Dream fishing trip comes true in Idaho

You plan, you do the research, you have expectations, but until you find yourself on the way to a new adventure it’s sometimes hard to fully grasp the depth of the experience you are about to have. And as we stood at the edge of the gravel runway on the bluff above Stanley, Idaho, the adventure my wife Tami and I were about to embark on suddenly became real. Along with several friends we had booked a six-day, five-night fishing trip on Idaho’s famous Middle Fork of the Salmon River and in just a few movements we would finally be on the way to our river put-in.

From Stanley to the Forest Service landing strip at Indian Creek on “Middle Fork” takes about 35 minutes, flies over some incredibly rugged but beautiful territory and is an adventure in its own right. Lifting off from Stanley, our twin-engine Gulf Stream banked west at the base of the magnificent Saw Tooth Mountains. Gaining altitude we pass over the 8,000-foot edges of the Stanley Basin. All the time flying among towering mountain peaks. We then dropped into the upper canyon of the Middle Fork Salmon River, flying above the river for a time. Deep into the heart of the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. First designated as the “River of No Return Wilderness” in 1980, it was later changed to the Frank Church River of no Return Wilderness a couple of years later. Church was an Idaho Senator, without whose persistence the set aside may have never happened. 

The wilderness is also of great cultural significance to the several Native American tribes that once inhabited the region and to many of their modern-day descendants. It contains hundreds of ancient religious and other gathering sites, ancient petroglyphs and other artifacts that are now also protected within the wilderness boundaries. The ancients believed it to be the place where life began and the Native American people indigenous to what is now central Idaho tell a wonderful story about how the Middle Fork of the Salmon was created and it goes something like this. … “It happened one day when a curious coyote accidentally tipped over Mother Nature’s basket of life. First the river came rushing out of the basket, then on the water the fish swam out of the basket, the salmon, steelhead, trout and the eels. Then the big-horned sheep, the elk, the deer, the bear and all the other wildlife that live in the Middle Fork canyon came pouring out of Mother Nature’s basket too. As all the water and life from Mother Nature’s basket rushed down the canyon, the coyote worried that Mother Nature would punish him. In a panic the coyote ran down the canyon trying to dam the flow of nature but the water and all the life was too much and broke through his dams. Creating the many rapids and canyons that are now among the many features of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River …”

The land is mountainous, steep and water streams and tumbles from far above you as you float along, perpetually adding to the river’s flow. That grew from about 1,200 cfs at the start of our trip, to about 3,000 cfs at the trip’s end. Also at over 6,500 feet the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River it is the third-deepest river canyon in the country, even deeper than the Grand Canyon. From our short flight you could see that it is a land of desolation, solitude and as we will soon realize, it is among the most beautiful places Tami and I had ever had the opportunity to travel to. 

Once we touched down at Indian Creek our party was greeted by our outfitter Jeff Helfrich and his crew of knowledgeable and experienced guides. The crew had actually floated their boats down from an upriver landing that is accessible by vehicle the day before, to meet use at the roadless Indian Creek airstrip and guard station. Lightly loaded and minus passengers they navigate a section of river in their drift boats and sweep boats that would not be possible if fully loaded with customers and their gear. All to meet their fly-in party and all their personal gear at Indian Creek. Logistically, everything to this point had worked as planned and set the stage for the balance of a very well conducted wilderness campout and fishing trip. 

The trout fishing on the Middle Fork Salmon is entirely catch-and-release but was even better than I had imagined it would be. West slope cutthroats dominate the summer fishery, they are aggressive and rise willingly to a variety of larger hopper-style dry flies. Rainbow trout are also present but in much lower numbers and are likely the offspring of steelhead that didn’t migrate to the ocean as smolts. I’m certain that there are times of the season when the fish can be finicky but that wasn’t the conditions or fishery we found in mid-July. As we floated comfortably down river in McKenzie River drift boats, the perfect platform to cast from, we caught and released dozens of cutthroats and a few rainbows every day. We had come to fly fish for the wild cutthroats and rainbow trout that populate the crystal-clear river water and I can’t overly state how great the fishing was. But finding ourselves in all the wonder fishing quickly became a small part of what was a much larger and ever-growing experience that only reveals itself the farther you drift into the wilderness of the Middle Fork canyon. 

It was a campout trip, here again if you had only come to camp on the banks of the Middle Fork Salmon River, the grandness of the campsites’ views would fill your memories. After fishing all day we would arrive at our next campsite to find our tents all set with cots and sleep pads, a shower facility and other facilities for your comfort and convenience. Let me add that every camp was wonderfully positioned to enhance the campout experience, kept tidy by Helfrich’s extremely professional crew and as welcoming as going to mom’s and dad’s house for dinner. All the meals, cooked on an open fire or on a camp stove and were incredible examples of old style packer/river guide foods. Included two-inch steaks, fried chicken, pancakes, bacon and eggs … Dutch-oven biscuits and cakes!

I’ll post more about this wonderful Idaho fishing trip on my Facebook Page “Sunrise In The Outdoors.” I’ll have more photos, a link to the outfitter, a complete itinerary of the trip and other information that will be useful in the event I have stirred your curiosity with this short narrative.

On a personal note … As one adventure began, another adventure came to an end. Just before departing on what was a wonderful trip, my relationship with KDUN Radio came to an end. I did 112 shows for KDUN, met some very wonderful people but the station was struggling to grow a niche on the Oregon coast and made several programming changes that did not include your reporter. Thank you to everyone who tuned in.



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