Fishpond solves the net problem

Before we begin, let’s call this a gear rave, rather than a gear review, because this is not a review in the sense that I was sent a piece of gear in exchange for mass publicity on my website. Nay, I’ve no affiliation with Fishpond USA whatsoever: no pro deals, ambassadorship, no insider information, nothing like that. I’m just a customer—a customer that has long-fretted over the best way to carry a hand net while wading. And so here I am, to share with my 3 readers, my solution.

Because it’s a problem.

Early on I had a small net attached to the back of my vest using some sort of quick-release devise. This was back when it was still socially acceptable to wear a vest (you didn’t get that memo?). The weight of the over-loaded vest—heavy, because it had so many pockets and I filled every pocket until it was maxed out—plus the added weight of the wooden net dangling off the back, called for a change (at the insistence of my chiropractor). Not to mention that the vest was effectively another layer of clothing which on hot days added to increased body temperature accordingly.

So I switched, for several years, to a fanny pack lower lumbar/waist pack. I liked the pack itself, quite a lot in fact. The problem with that system was that the there was no good way to carry a net. Yes, the net handle could be wedged between the pack and the fanny, but that left a lot to be desired. The result of this was that I nearly always went fishing without a net. If you’re catching small fish, this isn’t an issue, but on rare occasion I would hook into something that presented a challenge to land. Had I a net with me on those occasions, life would have been much better for me, and the fish. I also wanted something with a bit more carrying capacity, so the quest for a better solution ensued.

Next up was a waterproof backpack for carrying my gear. It could carry all I needed and more. It could get heavy, but because of the hip belt, the weight was kept off my shoulders. The problem remained that of how to efficiently carry a net (by this time I had come to possess a super lightweight Fishpond/Nomad Hand Net). In an attempt to remedy this I attached one end of a magnetic connection to a D-ring on the pack, the other magnetic end to my net. What I didn’t like about this was the manner in which the net would swing back and forth as I walked, more than once catching on brush and becoming detached. Fortunately I would hear the net as it separated from my pack and hit the ground. Except one time. Fortunately by the time I realized the net was gone, I hadn’t walked very far and was able to retrace my steps and recover it easily. But then there was the time I was on a particular river in Idaho, about 2 miles up from camp. Having been repeatedly shunned by a particularly antisocial fish, I sat down upon the riverside rocks to reassess my terminal tackle. Unbeknownst to me, the rim of the net contacted the ground first. As I lowered myself to a seated position, the handle of the net pushed upwards with enough force to separate the magnetic connection to my backpack. After tying up a new bug I returned to my feet and unsuccessfully attempted to entice the picky fish to accept my new offering. Without catching the fish there was certainly no need to reach back for my net (if I had, I’d have noticed it missing). For some reason I did not take notice of the fact that the net was not swinging back and forth as I hiked out, and it wasn’t until I returned to camp and removed my backpack that I noticed my net, or lack thereof. Crap. Expensive net. I had a pretty good idea of where it was and fortunately this is a pretty remote stretch of river so the likelihood of another angler stumbling upon my net, and adding it to their gear collection, was slim. The next day my net was recovered, thanks to Ranger Morris. And I began to obsess over a better way to carry the net.

I’d pondered a sling pack in the past, but like every other wearable, gear-carrying device, slings lacked a good system for carrying a net. And then I stumbled upon the Fishpond Thunderhead Sling. This pack has an integrated sleeve for the handle of a net. GENIUS! The net is tucked away in a secure manner behind me, easily reachable when it needs to be deployed; unnoticeable when not. I’ve used it several times while wet wading and I am still giddy over the ease with which I can now carry my net. And another thing I really like about the Thunderhead Sling is that all I need to do is unclip one strap, swing the pack around in front of me, and the waterproof zipper is right there, allowing for easy access to fly boxes, etc. This is a huge advantage over the backpack system where one must remove the pack to gain entry to its contents (and I don’t care for bulky front pack attachments). The Thunderhead has room for all that I need to carry, but it’s not big enough that I can carry excessive amounts of gear. It’s got a well thought-out system of external attachment points for nippers, hemostats, tippet spools, and whatnot. And because it has a fairly small footprint and breathable padding between the pack and one’s backside, it’s comfortable even on hot days.

For all the added features, however, the single best thing about the Thunderhead Sling Pack is, in my opinion, that it was designed to carry a net (for that rare occasion when I need one). I should note that my Nomad Hand Net has a very short handle, and truth be told, a longer handled net would fit the sleeve perhaps even better.

This pack is a keeper, as well it should be for what it cost. Because—remember—I paid retail just like the rest of you commoners.

Fishpond Thunderhead Sling (left) and Fishpond/Nomad Hand Net (right)

Exhibit A: Fishpond Thunderhead Sling (left) and Fishpond Nomad Hand Net (right)

Exhibit B: Thunderhead Sling with net inserted into sleeve

Exhibit B: Fishpond Thunderhead Sling with Nomad Hand Net inserted into sleeve (view #1)

Exhibit C: Thunderhead Sling with Nomad Hand Net inserted into sleeve (view #2)

Exhibit C: Fishpond Thunderhead Sling with Nomad Hand Net inserted into sleeve (view #2)

A mass of humanity in the Idaho backcountry

Looking down into Idaho from Hoodoo Pass.

A view of Idaho from Hoodoo Pass.

My timing is often far from impeccable when it comes to fishing trips. It seems I’ve a certain knack for planning trips that coincide with such things as—but not limited to—bad weather and rising rivers. Often times those two go hand in hand, as they did the past two summers on multi-day trips to my favorite Idaho Panhandle trout river. If so inclined, I delved into the bowels of the UA archives and extracted a couple of stories about those ill-fated trips HERE and HERE. And so, as my trip to the Idaho Panhandle this year approached, I naturally obsessed over the forecast to see whether the weather would show any indication of bad weather, or not.

There was none. Not a single day with a chance of anything other than clear skies and temps in the 80’s and beyond. That alone should have been a warning: with such a steady forecast of nice weather, I ought to have known that I wouldn’t be the only one with plans to visit the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho.

I left home at 6:45 on a Thursday and drove 7 hours to Superior MT. From there it took me a couple of hours to make the 43 mile drive over Hoodoo Pass to Hidden Creek Campground, on the banks of the NF Clearwater in Black Canyon (for details on the drive itself, feel free to read THIS). The reduced rate of travel was due mostly to the fact that I was gawking at the scenery and therefore driving slowly. There was, however, no option other than to drive slowly once I reached the summit of Hoodoo Pass, and particularly once I entered Black Canyon, which is a winding, narrow, pothole-riddled gravel road, partially washed out in a couple places). As I idled into Hidden Creek I was surprised at how many people were camped there, and I was lucky to get the last of 13 campsites. 18 miles from Hoodoo Pass, Hidden Creek is a nice, mostly-shaded Forest Service campground ($10/night) with what appeared to be a great fishing hole right next to camp (I shall call this Knee Replacement Hole).

The sun sets on the NF Clearwater.

The sun sets on the NF Clearwater in Black Canyon.

After securing my spot I walked down to the river just to scope things out. There was a friendly, older gent just returning from the Knee Replacement Hole. We chatted a bit and he indicated that the fishing was great, particularly once the sun was off the water, which it would be soon. After dinner I grabbed my 4 weight rod and headed down to the river, hoping to ply the waters of Knee Replacement Hole. However, the hole was occupied by the same friendly, older gent I had met earlier. I had learned that he’d had 2 knee replacements earlier this year, and because of that he wasn’t likely to be moving either up or downstream anytime soon. I opted to fish down from there, landing about 8 fish in 45 minutes. Nothing of size (mostly 10-inch fish), but the action was lively enough to keep things interesting. The flow seemed ample, but I was shocked at how warm the river was, particularly while wet wading at dusk. It was a nice welcome to the river and I was eager for what the next couple of days of fishing might have in store. A little whiskey by the fire topped off the evening, and at 10PM I retired to the penthouse bunk in the Man Van as The Loud Three—camped directly across the road—laughed and cajoled well into the night. Nothing wrong with that; their raucous story telling didn’t bother me one bit. I’d driven 9 hours that day and was plenty tired. Sleep came easily.

Morning shadows on the NF Clearwater.

Morning shadows on the NF Clearwater.

The Loud Three were up at 6 AM, using their outside voices as they broke camp and departed. I made coffee and breakfast and briefly contemplated running down to Knee Replacement Hole to wet a morning line. Assuming it would be occupied by the namesake angler, I opted out and was on the road by 7:30 AM. As I proceeded down Black Canyon I stopped every mile or so when a particularly fishy looking run caught my attention and there was room to pull over. Black Canyon is steep in some places and the road is narrow in all places.

Black Canyon Road, alongside the NF Clearwater.

Black Canyon Road, alongside the NF Clearwater.

Many fishy looking pieces of water were far down steep embankments and the pullouts were not always in reasonable proximity to a fishy looking piece of water. Since I was road fishing I took the easy way out and only stopped where access to good water was easy. I don’t often fish in this manner—preferring instead to hike along rivers, working water as I go—but here I was: the road angler. The NF Clearwater through Black Canyon has a fair amount of gradient so not all the water was fishable. But when it was worth fishing, it paid off, and I caught at least a couple of fish everywhere I stopped. Nothing of size, mind you, but the fish played nicely.

This run suggested a presence of fish. It was well worth the stop.

This run suggested a presence of fish. It was well worth the stop.

I did not regret my decision to stop and fish here.

I did not regret my decision to stop and fish here.

Due to poor bank access, I passed up a lot of water that looked like this.

Due to poor bank access, I passed up a fair amount of water that looked like this.

There weren’t so many angler types in Black Canyon that I would consider it busy, so after stopping a few times I decided to proceed downward to Kelly Forks. From there it would be about 18 miles to my rendezvous point at Bungalow, where I was to meet up with my buddy, Jawn Owl, at 7 PM. Figuring I would stop and fish often along the way, I assumed I would have no trouble stretching the hours and making a full day out of it. My assumption was incorrect. The road from Kelly Forks downstream was a highway compared to Black Canyon Road. The river was also much larger, having added Kelly Creek to the flow and all. Every spot along the way that looked fishy had at least one or two anglers in it. And the road was rather busy with vehicles and 4 wheelers buzzing up and down, the plumes of fine white dust barely having time to settle before another rig drive past. I suppose I was anticipating a much less populated scenario than what I encountered, and in retrospect I should have paid Kelly Creek a visit, done some hiking to more secluded waters. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

The main NF Clearwater somewhere below Kelly Forks.

The main NF Clearwater somewhere below Kelly Forks.

I opted to proceed to Bungalow to secure a campsite and then head back out in search of some quieter water. When I arrived at Bungalow I was confused by what appeared to be only two campsites, both of which were full. I passed the two roadside campsites, trying to make sense of it all. Then, a friendly guy in a white truck pulled up alongside and asked, “Are you looking for Jawn Owl?”  Why yes— yes I was. Sort of. I didn’t expect Jawn to arrive for several more hours. “I’m planning to meet him here this evening,” I replied. The friendly guy, whom I shall refer to as Mr. Rogers, was Jawn’s neighbor back in Lewiston, and Jawn had told him I’d be in a van. Mr. Rogers saw me driving around looking confused and figured I must be the guy (the Man Van is hard to miss, so his assumption was a fairly easy one). He instructed me to drive up the road, just past the roadside campsites, and turn right onto a smaller dirt road. He assured me there was plenty of room to park the van at their camp. I thanked him, and when I nosed the van into the camp area I immediately grew claustrophobic: there were no fewer than 15 trucks parked in a large grass clearing, with travel trailers everywhere, circled like covered wagons. I broke out in a cold sweat and my breathing grew shallow; my vision blurry as I contemplated the situation.

Circling the wagons at Bungalow.

Circling the wagons at Bungalow.

The settlement at Bungalow

A small sampling of the settlement at Bungalow

The intensity of the mid-afternoon sun added its weight to the situation as I staggered down to the river to find a quiet spot, enjoy a cold beer and calm my nerves. After my heart rate returned to normal I realized that Bungalow, while it was exactly what I was looking for, was not what I was looking for at all. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was quite the outpost, and not what I had expected. Actually, I’m not sure what I expected, but in our minds we always conjure up images of what a place may be like in an ideal world. This was not it. I made the decision to head back upriver in search of a quieter spot to camp. 5 miles later I pulled into Weitas Creek Campground.

The bridge to Weitas Creek Campground.

The bridge to Weitas Creek Campground.

With only 6 campsites, Weitas Creek is not a large facility and I was lucky to grab what I assumed to be the last spot. Looking back at it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find it so busy, but at the time I was still in denial that there were this many people out recreating in the Idaho backcountry. I set up camp and chatted briefly with the nice older couple—the Hummers— in the campsite next door. The couple (named for two hummingbird feeders hanging from their trailer awning that attracted swarms of hummers) had been there for 2 days, doing a little fishing, a little napping and generally enjoying the good life. I apologized for moving in next door and, after setting up camp, walked down the trail to Weitas Creek, a hand towel in hand, to wash the stink off. When I returned to camp there was a guy (who would later become known as Mr. Brown) wedging his truck camper into a narrow space on the other side of the Hummers. It didn’t appear to me to be a separate campsite and I thought it a pretty bold move on his part to set up camp there, without at least talking first to the Hummers, who didn’t seem to mind. In my assessment, Weitas Creek was now beyond full, although it was still a far cry from the settlement at Bungalow. It would suffice nicely for the next couple of nights.

At 6:45PM Jawn pulled into camp. He had gone first to Bungalow, and, without having seen the Man Van or his neighbor, Mr. Rogers, he pondered, “WWUAD?” His first inclination was to drive up to Weitas Creek. If I wasn’t there he would proceed downriver to Washington Creek Campground. His intuition was sound, and we toasted his arrival with a couple of Hamm’s (the beer refreshing) from his cooler. He remarked that Bungalow was quite the congregation of people, and hadn’t been surprised to discover that I wasn’t there. He also noted that there seemed to be a lot of people on and around the river. I agreed.

After Jawn unpacked his truck it dawned on him that he’d forgotten something fairly significant. But Jawn is a sunny optimist and shrugged off the matter. Later that evening, after discussing Bigfoot at great length, and telling lies around the fire, we retired to the comforts of the Man Van. I offered a light jacket and an extra pillow to help ease the severity of situation facing him: a night without a sleeping bag. Despite that the day had been near 90F, the nighttime temps would cool considerably, making for good sleeping…unless one is chilled to the core for lack of insulation. Jawn wrapped himself in a couple jackets and gave the thumbs up.

It'll be fine...

It’ll be fine…

At one point during the wee hours just before dawn—when it tends to be the coldest—Jawn got up and removed the seat cover from his truck, returning to his bunk where he wrapped the seat cover around his legs in a vain attempt to trap some body heat. Suffice it to say he spent a near sleepless night. I hadn’t even heard him get up as I slept rather soundly—if not a tad bit warmly— in the comfort of my sleeping bag. When arose at 6:45AM I observed a semi-comatose rommate, his lips blue. I checked for and found a pulse, so I proceeded to make coffee and heated water for oatmeal. When he emerged from the van Jawn was semi-coherent; his motor skills slightly delayed. Probably a mild case of hypothermia, which gradually eased as he warmed himself by the morning fire. There was no need to ask how his night had gone.

The cold of the night kept the corpse from decomposing.

At least the cold of the night kept the corpse from decomposing.

We were scheduled to meet up at Bungalow with Jawn’s brother-in-law, Clem, (named for his propensity for pushing his supply of Clementine oranges on us generosity in sharing his supply of Clementine oranges) and Clem’s eldest son, Droo. We drove the few short miles down to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, where we encountered Mr. Rogers himself. To make a long story short, we came away from the encounter armed with a sleeping bag for Jawn, who was still moving slowly. He noted that he felt like a snake: all he wanted was to seek out a rock in the sun. But we had fish to chase, which we would do after we found Clem and Droo, which we did a short while later. Clem noted that there were more people on the NF Clearwater than he’d seen before. Hmmm. He then offered us an orange.

We didn’t get onto the river until 9:30AM, by which time the sun was well up in the sky, leaving little shady water. We did find a few good runs and all got into fish: most of the which were small, ranging from 8-12 inches. Clem and Droo, in particular, found a pod of rising fish in one run and put on quite a catching clinic. Droo caught what he alleged was a solid 16-17″ fish, although I didn’t see the fish. Obviously I questioned his integrity I took his word for it. He seemed to be quite an accomplished young angler so I had no reason to doubt his claims.

Jawn warms himself in the morning sun.

Jawn warms himself in the morning sun.

Jawn gets tight to a fish as Droo moves in with the net.

Jawn gets tight to a fish as Droo moves in with the net.

Debate ensues over the matter of who gets credit for the fish: the net man or the one holding the rod.

Debate ensues over who gets credit for the fish: the net man or the one holding the rod.

Come lunch time Jawn had fully regained his target body temperature of 98.6F, and—with fully functioning motor skills—made sandwiches for us all back at camp. As we were eating, Mr. Brown strolled through camp, dressed in a manner to suggest he had been out fishing. We exchanged niceties and inquired how the fishing had been. Mr. Brown had hiked a ways up Weitas Creek (a tributary of the NF Clearwater) where he caught a few fish: “Nothing too big—mostly browns.” When I heard that I cocked a raised eyebrow toward Jawn, who choked back a hearty guffaw. Knowing full well that the only trout in these rivers are westslope cutthroats (and bull trout, which aren’t really a trout), we had a good chuckle after Mr. Brown had returned to his camp on the other side of the Hummers. We ate a few Clementines as lunch dessert, after which we drove back upriver to Kelly Forks, into Black Canyon. We fished there until the sun went off the water, landing a few more fish, though nothing bigger than 10″ for me. I was shunned by a couple larger fish that wanted nothing to do with anything I threw their way. I finally hooked into a good fish, but before I could even see it, it snapped my 5x cleanly (it was probably a huge brown). Jawn managed a couple nice 12-14″ fish that seemed like absolute hawgs compared to what I’d caught.

A mouthful of artifical golden stone.

A mouthful of artificial golden stone.

Back in Black Canyon for more fishy looking waters.

Back in Black Canyon for more fishy looking waters.

Jawn works the waters of Black Canyon.

Jawn works the late day waters of Black Canyon.

One of Jawn's NF Clearwater hawgs.

One of Jawn’s NF Clearwater hawgs.

It was getting late, and as we waited for a caddis hatch that might (but did not) result in a trout feeding frenzy, the smell of grilling meat wafted downstream from a nearby camp. From that point forward all we could think about was our own feeding frenzy, so we drove back to camp after a day of acceptable—but not exceptional—catching. Dinner did not disappoint, as Jawn presented us with prime cut ribeyes that were no less than 3″ thick. The steaks, coupled with a plethora of sauteed veggies and two types of rice, left no room for Clementines, which Clem offered nonetheless.

Evening ribeye hatch.

Evening ribeye hatch.

After a few lies were told around the fire, we retired to our sleeping bags (yes, even Jawn) for a good night’s rest. We’d put in a solid day of fishing and had earned some shut-eye. Especially Jawn, who’d gotten by without much of that the night before. I heard him cooing gently as he crawled into his borrowed sleeping bag.

The next morning we arose early, packed some bacon and oatmeal on top of the steaks we’d consumed less than 10 hours earlier, and headed upriver to seek out some cooperative trout. We didn’t find many. The day was headed well into the 90’s and the fish seemed to know it, preferring to hide in deep pools behind large rocks, with little intention of coming out to play. We fished with relatively little success until returning to camp around lunchtime. Like the trouts, nobody seemed particularly hungry (although I did accept another offering of Clementines).  Clem and Droo packed up and headed downriver toward home, planning to fish along their way; Jawn left a short while later. They all had less than 3 hours of travel ahead of them. Myself, I had more like 9 hours of road between where I was and home, but I had no intention of making that drive. My plan was to slowly meander downstream, maybe do a little fishing (if I could find some shady water) and spend the night at Aquarius Campground, 30 miles from Weitas Creek. Along the way I found no water worth stopping to fish, though I did pass by several spots were hoards of people were frolicking at the river’s edge. Being a Sunday and all, I figured the majority of people would be leaving to get back to their jobs in the civilized world. I assumed campsites would likely be half empty.When I arrived at Aquarius the campground was fully occupied. It was 3pm. I decided to do the unthinkable and make the 409.3 mile drive home. At least I would have the highways mostly to myself as few people should be trekking across eastern Washington that late in the evening. What I didn’t bargain for was a concert at the Gorge Ampitheatre in central WA, which must have gotten out around 10PM. There was a heavier-than-there-should-have-been traffic on I-90, from Vantage westward, and by the time I reached Snoqualmie Summit on I-90, it was 11 PM and I was in standstill traffic (due in part to road construction lane closures).

This ain't right.

This just ain’t right.

As I crawled along at speeds seldom exceeding 3mph I reflected back on the weekend and how crowded the NF Clearwater had been. Then it hit me: I had no right to be bitter about it because, after all, I had been there, too: I was part of the problem. My impeccable timing merely added to what many agreed was the busiest they’d ever seen it on the NF Clearwater.

Maybe if it had rained it would have thinned the crowds. On second thought, I’ll take the nice weather.

A road trip, with a little fishing on the side.

Actually, the headline is a bit misleading. The whole point of the trip was to go fly fishing; the road to the river simply a means to an end. But then plans were altered such that I would embark on a route that became a road trip worthy of note. Thus I’m posting this entry not so much as an interest to the 3 regular followers of my blog, but rather as a resource to those random internet travellers who may stumble upon this while researching the route from Montana to Idaho over Hoodoo Pass.

My destination was the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. Originally I was going to take the most direct, quickest route and drive to Lewiston, Idaho, up the Clearwater River via Greer and beyond. However, as I researched the matter, it became clear that I should take an extra day and travel a route that had long intrigued me, though I never before had cause to venture that way. This was my first trip to the NF Clearwater, and I decided to take a course that would entail more or less a big loop, without repeating as much of my route as as possible.

The path I chose took me on I-90, eastbound, to Superior, MT. This portion of the journey I’d done dozens of times, though never before actually stopping at Superior. Exit I-90 at Superior, turn right at the off ramp, then follow the frontage road to the left. Stay on this for a couple miles or so and the road makes a right hand bend and becomes Forest Road 250/Diamond Rd/Trout Creek Rd. It’s paved for a couple of miles before transitioning abruptly to a graded forest service road. From Superior to Hoodoo Pass is approximately 25 miles. The road, which was in good shape with only a few sections of teeth-rattling washboards, is wide enough for two vehicles to easily pass in most places. On this Thursday afternoon in mid July I only encountered perhaps a half dozen travelers coming in the opposite direction. Once you reach the summit, you’ll cross into Idaho and begin your descent into the NF Clearwater drainage. From the summit onward the road is not wide enough for two vehicles to pass, but there are occasional pullouts if needed. Rd 250 takes you down Black Canyon, approximately another 29 miles to Kelly Forks. From there, it’s another 44 miles downstream to Aquarius Campground, which is the last campground on the NF Clearwater before exiting the Clearwater National Forest (a few miles before you reach Aquarius, the road turns back to pavement, as you leave the dust in the rear view mirror). Onward down 247 though logging country to Headquarters (a place, not a town), turning right onto Hwy 11 through more logging and wheat farming country toward the towns of Pierce and Wieppe, ID respectively (cool little towns steeped in rich Idaho history). From there, down the steep and winding Greer Grade. This is worth the trip alone and seems to be a popular ride for motorcycles, as there are several Youtube videos of two wheelers riding the grade. At the bottom of the grade, I passed quickly through Greer and past Orofino, ID. From here on it was a familiar drive down Hwy 12 along the Clearwater to Lewiston, up the Lewiston Grade on Hwy 195, past Pullman, WA (Go Cougs!) to Colfax (Taco Time!). From there, westward on Hwy 26 to Vantage, then west on I-90 until returning home to the wet side of WA. It was 969 miles round trip with three stops to let the Man Van drink fuel. Once leaving Superior, I found the entire drive, all the way to Greer, to be very enjoyable. Everything else was familiar territory simply to be gotten through.

Superior, MT must have a high opinion of itself.

Superior, MT must have a high opinion of itself.

Road 250 our of Superior is paved, until it's not.

Road 250 out of Superior is paved, until it’s not.

Road 250 turns to gravel a few miles outside of Superior, MT.

Road 250 turns to gravel a few miles outside of Superior, MT.

There's no shortage of dust in Montana.

There’s no shortage of dust in Montana.

Road 250 climbs toward the summit of Hoodoo Pass

Road 250 climbs through logged hillsides toward the summit of Hoodoo Pass.

The Man Van stops along thew way to Hoodoo Pass so the driver can relieve hisself.

The Man Van stops along the way to Hoodoo Pass so the driver can relieve hisself.

It's worth stopping to smell the roses as you ascend Hoodoo Pass.

It’s worth stopping to smell the roses as you ascend Hoodoo Pass.

Beautiful country near the top of Hoodoo Pass in Montana.

Beautiful country near the top of Hoodoo Pass in Montana.

Looking down into Idaho from Hoodoo Pass.

Looking down into Idaho from Hoodoo Pass.

A small rock slide near the summit of Hoodoo Pass.

A small rock slide near the summit of Hoodoo Pass. This was as bad as the road got.

What's this? Pavement into Idaho?

What’s this––pavement in Idaho? Who knew? It was short lived.

Hidden Creek Campground. Recommended if you don't mind a pay site.

Hidden Creek Campground. Recommended if you don’t mind paying $10/night. I didn’t mind.

Hidden Creek is a nicely shaded campground, right along the NF Clearwater.

Hidden Creek is a nicely shaded campground, right alongside the NF Clearwater.

The pavement didn't last too long. Idaho marks their fallen rocks so you won't run into them.

Black Canyon Road/Rd 250. Idaho marks their fallen rocks so you won’t run into them.

Black Canyon Road, alongside the NF Clearwater.

Black Canyon Road, alongside the NF Clearwater. Not suitable for large RVs.

The NF Clearwater River through Black Canyon.

The NF Clearwater River through Black Canyon.

The bottom of Black Canyon Road at Kelly Forks.

The bottom of Black Canyon Road/250 at Kelly Forks.

There are no photos of the road from Kelly Forks to Aquarius. Imagine, if you will, a dusty, graveled forest service road with ample room for two vehicles to pass; with no harrowing sections or hairpin turns. It’s a well-travelled road suitable for RVs of any size.

Headquarters, ID. Headquarters for, what exactly? Not much here other than what you see in the photo.

Headquarters, ID. Headquarters for what, exactly? Not much here other than what you see in the photo.

I should have—but did not—stop to take photos in Pierce and Wieppe. I had several hours of driving ahead of me and wasn’t thinking about much other than putting miles behind me.

The road beyond Wieppe, ID.

The road beyond Wieppe, ID, through high prairie and wheat country.

Near the top of Greer Grade in Idaho. A steep, twisty road with amazing views.

Near the top of Greer Grade in Idaho. A steep, twisty road with amazing views.

One of several hairpin turns on Greer Grade that could not get any sharper.

One of several hairpin turns on Greer Grade that could not get any sharper.

Once at the bottom of Greer Grade, there were no more photos taken for the remainder of the trip, until several hours later when I was in the middle of eastern Washington on Hwy 26…

Perhaps the most photographed potato shed in the world, east of Othello WA.

Perhaps the most photographed potato shed in the world, east of Othello WA.  Go Cougs, indeed!



Hell or High Water? Day 4: The Beaverhead

If you’ve made it this far after reading Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, you have my sympathy.

The summit of Hwy 287 between Virginia City and Ennis, MT.

The summit of Hwy 287 between Virginia City and Ennis, MT.

After bidding rood riddance to Three Dollar Bridge, we made our way toward Twin Bridges, via Ennis. As we pulled into Twin Bridges it became readily apparent that there was less happening on a Sunday night than there had been in the ghost town of Virginia City, which we’d passed through a half hour before. Actually, the weather was a bit lively, as our arrival was just ahead of a storm system that was rolling through the area. Dark clouds brought thunder and rain, adding to the rivers that were already running high. The Big Hole, which we had hoped to fish the next day, had already been approaching flood stage. This didn’t bode well for our hopes of being able to fish that river the next day.

A storm rolls into the ghost town of Twin Bridges.

A storm rolls into the ghost town of Twin Bridges.

Suffice it to say our hunch was correct: we would not be fishing the Big Hole. We’d fished it the past two years with the guys from 4 Rivers Fishing Company, and rather enjoyed ourselves. We had a sneaking suspicion that the only option would be the Beaverhead, which we had fished back in 2010; a year when it was also the only option. On that day 7 years prior, we fished in an all-day deluge that would have made Forks, WA proud. We caught many large fish and tested the effectiveness of our Gore-Tex jackets. The weather forecast this year didn’t call for rain, but when fishing in Montana one can never be too sure: ‘Plan for the worst, hope for the best’ is the mantra.

The next morning we met up with Chris Knott and Seth McLean, who, as proprietors of 4 Rivers Fishing Company, made up two of our 3 guides for the day. The 3rd “guide” was Joe Willauer, who isn’t a real guide. He used to be, before selling out and starting a family, which necessitated the financial stability of a real job. Joe is a self-professed ‘hobby guide’ these days, leaving his cubicle and trading in his Dockers for waders on occasion when Seth and Chris are short on actual working guides. Joe and I have been friends for many years and I feel like somewhat of a father figure to him; our resemblance so uncanny that we’re often confused as father and son when we’re together.

Family resemblance? Me and Joe from a few years earlier when he was still a real guide.

Family resemblance? Me and Joe from a few years earlier when he was still a real guide.

The Beaverhead felt like somewhat of a consolation prize, but it was the only game in town. My memory from the first time we’d fished the Beav was limited to the tossing of cumbersome double dropper rigs with split shot (a nightmare to cast). We hadn’t gotten to see much of the river that year due to the rain, which caused a Clark Canyon Creek to puke it’s chocolate bile into the river. We ended up fishing the upper 2 miles twice that day in a desperate attempt to fill our time quotas. At least on this day we should be able to fish much further downstream without repeating water. We hoped it wouldn’t rain, but just in case we all stowed our rain jackets on board our respective boats. Well, most of us did. I was unable to locate my jacket, which was, as it turns out, tucked away safely in Jay Dixon’s boat from 3 days earlier on the Missouri.

It was a foregone conclusion that Marck and Morris would join Chris in his boat: those three have become a wolf pack of sorts, what with Marck and Morris making early Spring trips to fish with Chris the past two years.  Jimmy and Goose subjected themselves to the tough love that comes from fishing with Seth, leaving Nash and myself to fight over who would get the back seat of Joe’s boat (I won). It didn’t take long before we all started getting into fish.

Nash enjoying one of his hot streaks.

Nash enjoying one of his hot streaks.

Throughout the day the momentum would swing back and forth, with Nash getting hot and landing a few fish while I sulked cheered him on. Then it would be my turn. But it wasn’t a competition (not officially, anyway) and we had a few instances where we were doubled up. Joe did a remarkably decent job of putting us on fish, despite the fact that he spends more time working a spreadsheet than the oars. The action was pretty consistent, with few fish smaller than 15 inches, mostly browns. Nash took honors in the whitefish category with an impressive specimen.

Two-handed whitey grip and grin.

Two-handed whitey grip and grin.

Here, I offer encouragement and a few rowing tips to Joe.

Here, I offer encouragement and a few rowing tips to Joe as Nash tries to sell him some insurance.

Apparently Goose had been having a particularly rough time of keeping flies in the water and out of the streamside vegetation. At one point we passed their boat as Seth was re-rigging Goose’s flies. Within a few minutes the profanities echoed off the hills on either side. We glanced upriver to see a rather discontented Goose with his line tight to an overhanging bit of shrubbery. While he may have lost no fewer than 138 flies throughout the day (which Seth patiently and graciously remedied), Goose also caught some nice fish. As did Jimmy.

Goose, between tangles and snags.

Goose, between tangles and snags.

Jimmy with a dandy Beaverhead rainbow.

Jimmy with a dandy Beaverhead inhabitant.

I’m not sure how well Marck and Morris were doing, but I assumed they were catching fish as well, given that Chris is a working guide, like Seth.

Apparently even Chris caught a nice brown.

Apparently even Chris caught a nice brown.

A rare sight: Morris in the front seat.

A rare sight: Normally one to prefer it in the rear, Morris fished out of the front seat.

At one point the guides decided to make short work of a fishy-looking stretch of water, powering through it with rods stowed. We raced and played a friendly game of three-way bumper boats; our boat coming out on the short end of the stick (with hands soft and shoulders weak from his day job, Joe just couldn’t keep up with the working guides).

Rushing past what appeared to be perfectly good water.

Rushing past what appeared to be perfectly good water.


Being overtaken by a boatload of tailgaters.

The competitive tomfoolery was fun and all, but why the rush to get past the fishy looking water? Apparently, despite appearances, this section hadn’t been fishing well at all, and our guides were in a hurry to get to “the mud”. I wasn’t sure what they meant by that until we came upon Grasshopper Creek, which was puking reddish-brown mud into the Beaverhead. My first thought was, “Why the hell are we targeting the brown water?” It wasn’t too long before the fish started hammering our flies in the muddy water and the reason became clear. Go figure.

The race ended in The Mud.

The race ended in The Mud.

At the end of the day we’d had us a grand old time and caught a bunch of fish. We got to see a lot more of the Beaverhead, and casting the awkward weighted rigs didn’t prove to be as challenging as I remember it to be from years before (though Goose may disagree). It was, by far, the most productive day of our trip; a trip otherwise fraught with high water and largely tight-lipped fish. We managed to dodge any weather bullets and had very pleasant conditions in which to do our thing. Because Montana can throw some curve balls at you any time of the year, I, in particular, was lucky that it didn’t rain on us. Remind me to get my jacket out of Jay’s boat.

Until next year…





Hell or High Water? Day Three: The Madison

This is Part 3, preceded by Part 1 and Part 2 (it’s a sequential thing).

Before departing West Yellowstone, the Rangers each handed our cash to Marck as it had been decided that he would be the one to settle up our lodging bill. He took a series of big, deep breaths and, choking back the tears, he bravely entered the office. After a minute—but what undoubtedly felt like eternity to him—Marck emerged, disoriented and gasping for air; his clothes smelling of ammonia. And thus we bade farewell for another year.

Next up: My favorite river, the Madison.

What's wrong, Marck—cat got your tongue?

What’s wrong, Marck—cat got your tongue?

The Madison, looking upstream toward Three Dollar Bridge

The Madison, looking upstream toward Three Dollar Bridge

Picture this: Standing on the river bank. High-sticking a Pat’s Stone with some version of a San Juan Worm dropper. Watching the three foam indicators intently; waiting, hoping for a twitch that might be a fish but is more than likely a snag that will snap off your dropper. That’s the game on the Cornhole Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge this time of year.

Runoff was in full swing and the river was, not unexpectedly, as high and dirty as ever. Some would consider these conditions to be unfishable. And yet, I had a confident swagger—or perhaps a false sense of confidence—as we geared up in the parking lot. We were not alone. Far from it on this first Sunday in June, with no fewer than 10 other rigs already there; some would leave and others were arrive during the day. One guy was returning from a morning of apparently catching fish, and as he walked past us he declared with a wide grin on his face, “There’s lots of fish to be caught, boys!”

“Good to hear!” I said, politely, holding back the urge to target his Adam’s Apple with an arc-hand strike.

Our customary team photo was not taken this year, just as it was not taken the previous day on the Firehole. Hadn’t we learned from our mistake by breaking with tradition? Oh, well.

The skies were mostly blue and the forecast called for temperatures near 80F—not a day for waders—so sunscreen (and bug spray) were in order. Last year the weather had been similarly nice, and I’d had my best day on the Madison ever, landing 7 fish. Of course the river was much lower last year, but after several years of catching just a couple, or no fish at all, I felt like I had finally cracked the Madison nut. I didn’t expect to light it up this year, but I had a strong feeling that I’d come tight to at least a couple fish.

I would be wrong.

On lean years I can expect to at least have some company in my misery: Goose. But even he caught a fish this year. Marck and Morris got into a lot of fish by crossing the bridge and going for a long hike upriver. They’re assholes They certainly can’t be faulted for putting in the effort, but even on years when I’ve made the same, long jaunt, it hasn’t paid off. One year I did manage a couple fish by taking the long journey over the river and upstream, but this style of fishing isn’t even close to my favorite way of spending a day and I wasn’t keen on putting in the great effort for a couple fish. Jimmy and I instead moved on downstream, covering mostly the same water. He caught a couple. Nash had opted to stay on the near side of the river and hike upstream a ways. He also got into a few fish.


Jimmy applies Powerbait to inspects his worm.

I did not.

I loath the Madison Cornhole Madison and the feeling is, apparently, mutual. I wanted nothing more than to wash my hands of the vile place and move on to the next, and final, river of our trip. I also wanted to wash my boots in the new cleaning station provided. The instructions were simple:

  1. Wet Your Boots
  2. Brush Your Boots
  3. Rinse Your Boots

There is a brush supplied for second step of the task, but one key, missing ingredient was water needed for steps one and three. Granted the river is only a short distance away, but carting river water up the hill to the boot cleaning station, one empty beer can at a time, would take all day. And using the river water to wash one’s boots probably isn’t what the powers-that-be had in mind when they installed the cleaning station. I suppose one could supply a gallon or two of their own fresh, clean water…if they knew in advance that it was required. Apparently nobody did, as I saw not a single person use the cleaning station all day. It is a noble, but flawed, concept.

Boot cleaning station. A noble concept, except that it requires water and there is no water. I saw nobody using it all day.

Boot cleaning station: Just Add Water.

The day had become quite hot, and as clouds moved in the humidity increased. The combination of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray made for a not-so-fresh feeling. I longed a shower to wash away the smell of the skunking, which stank worse than the office at the Ho Hum.

Good riddance, Three Dollar Bridge. Onward, to Twin Bridges for the last leg of our journey. It couldn’t get much worse, or could it?

A beautiful setting in which to not catch fish.

There’s more to fishing than just catching fish. A beautiful setting in which to not catch fish.