MIDDLE FORK OF THE SALMON | TRIP REPORT
Shaun Lawson and Ian Davis from Yellow Dog traveled to Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness area to fish the Middle Fork of the Salmon River this past August. We met in Stanley, Idaho the night before the trip embarked down the river. We had an informative outfitter meeting this evening while the guides “deadheaded” (floated 20 miles from the top of the canyon to a meeting spot). This enabled them to navigate the class three and four rapids without the additional weight of the anglers and their gear, because the river flows were low. We then took a charter flight on our first morning to the Indian Creek boat launch and airstrip to meet up with the guides and boats. This flight was beautiful and only 25 minutes from the town of Stanley.
This is one of the most treasured multi-night camping float trips available anywhere in the western U.S. We floated and camped at designated sites for roughly 80 miles through an ancient granite rock canyon utilizing classic McKenzie-style drift boats. This fishery has been managed by the state of Idaho as a catch and release fishery since 1973, making it one of the best fisheries in the northwest for both numbers of fish and for consistently good action on a dry fly. If you are someone who loves to throw dry flies and are seeking a fully-outfitted, wild, multi-day float trip, then this trip is a must! We were honored to do this trip with Jeff Helfrich (the owner of Tight Lines Outfitters), who is a third generation outfitter, and currently runs the finest camp and fishing operation on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Jeff’s grandfather Prince Helfrich pioneered river running on the both the Rouge and Mackenzie rivers, and was one of the first guides to float the Middle Fork in the 1940s. (Having first discovered the river while seeking a good summer trout fishing destination to compliment his salmon and steelhead outfitting business.) Prince is enshrined in the Mackenzie River Driftboat Museum and is largely credited with the modern dory design.
When we started the trip the main river was off-color after a substantial rain during our arrival evening into Stanley. We feel it is always good during Yellow Dog visitations to experience the fishery when conditions are not ideal. Then we can easily establish realistic expectations for your trip with Yellow Dog. Many of the tributaries were clear and provided excellent small stream dry fly fishing, so we caught fish each day even through the main river was a bit high and dirty. The outfitter was able to change one of our camp sites, so could be right next to one of the best tributaries called Big Creek. The Middle Fork did clear after a few days and the fishing got much better. It is very rare to have so much rain in the summer months, and the Middle Fork does clear quickly.
We found this fishery to be very straight-forward as the conditions improved. Throw a big dry fly close to the bank and we regularly had fish eat our large dry flies. We caught pure-strain West Slope cutthroat, rainbows (believed to be juvenile wild steelhead), and a few cutbow hybrid trout. The average trout on the river is between 10 and 14 inches, and an 18-inch fish is a trophy for these waters. Since we had to cover between 15 and 20 river miles each day, the guides rowed aggressively to the best trout water, which usually consists of slower runs and pools that are typically found after the turbulent rapids. This is a strong option for beginners and families with younger anglers, and 20 to 40 fish days are not uncommon. The fish are not overly-picky, so high floating foam and heavily dressed dry flies and attractor patterns are the most popular fly designs. There is plenty of productive wade fishing water to hit during the course of your daily float and the guides are open to spending some time out of the boat and wade fishing.
The modern-day drift boat designs used throughout the U.S. West originated from the wooden McKenzie style boats used by this outfitter. These boats were developed in the 1940s by Woody Heinman with the help of Prince Helfrich, who is the grandfather of Jeff Helfrich (the outfitter of Tighlines Fishing). In fact, one of the guides personally built three of the beautiful wooden boats we fished from during the trip. Since the outfitter utilizes sweeper and swamp boats to haul all the gear and food between camps, the guide boats were very light and empty – ideal for holding in the most productive fish water, and for easily maneuvering the rapids. The swampers set up our tents and cots at each camp. A full kitchen and large dining table were set up each evening, allowing us to sit back, relax, or wade fish at each camp. The evening camp fires made for a great closing to each day.
All the meals were freshly prepared from scratch, which blew us away. The guides and swampers worked so well as a team that it was a form of entertainment each day for all the guests. Whether cooked over coals in a Dutch oven or slowly roasted over juniper coals on an open fire, all our meals were uniquely prepared and delicious. Appetizers, snacks and drinks were abundant and always available. Each morning we had fresh coffee, Dutch oven pastries and fresh fruit to compliment a hearty breakfast. Dinners ranged from seared ahi tuna to homemade Dutch oven lasagna. Big steaks, lamb chops and salmon are also some of the other main dishes we had at dinner each evening.
Just having the opportunity to float this wild and scenic river we felt is the real value of this wilderness trip. Non-anglers are welcomed, and there is a non-fishing rate available. The outfitter and guides are deeply knowledgeable of the history the area, the geology of the canyon, and the importance of protecting this resource. The Sheep Eater Native American tribes were indigenous to this territory and were one of the last wild, free-roaming tribes to capitulate to the military. We saw evidence of them in the stories of their pictographs that still remain vividly drawn on the canyon walls. The river itself carving through the decomposing ancient granite canyons provided a meditative and relaxing rhythm to our trip. Between the rugged landscapes, wildflowers, bighorn sheep, deer, river otters and the occasional mountain goats, the photography opportunities were endless. If you are a bird watching enthusiast, you have the opportunity to observe killdeer, ospreys, belted kingfishers, common mergansers, water ouzel, red tailed hawks, golden eagle, bald eagles, grouse, chukar and great horned owls. The entire river and most of the six tributaries offered easy hiking trails to stretch our legs. Three natural hot springs located on the river rejuvenated our souls and provided a hot rinse. We cannot convey to you how outstanding the guides and staff were on this trip.
There are only seven launch dates between early-June and mid-August, so booking well in advance is extremely important. All camp trips are five (5) nights with nearly six (6) full days on the water. Yellow Dog is hosting a group trip for next August 14 – 19, 2015. Please contact shaun [at] yellowdogflyfishing [dot] com for more information.