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Camping

On our first full day of fishing in Northern Idaho we hiked upstream from our campsite, on the trail that ran along the river and away from the roadside accesses, and into the backcountry. When the itch to fish was too strong to ignore we found a goat trail to descend down to get the day on the water started.

It was hard to see the river through the thick vegetation so when we did pop out of the woods to the riverbank, the setting was pretty idyllic. The fog over the river was beginning to burn off and to the downstream side on the far bank was a big rock wall that looked fishy as hell. It was hard to imagine a better place to start fishing. I didn’t start catching immediately though. I was fishing a dry-dropper setup with a pretty big Chubby Chernobyl up top and a fairly large stonefly imitation below and was getting lots of interest and several bumps on the dry. I downsized my rig and starting getting into fish.

Westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi)
That telltale cutthroat slash

Things were going pretty well, fish were being caught, however we were missing just as many fish as we were catching, if not more. The regulations on this river dictate that we were fishing single, barbless hooked flies and coming from the land of the meathaul, it took a little time to get adjusted to that.

About an hour and a half into fishing I tied into a fish with some size. It ended up being the largest fish I would catch on the trip and one of the main reasons we came to this specific watershed. Catching an above-average Westslope was something I wanted to accomplish on this trip and this fish checked that box for me. This was the first Westslope I had caught with the rose and salmon coloring on it’s belly, something I’d find out later most of the bigger fish were sporting. It made for an absolute beauty of a fish, a special fish, one that was a lot of fun to tangle with.

I love planning a fishing trip almost as much as I love going on one. I have trips planned that I may not get to for years. There are probably trips planned that I’ll never get to. It’s just the way I’m wired. If something I read, or see online, peaks my interest I start doing some general research and in short time have the makings of a trip. So when someone brings up an area or a species I usually have an idea of where that is and what I’ll be targeting. I was caught a little off guard when my friend Marcus mentioned going to a specific river system (I’ll refrain from naming it – you can do the research and figure it out) in Northern Idaho, that I wasn’t familiar with, to target Westslope cutthroat and potentially bull trout. Westslope are one of the subspecies of cutthroat that I had yet to catch and bull trout are an obvious draw, so I was immediately interested in the trip. After a little research on the location it was pretty obvious this was a place I needed to check out and I was all in. It took a little to get the wheels in motion on this one, but in time, I was able to get Blake, and then my dad, on board too, and a crew of four of us were headed to Northern Idaho from the deep South.

The Tetons
I love a window seat

After securing our rental vehicles and purchasing supplies that we’d need to get us through a few days of remote camping and fishing we made the trek to the campground. It was a beautiful drive and one thing that stood out to me about Northern Idaho that was different than any other western trout trip I’ve done was how lush the forest was we were driving through. Sure it was a bit arid around Spokane, but the forest was very thick the closer we got to our destination. Thick stands of evergreen forest with a diverse base of undergrowth where the light did reach the ground. It was a healthy ecosystem and one that obviously didn’t suffer from a lack of rainfall.

We got pretty lucky when we arrived at the campground that we wanted to stay at, as someone had just left what was, arguably, the best site there, and it was ours for the taking. Right next to the river and with enough space to fit all of our set ups, it was perfect. After setting up tents and hammocks, the call of the river was too strong to resist, and we were able to wet our lines before it got too dark.

The next day I decided to drive a little further east and check out the only watershed in Florida that held shoal bass – the Chipola River. I scouted a few launch sites and debated my plan before settling on one. I was under the assumption that I had to have shoals to target shoal bass and from what I could tell at each launch site that I stopped at(and from what I saw in imagery online) that was going to be difficult. The water level must have been a tad higher than normal and there were no visible shoals at places where I thought there would be so I was flying blind on this one.

I put the boat in and started paddling up anyway. I drove all the way out here, I may as well fish. The clarity was pretty good and the weather was gorgeous – I took that as a sign that there was a good chance I’d catch something.

I paddled up until I reached a spring run tributary and was amazed at how clear the water was dumping out of this creek. I paddled/walked up the creek a little ways and spooked a ton of small fish – pickerel, bass, sunfish, shiner – there was lots of life here. There was no way for me to effectively fish the creek so I hoped back in the boat and started my downstream float and fish.

Shoal bass, like most bass, are ambush predators so my idea was to just strip streamers around any place I thought looked like a good ambush point – pretty standard bass fishing stuff, I know, it’s not rocket science though. If that area had discernible current around it I assumed that was prime territory.

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I flogged a good stretch of water, beating the banks and working areas around submerged timber, before I had a strike, which came from the timber pictured above. The eat happened on the bank side of the big limb as the current swiftly carried my boat around on the other side of the laydown. Things were precarious for a bit as I paddled myself back up to remedy the situation. At some point I figured I lost the fish when my fly line was caught on the limb, but as I worked to free the line with my hand I could see him still hooked and fighting. Luckily for me I had a solid hookset and I was able to bring the 12″ shoal bass to the boat.

I was pretty stoked for this fish! I did not have a lot of confidence in catching a shoal bass here. Like I said, not a shoal in sight, so I felt a bit out of place. It fell for a beat-up crawfish pattern that Blake had tied up a while ago. This fly has landed bass all over the place, from spotted bass in Louisiana to smallmouth in West Virginia and Arkansas to redeyes in Alabama and Georgia, and now a shoal bass in Florida. I’ll see if I can get him to do a step-by-step for it. It’s been a while since we’ve done one of those here. My favorite flies, and those that tend to be the most durable, are the flies that Blake ties. No matter the pattern, he just does a really great job.

With renewed confidence I kept on swimming that crawfish pattern around anything and everything I floated by and eventually caught the spotted sunfish above. It was a good sized stumpknocker that looked like he’d seen better days. I was happy to have caught something else because despite my confidence the fishing was terribly slow. The river was beautiful though with the cypress trees giving it a little Fall color. Part of me feeling out of place was the river was a little bigger than I like to fish. I’m a small water guy. I dig the creeks. So medium or large rivers always intimidate me.

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There were low limestone bluffs every so often that were super pitted, like the one above. Some of the most unique geologic formations I’ve seen along a river. I ended up catching my second shoal bass along one of these walls. It makes total sense too as bass love a bluff wall. They are scoured out far underneath what is visible and make excellent ambush spots. That made it two shoal bass on the day! I was pumped and paddled the rest of my way back to the launch looking to get back to the campsite before dark.

On the drive back I made the realization that I just caught two shoal bass below I-10. That seemed so crazy to me; the fish known as the “fish of the waterfall”, Micropterus cataractae, were still hanging on down here in Florida, well below the fall line.

I stopped at a local grocery and bought a steak and whatever beer they had that was local to celebrate accomplishing a goal that was probably meaningless to 99% of the general population. Combine that with a campfire and it made for a much better night than the rainy one I had the night before.