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Hidden Gems of the Middle Fork

Salmon River, Idaho
By Bill Bruchak - March 8th, 2004

The first time I saw the Middle Fork Country in Central Idaho, I felt like it was going to swallow me up. Not in an intimidating way, but with that sense of becoming part of the country itself. I still get that same feeling when I round the last turn in the road and drop down toward Boundary Creek. The sound of moving water calms me, and even more so in the remoteness of a wilderness area. From the time I was a young boy, learning to fish the streams of Northeastern Pennsylvania with my grandfather, the spell and lure of moving water has drawn me. The magic then is just as strong now as a professional whitewater and fishing guide in Idaho.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River flows through Central Idaho between the boundaries of the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. In 1968, the Middle Fork was one of the eight original rivers to receive the designation of Wild and Scenic by the US Congress, which created the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The Middle Fork is synonymous with whitewater boating-rafting, kayaking, drift boating-and is one of the most sought-after trips in the West.

Not so widely known, is the Middle Fork's reputation for being a topnotch trout fishery. Because this is a catch-and-release river, Cutthroat, also known as Redsides, live in great abundance. When the water level is right, the fishing will rival any in the West.


 

Reading the River

Running the rapids of the Middle Fork and fishing the waters can be rewarding and challenging. Knowing how to read whitewater and reading the currents as you follow the drift of your favorite fly go hand in hand.

A successful run of the Middle Fork's rapids takes skill and a basic knowledge of rowing techniques. The degree of difficulty and the course you choose will change as the water level of the river changes. The Middle Fork has no dams, and the flows are directly related to the amount of winter snowfall and the rate the snowpack melts as spring arrives.

On an average year, the Middle Fork's flow peaks around late May to mid-June, and then drops as the summer progresses. Fishing starts to pick up as the river level drops and the clarity of the water increases. Keeping this in mind, I've created a guide to running the rapids and exploring the best fishing spots as river levels drop to four feet and lower.

Whether you are running the challenging whitewater or fishing for that elusive trout, reading the water and the currents is an important and subtle skill that can take years to master. But common sense, a little experience, and some useful tips will get you on the water:

  • The speed/velocity of the current is usually faster and stronger on the outside of a turn or bend in the river. If you are unsure of which course to take and need a little more time to think, stay to the inside of the turn where the water flows a bit slower.
  • An eddy is water flowing upstream behind a rock or other obstacle or on the downstream side of protrusions from the shoreline. This water can be calm and often provide a safe place to get out of the current. In some cases, however, the water can flow upstream with as much speed as the downstream current.
  • Before getting on the water, make a plan. You should have plan A, B, and C in mind before entering a rapid. And if you have any doubts about what you are getting into, stop and scout the rapid first. The best way to get into trouble on a rapid is to not have your plan in place, hesitate, or change your mind in the middle of a rapid.
  • Water that has come in contact with an obstruction in its path-a rock or a wall-is called a cushion or a pillow. The flow of the current cannot pass over or through the obstruction so the flow of the current is forced back and to the side. This is tricky water to read, but knowing how to use a cushion can mean the difference between a good or not so good run.
  • Guard rocks are exposed or partially submerged rocks that prevent you from maneuvering (making a cut) in a desired directions.
  • Practice ferrying maneuvers until you are proficient. Ferry angles are used when attempting to maneuver across the current. Maneuvering the boat across a current requires getting the angle and the timing right for the move. Once you enter a rapid, holding the ferry angle can be difficult, and many boaters end up loosing their angle and rowing upstream, which greatly reduces your ability to move across the current.

Tips for Snagging the Big One

If you know the direction and flow of the current, you will know which direction your boat will go and your favorite fly, nymph, or streamer. When your fly line deviates from the natural flow of the current, you can bet there is a trout responsible for the deviation.

Trout like to eat, but they don't like to work for their food. They prefer to hang out in the calmer waters of an eddy, facing the oncoming current and watching for tender morsels to float by. As your line approaches the eddy, be ready for a strike.

Side streams and creeks bring in additional nutrients. Where there is more food, there will likely be more fish.

Trout do not like sunlight or the sandy bottom of the river floor. When you fish, look for a dark bottom that is in a shady area. A fly drifting along a sunny shoreline may lure a strike as it crosses into the shade of a nearby tree. Try fishing early or late in the day. If you are fishing midday, concentrate on the shady spots.

Big trout don't get that way from being dumb. You will inevitably find the biggest trout where the approach is most difficult-along an overhanging cliff, under a dead tree in the middle of the river, or where the currents make it almost impossible to make a good presentation. Persevere, because that is where the big ones hang out.

To catch a trout, you have to think like a trout. Not only do you need to know what trout are feeding on, but why. Considering the following when selecting flies:

  • The time of year and time of day
  • The speed and clarity of the water
  • Is a hatch occurring?
  • Past history-what fly has worked well in the past and why
  • Weather conditions
  • Do you want to work the surface, fish at a medium depth, or go deep?
  • What's working for the locals?

Sources: Twin River Anglers 534 Thain Road Lewiston, Idaho 83501 208 746-8946

McCoy's Fly Shop P.O. Box 210 Stanley, Idaho 83278 208 774-3377

Once you hook up, don't play the fish any longer than necessary. By the time you get a fish within arm's reach, its exhausted. Wet your hands before touching a fish and remember, the less you handle it, the more likely it's going to survive. Use single barbless hooks, and carry a pair of forceps. To remove the hook, hold the fish by the lower jaw with a thumb and index finger of one hand and remove the fly with a pair of forceps with the other hand. I don't recommend using a net, and I do recommend not taking the fish out of the water. If the fish seems lethargic after releasing it, gently move it back and forth in the current until it is revived.

Be careful not to transmit Whirling Disease from contaminated water to a healthy stream or river.


 

Basic Equipment

Personal Flotation Device (PFDs or Lifejackets). You must wear a PFD whenever you are on the water. It's a matter of survival. Your PFD must fit you properly and meet the requirements of the local governing agency. The Forest Service governs the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Boats. A self-bailing raft, cataraft, or drift boat is ideal for Middle Fork. All of these craft are highly maneuverable for both whitewater and fishing. Depending on your skill level and needs, a 12- to 16-foot-long boat should work.

Fishing rods. I find the Winston graphite–9 feet, 6 weight, 5-piece rod–durable and versatile for both big rivers and smaller side streams.

Rain Jackets & Pants. Good rain gear is as important as a PFD. Sunglasses. Whether you are trying to cut the glare on the water as you enter a rapidor follow the movement of a trout, good sunglasses are a must. Get a pair that are polarized with both UVA and UVB.

Waders. When wearing waders, keep the following in mind. Neoprene waders will provide you with added floatation if you end up taking a swim. If you are fishing from the shoreline, be aware of the surrounding terrain, the depth of the water, and the speed of the current. Don't let the fish at the end of the line distract you from your footing.


 

Selecting a Rapid

The following selection of rapids from the Middle Fork of the Salmon River by no means features the biggest or the most difficult, but they certainly deserve attention. From the Boundary Creek boat launch to Pistol Creek, the Middle Fork drops approximately 40 feet per mile. In higher water flows, that stretch can feel like one continuous rapid. From the moment you pull out of the Boundary Creek eddy, you must pay attention. If you are not familiar with the river, you can quickly become disoriented. I've seen a lot of people get into trouble with this top stretch, and that is why I chose the following six rapids.

Remember, no matter how familiar you are with the Middle Fork and its rapids, there are plenty of variables. A run you made at low or medium flows on a previous trip may not be the run of choice at higher flows. Rapids can change over a long period of time or they can change rapidly. Logjams and strainers can appear or move to different locations anytime.

The Forest Service's personnel at Boundary Creek and Indian Creek is a good source of information on the current condition of the river. Consult with them before setting out. Remember that on a river you must have good judgment, good equipment, and the skill to use both.

Murph's Hole

Location: Approximately 1 mile below Boundary Creek

The Scout: Scout this rapid before you launch by hiking down along the trail on the left side of the river. Fast currents and back eddies move you swiftly downstream making it difficult to stop and scout the rapid once you shove off from the boat launch.

The Approach: About 100 yards above Murph's Hole, a rock island splits the channel. Stay to the right of the island. Notice as you approach the lower end of the island, that the river makes a hard bend to the left. Two guard rocks on the left prevent you from making a cut to the left side of Murph's Hole until the last possible moment.

The Run: Murphs' Hole can be run to either the left or the right sides of the hole. Choose which side you want to run before you get to the bottom of the rock island so that you can set up to make the move. The run to the left is a little more difficult because of the guard rocks and the last minute timing of the cut. The run to the right is a little more disconcerting because you can't really see the run until you are dropping into the right of the hole. You have to commit to the far right edge of the hole (literally next to the right shore) and push through.

Caution: Boaters have trouble with Murph's Hole for two reasons:

  1. Boaters are unaware that the hole is coming up. The hole is not obvious until you drop in.
  2. Boaters are late in making the move either to the left or to the right of the hole and end up dropping in sideways.

First time encounters with Murph's Hole range from "Wow, what was that!" from those who've successfully passed through, and "Oh shit!" from those who didn't.

Fishing: On the downstream side of Murph's Hole there is an eddy that makes for some good fishing.

Note: The lower the flow, the easier Murph's Hole is to run.

Sulphur Slide

Location: Approximately 2.5 miles below Boundary Creek, immediately below Gardell's Hole.

The Scout: There is a relatively easy pull-in for scouting this rapid. Pull in at a small eddy on the left bank. You'll see a few dead trees there. A trail runs along the bank and around the corner. Another trail goes up to the top of a flat bench (about 40 feet above the river), which overlooks the entire rapid. This overlook is the best vantage point.

The Approach: The river turns sharply to the left. The rapid is not visible until you are dropping into the top section. Gardell's Hole forms a large eddy on the right. On the approach, stay close to the left shoreline.

The Run: I recommend running the slot just to the left of center. After entering, work to the right side of the large boulder that is in the middle of the river. Up next is a large wave in the center of the rapid. Keep the boat straight when running the wave, and then start working your way to the left side of the rock island at the bottom.

Caution:

  1. Don't get to far right on the entry.
  2. Square up for the ledge wave in the middle. 3. Stay to the left of the rock island at the bottom.

Fishing: There is good fishing in the eddy at Gardell's Hole, especially along the gravel bar at the top of the eddy and where the small side stream empties into the river just above the rapid on the right side.

Note: Sulphur Slide is a long rapid with a blind approach. Scouting is highly recommended.

Velvet Falls

Location: Approximately 5.1 miles below Boundary Creek.

The Scout: The scout pull-in is approximately 3 mile above the rapid on the left side of the river. Look for a small eddy as soon as you get through Hell's Half Mile. The scout trails runs along the left bank and through a couple of springs. The trail can be muddy and slick.

The Approach: The approach to Velvet Falls takes you through a Class II rapid. This small rapid muffles the sound of Velvet Falls and occupies you with the task of avoiding rocks. Look for these two good landmarks: Velvet Creek running into the river from the right, and a large, exposed boulder on the left. Velvet Falls is located 20 feet below these two landmarks.

The Run: A ledge of granodiorite, which extends almost all the way across the river, forms Velvet Falls. Run Velvet Falls either to the right center of the ledge or to the far left of the ledge. The right center run has a slot, or soft spot, at 4 feet wide in the ledge wave. Because of a sudden drop at 8 feet, the slot isn't visible until you are dropping into the falls. The left run misses the falls to the left of the ledge.

Caution:

  1. If you do the right center slot run, scouting the rapid is highly recommended.
  2. If you do the left run, stay to the left right next to the boulder. As you make the move, continue to pull left until you are past the ledge and falls.

Fishing: There is good fishing along the right wall at 30 yards below the falls.

Note:

  1. At higher flows a channel may open up to the left of the large boulder.
  2. Most boaters who have difficulty at Velvet Falls are not aware that the falls are approaching.

The Chutes

Location: Approximately 8 miles below Boundary Creek about 1 mile below Trail Flat Hot Springs.

The Scout: Pull-in for the scout at the Trail Flat Hot Springs and then hike the trail down to the rapid.

The Approach: After passing Trail Flat Hot Springs look for a big sweeping, left-hand turn in the river. Stay to the left as you go into the turn.

The Run: The right side of the river is choked off with rocks and logs. Stay to the left, avoiding the rock in the channel entrance. In higher flows there's a series of big waves here. Keep the boat straight. In lower flows, the waves become holes and pour-over rocks, which requires more maneuvering.

Caution:

  1. Don't get hung up on the right (outside of the turn) as you make your entry.
  2. Stay in the left channel as you run the rapid.

Fishing: There is good fishing below the rapid on both sides of the river.

Note: 1. Scout the rapid at lower flows.

  • There is a long shallow section immediately below the Chutes and above Elkhorn Creek. At lower flows, stay to the right.

Powerhouse Rapids

Location: The left bank is the best place to scout the rapid. This bank is a fast water pull-in along a rocky shoreline about 100 yards above the rapid. About 40 yards up a talus slope, a trail runs parallel with the river. Walk downstream along this trail to find the best vantage points for checking out the run.

The Approach: After passing Elkhorn Bar Camp, there's approximately 3 miles of Class I water to float through. Catch your breath here from all the hard rowing, but don't get complacent. As you approach Powerhouse, look for a large talus slope on the left side of the river. The slope marks the scout pull-in point and the rapid that lies just ahead.

The Run: Powerhouse Rapids are close to 1 mile long. Break this stretch into three parts.

  1. Enter just to the right of center and work to the right. There is a log structure on the right bank. This is the Powerhouse.
  2. After floating by the Powerhouse, start working back toward the left center of the river. The next obstacle to avoid is a rock island in the center of the river. Go to the left of the rock island.
  3. After passing the rock island work back to the right side of the river. Look for a big wave or hole below the rock island. Keep the boat straight for the wave. Immediately after running through the wave, row to the left to avoid the rock wall on the bottom right.

Caution: The run at Powerhouse is long and tricky. As you make the entry, you won't be able to see the entire run. Scouting is well worth your while, especially if you haven't seen the Powerhouse before. Avoiding the wall at the bottom right is the toughest move.

Fishing: If you still have some composure left, the eddy on the left at the bottom of the rapid is good for fishing. The water just below the wall on the right should produce a fish or two.

Note: During higher flows, it is possible to run farther to the left at the bottom of the rapid, making it a bit easier to avoid the wall on the bottom right.

Pistol Creek Rapids

Location: Approximately 21.5 miles below Boundary Creek.

The Scout: The scout is approximately 1 mile above Pistol Creek Rapids on the right side of the river. The small camp located here is called Quick Stop. The river bends to the left, and the pull-in is difficult. The eddy at Quick Stop is small and fast and located immediately below a rock wall. To make the pull into the eddy, you must break through a lateral wave that comes off the bottom end of the wall. The scout trail starts on the bank on the downstream end of the eddy. An easy hike a half-mile downstream provides a great vantage point to view the rapid.

The Approach: There is a trail along the river on the right approximately 1.5 miles below Cannon Creek Rapids. The eddy at Quick Stop is coming up. If you miss the pull-in for the scout, you might be able to make the right bank about another 100 yards downstream. If you miss that pull-in, get ready to run Pistol.

The Run: The run at Pistol is difficult to diagram and difficult to describe. As you enter, stay to the right to avoid a shallow gravel bar in the middle of the river. Up next, in the middle of the river, is a hole with a recycling wave on the downstream side. The hole has a cushion or pillow on the upstream side. The cushion will take the boat to the left side of the hole. Aim the boat for the left center of the hole and let the cushion take you to the left. It's important to keep the bow of the boat pointed into the cushion. To the left of the hole is a large, surging whirlpool. Don't get caught in the whirlpool. Keep the bow of the boat pointed downstream in order to ride a current line between the large hole and the surging whirlpool.

Caution: 1. Stay to the right of the shallow gravel bar as you enter.

  1. Once past the shallow gravel bar, let your boat drift toward the left center.
  2. Ride the cushion off of the hole. Don't pull toward the left.
  3. Keep your bow pointed into the cushion wave.

Fishing: Immediately below the rapid is a crystal=clear pool (the gin pool). Also, Pistol Creek runs in on the left. Try fishing the mouth.

Note: Pistol Creek Rapids is a challenge at any water level. Scouting is recommended. During higher flows, whirlpools and boils can be unpredictable.


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