By Tom Claycomb III
The outdoors is my passion. I love bowhunting for elk and stalking black bears in the spring, but to me, fly fishing in the backcountry is the ultimate outdoor experience! What’s not to like? You’re in beautiful country, catching plenty of fish and you may not see but a couple of people.
To pack into the backcountry, you have two options; backpack in or ride a horse. Packing in on horses, I feel, is the best because you can take more amenities. Here in Idaho, the smaller rivers don’t open until Memorial Day weekend. It doesn’t really matter though, because you can’t get up into the high country until late June/early July anyway. And just because you can get in doesn’t mean that the rivers are fishable because the runoff is still going pretty good, so I don’t start packing in until July 10th. The rivers are too deep, fast, and not usually manageable until then.
I remember one particular year, some family members wanted to come out backpacking. Due to schedules they could only come on June 4th. I told them it was a month too early, but we’d try it. Driving in, we found ourselves breaking through occasional snowdrifts, but nothing terrible. We parked at the trailhead and took off.
After hiking for about an hour it started drizzling as we passed the first flat spot. There wasn’t another spot to camp for four miles, so we decided to throw a camp and let it blow over. By the time we got set up it was snowing/raining pretty hard. We whipped out a wet dinner and went to bed.
The next morning, it hadn’t blown over. In fact it had set in. We had to get out fast. By now everything was soaked and twice as heavy and by the time we got up to the truck we were wet and cold. We then had a 29 mile mountain drive. I didn’t know if we were going to make it or not because by now there were some good drifts. I hugged the downhill side of the road and on the uphill side the drifts were so high they were hitting my left head light.
Another time, I backpacked in for 5-days by myself. It’d been a dry summer and we’d been having a lot of fires. Driving up I passed four fires. I hit the trailhead, threw on my pack and took off down the trail. A big fire could be seen over the ridge. I got to my spot and threw up a camp and fished until dark, and netted a lot of fish.
The next morning, I woke up shortly after daylight, dipped a pot of water out of the river and fired up a pot of coffee. By now, the fire had moved closer and I couldn’t make out trees 500 yards away. Oh well, time to go fishing. I threw on my daypack and took out downstream.
I fished hard all day and then hiked back to camp. I built a fire, dipped the coffee pot in the river and flopped down in my Therm-a-Rest backpacking chair for a minute. I don’t want to be a whiner, but I hate squatting in the dirt when I’m eating.
I ate a Mountain House backpacking meal and dessert and then decided to do a little relaxing. Suddenly I noticed that now I couldn’t make out trees 100 yards away. Uggh, I probably ought to leave, but I sure didn’t feel like packing up and hiking out in the dark after fishing for 12 hours.
But, what if the fire topped the ridge in the middle of the night? If the wind whipped up it’d blow over me before I even knew it was coming. I could jump in the river, but the fire would suck all the oxygen out of the air and scorch my lungs. I didn’t want to leave. I had four more days to fish and had been getting some nice cutthroats. Finally I decided that I’d better leave and survive to fish another day.
One year I packed in, set up camp and was slaughtering the trout. I don’t know how many I caught. I thought I’d go to bed and get up early and hit it hard the next morning. Right as I crawled into my sleeping bag it started raining. It poured all night while I slept like a baby. The next morning, I got up and whipped up breakfast and hit the trail. Not far downstream, a big tributary runs into the main river. There’d been a huge mudslide up the tributary that had blown out my river.
This forced me to fish upstream. I caught a lot of fish and had a good time, but as you can see, high mountain fishing can be unpredictable and things can turn south fast. BUT, when you hit it right, it’s almost magical. Now let’s talk about some awesome trips.
One year a kid that had never fly fished (Patrick Goodman) wanted to go with me. The second week of August found us backpacking in to one of my favorite spots. We threw up a tent and then jumped to the first hole.
Wow, the bull trout were stacked like firewood. I don’t know if they had come upstream to spawn or eat salmon eggs. To fish these deeper holes we used bead headed black wooly buggers. To get to the bottom we added one or two 1/64 ounce bullet head weights which cast a lot better than split shot or match stick weights.
In a bit he screams, “I’ve got him”! I looked over and about died. He had hung a huge fish. I told him to try to keep him in the hole, but don’t hoss him too much or he’ll snap off. I couldn’t believe how well he was fighting him, much less for a first time fly fisherman. He was right at the confluence of an incoming stream, so it was a tough hole to fish with that on one side and brush on the other.
Pretty soon he had him worn down on the other side of the stream. I told Patrick to hold on. I climbed up higher and studied the situation. Finally I said, “Ok, he’s holding up straight across from you, but I think that your line is actually wrapped around that big boulder 6-feet behind him. I can’t guarantee you that this will work, but here’s what you’re going to have to do. Give your rod a pretty good tug – not too hard or he’ll snap off, but hard enough to turn his head. When you do, the current will catch his head and hopefully it will turn him and roll him back behind the rock. While that is happening make sure to keep the line tight”.
I said, “Are you ready”? Patrick’s reply was a sheepish, “I think so”. He pulled perfectly and sure enough, the big hog rolled out and was tired out, so he didn’t flush out of the hole. Patrick fought him perfectly and soon had him almost within reach. I waded out and was about to net him. He was at a standstill right in front of me. Suddenly he scooted out and the line snapped. Argghhh – He was right there!
Patrick said, “Oh no, what’d I do wrong”? I told him not one thing. He did it perfect. The line had to have been almost sliced through due to him being hung on the rock and finally snapped when he took off. We both sat down and caught our breath. Wow, what a trip. I saw the big bull trout perfectly and he was a good 30-inches.
We had a whole roll of 19-24 inch fish on a Kodak throw-away camera, but somewhere in one of our rodeos it fell in the river and couldn’t be developed. The lady at the film shop threw the flag and said yeah right. Not only did the fish get away, but so did the pictures. I now carry a waterproof digital camera, of course.
Ok, so you’re sold on a backcountry fly fishing trip. How do you do it? The lowest cost option will be to throw on a backpack and hike in and set up a camp. I’ll set up camp and then throw on a daypack and hike downstream and fish back to camp.
When backpacking you want to remember a couple of things. Volume and weight are a big deal. So due to this, in most cases, I no longer take waders. Although they’re not too heavy, they take up a lot of room. I wear nylon cargo pants that dry out fast when I step out of the river.
I go back and forth on wading boots. They’re heavy and bulky, but you need them to walk around in slippery rivers. I also like to take some good river sandals, but wading in and out of rivers and hiking down trails I always get sand under the straps and they eat up my feet. Which brings up another important point – I always take along an Adventure Medical Kits moleskin or Band-Aids.
Of course, your fly rod selection will depend on the waters you will be fishing and the fish you will be going after, but I usually take a 9 ½-foot 5 wt. 4-pc rod. Always take two in case you snap a tip. On small creeks you could rationalize a little 7 ½-foot 3 wt. rod and sometimes I do. I only pack in one reel. A lot of people take a compact sized box, but I always take my whole fly vest. I always think that I need 5,000 flies and all of the accessories, but it is bulky.
For fly selection go to your local Sportsman’s Warehouse and ask them what flies they suggest using in that locale, but elk hair caddis are always a good choice. Then of course some bead headed nymphs.
Are the trips hard? Sure. Are they worth it? Heck yes! If you try to do a day hike into the backcountry, you’ll probably want to hike out by 6:30pm, so you’re not hiking out in the dark, but if you have backpacked in you can fish late and hit the evening hatch which is in the late, late afternoon. Sometimes these trips are not best for youngsters because they can be physically demanding. But on the other side of the coin it amazes me when my little, skinny 110 pound soaking wet daughter is skipping 50 yards down the trail in front of me, periodically looking back and asking, “Dad, are you ok”?
Backcountry fly fishing with my daughter, that’s the ultimate. We hike in and have the world to ourselves. What’s cooler than that? The only requirement is to make sure that I pack along the essentials to make S’mores or we’ll have panic in the disco.
At dusk, we’ll eat dinner, sit around the fire making S’mores and watch the bats feeding on mosquitos and then the stars. We’ll doze off sitting by the fire and finally groggily stumble to our tents for the night.
Another fun option is to hire a guide to pack you in for a drop-off trip. Although your bottom-line for the trip will increase, it may not be as much as you would expect and can be a very good way to ‘learn the ropes’, so to speak, from a professional. One summer we hired a guide to pack us in 14 miles on horses and drop us off. He came back in a week to get us. That was a blast. We only saw one other guy during the trip and he was just packing through.
But, now we’ve run out of room to talk about high mountain lake fishing which can also be addicting. These fish don’t have a very long growing season, so when they light up it can be red-hot. Maybe I can talk my editor, Kent Danjanovich into letting me write a High Mountain Lake article next.
And a little now from the safety side of things. Make sure that everyone packs pistols. One time my daughter woke me up and whispered, “Daddy, I think there’s a bear rubbing against our tent”. A month later I had another bear about a foot from my tent. There are just too many wolves, bears and cougars around not to carry a pistol. A .357 mag. is the minimum size, but I favor a .44 mag. Carry two HKS speedloaders just in case.
One last note: Don’t expect someone to tell you where their secret spot is. It always amazes me how someone moves to Idaho and expects me to tell them exactly where to go hunting or fly fishing. Grab a Forest Service map and take out exploring. Have fun!