Thursday, May 27, 2021

St. Maries Turkey Hunt

St. Maries turkey hunt April 2011

"We'll be able to shoot them right off the front porch. It won't take more than 20 minutes, I promise." Kevin assured me.
"We'll see about that." I replied with suspicion.
Kevin and I were driving north to St. Maries on a turkey hunt. Our friend Cameron grew up there and his parents still had a place with a little land adjacent to public land. The last time Kevin was there, the turkeys were just hanging out in the yard. Kevin had never hunted turkeys before, and based on what he'd seen there, he assumed it would be a walk in the park. Turkey hunting is rarely that easy.

We arrived near dusk to find no turkeys in the yard. Imagine that. Tim, Cameron's dad, welcomed us and helped us settle in for the 2 day hunt.
"The turkeys haven't been around too much. This time of year I just mostly hear them every now and then. Just tromp around back there in the woods and you're sure to find something." Tim said, waving a hand in a general direction. 
I gave Kevin a look that said, I told you so.  

Tim agreed to take us to a piece of public ground near the lake where he'd seen some turkeys recently. At first light we were walking away from the truck in pursuit of the American Wild Turkey. By noon, however, we'd nearly climbed a mountain and had only seen one hen turkey and found a whitetail deer antler. We decided to return to the house and "tromp" around in the woods near there. We returned to the house to find no turkeys in the yard.
"Hey look Kevin, no turkeys in the yard." I pointed out.
"Yeah, yeah. I see that." Kevin shook his head.

The public land behind Tim's house was a medium sized, forested plateau with a mountain on the north end. Kevin and I headed east from the house, crossed the creek that marked the property boundary and climbed on to the top. Once on top, we found an old road that followed the edge of the plateau. We walked slowly and quietly, calling from time to time. No birds responded, but we did catch a glimpse of a wolf running across a meadow on the other side of a canyon. Kevin and I sat down and began watching the hillside across from us where a big tom turkey appeared and began strutting. He was nearly a half mile away and our calling illicited zero interest. The old road took us to a nice opening that overlooked another creek bottom. It was now mid-afternoon and we were both tired. We each picked a tree to rest against and take a nap, hoping some turkeys would magically appear during our slumber. 

I awoke to a noise on my right. Was that a turkey cluck? I slowly opened my eyes and turned to my right. Fifty yards away, 2 gobblers stood near the old road looking toward the creek. I froze. I looked toward Kevin who was in between the turkeys and myself on my right side. Kevin was also awake and aware of the birds. The 2 birds slowly walked forward and towards the opening in front of Kevin. I'm a right handed shooter, and based on the angle, it would be tough for me to rotate my body for a shot. Kevin had a greater advantage where he was located, so I just sat still. The 2 birds continued nervously forward until they were only 20 yards in front of Kevin. One of the turkeys suddenly took flight and glided across the creek bottom to the other side. Shockingly, the other bird just stood there; a fatal mistake. Kevin's shotgun rang out and in front of him lay his first turkey. 

We took a picture, grabbed his bird and headed back to the house. We breasted and legged his bird, then put the meat on some ice. With just a little light to spare, we headed back out to the woods to locate a bird for me to chase at first light the following morning. Surprisingly, at the same spot overlooking the creek where Kevin had just shot his bird, we heard a gobble. The gobble was coming from somewhere on the other side of the creek or even down in the bottom. As darkness neared, we knew the bird would roost there and be ripe for the picking in the morning. We backed out of the area and had a solid game plan for the next morning. 

At first light, we had our backs to some trees overlooking the creek where the turkey had roosted the night before. In front of us, motionless, stood 2 plastic decoys; a hen and a jake. The morning was very foggy and we could only see a few yards past the decoys. Then we heard him. The gobble carried through the fog, sounding like the bird was all around us. Goosebumps overtook my arms. Kevin clucked back at the bird on his slate call. "Gobble, gobble, gobble" rang back from the bird. We had his interest. Kevin and the bird talked back and forth, each time the gobbles grew louder as the bird got closer. The hill in front of us dropped off and the fog was still super thick. The gobbles were now so loud I could feel them in my chest. Any moment the bird could appear out of the fog. I could hardly contain my excitement. Then I saw him. Out of the fog appeared the tom turkey. When he saw the decoys, he puffed up in full strut, then let out a long, loud gobble. The noise was deafening at such close range. The bird paused for a second and gave me an easy 20 yard shot. BOOOOM!!! The bird expired quickly and our hunt was over. 
"That was so cool!" Kevin said. "I can see why you like this turkey hunting stuff."
"That was much better than shooting one off the front porch!" I replied, still shaking. 

We headed back to the house, cleaned the bird and packed up our things. On the drive home, along the Salmon River, we spotted an
osprey clutching a fish in it's talons as it flew over the highway in front of us. The bird was 20 feet above the road and I assumed he would gain elevation. As I continued at 50 mph toward the bird, at the last minute the bird dropped elevation and smashed right into my windshield. Kevin shrieked and ducked. I closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them my entire windshield was spidered. I slowed my truck and turned around to find a dead osprey on the side of the road. We felt really bad, but at least the bird died quickly. My windshield, though, was trashed. When I touched the cracked glass, small fragments fell. You could even see the slime smear from where the fish smacked my windshield. We looked all over for the fish but never could find it. I drove much slower the rest of the way home.

It had been a memorable turkey hunt. Kevin shot his first turkey and I had shot my second. We had to work a little harder than Kevin had expected, but I think it was much more fun than shooting them off the front porch.  

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Big, Dumb Birds

 North Idaho turkey hunt 2021

The first animal I ever hunted was the wild turkey. As a 13 year old, the excitement of calling in a loud, strutting bird was more than I could handle. I spent the next 10 years a turkey hunting addict. However, as my spring schedule began to fill each year, turkey hunting was the first activity to be sacrificed. It had been numerous years since I had purposely chased the iconic spring bird. My friend Rick had just moved to North Central Idaho and not only did he have land with lots of turkeys, but he wanted to take me to some other areas where he'd hunted them before. This was just the push I needed to free my schedule and make a trip!

Day 1

Although Rick couldn't hunt until Thursday, I decided to head up on Tuesday. I would use the extra days to hunt an area I'd hunted before. Hopefully I'd be tagged out by Wednesday and purchase a second tag for our hunt on Thursday. 

I arrived at the area I planned to hunt around 1 pm. I figured the afternoon would be quiet and in the evening I'd figure out where the birds were roosted so I would have a solid game plan for the following morning. I was pleasantly surprised when I parked to immediately hear birds gobbling down in the creek bottom. Multiple birds. A large smile materialized on my face. I quickly gilly "suited-up" and crept down an old road, found an opening and sat against a tree, ready for action.

I was on a medium-sized piece of State land with a creek flowing through the bottom of it. Relatively steep, forested hillsides climbed up the East and West side of the creek with private land surrounding all of it. By the sound of it, there were multiple gobblers on the opposite side of the creek. With any luck I'd be able to call one over to me, or have another bird appear from another direction ready to play. Not long after sitting, I heard a hen yelping close to me. She and I began to communicate, and after either of us would talk, the gobblers across the creek would sound off. This continued for a while until the hen wandered in front of me at 30 yards. She clearly knew something wasn't right and after some time she wandered off. 

The afternoon slowed and the sound of the spring runoff in the creek began to drown out all other sounds in the woods. I took a short walk closer to the creek bottom and did some calling, but the only gobbles heard were higher up the creek on some private land. I ended up spending the rest of the day sitting against a tree, calling from time to time, hoping a lonely tom would sneak in. As the sun began to set, I heard 2 gobbles on the opposite side of the creek. I would start the next morning in the same area.

Day 2

By first light I was sitting against a tree looking over a nice opening in the woods near yesterday's location. As the sun rose, the sound of gobbles seem to come from every direction, cutting through drumming grouse, robins and other song birds, joyous in the new day. 

I called and communicated with several gobblers. Some sounded like they would approach and then fade in the other direction. I could hear at least 5 different birds but none ever fully committed. By 11 am, I was itching to try something different. I decided to cross the creek and slowly hunt my way up the West mountainside.

I crept up a deer trail through the thick woods to the edge of some private property. I called and a gobbler quickly replied; he was close. I could also hear some hens with him. I decided to slowly walk backwards and call periodically. The gobbler was responding well to my calls and appeared to be on a string to my location. With any luck, I could lure him down to an old road where I'd be waiting. I made it down to the old road and as I got set up, I noticed a gate in front of me at 40 yards. If the bird crossed that gate, he'd not only be legal, but within range. His gobbles grew louder and so did my heartbeats. I saw movement in the brush and a bird appeared on the edge of the road; a hen. More movement; another hen. Three hens came out onto the road and began to feed on the private side of the gate. Where is the gobbler? Then I caught a glimpse of another bird coming through the woods. Through a small opening, I saw a long beard nearly dragging on the ground. My heart skipped a beat, but I was ready. The gobbler made it to the road and then puffed up in full strut for the hens to see. The bird danced around his hens, his attention fully concerned with their approval. I tried to call quietly a few times but this bird was not about to leave real hens for just a sound of a hen. After what felt like an eternity, the tom and his 3 hens wandered back from where they came. Somehow turkeys have a knack for knowing property lines. I got on the road and continued up the mountain.

I worked my way up and up the old logging roads, calling from time to time. Turkey scat was nearly everywhere; evidence of a great number of birds in the area. I made it to the end of the road and had not heard a gobble since my encounter with the birds at the gate. I found a well used deer trail and began to follow it, continuing on my path toward the top of the hill. It opened up onto a nice flat open area, surrounded mostly by wild roses and other medium-sized bushes. Directly ahead, another drainage formed; a perfect spot to call. Hoping for some fresh birds, I let out a long loud yelp sequence. Cutting me off, a gobbler replied, fairly close by. I picked a prime area to sit where I would hopefully see the bird approach. Ready for action, I began communicating with the bird. He would talk back on a fairly regular basis but did not sound like he was getting any closer. Based on how most of the other birds had been doing the same, doubt crept in my mind of the success this "interaction" would have. In fact, the last gobble I had heard sounded like it was further away. I called several more times without a response. Now 1:00, the sun was high and the air was warm. I decided to lay down in the shade of the bush I was under and just listen for a while. 

I had only been laying down for about 5 minutes when I heard some soft scratching in the pine needles and grass behind me in the opening I had just been watching. Please be a squirrel, please be a squirrel. I slowly tipped my head back to see what creature had snuck into my area. Ten feet away stood 2 large gobblers. Rats! Panic flushed through me. I'm such an idiot! The 2 birds were now looking directly at me. They must have been wondering why that strange lump of brush was moving. I had to make something happen, and quickly, but my entire body was supine and facing the wrong direction. My only course of action was to quickly flip over, swing my gun around and hope to catch one of them by surprise. I acted, but the birds were no spring chickens. Before I could even pick a bird, they scattered in opposite directions and took flight. Laying on my belly was no position to attempt to knock one out of the air, anyway. I sat up and hung my head between my knees, defeated. If I had only waited a few more minutes... I remembered that toms sometimes did this; the silent sneak in. Those birds had been on a string to my location and had just decided to stop talking.

Feeling dejected, I began my way back down the mountain. The woods were quiet now, I was very hungry and it was about time to make my way over to my buddy Rick's place. Tomorrow we'd take a boat across the lake to an area he promised would have turkeys.

That evening, I met up with Rick. I told him about all my encounters so far and my failures. His response: "Oh don't get too upset, they're just big, dumb birds. If you're fretting over that, you need to go see someone."

"I think I need to see someone," I laughed. 

He took me to his property shortly before dark to see if any birds were around. Sure enough, a gobbler or 2 and some hens could be heard over on his neighbor's property near where he said they liked to roost. I talked back and forth with them for awhile before realizing they weren't going to come over. 

That night we stayed at Glenn and Jeannie's house. Rick and his wife, Carlene are in the process of building a home on their property. Until then, Glenn and Jeannie have been kind enough to house Rick and Carlene. Tomorrow would be a new day in a new area, giving me renewed optimism.

"Ryan, do you have decoys?" Rick asked.

"Yeah, but I haven't had much luck in this area with them." I replied, thinking about previous bad fortune.

"I'd at least bring a hen with you where we're going tomorrow." Rick said with confidence.


Day 3

By first light we were launching the boat. It was only a short ride to the hillsides we'd be hunting. Glenn said he'd troll for Kokanee Salmon while Rick and I hunted. He'd pick us up a couple miles to the North sometime in the early afternoon.

Rick and I quickly ascended the hillside to some openings he knew. Once there, I began calling. A bird responded a short distance away. We quickly got setup, placing the single hen decoy out towards the opening where a tom would be able to see her as he approached.
I called again and the tom cut me off with a long, loud gobble, this time much closer to us. This bird was fired up and coming in! I practiced aiming my gun at invisible turkeys; I was ready. Then I saw him coming in from the left and he entered the opening on the East side. A big, long beard could be seen as he steadily walked toward the decoy. Wow, is this actually going to happen? Maybe we'll spend the rest of the day casting to big, early spring smallmouth? The tom made it to about 50 yards and stopped. He stared long and hard at the decoy, then let out an alarm cluck. Crap! He nervously walked back and forth with his head high, clearly anxious to leave. The tom started running to the South and then took flight, disappearing forever. I looked over at Rick.
"That was weird. He clearly didn't like that decoy." Rick said with confusion.
"Yep. I've hunted birds that came right in to the decoys and others that ran the other way." I replied shaking my head.
"I guess we won't use that again. That's ok, there are plenty more birds." Rick assured me. 

We continued on, hiking old logging roads towards some more openings. I'd call from time to time, but several hours went by before we heard our next gobble.

Directly below us, a bird gobbled. Then another, and another. Three gobblers could be heard and some hens, all in the same area but on separate ridges. Rick and I crept down to what we thought was about 100 yards away. I talked back and forth to the closest bird but each time it sounded like he was getting farther and farther away. We decided to creep closer.

We made it another few hundred feet lower and stopped and listened. There! Below us another few hundred feet, a bird gobbled. We crept closer and sat. The gobblers continued to descend the hill. These birds were clearly on a march down the mountain; perhaps to get a drink in the lake. 

We jumped up and continued down the ridge we were on, stopping to listen from time to time. Yep, the birds were working their way down. We crept closer and must have gained some ground because the next gobble was close! We sat down and got ready. The gobbler was just below me out of sight, but couldn't have been more than 75 yards away. His gobbles reverberated through the woods, sounding like he was all around me. I was ready. Then, directly ahead I saw movement. It was his tail fan. I could just see the top half of it as he strutted. Come on, just come a little closer you big, dumb bird. I called a little more aggressively. The tail fan slowly disappeared and once again his gobbles got quieter. Rats!

We tried to follow the bird but must have eventually spooked him. The woods had quieted down and so had our optimism. It was now 1pm, hot and we had walked 4 or 5 miles. We hiked down to the lake where Glenn picked us up. The last 2 days had been full of turkey talk, encounters and had honestly been a blast. But I was feeling defeated. They're just big, dumb birds. They're just big, dumb birds. Somehow that didn't help. 
"Ryan, you're welcome to try sitting in the blind in the back yard this afternoon." Glenn said, seeing that I still had turkey on the brain. "There's plenty of toms around. We usually see a few every day."
"I just might. I've come so close, yet it seems so far. I'm eager for redemption, even if it is a 'yard bird'". I replied, shaking my head. 

We made it back to Glenn's house, but a storm was in the future. From my experience, turkeys don't talk much in the rain. But I was desperate, and what better way to spend the rest of the day than sitting in a blind with a glimmer of hope.

Glenn walked me over to the pop up blind sitting next to his wood pile. "Sorry the roof is collapsed. Here are some zip ties. Maybe you can fix it while you're in there."
I was able to temporarily fix the roof without zip ties, so I sat and opened my book, ready for a slow afternoon of turkey hunting. 


I kept an eye out for any silent "sneak in" birds, but my book began to get really exciting. I heard a strange purring noise and realized I hadn't look up from my book for nearly 4 pages. I slowly lifted my head to see a real turkey standing next to my hen decoy. Holy crap! My heart beat fast as I studied the bird, adjusting my eyes from the white pages I'd been reading to the outside lighting. A hen. She approached the decoy with curiosity, circling it and purring. She eventually lost interest and left. That was cool! I need to be paying closer attention if I'm going to make this happen. 

The rain came down in waves and I continued to sit, read and watch. It was now close to dinnertime and I was beginning to gain some serious appetite, while steadily losing hope. I decided to see if I could fix this blind with the zip ties before giving up and going inside. I fumbled with the roof supports and zip ties while holding the roof of the blind up with my head. I was beginning to realize the zip ties were not going to work when I decided to look up. I couldn't believe my eyes; 10 yards in front of the blind stood a large mature tom in half strut, staring at me. Holy crap! I quickly reached down, grabbed my shotgun and sat down in the chair as the roof fell back down. If this bird doesn't spook from this, it'll be a miracle. The tom continued to stand there with curiosity. I wasn't going to waste any time. I shouldered my Remington 870, placed the bead on his head and pulled the trigger. BOOM! The bird collapsed and expired. I sighed in relief and exited the blind. 
"Yay! Wahoo!" I looked over to my right and on the back porch, Glenn, Rick, Carlene and Jeannie stood with smiles. "We watched the whole thing. He came right across the back yard here!" Carlene said, pointing.

It finally happened. The last few days had been wild and fun. To finally get it done in the backyard with an audience was just comical. I'm no turkey expert, but the bird appeared to be an Eastern Wild Turkey, indicated by the darker bands on the tail fan. Idaho mostly has the Merriams strain, with smaller populations of Eastern's and Rio's.

We celebrated with a hot home cooked meal made by Jeannie. What a fun trip! Why had I gone so many years without turkey hunting? After so much fun on this trip, I vowed to make turkey hunting a spring priority again.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Steelhead 2021

 Clearwater, February 2021

After a dismal run in the 2019 - 2020 season, I was thrilled to see strong numbers of steelhead returning this season. Plans for a late winter steelhead extravaganza began, and before I knew it, the time had come to chase monster anadromous fish. Joining me this year would be Camron and Kevin, as well as their friend Richard, Camron's coworker Spencer, and Spencer's father in law, Steve. 

Camron and I headed up on a Tuesday, while the rest of the gang would get in late Wednesday night. Hopefully Camron and I would be able to figure a few things out before the others got there. As luck would have it, the day before we arrived the river spiked, giving the signal to all the waiting fish in the big river to head upstream. Unfortunately, this was the first water spike of the entire year, so very few fish would be in the river. Concentrating all the fresh fish and angling pressure near the lower river.

Camron and I arrived on the river by noon and were pleasantly surprised to find "steelhead green" water in the midsection of the river. 

Camron and I quickly geared up and began fly fishing some of our favorite water in the upper and mid-section of the river.

It was clear after a few hours of no fish and no other angling pressure that we were too high in the river system. The fish, and likely the angling pressure, were downriver. Camron and I headed down-river to find many more anglers and unfortunately, murky water. Several feeder creeks were pumping in mud from the Camas Prairie, reducing the water clarity to about 5 inches. We knew where we could find fish, however,  and how to catch them. We arrived at the "Private Hole" and began drifting corky and yarn. Not long after, Camron tied into the first fish of the trip, a gorgeous colored male. 

I hooked a feisty specimen but lost it near the bank. Before long it was dark and Camron and I packed it up for the day. As a scouting day, we learned where we would need to concentrate our efforts for the rest of the trip.

The following morning we found ourselves in the same hole once again. Once again, Camron hooked into the first fish.

I hooked one myself, but lost it. Camron, however, had the magic touch and connected with another nice female.

In search of clearer water and after no more hookups as the morning progressed, we decided to move to another location several miles upstream.  With the current flows, we hoped the fish would channel into a small "bucket" near a sandbar. After wading across the river and drifting our flies through the bucket, we realized flows were just too low to truly hold any numbers of fish. We now had the water clarity we desired, but not the flows or the fish, it seemed. 

I decided to try fishing some other water that occasionally held fish and was quickly rewarded with a hookup. As good as it felt to have a fish on my fly rod, I knew immediately it was a small one. 

Realizing the rest of the group would be arriving that evening, we decided to do some exploring. As "guides" to our friends, we wanted to give everyone the best chance of catching a fish.
"I think we can call this trip a success if everyone at least hooks a fish and feels how strong they are." Camron said as we drove downriver again.
"I agree. If everyone lands a steelhead, I'll be stoked." I responded.

We tried some new water and finished the day at a promising looking run. First good drift with the fly and I hooked into a fish. Once again, it was a smaller cousin to the fish we normally caught.

Spencer and Steve arrived and met us on the river as the day drew to an end. MapQuest had taken them down a dirt road, ending up on the other side of the river; on a road we'd never even been on. 
"We just followed the directions. We thought it was strange too." Spencer chuckled.
"Yep, theres a nice paved highway that takes you down to the river. Strange." I added.
"Gosh, that's an ambitious net, don't you think?" Spencer said, pointing to Camron's large trout net.
"Ha, that thing barely fits most of these fish. You should see Ryan's net." Camron exclaimed. 

As we headed back to the lodge, we discussed the plan for the following day. We needed to find a place we could put 6 guys who would mostly conventional fish. We decided on the "Private Hole", where we could split guys on both sides of the river. 

We awoke before light, and as the sun was rising, we were standing on the rivers edge ready for the day. Kevin and I started on river right while everyone else took river left; where we usually fish. The drift was slightly different on river right but it didn't take long before I tied into a fish. And a nice one at that. 

Idaho Fish and Game has a brood stock collection program for this river and they had just stopped by with a few tubes to place fish in. Here's how the program works; if an angler catches a steelhead where Fish and Game place tubes, that angler can choose to donate the fish towards the hatchery, release it or keep it for consumption if the adipose fin is clipped. If Fish and Game drives by locations with a tube in the water, they will stop by and quickly rush the fish to a truck with a tank. By collecting large, healthy fish caught by anglers, the hatchery is able to gather the eggs and milt needed for the next generation of fish to be stocked in that river, without having an actual fish trap or hatchery on that stream. Both clipped and un-clipped adipose fin fish are taken. A special "wand" or "reader" is waved over the head of an un-clipped fish to determine if its indeed a hatchery fish - most are. 

I placed the 37 inch male into a tube and resumed fishing. It didn't take long before, "Magic Touch Camron" was into a nice fish. 

We placed his large male into a tube just in time for Fish and Game to stop by again, checking to see if we had caught any. Seeing that we had 2 fish, they brought down 2 more tubes and left to go get the hatchery truck. 

The rest of our gang was getting used to the drift and soon Richard was into a couple fish. He lost both but was encouraged by the success. I tied into another, landing a nice female for the tubes.

We now had 3 fish in tubes and were hooking into more fish. The morning was turning into a success!

By mid-day the fishing had slowed, but a hookup every now and then kept us optimistic. The run below our hole slowly filled with more and more people; a sign the rest of the river would likely be the same. The weekend was approaching and the river can get quite busy on a weekend. Trying to move to another location would only result in frustration and disappointment, so we decided this hole would be an all day affair. 

Richard broke the silence late afternoon with his first landed fish. 

As the sun began to descend, the action picked up. Kevin was into the next fish; his first of the day as well. 

Shortly after, I brought in another female. 

Just before dark, Kevin picked up another fish.

Overall the day had been a success. Richard and Kevin had landed fish, so that only left Spencer and Steve, and they had another 2 full days of fishing. Back at the cabin we frantically tied up more corky and yarn rigs, hoping to repeat todays success tomorrow at the same location. Knowing many people saw us catch fish in our hole, we needed to wake up early to ensure we'd be the first into our spot Friday morning.
We awoke at 4:15 and were out of the cabin by 4:45 and pulling up to our spot by 5. However it wasn't early enough. A large light/fire could be seen in our spot along with numerous headlamps. We all met at backup spot B. 
"Well shoot. All 6 of us can't fish this spot, so I guess Kevin, Richard and I can run upstream to the next area." I said with a frown.
"Sounds good. Good luck. We'll meet back up mid-morning if one of us isn't doing that great," Camron replied.  

Kevin, Richard and I arrived at our chosen spot and began fishing. The bottom was snaggy and we all lost a setup or two before I decided to try the fly rod. Most of the time I prefer the fly rod, but when I'm with others not fly fishing, I feel the need to fish the same way they do in case I find some success. It's easier to help them achieve the same success with the same setup. By now though, I had lost optimism and just wanted to experiment with a few things. There was a current seam on the far side of the run that was begging for a nice, slow indicator drift. I launched a cast to the seam, threw a mend in my fly line and let it start drifting. Boom! My indicator drained and I set the hook. I felt the slow pulses of a steelhead.
"Dude, I saw that! He wanted that thing bad!" Richard said with animated hands.
"That's right where I thought one should be." I replied.

As the fish fought, I began to realize once again that this fish was a small one. Richard scooped it up in the net and we shot some pictures before setting it free. We all fished a while longer before deciding to head back downstream to where Camron, Steve and Spencer were.

We pulled up and saw 2 fish and game tubes in the water. It appears Camron's group had seen some success. 
"Dude, you should see one of these fish. It's a monster 38 inches!" Camron said, standing on the bank watching Richard and Steve fly fish. "We caught those 2 first thing this morning."
"Awesome! Did you catch both?" I asked, hoping he'd say Richard or Steve caught them.
"No, I caught the first one and then set them up with their fly rods and had them stand in the right spot. I made an experimental cast up at the top and got the second one." Camron said, making a guilty face. 
"They'll get one if they keep casting." I added optimistically.

We all started fishing the same spot together until the snow rolled in. It was now close to noon and we hadn't hooked anymore fish or seen any roll. We decided it was time to get the drift boats out and fish the main river. We launched the boats and rowed upstream to a spot I'd had some success in the past.
Camron, Steve and Spencer were in Steve's boat, while Kevin, Richard and myself fished out of Kevin's boat. We tried a variety of techniques for about an hour before "Magic Touch Camron" said those glorious words; "fish on"!
"Leave it to Camron. We knew if anyone caught any it would be Cam." I said, rolling my eyes. 
Camron's success gave us optimism though. We rowed over to their boat to see the fish Camron had caught. It was quite possibly the fattest healthiest hen I'd ever seen.

While Camron and his boat said farewell to his fish, we rowed back out to the seam they had been fishing and began casting. I had just dropped the anchor when Richard hooked into a fish. 
"Fish on!" He shouted back at Steve's boat still on the shore. 
 Richard battled the fish until Kevin scooped it into the net. We rowed over to shore to show the other guys. Once again, it was a fat healthy female.
Invigorated by the recent success, both boats rowed back out to the seam, anchored and resumed casting. This time, Kevin hooked into the next fish. Kevin battled his for a while before losing it right at the boat. Camron was into the next fish. The afternoon was shaping into a great one! 
Camron had the hot hand again, this time handing the rod over to Spencer to bring in the next fish.

We fished until it was time for Camron and I to make the drive back home. The main river ended up fishing quite well for us with 7 fish hooked and 4 landed. Best part was we had the water all to ourselves; a refreshing change. 

Camron and I hit the road, discussing what we had learned, what went well and what didn't.
"Man I hope Spencer and Steve get one tomorrow. They're doing everything right!" Camron said in frustration.
"It's only a matter of time. Sometimes it just goes that way. You can't explain it." I replied.

The next morning Camron received a picture of Spencer with a Steelhead. They had made it into the "private hole" and were getting into some fish. 

Overall the trip was a success. We'd learned how important it was to focus where the fish are in the river despite wanting to fish other water we liked. We'd explored new spots to try in the future. We caught fish out of the main river and nearly everyone tied into or landed a steelhead. We laid hands on nearly 25 fish. You can't ask for much more than that when steelhead fishing. I fear we now have 4 new steelhead addicts...


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Backpacking in the Burn

Payette National Forest, August 2020

I hadn't done an overnight backpack trip since I was in Boy Scouts. So when a "backpacking guru" like Chase Jablonski, co-worker and fellow fly fisherman, suggested we go, I saw it as the push I needed to get back into it. When not working at the fire department, Chase spends most of his time nomadically hiking through the Northwest Rocky Mountains. With his expertise, I knew I would have a great time.

We decided to hike into a chain of lakes I had been to some 15 years prior. A simple day trip with my mother and her friend, the trip will forever be cemented into my memory as an angling failure. Armed with only a spinning rod and a handful of spinners and spoons, 15 year old Ryan thought he'd be prepared for any high mountain lake encounter with hungry, uneducated trout. I was surprised when we arrived at the first lake to find 20 inch cutthroat gorging on a flying ant hatch. Needless to say, not a single fish in that lake looked at anything I tried to present to them that day. I never made it back to that lake but you can guarantee I never hiked into a high mountain lake without some flying ants again. 

We scouted the area on the map and decided to do a short loop in which we'd hit a total of 6 lakes, finishing at a trail that would eventually connect us back to the main trail we came in on. The 10 mile loop would be perfect for a simple overnight backpack trip. 

With our packs loaded, we left town and made it to the trailhead by noon. The area was unrecognizable to me because a fire had swept through the area 3 years prior.     

I don't mind burnt areas. In my mind it's a fresh start to the forest. Thousands of new grasses and wildflowers take hold that normally wouldn't be able to. The tall blackened trees protectively stand over the new life watching the forest re-grow itself.  

We ascended the mountain until we made it onto a ridge that overlooked some basins and distant mountains. A gorgeous sight to behold. 

By 3 pm we arrived at the first lake. It was hard to recognize at first, but this was the famed lake I had etched in my memory. After filtering some fresh water out of the lake, I eagerly strung up my fly rod and tied on a flying ant. Sadly, no giant cutthroats could be seen cruising and no flying ant hatch was present. Nevertheless, I made some casts for old times sake. High mountain lakes can cycle like a perch population; size and quality can fluctuate through the years. The "glory years" I remembered were likely gone. After 30 minutes of fishing, we moved onto the second lake. 

A short climb up and over the hill showed us the second lake. Larger than the first, and lined with lily pads at one end, this lake showed a little more promise than the first. This is the lake where we would camp. 

We set camp in a small meadow near the lakes edge. After camp was made, it was time to figure out what  the fishing in this lake held. Chase had chosen to bring a camera instead of a fly rod, letting me do all the fishing. The day was windy, so no surface activity could be seen. It wasn't until I nearly made it around the whole lake that I found a trout cruising. I climbed out onto a log and presented my fly. The hungry fish charged up from the depths and devoured it!

A medium-sized Westslope cutthroat trout came to hand. Hardly the 20 inch bruiser I had hoped for, but any high mountain lake trout is a special fish. I caught a couple more before it was time to eat dinner.

Chase boiled up some water and poured it into our Mountain House Beef Stroganoff. 
"Well Chase, I'm curious to figure out what item I forgot to bring on this trip. It's been so long I'm sure I forgot something." I said as we ate our dinner. 
"Maybe you didn't forget anything!"He replied giving me the benefit of the doubt. 
"I highly doubt that." I chuckled. 
After dinner, the wind began to die down and a few fish could be seen rising. The magic hour was upon us! The downside to day trips into high mountain lakes is you rarely get to stay until evening when the wind calms and the fish start rising. Sometimes you're lucky enough to catch a calm day and the fish are rising, but that's usually not the case for me. 

I fished until late evening, catching several more cutthroat before calling it quits. Chase read a book on the shore, soaking up the beautiful scenery of the high mountain lake.

I retired for the night to my cozy tent. The foam pad I previously used when I was in Boy Scouts was far from comfortable. My arms kept falling asleep when I tried sleeping on my side or belly; a problem I will have to remedy in the future. Luckily there are a lot better sleeping pads on the market these days. 

I hadn't been asleep long when I heard a large animal come into camp. Sticks snapped and I could feel the footfalls through my thin sleeping pad. Elk? Deer? Bear? The animal was standing outside my tent. Then I heard it sniffing something. Crap! My packframe! I left my packframe outside. The same packframe I use to pack out my deer and elk. The fabric was soaked with dried blood and likely smelled delicious to a predator. The sniffing continued and I feared the worst. Determined to not loose my pack and curious what was actually out there, I began to slowly unzip my tent. I stuck my head out and met the very close eyes of a mule deer doe. It only took a few steps away, so I grabbed my camera and took a picture. The deer was hardly frightened and began to feed. 

The next couple hours I could hear the deer sniffing, digging and munching on vegetation just feet from my tent. 

Morning arrived and I set off with my fly rod to see what the morning catch would bring.

A small rainbow trout was all that came to hand. By 9 am we had camp packed up and were ready to hit some more lakes on the way out. 

The next lake looked shallow, but fish could be seen cruising and feeding on small midges. I quickly strung up the rod again and went in pursuit of the feeding fish. It took longer than I wanted, but a rainbow trout ate my fly and came thrashing in. Satisfied, we moved on to the next lake. 

 There was no obvious trail, but hiking through the burn was relatively easy. The next couple lakes were warm and possibly void of fish. The fire surely had an effect on the water temperature. Without any shade near the lake edges, and the creeks flowing in, the water would warm much faster than it would in an old forest. 

We reached the last lake near lunch time. This lake was larger and deeper, but the water still felt warm. I was determined to give it a shot though. After a quick lunch I climbed out onto a log and twitched my dry fly. A couple small fish tried eating it, but after 30 minutes I decided it was time to pack it up. 


We found the established trail and began our hike back. By 5 pm we were loaded up in my truck and headed back.

"Well Chase, I guess I didn't forget anything." I said, smiling.
"See, I told you it would probably be fine." He replied.

The quick trip had been a fun one. It gave me hope and excitement for many more backpack trips to come; but on the next one, I'll have a better sleeping pad :)