I had been told by a reliable angler of a little known trail that leads into one of the best fly fishing canyons in the West. The South Fork of the Boise River below Anderson Ranch Reservoir flows for about thirteen miles along a wide gravel road before it enters the famous canyon stretch. The river then flows for a little over twenty-five miles through a road less canyon only reachable by raft or anyone either brave enough or crazy enough to attempt floating down the canyon in a drift boat. The problem for anglers who are unfortunate not to have a seat in a raft is access. The river flows through cliffs and steep sloping rocks that do not give any access.
So when I was told and sworn to secrecy about a little known access trail that would get me down to the river I was I was all ears. Anytime a fly fisherman gets secret information pertaining to catching large wild trout it causes extreme anxiety and the compulsion to leave immediately is hard to control. I was warned the so-called trail down to the river was steep and rough but what lay before me was borderline ridiculous. I’ve been prone to go on wild goose chases before when it comes to trout secrets but this one I knew would be great if I could just get down to the river.
The directions were accurate and the landmarks were all in the right place but the so-called trail was pretty much straight down having to pick your way down along big boulders and steep shale. I wasn’t that concerned about getting down, one way or the other I’d reach the bottom but it was the return trip that I was most concerned with. After I reached the river, rested and geared up my vision of the river was breathtaking. If you’ve never seen the South Fork Boise River the water can be stunning. Inside the canyon the river is pocket water at its best, the water is gin clear and turquoise to deep green in the middle stretches.
It was mid-morning by the time I was ready to fish. I did manage to take two fly rods down the canyon with me and had them set up a dry fly rod and a nymph rod. I had a chance to study the water while I was preparing to fish and had noticed no activity on the surface so I went with the nymph rod. Choosing a large weighted stone fly dropped with a bead head baetis. Trying to think like a trout I located the best run in front of me and began my day on the river. There are tons of first cast stories I’ve listened to over the years and it was about time for me to have one of my own.
That first cast was just on the inside seam formed by a small boulder just poking out of the surface. Once the heavily weighted stonefly hit the bottom and drifted maybe three feet I felt the all too familiar tug on the line which brought and instantaneous hook set. This rainbow immediately sent my fly reel screaming as I carefully backed my way out of the river. By the time I was securely on shore I knew I was into a huge rainbow. It’s a well-orchestrated race when trying to catch up to a trout racing downriver, reeling excess fly line and rock hopping all in one frantic dance like a scene out of an ole Keystone Cops movie. In these kinds of situations, it’s pretty clear who’s the boss, I’m just pretty much along for the ride until the time is right for me to strike back.
One thing that all rivers running through canyons have in common is lots of rocks, I mean large rocks, mixed in with boulders of every size. It makes traveling through these canyons difficult on a good day let alone a day when you have a monster rainbow at the end of your line. I managed to turn the trout out of the current and into an eddy where the real battle commenced. Now I was in control. In the middle of a big fight the trout always hold all the aces when he’s in the current. Most trout that break off are lost by trying to battle the fish while they are in the current. Maneuvering a fighting fish out of the current should be your primary goal for gaining control of the fish.
Once I had him in the eddy, sideways pressure I thought was all I needed to get him to the net. What I didn’t account for was this was a wild native rainbow trout from the South Fork Boise River and anyone who has caught and landed these large trout will tell you the battle was just beginning. The second I was able to move him out of the current and into the eddy he tore off back into the main current. The last of these maneuvers his power was more than I could contain when he shot straight down river. I took off running, or shall I say rock hopping trying to keep up when to my advantage the river flattened out and became shallow. It wasn’t long after when I had him finally in the net.
It’s been said that there is no place on earth like the bottom of a canyon and I’ve learned over the years that the trout fishing is usually pretty good in a canyon. Canyons come in all sizes and shaped, from the vastness of the Grand Canyon to the sweet crevice the forms the Piru Creek canyon in California. I’ve been lucky enough to fish many of the great trout waters of the west and I’ve come to know that many of them have a canyon stretch that produces the best trout fishing and without the canyon these fisheries would probably not be the popular rivers that they are today.
Trout love canyons because of the water that flows through them. Canyon walls form deep holding areas where large trout can safely thrive in the summer and have the added benefit of deep water during the winter. Water tends to compress and speed up inside canyons providing many pockets where trout can lie and feed without being seen by predators such as fly anglers. Fast white water provides lots of oxygen and moves food consistently twenty four hours a day in front of hungry trout. Natural beaches, tailouts, slicks and holes are around every bend making the complexity of a canyon trout stream different and challenging as you fish.
Many canyon trout streams and rivers are excellent fisheries because roads don’t follow them. So access to a canyon trout stream can be difficult. That’s not to say that this is a prerequisite to good fishing, many famous rivers are easily accessed by road, it’s just that many canyon trout streams are relatively unknown due to the access being difficult. Many roads that do follow a quality trout stream may be very hazardous or simply end at the beginning of a steep canyon. So many anglers will simply fish the stream along the road and ignore the canyon stretch altogether.
When prospecting for good canyon fishing don’t let major population centers deter you from your search. A good example of this is Piru Creek about forty minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Piru Creek is a small tailwater creek that flows between two reservoirs, Palisades Reservoir and Piru Reservoir. Piru Creek is no secret, most fly anglers from that area are probably familiar with the water and last I remember is had a slot limit and was protected by artificial lures and single barbless hook regulations for the stretch just below Palisades Reservoir. Many fly anglers from the area will follow the road and fish where the water allows. The fishing there is like fishing anywhere else where there is a lot fishing pressure, you have your good days and your bad days. I have talked to many anglers who have more of the bad than the good. However just below the managed water the creek clears a campground and enters a long, rough and hard to access canyon. Those angler’s hardy enough can venture down the canyon a mile or so and get into some descent fly fishing with little fishing pressure from other anglers. Those anglers who love the area will sometimes backpack in and find a sandy beach and fish the weekend and enjoy the evening fire.
But the real secret to Piru Creek is the section of the creek that flows into Piru Reservoir. At first glance it looks like a flat shallow creek with very little fish in it. However, if you hike up the creek two or three miles you enter the canyon from the bottom and that is where the fishing can be just plain fantastic. Here the creek takes on all the characteristics of a great canyon stream. Deep pools, steep canyon cliffs, large boulders and sandy beaches are all the things that trout love. You would never believe a canyon stream like this can exist so close to Los Angeles. I have had 100 fish days on this section on creek. I have talked to many anglers who have fished Piru creek but none have fished that section of the canyon. With a little research, a good map and the adventure spirit are all you need to get into some of the great fly fishing in Southern California.
Here in Idaho where I live there are many canyons where water flows through and when I get a good view of the water I almost always find the fishing in these canyons to be superb. Most streams that flow through canyons or freestone streams or streams that don’t get its flows regulated by a dam. This usually means that the fish are not only under pressure from fishermen but also Mother Nature. Food sources are not as prevent as they are on a big tailwater river so the trout tend to be smaller on average. It also means that the trout who live there are much more opportunistic when feeding then the large tailwater trout.
That’s not to say that there is little in the way of aquatic insects, it’s just the amount and variety of hatches is small by comparison to the great tailwater rivers. Just like the trout that live in canyon streams the aquatic insects that that live in those canyons are also affected by Mother Nature. Drought, summer water temperatures and raging runoff all affect the trout and insects that live in those canyon streams. Because the hatches of aquatic insects can be limited depending on the stream, trout tend to be more opportunistic feeders because of such.
Because of these circumstances, fly selection can be minimal to the point where you can make a small fly box especially for small canyon fly fishing that can fit in your shirt pocket. In small canyon stream fishing I like to have a good selection of attractor flies. Attractor flies come is all sizes and shapes; however a good rule of thumb is to have a good selection of adams, annihilators and other colored hair winged flies in size 14, 16 and 18s. A good selection of bead head nymphs such as pheasant tails, hare’s ears, copper johns and bead head beatis should do the trick. Even though trout tend to be very opportunistic in small canyons, you should still have your standard patterns that may match any hatch that may be happening at any given time. That’s were a little research or calling around to see what may be happening on the water if you are not familiar with it.
Large canyons where large rivers run thought them are another story. Many of these canyons have large rivers running through them that are tailwater rivers or rivers formed from the discharge of water from a large dam. Here the characteristics of the river are almost the same with a small stream canyon just on a larger scale. The beaches are larger, rocks are now boulders and steep canyon walls are monstrous by comparison. However the most compelling the above characteristic may be the big difference is the water itself. Fly anglers classify rivers or streams into two categories: tailwater rivers and streams and freestone rivers and streams.
Determining which river is which to the non-angler or uninformed is kind of like a stranger trying to tell the difference between twin siblings. To the non-parent or family member it’s difficult but to mom or dad it’s obvious. As anglers all we really need to know is that tailwater rivers are extremely fertile and the flows are regulated whereas a freestone river is, for the most part, not as fertile and the flows are regulated by Mother Nature.
How all this relates to large canyon rivers is simple. The characteristics of a small canyon that’s conducive to large and healthy populations of trout are the same for large canyon trout only on a larger scale. Trout that frequent large canyons grow large and fat on a bio-system that supports large trout. What that mean to the fly angler is your fly selection has to be diverse and exclusive to the hatches that these large canyon rivers produce. Unlike small canyon trout where they tend to be opportunistic, large canyon trout tend to be selective at times and much more in tuned to the biomass that the live in.
Trout get large and fat in the large canyon streams and the fight they produce on the end your tippet keeps most fly anglers coming back to them. Anglers from all over the world flock to places like the South Fork Snake River and the Box Canyon on the Henry’s Fork to fish for these trout. This is how many destination rivers become famous and host thousands of adventurous fly anglers every year. Owning a drift boat or hiring a guide may be the only way to fish these canyons effectively. Hiring a guide or floating a canyon with an angler knowledgeable to the canyon is sound advice. The amount of information you can learn by such a float is immeasurable and can make the difference between a successful trip and a three fish day.
My preference is small canyon fishing. Here in Idaho we have many roads that wind along streams that eventually turn into canyons. I can honestly say that the fishing in these streams is much more productive in the canyon section than they are in the flats. While fishing the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River one year, I road fished my way down to where the Secesh, South Fork of the Salmon and the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon all came together to form the South Fork of the Salmon River. It is here that the road leaves the river and the South Fork Salmon became larger wilder canyon river. With no road to follow anymore I had to hike the river in order to fish it.
The view of the South Fork Salmon River is stunning to begin with but to a fly anger like me it is simply glorious. It’s a prototypical canyon river with the exception that the water is gin clear and it’s simply one of the wildest rivers in Idaho. After working my way down stream for a couple of miles I reached a good section of canyon to begin fishing my way back to the truck. I tied on a size 10 stimulator and made my first cast over some deep water along a cliff on the opposite side of the river. It was amazing to watch as one large cutthroat trout after another swam up from the bottom to smack my fly. Of course with the excitement of the moment it goes without saying that I missed those first few trout. However on the fourth rise I began to get into the swing of things and began to stick one trout after the other.
One of the best reasons for fishing canyons is that however good or bad the fishing was in one section of water, the circumstances can all change on the next section. There is always a new set of challenges that await you around the corner. As much as I like these challenges they can also work against you by day’s end. I have learned over the years to hike into the canyon and fish my way back out the canyon. Many anglers do just the opposite. The park the vehicles and begin fishing into the canyon. Between the excitement of catching fish and the wanderlust of the beau