BOISE, Idaho — Fall fishing in Southwest Idaho is too good to ignore.
The weather is cool, the cottonwoods and aspens turn gold, and the fish are biting.
The summer crowds have gone away, and you’re likely to find a good campsite at your favorite campground near a river or reservoir. You also get those extra hours of sleep before sunrise.
There’s a surprising variety of fish still available, from bluegill in ponds to the big Pacific-powered salmon and steelhead returning from their long stay in the ocean.
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Here are some places to check out:
DUCK VALLEY INDIAN RESERVATION
This place is a favorite for anglers during spring but sometimes overlooked in the fall.
Don’t miss it. The trout had all summer to grow, and many are in the 15- to 20-inch range.
The Shoshone Paiute Tribe restocks the reservoir with lots of pan-sized rainbows in the fall, so there are lots of fish available.
You have the choice of three reservoirs: Mountain View, Sheep Creek and Lake Billy Shaw.
Spend some time learning any of them, and chances are good you will land some big trout.
If you’re a catch-and-release angler, Billy Shaw is the place to be, especially in a solo boat because it’s easily accessible with fins or oars.
Mountain View is popular with boat and shore anglers, and also has RV plug-ins for those chilly nights, which are likely because the reservation is above 5,000 feet elevation.
If it’s October, it’s steelhead season on the Salmon River.
The run this year is tracking slightly below the 10-year average, but more fish have crossed Lower Granite Dam than at this time last year.
Better still, there’s an unusually large number of fish returning that have spent 2 years in the ocean, so you can expect to see more steelhead in the 8- to 10-pound range this year.
The Riggins and Whitebird areas are popular with anglers, and you will see lots of jetboaters and driftboaters jockeying for their favorite holes.
The river is at or near its lower flows of the year, which means waders can cover a surprising amount of water.
Steelhead tend to be mobile during fall, so the river changes daily as new fish move in and others move farther upstream.
Because water conditions are usually favorable, fish can be aggressive and are excellent fighters when hooked.
Pull plugs like Hotshots, Hot-n-Tots and Wiggle Worts. Most anglers have their favorite colors, but dark metallic hues are tried and true.
If you’re a shore angler, swing flies through riffles. If you prefer conventional gear over flies, spinners and spoons will also catch fish.
This river has many stretches that are different in quarry and character, so let’s start with Southwest Idaho.
Bass in the Snake River keep feeding long after the casual summer anglers have given up fishing for them.
Talk to the bass anglers who seek those big, paddle-blade sized fish, and they will tell you fall is among the best times to catch them. Heck, I even see a few die-hards out there during winter.
Next would be Hells Canyon. This is jetboat territory, except for some shore angling near Hells Canyon Dam.
This fall the canyon will have steelhead and fall chinook, and that’s an exciting combination.
You can catch both with plugs, but those chinook are going to be deeper than the steelhead. Fall chinook is a relatively new fishery, so it might pay to experiment a little.
Finally, the Snake River at Lewiston is a longer drive and a much different experience than Hells Canyon.
You can camp at Hells Gate State Park on the outskirts of Lewiston and have full hookups and showers, and a restaurant is a short drive away.
You don’t have rapids to contend with, so your boat options are much more open, and there are many outfitters who offer trips for anglers. You also have the Clearwater nearby as another option for steelhead.
BIG WOOD/SILVER CREEK
These two teetered on the brink of inclusion, but there’s something irresistible about them for fall fishing.
The Big Wood is a classic mountain stream. Small enough to wade, usually clear, plenty of trout and regular insect hatches.
Unlike nearby Silver Creek, the trout aren’t as savvy and don’t require as much stealth and perfect presentation.
You may get away with a basic caddis pattern, or a parachute Adams on the Big Wood. A zebra midge will almost always get a strike if you work the riffles and pocket water. And I don’t mean just dab the fly in a few times and move on, but really work the water.
The Big Wood requires some patience this year, because rainstorms muddy the river, and it may take a few days for it to clear. But the good news is the fires and murky water haven’t affected trout populations.
Fish and Game officials surveyed three sections of the river during summer and found plenty of healthy trout.
Then there’s the legendary Silver Creek. There’s no doubt the trout are there. Stand on Kilpatrick Bridge or look into Sullivan Slough from the road above, and you can see them.
Getting them to hit a fly is another matter. It’s not impossible. People catch them all the time, which means these trout have been tempted by all kinds of feathery creations, so don’t expect them to slam anything that hits the water.
Bring baetis and mahogany dun imitations.
Fall is when browns get active in both rivers before the spawning season, so you have a chance at some big fish, too.
Use a big streamer, and if you really want a unique fishing experience, skate a mouse imitation across the surface at night. Listen for a splash and hold on tight.
This reservoir can be an enigma, and I don’t use that word lightly.
It’s like a hybrid of a mountain lake and a low-land reservoir.
It’s at 4,800-feet elevation, which is usually trout country. But Idaho Fish and Game lists 12 game fish in the reservoir, including warm water fish, trout and salmon.
Rainbow trout are the marquee fish, but Cascade’s rebounding perch population is starting to elbow its way to the front. F & G biologists estimate there are about a billion perch in the lake (all sizes), and it produced three last winter that topped a previous 38-year-old state record.
The reservoir also regularly produces smallmouth bass in the 5-pound range.
All good, right?
Well, the riddle of Cascade is the fish can go AWOL to anglers at times. It often takes a little experience to consistently catch fish there.
But fall is a good time. The smallmouths haven’t headed into hibernation, the perch are active and the big rainbows cruise the shorelines searching for a meal.
On the right day, a worm and marshmallow or Powerbait fished from shore can get you a stringer of fish big enough to fill a smoker or a shelf in the freezer.
So no guarantees, but hit it on a sunny fall day and you can have great fishing, and if nothing else, great scenery, comfortable camping at state parks and all the amenities of towns nearby.
C.J. STRIKE RESERVOIR
This reservoir is like the flip side of Lake Cascade. It’s low elevation (2,450-feet), and F & G lists more than 20 varieties of fish there.
Warm water fish get the most attention, typically smallmouth bass, crappie and perch are the favorite targets of anglers.
Idaho Power aggressively stocks trout there, so as water cools, they move into the shallows and cruise near the surface so trollers and shore anglers can get them.
That cooler water doesn’t just benefit trout. Layers of warm and cool water break down during fall, and the fish can thrive at all depths, so they return to the food-rich shallow water they avoided during summer.
You can have some lights-out smallmouth fishing in rocky areas. Tournament bass angler Randy Starr of Boise recommends plastics used with Carolina or Texas rigs, or crankbaits that imitate bait fish. Fish the edge of flats or the mouth of creeks.
If you have a boat with a fish finder, pinpoint schools of other fish, jigs and curly tail grubs will catch crappie, and perch will usually fall for a good ol’ fashion worm, then many perch anglers use cutbait from their first one.
There’s also lots of shore access on the south side of the reservoir.
Part of the fun of C.J. Strike is you might catch a palm-sized crappie, or a 9-foot sturgeon. You just never know.