B-Run Steelhead on the South Fork Clearwater

8 March 2007 By Dan Bachman • Day-Spent-Fishing • Comments (13)

South Fork Clearwater River A good amount of my time each summer as a Boy Scout was spent at a certain alpine lake in Northern Utah. When the other scouts and I were not rolling boulders into the lake or earning merit badges, we were fishing. Using good ole plastic worms and a spin cast setup, our Scoutmaster would yell ‘SHAMU’ each time he would hook into a fish and after reeling in he would hold up the 6 or 7 inch monster trout. Funny as it was back then, calling a fish Shamu never seemed more appropriate than it did on steelhead caught this past weekend on the South Fork of the Clearwater near Grangeville, Idaho.

B-run steelhead of the Clearwater river are notorious for their tremendous size. Aside from the Skeena river system in British Columbia, few steelhead match the size of Clearwater B-runs in North America.

Friday morning at first light finds me driving to a spot scoped out on last year’s trip. Getting there early is key, if I want a shot at the hole. The thermometer on my car reads 14 degrees. Spin-cast fisherman have already lined up along some of the deeper channel sections of the river while driving the final miles to the spot.

Frigid morning on the South Fork Clearwater Not a soul is in sight from where I stand in knee-high water. A convoy of slush and ice continues unending in the river before me. My finger tips tingle on the verge of the coming pain and the air breathed in bites my lungs. What am I doing here? This is nuts. If I were skiing right now, I would still be in the lodge until the mercury hit at least the mid-twenties. But I have my spot.

Casting over the next couple hours becomes an exercise in frustration. Getting the steelhead fly to land in liquid water rather than on ice or on a floatilla of slush is tricky. Line continually hangs up on the frozen stuff. And while ice freezing on the ferrules is old hat for me, ice building up on my leader is something new. I’ve never had this happen. After a dozen or so casts the ice builds up enough that my rod feels as if I am using a limp noodle to toss the fly. Pinching the line between my fingers, I strip the ice beads, cast some more and repeat.

George Withey from Montana leans against a B-run hog Finally retreating to the warmth of my car, I decide to wait out the cold. The last of the slush and ice disappear in the early afternoon and downstream from my earlier fishing hole I notice several fly anglers fishing a run against a cliff bank. From my distant viewpoint I can see that one of the fisherman is hooked onto something that is putting a good bend on his rod. Maybe 20 minutes go by before he nets what I would later find out was a 39 inch steelhead.

Five minutes later I am standing with rod in hand in the only remaining slot against the cliff bank and talking to three guys from Montana. Before cold and darkness push us from the river, six more steelhead are landed. But yours truly ends up with only a couple pulls and nothing landed.

Saturday turns out to be downright balmy compared to Friday. Temperatures are well above freezing and there is no sight of ice or slush anywhere on the water when arriving shortly after dawn. The same Montana crowd has already landed a couple steelhead before I’m rigged up and in the water. Comparing my setup up to a couple of the guys, I decide to add more weight to get the line and flies to sink faster and stay on the bottom. The payoff comes a couple of casts later.

My line hesitates and then stops. What looks to be a snag then begins to move slowly upstream at first and when I set the hook, line runs straight up the current, sounding like an out-of-tune violin. I’m attached by a thin fly line to the back of a freight train. A quick adjustment to my drag keeps me tight to the powerful fish. The fight is on. For the first minute, line only leaves my reel. Not until a downstream run am I able to briefly retrieve.

A steelhead named Shamu The steelhead hunkers down in the deepest section of the river across from me and won’t be moved. Thoughts of popping the line or straightening the hook keep me from pulling harder against my pole. Minutes pass before stepping downstream to get a better angle to turn the head of the fish. This only serves to anger the attachment to my fly. Strong runs one after another are broken up by furious winding of line. Six or maybe seven runs test my pole and reel.

My first look at the fish comes when it’s massive head sprays water from shallow side of boulder protruding in a riffle. On the final run, this time downcurrent, streaks of red and pink show through the water. The current moves the steelhead directly below me. My arms have begun to ache from the constant pull as one of my new found fishing buddies slips a net under the fish.

Wrapping my hand around the broad tail and lifting the massive wild trout from the water shows a spectacular specimen. Perfect fins all around. A bright white mouth gleaming against the darkly colored head. Pink stripes the sides and gill plates. Admiring my catch for longer than I should yet not long enough, I slip the beast back into the dark, cold water. The dark outline disappears against the shapes of the river bottom.



  1. 8 March 2007 yokoyam3

    Nice fish! I have not experienced the B-run fish at Clearwater. I have to try it out sometime soon!

  2. 8 March 2007 Fish Bum

    WOW! What a catch!

    Also… you paint an excellent picture with your text. Very well written.

  3. 9 March 2007 krafty

    What a wonderful catch – I enjoyed the account too.

    As an aside, I wonder if you could tell me what the most central location is that you get steelhead – for instance, do you get them in the Dakotas or Nebraska?

  4. 9 March 2007 Dan Bachman

    Krafty-I think the closest thing to the middle of the country would be around the great lakes. They have steelhead runs in many of the rivers that dump into the great lakes.

  5. 9 March 2007 Krafty

    Somewhere in Winsconsin maybe… I guess rivers in states like the Dakotas drain into the Mississippi if they manage to make it that far. And you don’t get Steelhead in the Mississippi – just Asian Carp!?

  6. 14 March 2007 FishBiscuit

    B-Run on the clearwater is getting popular with those Montanans. I bet I have fished with the same three, or three that look just like them. One fish is a bummer though, we were there the week before and nailed them. Ah, the fickle steelhead B-Run: can’t plan for it, can’t miss a chance either.

  7. 14 March 2007 Dan Bachman

    FishBiscuit-I caught several more later on the second day, but the first was the biggest and the prettiest.

  8. 14 March 2007 Randy

    B runs Ahhh!
    Hooked my first ones last year on the Clearwater.
    With any luck i’ll be headed back at the end of the month.
    Gotta love the shock you feel on that first run.

  9. 15 March 2007 FishBiscuit

    Good for you, they are so fun to fight, just one would be a tragendy. We are heading up for a four day adventure this week, we hope to return with full coolers and tired arms.

  10. 16 March 2007 mark

    Yet to fish the B run, but I’ve fished lake run steelhead and salmon in Michigan. Krafty, to answer your question, most of the rivers that flow into the great lakes (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota) get salmon and steelhead runs. Depending on the river, you may get both fall and spring runs for steelhead. Salmon run september through early october.

    Before the first time I went salmon fishing, my friend said the best way to approximate the experience was to tie my line to the bumper of his truck and let him take off. I soon learned why we needed a net so big that I could fit in the basket.

  11. 18 March 2007 Nelson Santos

    Excelent website design.

  12. 27 March 2007 FishBiscuit

    Well, the B run is over. Unless you know where to fish, it is really finished as of last weekend. Too bad, its about a month too early.

  13. 29 March 2007 Jason

    I’ve heard the river level has risen substantially as well this past week. When does steelhead fishing season end? I’m purchasing an 8wt outfit over the course of the next couple weeks in preparation for an Alaska trip in June, and would like to start getting into steelheading as well.

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