip sinker or slip bobber setup to get the bait to the desired depth. Trolling also works for walleye.
Useful tip: Walleye have great vision in low-light conditions — their eyes have an eerie, greenish glow in the dark — so dusk, dawn and night are good times to target them. Windy conditions and murky water also are attractive to walleye because their prey items can’t see as well as they do. Experiment with different depths until you find fish. Walleye suspend and hold in certain portions of the water column, so your bait needs to be in the “strike zone” to have success. As a general rule, walleyes prefer rocky or gravel bottoms and will be shallower in spring and fall than they are during the hot summer months.
Where to catch them: Little Payette Lake, Winchester Lake, Lake Cascade, Idaho Panhandle.
How to catch them: Known as “The fish of 10,000 casts,” tiger muskies are a difficult adversary. This is especially true in Idaho, where they are only found in a handful of lakes, and in relatively small numbers. Most Idaho muskies are sterile fish planted by Fish and Game to control panfish populations. Muskies are huge apex predators capable of reaching sizes of 50 inches or more. They are spooky fish that often will lay stalk-still in shallow water, hiding in the weeds and waiting for something to ambush. In addition to smaller fish, muskies will pounce on waterfowl, rodents and frogs. Popular lures include large spoons, jigs, spinners, top-water plugs, jointed crankbaits, jerk baits, swim baits and spinnerbaits. Heavier tackle, a steel leader, long pliers and protective gloves are recommended for tangling with these toothy giants.
Useful tip: When fishing for muskies, wear polarized glasses and pay close attention to your lure. Muskies are so big, you can often see them following your lure, or kicking up a wake as they give chase. If you notice fish following your presentation, but not striking, try varying your retrieve and cadence. Some fish will even follow a lure right up to the boat, but not hit. If that happens, try swooping your bait around in big “figure-eight” loops. Giant muskies often will attack the lure boat-side for a thrilling, adrenaline-charged fight.
Where to catch them: Coeur d’Alene Lake, Hayden Lake, Priest Lake.
How to catch them: Northern pike are similar to tiger muskies, which are actually a hybrid of a pike and a species called muskellunge. You’ll have to travel to find them — the Idaho Panhandle is the only region in the state with pike populations. Catching a pike should prove well worth the journey, though. Pike are large, easily attaining lengths of 30 to 40 inches, and they have a reputation as fierce fighters that aren’t quite as difficult to entice as their larger cousins. Top-water lures such as frogs, buzz baits, jerk baits and walking plugs are popular choices. Fly-fishermen also can target pike using large patterns such as streamers, leeches, woolly buggars and mice.
Useful tip: Spring is the best time to target big pike. Like bass, pike move into shallow water to spawn, putting them within range for shore fishermen. With their greenish sides and chain-link-like markings, pike are masters of camouflage and experts at laying motionless in the weeds. But if you can learn to spot them using polarized glasses, or figure out prime locations where big fish are likely to hide, you can stalk them from a boat, float tube or on foot. Sight-casting toward fish using loud, obnoxious top-water offerings can often elicit an explosive strike. Pike also will take subsurface lures such as crankbaits, spinnerbaits and spoons.
Where to catch them: Snake River, Brownlee Reservoir, Treasure Valley Ponds.
How to catch them: The Snake River system offers world-class fishing for channel cats, which are big, hard-fighting and good for the frying pan. Many anglers don’t fish for cats because they think it requires special tackle, and while a heavier rod and reel combo is recommended for serious catfishing, you easily can catch one on a standard setup. Bait is the go-to offering, as catfish rely upon their keen sense of smell more than other species. Worms, Mormon crickets, chicken livers, cut bait and homemade or store-bought stink bait fished near the bottom usually does the trick. Channel cats aren’t just bottom-feeders, though — they are active hunters and will readily take properly presented crankbaits, jigs or fly patterns resembling minnows, insect larvae or crayfish. The key is to get your presentation in the deep holes and current pockets where catfish hang out.
Useful tip: When handling and cleaning catfish, be mindful of the three sharp, poisonous barbs located on the dorsal and pectoral fins. As far as eating goes, catfish in the 2-to-4 pound range tend to taste much better than the really big ones. And a word to the wise for bait fishermen — catfish are wary and sensitive, so a lot of anglers prefer a slip sinker setup where the line moves freely without dragging the weight. The belief is that if a catfish grabs the bait but feels the extra weight of the sinker, it will often spit the hook before the angler has a chance to set it.
Where to catch them: Snake River, Brownlee Reservoir.
How to catch them: Flathead catfish are much larger and harder to find than channel cats. But the Snake River has a healthy population, and most flatheads seem to be found in the Brownlee Reservoir stretch. Flatheads occasionally will take traditional catfish baits like cut bait and worms, but anglers targeting flatheads usually use different methods. Deep holes with big structure such as boulders, root wads or sunken timber are the best places to look for flatheads. Drifting whole, dead fish like crappie, bluegill, pikeminnows or loaches toward a likely hideout is the best bet — live fish are preferred in many states, but it’s illegal to use them in Idaho. Retrieving deep-diving crankbaits near rocky bottoms also will catch fish. Flathead trips won’t often produce big catch numbers, but specimens in the 15-to-20-pound range are common, and fish exceeding 30 pounds are possible.
Useful tip: Many anglers think of catfish as bottom-feeders that prefer cut bait or stink bait. But catfish actively hunt live fish, crayfish and insects, too. This is especially true of flatheads, which use their huge mouths to chase down and inhale all manner of prey. You’re much more likely to catch flatheads by using an active presentation than by sinking bait to the bottom and letting it sit.
Where to catch them: Snake River, Lake Cascade, Treasure Valley ponds.
How to catch them: Bullheads are the smallest of Idaho’s three catfish species. They are dark brown with a yellowish belly, and most specimens are in the 8-to-12-inch range. Bullheads aren’t commonly targeted by anglers and are most often captured while fishing for channel catfish, bass or perch. Worms, corn, cut bait or a piece of hotdog fished near the bottom are effective baits for catching bullheads. Contrary to popular belief, bullheads are good eating, especially when caught in clean, cold water. Their flesh is similar to other catfish species. Bullheads are found in many local ponds as well as the Snake River. If you find a good bullhead hole, they are relatively easy to catch and make great practice for kids.
Useful tip: Be careful when handling bullheads. Like other catfish species, they have poisonous barbs on their dorsal and pectoral fins. Bullheads also have a habit of crunching down on your fingers if you get too close to their mouths. Also, make sure you leave bullheads where they are supposed to be. In fall 2015, Idaho Fish and Game had to drain and poison Horsethief Reservoir because someone had illegally transported bullheads, which quickly took over the fishery.
Where to catch them: Snake River, Lake Lowell, C.J. Strike Reservoir, Treasure Valley Ponds.
How to catch them: Carp are common in many Idaho waters. For most anglers, they are considered an undesirable catch. But carp are a large, hard-fighting species that are actually quite fun to tangle with. Oftentimes, carp are hooked accidentally by anglers fishing for other species. The best baits for intentionally targeting carp include dough balls, corn and special recipes involving everything from cornmeal to red soda (Google “carp bait” to research the options). Fly fishing for carp also is a hot trend. When carp are feeding in the shallows, stealthy anglers can cast woolly buggars, crayfish patterns and small nymphs right in front of their noses — the fish will suck them in as they fall to the bottom.
Useful tip: Carp are a popular target of bow fishermen because of their abundance and habit of hanging out near the surface. Lake Lowell, in particular, is overpopulated with carp, so it’s a good place to try bow fishing. Remember to aim lower than you think you need to. When you successfully shoot a fish, humanely kill it, but don’t toss it back in the water to rot. Anglers are responsible for properly disposing of fish they shoot, and carp make for good garden fertilizer or cut bait. Some folks even like to eat them.