westslope cutthroat trout
Recently I, or rather we (my family) embarked on a family vacation that had absolutely nothing to do with fishing. Last year we also took a family vacation but somehow a couple of rods and reels made it into the roof pod for that trip. What was even more strange was that my son and I stole an afternoon to wet a line on the Fall River in Central Oregon. Not so this year. Yes, we were destined for a lake, but not a lake that’s fly fishing friendly, per se. So this year the fly rods were left safely at home – I didn’t want the temptation to interfere with good, clean family fun. Read my lips: no fishing. Not even the thought of it. Well, OK, the thoughts can’t be turned off, but without a single piece of tackle along for the trip there would be no temptation to go fishing and I would instead turn my attention toward my family. Without the distraction of fishing or anything fishing related.
We left home and drove east on Hwy 2 over Stevens Pass, following the course of Skykomish River, with it’s run of summer steelhead, to its headwaters in the Cascade mountains. As we crested the summit and descended the eastern slopes, our course paralleled the Wenatchee River, with it’s run of salmon and summer steelhead. Paying no mind, we set the nose of the Unaccomplished Family Truckster north on Hwy 97, following the mighty Columbia River. I barely glanced at the river and certainly gave no thought to the impressive numbers of returning Sockeye Salmon and steelhead that were making their way upriver over the many dams. I was focused on other things, and in the similar fashion of many fathers on vacation I like to point out interesting landmarks and explain mysterious rock formations.
As we passed one particular area the children in the back seat (ages 16, 18 and 20) took a break from their iPods and iPhones and marveled with great wonder at the vibrant red rocks alongside the road. Breaking into my best Chevy Chase-as-Clark Griswald imitation, I explained that it was iron content in the basalt which gave it the red coloring to the rock. Immediately we noted the same red coloring spread across the highway like spilled paint, and Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler quickly pointed out that it was “flame retardant” from the recent wildfire in Swakane Canyon. The fire had been on the news recently and had luckily been extinguished. Not one to be outdone, I reminded her that the politically correct term was for the flame extinguishing chemical was “fire discouragement”. Ha! How do you like me now Mrs. Smarty Pants? We rode in awkward silence for another 45 minutes before arriving at Lake Chelan.
The lake itself is a 50-mile long, deep and crystal clear mountainous beauty that does have Lake Trout for those willing to dredge, but as I said it would not be my destination with fly fishing in mind. The third deepest lake in the United States, Chelan is nearly 1500 ft at its deepest, and last I checked my sinking line was only 100 feet long, with another 70 yards of backing. Even if I could reach the bottom with a type VI full sinker, at a sink rate of six inches per second it would take 3000 seconds to do so, and who has that kind of time to spare? Especially on a family vacation where there would be no fishing. If so inclined, as was Josh Mills recently, one can also take a boat and head north on a quest to find Cutthroat in some of the tributaries, but in order to do so you’d have to be on a fishing vacation, which I was not. We were there for a few days of sun and relaxation as a family. No fishing.
We checked into our Lake Chelan Shores rental condo that was decorated in a manner that screamed “19-eighty something”. It was clean and plenty nice: the owners simply hadn’t put a nickel into updating anything save for the 48 inch flatscreen TV on the wall. Priorities, I guess. As we stowed our gear I was quick to notice a rather large bug resting on the track of the sliding glass door leading to the small deck. It was large (the bug, not the deck), and quite alive. Grabbing it gingerly by the upright wings, I studied it carefully, declared it to be a handsome example of a Hexagonia Mayfly, and set if free outside. I barely even made a mental note that it was a prized piece of trout food. On this particular vacation it was just another bug as far as I was concerned.
As we stocked the cupboards with dried food and filled the fridge with beverages and perishables, I noted that in the otherwise disjointed décor of the unit, a peculiar decorative tile hung in the kitchen. The image was clearly some sort of trout – perhaps intended to be a brown trout, although the artist had taken great liberties with color so it was more of a blue trout. Without any other fish-related décor, I was dumfounded as to the presence of this particular example. Perhaps the owner was a fisherman – perhaps a trout fisherman? I quickly put the notion out of my head and got back to the business of vacationing with my family.
We headed to the pool for an hour of sunning, and since I’m too restless to sit in the sun with nothing else to do I brought with me the book my kids had given to me for Father’s Day. It was my goal for the week to completely read Backcast (by Lou Ureneck) because at home I rarely take time to read. On my nightstand at home I have a backlog of books (all fly fishing related) I keep intending to get to. My problem is that I’m a bad reader. To be clear, I’m actually good at reading, but I become fully engrossed in a good book and therefore my social skills take a beating. Backcast was a great book, by the way, and I fear that I wasn’t completely engaged in our family vacation during the several hours per day I spent reading. But I was there in body if not in mind, which is more than had it been a fishing vacation. Just as there is more to fishing than catching fish, there’s much more to Backcast than just fly fishing.
The next day we ventured to a different pool that was much closer to the lake. I’m not a pool guy, much preferring to swim in a natural body of water. However, I didn’t want to alienate Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler so I accompanied her to the pool to spend some quality time together, sharing some rare but meaningful conversation. I also had my book, so in retrospect I may not have been the most engaging conversationalist. After a good solid hour of reading chatting I decided to cool off in the pool. As I slipped into the water I noticed a spent bug floating on the surface of the chlorinated pond. What should it be other than another Hex! I scooped the waterlogged Mayfly from the waters hoping to revive it, to no avail. I hate to see a good piece of trout food go to waste like that but there were no trout in the pool, brown trout or otherwise. I momentarily considered carrying the spent bug to the lake to offer it up to a fish, but thought better of it. I did, however, venture down to the lake for a very refreshing dip in the crystal clear blue waters. The children were frolicking in the swimming area so I spent a little quality time with them before returning to my book poolside wife. It felt good to be relaxing without anything to do. Time was on my side and I could choose to do whatever or as little as I wanted. The only thing I couldn’t do was go fishing.
The next day Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler’s sister and husband joined us for dinner at a fancy winery and vineyard just outside the town of Chelan. Tsillan Cellars is perched on a hillside looking north with an expansive view of the lake and the mountains to the west. For those who don’t speak the language of the Native Americans from this region, Tsillan is the native spelling of Chelan, which I think means “family destination” though I could be wrong (actually it means “deep water”). Tisllan Cellars offers quite a beautiful setting and the manicured grounds are surrounded by rows of grape vines on 3 sides. We sampled some wines as we waited for our table to be readied for our meal. I’m not much of a wine guy, preferring low grade beer over grape juice. Having said that I do enjoy a an occasional glass of red (no particular variety – just red will do).
The dinner menu provided by Sorrento’s Ristorante was inviting, but something caught my eye: The “Atlantic King Salmon”. The vein in my forehead began to pulsate as I announced to my dinner companions that there was no such thing: it was either Atlantic or King Salmon, but it could not be both. My sister-in-law declared that whatever it was, she was ordering it. When the waiter came to take our orders I inquired as to the salmon entrée. “I don’t mean to be a wise guy,” I stated up front, “but can you tell me if the salmon is Atlantic or King? Because it cannot be both.” The waiter was clearly not prepared for such an inquiry, so Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler stepped in and apologized. “You’ll have to excuse my husband – he’s a fisherman.” I wanted to chime in and add, “Actually I’m an Unaccomplished Angler on a non-fishing vacation,” but the words would not come out. The waiter stammered as he explained that the fish was probably Atlantic because that’s all they buy. Outrageous! Here we were within a short distance of a river teeming with record numbers of Pacific Salmon and all they offered was Atlantic Salmon?! Farm raised, no doubt. I opted to not break into a tirade about that and instead simply ordered the Prime Bone-In Ribeye, medium rare. It was excellent, and by the time dinner had concluded the vein in my forehead pulsed at a normal rate.
After dinner we strolled around the grounds, admiring the elaborate waterfall and circular stream that contained several fish. Not trout, although the artificially oxygenated water would likely have provided a nice habitat for some stocked rainbows. I grabbed my waterproof Olympus Stylus 1030 SW camera and snapped a few photos of the Koi. No doubt the other guests who were watching me wondered what the strange man was doing on his hands and knees with one arm submerged in the fake stream. For a moment I forgot where I was and fancied myself on a mountain stream in the Idaho Bitterroots (where I was this same time the last two years before), fishing for stupid Westslope Cutthroat trouts. I came to my senses and remembered I was on a family vacation, far from any fishing destination.
The remainder of the vacation was relatively without fishing-related incident, although on our second to last morning one of the children proclaimed that a vehicle had been defaced in the parking lot, and accused me of being the culprit. I went out to investigate, and to my surprise and delight, a red Jeep Grand Cherokee bearing University of Washington plates and a dusty back window had been tagged by a dust artist. Scribed with a finger on the rear window were the words, “Go Cougars!!” You see, in the state of Washington there is a long-standing rivalry between the good salt-of-the-Earth folk who root for the Washington State University Cougars and the polar opposite people who root for the University of Washington Huskies. I smiled when I saw the dust graffiti, but what really caught my eye, and thus the accusation that I was behind the defacing act, was the stick figure of an angler casting a long looping line with a dry fly attached to the opposite end. Eager to strike the fly was a rather large trout: clearly a rainbow by the lateral stripes down its flanks. Knowing that I am an artist, a WSU card-carrying Alum and a fly angling person, any jury would have convicted me and sentenced me to a life of wine drinking and no fishing. It took all the pleading I could muster to convince my family that I was not responsible. Word to whomever was responsible: You deserve a pat on the back. You’re my kind of person, and I hope you enjoyed a nice vacation. A family vacation that did not have a single thing to do with fishing.
The St. Joe River in Idaho has become one of my favorite places to fish. It’s no Yakima River, mind you, but that’s a good thing. My older brother Hal (not necessarily his real name) and I first fished “The Joe” during the summer of 2008. We’d been talking about taking a fishing trip together for a couple years, and had pondered visiting the Bitterroot River in Montana. The year we were going to go was the same year that half the state of Montana was ablaze in wildfires: If it wasn’t burning, it was being smoked out. We never made it that year, and I figured a fishing trip would become like so many other things in life that never materialize. Maybe next year. Then maybe the year after that. We’d keep talking about it until we’re too old to do anything but talk about it.
During the winter of 2007 Hal forwarded a New York Times article about fishing Idaho’s panhandle. The article suggested that the St. Joe Westslope Cutthroat trout could be easily fooled into taking just about any fly, and that was good enough for me. I needed some stupid catching on some gullible fish and so armed with that information, we booked a 3-day stay with the St. Joe Outfitters. I began putting together a box of highly technical flies especially for this trip: Stimulators, Royal Coachmans/Wulffs, Humpies, and some big Chernobyl stuff. Mostly red, as red was said to be the ticket on the St. Joe. Having only driven through Idaho’s panhandle at 75 mph on previous occasions, I was greatly looking forward to visiting a new area, and enjoying a couple days of easy catching. After recent butt kickings on the Yakima, and another trip to Yellowstone with Marck, my self-confidence needed some coddling. The stupid Westslopes would be just what the doctor ordered.
Hal and I drove from my home in western Washington to St. Regis, Montana the day before we were to meet the St. Joe Outfitters at their base camp operations. From St. Regis it was about an hour drive up the Little Joe Road; a winding, gravel forest service road that climbs to the top of the Gold Pass. Once there, we crossed into Idaho where the road changed over to pavement, and we roller-coasted all the way down to the junction with Red Ives Road. I won’t bore you with the rest of the directions, but suffice it to say it was a beautiful drive the entire way and we saw only one other vehicle, and that was some dude on a dual sport bike who was pulled over to the side of the dirt road wishing he hadn’t because what followed us was a plume of thick Montana dust which quickly engulfed him. Right on schedule, we arrived at the base camp at 10 AM and were greeted by Will Judge. I don’t meet many guys who I can look straight in the eye, but when I shook Will’s hand I did just that. With a welcoming manner about him, Will is a great front man for the operation and I liked him instantly (us vertically challenged guys have a common bond). After introductions had concluded, I made it clear that under no uncertain terms were Hal and I “partners”. One never knows what folks from Idaho think when they meet two dangerously handsome young men from Seattle, and I wanted to set things straight (pun intended) right away. It should also be noted that neither of us are dangerous, handsome or young, and only Hal is from Seattle. With a sigh of relief, Will introduced us to our horses and we set off up the trail. Barbara (Will’s wife and boss) would be expecting us for lunch by 1 pm, and Will was adamant about arriving on time, as if he’d made the mistake of being late for a meal once – and only once – before. He wouldn’t seem fully relaxed until we’d pulled up to the hitching post, right on schedule.
The trail follows the St. Joe for 5 miles, crossing the river six times en route to the St. Joe Lodge. Let me say first off that as proprietors of the St. Joe Outfitters, Barbara and Will have something very unique and incredible – a little slice of heaven nestled in the Bitterroot Mountains. The scenery all around is breathtaking, and the Lodge itself is something to behold.
Situated at the edge of a large meadow, the lodge was originally built in the 1940’s, and has the authentic flavor that only an old log structure can have. Thankfully what you find here is far from a swanky bed and breakfast. It’s rustic to say the least, as the outhouses will attest to: There’s one for the “Bucks” and one for the “Does”. I spent as little time in the Bucks hut as necessary, and only to take care of business – not to spend leisure time with a good fishing magazine as I so enjoy in the comforts of my own home. Curiously, the men’s outhouse has side-by-side seats. Luckily, I had the place all to myself, as the conversation would have been uneasy had another Buck been occupying the seat next to me:
“Mornin’. How’s the fishin’?”
“Great dinner last night, eh?”
Other than the no-frills-but-perfectly-acceptable amenities for lightening one’s load, the rest of the accommodations feel like a home away from home, only with roughened edges. When you gather around the large dining table and enjoy some of the tastiest, stick-to-your-ribsiest food available anywhere, it’s hard to imagine there being any better home than this. Barbara works hard to present the crew and guests with three squares a day and it is my recommendation that if you’re on a diet, plan to throw that silly notion out the window while you’re guests of Barbara and Will. There’s plenty of time to resume your calorie counting after you return home, so eat up and enjoy. Besides, you’ll also burn a lot of calories if you fish hard while you’re there, which we did.
In the afternoon of our first day we didn’t venture far from the encampment: We didn’t need to, as good water is close at hand in all directions. We familiarized ourselves with the lay of the land, and caught some beautiful, modest sized cutties. But it wasn’t a slam dunk like I’d been led to believe, and we each had enough refusals on the first day to conclude that these fish were neither stupid, nor even slightly gullible. Yes, some fish (mostly the smaller ones) would hit a big attractor pattern, but even more would balk and refuse, which made me feel right at home on The Joe. Even when I did manage to fool a fish into taking a purple foam ant, it had to be presented just right – a perfect drift. No drag. Easier said than done on a freestone mountain river with a wide array of current seams.
On our second day Hal and I spiked out to explore and see some more country. A good trail follows the river farther than most would care to follow it, but with the river in sight nearly the entire time, good water beckons at every turn so we didn’t hike more than a couple miles. Plus, my brother is no spring chicken so I didn’t want to wear him out by leading him on a forced march up the trail unnecessarily (I’m gonna catch Hell for that statement). The Joe was running higher than average for this time of year due to a heavy winter snowpack and a long, cool spring, so some of the best water was difficult or not possible to reach. But I like a challenge, which is a good thing, because there is never a shortage of challenges whenever I fish. While struggling to entice a fish with my Stimulator, I had noticed the occasional hatch of small, tan-colored mayflies, and dug through my fly box to find a match, which I didn’t have. I tried close approximations, but the PMD’s and Light Cahills were too light; the Adams too dark. These hatches were not epic events, but when they came off, the fish wanted nothing else, and it had to be perfect. I was not prepared for this sort of encounter. This was an outrage – the St. Joe fish were supposed to be stupid! I thought about running back to the Lodge and demanding my money back, but Hal, always the voice of reason, talked me out of it. I think his exact words may have been, “Shut up and fish.”
As I said, when these little mayflies were hatching in the late afternoon/early evenings, the fish – particularly the bigger fish that taunted me – would look at nothing else. Well, that’s not true. One big fish kept coming up from in front of his rock as my Adams drifted by, only to look judgingly at it, roll his eyes and then make a “pppffffttt” sound before disappearing again. I felt so helpless, and when I trudged into camp for supper that night, my slump-shouldered, pouty lower-lipped body language must have been a telltale indicator of my frustration. I shared the day’s events with the other guests in camp, one of whom was a guide that was accompanying some other guests. When I mentioned the little tan mayfly hatch, the guide raised an eyebrow and smirked in the way that only “One Who Knows” would smirk. He leaned over toward me as if he was going to whisper the key to success for only me to hear. Instead he asked me to pass the mashed potatoes.
That night I dreamed of the secret weapon needed to fool these fish. My dream was more of a premonition, as the next morning after awakening to banjo music (seriously) I was presented with a gift that would change my luck. The guide handed me 3 tan-bodied Sparkle Duns, size 16. Bingo. He also told me to go to 6x tippet. I’d already been fishing 5x, and I shuddered at the thought. But this was our last full day of fishing, and I did as I was instructed in hopes of maximizing the enjoyment as pertaining to catching fish. The fishing had been stellar, but I was consumed by the desire to outwit a big fish. With my secret weapon and spider web-thin tippet, I sought out a run that had previously revealed the presence of at least a couple nice, but uncooperative fish. And so I fished, and I waited for the hatch to start. And it did, and while my hookup rate increased notably, the solution was not without it’s own challenges. As anyone who has fished 6x knows, playing a solid fish in a strong current on fine tippet requires finesse. And anyone who has fished with the Unaccomplished Angler knows that finesse is not one of his virtues. I did land a couple respectable fish that afternoon, but there was also some carnage. Luckily I’d been gifted with 3 of these magical flies, because I lost two of them on a couple of very nice, fat 15 inch fish. The third and last fly nearly landed my best fish of the trip- an honest 17 incher that finally accepted my offering after an hour of ineffective presentations.
I’d observed this particular fish lying just below a large rock on the far edge of the river. Every so often he would casually rise to sip a bug, then vanish back to his hold. If a bug was 3 inches too far out of his zone, the lazy ingrate wouldn’t even give it a sideways glance. He wanted it his way, and there was no negotiating. The challenge was that with the high water there were 3 different current seams to cross before getting to his haunt, and even with the best mending of the line, my fly might get 3 seconds of natural drift before being ripped away by the current. I thought I heard laughter each time I attempted this seemingly impossible feat, and looked over my shoulder to see who was so amused. But I was ¾ of a mile from the Lodge, and nobody else was fishing anywhere nearby. Rather than admit that I was getting loopy, I concluded that it was the fish who was laughing. With the clock ticking, and dinner scheduled to be served in less than an hour, and the fact that we packed out in the morning, the pressure was on. I had one more shot at this beast. I adjusted my Lucky Fishing Hat, cracked my knuckles and gave one last cast. Uncharacteristically, everything felt just right: The cast was spot-on; the mend better than could have been expected. My fly had just enough time to drift right into the feeding lane, and the fish was mine! I played the fish in a manner that defied my true angling skills: I got the fish on the reel quickly and gently gave him line when called for to protect the 6x while steering him clear of the rocks that he so badly sought to wrap himself around. Things were going my way, and for one brief moment in time I felt like the The King of the World – an accomplished angler! However, two paragraphs above where you’re now reading you will notice that I made reference to nearly landing this fish. “Nearly” is the key word. I played the fish close, but didn’t want to drag it across the rocks so left it resting in shallow water a couple of arms lengths away. Right as I reached for my camera to snap a photo of this 17 inch beauty, he gave one last desperate shake of his head, spit the hook right at my feet, and dashed off toward his rock. Luckily I still had the fly. I looked first at my watch, then across the river toward the rock that held the fish, and contemplated making just…one…more…cast…But sound judgment prevailed this time – I did not want to be late for Barbara’s fixin’s (I’m no fool). Besides, those stupid Idaho Cutties were so easy to catch—what would have been the point?
Oh, and I got chased by a moose, but that’s a story for another time.