Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth

Photo of the Month: Ol' Gator Mouth
Showing posts with label bull trout. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bull trout. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Hunt For Bull Trout Day Four: Success Found at the Eleventh Hour

With three full days of hunting cutthroat and bull trout behind, we were getting down to crunch time. I had planned on fishing Monday through Friday. However, I had also hoped to have a couple of relaxing fishing days where I could chase hatches, search out risers, and otherwise enjoy what the river offered. The hunt for an Idaho bull trout had been increasingly focused with less and less time to just relax and enjoy a new river system. We were now down to the wire. If I was going to have one day of laid back fishing, then this was the day I had to find a bull trout. 

A chance encounter the day before had shifted my strategy for this day. Based on the recommendations of some Idaho Fish and Game employees, we planned another big hike. This time, I hoped that no one would be camping and fishing on my targeted creek.

We got an early start that morning. Driving up the canyon in the cool of the day, I couldn't help but wonder if we had made the right choice. Miles of beautiful water rolled by, constantly beckoning me to stop and fish. I didn't give in, though, and before long we were back at the trailhead for another big hike. This time, we knew what to expect. That made the hike seemingly go by faster. Before we knew it, five miles had rolled by, and we were staring across the stream at our target tributary.

Of course, I had to fish the junction pool. It is a gorgeous spot, complete with some big healthy cutthroat. In theory, there probably should have been some bull trout as well. I didn't find any of those, but did miss a couple of eager west slope cutthroat that couldn't quite fit the whole streamer into their mouth. Then, we were finally entering the mouth of the creek I had been planning to fish for almost a year. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

Despite my confidence which was borne of many hours of research, I still had questions. The stream looked small, with lots of skinny pocket water apparently too small for the monsters I was hoping for. Yet, there were also some surprisingly nice pools for such a small stream. That was undoubtedly where the bull trout I was searching for would be. 


Wandering further and further up the stream, we began to catch some trout. Not bull trout, at least not yet, but beautiful westslope cutthroat trout. In the deeper pools, we would cast dry flies and then follow up with streamers before moving on to the next hole. I pitched my streamer into small buckets no larger than a bathtub and some much larger holes as well. 

Then, several hundred yards up the stream, a small fish came out chasing the streamer hard through some pocket water. I cast again, and again it chased. Baby bull trout. At this point, I was about ready to catch a baby bull just to knock it off the list, but it wasn't meant to happen that way apparently. Despite lots of vicious swipes and attacks, the baby bull trout refused to find the hook in a meaningful way.

Becoming more and more certain that the bull trout was not going to happen, I continued upstream anyway with my wife following gamely along. Eventually, we were both getting hungry and ready for a lunch break. I found a nice log midstream with some of my favorite wildflowers growing close by. We enjoyed a nice lunch here to recharge before hitting it hard through the afternoon. Maybe, just maybe, my Idaho bull trout would be waiting around the next bend.




 


Midday came and went. The sun was beginning to sink towards the western horizon. We weren't in imminent danger of getting stuck out there in the dark yet, but the time to start thinking about the long walk back had arrived. We were probably a good mile up this tributary stream. Either we needed to retrace our steps downstream, or we had to climb up a nearly impossible sidehill and find the trail that was somewhere above. Thankfully, the deer and elk showed us the way. 

I've always been a follower of game trails. In fact, it was one of my favorite ways to hike cross country here on the Cumberland Plateau. Out west, it often helps find manageable routes in backcountry areas that are more vertical than level. This time was no exception. We followed a crude trail that ascended, branched several times, and ascended some more. We kept following whichever trail seemed the easiest. These hardy animals will go up some ridiculously steep terrain, but in wading boots we had some limitations. Finally, just about the time we were debating the intelligence of our wild goose chase, the trail magically appeared above us. Soon, we were hustling back down the canyon high above the water we just so recently been fishing.

As we hiked down, the wheels were turning. Bull trout should have been in that tributary stream. If they weren't, then the only possible explanation is that they were still downstream of the junction. After all, this whole journey they undertake every year is more or less a spawning migration. The idea is to intercept them somewhere before the end of their journey. You don't want to pester native (or even wild) fish while they are trying to spawn. So, if they weren't in the tributaries yet, they had to be getting close. It was early August after all. The waters many miles downstream were getting too warm for bull trout who prefer water in the mid 50s or cooler. Thus, these fish couldn't be too far downstream.

By the time we were nearing the entry point for our tributary fishing adventure, I had concocted a plan. One hour of fishing, starting at the mouth and working downstream as fast as possible. With the streamer rod, I should be able to cover water quickly. I turned to my wife and put the question to her, afraid of what the response might be. I shouldn't have been. She is always up for adventure and really was gracious with my fishing on this trip.

Starting back in the junction pool, I finally nailed one of those cutthroat that wanted my streamer. Working quickly downstream, I found another, and another. Each one slammed the streamer so hard that I thought that maybe it had happened. Yet, each cutthroat was obviously not a bull as soon as I started fighting them. The memory of the one big bull trout I had hooked our first day out was still fresh in my mind. The sheer power was and still is mind boggling.


The odds of not catching a bull trout were increasing exponentially with no hope in sight. With time slipping rapidly away and the sun sinking ever lower, I knew we had reached a point of now or never. Then, I saw the deep bucket. 

Deep water was rather uncommon on this stream, or at least it was uncommon in the headwater section we were fishing. Any ambush predator like the bull trout would need the haven that deep water provides. When I saw the small bucket, I thought I might have a chance.

Sure enough, on my first cast, something heavy slammed the streamer. My line throbbed and the rod doubled over. Then, just as quickly, the line went limp, but not before I saw a big dark shadow. A bull trout. Quickly, I cast back and was shocked when the fish hammered the streamer a second time. I've never had a hooked fish come back that fast to eat a second time. I had stuck the fish hard the first time. Sadly, I didn't hook it the next cast, nor the next, nor the next. Each time it tried to eat my streamer but with a little less confidence each time. Finally, by the seventh or eight cast, the fish had moved back a little in the bucket and sulked down deep.

Desperate, I considered changing flies. Maybe waiting fifteen minutes. Anything to catch this bull trout. My poor wife probably figured we would be camping right there for the night. Inspiration struck when I decided to change the angle of my presentation. I cast way across the stream, all twenty or twenty five feet of it. Almost immediately, the streamer was crushed. The little seven inch cutthroat was impaled on the barbless streamer. As I was dragging the poor fish through the pool, a dark blur charged and nailed it. I was back in business! The bull trout again went deep, but would not relinquish its trophy. 

Putting as much pressure on the 1x tippet as I dared, I got the bull trout's head up and scooped. Both the cutthroat and the bull trout were in the big Brodin ghost net. The poor cutthroat was traumatized beyond recovery. The powerful jaws of the bull trout had made short work of the much smaller cutthroat trout.


In the midst of the euphoria of finally connecting with a bull and taking pictures, the question was nagging the back of my mind. Could I call this a fair catch? Maybe if I considered myself a bait fisherman. Not if I was a fly angler. A neat story, no doubt, but I still needed to fair catch a bull trout to complete my mission. Remember a backcountry camp downstream a short distance, I asked my wife if we could fish to there before getting out. After all, scrambling back to the trail from the point I captured the bull trout would have been a hassle. I already knew there was a good access to the trail at that camp. 

Common sense prevailed. We would continue to the easy out spot. Of course, I could fish as we went. It wasn't ten minutes later that we reached what would be the last good hole of the day. When I looked into the pool, I turned to my wife and said, "A bull trout will be in here." Have you ever fished a spot that was just so good you knew it had to contain a fish? This was one of those spots. 

I made the first cast into the fast water at the head. Almost immediately, the barbless streamer was slammed. At this point in the trip, with all the hard hours put in and agonizingly close encounters, I was certain this one would end just as poorly. The fish immediately raced directly upstream through the rapids at the head. Turning my feet, I gave chase, running almost as fast through that heavy riffle water upstream as I could on a track wearing shorts and running shoes. Somehow, I managed to keep the line tight and the barbless hook attached to the bull trout. 

Suddenly, the fish made a u-turn and rushed straight at me. Nearly running between my legs, I made a desperate stab with the net. When I came up empty, I knew this fight was lost to me. I knew it. And yet, it wasn't. Back in the original pool, I put all the pressure possible to bear on that bull trout. Somehow, the hook held, the seven weight finally turned a bull trout, and the 1x tippet held. 

When that bull trout slipped into my waiting net, all I could do was admire it, staring in awe at this amazing creature. Pictures were quickly taken, and I kept this beautiful yet sensitive fish in the water in between shots. Before long, I let it go, watching it slip right back to the holding spot I had taken it from. Immediately, I knew this was a trip I had to do again.

 

This part of the country is rugged, yet incredibly beautiful. The lack of easy access was a huge part of the appeal. While it probably won't be this year, I'll continue looking forward to the time I get to return to this amazing fishery. The westslope cutthroat trout fishery would be enough to draw me back. Any native trout that rises willingly to dry flies is worth pursuing of course. Still, the bull trout made a good trip amazing. These close cousins of our native brook trout back home had already gotten in my blood. Now, I'm plotting how I can chase these beautiful fish yet again. These Idaho bull trout were awesome, but of course I'm not plotting how to get to British Columbia or Alberta to fish for them as well. So many places to fish and too little time to do it in!



 


Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Hunt For Bull Trout Day Three: More Disappointment and a Glimmer of Hope

By morning on the third day of my bull trout pursuit, I was becoming resigned to the distinct possibility of not finding one of these amazing fish. Or, more accurately, I was resigned to not finding one in the bottom of my net. The previous day had seriously deflated my hopes and expectations. While I still believed there were bull trout around, I was beginning to doubt I would find one. Still, I knew where at least one had been from my brief connection on day one. On this third day, I wasn't feeling like hiking 5 or 6 miles into the backcountry again, and we settled on another day of roadside fishing. My logic was fairly good. If there had been a bull trout near camp a couple of days prior, then there had to be some around on this day as well.

The morning started on a high note despite my creeping disappointment. On our hike out the previous day, we had harvested more huckleberries than we needed for another round of huckleberry pancakes. If you've read along on this trip with me, then you know how we started this up while in Glacier. Thankfully Idaho has plenty of huckleberries as well and we were determined to take full advantage. Due to the big harvest from the day before, these pancakes would be LOADED!!! See what I mean?



After making and consuming a large quantity of huckleberries with a little pancake, er, I mean huckleberry pancakes, we were ready for another day on the water. Driving slowly down the canyon from our camp, my bull trout pool was already occupied. Things were still not looking promising apparently.

A little farther down the canyon, we finally found a promising stretch of water. There was even a rise or two. At this point, while not entirely giving up on bull trout, I was ready to just catch a few fish. The beautiful westslope cutthroat trout that call this area home would be my main goal at least for a while. A big hopper with a nymph dropper seemed appropriate, and I set up rods for both me and my wife. I also carried the streamer rod. Some of these holes begged to be probed by a big juicy streamer. It didn't take very long to get things going. The cutthroat were willing although not complete pushovers. If you did everything just right, the fish would eat. I struck first before my wife even got a line wet. She politely took a picture for me then went to find some fish of her own. 


It didn't take very long before I glanced upstream and saw her rod bent as well. The fishing was excellent as we both caught fish after fish although nothing was too large. 


After thoroughly working this pool, we headed upstream through the riffle you can see in the above picture. Working our way across to the right bank, we were now on the inside bend of a large pool with some amazing water. My wife picked right up where she left off in the previous pool. Of course, she had to go and catch the daily big fish as well. This pool screamed big trout so I wasn't shocked when she landed this fine specimen. This is one of my favorite fish pictures from our trip.


We worked a little farther upstream. Of course, before doing so, I had to run my streamer through that beautiful pool. While several quality cutthroat trout slashed at the streamer, no bull trout made an appearance. Nymphing at the very top of the pool where the gravel shelf dropped into deeper water, my wife picked up another first for us on this trip. A mountain whitefish! While I know these are looked down on by many anglers who prefer catching trout, they are always an enjoyable unique experience to me on my trips out west. They are indicative of a healthy ecosystem with clean cold water, so from that perspective they are also good to see. 


Moving on upstream, I saw some nice pockets and decided to change tactics when it came to the bull trout. Maybe, just maybe, one might be laying along an undercut bank of in the shadow of a boulder. If they are as opportunistic as I've read, why not try a mouse? This seemed like a better idea than a streamer on this bright sunny day. The streamer had been fished hard through two large deep pools with no results. Out came my fly box, and I quickly changed to a floating line and mouse pattern. The very first spot was perfect with a large boulder and an undercut bank all creating some excellent habitat. I cast just upstream and started swimming the mouse back through the pocket when an explosion rocked my fly. I started yelling in excitement while my wife was trying to figure out what in the world was going on. My first clue should have been how quick I whipped this fish on the 1x tippet. It was in the net in mere seconds. Definitely not a bull trout. However, the take and fight were so violent, that until the fish hit the net I thought maybe, just maybe it was a smaller bull trout. No luck. This chunky cutthroat was pretty cool to land, however, especially on a mouse. 


This seemed like the time to transition to a new spot. We were working upstream into a long stretch without good road access. That is great for fishing, of course, but we were interested in seeing some new sections and also getting lunch together. This timing turned out to be important. 

As we were climbing back up to the road, these two guys that had pulled in near our car were coming down. They were in wetsuits and had snorkels and masks. My curiosity got the best of me, so I asked them what they were doing. As it turns out, they were from the Idaho Game and Fish and were doing visual fish surveys. Talk about a neat job! I briefly asked about bull trout in the area, then we headed on. Not more than a half mile down the road, I turned to my wife and said, "I'm an idiot! I should have asked them where to go for bull trout!!!" I had just inquired in general about them and left it at that. I don't know what I didn't ask for more info, but a golden opportunity appeared to have passed. Thankfully, our hunger would provide a second chance. 

At the next spot, we still hadn't had lunch. The plan was to drive back the quick 10 minutes to camp and eat. I wanted to hit one more hole though. This pool would provide me with my own whitefish, but otherwise didn't do much. Oh well, it was nice to get another species for the trip.


By this time, I was hungry and knew my wife was also. We turned our car back up the canyon towards camp. Rolling slowly along to take in the scenery, I noticed a vehicle approaching and eased over to give them as much room as possible. Suddenly, I recognized it as the truck for the game and fish biologists. I stopped and put my hand out to flag them down. I wasn't missing this opportunity again! I asked if they had found anything interesting, then quickly pivoted to more important topics like bull trout. One of the guys was fairly reticent and probably rightfully so. Bull trout are a very special fish and need all the protection they can get. The other guy started talking plenty so it worked out thankfully.

I told them about our experience so far and my hope to catch a bull trout. When I mentioned the upper roadless area, the guy said that yes, that was probably the place to find bull trout at this point in the summer. In fact, they seemed a little surprised that I had found one down in the canyon close to camp. As they were pulling away, my wife turned to me and said, "We probably should hike again tomorrow shouldn't we?" 

I didn't want to wear her out and sour her on fishing. "I wasn't going to say it, but if you are willing then I would definitely like to," was my reply. She was game, and even though we hadn't had lunch yet, we began planning the fourth day of our trip. The rest of day three was fairly benign. We explored all over, fished some different places, saw more wildflowers and amazing scenery, and otherwise enjoyed our time. 



While I enjoyed all of the exploring immensely, I was already getting excited about the possibilities of the next day. Would I find my bull trout? Or would I have to chalk this trip up to a learning experience and try again someday? 



Monday, April 05, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day Two: A Bitter Disappointment and Baby Bull Trout

Have you ever had one of those rare trips where all the good things happen right at the beginning? My hunt for bull trout very nearly turned out that way. The first day gave me a taste of what hooking one of these fish was like. If you haven't read that story yet, do so HERE first, and then come back and read this sad tale. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your perspective), the good things didn't happen at the beginning. If they had, we probably would have missed out on some really cool experiences and the story wouldn't have turned out as good. 

For several months, I had been formulating a game plan for the fishing part of our trip. The main part of this fishing excursion involved lots of hiking. That wouldn't be a problem after all of our Glacier National Park hiking. We had hiked 75 miles in eight days. Two or three of those days had been rather short hikes while the longest was a hair over 20 miles. In other words, we were in peak hiking condition, at least for us. The tricky part was going to be hauling our fishing gear. My poor wife does not do well hiking in wading boots. I decided it was probably better for my feet to wear normal shoes as well. So, we packed our heavy wading boots the five miles in to our fishing spot.

The day went downhill right from the get go. We were planning on starting about five miles in, but as we approached the area where I expected to start, I was surprised to see a couple of backpacking tents and a campfire. Someone else had beat us there. They looked just about as shocked as we were feeling. This simply wasn't the kind of place you expected to come up on another angler. After exchanging brief pleasantries, I asked them which way they were fishing so we could go elsewhere. The tributary creek I had been banking on had already been fished. Seriously. They had just hit all the water we had drove across the country and hiked a ways to fish. 

Immediately, I had a sinking feeling. Maybe, just maybe, catching a bull trout wasn't going to happen for me on this trip. Luck was clearly not on my side, at least not yet. We contemplated hiking well up the canyon above where they had turned around. In fact, we forded the main creek and hiked a decent distance on out the trail that followed the tributary. We had switched to wading boots to ford the creek, so my wife was now hiking in them. After probably a mile or so, I finally had to admit that the trail just wasn't going to get down close to that creek. That was valuable information for a possible future trip.

After giving up on my first stream choice, we headed back to the ford to fish up the main stream instead. As it turns out, our plan B wasn't so bad. The cutthroat were willing, plentiful, and really nice sized. The wildflowers were phenomenal as well. Later on, I would begin to suspect that it might have been the best choice for bull trout after all. On this day, however, all I could think about was that the wheels were starting to come off on my trip plans.



As we worked our way up the stream away from the trail crossing, we had to remind ourselves that the only way out (that we knew of), was going to be back downstream the same way we came up. There was no trail access into the upper reaches of this drainage. While we might have located some game trails, we weren't counting on that possibility since we were in an unfamiliar area. I don't like taking chances unnecessarily.

The first section of stream was fast riffle water with a few deeper pockets thrown in for good measure. The largest fish we saw in this section was maybe six or seven inches. It felt a lot like fishing back in the Smokies as far as the fish size was concerned. The only difference is that we were catching native westslope cutthroat trout. Fish were rising well to our big foam dry flies that doubled as a good strike indicator. Even more fish were attacking our nymph droppers.



The first good pool we approached looked incredible. I figured that maybe, just maybe, there might be a bull trout in this one. I switched to the streamer rod and gave it a good workout. Unfortunately, there just weren't any fish willing to play, at least not any bull trout. The larger cutthroat trout in this pool made several valiant attempts to eat the streamer. I even hooked a couple that shook off after a brief fight and landed one.

A quality cutthroat
A quality westslope cutthroat trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


I had my wife try the dry/dropper rod and she picked up a couple of fish here and there as well. We soon got into a good routine. When I could, I would fish the larger streamer rod. Everywhere else, I let her fish for the most part. Of course, every once in a while I would borrow the other rod and catch a fish or two that way also.

By this point in the day, we were already getting hungry. Breakfast had long since worn off and we began looking for some rocks or a dry bank to sit on for lunch. The only problem was the numerous wildflowers. Neither of us wanted to crush the beautiful flowers. Finally, we found a spot that had both wildflowers and a small area we could sit. We had carried in hummus and pita chips along with some other goodies. This is always a great backcountry meal, both healthy and filling!

With my hunger under control, I turned towards some of the gorgeous flowers growing along the stream banks. My favorites were the purple monkey flowers (last flower picture). These tend to be a rich fuchsia or magenta, at least the ones I've come across in the northern Rockies. Otherwise, we also saw more flowers than I can count. Here is a small sampling from throughout the day.


Indian paintbrush ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Sticky Wild Geranium ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Showy Fleabane ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Musk Monkeyflower (I think...?) ©2020 David Knapp Photography

Purple Monkeyflower ©2020 David Knapp Photography


While the purple monkey flowers were probably my favorite, the western monkshood was an unusual treat that I don't recall seeing before. New to me flowers are always fun. These were growing along the stream, apparently liking the wet environment.


Western Monkshood
Western Monkshood ©2020 David Knapp Photography


Lunch consumed and flowers photographed, we packed up and continued upstream. Probing every likely spot with either the hopper/dropper or the streamer, we caught plenty of cutthroat but no bull trout. The shadows were soon getting longer and longer over the water. I didn't want to get caught back here in the dark. We had plans other than spending the night in the backcountry. 

Then, in one likely pool, my wife hooked a small fish that immediately looked different and got me excited. Upon landing the fish, I knew we had found our first bull trout. Of course my wife would be the one to catch it. At this point, late in day two, I was getting concerned about catching a bull trout. I would have gladly taken a baby just to knock this species off the list. I was happy for my wife, of course, but even more wanted to catch one for myself.


baby bull trout in Idaho
Baby Bull ©2020 David Knapp Photography

My wife's baby bull trout
My wife's baby bull trout ©2020 David Knapp Photography


We soon started to develop a good rhythm. My wife would fish the dry/dropper rig through a hole. Then, I would drag the streamer through a couple of times. She started to catch some really nice fish. In one deep bucket in a hard corner, she hooked the largest westslope cutthroat trout of the day. The fish was in fast water and took some careful maneuvering to land. I jumped in with the net and scooped the fish before it could get in the fast water heading downstream. Of course, we had to get a quick picture of this fine trout!


My wife's big westslope cutthroat trout
My wife's big cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


In one particularly good looking hole just upstream, I had something slam the streamer. It looked a lot like a cutthroat, but I only got a brief glimpse before it bored back under a log. Try as I might, I couldn't turn the fish and soon the hook popped free. The fish had wrapped me around the log and used it as leverage to throw the barbless fly. While I was 95% sure the fish had been just another cutthroat, the power and strength had me questioning that assumption.

It was about this time that we really got serious about the hike back out. We both had some ideas that required daylight to successfully enact. Thus, after one or two more pools, we turned a corner upstream and saw nothing but shallow pocket water for an extended distance and knew our day was over. Hiking back downstream to the trail crossing didn't take as long as expected. However, from the trail crossing, we still had a solid five mile hike out.

Just downstream, the two backpackers had packed up and left. I couldn't resist hitting the junction pool where the other tributary entered and found one last quality cutthroat trout there. Still wanting to find a bull trout, we also hit a couple of spots on the hike down. However, most of the water was generally inaccessible from the trail without a lot of hard work. Our schedule at this late hour didn't allow for much hard work.


One more cutthroat ©2020 David Knapp Photography


On the hike in, we had noticed a good supply of huckleberries all along the trail. In fact, there were so many huckleberries that we didn't know what to do. We wandered from one bush to another, filling the ziplock bags I had brought just for such a situation. I had one more bag of homemade pancake mix and we hoped for some more huckleberry pancakes in the morning. In other words, the next day would be a slower day again. We discussed some roadside fishing and decided to try that again. After all, the only bull trout I had definitely hooked so far was just below camp. We filled our two bags fuller than full. These were going to be good huckleberry pancakes. I could already taste the delicious pancakes, but first we needed to hike out and get a good nights rest. Maybe, just maybe, the next day would bring some bull trout finally. 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Hunt for Bull Trout Day One: Brief Connections and a Hint of Things to Come

On our trip to Glacier National Park last summer, I wanted to check an item off my fly fishing bucket list. My amazing wife graciously agreed to an expedition for bull trout in northern Idaho after we finished up in Glacier. Going into this portion of the trip, I had high expectations. Doing my research, I felt well prepared for this adventure.

Planning the Hunt For Bull Trout

I am a planner. I don't like going into things unprepared. That goes for traveling, of course, and fishing trips especially. Most of my fishing trips are well-researched, from where to stay to what places to fish and how to target the fish. I usually have a pretty good idea of the general outline of the trip and how it will go.   For this trip, that included lots of hours spent on Google and also various maps. I ordered a National Forest Map covering the area we intended to visit.

Bull trout are what lead me to Idaho. In Montana, it is illegal to target them intentionally in all but a few select (and mostly hard to access) places. In Idaho, on the other hand, their numbers are a bit more stable and you are allowed to fish for them with some caveats. One, of course, is that the fishing for bull trout is strictly catch and release. No problem there for me, as that is all I do anyway, but it is good to note for anyone who might not have the same approach to fishing that I do.

Over several months, I read through tons of old blog posts and trip reports from several different sources. I also found info from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. There were scholarly articles with mountains of data. In fact, the scholarly articles is what helped me to finally hone into the area I settled on for this trip. The area was already on my radar, thanks to an old Fly Fisherman magazine article I remembered from my younger years. The cutthroat fishing is noteworthy for the overall quality of the fishery. These days, it is also noteworthy for the pressure the fishery receives. However, after a bit more searching, I found a portion of this overall larger fishery that seemed to be slightly overlooked. Not "we'll have it to ourselves" overlooked, but less pressured than the nearby famous water.

Planning the Camping Part of the Trip


As with most trips, I prefer to have campground reservations in place. However, most of the campgrounds in this area either didn't take reservations or were already full for the time of our visit. There were lots of small first come first served campgrounds in the area along with the usual dispersed camping options that are normally available in the National Forest lands. Thus, we ended up knowing where we wanted to go but really had no idea if it would pan out at all. In other words, I really didn't know where we were going much better than if I had thrown a dart at the wall. The only difference was that I hoped we would at least be in the vicinity of the target. I was up for dispersed camping, but figured slightly nicer accommodations would suit my wife better. Not that we were going to find anything very nice, but even a few amenities are better than none. I was looking forward to at least having a picnic table myself. The fire ring probably would not get any use, but that is also nice to at least have around. 

Finding a Campsite

Fast forward a few months, and you would find us leaving Glacier National Park. It had been one of our all time favorite adventures, but it was time to do something else. Naturally, I was excited to do more fishing than the small taste I had enjoyed in Glacier. 


After some exploring to find the old Knapp homestead, we headed on south and west from Kalispell. Eventually, we found the right town and the right road and headed towards Idaho after a brief stop for gas and ice. The road quickly turned to gravel, and we began to realize the remoteness of the area we would be in for the next several days. By the time we hit the pass that also served as the divide between Idaho and Montana, we were already close to an hour out from town and we were only halfway there.

We began the long descent down the other side into Idaho with the sun trending lower in the sky. I didn't want to be trying to find a campsite in the dark, so we were really hoping that something would be open in the first couple of campgrounds. The first one had an added bonus of no camping fee, but the crowd that was already present looked like they might be more interested in riding ATVs. Nothing wrong with that, of course, we just didn't want to hear them roaring in and out of camp all the time. There were not picnic tables and only one very rough looking pit toilet. There was a spot or two available, however. We decided to keep it as a backup plan and keep looking.

Heading further down the drainage, we began noticing large campsites along the stream. These were all informal "dispersed" camping areas, but some of them were nice. However, we still were hoping for at least a picnic table and toilet perhaps. The next campground we came to had some sites available and we quickly swooped in. After making the usual couple of laps to look everything over, we picked a campsite shaded by giant western cedars. Filling out the camper registration card took no time at all, and soon we were setting up the tent and fixing supper. The hour was getting late, but I almost decided to go fishing anyway. The desire to stay dry for the evening prevented me from trying my luck though. We were planning on wet wading, and I wanted to be dry going to bed.

Two Small Hickups

When we woke up the next morning, I was struck anew with how beautiful this campground was. There were only a few sites, so we didn't have to worry about noisy neighbors. The campsites were spread throughout the beautiful cedar grove, with none of the sites feeling crowded. We did have a couple of small bummers that had snuck up. First, the water from the well didn't seem too clean. It may have just been rust from the pipes, but we weren't interested in drinking it. Thankfully, I had a Platypus Gravity water filtration system ready to go. Except I didn't.

I don't know what happened between the first time I used the filter and this camping trip, but it just wasn't working correctly. When I put it away after my epic brook trout backpacking trip a couple of falls ago, I had carefully followed all the instructions in the owners manual. Still, it didn't work. I should also mention that I never heard back from Platypus when I contacted them after the trip to see what I was doing wrong. In other words, I don't recommend this filter. Thankfully, I had a couple of Sawyer filters with me that I could adapt to the gravity system. Soon, we had clean fresh water again. This was our method for the rest of this trip. I also carried a Sawyer squeeze filter system with us when we were out fishing and hiking. I can't say enough good things about them. They are also very responsive when you contact them with questions. A great company and product!

The other small issue was that this campground didn't have any garbage service. It is strictly pack it in, pack it out. For the small fee of $10 a night, I understand a lack of amenities. Still, it was a little concerning keeping a full trash bag in the car every night. I'm a little paranoid about mice getting into my car due to past experiences. As me about that sometime if you really want to hear some stories. Anyway, I just hoped that the trash in the car wouldn't draw in the undesirables during the night. Of course, I wasn't interested in keeping it outside either. Choosing between bears or mice was tough, but I assumed the bears could ruin the trip even worse.

First Day of Fishing: The Cutthroat Trout

North Fork Clearwater River Idaho


I had brought too many rods as always for this fishing trip. Really, I didn't have that many, but I did have some decisions to make. To ease into the fishing and not take things too seriously, I decided to focus on the cutthroat trout for a while. After all, there isn't much that is better than casting dry flies to willing trout. At least, that is what I pictured when I thought about cutthroat. I rigged up a 9' 5 weight Orvis Helios for myself, and a 10' 3 weight Orvis Recon for my wife. The light rod and extra reach seems to work well for her.

After a short drive up the canyon looking for somewhere to fish, we hit the stream and were soon catching fish. I had to fudge a little on my hopes of good dry fly fishing. To be fair, we did catch some cutthroat on dry flies, but they clearly were getting a little more pressure than I expected and nymph droppers seemed to work better overall. Per the regulations, we pinched our barbs which meant we lost a few more than usual. Still, we both gave a good accounting of ourselves. Here are a couple from early in the day.

westslope cutthroat trout


small westslope cutthroat in Idaho

Over the next few posts, pay close attention to my wife's fish. This was one of the smallest she caught while we were in Idaho with one notable exception that I'll get to another day. In fact, on at least a couple of days, she took big fish honors. I caught a couple of dinks that were even smaller, but managed to avoid taking pictures of them. No proof so it didn't happen, right?

We continued fishing up the stream, catching fish here and there, before we came to a big beautiful pool. This particular section of river was pocket water dominant, so the pool was a welcome change. I just knew there was a good fish somewhere close by. I tried some streamers in case a big bull trout was around, but that didn't really do anything. Then, I noticed a subtle rise way over against the far bank. Crossing over wasn't really an option, so I decided to wade as far out as I could and try a reach cast with some immediate mending. The far bank was really just a big slow back eddy, so I had to get a lot of slack line into my mends to get any kind of a drift. Somehow, someway, I got everything correct and luck was on my side. The first larger cutthroat of the trip was dancing on the end of my line.

This fish was super fat and ate the big stonefly dry I was throwing just like it was the real thing. After several runs through the heavy current, I finally guided the fish over to my side. Soon, it was resting in my big Brodin net. My wife snapped a few pictures and a short video for me, and them the fish headed back for some other angler to enjoy.

Thick westslope cutthroat trout

Lunch Break

By this time, we were starting to think about lunch. Camp wasn't that far away, and it made more sense to go there where we could relax for a bit. We began looking for a good out spot to get back up to the road. That can always be an adventure on a new stream. As I was examining the stream bank looking for fishermen's trails, I started to notice the wildflowers. The shooting stars in particular got me excited. This is one I don't find often back home. I took a few cellphone pictures of these and other flowers before finding a good trail back to the car. 

Idaho Shooting Star wildflower

My wife also took the opportunity to add to her fish count. Notice that her average size catch begins to immediately creep up. 



We got back down to camp where I again stood in awe looking at the trees around our campsite. These western cedars can get really large. In an area that deals with wildfire on a regular basis, I really hope these cedar groves can avoid that destruction. I know it is a part of the natural process, but these trees take a LONG time to reach this size. Look how small our tent appears next to them. 

Camping among western red cedars in Idaho

After resting and relaxing, it was time to fish a bit longer before the sun sank low and the canyon began to cool. The evenings were a great time to fish, but we mostly avoided fishing late. Getting soaked going into the chilly evening hours wasn't our idea of fun. More accurately, I should probably say it wasn't my wife's idea of fun. I don't tend to notice it as much as she would prefer. 

First Day of Fishing: Connecting With a Bull Trout

For the afternoon fishing session, we headed downstream from camp. Not far, we found a pullout with a gorgeous pool a short distance away. I decided to add a streamer rod to my arsenal. If I didn't, then we would probably find all kinds of bull trout. Helping my wife work into position, I soon had her casting to rising cutthroat. Back over on the bank, I began rigging up the seven weight in the hopes of tangling with a monster. It didn't take her long to start catching some fish. I took videos and photos of her fishing, casting, and of course, of one or two of her catch. The fish below is notable as probably the only rainbow trout we took a picture of. This river contains both native rainbow and cutthroat trout along with the bull trout. 

Fly fishing in northern Idaho

Rainbow trout in northern Idaho

Shortly after this rainbow trout, my wife hooked a really nice cutthroat trout in the 16" range. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge dark shadow shot out of nowhere in hot pursuit of her catch. Bull trout!!! She worked her fish hard trying to play keep away. Suddenly, as she got it in close, the bull trout retreated right about the same time her fish threw the fly. We were both left in shock, staring at the spot that the bull trout had disappeared to.

I grabbed the streamer rod and began flogging the water, to no avail. The bull trout had been pretty hot, and I figured it would eat if I could figure out what it wanted. I remembered something from a Yellowstone trip one year. Some huge cutthroat trout on the Yellowstone River had preferred a pearl and tan Zonker dead drifted under an indicator instead of an active streamer approach. It was worth a shot. I took out the Zonker with the barb already pinched from that Yellowstone trip. Tying it on to heavy 1x tippet, I felt confident my rig could stand up to just about anything.

I began casting up towards the head of the pool and allowing the current to bring the streamer back under an indicator. Again and again I cast with no result. Then, I stepped a couple more steps upstream. Casting again did the trick. The fish had moved up a little higher than I thought. Almost as soon as the streamer hit the water, the indicator dove. I set hard, almost as hard as I set when I'm striper fishing in fact. For a split second, I thought I had hooked the bottom. Then the bull trout went ballistic. Seriously. This was the hardest pulling, hardest fighting, baddest fish I've ever hooked in fresh water. I've landed stripers up to 30 pounds on a seven weight fly rod, and this fish was just as strong if not more so.

Bad Luck

Back and forth across the pool we fought. The fish began to tire just a little after about a minute. A couple of runs came dangerously close to rubbing me off on a big boulder across the stream. Still, when the fish was finally out in the middle, I started putting more pressure. Hopeful of turning the fish and quickly bringing it to the net, I pushed even hard. Suddenly, the line went limp. 

I kid you not, the hook simply pulled out. To this day, I don't know whether the barbless hook was to blame or not. More likely, I was simply pulling to hard and it ripped out. I stared in disbelief at the spot the dark shadow had disappeared to. This might have been my one and only chance. A surge of hope led me to cast a few more times. In fact, I cast all over that pool. My wife knew I was bummed out, but them I started to look on the bright side again. After all, we had only been fishing a few hours when this bull trout showed up. If there were that many in the system, finding another shouldn't be difficult.

My plan for the next day involved some highly researched water and a bit of hiking. It was time to head back to camp and get supper and rest. We wanted to be rejuvenated for a 10+ mile day the next morning.

Evening Hatch

After supper, I walked back through the woods to the stream to get water for the filtration system. Right away, I noticed bugs everywhere. This particular pool was deep and sheltered. The long shadows had long since overtaken this water. Mayfly spinners and some caddis were all dancing above the water. Several telltale rises appeared. I quickly went back to camp to tell my wife about my discovery. She agreed to walk down with me. We both stayed on the rocks, trying to stay dry with the onset of evening. I talked her into a few casts and she caught the best fish of the evening right away. 

Dry fly caught evening westslope cutthroat trout

I managed a few casts and fish as well, but only took one picture of one in the net. These are always a good way to have a memory with minimal fish handling. 

westslope cutthroat trout in a Brodin Net

Big bull trout lost not withstanding, it had been a good first full day in Idaho. We had caught plenty of fish, enjoyed wildflowers, had amazing weather, and enjoyed the awe inspiring trees in the canyon. Tired out, we headed to bed early to rest up for another big adventure the next day. Little did I know that the heartache was just starting. Would I ever find a bull trout?


Read Day Two HERE

Friday, February 21, 2020

Sacred Places

Every angler should have a secret place. The probability that no one else fishes a particular piece of water is low, but hope springs eternal in the minds of anglers and the possibility does technically exist. Maybe, just maybe you can find that one perfect stream or pond that no one else visits. Or, if they do, maybe only a handful of other anglers know about it.

My secret places are scattered across the country. There is that canyon stream in Arizona. While I know it does get fished, the number of anglers is clearly low based on the lack of a stream side fisherman's trail. In Colorado, two of my favorite small streams clearly don't get fished much based on the reception I always receive from their clean finned residents. The fish are generally pushovers and obviously don't see much pressure. In Yellowstone, a favorite section of the Yellowstone River itself always fishes well. It is almost as if no one else wants to walk that far off trail in grizzly infested country. This is precisely a big piece of why it fishes so well and also has a lot to do with why I'm normally a bit jumpy on the hike into this bit of water.

Closer to home, some of my favorite water on the Cumberland Plateau obviously doesn't see much pressure. At least, the fish are about as gullible as smallmouth should be while still reserving just a bit of cunning to make things interesting. This could be explained by the copperheads, rattlesnakes, ticks, and chiggers you have to get past first. Yet, I keep going back if only once or twice a year to one of these streams or another. In a good year I might make half a dozen trips. The overlap between gaps in the guide calendar and good smallmouth fishing just doesn't exist, so these trips are at least a bit intentional and not just a last minute whim. Still, when a cancelation comes in late during the warm months, chances are high that I'll head to a smallmouth stream the next day.

In the Smokies, which are my true home waters if you overlook the hour and a half drive, lightly pressured water is getting more and more difficult to find. Despite the constant barrage of "facts" showing that our sport is declining, I keep seeing more and more anglers on the water. This isn't all bad either. More anglers equates to more people advocating for our fisheries. Of course, it also means that I'm more likely to hike three miles only to find the entire stream saturated with other likeminded optimists.

When I hike any distance anywhere, I mostly expect to find the stream devoid of other anglers and the fish willing to the point of stupidity. Rarely does it work out that both of those things happen, although I can still find water to myself more often than not. The fish just aren't the easy things they were when I started into this sport and the streams were less crowded. Back then, an hour's walk basically guaranteed a phenomenal day of fishing. Now, the day might still turn out rather well, but the fish are more educated and require a few tweaks to the fly selection before becoming agreeable.

Some would say that the fishing is getting more technical. I don't know about that other than to say that some of my best fishing in the mountains lately has been on midges. Is that because I finally tied on a fly that no one else is really fishing? Or is it because there were massive midge emergences both times I've been up there lately? Probably the latter but one never knows for sure. Just in case, I'm still keeping all of my old tried and true flies in their respective boxes in the hopes I can leave the midge box at home again soon. In the meantime, I'll keep tying on a midge more often than not. At least I can get away with 5x instead of the 6x required on my local tailwaters.

Last year, I made a point to fish some new water. That could mean new to me streams, or sections of streams I haven't fished before. More often than not, these adventures ended up taking longer than I intended, but I'm not complaining. At least once, I inadvertently fished a new section of stream when I bushwhacked in at the wrong spot. That was one of my favorite trips of the year.

A healthy hike is required to reach this particular stream. The rainbows have faded out at this elevation, leaving just native southern Appalachian brook trout for anglers willing to work hard to reach them. I've fished this stream off and on for at least 15 years and perhaps longer. What I do know is that this is some of the best brook trout fishing I know of. On its best days, this stream can leave you feeling like you are the only one who ever fishes there. Those days are more common on this stream than not, but I've also had days where only a handful of fish were caught. On those days, one always wonders where the fish have gone.

The trip can be done about as easily as an overnight or longer trip or as a day trip. Lately, I've started to become interested in backpacking more again. Since I don't fish as often as I used to (pro tip: don't start guiding if the goal is to fish more), I've begun planning my trips with more care, aiming for quality instead of quantity. So far it seems to be working. This particular trip started with a casual discussion with a friend who was interested in trying some backpacking. Greg has a strong preference for brook trout in wild places. Since I also have a soft spot for our arguably most beautiful native fish, the decision was easy. Three nights with two hard days of fishing and perhaps some fishing on our arrival and departure days seemed about right.

I described the amazing little creek to him but tried to hold back a little, probably afraid it wouldn't live up to either of our expectations. However, when all was said and done, the stream really outdid itself. Between the two of us, we caught, well, let's just say we caught a lot of brook trout and never mind exactly how many. The real beauty of this stream was the quality of the fish there. Some of them were pushing nine inches which is really nice for a brook trout in the Smokies. The largest was caught by Greg and measured 10.5" exactly. Oh, and most were on dry flies. These native brookies are real gems, almost too beautiful to touch.

Brook Trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of my 9" native brook trout from Stream X. ©2019 David Knapp Photography

While I normally gravitate towards the ease associated with nymphs, I prefer dry flies whenever and wherever possible. On this trip, I took just a few basic bead head droppers just in case and then an inordinate number of dry flies. I think I may have used a grand total of 4 or 5 the entire trip. The longevity of each fly had a lot to do with tying them myself and adding a few reinforcements. Yellow dry flies brought fish to the surface just like they should in the Smokies. Orange was starting to work some also with the approach of fall.

The fish were generally where they were supposed to be, but surprises showed up in some not so obvious places as well. The big plunge pool beneath a small waterfall didn't yield many, while some other large pools produced fish after fish. One rather nice brook trout was hiding in a tight little pocket under a dark plunge. I let my fly drift back into the blackness, and no matter how fishy that spot was, I was still shocked when the tip of my fly rod jerked down hard. That was also the day that the fishing seemed a little off.

The first part of the day was decent, but the catching would just start and stop for no apparent reason. We ended up with nearly as many trout as we had caught on the first day, but had to work a little harder for them. Some sections of stream seemed rather barren, and I was left wondering if I had come along behind the Park fisheries crew.

On another backpacking trip, my friends and I had marched miles and miles into the backcountry with expectations of gloriously easy fishing. That was the trip I stepped over a rattlesnake on the trail too many miles from help if things had gone differently. Thankfully the snake was sluggish and downright genial. That same day, our neighbors in camp had found and killed a large rattlesnake on a midstream boulder and seen three others. They were planning on eating the snake that night. My buddy Pat explained to them that, as this was a National Park, all of the wildlife was protected, and if a ranger showed up, they better make the dead snake scarce. I don't know if they got the message or not, but we didn't spend too much time worrying about it beyond a momentary sadness.

That was another trip where we had started with great hopes of walking many miles to find pristine water. When we found another party there with the same ideas, we had to make some adjustments. The funny part about that trip is that the Park fisheries crew had been there just the week prior and the trout were still in a stupor on the creek they had sampled. We caught a few fish, but either the stream didn't have as many or they were still all in shock, pun intended.

Fly anglers are eternal optimists, doggedly pursuing small, surprisingly difficult quarry in tiny creeks and streams, all in the hopes of discovering fly fishing nirvana. On that trip, we didn't find what we were looking for. When the stream started branching into more and more little branches and things got tight, we finally gave up and traipsed back down to camp on the nice trail the fisheries crew had trampled down the week before. That trip seems like a lifetime ago now, but the trip to my favorite brook trout stream is still clear in my mind.

As the last day of fishing on that brookie stream started to wind down, we found ourselves far from the trail. We finished fishing that evening at a big plunge pool high in the mountains with many miles of good brook trout water above us. We were both a little tired I think, Greg and I. Living on backpacking rations works well, but once your metabolism catches up to your increased activity levels, freeze dried food just doesn't satisfy anymore. We were both running strong on the high of adventure but also starting to think about home.

As we walked back to camp for one more night in the mountains, I asked him if that was the best brook trout stream he had ever fished. After thinking about it a while, Greg agreed that it was an incredible stream, but also mentioned his own favorite stream. Every angler should have a sacred place and his was possibly elsewhere. Only more time on both would ultimately determine which was his favorite. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with having several sacred places either.

Most of the places I fish are ones I'm willing to talk about. I do have some sacred places though, and this brook trout stream is one of them. Probably there are many places in the Smokies that still have fishing as good as we experienced in those two days, maybe even better. This one is mine, though, and while I don't mind letting people know that a place like that exists, I won't be drawing maps for anyone anytime soon. In the winter months, I'll be pouring over trail and topographic maps searching for yet another amazing backcountry trout stream. More places like this exist, but it takes determination and lots of effort to track them down.

Lately, my exploring has been done via Google and Google maps. I've been researching for a big trip this summer to Glacier. My wife has graciously agreed for me to pursue bull trout somewhere west of there after we hike in Glacier National Park for a week, and I've honed in on one place in particular. What drew me to that area was a plethora of documentation that shows where the bulls should be. In other words, I've never been there, but feel certain, that I can walk almost to the very spot where I should be able to find some bull trout. That is the danger of the inter webs. Good information used to be the result of lots of research. Now, with the click of a few buttons, I can find where to catch a bull trout to within a hundred yards of a likely spot.

For now, I'm selfishly glad that the information was so accessible. I've never caught bull trout, so this will be a bucket list item checked off if all goes well. On the other hand, once that happens, I might add this stream system to my list of sacred places. In that case, you may get a report, but it will be fuzzy on the details which is as it should be.

Back closer to home, I've been looking for new places to dump my boat in the water close to home for a few hours. Again, Google maps has been a lot of help. There are numerous small lakes in the area, and at least some of them have to have a boat ramp, right? The larger lakes sound interesting too. With Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Watts Bar, and lots of other big reservoirs in middle and east Tennessee within an hour or hour and a half, the appeal of new fishing opportunities draws me in. Yet, for some reason, I haven't gone very far out of my way to try these different options. When I want true adventure, I usually tend to look for moving water. The smaller the better. That's probably because of the difficulty of enjoying your own fishing hole with bass boats jetting past at 60 miles per hour.

One stream that I really like to fish feels a lot like brook trout fishing. It's one of those trickles that you pass on your way to better known water. I don't know of anyone else that fishes there. The beauty of this little stream lies in the resident coosa bass. For some reason they are there, probably a past stocking experiment that everyone has forgotten about. The fish are small but generally aggressive. When I say small, it is truly like brook trout fishing on a tiny Smoky Mountain stream. Lots of 5-7 inch fish but much larger starts getting into the trophy category. Most people would find this boring when there are 3 pound smallmouth just down the road, but knowing that this is my stream keeps me coming back. Eventually, I'll probably find out that someone else is fishing there as well. In the meantime, I'll keep it on my list of sacred places. When I find another fisherman, I'll hope it is one of their sacred places as well.