Exploring the West’s Oddest River
By Jeff Erickson
Jake Smith drifts a fly under a shaded cutbank on the Bear River in western Wyoming. Lengthy stretches of the river in Wyoming flow through
private lands, so access requires some exploring and perhaps some asking if you can find the landowners. PHOTO BY JEREMY ALLAN
In the convoluted caverns of my mind, the world’s strangest stream is the mythological River Styx. The scribes in ancient Greece didn’t indicate whether the Styx held trout, but I doubt it, as it was a gloomy, mysterious passageway to the underworld and the afterlife. Perhaps the oddest river that exists in current reality is the Bear, which relentlessly roams like Ulysses in the Odyssey. The sirens here aren’t dangerous temptresses luring seafaring sojourners to doom with their beguiling songs, but beautiful, benign Bonneville cutthroat trout, some surprisingly large.
The Bear can also be likened to Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, symbolizing eternal circles—like birth, life, death, destruction, and rebirth—or the ongoing hydrologic cycle that powers both rivers and fly anglers. The circuitous Bear is a 500-mile-long geographic riddle, North America’s longest river that never touches an ocean. It rises above 12,000 feet in Utah’s cloud-breaching Uinta Range, drifts north into Wyoming, rambles back and forth across the Idaho border, then returns to Utah. It finally ends by replenishing the Great Salt Lake’s brine-encrusted pools, just 70 miles from its alpine origins. So, this aquatic snake nearly swallows its own tail too. But as J.R.R. Tolkien observed, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Good advice for fly anglers who get immersed in this vast, varied watershed.
The Western Shoreline
By Jerry Darkes
An angler releases a fat smallmouth along a shallow shoreline. In spring, prespawn bass are found along drop-offs close to shore and around
harbor entrances where there is plenty of rock and gravel. They eagerly attack flies. ALL PHOTOS BY JERRY DARKES
New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as the province of Ontario, all claim a share of sprawling Lake Erie’s shoreline, and throughout this southernmost of the Great Lakes, anglers pursue myriad species. But the lake’s western basin, from west of Sandusky Bay in Ohio northward to Point Pelee in Ontario, offers especially good prospects for fly anglers.
The western basin’s average depth of only 24 feet equates to a lot of water that’s easy to fish with fly tackle. Moreover, this basin’s shoreline features extensive shallows, rocky drop-offs, breakwalls, river deltas, piers, harbors, and other fish magnets. These waters teem with smallmouth bass, panfish, freshwater drum, walleyes, northern pike, largemouth bass, and other species. Armed with a small boat, an angler has countless options. Kayaks and canoes also work well in many areas, and even shore-bound anglers can get in on the action.
By Tom Gilmore
Native brookie from the Carmans River. PHOTO BY BOB LINDQUIST
For most fly anglers, Long Island conjures images of epic saltwater action—blitzing bluefish and false albacore, and acres of striped bass churning the water to froth as they feed on vast schools of bay anchovies, silversides, or peanut bunker. However, Long Island is also home to great trout fishing. The island is home to three exceptional limestone spring creeks filled with trout, all within an hour’s drive from New York City.
The Nissequogue, Connetquot, and Carmans Rivers were originally preserved by elite, private fishing clubs with well-heeled members and guests from New York City. Today, these three streams are publicly owned, managed by New York state or county parks, and almost as pristine as they were at the latter part of the 19th century.
Best in the West
By Greg Vinci
Bass congregate along the shoreline margins of Clear Lake, particularly along steep drop-offs. Prey such as juvenile sunfish and crawfish abound
in these areas, providing plenty of forage. ALL PHOTOS BY GREG VINCI
I’ve always been a trout guy, so I was late getting into fly fishing for bass. For many years I never gave bass a passing thought, but when I found myself employed in a fly shop alongside Al Bunch, all that changed. He was happy to inform anyone within earshot that he had discovered his true calling: for Bunch, trout fishing was a thing of the past and bass were the only game in town.
Articulate and talkative, Bunch regaled me with stories about fishing on California’s Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, and down in Mexico, where it seemed that any day when he caught fewer than a hundred bass wasn’t a day worth living. All of us in the fly-fishing retail business spend every day hearing what seem to be boastful stories, particularly from customers who hang out in the shop, but while Bunch talked about seemingly unlikely 100-fish days, he was also the first to admit to a day on which he got skunked. When I finally had the opportunity to fish with him I was able confirm that all of his bravado was for real, and it became apparent that if Bunch said he had caught a hundred fish, then he probably actually caught a hundred fish.
Winter at Bull Shoals
By Matthew Dickerson
Boats full of anglers appear like ghosts
out of the thick fog in the hour after dawn, and then disappear again. The thrum of an outboard announces some of them before they appear. Two
or three dozen boats could be within a half mile, yet in the fog only one or two might be visible at a time. ALL PHOTOS BY MATTHEW DICKERSON AND PHIL BRODERSEN
Thick bone-chilling fog filled the valley, from the river all the way up the cedar-strewn bluffs, swallowing it whole like a 5-pound brown might swallow a bite of shad that had been sucked through the turbines from the lake above. Now and then, when our boat swung close to the shore, winter-barren sycamore branches materialized out of the fog like skeleton fingers clawing at the air, only to disappear a moment later. More often, another johnboat laden with two or more anglers appeared nearby, fading into view a few seconds after the fog-dampened roar of its outboard became audible over the wind and waves and our own motor’s thrum.
Later in the morning, when the sun burned through the fog, the temperature climbed from freezing up toward 60 and my stiff fingers thawed, while as many as two dozen boats were often visible at a given moment. The White River at Bull Shoals on February 1 is not for the faint of heart. Yet it is an outstanding fishery, one that can produce trophy brown trout, lots of fat rainbows (some reaching trophy size), an occasional cutthroat, and even a rare brook trout. And despite all the boat traffic on opening day, our expert guide, Frank Saksa, continued to find great lanes to drift through a long run before reengaging the motor and popping us up to the top again—rarely without at least one fish sampling our flies.
Gold in the Pioneer Mountains
By Christian Nafzger
A morning paddle to rising golden trout on Baptie Lake will quickly make you forget the
arduous hike into this special corner of Idaho. ALL PHOTOS BY CHRISTIAN NAFZGER
As I made a left turn from my neighborhood, I crossed the first of many fantastic fisheries on the way to my destination. The urban Boise River, home to wild redband rainbow trout and a few hefty brown trout, was in the rearview mirror within minutes. Next up: the turn to the revered South Fork Boise River.
An hour into the journey, my buddy Dave questioned why we had not settled for the South Fork Boise. Instead of more hours of driving, we could be casting hoppers to willing fish in short order. August is prime time on this tailwater river, and it seemed foolhardy to drive past big native rainbows. When we reached the intersection of US Highway 20 and State Route 75, we had two solid options: keep going eastward to the oasis that is Silver Creek, and its finicky, educated trout. Or, at the intersection, turn north, following the Big Wood River through the towns of Bellevue, Hailey, and Ketchum. A better duo of destination trout waters in such proximity would be hard to come by.
I flipped the blinker and turned toward Ketchum. SR 75 crossed the Big Wood several times, and Dave again asked why we were driving past all this great water.
A Waterfalls Wonderland
By Carl Haensel, with Jade Thomason
Palisade Head towers hundreds of feet above Lake Superior just a mile south of the mouth of the Baptism
River. The promontory offers sprawling views of Minnesota’s North Shore and is one of many fantastic features of Tettegouche State Park. Photos by Carl Haensel and Jade Thomason
The roar of the rushing water filled my consciousness as I worked to push a roll cast closer to the churning froth at the base of the falls. The swirling waters made casting challenging, and the moment the small streamer landed, it was ripped away by the swift current. Still, I believed a large trout was sitting there, waiting. We had seen them jumping, trying in vain to ascend the falls, not knowing that it towered dozens of feet higher than they could leap.
After another 10 casts, I nearly gave up and headed downstream to easier pools and runs. I stuck with casting, however, pushing the 5-weight rod as far as I could, working around the dark basaltic rocks that stuck out at odd angles from the shoreline. Then, in an instant, a fish struck. Diving deep into the tannin-stained water, the fish fought doggedly against 3X tippet, using the current to its full advantage and almost leaving the pool.
When the fish finally tired, I was able to glide it across the surface of the water and slip it into my net. There it lay for a second, the crimson belly brilliant in the mist-speckled sunlight. The white edges of the fins and the red spots surrounded by blue halos were unmistakable markings of another wild brook trout. Emptying it out of the net, I watched it quickly disappeared back into the depths of the pool.
Hannah’s First Fish on a Dry Fly
By Nick Carter
Although a drift boat
is an excellent platform for fly casters, the Hiwassee’s shallow shoals can be difficult to negotiate
in low water levels, especially for rowers with limited experience on the river. Photo by Nick Carter
Using oars to fend off tree branches, Bill Stranahan guided us, scraping and dragging, from the launch up Towee Creek and down to the Hiwassee River, where shoals spread before us, shallow and easily as wide as a football field, maybe two.
“This looks perfect,” Stranahan said, eyeing the water level as he swung his drift boat into a chute and anchored below the first shoal. It was early afternoon, and we were on a mission to put his 15-year-old stepdaughter, Hannah James, on her first dry-fly trout. Stranahan was just the man for the job. He’s logged countless hours on the “Hi” as a veteran guide with Southeastern Anglers. It’s his home water—literally. Both Stranahan and Southeastern Anglers’ Dane Law have homes along the river.
And though rowing a traditional drift boat on the Hiwassee in low water can be tricky, reduced flows present the only times wading anglers can safely navigate the shoals. A single generator running upstream at the Apalachia Dam powerhouse provides cold, clear-green water and what Stranahan considers optimal fishing conditions.
Spring Creek Nirvana
By Jeff Erickson
Wild brown trout inhabit more than 50 of northeast Iowa’s 100-plus trout streams. Photo By Jeff Erickson
Geographic stereotypes and misperceptions are rife, including those involving trout habitat. When many people think of Iowa, for example, the images springing to mind are thousand-pound, blue-ribbon-winning hogs named Betsy or Bertha by their 4-H kid owners, tabletop-flat cornfields, and maybe hordes of politicians and reporters descending on the state for the nation’s first presidential primary every four years.
If anyone pictures fish, it might be slimy catfish pulled from silty streams, bluegills or largemouth bass from lily-pad-punctuated farm ponds, or walleyes from the Mississippi. But trout? Think again, because northeastern Iowa shelters some of the most alluring, publicly accessible spring creeks in the country, holding native brook trout, wild browns, and stocked rainbows. At the epicenter of this bounty are tributaries feeding the 156-mile-long Upper Iowa River.
Rising in southeastern Minnesota, the Upper Iowa slithers back and forth across the Iowa border before definitively taking up residence in the Hawkeye State. The watershed’s trout treasure troves are the smaller, colder streams feeding the Upper Iowa.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
By John E. Wood
Captain Stephen Stubbe steers his boat along a creek channel while James Dionizio
works a fast-sinking fly along the edges of submerged brush. Toledo Bend is essentially
a flooded forest that is surrounded by forest. Nearly the entire lake offers fish-holding
cover in the form of submerged brush and trees. Photo by John E. Wood
Cruising the back reaches of Palo Gaucho Bayou on Toledo Bend Reservoir, I could feel the tensions of rushing to get there melt away, slowly replaced by the familiar feeling of anticipation that new water brings, especially when it’s an unfamiliar habitat.
The backwater reaches of Toledo Bend are like few other habitats; to me, the place exuded something akin to a primordial amusement park. The hardwoods, having just dropped their spring buds and flowers, were coming into new leaf. The scene was far different from the cityscapes James Dionizio and I had vacated earlier that morning. We had rendezvoused around noon at Harborlight Marina and Resort, located mid-lake on the Texas side. The well-kept, comfortable collection of varied accommodations, a boat launch, and mooring options situated on the edge of Sunshine Bay was a perfect jumping-off point for our introduction to that arm of this massive impoundment that straddles the Texas–Louisiana border.
Traveling from opposite directions, Dionizio from the south and me from north, we arrived within minutes of each other and quickly shook off the frustration of negligible cellphone reception and unnecessary attempts to coordinate our arrival. The thick piney woods covering the undulating terrain around Toledo Bend offered a rewarding contrast to and welcome respite from our city lives, but the rural scenery is not conducive to the radio waves we’ve grown accustomed to for instant communication. But we hadn’t come for the local radio waves, we had come to chase largemouth bass on one of the most productive big-bass lakes in the country.
The Forgotten Forest
By Gary Weber
Colloquially called “Cranebows,”
native rainbow trout from the upper Deschutes River inhabit the reservoir and routinely reach 20 or more inches. The fishery is bolstered by
robust allotments of hatchery-produced rainbows. Photo by Gary Weber
People forget. We’re all guilty of it. Anniversaries, birthdays, names, phone numbers, even where we left our car keys—lapses in memory happen all the time. But don’t be too alarmed. According to German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, father of the “forgetting curve,” much of what we forget is lost soon after we learn it. In fact, our short-term memories can retain information for only about 15 to 30 seconds unless it’s frequently rehearsed. Maybe that explains why a fly angler fighting a 4-pound rainbow trout on central Oregon’s Crane Prairie Reservoir can easily forget that this lake, lined with hundreds of spindly ghost trees, was once a forest.
Crane Prairie Reservoir was created in 1922 with the construction of a rock-filled dam that impounded the upper Deschutes River about 8.5 miles south of its source at Little Lava Lake. The new impoundment flooded a fertile forested meadow known as Crane Prairie, named for the prodigious numbers of sandhill cranes that flocked to the area to feed. Leakage through the original dam rendered it unsafe, forcing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to replace it in 1940 with an earth-filled structure.
By Derek Schroeder
Prowling the shallow weedbeds on Big Mosquito lake, the author straps into a scrappy Big Mosquito Lake brook trout. Photo By Derek Schroeder
It’s 7:30 on a Monday morning in early June and my boss thinks I’m at work. Technically, I am. I mean, if I clear my inbox by the end of the day, that counts, right?
Now, however, I’m trying to glean the last drops of weekend out of the gray area that working from home during a pandemic has created in our lives. Quoting an adage his father said often, a friend once told me, “Never waste a crisis.” Good advice. I can always use another excuse to go fishing.
An evergreen cradle deep in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest backcountry holds a nameless lake like a jewel. At the north end of the lake, fallen trees scattered in the clear water lie like spent bowling pins, forming obvious shelter for a wise trout. My stomach grumbles. I hope the fish that I know must be down there hasn’t eaten breakfast either.
The stillness envelops me, and I try to mimic it with every motion. Quietly I stalk toward the logjam on my paddleboard, until I can nestle into a nook and unhook the leech pattern from my reel seat. Before my fly even hits the water, I imagine a big brown trout haphazardly, confidently, cruising his sanctuary like a wolf stalking a meal in the wilderness.
One. Two. Three false casts are all it takes. My palms sweat. My technique always seems to fail me at times like these. Probably why I’ll never be a kicker in the National Football League, I quip to myself. But I manage to drop the fly just inches from a log. My heart thumps with anticipation as I hope the fly has a clean drop to the lake’s sandy bottom. Please don’t snag, I whisper, picturing the empty slots in my fly box where the other leeches I lost this weekend used to live.
“River of Fishes”
By Rusty Chinnis
Captain Jim Long poles Captain Rick Farrior across a shallow flat off the mouth of the Homosassa River on a busman’s holiday. Photo by Rusty Chinnis
The great American landscape painter Winslow Homer (1836–1910) was enamored with Homosassa, Florida. Homer regularly traveled to Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba during the winter months, and this wild, spring-fed coast was one of his favorite destinations. The name Homosassa is derived from a Seminole word meaning “river of fishes.”
To this day the natural beauty that inspired Homer’s art, and his passion for fishing, permeates the area. In 1904, Homer painted at least 11 watercolors during a stay. In a letter to his brother, Arthur, he described Homosassa as “The best fishing in America as far as I can find.”
Despite the pace of progress and the impact of development and agriculture on the natural springs, the name still aptly portrays the area’s riches. The verdant and diverse marine and riverine ecosystem is a fly fisher’s paradise.
Deep in the Woods
By Nick Carter
The Jacks River has no stocked trout. The fishery comprises robust populations of wild browns and rainbows, thriving in a gorgeous backcountry watershed. Photo by Nick Carter
“He ate! My God, he ate! And I missed! I missed! Why, God, why?”
These were the opening words of a diatribe Joe DiPietro unleashed upon himself as he dropped his rod and fell to his knees on a Jacks River gravel bar. Miles deep in Georgia’s Cohutta Wilderness, I was the only one to hear what spewed from his mouth. It sounded like heartbreak.
Truly large trout are not an everyday occurrence in this wild place. It hasn’t seen a stocking for decades, and little wild rainbows and browns are the norm. They sometimes eat dry flies with gusto. That’s a lot of fun. But big fish are rare.
DiPietro swears the fish that turned on his big stonefly nymph was at least 22 inches long—an exceptional fish in a stream where a 14-incher is cause for excitement. With someone else, such an anomaly might be chalked up to hyperbole. But DiPietro has seen and caught plenty of enormous trout. He’s spent his adult life guiding where fish grow huge—on private trophy waters as well as on the nearby Toccoa tailwater. His judgment is to be trusted—at least in this matter—and this was a special fish, wild and stream-born, seemingly too large for the pool it inhabited.
Lurking in the Shadows
By Nathan Perkinson
The old bridge at McKeown Bridge Park, east of Hastings, is one of the author’s favorite spots to target bass and panfish. The water is fast, but wading is fairly easy. Look for fish-holding structure, including deep holes and submerged rocks. Photo by Kyra Perkinson
One of my favorite little smallmouth holes is just east of Hastings, Michigan, on the Thornapple River. You can see it from a highway bridge and it’s easy to reach. This spot was always easy to fish, too: just hop a heavy fly along the sandy bottom and wait for a fish. That is, until last year, when a log drifted into the hole and wedged itself in place. I’m sure the bass enjoy this extra cover, but it makes fishing that hole a real headache.
One day last autumn, I started my day on the Thornapple at that spot, casting a heavy sculpin pattern under a strike indicator—standard operating procedure for my style of targeting smallmouth. My first cast found that submerged log and I broke the fly off. When a second sculpin fly met the same fate, I began to suspect that my go-to spot may have soured. I lost a Clouser Minnow next, further confirming my fears.
Eager to feel a bend in the rod, I swapped out my smallmouth rig for a 5X leader and a Gurgler with lots of rubber legs. Having already lost three flies in that hole, my faith in that Gurgler was right on par with my belief that the Detroit Tigers will ever win another World Series. But fishing is full of surprises. The little white Gurgler plopped down, a shadow materialized from the depths like Captain Kirk beaming onto an alien plant, and I set the hook. The bass was no wall-hanger by any stretch, but my fear that the hole had been ruined disappeared in a hurry when I happily brought the smallmouth to hand.
By Jonathan Hill
The trail up to Bear Lake gradually climbs through a mountain valley, affording outstanding views once the route climbs above timberline. Here, the author makes the morning trek in hopes of catching more cutthroat trout. Photo by Jonathan Hill
I enjoy coaching my son’s soccer team. Helping 9- and 10-year-olds develop their skills and then seeing their improvement each week is rewarding. I also get to brush up on my own skills and put them in action at the end of each season, when we parents scrimmage against the kids. Last spring’s game, though, almost thwarted my long-planned expedition into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness of central Colorado.
The kids were winning, as usual, and I was dribbling the ball downfield. I went to pivot and pass to the middle, heard a pop, and went down. My left knee had given out and I knew I was done for. The next day I could barely put any weight on my leg, and the knee had swollen to three times its normal size.
After three doctor visits and an MRI, I was diagnosed with a tiny tear in my meniscus; it would require surgery. I told my doctor that I had a backpacking/fly-fishing trip planned and asked if it was possible to delay the surgery and still make the extensive hike six weeks from then. He gave me a shot of cortisone and told me to do some light stretching and mild workouts, have fun, and let him know if I made it back safely.
A Stream with a Mind of its Own
By Toner Mitchell
Jeremy Brooks died in an airplane accident en route to a guiding gig in Russia. He was admired throughout the New Mexico angling community and was a uniquely kindhearted person. He mastered Rio Grande pike fishing as a boy.
Photo by Toner Mitchell
If you’re going to learn the Rio Grande on your own, understand that it will take some time. This is a hard pill to swallow given how bank-to-bank fishy its habitat looks. There’s almost no uniformity, boulders of every size spinning and gushing water into one another, carving and shaping an infinity of surfaces and spaces occupied by an array of fish food that never ceases to astound me. No one should have trouble catching fish.
Yet most of us do, sometimes for days on end. The Rio can be an extremely generous stream, but even the experts will tell you that taking it for granted leads to heartbreak.
My own education on the Rio has been a circuitous path, with stops at delusion and optimism, disappointment, and relative glory along the way. As a teenager, I’d finally had enough of driving by the river on my way to the ski mountain or to some familiar, easy creek fishing. Upon getting my driver’s license, I dedicated a summer to fishing the Rio. It felt weird to step into a big trout river for the first time, then to feel the sharp contrast between the cool currents and the stifling heat that seemed stuffed into the canyon. When the sun dropped below the west canyon wall and the shade fell across the water, I got that strong whiff of willows and saw the barely perceptible pecks of surface-feeding trout.
Much More than Memories
By Jody Martin
A slow hand-crawl retrieve, with frequent pauses, is typically the most productive tactic for anglers fishing Lake Davis during most of the year. In autumn, however, faster retrieves with bigger flies result in violent grabs from the lake’s heavy trout. Photo by Jon Baiocchi
The fire was starting to die down. Roger dropped another log in and Mike stirred the ashes and we gathered a little closer to ward off the chill in the air and finally somebody said something about Bob. He was the reason we had all been hired, so many years ago, and the reason we had come together now, even though we were calling it a fishing trip.
It was June 1995, and we were camped on the shores of Lake Davis in Northern California’s Plumas National Forest. A year and a half earlier, in the early morning hours of December 13, 1993, Bob had ended his life with a shotgun in the front seat of his car, and we were clueless as to why. There had been a memorial service for him back in Kentucky shortly after his death, but not all of us could make it, so this Western fishing trip was another way to gather and grieve and wonder what the hell had happened. And maybe it was a form of closure, whatever that word means.
By R. Chad Chorney
Jessica French plays a nice rainbow trout from a gentle tailout during a late-winter outing on the South Fork. Perhaps counterintuitively, this river is often at its best during the winter months, largely thanks to reduced flows.
Photo by R. Chad Chorney
Boise, Idaho, has consistently ranked as one of the best places in the United States to live, work, and raise a family. The city is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream—hiking, mountain biking, skiing, hunting, and fishing opportunities abound in and around the City of Trees. One of the more productive fisheries located close to Boise is the lower South Fork Boise River. The South Fork, as its commonly called, is a trophy rainbow trout fishery near the community of Mountain Home, Idaho, about 90 minutes east of Boise. The lower South Fork is a blue-ribbon tailwater formed by the dam that created Anderson Ranch Reservoir, and it flows through a rugged canyon for some 30 miles before entering Arrowrock Reservoir.
Gem of the Beartooth Range
By Carl Myers
Stephanie Myers subdues a feisty rainbow from the upper section of East Rosebud Creek. Both forks of the Rosebud are fast-flowing freestone streams well suited to nymphing with fast-sinking patterns. Photo by Carl Myers
Hoping my son’s first view of Mystic Lake would be one he’d remember and not wanting my backside to be part of it, I stopped to let him move in front as we crested the highest part of the trail. It didn’t go as planned. Instead, his favorite ball cap went flying out over the slot canyon on our side of the rim, and I barely managed to grab a handful of his shirt before he also went tumbling off the trail.
I’m not familiar with the Beaufort wind force scale, but what hit us on that crest had to be at least one notch above gale force. With eyelids fluttering and streams of tears blowing sideways across our faces, we tried to take in the magnificent panorama that I remembered from 20 years ago, but it was all we could do to not gasp and turn our heads back and forth like newborn babes whose faces were being blown into by relentlessly cruel adults.
We pressed on, though, and as we descended toward the lake, we spied a wave-lapped stretch of beach southwest of the dam and made that our goal. We soon noticed we weren’t the only recreationists coveting this little piece of sun-warmed sand. A circle of wilderness enthusiasts was already forming itself up in our spot. I was still concentrating on not having the oxygen forcibly sucked out of my lungs when I heard my son inquire over the maelstrom, “Hey, Dad, what are they doing?”