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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.

We woke up to frost on our vehicles the next morning; it was cold as hell for Southern Mississippi. We met up with fellow Red Stick Fly Fisher and blogger Chris, the Fat Fingered Fly Tyer, and came up with a plan of attack that involved fishing the deepest parts of the southern end of the lake. The wind and the bitter cold made executing that plan difficult. We fished and gave it our best in a sheltered cove, but eventually decided that wasn’t working. It was starting to look like the morning was a complete bust, which wasn’t unexpected. There was enough time to try one more spot and I had at least caught fish in the upper part of the lake yesterday so I told them that’s where I was planning to head and Chris decided to come with.

We launched our kayaks at the northern end of the lake and fought the wind, paddling across to where the river dumps in. There the trees were tall enough to protect us from the wind and the channel was pretty deep too, so if the bass were holding on the bottom we could at least target them in the deep channel. The temps were starting to increase to the point of being comfortable, but the wind was non-stop.

Things were looking up once we got in the river. It wasn’t too long after we made it to the river when I was slowly stripping a Clouser minnow with my 7wt sinking line around some standing timber and felt an eat with some solid resistance. When I strip set the line started moving and I got excited. Not long after a fish comes rocketing out of the water! It clearly wasn’t the target fish though, too long and skinny, no this wasn’t a largemouth, it was a bigass chain pickerel! It bulldogged after the jump and put up a really nice fight before I was able to slip my net under it. No points were awarded for big pickerel so I decided to let it go. Chris had mentioned I may want to keep it as it could be a state fly rod record, and I contemplated it, but in the end I let it swim.

It was a great fish that put up a great fight, a really good representative of our southern species of Esox. I was thrilled with the catch and relieved to not skunk on this tough day. A day when I thought for sure that no one was going to catch anything in this crappy weather. Just as soon as I release my fish back in the water Chris hooks into a bass. At 11″ it wasn’t the monster we were hoping for, but any bass on this day was better than none. I was happy to see our change in location had paid off and we both avoided the skunk, and now Chris was at least on the leaderboard.

The rest of our trip was pretty uneventful, I don’t know that I caught another fish. We did explore up the river a ways and found a lot of really good looking water that would probably be worth fishing at a later date, much like on my scouting trip the day before. It was eventually time to head back to the “weigh-in” and see what everyone else had caught.

Fly tying was in full swing by the time we got back and shortly after we arrived back an awards presentation was held for the big bass contest. As I suspected Chris did make it on the leaderboard as there were only two fish submitted. His 11″ bass was good enough for 2nd, while Roger Apperley turned in a 12″ bass minutes before the end of the contest. After the awards came the silent auction and then the raffle prizes. I was lucky enough to have my named called for a Fred Hannie watercolor of a largemouth bass, which now sits in my office at work.

The Sweetwater Classic was the first event I attended put on by the FFI Gulf Coast Council and I really did enjoy it. I thought they did a great job curating an event that catered to area fly fishermen. It was great spending time on and off the water with Brian and Chris, and meeting all the other folks who made the trip up to Percy Quin for the event.

I think the plan next year is for the Classic to be held in early May at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama. More details can be found on the FFI GCC site, and it already looks like it will be bigger and better than this year’s event. If you’re a fly fisher-person in the South you may want to consider making the trip and booking your lodging now.

Brian and I stayed one more night at the cabin and left the next morning to make the drive back down to Baton Rouge. Music was one of the wide variety of things we discussed and we both figured that no trip to this part of Mississippi was complete without a stop at the Lynyrd Skynyrd memorial site. There are a lot of Skynyrd songs I like, but one of my favorite fishing related lyrics from any song comes at the end of “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”

“I said don’t ask no stupid questions and I won’t send you away
If you want to talk fishin, well I guess that’ll be OK”

I chuckle every time I hear it, because it’s so relatable.