The Bruneau River – Mike Sandifer

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The Bruneau River

Joyful Catch on the Bruneau River

Many years ago, on a hunch, I drove to the Bruneau River for a day of discovery and fly fishing.  When I arrived that early Spring day the river was a tad high but the day was sunny and warm for that time of year and the parking lot was devoid of cars like the parking lot of liquor store on a Sunday morning.  I had stopped at a market in the small town of Bruneau Idaho to ask for directions on how to get to the river.  The young woman gave me an obligatory route for me to drive this dirt road to this cross road, open this gate and open another gate, drive down the road and keep going to the road ends.  After numerous attempts to find such road and wondering whether or not I was on a private road opening a private gate I managed to end up at the end of a road anyway.  I felt a little uneasy about where I ended up until I found a sign indicating that I was now on a Wildlife Management Area. 

I wasn’t too sure where the Bruneau River was, this was before the internet and Google Maps. However I could see a tree line off in the distance and figured that was as good as any place to start looking.  There were no trails to follow just open grassland to cross that I hoped would end up at a river.  The sheer beauty of my surroundings made the trip from Boise worthwhile.  As I walked through a quarter of a mile of tall clump grass about thigh high into what looked like a wall of thicket and trees I couldn’t help but think somewhere in this beauty lies a trout river.  There was no other human activity or even humans about but there in the thicket I would share my day with deer, bald eagles, squirrels and an abundance of birds all singing and flying about.  When I broke through the thickets of various bushes and trees I stood in reverence at the winding beauty of the Bruneau River.

As far as I could see upriver and downriver the river was empty of other intruding anglers and only an occasional muskrat and returning mallard ducks made the river seem alive.  My experience with the Bruneau River up to now had been up river with occasional fights with small Smallmouth Bass.  I reached down to the river with my hand to wet it and feel for the temperature and found the river to be cold which was good for I was hoping to find some migrating Rainbow trout coming from CJ Strike Reservoir.  I had planned this trip a couple of months prior, planning on being on the river just into Spring but just short of the annual Spring runoff that will swell the river bank to bank with its dark stained water.  The river was flowing clear and cold and as I walked the bank hoping to find any sign of trout, I wondered if there were any trout in the river.  There certainly were no trout rising or feeding nor did I see or scare any kind of fish.  Well I’m here and I came here to fly fish so I might as well start the task was my thought as I began to choose the right nymphs for the job.

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Bruneau’s Bank

Most folks who live in Idaho and I’m pretty sure folks that live outside of Idaho know very little about the Bruneau River or nothing at all about the river.  Local folks who make their living along its banks like the rivers anonymous reputation.  The Bruneau River begins its journey to the Snake River Drainage in the Owyhee River mountains in Southern Idaho.  The Bruneau River is formed farther south near the Idaho Nevada border in the Bruneau Jawbridge Wilderness area of the Owyhee Mountains, a roadless area known for its ruggedness.  The confluence of the Bruneau River and the Jawbridge River form the Bruneau River which then flows west to the Snake River.  The Bruneau River supports the farms and ranches that make up the Bruneau corridor as it flows just south of the town of Bruneau with its water irrigating their fields.  It’s a quiet and unassuming river for most urban fly fisherman of the Treasure and Magic Valley areas of Southwest Idaho.  The middle part of the Bruneau River, unlike the upper and lower, is known more for its Smallmouth Bass than for its trout.

My first recollection of the Bruneau River was back in the late Nineties while I was driving South on Hwy 51 heading to Nevada.  Slowing down to thirty five miles an hour through the lazy community of Bruneau and before I knew it I was crossing the Bruneau River and immediately started wondering where this river came from.  Sometime later I did a little research with an old fashioned map and was amazed at how wild the river looked from a map.  I went a little further in my research and found actual humans who knew the area and had fished the river.  The reports back to me were it was a great river full of smallmouth bass and a few trout.  Not exactly what I was looking for.  At the time I was more of a traditional cold mountain water trout guy.  However I did manage to make a couple of short trips to the river as a quick side visit while on my way to somewhere else and did in fact pick up a few smallmouth bass and an odd trout.  Pretty much like the old timers told me and just enough to get my interest up.  I was unable to find anyone in my small circle of fly fishing friends who had any experience on the river and what little information they had was pretty much what I already had learned.  The only way to find the information I was looking for was for me to actually go to the town of Bruneau and find out.

With my chosen flies now attached to my leader I starred at the long tailout before me.  I had walked upriver a couple of hundred yards before deciding on the long riffle before me.  My thoughts were if there were any trout in this river they would be right here in this section.  Hell’s bells, if I were a trout in the Bruneau River I would be laying right in front of me on the back seam.  So that’s where my first cast went.  My drifting nymphs bounced and moved the length of the section I was fishing without a bump.  The next eight cast resulted in the same.  My thoughts began to drift towards the hope that I might, if I’m lucky, pick up a bass or two while my dreams of trout slowly faded.  Moving slightly up the tailout about ten feet I began the process of drifting my nymphs again when with a violent jerk my rod suddenly bent double with a mighty pull as I thought I was onto a nice smallmouth bass. A second or two past as the mighty smallmouth made a massive attempt to free himself by jumping into the air while its tail seemed to walk on the surface.  That’s when my jaw went slack and my eyes became wider as before my eyes this monster smallmouth bass that I thought I hooked turned into a massive twenty inch rainbow trout!

This pig took me the length of the tailout fighting every inch of the way in its fight to free itself from its attachment to me.  When I finally brought him to hand I was able to view the beautiful bright red rainbow that streaked across the length of its body and the massive jaw of a large male that had made the river its home for many years.  I wish I could tell you that all the trout I caught that day were just a big but the truth is there are just as many if not more smaller trout in the ten to fourteen inch range in the river but it is quite common to land quite a few large trout during a day on the Bruneau.  It’s also a good sign of a healthy river to find small trout mixed in with larger trout living through out a river system like the Bruneau.  It is not uncommon on a good day fly fishing the Bruneau River for you to land more large trout than smaller trout. Most of the trout I caught that wonderful day where in the back portions of tailouts, long compressed riffles slowly calming down to a deep section of the river.  Towards the end of my first day on the Bruneau River, while I was resting on shore  contemplating leaving for home, I saw my first trout rise.  Yep this ditch had rising trout in it and upon further investigation I found Blue Winged Olive Mayflies beginning to float down the river only to be gulped up by small trout finning in the riffles.

It’s not a long drive home from the Bruneau River (About an hour) but on this particular day it seemed like the drive home lasted only minutes.  All I thought about on that drive home was the day I had just experienced on the Bruneau River.  I was amazed by many things that day.  I was amazed by the beautiful countryside, amazed by the wild trout I had battled, amazed by the uniqueness of the Bruneau River unlike most rivers in Idaho and last I was amazed by the total lack of anglers visiting the river that day.  Before I knew it I was driving down the grade into Boise, my home only minutes away.  Unfortunately  or fortunately depending on your view this was a time before the internet, smart phones and emails so I didn’t take any pictures nor did I tell any of my friends about my adventures that day, I just kept it to myself. 

From the little town of Bruneau or downstream from the Hwy bridge, the Bruneau River is mostly a trout river and one you should become familiar with.  On this section, the river will continues to be convoluted in its course, creating nice compressions that hold trout with every turn of the river. The river is easy to read, the trout will be holed up in the obvious holding water and not in the obvious sections where trout would not be found.  Depending on the water levels the river is easy to crisscross from one side to the other making good position in the river easy to attain.

The Bruneau River is a different kind of river than what most Idaho fly fishers are used to.  It’s not made up of large boulders or rock strewn river bottoms.  The river through the Bruneau corridor does not flow through deep canyons but rather flat farm land.  There are not too many streams or creeks to swell its banks.  Instead the Bruneau River section that we fish is convoluted as it winds its way through cottonwood, russian olives and popular groves with willow thickets lining its banks. There are large gravel banks where the river makes it twists and turns giving the fly fisher good casting opportunities.  The river bottom is a heavy gravel bottom, unlike the violent slippery rock bottom that most of us are used to, making wading the river easy and a delight.  The river winds its way through farmland and the Wild Life Management area before emptying itself into the Bruneau Arm section of CJ Strike Reservoir on the Snake River.  The best time of the year to fly fish the Bruneau River is in the spring just as the snow melts but before the spring runoff.  It is good again in the  fall when the water temperatures go down and the Blue Winged Olive Mayflies and the Winter Midges return to the river.  In the fall the water flows are consistently low and the weather is warm.

I recently returned to the Bruneau River this time in the late fall.  All the conditions where perfect, warm weather and broken clouds revealing the warmth of the sun and the muted colors of late fall that lend themselves to a beauty all of their own.  This time the parking lot where I parked was full of cars and trucks.  For this is the time of the year for the hunter.  On this Wildlife Management Area duck hunting and upland game hunting is king.  Along with me, there was one other lone angler stringing up his fly rod up by his truck and across the open field another angler  returning to his vehicle with his dinner of trout hanging on a  stringer.  The bright green and olive colors of spring had given way to brown and tan colors of stump grass that made walking to the river a delight.  Sure enough the view opened up to the river and there is no doubt in my mind all these years later that I would soon be onto a fighting trout.

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My choice of tactics today was the streamer.  I have learned over the years that the Bruneau river trout will take all forms of flies: dry flies, nymphs and streamers.  Today I’ve chosen streamers for the menu for my daily clientele of rainbow trout.  These trout, who vary in size from average to large, prefer a smaller streamer than what I’m used to throwing.  A size 10 or size 12 does the trick on most trips here.  The technique I employ on the river is three fold.  I like to cast my bug upriver, quickly mending my line downriver and swimming the streamer head on through the run.  Another tactic I use is the standard across river using my rod tip to add movement to the streamer and as the streamer tightens up with drag, jerk in home.  The last technique I like to use is to simply cast the bug across the river downriver from me and strip the streamer back.  All of these techniques have done well on the Bruneau and I use each one equally depending on the river.

The first section of the river I chose to fish today yielded three nice fourteen inch rainbows and one small ten incher in the course of about a half hour.  When I finished working this stretch of river I began looking down river for the next good section, smiling because I know the next section will probably be as good as the one section I just finished fishing.  I’m smiling because I know the fishing will be this good for the rest of the day and I take a big breath hoping time will slow down so I can take in each second.  However the last half hour felt like only five minutes.  Being is a “Zone” is a wonderful place to be in when fishing.  The only bad part about being in a “Zone” is time just seems to fly past.  Next thing I know it’s lunch time and I feel like I’ve only been here an hour even though it’s been well over three hours.  Lunch is in the daypack over by my  other rod leaning up against a small tree.  Inside is a small bit to eat and a thermos of coffee.  My mornings fishing session is discussed with my buddy as we share our successes and our plan to finish our fishing session on the Bruneau later in the afternoon. 

The sun is still warm and we have yet to encounter any other angler, however it is still early and the chances are good that we’ll run into others like ourselves out on a beautiful Fall day ripping lips and wading rivers.  The afternoon is a replay of our morning with the exception of a nice Midge hatch around two in the afternoon.  The streamer fishing has been so good that neither my partner nor I feel the need to switch to the small size 22 cream Midges.  As I watch small rainbow trout sip these tiny bugs I can feel my fly rod jerk with the power of another large fourteen inch bow on it so all I can do is chuckle and fight him in amongst the small parade of feeding rainbows.  Today is a day when trout fishing just becomes lazy and the end result means little to the gift that the day has given you.  Trout or no trout it’s been one of those days I’ll look back on during the winter and smile.