Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fishing the Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness (2009)

25 June – 6 August 2009


In Kuwait I can do all the running I please (or in the summer all that I can handle in the brutal heat), but opportunities for other pursuits, like fishing, are somewhat limited. Since I cannot make new fishing memories for a few more months, I will have to suffice with revisiting older ones. The summer after I left active duty in the Army my father and three friends from high school went on an epic fishing trip in northern Idaho.

The region we chose was roughly around the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness. There is something about that which just sounds epic, although we did not go down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River*. As with most wilderness areas out west, this one was vast enough that we never lacked for opportunities even though we did not hit this wilderness’ namesake.

"FCRONRWildernes Map" by USFS - US Forest Service

Johnson Creek / South Fork of the Salmon

We started our trip on the small Johnson Creek. I cannot say why we picked it from among the many choices other than you have to start somewhere.

Doing some planing at the Trout Creek Campground

Trout Creek Campground (44.747209°, -115.555123°) is about 3.5 hours from Boise. While there is no special gold-medal water right nearby, there is a wealth of small, lightly-fished streams. The first day we checked out various stretches of Johnson Creek and caught a few nice bows in the 8-12 inch range. The upper stretches of the Johnson Creek were nice meadow areas and produced nice brookies for one night’s supper.

Justin fishes a nice hole on Johnson Creek

Another day Justin and I hiked about 1.5 miles over a ridge to check out the Roaring Lakes (44.743020°, -115.632186°). We parked along Fire Road 467 just south of Trout Creek Camp. We took a pretty but indirect route in an attempt to follow a fire road. On the way back we went a little more directly. If the goings tough all around, straight is sometimes best.

View of the first Roaring Lake from the ridgeline
We each caught a 12-14” rainbow. Although the fishing to effort ratio was a bit off, the views were reasonable compensation.

Roaring Lake 'bow
We also tried out Summit Lake (44.646942°, -115.590025°)  and the South Fork of the Salmon. Both of these were slow. We did however get to see some of the zombie-like salmon that had made it all the way through Washington State and were the definition of spawned-out with chunks of flesh hanging off as they skished across three-inch deep ripples on their relentless journey. We also tried the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River (It’s like Idaho ran out of people to name rivers after). Here we teased up some nice cutthroats with simulators.

Jeremy tries his luck on Summit Lake

Big Creek

On the way to our next base camp we stopped for lunch at the town of Yellow Pine. Yellow Pine is the modern-day definition of a one-horse town – an image that they clung to fiercely. The main drag of town was a dirt road with two restaurants / bars, a hotel, post office and store. Gas could be purchased there for $5/gallon if you could track down the owner to turn on the pump. The town’s claim to fame was its annual harmonica festival in early August.

Yellow Pine makes Nederland, CO look like the big city
This place looks legit. Lunchtime it is.

We set up camp (45.161452°, -115.250760°) and went right to Big Creek that afternoon and caught our first bull trout. Big Creek was entirely in the Frank Church Wilderness. This was nice because it meant no four-wheelers on the path that followed the stream and thus that every fishing spot not on a road had to be earned on foot. Big Creek was particularly attractive because it had a trail that went along its entire 35-mile length to where it dumped into one of the middle fork of the Salmon River. We never got to explore more that the first five miles. A great fishing trip would be to get flown to one end and hike the entire length of the river. I am sure that the middle sections receive little pressure.

Kyle tried a nice deep hole on Big Creek
The bull trout were quite amazing the next day. Both Kyle and my father hooked into ones that fought for over a half-hour. They both had to be released because the bull trout are somewhat threatened and while you can fish for them you are advised to not fish them to exhaustion.

Nice bull trout, bub
The best way we found to fish for the bull trout was to put on a heavy cone-headed streamer (a nice black marabou streamer with rubber legs was our favorite), let the current drag it down and around in the hole and then give it a few strips up. While not the most glamorous method of fly fishing, it produced some big bull trout.

Soldier Lakes

Dun broke the net with that cutthroat
We used the town of Stanley, Idaho to refit and then made our way up to the Soldier Lakes. We set up our base camp at Josephus Lake (44.548668°, -115.143078°) and did one overnight and a day trip up into the lakes. Because this drainage does not have spawning salmon you can keep some of the numerous cutthroats.

The ponds seem to fall into three main categories. There are the very shallow ones which appeared to get winter killed and were almost devoid of life. Then there were the mostly shallow ones with some deep pockets. These had lots of logs and cover along the shore and lots of 8-10” cutts visible and swimming along the shore. Then there were the deep lakes that fished a little slow, but seemed to have the monsters.

Taking a rest between the lakes

We checked out 1st Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant, Captain and Cutthroat Lakes. 1st LT lake was somewhat shallow from the shore and you could see the fish swimming around. Captain Lake was a bit deeper and held the biggest fish of the day. We camped along Cutthroat Lake that night. We took cutthroats in the evening and morning that were rising to our parachute adams flies. On the way out we fished Staff Sergeant Lake where Kyle and Jeremy caught a couple of 20+ inch cutthroats.

Soldier Lakes Cutthroat

Travel, Navigating and Getting Around

We primarily used the Idaho Delorme ($20) and US Forest Service Maps ($10 / map). There was another Delorme-style map, Benchmark Idaho Road & Recreation Atlas. This one had a different color scheme and was a little more cluttered than the Delorme, but in one or two maps that I looked at it did have a little more information in one or two spots – but not significantly different. The US Forest Service maps were very nice waterproof, 1:100,000 topo maps with 1mi grid squares (they did have GPS ticks on the edges, but these were not very user friendly for plotting points in the middle as the ticks did not line up with the grid square lines). They clearly showed forest service boundaries, private land and campsites. The campsite key listed the amenities at each campsite.

The other thing that we did that was nice was to plot the lakes (and points on the streams) on Google Earth and then transferred them to our GPS. My father and I used the Rhino 530HCx GPS. They double as walkie talkies and you can sent your location to each other (as long as you have line of site). An alternative would be to use some of the new GPS aps for your smarthphone. I have been using Backcountry Navigator and really liking it. I used these way points to hike into a few ponds that were off the trails.


Large patches of the Frank Church Wilderness where we were had been burned. This could be a little soul crushing at times, but there were still ample green areas. Bush-whacking was generally easy with the exception of the burned out sections (where blow downs could be tough slogs). For us two miles is the most I would consider bush-whacking through to get to a pond, and even that could be rough. We could generally make about a mile and hour. The elevation changes are physically demanding, but doable. We were generally between 5000 and 9000 feet.


Late July through early August was a great travel time. We had one day of rain (the last day) with every other day being sunny or partially cloudy. We had one or two passing rain showers that lasted 5 minutes but the rain on the last day came through with brief quickness and fury when it did come. Temperatures in the mountains were high 30’s to low 40’s at night and into the 70’s and 80’s during the day. Humidity was generally almost non-existent.

Fishing Regs

Much of the fishing regs are based on protecting the runs of salmon and steelhead. But if we wanted to eat we could generally find the brookies in the higher sections of the streams and these, are well, less desirable fish out west with a limit of 25 fish (and not included in catch-n-release trout regs). Many higher ponds allowed you to keep a cutthroat or two which we did for dinner once or twice.


We generally stuck to car camping with one day overnight hiking trip. If I return though I am definitely going to do some longer backpacking trips. While waders were temping in the cooler hours of the morning I mostly abandoned mine after the first few days and wet waded for majority of the trip. I found a pair of neoprene socks and my wading boots worked just fine. For longer hikes I used a backpack to put my waders, chest pack, net and rod into. The net is definitely worth hiking in as some of these ponds produced some 18-20 inch cuts and both my father and friend hooked into bull trout that needed nets.

I used a five weight rod which was good enough to chuck big streamers but delicate enough for some smaller streams. For bull trout you definitely want a sinking tip spool and some heavy streamers. Kyle did just fine with a three-weight. Anything bigger than a six-weight would be overkill for most of the situations we fished.


A promising omen while we were packing our gear in the hotel
There were some massive blue wing olive hatches in some of the ponds and lots of stonefly casings. For dries I liked size 14-16 grey parachute adams and grey or white 14-16 caddis flies. Stimulators (with or without rubber legs) were always good as a searcher fly. Tan hoppers were good in meadow stretches. For bull trout we liked big cone-headed black muddler-style streamers. A brown woolly bugger also caught a few nice cuts up in the mountain ponds. Scuds came highly recommended in one book and I caught a few on these as well.

Cutthroat Lake at sunset. Fish were rising everywhere.
* The canyons and current of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River make it rather difficult to access for several miles – hence when you go into the canyon you are rather committed (hence the “no return”). 

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