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Deep Winter Chrome

John Kopy holding a 41″, 18-something pound hen steelhead caught in the Salmon River

Seen from I-81, the Salmon River looks too shallow and fast for an average boater to pay it any mind. But in the eyes of a steelheader, especially this time of year, it’s heavenly; just the right speed and depth to float a driftboat.

You see, the river’s base flow in itself is enough to carry the thing. Kick in the run-off we’re getting and the stream turns into the ideal habitat for the fine art of back-trolling. One of the most effective ways to catch steelhead, the technique involves drifting downstream, dropping a couple lines rigged with lures like Kwik Fish, Hot N Tots, Hot Shots and Rapalas off the back of the boat, and gently rowing against the current just enough for the flow to give the lures some action.

“This way you cover the entire stretch of water. Better still, you’re over the fish constantly,” claims John Kopy, a local guide who has back-trolled clients to monster steelies from here to Alaska.

It’s about the most environmentally-friendly way you can fish for these chrome beauties. The only sound you hear is the gentle tapping of the oars on the water, the waves slapping the belly of the boat. Since resident wildlife don’t have any predators that attack from the water, the critters stand there undisturbed, watching as you float by. And although you’re moving at a pretty good clip, the sight, through leafless trees, of the last vestiges of snow and ice being swept off the countryside is mesmerizing to the point of mild intoxication.

Before you can indulge too deeply in the reverie however, Kopy reads something in an approaching rapid and instructs you to reel in or release some line, to raise or lower the lure respectively. Then you sit back and continue communing with nature.

Before long, a steelhead will hit, shaking you back to the thrilling reality at hand. It reacts to the cold steel piercing its mouth like someone struck a match under its anal fin. Next thing you know, it’s heading in one direction, you’re going in the other, and all the while Kopy’s watching to determine if he should keep rowing or drop anchor and land the fish.

There are a lot of different ways to catch steelies at the end of winter but none is so peaceful. Back-trolling down a speeding stream is the perfect send-off for the year’s quietest season.

And if you release the fish, it’ll go away, and maybe come back again next year…a little bigger and a whole lot smarter.