Fishing for Steelhead on the lower Imnaha River

If you haven’t been to the Imnaha River, it is a smallish river in northeast Oregon.  Although the river can run quite high in spring and early summer, during the fall steelhead season the river is usually somewhere between 100-200 cfs.  It is fairly long at 65 miles and is a designated wild and scenic river along its entire length.  This late summer/early fall I have made four trips to it in search of steelhead. 

Imnaha River

The Imnaha River is only open for steelhead fishing from the town of Imnaha down stream.  Searching for steelhead in September, you are really looking at the bottom five miles of river before it runs into the Snake.  In October you can probably find some steelhead anywhere along the bottom 20 miles of river.  The road follows the Imnaha River downstream until you get to Cow Creek Bridge, 5 miles from the mouth.  The last 13 miles or so of this road is called Dug Bar road and it is rough and slow.  It is not a maintained road and it will take you an hour to drive the rough and bumpy 13 miles.  Although high clearance is not a necessity, good tires are.  The road is often only wide enough for one vehicle and you end up backing down the road to a wide spot to let other vehicles by.  Once you get to Cow Creek Bridge, there is a good trail that follows the Imnaha for the last 5 miles to the Snake River.

The first trip over this year was at the beginning of September with the family.  It was the weekend of September 11 and 12.  I did not know whether there would be steelhead in it yet or not.  The earliest I fished it last year for steelhead was the first weekend in October.  But I thought it would be worth trying out since the weather had cooled off.  I would not recommend camping on the lower river when it’s hot unless you like to do a lot of sweating.  We found the parking area at the bridge uncrowded, probably the only time of year you will find it that way.

We fished the Imnaha River for two days.  The first day we fished the upper 2 ½ miles of river catching many small rainbows, a couple of smaller bull trout, and one smallmouth bass.  It wasn’t until the end of the day that we spotted one steelhead holding deep under the current of a big pool.  As I began to try and drift my flies through the run, a pair of otters appeared and the fish disappeared.

The second day we decided to hike to the mouth.  We fished a little in the Snake itself and fished our way back upstream.  Some of the deep pools and runs did hold steelhead and I ended up hooking three steelhead and finally getting one wild fish landed.  The greatest part about catching steelhead this time of year is how acrobatic they are.  Long runs and big leaps seem to be the rule rather than the exception this time of year.

My second fishing trip to the Imnaha River this year was September 19th.  I spent a day and a half hiking into Joseph Creek and then hiked out Saturday night so I could drive several hours to fish the Imnaha on Sunday.  This time I hiked about 4 miles downstream and then started fishing my way back.  Again there were not big numbers of fish in the river.  I did spot 3 steelhead as I was walking.  One of these fish was holding behind a large boulder in shallow water.  As I watched him he rose to the surface and inhaled a small fly.  I did not catch him or the other two fish that I had seen.  I thought that I was going to go home without catching one steelhead.  But about half a mile below the bridge I finally hooked and landed one wild steelhead.

Earlier in the day I caught a smallmouth bass out of a boulder run and the next cast after that I caught a bull trout.  It seemed strange to me to catch a warmwater fish and then in the next cast, catch a char who typically likes really cold water.  They both were caught on the same fly as well, it seems that they both like eating small baitfish patterns.

This was also the trip that ended my Jeep Cherokee’s exploring career.  On the drive over Saturday night I heard a loud thunk when I went over a bad pothole.  It startled me and I tensed up waiting for something to go wrong.  I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for.  A tire to fall off or something.  But the Jeep just kept going.  I didn’t think much more of it until I tried to shift into reverse at the parking area.  My shifter seemed to be much farther to the right and I had to push the plastic housing over to get it far enough to go into reverse.  I was a bit worried, but I wasn’t going to sit there and simply wait for an unlikely rescue.

The Jeep drove pretty normally until I got to the highway between the town of Imnaha and Joseph.  Now the only problem was getting the shifter far enough to the right to get it into 5th gear.  I could get it with enough pushing and I made it home.  The next morning I examined the Jeep in the daylight and found that the three motor mount bolts on the passenger side had sheared off in the engine block.  I was hoping that I could drill out the bolts and get a screw extractor in them to turn them out.  But the only way you are going to get a drill on them is to pull the engine out.  My Jeep has 253,000 miles on it and driving it with the motor tilted also broke my exhaust manifold.  Unless I change my mind, it is going into retirement.

My third trip to the Imnaha River was again a split weekend with Joseph Creek occupying my time on Saturday.  I did a day hike in and out of Joseph Creek one day and then drove the several hours in the dark to the Imnaha.  When I drove my Jeep in the past I simply laid down the backseat and slept in the back.  With my pickup, the night looked clear so I just threw an air mattress in the back and slept under the stars.  And what another brilliant night it was for stargazing.  The night before I had slept on the rim of Joseph Canyon and had the best stargazing of my life.

Each weekend there seems to be a few more fish in the Imnaha.  This was now October 3 and I fished all morning only finding one steelhead willing to come to the fly.   Around 1:30 in the afternoon the canyon filled in with clouds and it began to rain a little.  In the next hour of fishing I hooked 6 steelhead.  My question afterwards was whether it was the change to a stonefly nymph, the rain, or the section of water that I fished that made for the spectactular hour of fishing?  My landing average was about as bad as it ever has been though and I only landed a few wild steelhead.

I was able to sneak away for a two and a half day weekend October 8-10.  I arrived to the river late afternoon and began fishing immediately.  The weekend before the steelhead I did land were all on Barr’s Flashback Tungstone.  I also had many fish simply get off as well and I suspected it was the small hook gap and long hook shank of the fly I was using.  So I tied up half a dozen flies on a shorter stronger hook with a larger hook gap.  I also simplified the pattern a little taking out a few steps and materials that did not seem necessary.  I also changed out the hackle legs for rubber legs.  The changes seemed to do the trick.  Friday I hooked into six steelhead in about 2 hours and landed 4 of them.  The flashback pattern seemed to be popular once again.

Steelhead are one of the most perplexing fish to catch for me.  I would guess that they are perplexing to many others as well judging by the huge number of steelhead patterns out there that look like nothing in particular.  Since the fish are migrating upstream with spawning in late winter as their primary objective, feeding becomes a secondary activity.  This is what has given rise to the huge numbers of steelhead patterns that look like nothing in the natural world.  Some days they feed aggressively while other days you are simply practicing your casting skills and enjoying a walk along the river since you aren’t catching fish.

What I do think I know about steelhead is that rain is good.  If I can fish during or right after a rain, I feel confident that the steelhead fishing will be good.  When I had my good couple of hours fishing on Friday it was not raining, but it had been raining most of the morning.

One of the most entertaining things to listen to are peoples theories about catching steelhead.  At the end of a day fishing the Imnaha I always talk to the various anglers who are back at their vehicles (and if you fish the Imnaha after October 1st plan on sharing it with many other anglers willing to drive the rough Dug Bar Rd.).  Every one has a theory on what color of fly, jig, or spinner will catch wild fish vs. hatchery fish, steelhead on a cold day vs. a warm day, steelhead on a cloudy day vs. a sunny day, steelhead in the morning vs. the evening, etc., etc.  The only thing I really know is that I don’t really know why steelhead will take certain flies on certain days and not on others.  So I try to keep it simple.  I fish trout patterns that I catch fish on throughout the year.  I simply tie the flies on heavier hooks.

Imnaha Photoset


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One Response to Fishing for Steelhead on the lower Imnaha River

  1. Robin says:

    Great article. Thank You.

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