Westslope Cutthroat & Middle Fork of the Salmon River

8 August 2005 By Dan Bachman • Fish-Story • Comments (0)

I recently bought the book “Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die” by Chris Santella on a whim and expected it to be full of places like Terra del Fuego and Christmas Island. You know, places that I couldn’t justify to my wife that I go to until I take her to Europe first on vacation. The book comes in the mail and I start perusing the different chapters and sure enough it has some pretty exotic locales and then I hit upon an Idaho location-fishing for Westslope Cutthroat on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Deja Vu-I began remembering bits of a story that my dad told me years ago about how when he was a kid he went on a float trip with his Uncle on the Middle Fork. They caught gobs of cutthroat until one of the guides slammed the raft up against a rock in the middle of the river and all of my great-Uncle’s expensive rods and reels went straight to the bottom.

Anyway this Middle Fork of the Salmon River is practically in my back yard, well-3 hours away by car but good enough-I’m going. I talk to a couple of the guys in the local fly shops and they tell me that not very many people go because it can be a little hard to get into and the terrain is pretty rugged. I don’t need anymore encouragement-it sounds like the place for me.

One week later I am at the spot-a dust bowl of a parking lot at the Dagger Falls put-in on the river. I walk over to where rigging crews with their river shorts, tevas, skin brown like leather and bare chests are lowering river rafts down a 150 foot wooden slide to the river. The canyon I am looking at has very steep walls and at first I am not even sure how I am going to get down to the river until I spy a switch back trail on the other side of the slide.

Gearing up, I cinch my wader belt up nice and tight, throw on my vest, grab my pole and head down to the river. I decide to go upstream first when I find a little trail that follows along the bank. Minutes later I am throwing a size 12 orange stimulator over to a calm spot behind a protruding rock. It takes me 2 or 3 casts until I hit the spot I want-the edge of the riffles next to the smooth water. Just when I think I need to cast again my fly gets hit like nothing I have seen before. I see a streak of salmon orange and I almost loose my footing in the thigh-high current when I pull to set the hook. I see another flash of orange before my line pulls free. Flibberdajibit! My first cutthroat and I can’t keep him on. Doesn’t matter though-I’m pumped. Never been on this river-I don’t have a guide-there isn’t a hatch and I am catching fish on dries.

Over the next 2 hours I continue to fish upstream. I catch 15 young Steelhead before I stop counting but a cutthroat doesn’t grace my line. I finally come to a place on the river where the water runs very shallow and widens out. I decide to go back downstream and try my luck there. I make my way back to the put-in and then downstream a good half mile where I find myself up on a canyon wall that is becoming increasingly steeper and more treacherous. I pass a couple beautiful holes but can’t find a place to fish them on this side of the river. When stepping over a log I loose my footing and slam my left side hard against the rocks. My left arm screams with pain-I’m sure I have broken it. I haven’t but it takes a good 5 minutes before the pain subsides enough to continue. A large egg starts to form. But I am not to be deterred.

A quarter mile more downstream I find a spot that I figure I can cross. The river looks fairly shallow and the current passable. I am not quite half way across with water up to my waist when I stumble on a rock, get spun around facing the current and go down to my ears. I feel water start to run down the inside of my waders and the current pushes me towards a hole that I know will be a very bad thing unless I catch my footing and get across. The cold water has put my breathing rate north of about 3 breaths per second and I am stabbing my feet at the bottom of the river. My right hand pushes my fly rod to the sky and I finally get a purchase on a couple rocks. Stumbling ashore I realize that my fly rod never even got wet. My hat and my rod are the only 2 dry things on my person.

Atop a large rock I begin to take off everything. I spread everything from my vest across the rock. When emptying my waders nearly 2 gallons of water pours out. My shorts, socks and shirt all get there place on the rock too. I lay across the rock nearly naked warming in the sun when I remember that this is a float river and I haven’t seen a boat in quite awhile. Will adventurers be exposed to the pale naked native sunning himself by the river? I keep an eye out, but an hour later I am dressed and dry without incident. I have now been on the river nearly 5 hours. But the anticipation of what awaits in the holes I have seen upstream keeps me going.

I fish as I move upstream to the more promising of the holes. I catch plenty more young Steelhead-it’s got to be more than 30 now, but not another Cut. When I finally arrive at the deeper of the two holes the shadows have grown long so that almost all the surface water is in shade with the exception of one thin piercing ray of light that divides the water in half across the current. There is a light band of sand on the river bottom and I can see several dark shapes cruising deep in the current. I pull out my fly box and look for something new to throw. I have used 5 different fly patterns and have caught Steelhead on every one but I figure I need something different to hook a Cut. I pull out the biggest fly from my dry selection. I don’t even know what the pattern is called. I think I have had it over 5 years and never used it. It’s a size 8 parachute trude something or other and uuugggly. Just the ticket-I tie it on and cast a good 40 feet up the river just above where the sun is on the water. The current begins to push my fly to the shore just as it crosses into the sunlight. A split second later my fly is slurped down so gently that I almost mistake it for an eddy that drowned my fly but then I catch a flash of orange. I set the hook and make sure to keep my rod perpendicular to the fish-I’m not going to loose this one. At one point he dives deep in the pool then grabs the current downstream. My 5 weight rod is well bent over as the fish uses the current to it’s advantage. I fight it while moving along the shore downstream and after about 5 minutes it lays over and I finally net my cutthroat. It is a 16 inch beauty with a pink orange belly and the color extending very high up along the sides. It is more beautiful and colorful than I have seen in pictures or imagined. The gill covers were almost completely orange. I admire it for a minute sad that I don’t have my camera with me and then release it back into the pool.

As I work my way back to the put-in I take inventory. My back is killing me. I must have pulled something when I got dunked. My left forearm has a nice scrape and throbs. Hungry, thirsty and exhausted, my feet ache terribly. I am sweating like a pig and my face, neck, arms and the tops of my hands are sun-burned. It’s been 7 hours since I first walked down to the river. As I pass by another rigging crew readying boats for tomorrow’s float trips I get several strange looks from a couple of the guys. I am sure they are looking at me and thinking “this poor sap must of had a miserable time”. Little do they know that on the inside I am grinning from ear to ear.

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