Saturday, April 29, 2017
My annual, late winter trip to the Clearwater River almost didn't happen in 2017.
"Dude, have you left yet?" I spoke into my phone as Camron picked up.
"Yeah man, just left." Camron responded with excitement.
"Sweeeeet...." I replied hesitantly. I had called Camron last minute to see if he thought we should push our trip back another week due to water conditions. However, now that he had already left his home in Utah, I thought I'd better not bring any of that up. I forced myself to think positively and finished the awkward phone call with, "Makin' memories, 2016!"
Since we began chasing steelhead in Idaho, we've learned that there are several very important factors in consistently catching late winter and spring steelhead. Timing is perhaps the most important and the reason I had almost called off our trip. To understand why timing is so important, you have to understand the nature of steelhead in Idaho.
Many Idaho steelhead enter the Columbia River in late summer and migrate upstream, continuing into Idaho in early fall. Some are here as early as August and others don't arrive until December. Once they enter the Clearwater, Salmon and Snake rivers, they tend to slow down as they get closer to the smaller streams, where they will eventually spawn. As winter approaches and the water cools, they tend to "hunker down" or "hole up" until the water warms or increases in flow.
Towards January and February, many of the steelhead will be staged close to their spawning rivers or their spawning grounds, simply waiting for the water to reach ideal levels for traveling. Typically this means a substantial increase in flow. Many steelhead will rush up the smaller tributaries like the Little Salmon River when flows increase. When flows drop again, the fish will either hole up or boogey back downstream into larger, deeper water. I call these, transitional steelhead. They will "flirt" with these streams until April, when they will spawn. April steelhead are spawning steelhead.
The prime time to target transitional steelhead on a fly rod is in the late winter and spring when these fish enter the smaller streams. The higher water pushes them in and it's when the flows start dropping back down that fishing becomes insane! The flows become better for fly fishing and water clears to that magic "steelhead green" color. When you hit it just right, it can be downright awesome. Many of these same rules apply to spawning steelhead; clear water equals better fishing in general. The extent of my knowledge pertains to transitional steelhead and will be my focus in this blog.
"Do you think the water will be too off color?" Camron asked, as we left my house in the dark and began our drive North.
"Hard to say, but if we can figure out how to catch fish at these higher flows, then we should be able to catch fish anytime." I replied with confidence.
The flows were significantly higher than "ideal", but were forecasted to drop based on the cool, dry weather coming. If flows dropped 200-300, I knew we would hammer the fish.
When we arrived on the river, we were pleasantly surprised to find the flows and the clarity to be better than we expected.
"This doesn't look that bad. I bet visibility is 2 feet." Camron said, rubbernecking as we drove down the river.
"Yeah, we'll catch fish. I have no doubt." I replied, practically squirming in my seat like a kid on his way to Disney Land.
We selected our spot, parked, rigged up and began walking up to the hole.
Camron and I got into position and began casting.
"Fish on!" Camron said, startling me as I intently watched my indicator at the end of a long drift.
"Nice! That didn't take you long." I said, as his steelhead came thrashing to the surface.
After a decent battle, I scooped the fish into the net and we were on the board. With an enthusiastic flop, the steelhead slipped back into the river before we could get a picture.
It didn't take Camron long before he was hooked into another. However, this one shook the hook before we could net it. We fished this spot a couple more hours before we decided to move downstream.
Our optimism was off the charts as we pulled up at one of our favorite holes and no one was there. The water was pretty dirty with maybe 1 foot visibility, but we knew exactly where the fish lay. It only took a few casts and Camron was into a fish.
That afternoon we hooked into numerous fish but only landed a few. Despite the higher flows and cloudier water we had caught fish. It made us realize how important the higher water had been in filling the river with fish. We had caught fish because we knew where the fish were. Now that the flows were starting to drop, the clarity would start to improve. We knew the next couple days would only get better.
We started the next day at a different location, crossing the river to ensure we'd have some water to ourselves. The locals had pointed out a small run that they'd seen fly fisherman auto-load steelhead in. I figured I'd start there and give Camron the prime water below. I fished my area for a while before giving up and heading back down to where I'd caught fish in the past.
"Cam, maybe you should try that area up there. The locals say it's dynamite, but I can't figure out how to fish it." I exclaimed in defeat.
"I'll try it out." Camron said, reeling in his line and exiting the water.
About a half hour later, I heard Camron say the magic words.
I ran up to him with the net just in time for his fish to pop off.
"Get another one!" I said, as I threw the net down and walked back downstream.
"Fish on!" I heard Camron say, just as I began to walk into the water and begin casting.
I chuckled out loud as I waded back to the shore and made my way up to Camron.
We netted his fish, took a picture and released it. I began walking back downstream and didn't even make it to my fly rod before I heard Camron again.
I walked back up to him and helped net his fish.
"Ok, we're taking turns. Move over." I said, as I grabbed my rod and weaseled my way into his honey hole.
"That's fine. Dude, I think I figured this spot out." Camron said with a big smile.
"You think?!" I chuckled back as Camron and I compared the depth of our indicators.
"Cast up there and let it drift down next to the rock. They're stacked in there."
My indicator took a plunge right where it should. "Fish on!"
The power of this fish was impressive. I imagined a 45 inch wild buck as it began to release it's fury and take me downstream. I followed the fish into some deeper, slower water where it only showed me my strike indicator twice before my line went slack and the fish was gone. I wanted to throw my rod down and quit, but only for about 2 seconds until I realized there were many more fish waiting to be caught.
Camron was into the next fish.
We put on a clinic that morning, hooking and landing numerous fish. At one point, we even had a double! I had given up on that spot and Camron hadn't, teaching me a valuable lesson. He took the time to figure out the topography of the hole and as a result we hammered the fish. If you have confidence in a spot, take the time to study the dynamics and topography of the river bottom and you will catch more fish.
By 3 pm, it seemed we had exhausted the honey hole, so we decided to finish the day at a different location. By now the clarity had improved to around 3 feet. The pretzel hole was close by and always good for a fish or two. As we pulled up we noticed that the run down below, which was always occupied with people, was vacant.
"Hey, I might try that water down below the pretzel hole. Might as well fish it since no one is there." I said, as I grabbed my rod and sling pack.
"Ok cool, I'll fish the tail-out here." Camron replied, unloading the net.
The pretzel hole was a deep, sandy hole bordered by a steep rock ledge that rose nearly 20 feet. It narrowed and surged through a tight but deep gap full of large, submerged boulders. After that, the river widened and slowed to form a perfect, brisk walking speed run bordered by soft, but deep edges. Fish could be lurking anywhere in here. It was time to prospect for steelhead and map out a new run. I started in close, working the inside seam and slowly casting further out. The run was mostly a consistent depth of 5-6 feet with only a couple of rocks throughout. Halfway across the river, my indicator took a dive just past a submerged rock. I heaved back on the rod and felt the slow head pulses of a steelhead. Camron reeled in his line, grabbed the net and walked up the steep bank to the road. He ran 100 yards down the road and then descended the steep bank behind me. We netted the fish and shot a picture.
"We're tied up now for the day. That was your 3rd, and I caught 3 at the first spot this morning. I'll leave the net here with you." Camron said, as he turned around and climbed back up to the road.
"Ok, hopefully you'll need it next." I replied, pulling line out of my reel to proceed fishing.
A few minutes later, the small upstream figure, know as Camron, was back in position casting. I looked up just in time to see him set the hook. Rock or fish? His body position was one of excitement and his line appeared to be pulling away from him. Fish. I grabbed the net and made my way up to him. We netted his fish, shot a picture and released it.
"Ok, you're on top now with 4! The net is staying with you." I said, challengingly.
I dropped the net and made my way back down to my spot. With the fly rod back in my hands I decided to work some of the pocket water at the top of the run. The current was very funky and it was hard to get a dragless drift. Current lines shot in different directions and at different speeds, pulling my line this way and that. To combat this, I perched myself atop an odd shaped boulder to ensure good line mending abilities. My indicator drifted next to a refrigerator sized boulder and sunk below the surface. I set the hook, felt the slight give of a fish's mouth, and then felt nothing. Strange, that had to be a fish. I spent the next 15 minutes trying to duplicate that drift. When I finally did, I was rewarded with a fish. No doubt the same one that had grabbed prior. Camron came running down with the net.
"I guess we're tied up again!" Camron said, hoisting my steelhead up in the net.
"Your turn! Leave the net here with me. This is great!" I said, releasing the fish and proceeding to cast.
The sun was getting close to setting and closing out a very fishy day. I made my last cast and was reeling in my line when I looked up to see Camron hooked up again. I gathered everything together, including the net, and made my way up to Camron.
"You just had to get one more fish!" I shouted from the road as I approached.
"Sorry." Camron chuckled, heaving the fish close to the net.
We netted his fish and released it. What a day! 9 steelhead landed.
We decided to start the next morning at the same location as the previous. We crossed the river and began fishing "the bucket" as we began to call it. The morning was cold, forcing us to take frequent breaks and short walks to warm up our feet.
It wasn't until about 9 am when the sun finally poked it's warm self out from the clouds. No one around had even touched or seen a fish. As far as we could tell, our "bucket" was only full of water.
"Sun's out gun's out!" Camron said, coming back from a short walk. "Get your line in the water."
It was true. In the past we'd had remarkable fishing coinciding with sunshine, and since, we always made it a point to fish hard when the sun was out. The sun's rays felt great as we worked the water, renewing our optimism.
"Fish on!" I said, as my snag came to life and began pulling back.
"It's that sun!" Cam said, grabbing the net.
After a great battle, we scooped the fish into the net.
We released the fish and looked downstream to see a guy hooked up, then a fly fisherman upstream of us hooked up.
"Sun's out gun's out!" Camron said, laughing and moving into position to catch a fish himself.
"They really love that sun." I said, sliding in above him and fishing.
"Fish on!" Camron said, smiling.
We landed his fish and sent it back.
I responded next with a fish of my own.
Others downstream and upstream of us were also hooking into fish.
"That sun is magic. It must have just warmed up that water a single degree." I said, just in time for the sun to disappear behind a large cloud.
"There it goes." Camron said with a frown. "It was nice while it lasted".
The action ceased, and after a couple hour lull with no one around into a fish, we decided to try some other water upstream.
Upstream, the river was busy. Cars occupied nearly every pull-out, including the one we wanted, forcing us to try a new location. The new location looked promising, but after an hour without a sighting or tug of a fish, we left to check the availability of our spot. As we approached, we noticed it was unoccupied.
"Just drop me off Cam. We'll do a drive and drop!"
I hopped out of the rig, grabbed a couple rods and hurried into the spot. No one would steal this spot from us!
After parking the vehicle, Camron got into position. We fished hard for several hours with only one hook up. The sun was nearly set when we decided to leave. We didn't have time to fish the next day and we didn't want to pay for another night at the hotel either. So we geared down and drove back to Boise that night.
We learned several key things from this trip:
1) The first was that we could catch fish on this river even at high flows and lower visibility. We just knew where the fish travel and like to lay. Later fishing reports at even higher flows also confirmed this. Identify where steelhead travel and rest, put your hooks in front of them and they will bite!
2) Never give up on a location if you think or know fish are there. There's a chance you're just not putting your hooks in front of them. Camron used his bait caster and bobber without a hook to map out the topography of the bottom so we knew where the fish were. When in doubt, go deeper!
3) The sunlight in late winter and spring can bring magic! A warming of the water by just a degree or two can put lethargic, inactive fish in the biting mood. Sun's out, gun's out!
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Over the last several years, my passion for hunting big game, specifically deer, has intensified immensely. I spend the off season dreaming and planning for the following season, and each year, the time seems to drag on even longer than the previous. Hunting videos on YouTube are about all that get me by. When deer season finally comes, it's gone all too quickly. Wouldn't it be wonderful if October was half the year?
The 2016 season would be especially exciting though. A friend of mine had convinced me to purchase an elk tag for an area he knew well. He would do his best to show me where to go if he couldn't take me himself. It sounded like a winning deal. However, as luck would have it, my friend drew a controlled hunt tag for another area and a large fire burned the area he had planned to send me. So there I was, an elk tag in my wallet that no one else had and a vast expanse of steep, rugged, densely forested mountains in an area of Idaho I wasn't familiar with. Let the research begin!
One of the wonderful things about Idaho is how nice most of the people are. It didn't take long before I had a plan and maps printed out of several areas people had told me to try. Another perk to this elk tag was the ability to hunt deer at the same time as I hunted elk. Elk would be my primary focus, but I wouldn't pass up a nice buck if our paths happen to cross.
September came along and my anticipation was nearly uncontainable. A scouting trip to investigate a suggested area was in order. My scouting trip was very successful and revealed a great number of elk and a few deer.
The only problem was the mountain they called home; steep as they come, thick, no obvious trail and the need for waders to cross a stream. I hiked my butt up 3000 feet to the top of that mountain, but I was not looking forward to harvesting an elk up there and having to pack one out. If I had to do it alone it would nearly kill me. Regardless, the area had promise and it's where I would start my hunt.
My father in law, Rick, would join me on my first hunt. He could hunt deer while I hunted elk. He also knew the area well enough to provide some fresh ideas on alternative places to try. We set camp around noon right at the base of the mountain I had scouted a couple weeks prior. Like a dark, ominous figure cloaked in green and topped with a snowy, white hat, it loomed over us. Rick and I stared at the mountain and then back at each other.
"Let's try some other places first..." Rick said.
"Let's hit this little ridge opposite. I saw some sign over there," I replied and pointed.
Rick agreed, "sounds good to me."
We parked the vehicle off of a dirt road and with rifles in hand and eyes in predator mode, we began hiking to the top of a small, steep and forested ridge. There was fresh sign everywhere; both deer and elk. It didn't take long to reach the top of the ridge. Once on top, we were able to observe both the North and South sides by only taking a few steps from one side to the other. I saw the familiar color of an elk rump up ahead and closer inspection revealed several elk cautiously creeping through the forest on the South side. I motioned to Rick that there were elk up ahead, so we pressed on in true hunt mode. The forest was quite dense and I could only get small glimpses of the animals as they moved along slightly below and ahead of us. If only I could get a better look at them, I thought, as I crouched to see under the canopy of pines.
BOOOOM! Rick's rifle resounded, alerting all creatures to our presence. I spun around to see Rick peering over the North side of the ridge. I ran over to see what he shot. Two medium sized bucks bounded a short distance away and stopped. BOOOOM! Rick shot again and I saw one of them drop but lost sight of the other. I looked intently into the woods, hoping to spot the other deer when I heard Rick.
"I think I got both of them."
"Really?" I responded, wondering momentarily why he would shoot 2 deer. I then remembered that Rick usually purchases a second, non-resident tag. "That's awesome!"
"I guess I got greedy!" Rick chuckled, with wide eyes.
We waited a few minutes before slowly proceeding down the steep, rocky slope.
Sure enough, as we descended closer, I could see 2 downed deer, each at the same elevation and only 30 yards apart. I approached one, and Rick, the other.
"2 point, Rick." I shouted over while checking to make sure the deer had passed.
"4 point. That's funny, they seemed like they were the same size when I shot them." He said, slightly confused.
"Well you didn't waste any time putting some meat down. What are we, one hour into the hunt?" I laughed.
Together we drug each deer to a more convenient location for photographs.
Rick got busy quartering the deer while I took off and hunted the ridge some more. I found several more does but the sensible elk were nowhere to be found. A couple hours later, I met back up with Rick to help pack the quarters out. Luckily, we hadn't gone far from the vehicle and the pack out was quick and easy.
That evening I returned to the same ridge and watched a few areas while the sun set. No ungulates revealed themselves and I returned to camp where Rick had stayed to skin out the heads of the bucks.
The following day we awoke to rain and fresh snow only halfway up the mountain. Rick had an idea to hike up along a gradual creek drainage where he had seen elk and deer in the past. There was fresh snow here and it would make tracking the animals easy. However, after a couple miles up the trail and no tracks, we began to lose confidence.
The snow continued to fall and after another mile with no tracks, we turned around. We spent the rest of the day checking out other areas at slightly lower elevations. I spotted many does but no bucks or elk.
One of the areas seemed to hold some promise for the following day. On the third day, Rick drove me to the end of a dirt road and dropped me off. From there, I planned to ascended to the top of a ridge and follow this ridge down to another area where Rick would be waiting. Dense looking clouds began to roll my direction and I knew rain was imminent. Patchy fog was also cruising the mountain contours, limiting my visibility substantially.
I heard a crash up above me and glimpsed the back half of a cow elk disappear into the forest. That's a good sign. I made it to the top of the ridge and found a "highway" of a game trail beaten into the ground. I followed it up a ways until it split into several smaller trails.
I then began to slowly descend the ridge. The fog was thick and I could only see 50 yards in front of me. Movement caught my eyes and a cow with a calf appeared below me. My gun went up and I was ready if a bull emerged, but I did not get so lucky. They trotted out of view and I waited awhile longer before slowly continuing down the ridge. The rain began to fall, forcing me to put the hood of my raincoat on. I've always hated hunting with a hood on. You can't hear as well and your peripheral vision narrows. I felt like my senses were as clouded as the skies. Regardless, I continued on.
Eventually I found myself parallel to a creek bottom. The ridge leveled out to a gradual slope and the woods opened up a bit more. A foreign object appeared in front of me; an arrow? An arrow from a bow was sticking directly out of the ground. That's strange. Someone from bow season must have shot an arrow and didn't retrieve it. I took 2 steps towards the arrow and a familiar shape and color redirected my eyes. 50 yards ahead, stood an elk. I froze. It's head was behind a tree but I could tell it was looking for me. Bull or cow? A stick curved away from the tree trunk where an antler might be. Antler or just a stick? I flipped the safety off and slowly side-stepped to my right. The elk turned it's head slightly. Antler! It's a spike! I shouldered my rifle, placed the crosshairs on his vitals and pulled the trigger. BOOOOM! He stuttered and then hurriedly trotted off. I could hear Rick's voice in my head. Shoot until they drop! Don't risk it! I found the elk in my crosshairs again and pulled the trigger. BOOOOM! The spike collapsed behind a log and I took a sigh of relief. I could see him moving slightly, but down he was. I decided to back out of the area and let him pass. Elk down!
I walked through the woods towards a dirt road I knew was nearby. It didn't take long to find the road. I called Rick on the radio and told him where to go.
I had waited about 20 minutes before returning to the downed elk. I slowly crept back to confirm my elk had passed. I was looking in the area he had dropped when suddenly a spike elk 40 yards to my left stood up and began to run off. That's my elk! Crap! I raised my rifle and shot. Nothing happened. The elk continued running downhill to the bottom of the creek. The trees and brush were thick and I had to run to an open area where I could get a shot. Just before the elk crossed the creek I put the crosshairs on his shoulder and pulled the trigger. The elk collapsed and quickly passed. My heart was racing; not because I had been running or that I had just harvested my first elk, but because I almost LOST my first elk! I could hear my father's voice in my head this time. ALWAYS wait 1 hour after you shoot an animal. If you jump them before they pass, they may run for miles! I had returned to my elk too soon, despite a lethal first shot to both lungs. When Rick joined me, we walk down to the elk together.
We admired the great animal before taking care of the important part: the meat. There is no better meat than that of a cow or young bull elk like a spike. I momentarily found myself standing next to the grill, hearing the sizzle of tender steaks over the open flames on a warm summer evening. This daydream quickly faded as I heard the loud spats of raindrops on my hood and the cold begin to grab hold of my bones. I began to skin the animal as Rick moved the pickup to a closer pack-out location; the highway! Many successful elk hunting stories end with a long grueling pack-out where the elk died way down in some nasty hole. I was very fortunate on my first elk. I apparently had hiked further down the ridge than I thought and from where I stood, skinning the elk, I could hear cars pass on the highway. I quartered the elk and loaded the meat into my pack.
Three trips was all it took before all the elk was loaded into the pickup and we were headed back to camp. Rick and I took a moment to celebrate with our victory drinks before packing camp up and heading back home.
That night, Rick and I got started butchering his deer and the following day I butchered all of my elk.
It was a truly wonderful feeling for the first time to have sufficient meat in the freezer for the rest of the year. The pressure was off now and I would only harvest a deer if it were a true trophy. I hunted deer a few more days before the season ended but didn't encounter any bucks. My first elk hunt had gone surprisingly well and I had gotten very lucky. Or had I? With a spike elk now under my belt, would I feel a greater calling to harvest a larger bull next year? Undoubtedly yes. And thus begins the long off-season...
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
It had been years since I had visited or fished the famed Yellowstone National Park. My last trip was in boy scouts where we backpacked along the Yellowstone River, finishing in Gardener, Montana. The fishing in my memories was stellar, so when our good friends Greg and Amy Morgan invited Katie and I to stay with them and fish in the park for 4 days, we couldn't say no. It would also be Katie's birthday during our time there and every year we try to get out of town. What better place than Yellowstone?
We made the trek over to West Yellowstone where Greg and Amy had already secured a room for the week. It was hard to drive past the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, knowing that right now, a lot of big browns are moving to strategic locations just waiting for me to toss them a streamer. They would have to wait, because our target fish on this trip would be the Yellowstone Cutthroat trout.
The first evening I was able to convince everyone to go fishing, and since Greg and Amy had done well the previous night on the Fire Hole River, we would fish there.
The Fire Hole fished fair that first night. A few small browns and a rainbow to hand. Not a bad start to the trip.
The following day we made our way to the bison filled Lamar Valley. Here we fished the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek, seeing a lot of wildlife along the way.
Despite the crowds, we wadered up and gave it a go.
It wasn't long before we were into our target species: the Yellowstone Cutthroat.
Besides the other fisherman, we had a few spectators.
On the way back, we stopped at Mammoth Hotsprings. Elk were scattered about in the manicured lawns surrounding each building. The bugle of a large bull caught our attention as he paraded down the middle of the road. Being the hunter I am, I brought along a cow elk call. I let out a call and the bull stopped and turned our direction. He appeared to be looking for me. I let out another call and just as a van slowly crept past the elk, he lowered his antlers and rammed the vehicle driving past him. Whether I caused him to ram that vehicle I will never know, but I like to think I did.
The cascading pools of mineral rich, geothermal water was a unique sight.
The following day we fished the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. Neither one produced much, but simply being in such a beautiful place made it all worth it. No trip in Yellowstone is complete without seeing the great waterfalls on the Yellowstone River.
Some tracks in the mud gave us a friendly reminder to be careful while fishing in the park.
Katie's birthday was the following day and she wanted to go see Old Faithful and some more of the geothermal sights. Despite the crowds and my disdain for feeling like a tourist, I had to admit, seeing Old Faithful erupt was quite spectacular.
Katie agreed that a little fishing on her birthday would be a good idea as well, so we hit the Fire Hole again. As we approached the river we found a lot of fish rising to some unique caddis flies: the Fire Hole Millers. The fish were all stacked in a small feeding area next to a grassy bank. Greg and Amy went upstream to check out some other areas while I put Katie into position to catch these rising fish. It wasn't long before Katie was into some gorgeous little brown trout.
Katie began to catch one after another and put on quite the show. Greg and Amy eventually wandered back and we had them get into position. It wasn't long before they were giggling and catching fish as well. We all had a blast taking turns catching the little browns. But as birthday luck would have it, Katie caught way more than anyone else.
We finished the day out by hitting the delicious Wild West Pizza in West Yellowstone.
Katie and I had to leave the following day. Greg and Amy had been gracious hosts, and they will likely find us inviting ourselves next year!After we said our goodbyes and thank you's, we pointed the car South West into Idaho. Of course I planned it so we would have time to hit a few spots on the Henry's Fork on the way home!
The first spot we hit was a half mile long riffle that stretched clear across the Snake River. As usual, it was loaded with a lot of 10-16 inch rainbows. Katie was quickly into fish after fish.
A stout whitefish also came to hand before we chose to move onto the next location.
The next spot we would strip streamers. I knew there could be some monster browns lurking in the depths and would love Katie to tie into one. She hadn't stripped streamers much, but I handed her the rod and she did it like she had done it her whole life. She had a big swirl on her fly as she pulled it out of the water to make her third cast. With the next cast, the rod was nearly ripped out of her hand as she came tight to a great brown trout. She fought it like a champ and eventually the fatty rolled into the net.
I handed the rod back to Katie and she continued stripping. Several casts later she was into another.
We worked our way along with just the one rod and Katie was doing so well, I stood by and enjoyed the show.
Katie was ready for a break, so she handed me the rod. After missing a couple takes, I connected with a great brown.
We fished a bit longer before walking back to the car. With a long drive ahead of us, we packed up and drove on back to Boise.
No trip across Idaho's Highway 20 is complete without a stop at the Wrangler Drive In in Fairfield. Katie and I each got a milkshake to cap off a great trip.