Idaho Gold: Prospecting the Overlooked and Underrated for Backcountry Cutthroat

The cutthroat angling in the Idaho backcountry can be phenomenal, but is no secret. When the pressure is on, taking to the “marginal” water, tenkara-style, can avoid fishing used water and salvage an epic experience. Details are available in fall 2018 issue of Tenakra Angler.

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Fixed on Pinks

Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Tenkara Angler.2019-09-21 12_50_24-Window

A rare high-pressure day, the sun shone beautifully across my shoulders into the turn pool where the river met the ocean. The tannin-stained river spilled over the cascade perpendicular to the boulder I stood against, then curled downstream alongside my perch. A large eddy occurred between me and the cascade where salmon were stacking up for the ascent. The rocks deposited on the ocean side of the channel pushed the flow against solid granite. Over time, that flow had carved out a large backwater where salmon, seals, bears, gulls, osprey and eagles all met for a limited time each year.

Having crept out along the edge of a large boulder outcrop at low tide, I stood watching intently as pinks battled their way up the downstream riffle to enter the pool, jab at their salmon brethren, and regain enough strength to traverse the coming cascade.

In my hand I held a 13-foot tenkara rod I built specifically for big fish, being rated 8/2, meaning the rod operates on a fast or medium-heavy action relative to typical fly or spinning rod actions, respectively. My intention for the rod was dead-drifting nymphs and kebari for steelhead in winter, but I had only hooked up some decent cutthroat with it to date. My goal was simple. Hook and land a big pink salmon. If it meant breaking the rod, I was willing to make it happen.

Using a 10-foot section of old floating fly line with a 4-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon attached as tippet, I rolled out a small, black, egg-sucking leech pattern I tied with an orange bead head and free-floating trailer hook. I had already landed a few smaller pinks in the 3-pound class, but the giant I was about to hook was beyond my wildest pink salmon fantasy.

Trumbo Fixed on Pinks (1)

Casting to the edge of the current in the eddy, pinks darted in and out of the downstream riffle leading into the pool. And like always, as my mind began to wander amid the scenery, a nuanced strike pulled me back into reality. I noticed a large buck pink in the pool tail-out and my leech bouncing bottom under him. Repeating an identical drift, the buck opened his mouth, snatching the leech with an apparent irritability that struck me with a bit of regret as I swiftly set the hook.

I often refer to sturgeon fishing as attempting to pull a school bus from the river bed. Fighting the big pink buck on my tenkara rod instilled a similar feeling of futility, but a feeling more like trying to overcome the fear of a dire task with some cognizance that the outcome may not be favorable. I can only liken it to stepping out onto the cabin porch in the middle of the blackest Appalachian night you can fathom in just my boxers to investigate what sounded like a human intruder. As my eyes adjusted, the large, round shape of a black bear peering back at me from the steps became apparent in the soft glow of the wood stove. One of us had to give, and I hesitantly stood my ground, knowing the outcome could be quite dramatic.

Fly fishermen know to let the fish fight the rod, particularly big fish. Tenkara anglers know to point the butt of the rod at the fish to accomplish this, but trust me when I say that’s much easier said than done on a fish that has been swimming the ocean for the past year.  Treating the tenkara rod as a switch rod, I stuck the butt into my waist and heaved the long cork grip into my gut with my right hand. The buck wasn’t making any blistering runs, but he certainly had me wishing for more line and a good drag.

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Busting out of the pool, headed back toward the ocean, I was left simply to follow with my net in one hand, the rod held high in the other. Suddenly, I felt like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It as he chased his monster rainbow down the Blackfoot River; an awkward dance of balance and trying to keep the right pressure on the fish among slick, loose rock. Vowing to keep him from hitting the final riffle into salt, I clasped the rod with both hands and turned the buck upriver one last time, all the while fearing the rod or tippet would fail at any moment. With a few more laps around a short run, I was fortunate to slip the net under him and bring him to shore.

The magnitude of this fish didn’t hit home until I realized how small the net looked with him in it. I had landed many a solid coho with that net, but a pink had never taken up such real estate. Gently popping the barbless hook from his gnarly kype, I lifted the buck for closer inspection. He was simply magnificent. Measuring around 28 inches with a high hump, yellowing, speckled fins, glorious gray-olive dorsal coloring and a brilliant pinking around the tail, this buck enhanced my appreciation for an underrepresented species among the salmon angling community. A trophy indeed, I ended my trip on this beautiful salmon, landed against the odds on a fixed line fly rod.

Tenkara Angling for Mountain Trout

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The sun sets early in the deep canyons of Kelly Creek in the Idaho wilderness; the opulent evening glow casting an amber hue upon considerable granite outcrops and emerald pools below. Rugged ridges and peaks reach skyward looming over the river, defying its brazen attempts to break free of their control. Diminutive yellow stoneflies flitter sparsely through the cooling evening air, seemingly slowed by the rich, evergreen scent of western cedar and grand fir.

Angling pressure was picking up late in the week and the fish were feeling it. I typically fish regular fly rod and reel, but my suspicions of stressed trout led me to reach for my tenkara rod. I wanted the ability to present a flawless drift in the hard-to-reach pockets overlooked by others. The rod I brought was a bit overkill at twelve feet with a heavy spine, but the reach was a must for dropping flies into midstream eddies and flow seams. Additionally, the rod was fresh off my dryer at home and I wanted to get a feel for its capabilities before heading to Alaska to try it on salmon.

Tenkara angling, in its purest form, is a Japanese traditional fly-fishing method developed on small, mountain trout streams, using a fix-length rod, a fixed-length line tied to the end, and a small wet-fly or “kebari” that is dead-drifted in the sweet spots. Basically, cane pole fly-fishing. Traditional tenkara carries great history and detail on methods and gear, which is available in other literature and worth the read. The two truly defining features of tenkara angling are its simplicity and ease.

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⇑⇑ The Essentials ⇑⇑

Fly-fishing is easily perceived as far too complex for newcomers and youngsters. The myriad fly rods and reels, line choices and fly patterns, not to mention their hefty price tags, are frequently beyond attainable on cash and time budgets. One can make a successful career on second hand and hand-built fly rods, but tenkara angling requires the bare minimum in gear, is deadly effective and can be learned at virtually any age.

My first rise of the evening came on a voluptuous, blonde elk hair caddis as it floated the seam where riffle met pool. A scrappy fourteen-inch cutthroat pounced with conviction, almost with vengeance, and put a sweet bend in the top third of my heavy tenkara rod. As the evening wore on and rises became few, I scoured the drainage in search of sunlit reaches. In the canyon streams, the bite tends to wane as the mountains force the river into the evening shadows. East-west oriented reaches carry daylight and fish activity a little longer into the evening.

               My final reach of the night was a boulder-strewn field of pocket-water with a few small runs that have produced well for me in the past. I switched to a behemoth of a foam bug called a “Chubby Chernobyl” to draw some attention. Sizing up a large eddy formed behind a car-sized boulder, melding into a soft run with deep, swift flanks, I could envision where the fish were lying. Gently dropping the Chubby along the flow seam between the eddy and the sweep around the river-right side of the boulder invoked an explosion of ferocity and a firm hookset deep into the jaw of a sixteen-inch cutthroat.

Playing the fish to net, my admiration of the profound lateral reddening painted against the thick gold, speckled body and the blaze orange under-jaw cuts lit a fire of anxiety in anticipation of the next catch. The fish returned softly from the net into the cold, clear water.

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A flip of the rod landed another cast in the same general vicinity, the size-8 Chubby immediately met with a repeat performance. It simply couldn’t get any better than this before dark. Completely at peace, I collapsed the rod and slogged for the rig.

I rig my tenkara rods with sections of old floating fly line cut to approximately the maximum length of the rod, and a fluorocarbon leader between two and four feet. I continue to use typical dry and wet fly patterns, a departure from true tenkara angling, and largely referred to as “fixed-line fly-fishing”.

Opportunities to fish high mountain wild trout near Walla Walla are fewer as many of our headwater streams are closed to fishing to protect spawning and rearing salmon and steelhead (which I support completely), but the Tucannon and South Fork Walla Walla Rivers are fishable. Some friends visited from Virginia this past summer with their seven-year-old son, William, a fishing prodigy. William had his heart set on visiting the local streams, so these are the creeks we visited.

Having never touched a fly rod, I handed William a Rhodo series rod from Tenkara USA. It’s a very small, delicate action rod built for tight mountain streams and small, native trout. With the briefest of instruction, he took to it like a seasoned pro. Pointing to a log pushing the current from shore and forming a deep pocket with an eddy on the downstream side, I advised William to drop the fly behind the log at the point where water broke around it. On the third attempt, a small rainbow rocketed from below the log in a burst of zeal that caused it to whiff the fly completely. But it didn’t miss the second time.

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We fished the area for a while, enticing a half dozen little guys to take a fly before moving on to repeat the performance elsewhere. William masterfully cast a tiny Adams to feisty six-inch rainbows, and the incidental Chinook salmon fry. His first western fishing trip and he quickly and excitedly checked the box on these two native fishes, caught on the fly, nonetheless.

I began fly-fishing at age 12 and rarely pick up any other rod. I have enough gear to keep a fly shop in business. Yet, the first time I fished with a tenkara rod, I found its simplicity and minimalism utterly liberating. Young or old, novice or pro, you can realize the art and effectiveness of fly-fishing while channeling a centuries old tradition, and for a fraction of the cost relative to regular rods and reels. And the possibilities range far beyond trout and freshwater. For additional tips, techniques and stories on gear and fishing of all species, check out Tenkara Angler on the web. You’ll be hooked.

Upland Pursuits: No Shortage of Good Days

“Any day catching wild trout on the fly is a good day”

I said to my buddy Jim as we traversed a bedrock cascade on one of our favorite mountain trout streams. It had been a couple years since I visited my Virginia home town, so we capitalized on my impromptu June arrival to carry on a tradition of fishing this particular stream.

Adjusting my Tenkara USA Rhodo to 9-feet, 9-inches, I set my sights on a pocket where the stream dropped over solid granite. The water was incredibly low for June, resembling the trickle of early fall. The pools were mirror-flat and crystal clear forcing us to endure a painful crawl across cobble streambed to approach without spooking fish.

Clinging to an algae-stained granite slab angling into the stream and forcing the flow to the far bank, my knees made relieving purchase on a soft jade mat of moss, cool and moist with river water. A gentle cast landed a small, blonde elk hair caddis with an olive body at the head of the cascade feeding the deep, emerald pool.

The caddis bobbed through the narrow cut between granite slabs, dappled by sunlight fighting its way through an eastern hemlock canopy. As the caddis rounded a large hunk of sandstone, an explosion led to my first fish of the morning. With the rod stuck high, I guided the 8-inch fish to shore and photographed its varied hues. The rosy speckles with the sapphire halo, the worm-like striations across its back and the fiery glow of its belly tugged at my soul.

I cut my fly-fishing teeth on Appalachian brook trout over 25 years ago and still find them challenging in tight cover and low flow. And they still hold high rank as one of the most beautiful specimens of the salmonid family, in my humble and biased opinion.

The wild Appalachian brook trout – a true spectacle to behold

In the west, some of the best days fishing wild trout have come from Idaho where big flies entice ravenous cutthroat in steep river canyons. On evening in particular, the sun kissed the mountaintop on its descent, casting a rich glow across the river and illuminating a dense mayfly hatch. Perched atop large riverside boulders, my buddy Chas and I were casting Chubby Chernobyl dry flies the size of a hummingbird to fish that were thrashing the water as though they had never eaten before.

A sweat-soaked straw hat shaded my face as I stripped and launched each cast in the evening heat. Hotter yet were the 16- to 18-inch cutthroat holding in eddies and along flow seams, erupting on the fluffy white flies like a champagne bottle blowing its cork. Evenings like this spent stalking these luxuriant bars of finning Idaho gold remain forever engraved in in our memory of good days.             

Another Idaho trip, I rigged up my tenkara rod with a Chubby and drifted it down a riffle into the head of a massive pool. The riffle filtered into a run before the flow encountered a house-sized boulder and turning 90-degrees. Dead-drifting the fly perfectly along flow seams fooled big fish where they had been educated by a generous number of anglers previously.

Chas fishing a glorious Rocky Mountain stream

You know when you get that “any moment” feeling when the drift is just right? At that moment, the brilliant, buttery glow of a cutthroat would rise from beneath and roll on the fly, hooking perfectly in the corner of the jaw. The throb of a heavy cutthroat against a tenkara rod in fast water feels nothing short of a spiritual experience.

Mountain streams tend to wash away the burdens of the day and fortify the soul. Songbirds, deer, chipmunk and squirrel, the roar of the stream and humidity of the transpiring forest canopy engulf our worries. We find ourselves lost in our natural habitat, having escaped reality, if only for a brief time. Mountain time is timeless yet tangible. Cleansing. A reset for bruised souls amid hardship like a pandemic and social unrest.

Wild trout and mountain streams are everyone’s resource in which to seek joy and solace, July being a prime month. Be it the Minam, Lostine, Wallowa, or somewhere further flung in Montana, California or Appalachia, John Gierach could not have said it better. There is no shortage of good days on wild trout water. We could all use a few more good days.

Bluegill Beginnings

Picture a portly, toe-headed boy standing along the muddy shoreline of a farm pond as the sinking summer sun casts a warm amber glow across the water. He wore pastel yellow jogging shorts and a Mr. T “I pity the fool” shirt, white socks with two red bands pulled up just below the knee, and navy Chuck Taylors. Wielding a seafoam green fiberglass fishing rod sporting a prototype Zebco 33 reel, he cast a bobber and small hook baited with nightcrawlers he dug from his grandpa’s back yard. As the bobber sinks, the boy swiftly pops the rod tip, and reeling madly, lands his dozenth bluegill sunfish of the night.

That portly little boy was me over 30 years ago. Grandpa, bluegill sunfish, and that old cow pasture pond were significant influences on my life as an outdoorsman and biologist. Bluegill may not be all that exciting to anglers who have graduated to bigger and more challenging species, but to a child eager to cast a line, bluegill are among the most common starting points.

Native to the Mississippi River system and eastern U.S., bluegill were historically found in rivers and natural lakes. But a man named Homer Swingle is largely responsible for the farm pond fisheries of today. In the 1930s, Swingle began experimenting with predator/prey population cycles in ponds near Alabama’s Auburn University.

Swingle’s experiments suggested that an ordinary cattle watering puddle could be stocked with bluegill and largemouth bass and left to its own natural, self-sustaining regulation of species abundance and proper size and age classes. His findings led to landowners stocking farm ponds across the nation with bass and bluegill, invigorating sportfishing in the process.

Bluegill, among many other prized sportfish, eventually made their way across America to the Columbia River Basin where they now thrive. Bluegill, as well as other sunfish species, are common in the backwaters and boat basins of the Snake River and numerous ponds and lakes across the Pacific Northwest. While they may be invasive, they present an exceptional opportunity to introduce children to fishing, potentially hooking them for life, now being the perfect time.

When water temperature reaches approximately 57 degrees in spring, spawning activity kicks in for many warmwater fishes. This means sunfish move into the shallows, digging nests in soft substrates with their tails. Eggs are laid and fertilized and the males stand guard. With a “take on all comers” attitude, their aggressive behavior makes them easily tempted into taking small jigs and flies that threaten the eggs.

Otherwise, bluegill can be found all summer by tossing a nightcrawler or meal worm along brush piles, aquatic vegetation edges, and under docks. Hand-sized specimens fry up nicely with a delicate and flakey white filet. Recipes as simple as flour or cornmeal, salt and pepper, and a little oil are perfectly suited for any fish fry. For a little more spice in your dish, a quick Google search will turn up myriad recipes including fish tacos, fajitas, chowder and more. 

Reaching the unfortunate milestone of adulthood means the prospects of bluegill angling may not appear interesting on the surface, but bass are a common “bycatch” in bluegill territory. Another member of the sunfish family, bass behave similarly to and prey on bluegill. And, while anglers think big when talking bass baits, my personal best largemouth, a seven-pounder, slurped a tiny F4 Rapala crankbait while casting for bluegill over spring spawning beds.

Feisty and confident, bluegill handle themselves quite well, forcing a sweet bend in any light action spinning or fly rod. But the best part is the year-round season with no gear restrictions and no size or harvest limits. All that’s needed is a fishing license and a desire to get outdoors.

A dark shape materializing from the depths or bolting through the shallows to slurp a fly, or the sudden sideways glide of a bobber dangling a worm sends a bolt of anticipation through anglers young and old. To admire the modest orange breast and namesake blue gill, dark olive dorsal, and deep vertical barring on the more fashionable specimens is a privilege. They take me back to the farm pond where I stand wearing some form of 1980’s basketball star fashion and toting my nightcrawler box. Grandpa stands in his Dickies and flannel on an eroding earthen dam, a steely eye scanning the weed beds beneath a faded, green Redman ball cap, and casting a bass streamer on a hand-built fly rod.

While the Snake River is nearby, virtually endless options exist in Washington for a family fishing outing for bluegill. Visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website below for more information.

Bluegill | Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife