During late summer the Clearwater River becomes a cold water sanctuary for steelhead trying escape the warm waters of the Snake. When the snow pack is good and the Dworshak reservoir is full, the tail-water dam puts our cold water all summer long. Steelhead returning to the Snake, Ronde, and Clearwater duck into the lower Clearwater, in catchable numbers, as early as July. On normal years you can expect flows throughout the summer to be around 20,000 cfs and dropping to 3,000-4,000 cfs by October.This period, where the water is dropping and becomes stable is the best time to hit the Clearwater River.
The fish on the Clearwater are very surface oriented this time of year. Most anglers do best with small traditional style flies fished on a full floating line. Many of the fish on the Clearwater River take the fly very light, so mistaking steelhead for “trout hits” or “whitefish hits” happens often. However, with this in mind, some of the larger fish in the system will absolutely crush a swung fly. When fishing the Clearwater I primarily use three color choices of flies all tied the same way. The fish seem to be very sensitive to light variations when presenting flies on or near the surface. I mainly fish small intruder style flies, about 2 inches in length. Black/Chartreuse, Purple/Chartreuse, and Red/Orange/Black are my main choices. I like gamakatsu hooks in size 4 and 2 for stingers, and all my flies have a little bit of weight to keep them off the surface when I swing.
My favorite set-up for the Clearwater River is a Loop Goran Anderrson 6120-4 with a 390grain, Scandi Compact line. I then add a clear 10’ floating poly leader and 15# fluorocarbon off the of the poly leader. I find this rod covers water very effectively and efficiently on the Clearwater.
In regards to presentation, I find that fly turn is important. Many hits, roughly 50%, come just when the fly begins to turn into the swing. I find many anglers quarter their casts too far downstream, at roughly a 45 degree angle. I find, for the Clearwater, casting out more towards a 70-80 degree seems to be very effective. This allows my fly to sink 1-2 feet then swing up to the surface. During that initial swing-up and fly turn, I get lots of hits.
There are a few magic times on the Clearwater where anglers can catch several fish a day and making a plan on hitting the Clearwater during these times is the key to success. For the most of August and the beginning of September, the Clearwater River gets returns of their 2-salt fish or “A-runs.” Then once into September and October the 3-4 salt fish return which are what most anglers chase. These fish are called “B-runs.” Most of these fish hang out in the same water and hit the same flies. This time of year the Clearwater is a unique and magical place like none other.