September 19-20, 2011
One of my favorite trips to do in late September with friends is an overnight float trip through the canyon of the South Fork of the Snake River. This normally busy river has little traffic, the mahogany duns are hatching and the colors of the changing leaves scattered up the canyon walls is as stunning as it gets. The problem however it that my drift boat only takes three, me as the rower and two friends, so when I have a crew of college buddies like I do this week, the South Fork isn’t feasible – unless we rent another boat.
Renting a boat isn’t often a smart idea either because rowing the South Fork is about as demanding as float fishing gets. This river cranks out the water flow. This September is especially high flowing at nearly 9000 cfs. Of course, every angler says they can row. And many can row. But honestly, there’s a big difference between rowing lakes and small slow flowing rivers vs. the South Fork. If you don’t know what you’re doing you can get killed out there in a blink of an eye. So before I threw out the idea of renting a raft so all six of us could do the overnighter I really thought it over.
Mike Birmingham, one of my college pals on this trip, is one of those guys that is good at everything. One night over the campfire I mentioned the South Fork float and quizzed him on his rowing skills. My gut feeling was that he could handle the challenge and when I tossed the idea out he was all about it as were the rest of us. On Monday morning we found ourselves pushing off from the Spring Creek Highway Bridge beginning our 26 mile float trip to Byington on the South Fork of the Snake.
Although I was confident in Mike, I believe Travis and especially Mark, his passengers were a little uneasy as their fishing raft took off in the heavy current of the South Fork. But Mike was good. He simply floated behind my boat and followed my every move and my advice that I gave him on the drive over. My best piece of advice to him was to avoid danger from afar. Basically, rowers should be looking downstream (rather than staring at their friends fly) and always have that boat pointed towards anything that can wipe you out – rocks, rapids, overhanging trees off the bank, sleepers and strainers. By pointing towards them you can always in an instant begin back rowing away from them. What gets every rower in trouble is not seeing these dangers soon enough and then rather back rowing away from them; they try to push forward and away. Pushing forward to get away often times gets you to the danger faster. Most humans are much stronger back rowing rather than forward rowing so spin the boat and back row. After about three hours of following our boat, Mike was rowing excellent and everyone was at ease.
Fishing was hot right out of the gates. I had Howie and Mark (Rieser) in my boat. Howie was up front rigged with two small dries about three feet apart. One was a cinnamon ant like I used in the One Fly last week and the other was a size 18 mahogany dun. Rieser had a big black streamer. I clued them in on the sneaky places trout live at on the South Fork. Anglers not familiar with this river have a tendency to cast to the banks and outside turns from start to finish. Sure these are good places at times and on most rivers, but on the South Fork, these places can have so much current that the fish actually move more to the inside turns and shallow gravel bars. It didn’t take long for Howie and Rieser to become believers as they each pulled fish from literally 8 inches of water.
Our favorite catch of the day was when I rowed Howie into one of the most unsuspecting fish holding areas on the river. While fishing a spot upstream I noticed a trickle of water leave the river and meander into the forest. Ten minutes later, on the same side of the river there was a slough of dead water – no current and full of weeds. The spot didn’t look like much. However, I thought to myself that somewhere back at the top of that slough well out of sight that perhaps that little trickle I saw leave the river might enter. Anywhere there’s current there is usually a fish. So I rowed us up there. Sure enough before we even saw the trickle enter we could hear it. I told Howie a big fish lived in there. I rowed the boat forward and Howie methodically dropped his dry flies in every inch of the in flowing water. Then just where the shallow met the deep, wham! A beautiful cutthroat inhaled Howies fly and soon after I netted a nice 16 incher.
The wind howled the rest of our day. Birmingham and I rowed hard against the wind and the rest powered their casts into the teeth of the wind the best they could. At 5 PM we settled into a campsite in the upper canyon near the entry of Pine Creek. During cocktail hour we enjoyed watching a group of moose including two huge bulls. They were across the river feeding on willows and silver berry. There is no more velvet on the antlers of the bulls.
As usual we had a feast. Tonight we cooked kabobs with steak, pork and chicken on them mixed with mushrooms, onions and green peppers. It was scrumptious to say the least. For me, there was no need for a tent because skies were clear. Howie joined me and we slept on a high bank inches from the river. Our only fear was getting stepped on by a moose. There were several moose on our side of the river and we got to watch them graze around camp during dinner. But we lucked out; we weren’t sleeping on a moose trail.
I got the boys up early on Tuesday. Sometimes streamers and enormous dry flies can be deadly before noon. We made our coffee and skipped breakfast altogether. As we broke down camp we had a crazy cow moose meander right into us. I say crazy because she gave us the “google” eye with her ears back – something they love to do before they charge you. I was a bit uneasy but she finally moved on out. Then once on the river the fish were biting as expected.
We had great action for about two hours. Howie and Rieser each landed a handful of nice 14 to 16 inch cutthroats and a scattering of browns and rainbows. By 11 the sun was high and it was hot like a summer day and unfortunately the fishing slowed down miserably. Our boat probably landed less then three fish from 11 till about 3 PM. It was really surprising. Luckily, at about 3 the hatches started and I mean big time. There were pale morning duns, mahogany duns, tricos and a few stoneflies out. Once again the fish returned to feeding on the riffles and even on the slow banks. Howie, who has much less fly fishing experience than Rieser, put on one of his best fly fishing performances of his life. While fishing from the back of the boat he threaded the needle and dropped his flies into nooks and crannies that trout don’t expect a fly to land. The result, Howie beat the heck out fish in the final hours of the trip. I’m not sure if he just drank the perfect number of beers or what, but Howie was in the zone that anglers get in only once in a very rare while.
The highlight wasn’t Howie putting on a clinic however. The highlight was watching Rieser land two brown trout on one cast. Rieser was in the front of the boat fishing two small dry flies. I saw some shallow water towards the middle of the river and suggested he drop a cast over the gravel. His flies drifted along about ten feet then one got eaten. He set the hook and a small brown leaped. He was hooked on his upper fly. Then Rieser said there was another trout chasing the one and acting very strange. After a few days ago when I had that huge trout eat a trout off my line I stood up hoping we were about to have some similar excitement. But this was different. The chasing trout was the same size and he wasn’t chasing the other hooked trout at all. He was chasing the trailing fly. And he got it. “You have a double!” I shouted.
Rieser and Howie had never heard of such a thing but it happens. I actually see about a double a season. The hard part is netting the two. If you net the top one you have to hand over hand the bottom one and you usually lose him. So on this one I lifted the top fish up over the net and scooped up the bottom one. The upper fish was still on so then I dropped him in the net. It was really an awesome catch for all of us.
The boys left this morning. We are all exhausted from seven days of fishing in a row and six nights of camping. We played hard, slept little and had a great time. Actually we had the time of our lives. It’s amazing that after 25 years we are all still such great friends. And the six here this week aren’t all of them. There were about another six that couldn’t make it. All I can say is I hope they read these latest blogs – they’ll surely find a way to make it next time! We’re getting too old not to!