Prospecting the Overlooked &
Underrated for Backcountry Cutthroat
by Brad Trumbo
As gray dust billowed in the wake of my Tundra, my mood immediately began to lift. I never look forward to the five-hour drive, but forty miles beyond pavement’s end is a quiet campsite alongside a river flowing rich with Idaho gold. Each year, (baring extreme wildfire danger) my fishing buddy Chas Kyger and I head into the Idaho backcountry to fish a Blue-Ribbon stream for west-slope cutthroat. Pulling into camp alongside his Tundra, I rolled out of mine with renewed eagerness to wet a fly. (Yes, we both have Tundras. Cute, eh?) Upon the requisite stretch and post-drive small-talk, I hastily popped up my tent, made a rudimentary bed, and set out to fish into darkness.
The sun sets early in the deep canyons of the Idaho wilderness; the opulent evening glow casting an amber hue upon the considerable granite outcrops and emerald pools below. Rugged ridges and peaks reach skyward looming over the river, defying its brazen attempts to break free of their control. Diminutive yellow stoneflies flitter sparsely through the cooling evening air. The evergreen scent of western cedar and grand fir hung pleasantly.
The angling pressure was picking up as it was late in the week and the fish were feeling it. I typically fish western fly gear here, but my suspicions of the angling pressure led me to reach for my tenkara rod right off the bat. I wanted the ability to present a flawless drift in the hard-to-reach waters overlooked by others. The rod I brought was one I “built” for steelhead at twelve feet, rated 8:2. The build consisted of the graphite tenkara blank, a cork grip, a winding check on the front end of the grip, all from Tenkara Customs. I added some simple, decorative red wrap to the winding check and slapped a Silver Creek Outfitter logo on it. Much simpler than a western rod with guides, but also less room for frills like feather inlays. Anyhow, I wanted to get a feel for the rod’s capabilities before trying some tactical nymphing for big fish this coming winter.
My first rise came on a voluptuous, blonde elk hair caddis. A scrappy fourteen-inch cutty pounced with conviction, almost with vengeance, and put a sweet bend in the top third of the heavy tenkara. As the evening wore on and rises became few, we scoured the drainage in search of sunlit reaches. The bite tends to wane as the mountains force the river into the evening shadows. East-west oriented carry daylight and fish activity a little longer into the evening.
Our final reach of the evening was a boulder-strewn field of pocket water with a few small runs that have produced well for us in the past. I switched to a behemoth of a foam bug called a “Chubby Chernobyl” to draw some attention. Sizing up a large eddy formed behind a car-sized boulder melding into a soft run with deep, swift flanks, I could envision where the fish were lying. Gently laying the Chubby along the flow seam between the eddy and the sweep around the river-right side of the boulder invoked an explosion of ferocity resulting in a firm hookset deep in the corner of a sixteen-inch cutthroat maxillary. Playing the fish to net, my admiration of the profound lateral reddening painted against the thick gold, speckled body and the blaze orange under-jaw cuts lit a fire of anxiety in anticipation of the next catch. The fish returned softly from the net into the cold, clear water. I volleyed another cast in the same general vicinity, the size-8 Chubby immediately met with a repeat performance. It simply couldn’t get any better than this before dark. Completely at peace, I broke down the rod and slogged for the rig.
Back at camp, we roasted brats and zucchini from the garden in a foil pack over the fire, shared a beer or two, and laid plans for the next day. We hit the sack hard. Sleep came quickly with the care-free satisfaction of being immersed in the cutthroat fishery of my dreams. The dull roar of the river lulling in the background and temperatures cooling into the low 50s, Fahrenheit. But good slumber can never last and I found myself startled awake in the wee hours by the crash of a beer bottle against the ground. An odd rustling followed. Aluminum foil against rock; a scavenger having its way with our discarded zucchini packet. Raking my hands across my tent wall sent the critter fleeing hurriedly; thus, relinquishing its identity as a whitetail deer, blowing alarmed in the distance. A scavenging deer was a first for me, and apparently a good omen.
The following morning, we awoke to find the fishing pressure was double what we expected. The tempting holes and seductive runs enticed all wielding a fly rod. We managed to find our way into some choice reaches, but with lackluster results. We quickly learned to judge the skills of fellow anglers as we inevitably fished our way up behind others at every bend. When the fishing seemed slow, our predecessors had merely flogged the water into submission with little to show. When there were no fish to be had, we knew we were either right on their heels or following a fly fishing veteran. We gave it our best dawn to dusk and managed to do ok, but far from the epic potential the river has lived up to in the past. Regardless, all findings supported my initial hypothesis: seek unpressured habitat.
Marginal water has ambiguous meaning in reference to the river margins or edges, as well as in reference to what some would call insignificant habitat. Those areas less than optimal in which to wet a fly, but not necessarily for fish. Anglers are always drawn to optimal habitat because they know fish are there, and likely a lot of them. You don’t need to be a scientist or greatly experienced to look at a river and want to fish the “good” water. But what many fail to comprehend is the quality of what literally occurs on or appears to be marginal habitat.
The next morning, Chas and I parted ways. I embarked on a long run winding through a boulder field with a high volume of randomly scattered, deep pocket water. It was deep and fast enough with small enough pockets to deter 99% of other anglers. Jackpot! Using the length advantage of the tenkara rod, I began with Chubby, reaching out and dead-drifting or hovering the fly over pockets the size of a living room coffee table. Nearly every pocket produced a small to medium-sized rainbow or cutthroat, leaping, cartwheeling to capture such a fulfilling meal.
Based on the eagerness of the fish to accost the fly, the run had clearly not been fished. I continued for hours hopping from pocket to pocket, fishing up to a glorious hole cut beneath a solid granite protrusion. The river widened, trickling in at the head of the pool with a perfectly sloped substrate and a variety of flow seams. I was certain someone had been there before me, but the tenkara rod again gave me an advantage.
Working to the head of the pool, I dropped the Chubby into the riffle and dead-drifted it back into deep water; the long rod allowing me to avoid line drag from conflicting flows. The sun was now high, shining intensely on the water. Blinding glints erupted from the broken surface. The Chubby cast a large, black shadow on the shallow substrate, no doubt flaunting with audacity overhead the cutthroat lying in wait. Two sixteen-inch fish fought over the fly on the first drift. When one of them finally won the tussle, I broke it off clean. Realizing that I was using 6X tippet and was fresh out of Chubbies, I tied on a length of 5X tippet and returned to the size-8 golden-body, blonde elk hair caddis.
The next drift was identical. The caddis bobbed ever deeper into the head of the pool. As the depth increased and water color depend from seafoam to emerald green, the fly was promptly engulfed. A respectable seventeen-inch cutty porpoised up behind the fly, taking it deeply. Although a heavy rod, the seventeen-inch cutthroat bent deeper into the backbone than I anticipated. I was cautious, nursing the fish in, sure not to over-pressure the tippet. Playing bigger fish with a tenkara rod is surreal. As if frozen in time and space, the cutthroat thrashed against the rod to the rhythm of the flow. It hung and throbbed in place for what seemed an eternity before finally relinquishing to the shallows where it reluctantly slithered into the net and lay softly cradled.
This particular fish both peaked and satisfied my cutthroat desires. Marveling at the firm musculature and delicately flaked scaling inspired awe and I released the beauty to hopefully grow through another season. Either no one had been at this particular pool that morning, or they were unable to present the fly acceptably. Either way, it was to my advantage.
Pressing forth, working the fast water across the head of the pool produced several more fish in the mid-teens before collectively becoming educated. With smug satisfaction, I turned upstream in search of pocket water yet again. Another dead-drift through a massive boulder eddy flanked by whitewater turned up another cutthroat, only this fish likely broke twenty inches. Alas, my smugness melted with a smile as I whiffed on the biggest fish of the trip, pulling the fly promptly from its clasp before it had an opportunity to turn into the hook. Vanishing into the green slick, it never took a second look.
By this time the air temperature was creeping into the high 90s, and again, fishing simply couldn’t get any better. Deciding to call a siesta, I turned back for camp. Fishing the pockets tenkara style presented the most effective way to cover the tumultuous habitat, particularly in the presence of what I would call significant angling pressure. I used the tenkara rod to its full advantage, extending the fly into the mid-channel pockets and dead-drifting big dries across flow seams with cool control. For summer and fall cutthroat fly patterns, go big or go home. Who doesn’t love to fish a big dry?
Fishing pressure be damned, I got what I came for. Solitary fishing on a gorgeous river filthy with cutthroat and laying waste to them on the fly. Fighting my desire to follow in the other angler’s footsteps by falling victim to the temptation of prime waters led me to far better fishing with the tenkara rod than was possible otherwise. This was my first trip to this river with a tenkara rod, which ended one of the best in memory.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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