Going Places: Floating the Middle Fork

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Floating the Middle Fork

We were talking with Eric Rector one evening around the fire. I asked him to sum up the bug scene for us. He told us: "The salmon fly hatch, the big Pteronarcys, comes off about the second or third week in June, and runs for about two or three weeks. Following that are the goldens, probably the most dominant bug on the river; they drag on through the summer. Then, of course, there are the hoppers. We have a strong, really strong hopper hatch. We've been fishing hoppers now since mid-July. Maybe a caddis pattern or a Stimulator early or late in the day, but by and large it's hoppers, and a Parachute Hopper at that. I would have to say that, from our experience at least, the Parachute Hopper is probably 20% more effective on this river than any of the other hopper patterns. And the more serious fishermen might want to fish a 'hopper dropper', which is a hopper on top with a small mayfly nymph or caddis larvae, or maybe a bead-head nymph trailing on a couple foot length of fine tippet.

Over the course of the week we found that by switching back and forth between adult stone patterns (larger stimulators and sofa pillows) and hoppers, we had equally good results. It dawned on me that with an overlapping golden emergence, any down-wing pattern, even an October caddis would be suggestive of the general silhouette of any of the big three — hoppers, big caddis or stones. I'm sure the salmon fly hatch would produce a selective period of feeding, maybe the goldens too when they came off in good numbers, but these hungry cutts in fast water were not seriously differentiating between tent-wing versus flat-wing status, even, it seemed, in variation in underbody coloration. Furthermore, I found that not only had I simplified my patterning choices, but I had simplified my water interpretation as well. Although there was a respectable amount of cover and structure to fish to, by the end of the second day I noticed I was keying my casts to color as much as anything else.

When I first became aware of this, the idea seemed simplistic. When I thought about it further I realized it was actually an old story. From farm pond to creek to river it was color that had always spoken dirtiest to me. The richest greens and deep sea blues especially, were the stuff of wanton seduction. Pragmatic too, I simply did well in such places. Colored water meant limited visibility and shelter, something fish sought out in the middle of the day to hide from predators. Anadromous fish in particular, often hug the bottom of the deepest holes in the river, the deep blue or green waving like a flag to a fisherman. Deepening color demarcated depth, shadow or plant life, all of which are fishy issues. And this seemed to be more the case on the Middle Fork of the Salmon than anywhere I can remember fishing. The river that week was a palette of Verde, forest, and Kelly, apple and spring green along with moss, jade and emerald against a backdrop of crystal and celadon.

There is elegance in the reduction of elements. My wife is a visual artist and I have learned much from her world. A Henry Moore sculpture, a cello solo by Yo-Yo Ma, or fishing. Maybe it's the way of the maturing angler that carries him toward simplicity and away from complexity. I don't know. But I do know that less and less often do I rack my brain when I'm on the water, and more and more am I feeling the river and enjoying the colors and looking for the subtle, simple approach; fishing by color that week on the Middle Fork was essentially that.

A river of sparse strokes, the Middle Fork, rushing water over granite bottom, little flora in a narrow riparian zone bordering shore, few snags in the water course. A hard-bottomed, ice cold stream without an excessive mount of limestone or phytoplankton in suspension (Lieb does tell us, though, there are brine shrimp). Gravel bars are bleached and orderly and little silt gathers along the bottom. There is no mud. There are occasional sand bars where the river makes its deposit each year (popular camp sites). It is a river flushed clean, flushed to bedrock each winter, a twisting flowage of shadow and cleaving light that is easy on the eyes.

Nights are clear and cold in the canyon in September. I had the distinct impression I was standing at the hub of a huge roulette wheel as the planet spun ponderously on its axle. The coming of shadow presaging darkness feels ominous at times (when you are wet and cold and the river seems threatening), and the cold light of early morning little more than a premonition of the genuine article. When you're number is finally up though, rays beamed a billion miles distant flood the canyon like a warm bath, and the mid-day winds kick in and scour out the stubborn chill hugging the canyon floor. The hoppers wake up and shake a leg and the fishing is on.

The dominant fish in the system is the indigenous Middle Fork Western Slope Cutthroat. The cutts range typically from 10 to 18 inches with rainbows averaging 10 to 12. Eric told us that the proportion of cutthroat to rainbow is a fluctuating ratio of maybe 10 or 20 to one. There are dolly Varden, or bull trout as well, although we didn't see any. A small run of steelhead still return to the river, well colored after their exhausting journey, nearly a thousand miles in from the coast. The Chinook Salmon, once a presence here, is fighting a difficult battle to survive. Returns to Marsh Creek, one of the first salmon spawning grounds in the state are grim. Environmental author, Rocky Barker reported that in 1964 only 1400 salmon spawned in the creek, while in 1990 it was reduced to one hundred, and in '95 it was down to zero. Redfish Lake, the headwaters of the Middle Fork and once the spawning grounds of a million+ sockeye salmon, is now devoid of even one. Redfish is a top rung on the Columbia Basin endangered fish scene, and a sad testimony to a blundering society. With the trout heading the same direction early in the century, the Idaho Fish and Game stepped to in establish a 'Catch and Release' fishery, with artificials only and a single barbless hook. The trout, nowadays, are doing well.

The Middle Fork was home to the Sheepeater Indians, a separate tribe of the Shoshoni Indian Nation who lived in the canyon for thousands of years before the coming of the white man. Pamela and Mia and myself hiked a six-mile stretch of trail one afternoon and found several caves with pictographs stained into the rock walls. It was easy to imagine a young hunter hunkering on the cave floor and working on a drawing while waiting out a storm. On one cave wall we found a drawing of a stick figure sporting a woody; behind him were 25 marks; quarry, no doubt, of one kind or another. In the late 1800s a few hardy miners and hermits entered the canyon. Into the 1900s parts of the canyon were homesteaded. Nowadays, only a couple of sites remain, grandfathered into the public domain.

Surrounding the canyon the Idaho Primitive Area yawns to nearly 2500 square miles as the largest protected wild area in the lower states. The feeling of remote is tangible. Not only are you sitting at the bottom of a deep fissure in the earth, but it is a long, long way out to anywhere. No motorized craft are allowed on the Middle Fork and the Forest Service strictly limits the numbers of both commercial and private parties allowed on the river per day. Permits are required and outfitters are monitored to ensure that all garbage and waste is removed with each party.

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