This fall the headline grabber is a rare opening for Snake and Clearwater river fall Chinook that overlaps the September return of summer steelhead in the Lewiston, Idaho/Clarkston, Washington reach of the river.



Adam Hocking and Michelle Peters connected with this Chinook at the Snake-Clearwater confluence. Steel Dreams Guide Service image.


The word came down from Boise like a blessing from the Tri-State Fish Gods. Enough wild and hatchery fall Chinook were being counted at lower Columbia and Snake river dams on their iconic 465-mile slog uphill from the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon to allow simultaneous sportfishing for fall kings and steelhead in the Clearwater River and at the gates of hell on the Snake.

Hells Canyon that is; the powerful, rugged cliff-lined corridor where Washington, Idaho and Oregon are divided by the deepest river gorge in North America and 652,488 acres of nearly roadless National Recreation Area—most of it prime water for salmon, steelhead, white sturgeon, catfish and smallmouth bass.

This fall the headline grabber is a rare opening for Snake and Clearwater river fall Chinook that overlaps the September return of summer steelhead in the Lewiston, Idaho/Clarkston, Washington reach of the river.

The nearly simultaneous arrivals of fall Chinook and sum-mer steelhead in the typically flat water between Lewiston and Clarkston brings both species within reach of anadromous-hungry anglers limited to fishing from banks or boats not suited for the infamous white water boils, chutes and rollers in Hells Canyon.


Julie Cassell displays a bright fall king from the Lewis-Clark valley. Snake Dancer Excursions image.


The number of fish this year in both the salmon and steelhead runs is well short of strong, admits IDFG fish managers, but solid enough to support the rare sport-fishing opening with a three salmon daily limit that can include hatchery and wild Chinook and A and B run steelhead.

Triggering the mixer is a surge of 18,150 fall Chinook over Lower Granite Dam below Lewiston/Clarkston. The salmon are rolling in at the same time that an estimated 18,000+ A-run Idaho steelhead and several thousand more summer steelhead from Washington’s Grande Ronde and Oregon’s Imnaha rivers hit the Lewiston/Clarkston area. The steelhead return is a far cry from the 60,000 that made fishing headlines back in 2011. But with multiple runs of salmon and steelhead piling into the Snake/Clearwater basin at about the same time the mid to late September action could be memorable extending from the waterfronts in Lewiston and Clarkston deep upriver into Hells Canyon.



Kicking the September/October boom up a notch is an experimental 4-day a week catch-and-eat fall Chinook fishery in an uber popular catch-and-release steelhead section of Idaho’s Clearwater River above Memorial Bridge. For years this catch-and-release steelhead water has been attracting steelhead fly fishermen from across the country and mixing it with catch-and-eat salmon anglers is a test of both groups. It’s only the second time in history this salmon fishery has been opened. The first was a stumbled effort last year. IDFG says the experiment is to determine if a catch-and-eat fall Chinook fishery can “mesh” with the popular Clearwater steelhead catch-and-release fishery.


Swinging flies on the famous Clearwater. IDFG Roger Philips image.


Last year the experiment was scratched early to protect an unexpectedly low steelhead return. This year’s the experiment is schedule to close Oct. 31 – if not earlier.

What’s it like to fish the experimental Chinook fishery?

Toby Wyatt of Reel Time Fishing, http://reeltimefishing.com was there last year on the historic first-ever salmon opener and as he describes it, “We had a blast catching these fish. Our guides use light-gear, mostly side drifting bait in the slower, deep pools. It was not uncommon for our boats last year to hook 20+ fish a day, with a good share of the fish weighing in the high-teens and into the 20+ pound range. With a better run expected this year we expect the same, if not better fishing.”


A beautiful example of a great Clearwater steelhead.


That kind of salmon action with the option of combining the regional fish trip with summer steelhead, plus sturgeon that are measured by the yard, schools of predatory smallmouth bass and the 68 miles of designated wild and scenic whitewater between the spectacularly rugged walls in Hells Canyon will attract anglers from just about everywhere.

This August, while fishing in Hells Canyon for sturgeon and smallmouth with guide/boatman Clayton Waller of Snake Dancer Excursions, https://snakedancerexcursions.com I asked about the upcoming Chinook/steelhead overlap. He grinned. A lot. His style of fishing depends… if it’s steelhead or Chinook at the top of the priority list and where he’s fishing. Like most of the licensed guides in this area, Clayton is quick to change-out locations, gear and techniques to match the situation and maximize the action.

The lower Clearwater from the mouth to Memorial Bridge is open every day
of the week and you can expect it to be exceptionally popular with bank and boat fishermen, swinging flies, bobbering baits (primarily cured salmon eggs, shrimp) and trolling plugs and spinners. The mainstem Snake River, especially the salmon holding water below the Clearwater River is best fished from boats, but opportunities exist to bank fish both sides of the big river.


In Idaho fall Chinook are unique and managed separately and the majority of hatchery fall Chinook released in the Snake River basin are not marked with a clipped adipose fin but, a high proportion are adipose-intact kings are hatchery fish.


The rare overlapping arrivals of fall Chinook and steelhead, according to IDFG regional biologist Joe DuPont should hit the Lewiston-Clarkston area in mid-September. He expects to see fishing pressure for the salmon and steelhead to be initially concentrated in the Snake below the Clearwater where the migration pauses to soak up the colder water. When water temperatures in the Snake start to drop the steelhead will steadily move upriver—into the Clearwater or further up the Snake to Heller Bar at the mouth of the Grande Ronde, and by the end of September-first week in October there will be a slug of A-run steelhead in Hells Canyon at the mouth of the Salmon and Imnaha rivers.



No rush—these upriver steelhead will be around deep into November, DuPont points out. Of the three tributaries Washington’s Grande Ronde is the most accessible with road access, especially for bank fishermen. Big water boats are needed to reach the lower Salmon and mouth of the Imnaha. For the boatless professional guides with big water jet boats are available. A large WDFW access below the mouth of the Grande Ronde at Heller Bar is very popular with bank fishermen throw-ing both conventional gear and fly fishers swinging long lines.

Downriver, in the Lewiston/Clarkston reach it is a boat, bank, fly and convention-al show. Plugs, salmon egg/shrimp baits, side drifting, bobber fishing—if a steelhead or salmon can be caught on something, you’ll see that something straining water in the Lewis and Clark Valley, according to Michelle Peters, president of Visit Lewis and Clark Valley www.visitlcvalley.com.


Bright fall Chinook from the Clearwater River. Reel Time Fishing image.


IDFG’s DuPont says he expects the average two salt kings to weigh around 12 pounds in the L/C reach. Three ocean Chinook will be in the 18-pound range with some pushing 20. A-run steelhead average 5-7 pounds, 2 salt A-runs 8 to 12 pounds and a very few three-ocean fish that go from 13 to 20 pounds.

He expects about one third of the fall Chinook this year to be unclipped wild fish, but notes that in Idaho and Washington it will be legal keep a three-Chinook limit that includes one wild salmon. Possession limit is 9. He also points out that after the nearly 500-mile upriver swim the Chinook are nearly ready to spawn when they hit the L/C area and the quality of their meat fades fast. If you want a Chinook for the table, fish early and often DuPont advises. Later in the season fish salmon for the fight and the smoker.

The steelhead runs are divided 50-50 hatchery and unclipped, he said, but while unmarked and marked chinook are legal, only marked steelhead are legal to bonk and eat. Both Washington and Idaho were debating the steelhead regulations as
this article was being written. Check the agency websites for current regulations. WDFW (https://fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules) and Idaho (idfg.idaho.gov/region/Clearwater).

Of the fish returning, managers are forecasting 11,560 hatchery Chinook and 6,590 natural origin. In Idaho fall Chinook are unique and managed separately and the majority of hatchery fall Chinook released in the Snake River basin are not marked with a clipped adipose fin but, a high proportion are adipose-intact kings are hatchery fish.

The rare unclipped catch-and-keep regulation was approved after a joint fisheries management plan from Idaho, Oregon and Washington was approved by the federal government in 2019.

Based on that plan and the forecasted run sizes for 2020, the harvest share for Idaho’s fall chinook season will be about 1,400 adipose-intact and 1,700 adipose clipped adult chinook. Around half of the harvest will be salmon destined for the Snake and Salmon rivers, and the other half to the Clearwater River.


Toby Wyatt with Clearwater bright chromers. Reel Time Fishing image.


Flat water on the wet doorstep of Lewiston and Clarkston at the confluence of the world-class Clearwater and Snake rivers with a rare overlap of fall Chinook with multiple runs of steelhead.

That’s a formula that can produce a fishing heaven even at the gates of hell.


Chinook Openers CHECK 2022 REGS

Clearwater River from mouth to Memorial Bridge – open 7 days per week. Clearwater River from Memorial Bridge upstream to the confluence of the Middle Fork Clearwater and South Fork Clearwater rivers – 4 days per week, Thursday through Sunday. North Fork Clearwater River – Chinook open 4 days per week, Thursday through Sunday. Snake River and Salmon River – Fall Chinook open 7 days.

Chinook Closures CHECK 2022 REGS

Clearwater River – mouth to the Middle Fork Clearwater, South Fork and North Fork Clearwater From mouth upstream to Dworshak Dam closes Oct. 18. Salmon River – mouth upstream to the Twin Bridges boat ramp and Snake River – from the Washington/Idaho border upriver to Hells Canyon Dam closes
Oct. 31.

—This article is an excerpt from October-November 2020 STS. Salmon returns are above the 10 year average for 2022!

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please subscribe today to Salmon Trout Steelheader magazine and support STS and this website!

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.