Big Wood River Rhapsody


Ernest Hemingway said of the Wood River Valley that it was the “prettiest place on earth” while he was living in Key West.  The Big Wood River Valley with its famous Ketchum/Sun Valley skiing and fly fishing is what it is today probably because of that quote.  To be near Mr. Hemingway and the “prettiest place on earth” many of famous people from  Hollywood and men of wealth began to flock there.  To see and experience the lure of famous people, tourists soon arrived to see what this wonderful place was all about.  Today plain folks and tourists from all over the world pilgrimage to the Wood River Valley for the same reason as they did 50 years ago.

I too pilgrimage to the Big Wood River every year but for a different reason; the search for wild trout.  The Big Wood River is as diverse a freestone river as I have ever seen.  The “prettiest place on earth” would not be what it is today without the Big Wood River.  The Big Wood River is rare in that even though it is a freestone river, the river boasts an incredible bio mass that in many freestone rivers is absent.  This bio mass of nutritious water creates incredible hatches of aquatic insects.  As you might expect these quality aquatic insect hatches create lots of trout and lots of large trout.

The Big Wood River is really a tale of two rivers, the upper river upstream of Ketchum and the lower river which flows from Ketchum through the length of the Wood River Valley. This diversity gives you the benefit of casting tiny flies that might imitate a small fall Blue Winged Olive mayfly to hungry feeding trout or casting small attractor flies upriver to likely holding spots and setting on trout willing to take a good meal in.  This is also the diversity I’m writing about.  There is rarely a time when you can’t fly fish the Big Wood River and not catch trout on a regular basis.

In mid-July I was camped just 15 minutes from downtown Ketchum on the North Fork Big Wood River for a weekend of fly fishing and golf.  When I arrived at the campground where I was to spend the next 3 days and nights I asked the camp host “How’s the fishing”.  I was greeted with a sour face and a description of how lousy the fly fishing was.  My experience on this section of the river has always been good and I can’t in recent memory remember a trip on the “Fork” where the fishing was “lousy”.  However lousy it was going to be I would give it my best shot.

We had a river running through the campground that had been flushed the night before by a tremendous thunder storm which colored the river a brown tea color.  I knew by the color of the river that I might be in trouble and that the fishing just might be off.  After setting up camp I grabbed my fly rod and walked over to the river. Yep, stained and running low.  A river that runs low or high still has trout in it I just had to overcome my doubts on the stained water.  I waded in and it was a good 20 minutes of wading and casting before I brought my first trout to hand.  It was small around 9 inches but a beautiful native wild rainbow trout.

I had tied on an Annihilator dry attractor fly and I trailed it with a tan Soft Hackle wet fly hoping to figure out what the trout wanted.  My answer came a few minutes later when I landed my second rainbow after smashing the Annihilator.  This trout was not excessively big, around 8 inches but it was wild and I was on a wild river.  This little rainbow fought for his life and I had a ball fighting him and then his reward was a gentle release back to where he belonged.  I now felt comfortable that even with the stained water I would be able to bring trout to my fly.

I continued to work the water in front of me hoping for one more trout.  Not being able to raise another one I worked a good half mile of river, always wading in the middle of the river until I had my fill for the evening.  As I walked the trail along the river back the sun was just starting to come down and I could see the evening meal begin to buzz around the length of the river.  I’m sure those trout were ready for round two but I was content to sit on a rock and watch the river as the sun slowly slipped beyond the mountains.  During my session of waving my stick at likely holding spots I did not see any other fly anglers working the river.

The Big Wood River has always been an incredible river to fly fish.  There are stretches of the river that can get crowded during the tourist season but there are plenty of sections of the river that see extraordinarily little fishing pressure and you can just pull over and slip into the river. The trouble for most folks is finding the river from the highway.  You can get maps of the Big Wood River online or at the fly shops in Ketchum that will show the river at its length and some will even provide access points that many of the sub-divisions have just for fishing the river.

The Big Wood River, down river from Ketchum, changes from its freestone river feel to a more traditional tailwater river due to its many diverse aquatic insect hatches.  Technically the Big Wood River is a freestone river but for some reason known only to God this river receives a good amount of really nutritional water that breeds a strong enough bio mass to support a good mix of aquatic insects.  This abundance of bugs can  turn these “Wood” river trout into having a narrow search image that makes them really key into eating exactly what is hatching and giving you fits if you don’t have the right fly.

What the Big Wood offers that makes it such a delight during the season is the aquatic insect hatches that you can find up and down the river.  Like many of the great fly fishing rivers of the West, the Big Wood River boast many of the same hatches that these river have.  One amazing hatch is a mayfly known as the Green Drake.  The Green Drake mayfly (Drunella Grandis) is a drake, which means it’s a large mayfly, more in the size 8 or 10.  The Green Drake hatch begins usually in late June and will go into mid-July.  When the Green Drakes are hatching, Big Wood River trout get hatch drunk.  You can research and find the likely areas of the hatch, show up and proceed to catch trout.  It’s certainly an event you should make into a yearly adventure.

Along with the Green Drake hatch the Big Wood has a strong population of Pale Morning Dun and Blue Winged Olive mayflies that you will see on the river from Spring through Fall.  Capped off in the evenings with a summer long Caddis hatch the Big Wood can be a dry fly fisherman’s delight.  With a solid mayfly land caddis fly population in the river, nymphing can be the preferred way to catch trout year round.  Many of the great nymph anglers of the West prefer to ply their trade on the “Wood”.

One of the better features of the Big Wood River is near Stanton Crossing on the lower Big Wood River you are only 8 miles away from one of the best spring creeks in America, Silver Creek near Picabo Idaho.  At Stanton Crossing is a Forest Service Campground where you can put yourself right in the middle of the action.  You can fly fish the Big Wood River and Silver Creek in the same day, drive into Sun Valley for lunch, play 18 holes of golf and eat a fine dinner at the club.  Later you can spend the late afternoon casting tiny dry flies to rising trout and finish your day listening to the Rhapsody of the Big Wood River while enjoying your campfire.