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.
Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below.
The journey to landing a California golden trout on the fly in the Sierra Nevada was by far my most thrilling bucket-list adventure yet. What you need to know to make it happen is contained within the pages of the May 2019 edition of California Game and Fish Magazine.
Fall is undoubtedly the most anticipated and contested season of the year, and rightfully so in both regards. The fat days of summer are quickly drawing to a close at our latitude, even more dramatically in climates further north. Darkness cloaks our early waking hours and morning routines, not to mention the crispness on the air, leaving little motivation to escape the comfort of our beds, save for the increasingly satisfying steam and piquant aroma of coffee or tea tantalizing our nostrils and taste buds on such mornings.
The transition from a season of glut to a season of thrift. Hunting, gathering, fattening, reproduction, all to the tune of Mother Nature’s rhythm. The birds are heading south; their innate sense of the season to come urging them to seek warmer climates and more abundant food sources. The last of the humming birds are scarcely seen as they migrate from northerly portions of their summer range. Flocks of drab, olive-toned gold finches visit bird baths en route as curious nuthatches and black and tan towhees begin to appear. The vibrant, red berry clusters of the mountain ash begin brightening to brilliant orange in time for the arrival of masked cedar waxwings from higher elevations.
The long-awaited early upland and big game seasons are upon us as deer fawns lose their spots and wild turkeys build their winter flocks. Elk bugles pierce the wilderness canyons, echoing through the timber like an autumn canticle. And the bedraggled, teenage pheasant roosters are finally coming into their handsome adult ensemble. But what lurks below emboldens many, not to be second best among the terrestrial grandeur. There are coho, Chinook and steelhead to be caught, but the high mountain cutthroat, rainbows, and even the eastern transplant brook trout are calling those patiently waiting for the summer heat to ease and the October rains to replenish the headwaters.
The paling of the upland aspen and streamside cottonwood and alder, the blushing of snowberry and the blackening of elderberry fruit paints a soft contrast against the russet, heat-baked hills and basalt. Water temperature is optimal and the trout feisty. Ominous skies draw out the long-awaited October caddis hatch, triggering trout to rise aggressively, snatching the burley, moth-sized flies as they dip to the water surface to deposit their eggs. Among the largest of the caddis species, the October caddis serves to quickly fatten trout for their upcoming months of sluggishness, feeding largely on nymphs.
The final hurrah of the big fly season, hulking stimulator patterns tied tawny with deer hair and eye-catching orange or red bodies fight the slightest of breeze as a floating fly line shoots for the edge of a backwater or pool tail-out. A cutthroat, now coming into its prime, rolls on the stimulator from the shelter of lazy waters. Boasting rich, buttery flanks, an olive-tinged dorsal region and faint flush of pink adorning the belly, the cutthroat is the natural 24-karat gold of many western streams.
Not to be outdone, the rainbow, so aptly named for its prismatic sheen, rockets airborne from the tumult between pools. Preferring faster water, rainbows are the pure muscle of montane waters. Their dazzling shades of blue, violet, olive and rose, decorated with an incredible varying of pepper flecks serves to entrance and addict anyone to ever marvel over such a finned spectacle. Splashing down into the froth, a sizeable rainbow hits top speed in an instant, leaving an unprepared angler fishing for a fresh stimulator in the fly box.
And then there is the master of shadows. The one who seeks brush and boulder seclusion. Their fall routine being quite different from the other trout, possibly because they are not trout at all. Brook trout are actually a char, their scientific name, genus Salvelinus, sets them and their western bull trout cousin apart from the other trout of genus Oncorhynchus. A native of the eastern U.S., their widespread range hard won over ages of fighting steep, flashy torrents and heavy woody debris loads. Their aggressive attitude and insatiable appetite make them vulnerable to angling, particularly during fall as their tenacity and brilliance peaks for spawning.
Soft pink bellies blaze into fiery orange-red. Their dull, gray dorsal darkens to a deep ocean olive-blue streaked by worm-like striations. Their peculiar pink spotting with the sky-blue halo darkens to a stunning hue like decorative buttons on a jacket lapel. But their most unique identifying trait is the mark of the char; the stark-white leading fin spine on the pectoral, pelvic and anal fins, trimmed in pitch black, sets a marvelous contrast to the dominantly red fin. They may pose an invasive species threat to native trout in the west, but their splendor is inarguable.
Bulls, bucks, pheasant and ducks; the allure is potent and justified. But on those heaven-sent, bluebird October mornings when the mercury falls, the waters are calling. Sun-kissed creek bottoms flowing through a kaleidoscope of changing vegetation sets the backdrop for a well-placed fly and a radiant adipose fin. And for a brief moment, painted among the autumn stream palette, may we achieve true serenity, blessed to witness nature in its most vibrant glory of the wild trout.
Published in the East Oregonian, February 15th, 2020.
The majority of my winter trips to the Wallowa River are characterized by slippery travel across Toll Gate under an active snow or ice storm. The five-foot walls of packed snow confining the highway are intimidating, yet comforting in the fact that I might simply bounce off the wall rather than ditch my rig in the creek draining the Elgin side of the mountain. Needless to say, as I stepped out of my rig at Minam State Park one glorious March morning, the bluebird sky offered immediate victory. The day was shaping up beautifully; my confidence high.
Flow conditions were about perfect. I typically fish steelhead on the descending limb of the hydrograph after a slug of water has coaxed fish to move upriver. I got a few nods from folks headed for the State Park honey hole as I donned my waders and strung up my fly rod. I am stubborn, like most fly fisherman, identifying almost exclusively as a swinger. By that, I mean I “swing” flies. It’s an artform that, when executed properly, is reason enough to fish. Steelhead be damned.
Once fully rigged up, I strolled down to the nearby run that was entirely vacant, save for the peculiar little American dipper that bobbed along the rocks at water’s edge. Across the run was a series of boulders that had dislodged from the railroad grade where the river pushed along the toe. The depth was right and I expected steelhead were holding in the current breaks behind the boulders.
Wading out to about mid-thigh depth, I rolled a short cast to the far side, threw an upstream mend, and waited as the line swept down and sank a few feet. I could envision my purple, egg-sucking leech wafting temptingly in the current. The cast resulted in a beautiful presentation and clean drift, but no grab. Typical.
Repeating the cast, I methodically worked downstream to cover the entire run. And to my surprise, half way through the run, a solid thump transferred through the line. Steelhead typically hook themselves when smashing a fly on the swing. Without a hookup, I moved on, dismissing the whack as a resident rainbow or bull trout not large or serious enough to bury the hook in the corner of their jaw.
Crossing over to the tracks, I headed toward the confluence with the Grande Ronde. The sun-warmed canyon hit a balmy 50 degrees. Fat, steely mule deer fed on greening grasses across the open south- and western-facing slopes. Steller’s jays and magpies screeched and flittered, among other songbirds, fleeing from the “swishing” of my waders.
The railroad winding through the canyon cuts through a variety of large rock outcrops that typically hide critters on their shaded side. Passing through the cold shadows of a towering pillar, the hair on the back of my neck bristled. Instinct suggested a lurking cat, yet I’ve never laid eyes on a cunning cougar along that stretch of track.
The river was superb, boasting a vibrant emerald tint through the deeper pools and runs. Shockingly, I was one of very few to venture down the track this day. Just as surprising, my casting was on fire. Everything played out spectacularly, save for the conspicuous lack of steelhead.
Over the course of about five hours I fished a number of runs, each promising enough to stimulate overwhelming anticipation. Butterflies danced in my gut with every swing, yet ended uneventfully, stripping the leech back in, taking a couple steps downstream and repeating the gig. The motions and results were always the same while my expectations remained of something different. The very definition of insanity.
Upon my logical brain regaining control, I turned upstream for the truck. Along the way, I came across a gentleman with a bobber and jig working a tight, deep cut at the base of a rock outcrop. He had a steelhead on a stringer and was fighting another. Admittedly, I was jealous, but simply admired his catch and moved along, not to spoil his revelry or sully my pride. I shot him a nod which provoked a satisfied smirk.
Not quite ready to quit, I waded into the run where I began the day and worked it just as I had that morning. The only difference this time was the steelhead that nearly ripped the rod from my weary hands on the fourth swing. My mind had already drifted to hot coffee and kicking my feet up when the characteristic tight-line slam of an eight-pound freight train trouncing my little leech jarred my brain into utter panic.
Hanging on and feathering the spool, I was prepared for a long and strategic run, but something was amiss. Realizing the horror that my line had wrapped under a boulder distinguished that I was about to lose my only steelhead of the season.
Dashing into the current up to my waist, the rush of the river eroded the rock from beneath my feet. Being swept downstream and dancing to stay upright, I somehow freed the line. The fish responded immediately, turning tail and heading for the 150-yard-long riffle below the run. With few options, I gripped the reel tightly, stuck the butt of the rod into my hip and began backing toward the shore. If my aggressive effort didn’t break the fish from my eight-pound fluorocarbon tippet, the long riffle certainly would.
Surprise, relief and excruciating optimism collided as the rod rebounded, the fish turning upstream. Reeling wildly to keep the pressure on was all I could do. Tense moments of give and take finally ended as a massive tail sliced the water surface in the shallows downstream. The fish was spent.
Gliding the steelhead into my feet, I noticed the adipose fin was clipped. I beached her immediately, gazing graciously upon the brilliant, rosy stripe spanning the length of a healthy, speckled hen measuring somewhere around 26 inches. She was outright magnificent. And destined for my dining room table. I’ve never felt more accomplished or blessed upon landing any other steelhead in my fly-fishing career.
The unusually warm 34 degrees greeted us under bluebird skies as we turned up Highway 153 toward Twisp. My last trip up this highway was five years prior in 2015; the last steelhead season open to the public on the Methow River as fish returns to the Columbia Basin continued to drop precipitously.
Memories of that last trip flooded my mind as I rode shotgun with my buddy Chas Kyger, a fish biologist with Douglas County Public Utility District in Wenatchee. If ever a man was anointed with supernatural powers through a fly rod, it was him. He taught me the ways of swinging flies for steelhead, the Methow River my training grounds.
Swinging flies is one of fly-fishing’s most artistic acts employing “spey” casting techniques and heavy sinking lines. A streamer is cast on across currents where steelhead hold during the long winter days. Placing a mend in the line to encourage the fly and line to sink, the angler then holds the line tight and lets the river push through it, creating an arching belly in the line. The fly swings across the river, following the arched path as the current pushes the line downstream, traversing steelhead holding waters at their eye level. At the end of the swing, the fly swiftly rises directly downstream of the angler. If a fish doesn’t take the fly mid-swing, the rising fly almost always entices the strike from a fish willing to play ball.
A particular day of my February 2015 trip dawned just as serene, identically emerging from weeks of single-digit temperatures and chill-to-the-bone wind shear. Our first stop of the day, I found myself casting across conflicted currents, the sun glinting at retina-burning intensity from the river surface. Chas offered a bit of guidance. “Send the fly across that run and swing through the downstream trough. At the belly of the swing, hang on.”
Chas’s words echoed in the back of my mind as I set up a swing on our first run of the day, five years hence. I have never been great at the technique. But swinging flies is like riding a bike in the sense that you never forget how it feels to do it properly. Pulling tight on the line as it bowed, sending the streamer into the heart of the run, the feeling of perfection flushed over me. My body erupted in goose bumps. “This is the cast.” I said to myself, as if somehow mentally or spiritually connected to the fish that lay 60 feet off shore. The swing was perfect.
My feet were nearly numb in the 33-degree water, but I scarcely noticed at that moment. Entranced in the artform as if painted on a winter canvas amid a naked granite-strewn canyon, the world faded into the background. I had nearly forgotten that I was fishing roadside among a few of Chas’s colleagues. I could have been deep in the heart of Kamchatka sharing a river bank with brown bears and felt no further separated from the world around me. It was just the river and I, and a few weary steelhead, soaking in the warmth of the golden sun to the soothing roar of the crystal-clear lifeblood of our planet and all that inhabit it. Precisely the moment when fate and timing collide with luck and instinct.
Serenity shattered among the riverside boulders as my 11-foot fly rod nearly left my hands at Mach speed. A sizeable fish swiped the fly and turned downstream, hooking itself deeply in the corner of the jaw. Frantically, I grappled the reel to retrieve the slack line and put the fish on the drag. With the butt of the rod buried into my hip, I read the fish’s movements, giving line when pressured, and taking quickly when relieved.
The hum of the drag and the feel of line gliding through the guides sends a chill down my spine simply recalling it, much less living it real-time. Witnessing the elegance of such a stunning critter utilizing its power and heft to stymy an opponent is an intense experience. Each terrifying downstream charge could be the last, leaving the steelhead triumphant. Yet, my handcrafted rod has landed dozens of salmon, steelhead and big Lahontan cutthroat over the years. Barring a faulty hookset, my connection with the rod leads me stealthily between aggression and compromise.
Suddenly entering the scene, stage left, Chas extended a large landing net onto the submerged rocks before me. I carefully guided the fish toward shore, wincing with every barrel-roll as the fish fought feverishly to shake the fly. But alas, Chas lifted the net up around the fish, and I marveled at the 28-inch beauty that lay before me.
A wild hen, no doubt, brilliant with an olive dorsal, stark white underbelly, pepper-black speckles, and a rosy-pink lateral line. She was magnificent. A true phenomenon of nature’s grandeur.
The Methow fishery remains closed to the public; our opportunity to fish it being tied to our professions as biologists cooperating on a broodstock collection program with the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery. Assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, we quickly tagged the fish and moved her to a transport truck. She was destined to be spawned at the Winthrop hatchery and later released back into the river.
Landing a steelhead on the fly is a life-changing experience. It makes idiots and addicts of grounded folks, cultivating a sudden willingness to brave the most frigid, icy conditions and swollen rivers. The act itself, while an artform, is born of strict insanity. Cast, swing, move, repeat. No steelhead. Sometimes for days. Even weeks. No inkling of fish presence. No amount of technical savvy can change the outcome at times. Conducted in utter glacial misery. All while anticipating the unlikely bone-jarring grab of a weighty ocean-run missile that continually haunts our dreams, yet rarely our (my) flies. A single grab can carry an angler through a full season.
The sun glistened from the flanks of the hen as we lowered her into the hatchery truck. The high of having landed a steelhead on the swing was quickly replaced with despair. When would this happen again? It had already been five years since my last steelhead encounter. The Wallowa River in March lies ahead. The prospects are maddening.
My Tundra bounced up onto the old wood plank bridge. The dark planks rocked and popped beneath the weight. I was pushing the width limit. My hands, white-knuckled on the wheel, managed to avoid shredding a quarter panel against the steel rails while the Selway River boiled a bit off color below.
Upon a safe dismount, I started the climb to a trailhead where I would embark on a journey into trout country. I knew nothing of the destination but suspected either cutthroat or rainbow. After all, it was Idaho.
Rounding a bend in the old Forest Service road revealed a breathtaking meadow reach. The stream meandered its way to the Selway through a lush carpet of brilliant green grass and forbs. Native Trillium was blooming cotton candy pink in the company of a snoozing whitetail deer. A tantalizing plunge-pool appeared dark and fishy below a cascade of boulders and log jams. My foot mashed the brake pedal. I never saw the destination trailhead.
Large caddis were hatching as I donned my waders. Ogling them lustily lulled me into a giddy, unfounded anticipation.
Early spring fishing can be a straight up crap-shoot. Steady water temperature and relatively stable flow through the winter can offer equally stable action (albeit slow at times), but as days lengthen and air temperature increases, snow melt-swollen streams begin to change the game a bit. Nevertheless, I selected a classic high mountain pairing, a size 12 caddis dropping a size 16 pheasant tail nymph. And the dice rolled.
Selecting the finest habitat set my confidence high, but the water temperature was glacial. I found the runs moving a bit too fast to present the fly well, even with a flawless dead-drift. I turned to the pocket waters and failed, then moved to the fringes where water velocity is slower with warmer temperature.
Young trout will often seek the fringes during spring high flows where holding water meets cover and food sources. With hopes high, I placed the caddis on the outside edge of a flow seam and just downstream of a boulder. At once the caddis vanished beneath the surface, the nymph taken by a young rainbow parr.
The parr life stage is physically characterized by a size range of approximately two to five inches and large “parr marks”, which are dark, oval-shaped marks along the lateral line. Parr marks serve as camouflage and are generally lost as the fish matures. In some cases, trout older than a year may retain lighter, yet obvious parr marks.
Modern fishing emphasizes the trophy fish, but the brilliance of a young wild trout returns the angler to a universal experience. A wild trout parr is a spectacle to behold, rich and vibrant with various mottling. The white anal fin tip, the fine black speckles among an olive dorsal, and the rosy pink lateral stripe of a rainbow express perfection as only a wild fish can. With a gentle pop of the barbless hook, I sent the parr on its way. Shuffling up to another hole, I was met with an encore performance, my three-weight rod dancing under the inconspicuous weight of the tiny gem.
Mountain streams can run strong and cold in spring but can turn on in June if the flow is fishable. The best choice in spring and early summer may be desert water, and desert streams are not to be overlooked. These little blue lines flourish in May and June with aggressive trout and abundant food. Flows are typically fishable and many of these streams lend themselves to a number of fly-fishing techniques including traditional tenkara.
Desert streams provide prime opportunity to get creative. If you have been curious about a crack in the middle of nowhere spewing cold water through a sagebrush canyon, go for it. Seek pockets and plunge pools. Although the local game and fish office may not post anything about it, if it’s legal to fish, you may just find a new favorite stream. The Owyhee can be dynamite. What about its tributaries?
Desert lakes are ablaze in spring as well. For Lahontan cutthroat, I generally fish shorelines with scuds or buggers. If the fish are not up and cruising the shallows, they can be found deeper along shoreline boulders. A full-sinking fly line is about the only way to reach them, counting down to 20 feet or more before beginning a varied strip retrieve. Lahontans either hammer the fly or simply engulf it and just sit there, creating awkward tension. A sixth sense tells you when to set the hook. Heavy head shakes and deep runs are left to the drag.
Desert lake rainbows are cruising shallow weed beds at the edge of deep water, providing the appropriate mix of food and depth through the June time-frame. Dry flies are working now and traditional tenkara flies and methods can be effective as well. When the water is cold but a hatch is on, a dry fly with a dropper nymph is a fine option as midges dominate desert lakes, but matching the hatch can be crucial. When all else fails, sink a small streamer. Never will a 15-inch trout work the drag on a five-weight fly rod like a desert lake rainbow.
Now, more than ever, you are itching to wet a fly. As a sunny day blooms, you need no excuse to shuck responsibility and undue stress for the symphonic chorus of the flush of courting songbirds, the mesmerizing roar of a stream or serenity of floating a lake as the water surface dimples from feeding trout. It’s time. Drop everything. Go fishing. And cherish the wild trout, big or small.
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.
⇑⇑ 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.
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.
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.
Fishing desert lakes April through June is tough to beat. Flipping around on a float tube, the warm spring sun across my back, and wild trout smacking small streamers like mini freight trains is what I have come to love about desert lakes. Well, that, and the rugged, burgundy and chocolate-colored basalt rims punctuated by milky-emerald big sagebrush, random white plumes of yarrow and brilliant canary tufts of balsamroot blooms.
Having had quite enough of COVID-19 self-isolation, I decided to take a little road trip to Quail Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello. Quail Lake is open year-round to catch-and-release fly-fishing for trout. And while I love a good desert lake, my preference is mountain streams, which weren’t yet open to fishing, locally. A desert lake would have to suffice.
Having never been to Quail Lake, or the seep lake area of Potholes, for that matter, the landscape was intriguing. Former ice-age floods gouged the prominent coulees and dozens of holes in the landscape, creating the scared and pock-marked surface similar to what you might expect to encounter on the moon. From atop the bluffs, the landscape appears flat, brushy, and baked brown with the already spent stems and drooping seed heads of invasive cheat grass. A few dark rims appeared in the distance, but the depth of the topography was not revealed before approaching the small, sunken lakes. Thus, Potholes is an appropriate moniker for the reservoir and surrounding area.
The lakes were formed by the Columbia Basin Project (Project), located in east-central Washington in the counties of Adams, Douglas, Franklin, Stevens, Okanogan, Grant, Lincoln, and Walla Walla. The primary feature of the Project is Grand Coulee Dam. Construction began on Grand Coulee in 1934 with an irrigation pumping concept of drawing water from the Columbia River, sending it down to Pasco, east of the Columbia River, as a means to reinvigorate the arid landscape for agriculture and homesteading. Presently, the Project irrigates approximately 671,000 acres, or 65 percent of the 1,029,000 acres originally authorized by Congress.
Construction of the pumping plant, irrigation canal system and dams were completed in 1951. North Dam and Dry Falls Dam (formerly South Dam) were built to equalize the irrigation discharge and form the grand coulee, which is now 27-mile-long Banks Lake. There is over 300 miles of main canals, about 2,000 miles of lateral canals and 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways on the Project, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Among the drains and wasteways, Potholes Reservoir was developed to capture irrigation water for reuse in the southern portion of the Project. It’s the seepage from Portholes Reservoir and surrounding irrigation features which inundated the seep lakes.
Parking at Herman Lake and the Quail Lake trailhead, I was instantly mesmerized by the hoards of common carp thrashing the shoreline in search of food as spring rains and irrigation flows had flooded the cattails and low grassland swales. Overlooking the lake, these large fish were literally everywhere, boiling, jumping and beaching themselves in the cattails and newly flooded grasses. Landing a carp on the fly rod is an incredible experience, and I nearly caved to the temptation. Exercising self-control, I grabbed my backpack and fly rod and trudged off through the sagebrush in search of Quail Lake.
The hike was short and easy, but the map showed roads that didn’t exists, so I wound around through the wildlife refuge taking in the interesting bits of flora and fauna, like the myriad darkling beetles roaming gopher mounds, presumably in search of dung. Eventually deciding to cut straight to the lake, I was disappointed yet unsurprised to find the shoreline heavily populated with cattails and tule, so much that there was no potential to reach fish from shore. Experience told me this would be the case, yet I stubbornly ignored my own intelligence and made the hike a second time, returning with my float tube and waders.
Also as expected, the lake surface dimpled with rising trout feeding heavily on hatching midges. Had I not known better, I would have assumed it was beginning to rain. The overcast sky provided perfect conditions for a midge hatch, and between light puffs of wind, the trout were taking full advantage.
Flipping out from shore, I tied up a small streamer, which is my standard choice for desert lakes. Midges dominate arid water food sources, come in a staggering diversity of sizes and colors from millimeters to centimeters long, and make utter fanatics of the trout that feed on them. By this, I mean trout of all species that key in on midges know their profile down to antennae length and scrutinize imitations to the minutia of detail. I so rarely match a midge hatch that I strip streamers almost exclusively on desert lakes.
Gliding along, taking in the scenery, the morning slid seamlessly into early afternoon. Amid the rustle of red-winged blackbirds in the cattails, and acknowledging the distant cackle of a rooster pheasant or territorial “kerrr” of a male valley quail, I noted the occasional tap on my streamer, too timid to produce a hookset. Quite uncharacteristic of the rocketing rainbows I have encountered in other desert lakes. Deciding to make a switch, I went for a dry fly; a tiny black midge to mimic something I was seeing on the surface. I tied an extra long leader with very fine tippet to extend the nearly invisible fly as far from the main fly line as possible. And, as expected, something was amiss. No takers.
My final effort involved a midge nymph, again trying to mimic what I was seeing on the water’s surface. Using a small orange float as a strike indicator and depth selector, I had no more than made my first cast when the wind erupted from an intermittent gust to a sustained 15 miles per hour. If you have ever lounged on a swimming pool float and been blown across at break-neck speed (which is apparently about 15 miles per hour), you will understand why I vacated the nearest shoreline open enough to clamber out on, and called it a trip.
Climbing the canyon wall on my way to the top, I mused over the setting and the puddle lakes visible from my vantage. An unlikely dry landscape transformed into a vast desert oasis of wetlands and waters. An unintended consequence (and benefit) of an irrigation project developed nearly a century ago.
Navigating for the truck, I pondered the uniqueness of the seep lake ecosystem and the flush of wildlife that now inhabit the once crisply dry area of central Washington, as well as the beauty of old-growth sagebrush and the contrasting pop of the blood-orange colored lichens covering their arm-sized trunks.
Approaching Herman Lake, it dawned on me that now was a great opportunity to try my hand at a carp on the fly. But a few teenage boys were sufficiently harassing them such that I simply wandered by, casting a sidelong glance at their peculiar techniques. I thought it comical the gear these boys were using and their uneducated attempts at catching the beastly, bronze, invasive bulls of freshwater.
Suddenly, the notion struck home that I was doing nothing more than peering into my own past, seeing a striking resemblance of myself, back when I was an ignorant, harmless boy who wanted nothing more than to fish away his weekends. Well, at least before I had any clue of the foolery we adults rope ourselves into. Bills. Chores. Steady income. And for what? I suppose a home with acreage for the garden and wildlife is an acceptable example.
Closing the tailgate, the threesome strolled by, boisterously recounting their efforts to dupe the surprisingly intelligent carp. One boy said he wished they would have been able to catch a few more, while another said he was thrilled to have caught one at all. It was his first fish ever. An unlikely first fish from an unlikely lake that was never meant to be more than an ephemeral puddle, if that. Living vicariously, reveling in his success and exhilaration, I shifted my Tundra into “drive” and departed for home.
“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.
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.
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.
Stepping into a reach I had never laid eyes on, water spilled across the floodplain through newly cut side channels, occupied new backwaters, and spilled through massive apex log jams. Beautiful pools formed below the jams and behind precisely placed root wads. Riffles spilled across cobble bars parallel to the head of the pool, forming textbook dry-fly dead-drifting waters, irresistible to inhabiting trout.
Knowing the fish would be somewhat less active in the glacial June flows, I nevertheless opted for a size 12 elk hair caddis. Having embraced fishing simply, a tenkara fly rod has become my go-to for mountain trout streams. Capable of landing fish as large as salmon (speaking from personal experience), easily reaching mid-stream pocket water habitats, and presenting a flawless dead-drift, a lightweight tenkara rod and single fly box graced my presence as I traversed the cottonwood riparian and shallow riffles.
A riffle formed the beautiful emerald pool where it collided at 90-degrees with a large toppled tree root wad. Hydraulic forces cut their way through the substrate until the head of the pool widened enough to shift flow and scour downstream depths. It was the ideal location for a calculated approach and fly presentation.
Dropping the caddis into the riffle and watching it bob carelessly into the flow seam below, it was no surprise that a rainbow stealthily slithered to the surface, trouncing the fly with the confidence of snagging an easy meal. A soft pop of the wrist set the hook with the tenkara rod, which played the 12-incher through the riffle and into a shallow pocket for a safe release. The fish’s cotton candy pink lateral line, grape-sized parr marks, and overall random speckling of bluish blotches and tiny black flecks were a sight to behold. Its otherwise chrome sheen was nearly blinding in the morning sun as rays peaked over the eastern basalt rim.
Approaching “fishy” habitat is an important consideration. How the angler casts a shadow, disturbs the water, or presents the fly and line can mean the difference between landing multiple, and possibly big fish, and no fish. Consider a classic log jam and downstream pool.
Whenever possible, approach the pool with the sun in your face. Keeping a long shadow off the water serves well to avoid spooking fish. Additionally, I like to approach from the side and begin near the top of the pool. Bigger trout get the best “lie”, meaning they take preferred feeding zones, which are usually farther back in the pool where the water is calmer and predators more visible. Fish are easily spooked here and often race into the whitewater at the top of the pool seeking shelter. Game over.
Approaching from the side, one can cast high or across the pool and drift down for the best presentation. Additionally, any fish caught in the top of the pool are less likely to escape to the tail and spook other fish when released.
If you must approach from the bottom end, carefully work your fly further and further into the pool to try to catch any fish near the tail before spooking them with the line touching down or wading into them.
When approaching from the top, keep a low profile and dead drift the fly from the head of the pool into the middle and tail. This is superbly easy to do with a fixed length of line approximately one-, to one-and-a-half times the rod length. Keep the rod tip high as the fly touches down, then slowly drop the rod consistent with the flow rate to keep line drag from affecting the fly drift. A hungry trout cannot pass on a caddis presented accordingly.
Aside from log jams and pools, gentle runs with large boulders providing velocity breaks are a good choice. Side channels, root wads, and anywhere riffles push perpendicular into a stream bank or other structure, creating a deeper pocket, is bound to hold trout. Trout also seek flow seams where faster water eddies off into slower water, depositing food, and allowing trout to save energy when holding position.
Approaching the next pool from below, a gravel bar split the pool, sending a run to the river-right bank that paralleled a downed tree, and creating a scour pool on the river-left bank beneath a small, submerged tree. Drifting a fly along the right-bank produced a single missed strike, but working slowly to the head of the left-bank pool enticed several fish seeking shelter beneath the tree.
While fly-fishing may seem intimidating to the novice, there are three general keys to mountain stream trout that can be quickly mastered; quality habitat, a stealthy approach, and clean fly presentation. The best producing areas are always those resembling quintessential trout habitat, with braided channels, large wood, a good riffle-run-pool sequence, and lush riparian vegetation. An elk hair caddis or Adams are staple flies, working on nearly any mountain stream at any time, making fly choice less concerning.
Mountain streams are the heart and soul of fly-fishing. Keep it simple. Keep the rod tip high. And savor the radiance of those speckled forest gems.
If you’re a fly-fisherman, think back on your first trout on the fly. Can you remember it? Turns out I cannot, but I do recall my teenage years spent trying to crack the code on mountain brook trout in Appalachia. While my casting skill left much to be desired, habitat selection may have had more influence on my struggle to coax a fish to the fly. Thirty years later, mountain trout streams take me back to basics such that the last time I carried a western-style fly rod and reel into a headwater stream was probably 2016.
These days I seek elevation and skinny water with only a handful of flies of usually one or two patterns, and a tenkara rod. Whether the fishing is actually easy or just second nature to me now remains to be determined, but one thing has remained constant. The elk hair caddis. This classic pattern stands as a staple in the fly box of trout anglers worldwide, mine included. It’s effectiveness has made this the first, and often the only fly I use on mountain streams.
So, how did this fly earn its reputation? There are approximately 7,000 known caddis species, which hatch generally April through October in the northern hemisphere. The dry fly (adult) pattern is often effective through November with peak hatch months typically being June through September. The October caddis hatch is well known in some areas, including locally, for remarkable densities of colossal flies that may be mistaken for large moths. Fishing a giant October caddis can redefine “epic” as feisty fish feast to fatten up for winter on the filet mignon of insect forage.
Tied with a black, brown, or olive body, ribbed with copper or tensile or not at all, and topped with hair as black as moose or bright as a bull elk’s rump, the pattern is universally effective. The same olive elk hair caddis once duped native brookies in several Virginia mountain streams only days before it landed me the Bitterroot Slam of rainbow, brook, brown, cutthroat, and cut-bow on my drive back to Washington. That was July 2020, and that fly now hangs on my pickup’s driver-side sun visor as a constant reminder of an exceptional few days on the headwaters draining our major eastern and western mountain ranges.
Given the fly’s popularity, effectiveness, and commonplace existence as a renown fly pattern, one of the most curious facts about the fly is that it has been on the scene barely over 60 years. The simplicity of the elk hair caddis pattern led me to assume it has been around since the beginning of modern fly-fishing at the latest.
Seemingly one of the earliest possible fishing methods, one may assume that fly-fishing was common as early as 1653 with the first publishing of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler. Surprisingly. One of the first records of fishing flies includes a group of about a dozen salmon streamers tied in Ireland in 1789, possibly older than the first color illustration of flies, according to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. Even more surprising, the first elk hair caddis is credited to Al Troth, tied in 1957, far later than many other classics like the Adams, which turned up around 1922. Little did Troth know that his caddis pattern would go on to imitate virtually any species of caddis, as well as some stoneflies. A truly revolutionary fly.
Dry-fly fishing – fishing flies on the water surface – is thought to be the pinnacle of trout angling. Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It, centered in Missoula, Montana, sensationalized fly-fishing, invigorating the fishing world to take up the sport. McClean’s wit suggested purity in fishing dry flies through biblical reference, saying “Our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly-fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly-fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” While anyone can fish dry-flies, sans the pretention, there are arguably few other flies or fly-fishing methods that compare to charming wild trout with an elk hair caddis.
A creamy puff of elk rump bobs carelessly on a dead-drift, cascading into the head of a mountain stream pool. Unable to resist the temptation, a muscly rainbow with a cotton-candy pink lateral stripe rockets to the surface, engulfing the fly in an eager splash as it drifts over the emerald depths. A quick flip of the wrist sets the hook, and the fight ensures. Admiring the remarkable hues of salmonid perfection from the clear, cold cascades is what dreams are made of. Dreams that can be reality for anyone willing to chase them with an elk hair caddis, July being a fine month on streams like the Wallowa River, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.