Cutthroats in Paradise

Cutthroats in Paradise

Floating the Middle Fork of Idaho's Salmon River

  • By: Ed Carroll
The first thing I did to kick off a six-day float on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon--one of the country's premiere wilderness float trips--was to bum a fly rod off of my guide and then proceed to break it within the first 10 minutes. It was a poor start, and certainly worse for poor Ted, the guide who had willingly handed me his Sage two-piece within moments of launching because, in the chaos of the put-in, my rod had been hurried off onto the gear-hauling sweeper boat. I figured (incorrectly as it turns out) that it was a company rod, but I still felt like a complete jackass.

Just before the mishap, I had been manning the stern platform on our rugged three-person inflatable raft, and was taking in some dramatic changes. After being dropped into this semi-arid northern Rockies canyonland by a six-passenger charter plane, we had been immediately hustled off onto a rocky, clear and rapidly decending river rimmed by ponderosas, sage and cheatgrass with mountainous walls rising high above us. I quickly settled into that rarest of expensive, indolent pleasures: drift fishing with no greater responsibilities than to pick up the fly and put it down on the next eddy or quiet bankside riffle. In this dazed and anxious state--not yet fully comprehending that I had days of water in which to luxuriously pick my spots and anticipate the rise of the Middle Fork's untold thousands of wild westslope cutts--I suffered a lapse.

I was chucking some kind of black beadhead catch-all nymph in about a size 10, which had been tied by my boatmate in the bow, Marty Grabijas, the entrepreneur behind Mother packs and a veteran of these waters. I'd had a few good drifts and already released a nice little westslope.

Then the bad thing happened. I flipped the fly toward the bank and stripped a little extra line off the spool. I let it drift a few extra seconds while I looked downstream, and the line came suddenly tight--too tight. I lifted and felt the resistance of a snag. I twitched the rod tip a couple of times to clear it, but instead the reel started screaming as line paid out toward the snag. I quickly dropped the rod tip to straighten the line and snap the leader, but instead a moment passed and the reel still screamed, and again I lifted in a futile attempt to clear the terminal tackle from its place among the rocks. With that sickening rifle-crack sound of a rod parting ways, the upper half of Ted's Sage shot down the line like a wire-guided missile, just as I called "I'm snagged" to the oarsman of our unstoppable little boat.

Ted looked over his shoulder at the limp line, then at the stump of his rod, and then at me. The look fell like a judgment, though I'm sure it came naturally to Ted and without premeditation: Idiot.

In my horror at this turn of events I urged Ted to pull off so I could chase his missing rod segment; I jumped into the knee-deep water and headed back toward the snag, now 30 yards upstream. Ted held the boat while I thrashed against the current and the slippery rocks in shorts and sandals, but while I bloodied myself in those numbing waters, the boulder-wrapped fly line had snapped and the rod tip was gone forever.

Ted had seemed quiet before, though pleased to be out on the river after the chaos and heavy lifting of getting 12 guests and their gear down from the Indian Creek runway and onto the water. But for the first few hours after I broke his rod he seemed positively taciturn. I learned, amid my profuse apologies and new-rod offers, that while he had run the river many times in nearly two decades as a guide, he had signed on with the Adventure Sun Valley crew for the first time to do an extra, and final, run of the season. By busting his rod and leaving him with a fly line torn off approximately at its frayed middle I'd negated his attempt to make a little extra money.

Seventy-five miles and six days of drifting one of the best wild trout rivers in the country went a long way toward making me feel better about my faux pas. My pride was assuaged by five days of fishing--each featuring 20 or more fish caught and released--during which I rarely lost a fly (thank you very much). I tried to make amends to Ted by offering him a replacement rod, but he never took me up on it. In any case, I felt my karma was restored when the guides made an evening out of a case of Budweiser that I bought at the Flying B Ranch--the only supply depot on the river--for the exorbitant sum of $40 on day four. But Ted never said if that made his loss good.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon was among the first group of eight rivers designated as National Wild and Scenic in 1968. It is essentially unchanged from its original state: Its 106 miles feature 100 rapids designated Class II or greater, with many Class III drops and enough Class IV's that no novice should think of learning whitewater boating this far from rescuers and a hospital. The river runs through the third-deepest canyon in North America in the heart of Central Idaho's 2.4 million acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Rising near Stanley, the flow of the river is entirely dependent upon the snowpack of the previous winter and the sparse rain.

The impact of human culture over the centuries has been limited to a handful of ranches and runways that now mainly serve visitors, and the few primitive roads and trails are off limits to motor vehicles. The canyon's sparse human history is now one of the joys of the journey, which include the red-stained pictographs of the Sheepeaters--a subgroup of the Northern Shoshone who were driven into this rugged landscape by more successful tribes, and who subsisted on the skinny local sheep. There are also a few moldering cabins left by miners and hermits who must have been blessed by an appreciation for austerity and solitude--and an am-azing self-sufficiency.

Non-natives began exploration and settlement in the 1850's, and by 1879 tensions had grown to the extent that members of the Sheepeater Band were accused of massacring Chinese miners. (One river guide added that the reports came from white settlers and miners who may well have dispatched the competition themselves.) The Army was called out from Fort Boise, and their arduous journey and pursuit of the Sheepeaters resulted in the surrender of 51 locals, leaving the unmapped regions safe for commerce--which never came. No roads better than those needed for horse-drawn supplies were ever built, and the federal dam-builders who worked steadily up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers ran out of money and hubris before their efforts reached the Middle Fork, one of the last free-flowing tributaries of its size in the entire Columbia River drainage.

The Middle Fork is extensively managed to maintain those wilderness characteristics, and about 10,000 visitors pass through each year. River access is strictly regulated in a permit system split between private use and commercial outfitters. Just seven group-launches per day are allowed between the end of May and early September, with opportunities assigned by lottery. Each group's campsite itinerary is designed by managers before launching to help disperse the human presence on the river. The system works amazingly well and appears to be respected and supported by most who use the river. There are scores of beautiful designated campsites along the river's course, ranging from sand beaches and gravel bars to tenting areas on open benches amid scattered pines and with extraordinary vistas of broad peaks, cliffs and crags. Leave-no-trace rules require all groups to carry fire-pans and carry out all ashes, trash and human waste. At most campsites, you will see few signs that anyone has camped there before save for a few trails worn among the roots and rocks. Campers not only clear away ashes and fire rings, they re-scatter unburned firewood before breaking camp.

Besides the remote scenery, the other jewel of the Middle Fork is the unmolested presence of native westslope cutthroats. Outside of a few stocked alpine ponds and small streams, there are no fish in the entire drainage that did not evolve there. That protection was bolstered tremendously with the institution of catch-and-release, single-hook rules back in 1970, which allowed cutts to repopulate the river to its natural carrying capacity. Typical of wild cutts, these fish are aggressive feeders, but they do not grow to great size--most are between 8 and 14 inches. But in this setting it's easy to believe that size is overrated, and the few fish brought to hand in the 16- to 20-inch range seem like big and outrageously beautiful gifts from the river. Other species include a relative abundance of bull trout, some rainbows and mountain whitefish.

I fooled one of the big cutts when our group pulled off for lunch on our third day. While the guides set up folding tables in the shade of ponderosas and put out the spread, the serious among us grabbed rods, stepped ashore and headed to the run immediately upstream that flowed into an eddy amid great boulders. The others fished briefly before wandering off to lunch; I watched a few minutes longer and saw a big fish rising quietly but regularly through the bit of froth at the seam between current and backwater. Twelve-foot-high boulders limited my backcasts, so it took me a few tries to get the right drift even though the fish was maybe two rod lengths in front of me.

Typical of the Middle Fork, the first good drift with a hopper brought the fish right up and it took straight away. It was the sublime moment we all seek in fly-fishing--when all things click and we're hooked to a dream. My biggest fish of the trip shot to the depths of the pool, slashed up into the surface currents and came across the pool to me all inside of a thrilling minute.

Decent fishing begins in the first half of July; May and June are for running whitewater. With high flows and low water temperatures still the norm, the early season focuses on terrestrials. Grasshoppers are prolific along the banks, and most patterns representing them will work. Aquatic insects including caddis and stoneflies start coming off later in July and, although hatches were spotty during my trip, those three insects have the fish consistently looking up. Some guides will not carry nymphs, preferring dryfly purity to the effectiveness of Woolly Buggers and beadhead nymphs drifted deep through the green pools that drop into darkness.

I am not that kind of purist. I began most days with a dark beadhead between sizes 8 and 14, and a good dead-drift along the seam between fast water and slow or along a dropoff would often be rewarded. It's one of those rivers where the fishing can be so good that nymphing a seemingly featureless 100-yard stretch of two- and three-foot deep riffles produces more strikes than you would expect. And there's no real need for strike indicators, as these fish lack shyness or subtlety--they intend to eat your fly.

The one spin fisherman in our group did well in most water, but surpassed us all in the larger pools by getting his little spinners and spoons deep along the cliffs. He pulled the biggest cutts we saw from down there, and twice he had witnesses when smaller fish made the mistake of hitting down deep where the big bull trout lurk; voracious bulls bigger than 25 inches charged up from the depths and inhaled their victims. Both times the bull trout refused to disgorge their prey until reaching the surface, and when one of them let go, it left nothing but a cutthroat head remaining on the hook.

The river continues to drop and warm through August, and in a hot, dry year the fishing can be slow. The water temperature falls as cooler weather arrives in September. My trip was timed to combine good fishing, cooler weather and bird hunting, as the introduced gamebird, chukar partridge, also thrives here. Some outfitters offer trips into October, with most tailored to "cast and blast" groups of dual-interest sports.

Late-season flows often mean that the upper stretches are too bony to bother with, and groups will skip, as we did, 25 river miles by flying into Indian Creek. Although fewer miles to float between campsites means more time each day for fishing, the current is also slower this time of year and the guides must cover more of the river by negotiating among the rocks. Consequently we didn't have many opportunities to stop and fish interesting water at length or to explore the many side creeks that can offer some of the best prospecting on foot. Several side creeks are known for supporting healthy populations of big fish in small pools, so the anglers in a group might want to work out the details with their guides to allow for some hikes.

The river's course is also pocked with opportunities to soak in hot springs, and the guides will often stop to bathe (a good thing) or tactfully ask a guest if they would like a cleansing dip. Many of the hot springs have spawned campsites nearby or within hiking distance, others are stops along the way; most have been mildly manipulated, with rocks moved, to allow a comforting soak without a sharp poke. I heard no complaints from bathers who felt cheated of their wilderness experience. The hot springs are particularly nice because the deeper, swimmable portions of the river are frigid unless you're surfacing to summer heat.

For your bathing pleasure, most outfitters, including Adventure Sun Valley, also offer a portable shower booth with a bucket of stovetop-heated water at its core.

The US Forest Service publishes an excellent guidebook with detailed maps and mile-by-mile descriptions of the canyon's features. That will give you something to look forward to while you wait the six months to a year that's likely required for even a small group to get reservations. Brad Frei, jet pilot, river guide and Adventure Sun Valley owner, says most of his season's trips are booked months in advance, although he often has single spots open among larger groups.

Our trip consisted of six days in the sun and wind, with five nights in tents and all the joys and small discomforts of an extended camping trip. But the fishing and the wilderness journey are pure privilege.

I'm usually eager to return to my normal life after such a trip; but when we took out on the sixth day, three miles down from the confluence with the Salmon's main branch, I was ready to go back to the top and do it again. The guides were loading up the gear and readying themselves for civilization when I said just that, in a jokingly enthusiastic, "Who's with me?" kind of tone.

Ted looked at me as if I'd just poked him with a broken stick of graphite.