Monday, January 10, 2011

Two Days In Idaho | Anglers You Are in Bull Trout Country!

Here is a short story I wrote after a visit to Idaho in the summer of 2007.

It’s 6am and I’m jolted awake by vintage Rolling Stones blaring from the next room from a record player. My buddy, Erik, sneaks into my room to place a steaming cup of java on the night stand and urges me to not waste any more time sleeping when big fish await. I have my first cocktail flu in a long time but it doesn’t slow me down. I roll out of bed into the cool July air near Sandpoint, Idaho. Through the window, the early morning light reflects like a mirror off Lake Pond Oreille, one of the deepest lakes in the world. Though the lake beckoned in the distance, our destination was a local, hidden fishing hole.

This vacation wasn’t designed as a fishing trip. My wife had intended to visit family and friends out west, with some fishing thrown in to appease me. Since I didn’t know where or when I would fish, or what species I would target, I brought a 7’ 5wt rod, and a 9’ 6wt rod, one large arbor reel with 6wt line, a box of miscellaneous flies intended for stream and lake fish, and some spools of Berkley vanish for tippet attached to my lanyard. I was completely unprepared.

We loaded up my fishing gear in Erik’s 1960s-era pumpkin orange Dodge Power Wagon. This leaded-gas guzzling beast had no interior decor, save for a spare bench hastily screwed into the wooden floor that morning, and no amenities. With much coughing and sputtering, the engine finally turned over, and we were off.
 A moose we almost hit.

We creaked and jostled 20 snaking miles into the national forest, on unpaved fire roads, and seemingly no shock absorbers, feeling not unlike ice cubes in a pumpkin orange cocktail shaker. It was impossible to figure out where we where, as the road endlessly switch backed into the wilderness. That and Erik’s wife used the topo map as a makeshift cushion, which prevented Erik from ever referring to it.

After about an hour of hairpin twists and turns, Erik and the wives finally dropped me off on a dusty turn out where an old campfire was my only indication that others had ever made it this far. Their plan was to drive back up the dirt road to the next turn out, park, and walk downstream to meet me, as I headed upstream. Erik promised some beautiful waterfalls and to be prepared to catch a lot of fish. He wouldn’t tell me where I was either to protect the stream. Those were his last words as I set off.

I strung up my 7’ 5wt with the large arbor reel. As the wheezing of the truck’s engine faded, I began to hear the sound of rushing water. I suddenly felt like one of those Discovery channel guys, getting dropped off in the wilderness and having to rely on my wits to get out alive. So I did what they always advise, and let the sound of the water be my guide.

Following a steep, dirt pathway through the overgrowth ringing the campsite, I parted branches and wildflowers and entered the frigid water. My first impression of this stream was of its similarities to my home streams in the Shenandoah National Park (SNP); small pocket water, long pools, boulders, and overhanging branches. The only immediate difference was the lack of suffocating humidity. The bank was carpeted with wildflowers. Wasps, beetles, bees, and butterflies buzzed loudly through the air as they flitted from flower to flower, gorging themselves on nectar and pollen.

Without a vest, my foam box had to be wedged deep in my pants pocket for safekeeping. I took it out and inspected my various flies with a good idea of the stream’s adjacent insect population. Like a beacon, a small terrestrial stood out from the rest. This nameless fly is “buggy” and quite simple. It has the silhouette of a plethora of aerial arthropods. My pattern is a ¾ inch strip of craft foam. Black on bottom with yellow on top. Two sets of black round rubber legs per side tied in ¼ of the way in from the ends on either side. It had a nice outline of the wasps along the bank. It was perfect. This pattern had not failed me in the summer months through several different states that I have fished. I smashed the barb, tied it on, and cast to a small pocket behind a moderate sized boulder. I saw a shadow and a splash. I set the hook. I skated a tiny 6” cutthroat across the current and released him after a quick photo. This is the second part of dissimilarity between wherever I was in Idaho and Virginia. No cutts in the Old Dominion.

I worked my way upstream, casting behind and along boulders, along seams, and in deep riffles. I caught trout after trout, ultimately losing count. The perfect little speckled gems averaged 5-9 inches. I wish I had my noodley 3wt rod and a tiny reel like I fish in the SNP. My 5wt has too much backbone for this type of fishing.

The weather was perfect. What a day so far. I was alone, with no sign of anyone else around for miles. It would have been nice to have my fishing buddy Tom with me. He constantly out fishes me so I’m his net and cameraman. I supply the flies since my impressionistic ones always out fish his Rembrandt-like realistic ones. We alternate pools in water like this and snap each others photos when a fish is landed. This time, I had each pool to myself.

The water and fishing remained the same for about an hour or so. Then I arrived at the first set of waterfalls. Sitting on the bank to observe, there was a 3 foot fall with a deep plunge pool, forming a run with steep walls on either side.

 View from upstream
The walls were about rod length apart and continued for a several feet. This section emptied into a broad tail out about fifteen feet wide and waist deep. The left bank was shaded by pines and the right was open to the sun. The right wall was exposed and had a shallow stillwater pool behind it. A trout rose on the far bank just where the walls ended, making me salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

I waded into the tail out and began false casting perpendicular to the current and threw the fly right up into the run, the seams, everywhere. The foam bug which caught plenty of fish downstream did nothing for me here. Nothing! I took out a spool of 6x tippet and tied dropper after dropper: pheasant tail (Tom’s go-to nymph), caddis, stone, brassie. No luck. How could I have caught so many fish early with one cast per pool and now I’m getting skunked? What was I missing?

Time to re-assess. Dries and droppers didn’t work. Hmm…falls, plunge pool, deep water. Eureka! Big, heavy streamer time. I niped off my dry and dropper and stuck them into my meager selection of flies buried in my pocket. I took out my favorite streamer. It’s like Erik’s truck: big and loud. Long hook wrapped in wire, tungsten head, peacock estaz body, zonker tail, and thick, webby cocktail hackle. Did I mention rubber legs tied in at the cone? It’s a massive streamer with a massive success rate. I tied it on with a loop knot, smash the barb and move in.

I’m now standing on a large boulder where the wall opens up. I cast into the waterfall and let it sink, strip, tip shake, strip, tip shake till the fly is at my feet. Next I throw against the wall, strip, tip, strip, tip, to my feet. The fly is closing in at my feet and I feel a tug. The hook is set and the game is on. The fish emerges from along the boulder and I see a huge cottonmouth on a fish. The brightest white mouth I have ever seen in the water. The fish is at my feet when it spits back the hook. Nothing I had caught or seen in the stream so far was this big. Adrenaline is coursing through my veins and tunnel vision narrows my line of sight to only the stream.

How did I lose that fish? Would my wife believe me? Where is Tom when I need him? If I was steelheading in New York, my friend Joe would let out a string of colorful expletives at me like he does every time I lose a fish.

I take deep breathes, gather myself, and get back to fishing. Nothing. The giant fish probably has a sore mouth and is hiding or knows I’m here and won’t bite. Or worse, all of the above.

I move from the boulder into the sunny side and climb up the wall. Its tough going, rod in my mouth, fingers scrabbling for anything to grip. I make it to the top, and look down into the run. The water is dark on all sides and turquoise in the middle with foam and bubbles under the falls.

This vantage point yields a whole new perspective compared to my previous location. I look around and see nothing moving in the water. I’m reminded of those magic eye posters that require intense focus before your eyes pick up on the details within. At first I see nothing and all of a sudden there he is, against the far wall, parallel to the rocks and in the current. But wait there’s more, another fish in front of him. I cast and let the fly sink along the far wall, strip, strip and whump! First cast is a charm. The fish is on, but he darts into a confined space, deep into the water by the falls. I can’t land him up here. I hold my short rod up and painfully slide down the rock face on my side. He’s still on. I can’t see the water because the rocks are in the way. I reach my rod arm up so the line won’t shred on the rocks. He pulls out line. I’m on the move and I’ve got him, the hook is surely set. I don’t know what I have on but it’s massive. We are both fighting for our lives. Up and down the pool he goes, from falls to tail out. I’m in the sunny shallow and my forearm is on fire. The rod is bent like a horseshoe and doesn’t have the back bone for this fish. I wish for my beefy 6wt that was left sitting in the truck.

I don’t know how long we’ve been at it. Up and down the pools and runs this fish swims with no sign of yielding. Time for a change of plan. I begin to back up, there is a shallow pool I think I can bring him to. Tom where are you with that net? I didn’t have room to pack my net. Crap. Tom would have had his small catch and release net and it wouldn’t have worked anyway. I’d need his canoe net.

The fish seems to sense I have a history of losing big fish like this. He’s giving me the middle fin. I can’t get him to hand, I have no net and he won’t budge to be pulled into the shallows. This seems to go on forever. Finally, we fight until he yields just enough that I can beach him on the rocky shore. I shout, scream, and do a little dance. I drop my rod next to him and snap a few pictures. The fish measures reel seat to first stripping guide, fat as a football, and eyes as big as those of my schnauzer. His belly is a whitish cream, marble size spots along his side, and a mouth bigger than my fist. I later find out it’s a bull trout Salvelinus confluentus. I make sure to capitalize the first letter in genus and lowercase in species, and italicize as my Ichthyology professor in college stressed. I’ve caught big fish before but never a bull trout and never in a stream this small. I was ecstatic.

I had a flashback to my AEG Trout Bum Diaries Volume 1 when the guy is solo fishing for sea run browns and how he filmed himself with his trophy. I set my camera to movie mode, placed it on the rock in front of me, and began filming. I took a short film holding the trout to the camera first lengthwise then pointing the fish to the camera. The final shot is me holding the fish as I walk him to the water. I hold him up for the camera one last time and dip him back in the drink. He’s back in and breathing. I stabilize him and run to shut the movie off.

The fish and I stand there in the current, looking upstream. I walk us deeper into the current. The water is frigid. My knees begin to numb, my muscles tighten. Forearms and wrists no longer have any feeling. The fish is just idling in the current with my left hand behind his pectoral fins and other around his tail. I can’t get over how large and beautiful are the qualities of this fish. He moves his tail as if to say he wants to go. I know after that fight, more time is needed for recovery. Too much lactic acid has built up, this fish could be a floater and that would ruin both our days and break laws. I alternate hands. One to hold the tail, the other to defrost in the warm Idaho air. Minutes pass and I feel his strength return as his body begins to undulate in the water.

Ten minutes later his fins perk up and tail pulses, head moving side to side. My hands open, the fish glides deeper next to a rock. He sat there for twenty more minutes while I returned to work the pool for more fish. I continue to fish and have a few smaller fish chase my streamer but I catch nothing. It’s now 1:50 and the big guy moved to another rock a little up stream and then cruises back to the pool where it was hooked.

No one is there to share one of my greatest fishing accomplishments. I wish my wife and friends had come down the mountain to see me and my ear to ear smile.

I climb the rock wall adjacent to the falls. Once I’m on top of the falls, I look back on the spot where I had just spent an hour. Upstream is all shallow, I nip off my streamer and replace with my foam bug. I worked my way upstream and caught several delicate and beautiful cutthroats on the terrestrial. I cast to a bulge of water just right of a large boulder, I see a shadow and splash and as I set the hook on a cut I heard “Bob!” from the forested banks of the stream. (She is the only one who refers to me as Bob.) I couldn’t see where it came from but knew I had finally been found. My wife was a sight for sore eyes, bearing water and snacks. Erik asked how I had done and I said I could retire from fishing with the day I had just experienced. And it would only get better.

While the hikers sat and refueled, I continued to fish. I had taken my time fishing up stream and thus they had to walk farther to find me. My audience watched as I moved up another set of waterfalls.
Deeper water meant streamer time. I tied on my streamer, pointed my rod tip to the corner of the pool and said “that’s where I want my fly to land.” First cast was to the left. Second cast was worse. Third was a bulls eye and on the second strip I had on a 17” bull trout.

I pulled another bull trout out of the plunge pool and broke a third off. I moved up stream and around a bend, while everyone else remained to bask in the sun on the warm rocks.

I came to another large set of falls with what appeared to be a bottomless pool, followed by riffles and a broad pool with a steep wall on either side. I moved in and crouched along the pool and worked my streamer from riffles down into the broad pool. The fish were there and aggressive.
I landed several more, lost an equal amount, and broke one off. I had now just one streamer left and another day on my license. The hikers were all beat up from bushwhacking through the stream and they were fighting a fierce case of the beer tooth from Erik’s kegerator.

I called it a day and we climbed out of the canyon and hiked up to the car. After sandwiches at the truck, we piled back in for the bone-jarring ride back to civilization. I was looking forward to a cold beer from Erik’s kegerator.

We spent the next day on the lake. Everyone took turns tubing and wake boarding. I sat back and basked in the sun. I had my adrenaline rush yesterday and was content to take in the beauty that is Idaho.


FYI for your next visit. It is illegal to remove a bull trout from the water in Idaho, even temporarily, even just for a picture.

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