On the morning of October 6, an angler from McCall, Idaho hooked into a giant steelhead trout while swinging a two-handed spey rod in the Gem State’s legendary Clearwater River. After what he described as an unforgettable battle, Kyriacos Panayiotou netted the wild steelhead, measured it with a flexible tape at a whopping 41 inches, took a few photos, and returned it to the river. Late last week, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) declared the fish a new catch-and-release state record.

According to IDFG Clearwater Fisheries Manager Joe DuPont, steelhead the size of Panayiotou’s are an extremely rare sight in Idaho, even for the biologists who have monitored hundreds of thousands of the migrating fish as they negotiate a nearby dam on the Lower Snake River. “Since we have all the trapping data from Lower Granite Dam, we have a good sense of the size distribution of Idaho steelhead,” he said in an October 27 press release issued by IDFG. “In a typical year, the number of steelhead in the 40-inch range is less than 1% of the run.” 

When DuPont scoured the data from more than 260,000 steelhead trapped at the dam, he only found records of four fish the same size or longer than Panayiotou’s. According to IDFG, wild steelhead must travel nearly 400 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River to reach the fish traps on the Lower Granite Dam. “After reaching Lower Granite Dam, these fish must swim up a fish ladder and migrate an additional 32 river miles before making it to Idaho at the confluence of the Clearwater River and Snake River,” writes IDFG, in a post about the dam on its website.

Panayiotou said he had more than 120 feet of floating spey line on the surface when the record-breaking fish engulfed his fly. “At around 30 degrees of a swing, this beautiful wild steelhead buck boiled to the surface and grabbed the fly with authority,” the angler recalled in the IDFG press release. “The vintage Hardy Perfect reel could do nothing in slowing down this fish… it’s something that I’ll never forget.” 

Anglers use a variety of methods to pursue steelhead on the Clearwater. Matt Hosking, who caught the Idaho state-record coho salmon on the Clearwater on October 24, told F&S that he catches them during the fall run using spinning tackle and deep-diving Mag Lips. Traditional fly fishing for steelhead is more common in the spring, while long-distance spey casting can be effective during fall when fish congregate in hard-to-reach slack water or deep holes on the far end of a run.

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Steelhead are type of rainbow trout that inhabit both fresh and salt water. According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Adiminstration (NOAA), they grow considerably larger than rainbows that remain in fresh water year round. “They return to freshwater to spawn,” NOAA states on it website. “Steelhead trout are vulnerable to many stressors and threats including blocked access to spawning grounds and habitat degradation caused by dams and culverts.”