Middle Fork Salmon River

Picking Pockets Again

father and son fly fishing on Middle Fork Salmon River in Idaho

At least once in a fly fishing lifetime, an angler needs to spend a week floating the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River.

Not many places along the path of our fishing careers offer even more magic when we return but this river can do that. We had the fine fortune to be able to go back to the Middle Fork last August with the same outfitter who showed us this jewel 20 years before, Solitude River Trips.

Nature had altered the wilderness canyon in the meantime; fire had been at work here and there, rapids had been calmed in a couple of places but new thrills resulted from fresh slides in other spots. Cutthroat trout, though, still mounted one banzai attack after another from the river’s clear waters.

What would bring an aging fly fisherman back after 20 years to fish a whitewater river for trout that rarely exceed 15 inches? Let me tell you about this river and the brilliant westslope cutthroat that live in it.

Middle Fork Salmon River cutthroat

Beautifully spotted westslope cutthroat shows itself before being returned to the waters of the river

Cutthroat trout have always shown a strong trait that makes anglers love them but leads to trouble for their kind: they are eager to hit whatever an angler throws their way. No species of trout is more vulnerable to angling pressure but, to the great credit of the Idaho department’s fisheries bureau, cutthroats remain viable and fishable in many of their native waters across the state including the Middle Fork Salmon.

My own impression on the recent trip matched what biologists would predict for a cutthroat fishery that has been well tended: almost every fish we caught exceeded the average I saw 20 years ago. On the long-ago float, I landed one cutthroat that exceeded 12 inches; he measured about 17. The way I took that one might have made a purist wince but I had to do it. I could see him deep in the pool below Pistol Creek rapids and I dropped a big weighted renegade in front of his nose.

Most of the fish we landed back then would have come in between 8 and 11 inches. The bulk of the trout I saw this last time went 10 to 13 inches with a few bigger. More precise measurements were not done because these trout need to go back to the water as soon as possible.

Anglers do not need exotic gear. A floating 5-weight line will stand up to the canyon’s breezes and has all the delicacy required. Some use a 4-weight, but a lighter line than that is unnecessary and can be frustrating if the wind picks up. Just make sure the rod is comfortable for all-day casting. Bring line dressing along.

As for flies, if you bring elk hair caddis in sizes 12, 14 and 16 in off-white, yellow and olive or black body colors, you are covered. Other high-visibility offerings such as an Adams Irresistible will work: choices that include deer or elk hair are a good bet. But fly enthusiasts love variety even if the fish do not care. I have seen a few Middle Fork cutthroat taken on dropper rigs using nymphs or wets below a floating fly. Even big attractor monstrosities with rubber legs will sometimes work. A more practical consideration might be medium-sized terrestrials, especially later in the season.

Just make sure the fly is one you and the fish can see. To fish the Middle Fork effectively, you will be picking the river’s pockets, often placing the only cast you will have into a space of “nervous water” half the size of a coffee table as you float through a rapid at three or four miles per hour. Some spots are no bigger than your river hat. If the pocket is a bit bigger, you will have time to mend your line once. Much of the time, you will be watching for the next water target, placing the fly with all the accuracy you can muster, mending, and, if there is no fish, looking for the next chance. This sequence may be over in less than five seconds. Do-overs will be few and far between.

Wherever you can float the middle of the river and cast within a few feet of the side where the water stays nervous but not foamy, do everything you can to keep your fly on the water. Speed differentials in the flows will dictate attention to line mending. You will not be able to keep the fish away.

When you come to a placid pool, it is a good time to use the fly floatant you always keep at hand or tie on a new recruit. Cutthroat may be caught in the larger quiet pools but experience has taught me to use these places to rest, look around at the scenery and make sure my rig is ready for the next stretch of pocket water. I have taken a few of these trout in the slick pools but I could count them on one hand. Other anglers seem to have similar experience. If you see a small stream entering the pool, however, cast away; there will almost certainly be fish feeding at that stream’s mouth.

My favorite water, where I am convinced a good fish lies every time, is the “bow wave” large rocks make. These waves consistently yield bigger fish and more excitement. Most of the opportunities come at the head of a whitewater stretch. River speed picks up and the boatman is often telling you to sit down and hang on. But you might have a chance to place the fly in the streak of water flowing into the wave, gather some line slack, then use one hand to grab a hold on the boat. I have lost count of the times I have ridden the bumps with a trout trailing behind on my line. I hope they all found their way back home.

classic wooden driftboat

A classic wooden drift boat at home on the Middle Fork

A word about watercraft: the drift boat (known to some as the McKenzie River boat but Idahoans do not like to credit Oregonians for introducing something this good) is king. They are comfortable, maneuverable and can, in the right water, be oared to hover at a chosen fishing spot while the river flows on beneath their flat bottoms. There is a downside—the same one that applies to so many examples of wonderfulness—and that is a price premium.

Fishing rafts work well, too, though with somewhat less grace than drift boats. They seem to take a bit more out of the rower, ship more splashes in the rapids and are a tad less maneuverable. These rafts are narrower than those generally used for simply floating and are meant for allowing fishing for one angler at each end.

Lots of people do fish from standard river rafts, especially on non-outfitted trips, but the experience compared to riding in craft designed for fishing is compromised. The other riders who are not fishing are not amused when they lose their hats to errant casts.

An internet search will reveal several choices among Middle Fork outfitters but anglers are well advised to pick from those companies that offer years of experience on this particular river and employ guides who fish it themselves when they have the chance.

Solitude River Trips has treated me generously, professionally and fed me far too well on both of my Middle Fork trips. As a special pleasure on the last float, I fished with one of the guides—a master fisherman and mentor—who taught me about the river 20 years before. A little continuity goes a long way. Solitude enjoys Orvis endorsement, in line with the company’s fly fishing expertise.

Some outfitters including Solitude run special trips in the late summer and early fall aimed at fishing the best of the trouting year.

Backtracking into a place that holds vivid, fond memories after many years away often leads to disappointment. Going back and finding the Middle Fork a little better than it was is pure joy.

More Information:

Solitude River Trips

Picking Pockets on the Middle Fork