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Idaho fishing
[Photo / Times files]

Hooked on Idaho


© St. Petersburg Times

News stories report that Yosemite and Yellowstone are full of RVs and tour buses, Colorado is full of yuppies, Montana is full of movie stars. Is there anywhere in the West still uncrowded and unspoiled?

Actually, there are a lot of those places, and one of the best is Idaho -- the entire state. Spectacularly beautiful in some locales, Idaho is the 11th-largest state (82,400 square miles) but has fewer than 1.2-million residents.

What's more, about 70 percent of Idaho -- 55,000 square miles -- is public land, in the form of state or national parks or federal wilderness areas. That is an area larger than Florida.

With so much of Idaho owned by the public, access is excellent for such activities as hiking, mountain climbing, camping, rafting, kayaking, hunting, fishing and just exploring. This is in contrast to many areas in the West.

But this is a story about trout fishing.

fiy fishing
[Photo / Times files]
I'm part of a group that undertakes a major fishing expedition out West every other September; this fall we decided on a more in-depth look at areas that most intrigued us during a previous trip to Idaho. We began in Twin Falls, buying provisions and Idaho fishing licenses -- about $30 for a 10-day, non-resident license for trout fishing.

Good fishing starts almost immediately. Our first stop was the Silver Creek Preserve near Picabo. This was Ernest Hemingway's favorite fishing area during his years in Ketchum, about 25 miles north of Silver Creek. The Nature Preserve, about 28,000 acres, is owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed as a wildlife refuge.

Crystal-clear springs bubble from the valley floor in an area surrounded by mountains. Unlike the fast-flowing water of most Western creeks, which bounces over rocks to form ripples and pools, spring creeks are often in areas where the land slopes little. Thus, the spring creeks may resemble long clear pools, the water moving slowly and the surface calm.

The fishing conditions in these creeks are as different as the creeks are from most mountain streams: Trout can see above the water, and the smoother the surface, the better their vision. That means the angler must make a quiet approach to the stream, try to camouflage himself or herself, determine exactly where the fish is and present the fly so that it makes a natural drift toward the fish.

The still water also necessitates the use of long, fine leaders (which connect the fishing line to the lure), small flies and delicate presentations of those flies to the fish.

If all of this is done correctly, the trout will probably still ignore the fly.

Silver Creek is all catch-and-release fishing, where single flies with barbless hooks must be used. Many of the fish here have been caught several times and have grown increasingly wary. This makes for a frustrating environment because the angler can see large fish swimming in the ultraclear water. To catch and release a trophy rainbow or brown trout from the Silver Creek Nature Preserve is deeply satisfying.

Still, the scenery is magnificent and the surrounding wildlife both vocal and visible.

Heading north from Ketchum on Highway 75 means crossing 8,700-foot-high Galena Summit during the spectacular 60-mile drive to the village of Stanley. The view from this summit is a panorama of the Salmon River Valley, backed by the Sawtooth Mountains. The Salmon River runs alongside the highway for miles and passes through Stanley (population 69 in the winter and about 400 in the summer).

For many people, Stanley is just about the best possible place to simply hang out: The scenery is spectacular in every direction, and there are several excellent restaurants and good motels. There even is a small trout stream, Valley Creek, running behind the motel strip in Stanley.

Stanley is also gateway to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest such area in the lower 48 states. There are excellent opportunities for hiking, fishing and hunting in any direction from Stanley.

And the town is the base camp for several outfitters that stage exciting rafting expeditions on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The Middle Fork was our next destination: Dagger Falls, about a 45-mile drive from Stanley. The Middle Fork is a catch-and-release stream below Dagger Falls, but above the falls there is a limit of two cut-throat trout per angler. These fish are big, strong and beautiful.

Most fishers park at Dagger Falls and make a rugged 5-mile hike upstream, along an excellent but narrow trail. The rewards are spectacular scenery, excellent fishing and little chance of seeing other anglers.

The Salmon River flows through Stanley and parallels the highway north to the town of Salmon; fishing is excellent at many places along the river. The East Fork of the Salmon joins the main Salmon about 30 miles east of Stanley. This smaller stream flows through a beautiful farming valley and has several access points. The fishing is excellent in both streams, mostly for 10- to 12-inch rainbow trout.

a trout
[Photo / Times files]
After fishing for trout in both the East Fork of the Salmon and the Big Lost River, in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, we headed back to Idaho Falls. The next day we headed north up Highway 20 about 50 miles to Henry's Fork of the Snake River, one of the most famous trout streams in the West.

Although most of the Henry's Fork is normally fished from drift boats, there are a number of places where waders can access the stream. We did poorly on the Henry's Fork in terms of the number of fish caught, but we had an interesting day exploring the river. (Serious fishing on the Henry's Fork probably would require research, a commitment of three or four days, and possibly the expertise of a guide.)

The next day, we headed east to the Idaho side of the Teton Mountain Range. The Idaho Teton Valley is filled with fields of seed potatoes and barley and four rivers -- the Fall, Warm and Teton rivers and Bitch Creek. All offer excellent fishing in scenic surroundings. The small towns in the vicinity -- Victor, Driggs, Tetonia and Ashton -- all offer good accommodations and good restaurants. This area, unfortunately, has been discovered as a desirable place to live, and property values are beginning to rise. The hope is that the quality of the fishing -- and the quality of life in rural Idaho -- will remain good for the foreseeable future. For the tackle box

We flew into Salt Lake City, which has the best air fares for this region, rented a van and drove north on I-84.

Either Hailey or Ketchum, about 11 miles apart, make a good base for fishing in the Silver Creek Nature Preserve. There are many motels, excellent restaurants and all types of facilities available.

One of the best places to obtain advice about the conditions at the Nature Preserve is Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum. Here the angler can inquire as to the creek system and, most importantly, what fly patterns are proving effective.

Generally, fishing conditions in September, when we went, require the use of 10- to 13-foot leaders with tippets rated either 5X, 6X or 7X. This means that they have a breaking strength of between 4 pounds for a 5X tippet and about 2 pounds for a 7X tippet.

The flies used are generally floating mayfly patterns with sizes ranging between No. 16 and No. 22. A size-22 fly is almost impossible for anyone over the age of 40 to see, let alone tie, on the end of a 7X tippet.

There are several outfitters in Stanley who can arrange raft float trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The combination of tremendous fishing during the day, camping at night on sandbars and relaxing in natural hot springs after dinner is one of the best experiences imaginable.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Two excellent guidebooks are Idaho Handbook, from Moon Publications, (800) 345-5473, and Idaho by John Gottberg, from Compass American Guides, 5332 College Ave., Suite 201, Oakland, CA 94618.

One of the best fishing guidebooks of Idaho is Fly Fishers Guide to Idaho by Retallic and Barker, from the Anglers Art, P.O. Box 148, Plainfield, PA 17081.

Excellent brochures and maps are available from the Stanley Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce, (800) 878-7950. The Idaho Department of Commerce, the Division of Tourism Development, (800) 635-7820, can supply fishing and travel information.

Robert Constand is a freelance writer who lives in Monticello.

Originally published December 14, 1997

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