Stir Crazy

Stir Crazy

Dead Winter in the Rockies

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas

Being cooped up during winter does strange things to people, especially in the northern Rockies, where snow may hit the ground in September and remain through May. There’s sanity to be had if you strap sticks to your feet and chase powder days, or can escape to sandy beaches in southern climes, but the rest of us rot until spring brings assurance that we haven’t entered another ice age.

I was living in Sun Valley, Idaho one record-snowfall winter and basically just getting by, penning a few articles for The New York Times and investing 15 hours a day on fly-fishing guidebooks that never made much money and, later, would shatter my expectation that writing about fly-fishing and spending nearly 200 days a year on the water would soon bring prosperity. I’d peer out the window into another blizzard and ponder recent phone calls from friends with family allowances who were either headed to or coming back from exotic warmwater trips around the globe. Their voices crackled over my faulty landline, telling stories in an entertaining way where you couldn’t really consider them bastards for rubbing it in, but you got the clear impression that they were living the dream and you weren’t. It kind of pissed me off.

That’s when a friend, T.R., called and invited me to join him for a couple days on Idaho’s Big Lost River. It was February, with high temperatures barely reaching the mid-thirties. Not prime conditions, but staying at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Mackay, eating steaks at the local bar, and chipping ice out of our guides by day seemed a worthwhile respite.

But here’s the thing: At that time I was a bit wary about Mackay because I’d heard stories about the town’s wild Fourth of July festivities. And I’d been told that you’d better be ready to fight if you headed over the hill, at any time of the year, with 5B Sun Valley plates on your rig. So I told T.R., who was about as thin as a #2 graphite and wouldn’t be much help in a scuffle, “When we go out for dinner and drinks tonight, don’t do anything to draw attention. This place is rough.”

We reached Mackay that evening, grabbed our room, whipped up a couple cocktails, and then headed to town for a ribeye steak. I was ordering another drink at the bar, almost touching shoulders with cowboys on either side, when I heard the commotion. I turned to see T.R. gyrating on the dance floor with one of the cowboy’s gals, each of them with hands stuffed down the front of their respective pants. I didn’t consider this innocuous behavior and was about to take our drinks stage left when a great cheer rattled the bar. T.R. was beaming, arms raised, his torn, tighty-whitey underwear grasped in a hand like Tyson displaying the championship belt. Why the pride? He’d won a contest with that girl to see who could get their underwear off first without shedding their jeans.

The result, I am relieved to this day to report, was not the true Western beatdown I feared, but the opposite, in fact—we didn’t pay for another drink, and exchanged F-350 turbo diesel and Idaho potato talk with locals, with T.R. the center of attention. I remember one line that night that pretty much sums up how T.R. stood out from the crowd; a cowboy with a broad hat, drinking doubles with a half-can of Copenhagen in his lip said, “Really, you were a snowboarder in Truckee and now you’re a chef who specializes in Tirami-who.”

This whole demonstration shouldn’t have surprised me; I’d met T.R. one summer after inviting his future wife, Jennifer, on a date with myself. And I understood his potential.

I’d planned to meet Jennifer on Silver Creek, to fish Sullivan Slough for its filthy cruisers. She showed up late, the harbinger of regretful information—“I brought a friend,” she said, “so come with me and meet T.R.”

I feigned excitement, tried to veil dismay when a dude with some wild hair, and wearing oval, thick-rimmed glasses walked up and said, “Yeah, what’s up. Good to meet you, too.”

I wanted none of it, but went through the motions. I think we managed a few fish that day and at one point, when I was able to sequester the girl, I said, “Who’s the snowboarder?”

She replied, “Um, I met him last week in Oregon and he’s moving here, to Idaho. You should have dinner with us tonight.”

You don’t say.

Against my will, we met for dinner and between bottles of red and a few gulps of Cuervo our conversations bloomed. T.R. and I shared a bent for AC/DC. He’d been to New Zealand for trout. He’d hammered those tailwater giants on the Beaverhead. He’d hiked in for high country trout in California. In that way, fishing papered over our differences and jealousies. We spent the next week on the water together and to this day remain fast friends. And he and Jennifer are still married.

THE MORNING AFTER T.R.’S DANCE-FLOOR demonstration, we awakened worse for wear, but still managed to get on the Lost before noon, with biscuits and gravy and about a gallon of coffee burning in our bellies.

The Lost isn’t large, only 10 or 15 yards wide in most places, framed by cottonwoods and reddish willows along most of its banks. The river sits under steep hills and cliffs piling off the White Knob Mountains to the west, and a cottonwood bottomland and the Big Lost Range, Idaho’s tallest at 12,000 feet, to the east. Just getting around on the Lost—especially when the water is high—isn’t a cinch. But during winter exposed gravel bars and low water mean you can pretty much start walking upstream and never stop until you get to a dam that holds back Mackay Reservoir. Depending on the year and water levels, there are about five miles of the Lost that are super productive. Basically, the water from Mackay upstream is fishable. Below that it’s anyone’s guess—the Lost is a sink stream, Idaho’s largest, and it loses itself into the desert south of Mackay, when it doesn’t die earlier due to massive irrigation drawdown.

During winter there are few places for trout to hide in the Lost, so when you find one you often find many. That’s what happened after T.R. and I scoped a couple dead runs, then rounded a corner and found about a bazillion trout podded up on the opposite side of the river, in a soft seam beyond the main flow. Midge adults and crippled emergers swirled in a backwater, and trout sucked them down without expending much energy. Casting from an inside corner, across a fast midstream current, and achieving a dead drift is tough duty, a cast the masters might create a name for if they perform it successfully. I subscribe to the “just figure a way to get it in there” mentality, not interested in adding named casts to fly-fishing’s history. But T.R. pays more attention to detail, and maybe that’s why I said, “They’re yours,” before climbing a steep bank to photograph the proceedings. Roll cast. Stack mend. Whatever the combination, T.R. swam his crippled midges into the pool accordingly and was fast to a trout in minutes.

We managed two or three good fish from each run, mostly on the soft inside corners below riffles and along the inside seams of those runs. Some fish we could toil with for a half hour, casting a few times before putting it down. We’d switch up, lighten the tippet to 6X, tie on a more precise imitation, wait with hands in pockets for the fish to start chowing again. Some fish we hooked and lost, others we stuck and landed, still more we gave up on, called them uncatchable (among other things), and continued upstream to find more pods.

The Lost’s trout are mostly rainbows, although I did catch a 17-inch brook trout on the river that had such a wrecked jaw I figured I was maybe the 20th person to have landed that fish during its life, and I felt more sorrow for that fellow than achievement when I released him. It’s times like those when I wonder what I’m really doing and what all the fly-fishing fuss is about. But the next rise always pulls me away from introspection, the way a compulsive gambler can’t refuse the next big game. The Lost’s rainbows are colorful and super strong because a fertile tailwater flow gives them what they need with hatches of pale morning duns, green drakes, a variety of caddis, golden stoneflies, yellow sallies, Baetis and Tricos. Midges are the winter staple. The trout average 13 to 16 inches long, but 17- and 18-inch fish are possible, and I hear of 20-plus-inch fish (although I’ve never hooked nor seen any that large).

I was in fly-fishing infancy when I discovered the Lost, having glanced at it from the highway as I drove by, identified it as “good looking water” and reported back to T.R., saying, “It’s probably got some trout.” That was before the Web, when rivers maintained a level of secrecy and it paid to keep your mouth shut when you landed on good fishing. That’s what T.R. and I did after our initial pilgrimage brought 15 or 20 fish each to net. However, even then word was out on the Lost, a slick new guidebook having been published that detailed the accesses, the large rainbows and the heavy hatches while using language punctuated by these catch phrases and adjectives: out of the shadows; big rainbows; excellent; two- to four-pound fish. We figured it was all over at that point, that the river would be riddled with anglers all year, and the fish would decline from catch-and-release mortality. That’s what I figured would happen to most of Idaho’s overlooked streams, including some of the other waters that T.R. and I try to meet on and fish every year or two—the South Fork Boise; the Big Wood; the lower Henry’s Fork and South Fork Snake; even eastern Oregon’s Owyhee; Montana’s Madison and Ruby.

I can hear the collective gasp, that I’m giving away secrets, but if that’s true why could I quickly Google “secret Big Lost River fly fishing” and come up with 44,000 results? A similar search for “secret Owyhee fly fishing” produced 27,000 hits, including some great videos of big brown trout eating dry flies. Montana’s Madison River, one of the most heavily pressured rivers in the West, has scads of good fish available during winter, and very little angling pressure then. Google “Madison River fly fishing” and you get 235,000 results. Add the word “winter” to that equation and you get 1,250,000 results.

Let us all bow our heads and observe a moment of silence to acknowledge the death of, “There’s this little stream in the West with big fish that nobody knows about . . . .”

Which brings us back to winter and early spring fishing on the Lost and other Rocky Mountain streams, not to mention all the equally entertaining possibilities across the country. If solitude, great trout and an excellent hatch to match is what each of us desires, they’re there for the taking no matter how many guidebooks are written or YouTube videos are posted. That’s the beauty of cold weather, frozen feet and fingers, snow slashing across your face while you chip ice out of your guides—there aren’t too many of us willing to do that, even for good fish on a mostly deserted river.

Midges, as mentioned, are the staple for winter trout. Hatches typically come off beginning mid-morning and continue through afternoon, up to four or five o’clock. You’ll know if the river you’re fishing has a decent midge hatch by turning over rocks and boulders near the shoreline and examining the undersides. If there are midges around you’ll see wads of them crawling on each other. See that and you can be sure fish will soon start rising.

That’s what T.R. and I found, and we plugged away for hours, tying on and trying different patterns, taking sips from a flask to fool our bodies into thinking they were warm. Then around 2:00 pm T.R. said, “Hmm, there’s an olive.” I peered at the water and saw one, then another, and another. I tracked the drift of one olive dun and watched it disappear in a swirl.

By that time T.R. already had a box open and was picking out a size 18 Sparkle Dun. Whereas trout are often tricky on adult midge imitations, they crush Baetis; hence, T.R. was fighting a slab just a few minutes later. We netted that fish, snapped a few photos and quickly released it. T.R., who’d been holding a wet trout, now had hands stuffed in his pockets and a grimace on his face. I looked up to pick a target and saw three fish simultaneously carve through the surface. First cast I was hooked up with a solid trout, a size 18 Baetis cripple in its beak. T.R., 50 yards away and too cold to use the energy to speak, pulled a hand out of a pocket and pumped his fist.

A couple hours later, a dozen or more fish having come to the net, I tried to tie on a size 20 Parachute Adams and couldn’t complete the task. A wind had risen and the backs of my hands were frozen. My fingers revolted. And this: I hadn’t extended my tippet in three hours, having steadily whittled back from 6X to what now was considered light climbing rope. Blood-knotting new tippet to that cord seemed impossible. Eventually I said, “Screw it,” leaned my rod against a willow and huddled out of the wind to watch T.R.

When he noticed me he said, “I’m done, too,” and I know that each of us was thinking about that warm hotel room, a three-finger jolt of Jameson, and another night in Mackay, with nothing more pressing than getting up the following day for a big breakfast, and what was sure to be another solid day of midge fishing. So we weren’t in the Bahamas or Belize, New Zealand or Holbox. But we weren’t staring out the window at snowflakes either, dreading the next call from a fortuitous friend, burned by the sun, full of saltwater stories, showing a little bit more bravado than he should. 01_bwo bug small.

For more on winter fishing see “Don’t Let Snow Blow You Off The River This Winter: 5 tips on how to stay warm on the water.”

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s editor. He lives in Missoula, Montana.