The Pacific Northwest began to dry up early this year. After a bleak snowpack and virtually no Spring runoff, rivers were running strangely low all across the region by mid June. We saw it on the annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers; we see it at home. Local rivers look like they normally do September, and it’s only mid-July. Wildfire season hasn’t proven to be any worse than normal but it’s still early yet (knock on wood). Dry as a bone, the West is. And so when the Rangers departed on our trip to Idaho’s panhandle for a few days of cutthroat fishing, we did so with a bit of trepidation as to what we’d encounter. Flows were checked on a regular basis in the weeks prior to our trip and on paper the river was low. How it would actually look when we saw it in person remained to be seen.
On the Wednesday of our departure the weather was hot and dry across the state of Washington, as it had been for every day throughout the month of June and thus far into July. As we passed through Idaho the temperature was 90°F although the forecast for Idaho’s panhandle called for a slight cooling trend into the low 80’s and even the upper 70’s (brrrr). There was also a slight chance of thunderstorms on Friday and Saturday. By slight we’re talking 10%-20% chance: not enough to cause concern. Jimmy and I planned to camp for 5 nights, fish for 4 days; Marck, Nash and Morris would be returning home a day sooner. The Man-Van was loaded with plenty of ice and firewood, knowing we would absolutely need the ice; not knowing if we’d even be allowed to need the wood. Did I mention that it was dry?
The road is dirt for the last two miles, and even though we traveled slowly the tires kicked up a thick plume of nearly-white dust. Just how dusty was it? Suffice it to say that one did not want to be following another vehicle on this road. Jimmy and I arrived around 6pm to a nearly empty campground. We selected a site that would accommodate everyone and set up camp before cooking supper. At around 9PM the others arrived, emerging from a crammed Ford Explorer belonging to the wife of Nash. The amount of gear they had managed to fit into the Explorer was impressive and left just barely enough room for 3 guys. Morris was shoe-horned into the back seat surrounded floor-to-ceiling by fishing and other gear. Besides personal items, groceries, Marck’s large (and brand-new) Camp Chef cooktop, and a Yeti cooler that was big enough to hold an adult corpse (it weighed enough that it may have contained just that). They each also brought their own tents so as to avoid a three man sausagefest. Additionally the roof pod was full of firewood so we would have ample supply for the duration of the trip (there were no campfire bans posted). The late arrivals pitched their tents as darkness fell and we toasted our full attendance late into the night.
The next morning we broke in Marck’s new cooktop before embarking on Day One of fishing. With bacon in our bellies the Rangers marched single file up the trail a couple of miles; Marck and Nash dropping down to the river at the “Log Trail” while Morris, Jimmy and I proceeded onward to “The Mine”. The plan was to fish the first part of the day before returning to camp for lunch during the mid-day lull. We would then go out for a later afternoon/early evening bit of angling. As it turned out we ended up fishing straight through the mid-day lull, living on protein bars and water. It’s not that fishing was so good that we didn’t want to take a break—it was just easier to keep fishing than hike back to camp on the trail. Besides this is gorgeous country, and it doesn’t take much before one loses track of time and space, even when the catching slows to a crawl.
Fishing was slower than normal, but better than expected, given the low flows. Fish that would normally be found in the riffles weren’t there. But deeper runs and holes still held some fish, which we caught. Morris may have done some nymphing but mostly it was a dry fly game—that’s why we come here. On a normal water year we can expect to find fish in nearly every inch of the river.
Using a Purple Haze, and later a black foam ant, I managed a handful of small cutthroat in the 10-12 inch range before switching to a streamer as the mid-day lull set in. The streamer soon yielded a nice 15″ cutt as well as a fish of a lifetime (details of that can be found HERE). It turned out to be a better day than any of us had anticipated, and in the case of the lifetime fish the day was better than I could have ever imagined.
That evening after further defiling Marck’s grill, Nash, Marck and Morris ventured out for some evening caddis action while Jimmy and I stayed back at camp and stoked the fire. It was nice that we could still have campfires because camping isn’t camping without a fire, around which men can gather to solve world problems or site in silence without it being awkward.
The next morning(Friday) we put another good hurt on the Camp Chef before embarking on a downstream journey to seek out some new water. The previous day had yielded decent fishing but we wanted to try some stretches of river that we’d previously only driven past. We had time to explore—after all this was only Day 2 of a 4 day trip. Nash, Jimmy and Morris were dropped off at one spot while Marck and I drove a couple miles further down stream. The idea was that the other 3 would fish down to where we had parked the car, then drive downstream and find Marck and me. That plan worked well, but when we met up and compared notes it was agreed that the water we’d all fished was less desirable than the water above camp. The river down here was comprised of long, straight and shallow sections with fishable water only to be found at the occasional bend in the river, and there weren’t nearaly enough bends in the river. Fishing had been dreadfully slow until I came upon one run that produced 8 fish in 10 minutes, though nothing bigger than 10 inches. Marck caught several fish as he always does. We headed back to camp for lunch and the mid-day lull.
That afternoon a couple of Forest Service Rangers stationed at Red Ives stopped by the camp of the Firehole Rangers to let us know that the threat of lightning strikes was very high for the next 12 hours. Despite that the region still looked green, they informed us that it was bone dry—tinder box conditions—and that we should take great care to manage our campfire. Smoke jumpers had been putting out small fires in the greater vicinity and while there were no big burns currently, that could change rapidly. We hoped that it wouldn’t. The threat of thunderstorms wasn’t particularly great and would become even less the following day, but the rangers informed us that on Tuesday the Forest Service was imposing a ban on all fires. Good timing on our part—our last day was to be Monday so we could enjoy a campfire each night of our stay.
At that particular time the skies were clear and we were fairly confident wouldn’t be any lightning strikes in the area. As far as rain goes we weren’t too worried: Summer storms tend to roll in fast, do their thing, and roll on out just as quickly as they rolled in. With nary a care in the world we killed some time relaxing around camp before heading out to fish late in the afternoon. When the time came to grab our rods, Jimmy, Nash and Morris hiked up the trail a couple of miles as Marck and I headed downstream. It was our plan to return to camp earlier than the others and get dinner started.
To be continued in Part 2…
The reason for the two part series is two-fold: 1. By breaking the story into 2 parts, I create a sense of drama—a cliffhanger, if you will; and 2. It greatly reduces the length of the drivel. If I were to keep it as one lengthy story nobody would stay focused long enough to read it. Hell, chances are nobody will read each separate story anyway.