The last trout trip of the year was to a favorite, familiar place in northern Idaho that the Rangers (or at least most of the regiment) normally fish together in July. Marck and Morris tend to be a bit more obsessive about this place (or they’re more tolerant of the 8 hour drive) and are known to make an occasional weekend jaunt at other times of the year. I absolutely love the place, but I just can’t talk myself into a 3 day weekend in which 2 of those days are spent driving. Unfortunately, the July group trip didn’t happen this year. Instead, I took an extended weekend and visited the North Fork Clearwater, another northern Idaho trout zone merely one drainage away. That trip introduced me to a river I’d never fished before, and while a grand time was had, it left me missing the favorite Idaho river. And so, in August, Jimmy and I began discussing dates for a September trip, and waiting impatiently for the date to arrive.
We’d fished the favorite river in late September last year, and it was a beautiful time to be there. With lower flows, the fishing wasn’t as fast paced as it typically is in July, but the fish we encountered were all very healthy, mostly quite large (15 inches and above, up to 20″). It was a great trip, and we hoped to have a similar trip this year. Marck was unable to get the time off from work. We knew Goose and Nash wouldn’t be able to make the trip so we didn’t bother asking them. Morris decided to join in, but declined the offer to ride with us and instead drove his own car.
Fires burning in area—and all around on the Montana side of the Bitterroots—had made for very poor air quality in the weeks leading up to our trip. The smoke had been widespread across the entire Pacific Northwest, as well, due to fires burning closer to home. A bad year for fires. As we headed out on this particular Sunday in mid September, the smoke was thick at home, but began to clear the farther east we drove. Weather reports had suggested this would be the case and we were delighted that those predictions held true. The result was that we had 3 days of clear skies and perfect weather. A little cloud cover might have made for better fishing, but it was hard to complain about being on a beautiful river in the Idaho backcountry, under blue skies and 75 degree weather.
The only complaint was that, due to a burn ban, there were no campfires allowed, and sitting around an LED lantern at night isn’t quite the same as staring into a flame. On the other hand, we got plenty of sleep since there was no allure of a campfire to keep us up late and night, telling lies and sipping whiskey. This time of year the sun goes down by 6:30 or so, and is dark by 7pm. The first night we were in bed by 8:30 (getting old, apparently). The next night we were determined to stretch things out a bit and didn’t retire until 9:30. On the last night we did a bit better and may have extended our evening until 11PM thanks to a visit from the young guy camped nearby. He was there for a week by himself and had apparently become starved for conversation.
But enough about our lack of late night gumption, let’s get to the fishing…
Day One fishing was slow to start. Morris did better than either Jimmy or me, and I barely managed to land one fish all day long. A good fish, to be sure—a beautiful hen of around 16″ or so. But she paled in comparison to the absolute hog that Morris landed.
It was actually the second time he caught that fish on this trip. You see, the reason Morris drove himself was so that he could leave earlier than us, drive much faster than us (thereby arriving several hours before us) and fish all the good holes before us. But back to the fish: it was one of the bigger cutthroats one can expect to catch on this river. The Great Pumpkin Trout was over 20″, and likely closer to 21″ or 22″. This big old buck was more colored-up than any Westslope Cutt I’d ever seen, its belly as vibrant orange as imaginable. And it’s orange belly was full, suggesting that it had been feasting on the massive supply of Spruce Moths that were hatching.
We desperately tried catch the Great Pumpkin Trout again, but having been gullible two days in a row, it finally wised up and kept its head down for the remainder of the trip. The Spruce Moth hatch which I mentioned above was significant. The moths were literally everywhere: in the trees, on the trail, in the air, on the water. However the fish were not taking them. We watched and observed, and never once saw a trout take a live moth. Our hunch was that due to clear skies and a bright moon, the fish were gorging on the moths at night. Once the sun came up, the fish—like hungover college kids who’d been on a bender all night—wanted nothing to do with the hair of the dog.
The same held true for Days Two and Three. What few fish were caught were done so on everything from black ants to tiny PMDs, and the occasional October Caddis. I did better on Day Two than I had on Day One, but only by 2 fish. My best day was Day Three, when I managed 5 fish: still slow for the number of river hours we put in.
Day Three did hold one very satisfying fish, in particular, for me. One run we refer to as “The Swimming Hole” always has several rising fish. But it’s a difficult hole to fish because it’s very slow (almost no current), deep (perhaps 6-8 feet in low water), and there’s very little structure other than a few rocks on the bottom. The fish here have too much time to decide that one’s presentation is unworthy of their participation. They sipped regularly on some bug that was either emerging or too small to see on the surface. For two days in a row they refused to entertain the anglers that paid them a visit. On Day Three I managed to get lucky and fooled a Swimming Hole Fish into accepting my articifical offering. The fish was not large—maybe 13″—but it took line and fought better than any other fish of the trip. I was just happy to have finally hooked a fish in this run.
Here are a few photos for you to enjoy without my accompanying Drivel®:
On the 4th day—the day we left for home—the smoke had moved back in. It was so thick driving back over the pass from Idaho into Montana that it could be tasted it through the ventillation system in the Man Van ( which lacks a recirculated air option). I felt sorry for the groups of elk hunters in the area who were camped in this. It would certainly make for tough hiking and scouting, and with no reprieve from the smoke once back at camp, well, no thanks. Good luck, fellas.
The smoke remained thick all the way way home. 2017 was the summer of fires: one to be forgotten and hopefully not repeated any time soon.
Some of you may recall a blog post from a couple of summers ago in which I was not targeting—and ended up catching—a bull trout in Idaho. The article was aptly titled, Not Targeting Bull Trout in Idaho in case you wanted to re-read it. I’ve always thought the term “targeting” was a bit vague and essentially unenforcible. I mean, who’s to say that you are targeting one species or another while fishing waters that holds more than one species of fish? That said, apparently targeting bull trout in Idaho is not disallowed. A recent comment from a reader of the UA alerted me to an article on the Idaho Fish and Game website that I found rather interesting (thanks, Tony). The article, titled Casting for bulls: fishing for Idaho’s bull trout, can be read HERE.
So there’s no need to be covert in your targeting of bull trout while fishing in Idaho. Just be sure to treat them gently and release them quickly.
As the date quickly approaches for a jaunt to Idaho for a bit of mid-September angling, I thought it prudent to look into the matter of any potential fires burning in the area where we’ll be headed. Since fire season is particularly bad this year all across Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, the likelihood of a burn in the general vicinity of our destination seemed likely.
My hunch was correct.
A fire known as the Buck Fire in Idaho has been burning since August 7th. It’s currently 1265 acres and is 25% contained and is actively burning in a north-northeast direction. There are 10 personnel assigned to fighting this particular burn. The fire itself is a considerable distance away from where we will be, but the extended closure boundary is the width of the river away from the Forest Service Road we’ll take to get to the campground. A phone call to the Ranger District office confirmed that this is the case. If they move that boundary line 150 feet further north, we’ll have to alter our plans.
We’ve had significant rain events the past two summers when we’ve visited our favorite Idaho Panhandle River. There is no precipitation in the forecast this year. There will be no campfires this year, that is a given. Instead, we’ll sit around an LED lantern when the sun goes down.
Needless to say fire season is bad this year. Even western Washington has had several days of thick smoke and ash fallout from fires burning to the north, east, and southeast. Good thoughts to all those fighting fires–stay safe out there.
Hopefully I’ll report back in a week or so with tales of many large cutthroat trouts that made poor decisions.