Being more or less a fish hobo for the last Decade I’ve had a great many opportunities to fly fish a good portion of the Northwest. During many of these travels I’ve met quite a few fly anglers who believe their home waters are simply the best trout waters in the West. It’s pretty hard to argue with them when my own fly fishing experiences on their home water has been pretty good. That said I usually take it with a grain of salt because I have fished some great water over the years and I just can’t buy their argument that they live next to the best trout water in the West.
As a fly fisherman I was bitten early on by the wanderlust bug. I spent too many hours devouring fly fishing books, especially fly fishing magazines which constantly fueled my desire to see all the famous trout waters of North America. I wanted to see and fish as many of the famous trout rivers as I could. I grew up fly fishing the Kern River in the Southern Sierra Nevada’s as my home water and I was never really impressed with it as a class trout river. But it was all I had to judge other rivers by which made it pretty easy for other rivers to impress me.
When I moved to Idaho there were so many rivers and streams near my home that I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I spent three or four years just waddling in the gravel of my home waters. An hour from my home in either direction would give me arguably some of the best rainbow and brown trout fishing in America. That’s easy to say when you haven’t fished the West. Just because the trout fishing was excellent on my home waters doesn’t make it the best trout water in the West let alone America. However, I live in the Northwest so that has given me some experience to live on.
Moving to Idaho didn’t mean I quit reading fly fishing books and magazines. On the contrary in the past 3 decades I think I’ve read just about every fly fishing book I could get my hands on. If I didn’t buy it I borrowed it. At the same time my interest in fly fishing changed from how to fly fish to where to fly fish. I already knew how to fly fish now I was just more interested in where to do it. Back before the creation of the internet, books and magazines were important in researching the different rivers of the Northwest. The internet is fantastic in getting real time information on all the famous rivers that I’d been reading about. The net helped facilitate my fascination for all those famous blue ribbon fly fishing rivers of the West.
There are a ton of benefits to living in Idaho and if you are a fly fisherman one of the biggest benefits is being very close geographically to the many major trout rivers of the west. So it was just a matter of time before I tired of my home waters and longed to try out my skills on one of the so called famous trout rivers. The great trout rivers of Montana, Utah and Oregon were now top on my bucket list, so the infamous “Road Trip” became an integral part of my fishing routine.
First on my bucket list were the great rivers of Idaho. That includes the Mecca of fly fishing the Henry’s Fork. The South Fork of the Snake River was a river I had to explore (and the Snake River country surrounding it) just to clear my conscience so that the rest of my journey could continue. Just in this area of Idaho alone there are enough rivers and streams to last an angler a lifetime of fly fishing. If you choose to, you could easily spend two years just exploring, and not even fishing Eastern Idaho. For most fly anglers taking one trip a year to a great destination river is enough. The problem is you only see the eight mile section of river you just floated and maybe a little shoreline fishing where you are camping for the night. When the trip is over, you only fished 8 miles of a 150 mile river system.
What I soon learned about fishing these kinds of places is that there are basically four types of fly anglers working a destination river like the Henry’s Fork. The first type is the vacationer who simply has set aside a week or two to venture out with his trailer or cabin rental. He is usually with his family and only spends a short amount of time fishing near his cabin or campsite. The second is the local fly angler who either has lived in the area his entire life or long enough to have learned the river and its characteristics. He tends to look at all non-local fly anglers as visitors to his home and as long as you behave yourself you can stay. This group tends to be a little reserved and by right they probably have been burned a time or two over their lifetime by non-local fly anglers or grenade fishermen (Worm dunkers). The third group of anglers is the professionals, or in other words, guides. Their interest is in making a living and to do that they will do whatever they can to get their clients to spots where they can catch fish. Guides more than anyone else see the river at their own possession and are very concerned about the health and welfare of their river. Who could blame them, it’s how they make their living but unfortunately they care about little else and usually dislike the other three forms of anglers and view them as competitors.
The final group is the free fisherman. This is your road tripper; fish hobo or plain old traveling fly angler. This particular group of anglers usually gets along with everyone and is known as a self-contained anger in the sense that he usually has his own drift boat or raft and is a good enough fly angler not to require a guide. This is the group that I found myself in after a couple of years of hoboing around the Northwest fly fishing as much as I could. I didn’t start out to be a fish hobo it’s just something I morphed into every year as spring approached.
Recently, while fishing a famous trout river in Oregon, I ran into a free angler while fishing a strong caddis hatch. I usually don’t pay too much attention to other fly anglers while on the water but this particular case we were both catching so many trout that it became funny. I would laugh at him and vice versa. After the fishing died down we had a chance to sit along the bank and get to know one another. Jim and I had a lot in common in that we both loved to fly fish destination rivers. Road trip fishing was second nature to Jim and his camp showed all the signs of being away from home a long time. The thing that caught my attention the most was his enthusiasm for his home waters. Jim was from Yakima, Washington and called the Yakima River his home water. Although he loved his home water he still seemed drawn to famous fly fishing rivers just like me.
After a few years of traveling to many of these blue ribbon trout waters I began to develop a love affair and a huge desire to return to some these great rivers again. It was only a matter of time before Montana became my new stomping ground. I spent many of these trips just sort of getting the lay of the land, a lot of driving and camping with a little fishing in between. Montana’s blue ribbon trout rivers are as diverse and different as are the trout that live in them. Some are narrow, rocky and full of pocket water where the trout are strong and quick while other rivers are wide, deep and swift with the trout being large and powerful.
Visiting and fishing the rivers I grew up reading about and actually being there and fishing them was both a good thing and a bad thing. It was a good thing in the sense that I was fishing and catching fish in the waters of my dreams and a bad thing in the sense that reality wasn’t what I thought it would be. You don’t usually dream about fishless days on the Yellowstone or being schooled by a pod of rainbows on the Madison. In fact you rarely hear anything bad or negative about a destination river in most of the fly fishing magazines you find at your local book store. Who would go and fish any of these rivers and streams if there was and those fly fishing magazines wouldn’t sell if the authors start writing about some of their failures on their trips.
A few years back I attended a fly fishing expo during the winter in Boise and ran into an old outfitter/guide I knew who has been guiding on the Big Hole and Beaverhead River drainages for over 25 years. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the ups and downs of the watershed and how great the fishing had been in the last four or five years. Toward the end of my visit I asked him what his guides did during the winter and I was surprised to hear that most of them went back to their home waters. Of course the fishing season had been fantastic in that part of Montana, it was his home water. I found it odd that the majority of his guides went back to their home waters instead of staying where the action was.
When I first moved to Idaho you couldn’t get me off my local fly water. Later, after I learned the ins and outs of most of my local waters, I started to become obsessed with going to the famous rivers of the Northwest and fish these waters just like all the other fly anglers in America. I seemed to have lost touch with some of my own favorite water near my home, in other words, I had begun to take my own home waters for granted. It dawned on me that when I was out hoboing around the Northwest fishing blue ribbon water I often neglected my own home water when in conversations with other fly anglers I met on the water.
Taking your own home waters for granted is tantamount to taking poison, it’s a slow death. I now equate it to a fly angler who gets fixated with catching only large trout. Fly anglers like this get tunnel vision; their view of fly fishing is a small speck at the end of the tunnel. They miss out on all the peripheral activities that go on around the act of fly fishing that make the sport fantastic. These anglers view the act of fly fishing as the hunt for or the quest for the next big trout. Fortunately the lucky anglers who have been possessed with this demon become exorcised of the beast in time. However, there are great anglers that just prefer to chase large trout with small dry flies and find that simple pleasure enough.
Me, taking my home waters for granted was just like the big trout fixation; it came close to ruining me as a fly angler in all the bad ways. I was fortunate in that I was only inflicted for a season or two and I came to my senses late one season. I had spent the most part of the fishing season fishing at some of my old haunts in Montana and was simply exhausted from being on the road. A couple of my fishing buddies, who had access to a cabin in West Yellowstone, emailed me with an invitation to join them in fishing some of the area’s rivers. As I stated earlier I was pretty beat and just didn’t feel like another long road trip so early after returning from another. I thanked them for the invitation and politely declined.
Although I didn’t feel like driving across the state it didn’t mean I didn’t feel like fishing. On the contrary, I always feel like fishing and after a couple of days I decided to head up to the South Fork of the Payette River. The South Fork of the Payette River is around 45 minutes from my house and I consider it part of my home waters. The neat thing about the South Fork of the Payette River is its 50 miles of freestone river and it’s very close to home. I spent the day catching over thirty beautiful rainbows, saw absolutely no other fly angers and caught every single trout on a dry fly. What more could a fly fisherman hope for. I had just had the best day of fly fishing that season and it was only 45 minutes from home. On the drive home I just couldn’t get past the notion that I drive thousands of miles a year to Montana, Oregon, Idaho and who knows where just to fish blue ribbon water and a chance to dry fly fish to hungry trout. Here at home I have so close to my house some of the best trout fishing in the country.
Who’s the guy that coined the term Blue Ribbon Trout River or Five Star Trophy River anyway? It’s one of those age old questions that you can spend hours debating and still not be close to any answer. I know this; there is a little free stone river not more than two hours from my home. You have to travel on a rough ravel road 25 to 30 miles to get there but it’s traveling through some of the prettiest mountain scenery you’ve ever seen. The road to this little river runs parallel to the river for thirty miles and most of the access to the river is as easy as a cast from the road. The water runs gin clear through the best pocket water and pools that any angler would die for. It’s simply one of the best dry fly freestone rivers in the west.
When I’m not fishing this little gem you’ll find me swimming in its pools, relaxing in the natural hot springs or just simply enjoying the beauty that only a fly angler can appreciate. You won’t find any articles on this river in any fly fishing magazines or read about it in a fly fishing report found on the internet. There are no stars or clichés naming this river a destination for hungry fly anglers. What I can tell you is it’s my home water and I’ve yet to find another little river that’s even close to the quality of the fly fishing found there or the beauty that surrounds it. There are a quite a number of other rivers and streams around where I live that I’ve come to appreciate over the years. These are some of the places I have taken for granted in the past but I’ve learned the hard way to love them as the wonderful fisheries I call my home water.
I’m not giving up on fishing the big trout rivers in America, I’ve just been given a second chance to enjoy my home waters for what they are; the best trout water in America. So the next time one of my fly fishing buddies comes to visit me and I take him out fishing I will understand when he tells me that his home waters are the best trout water he’s ever fished.