BOISE, Idaho — If you think fall is time to trade the fishing rod for a gun, you’re missing out on some great fishing.
Fall is a transitional time, and you never know what kind of weather you might get. It might be 70 degrees one day and snowing the next, or vice versa.
But fish know winter is coming, so they tend to feed aggressively, especially when the water temperatures drop back into the 60-degree range, which all fish seem to love.
You also have the salmon and steelhead returning from the ocean to give you an opportunity for some really big fish, as well as a nice fillet for the grill or broiler.
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Even so-called warm water fish are available for the taking in rivers and reservoirs, so don’t let a little rain or frost stop you from making another fishing trip. Here are some places to go.
The Snake is Southwest Idaho’s most overlooked river. It has ridiculous bass and catfish populations and a few surprises, like sturgeon and trout.
The river offers good-to-excellent bass fishing that will extend well into the fall.
“I think we’re at the start of some great late-season smallie fishing,” said Dave Gourley. He’s been fishing the river all summer and taking big smallmouth bass.
The Snake rewards those who adapt to different seasons. The river can be weedy after the hot summer, but the bass are still there.
Smallmouths like current and rocks, and where you find those things, you will often find fish. But the key is to always keep searching until you hook a fish. Then you will usually catch several because they tend to be in schools.
Boat fishing is typically the best option for the Snake, but there’s a lot of bank access and good fishing from Swan Falls Dam downstream.
It’s difficult to talk about the Snake without including its reservoirs because there’s a chain of them all through the system.
Although much of the fish are of the “warm water” variety, don’t take that too literally. Bass, crappie and perch are caught nearly year-round.
SOUTH FORK OF THE SNAKE RIVER
This Eastern Idaho river has an entirely different character in the fall.
It’s fished mostly from boats during spring and summer because of higher flows for irrigation, which makes wading difficult.
But when flows decrease in the fall, waders return to take advantage of the excellent cutthroat, rainbow and brown trout fishing.
“It’s a lot more accessible for wading fishermen, and you can almost always float the South Fork,” said Jonathan Lancaster, head of outfitting for Natural Retreats, which owns South Fork Lodge at Swan Valley.
You can also still fish the river from a boat; just allow much longer to get between launches because the river is flowing much slower.
Fall brings abundant blue-wing olive and mahogany dun hatches, and fly anglers also entice the river’s brown trout with streamers.
The South Fork is an easy road trip because it’s freeway most of the way, and there are cool campgrounds along the river. Just expect cold weather because the river is at about 5,000-foot elevation and at the base of the Tetons. You will also get some amazing scenery when the cottonwoods and aspens turn gold and the Tetons get a dusting of snow.
The South Fork is a big river and can be intimidating, but guided trips are available. “We will do guided trips year-round if people want to go,” Lancaster said.
This may be one of those years that’s talked about for years to come. A big fall chinook run is heading into Idaho, and it will give anglers a shot at those big fish fresh from the ocean.
Fall chinook are different from their spring cousins. Springers make their way upstream into tributaries to spawn.
Fall chinook spawn in the main rivers, so they’re not going to come to you — you have to go to them.
Nearly all the fishing will take place in the Snake River from the Lewiston area up to Hells Canyon Dam. A small section of the Clearwater near the Snake is also open for chinook fishing.
Fall chinook are also different from springers because they spend a short time in freshwater before spawning, so their quality for eating can drop off fast. It’s best to fish them lower in the river system, which puts you around Lewiston.
Anglers fish for fall chinook the same as spring chinook, typically pulling large plugs such as Kwikfish and often wrapped with a herring fillet.
You also have the Clearwater for steelhead fishing and the river’s famed “B“-run fish that are nearly as large as chinook.
DUCK VALLEY INDIAN RESERVATION
The three reservoirs on the reservation — Mountain View, Billy Shaw and Sheep Creek — are often overlooked because people think of them as spring fisheries.
But the trout are still there, and the tribe’s fisheries managers have been working to reduce the weed growth during summer.
That means the fish are more accessible to anglers during summer than fall.
Trolling, bank fishing with bait and fly-fishing are all good ways to fish, but Billy Shaw is restricted to fly-fishing only.
All three lakes are owned and operated by the Shoshone Paiute Tribe, so make sure you buy your tribal license before fishing. They’re available on the reservation at Our Store and also at the Fishin’ Hole in Bruneau.
If you want to take fish home, stick to Mountain View and Sheep Creek reservoirs because you can keep five fish per day, but only one between 16 and 19 inches from Billy Shaw.
Fishing season ends Oct. 31 at Billy Shaw and Sheep Creek, but Mountain View is open year-round.
Don’t fool yourself. Fishing season doesn’t end with the first dusting of snow in the mountains. You can still catch a lot of fish there.
McCall and Stanley are the most popular destinations for mountain lakes, so let’s do this prizefight style.
In this corner, we have McCall. It has lots of mountain lakes you can drive to or within a short hike. Hit the Goose Lake Road, aka the road to Brundage Mountain, and you can drive to several of them — including Brundage Reservoir, Goose Lake, Granite Lake, Hazard Lake — and hike to several others. As a bonus, you’re a short drive to the Salmon River and Little Salmon River for steelhead.
In the opposing corner is Stanley, which also has lots of lakes you can drive to, including Redfish, Stanley, Pettit and Alturas lakes. Unlike McCall’s lakes that are accessed by miles of washboard gravel roads, most around Stanley are accessible by paved roads or with short sections of gravel.
There’s also the Upper Salmon River available for trout anglers, as well as several other streams nearby.
You can expect frosty mornings in the mountains during October, and snowstorms are common, but fishing remains good.