Spring on the Salmon River. Life, once paralyzed by winter's grip, slowly emerges. The frozen banks of the river give way to warmer water, as blankets of snow recede from the sagebrush hills, revealing new forage for famished wildlife. Amidst the rebirth, another journey is nearing its end. The determined steelhead trout make their final push up the Salmon River, past the sleepy town of Stanley, and onto their final destination; a chance to spawn, either artificially at the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, or in the wild watershed of central Idaho. These fish have made an incredible journey. Beginning in the upper end of the Salmon River in the Sawtooth Basin, the young smolts migrate tail first to Pacific Ocean. Here, they will spend 1-3 years feeding, growing, and reaching maturity, returning to their place of birth and ultimately their death. As the steelhead move from salt water back into fresh water, they stop feeding, losing 30-50% of their body weight along their migration. The adult fish will swim over 900 miles, through 8 dams, on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers, winding their way through the swift, untamed waters of the Salmon River, evading predators and hopeful anglers along the banks of the river. After spawning in the gravel and cobble of the Idaho streams steelhead quickly succumb to the magnitude of their travels, exhausted. Rejoice! As steelhead and other anadromous fish complete their long journey they bring with them important trace minerals and nutrients from the ocean that bring new life to the plants and animals of the Sawtooth Valley.
Anglers have been targeting these ocean-running trout since early fall in the lower portions of their migration, but the opportunity doesn't arrive until March and April on the upper salmon in the heart of Idaho. That means cold austere conditions for the steelhead fisherman. It takes a special breed to wade into the Salmon this time of year, but there's something equally special when landing one of these challenging fish in the company of snow capped peaks.
It's no mystery when the fish have arrived, as hook slinging fisherman follow closely behind. Catching one of these fish is not an easy task. Many will wait hours, most will wait days, and some will simply go home empty handed. But, whether streaming streamers, bobbing bobbers, or spinning spinners, the sole objective is not fish in the frying pan, but the experience and challenge of fishing the famed River of No Return.
For those unfamiliar with spring on the Salmon River, there are days one could not ask for a better remedy to cabin fever. The warm golden light shimmers on the river, winding down the canyon; bugs hop and skip across the water; dippers and mergansers frolic in the current, feasting on aquatic insects; eagles and osprey perch, waiting for an opportunity at a meal. Other days, the relentless grip of winter tightens, snow drifts up from below your feet, and the water turns to a cold, gray abyss. These are the days we lament crawling from our warm trucks, away from our hot coffee, to the icy river banks. It's all in the game of steelhead fishing. Like an ancient ritual, come rain or shine, the show must go on.
Even if the fish aren't biting, warm lodge rooms are waiting. Local restaurants are serving up hot eats and cold drinks. Spring has arrived in Stanley and the river is bustling with activity once again. Come get your feet wet and don’t miss this magical time of year in the Sawtooths! For lodging information click here, looking for places to eat while you're here check out these restaurants.