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 :)