Fly Fishing for trout on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

fly fishing drift boat Fishing with Bill Bernt on the Salmon River

 Fly fishing trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Most Idaho fly fishing trips offer a few hours of fishing, but on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, through the River of No Return Wilderness Area, fishing time is measured in days.  The Middle Fork is a wilderness river, one hundred miles between road accesses.  A typical float lasts six days.  While many of our customers are primarily interested in a wilderness whitewater trip, or fishing as an incidental activity, we can provide a fishing focus and improve fly fishing success by using light, more manueverable, two-passenger McKenzie River drift boats or small inflatable boats. Since fishing boats leave camp as soon as breakfast is finished, instead of waiting for the camp crew to load, and stay out on the river until the camp crew has the camp set up, we also spend more hours on the river each day than conventional rafts.

The classic Middle Fork Salmon River fly fishing trip uses McKenzie River drift boats.  These boats have been used since the beginning of floating on the Middle Fork in the late 30s, brought over by Oregon guides.   These boats are light and maneuverable, providing maximum fishing opportunity from the boat as we drift downstream.  McKenzie boats were developed to fish in fast water.  We can hold in eddies to give you time to work a seam, position you to drift to a rock, reach water that is unavailable to a raft normally loaded.  They are very responsive, comfortable–and fragile.  Because they only carry two passengers and no camp gear, they cost more to operate.

Inflatable boats, both conventional and cataraft styles, are often equipped with knee braces, etc, to facilitate fly fishing. If kept light, they are nearly as nimble as a McKenzie, more forgiving of the occasional bumped rock, and can be flown into a river-side airstrip during low-water conditions. They are functional, but they are not as comfortable, convenient, or as dry in white water as a McKenzie. If you drop your scissors in an inflatable, they are in the bilge under a tube or the bottom of the river. An unexpected wave can wash unsecured tackle over the side, while that is much less likely in a McKenzie. And there is something special about a McKenzie River drift boat in fast water.

Middle Fork fly fishing is primarily for west-slope cut-throat trout.  This is a relatively high elevation stream with a short growing season, in a granite drainage, with many months of cold water.  Mature cut-throat trout typically are 12-15 inches, and rarely exceed that length.  There are also a lot of steelhead smolts, about 7-8 inches, resembling small rainbow trout.  There are occasional mature, native, rainbows similar in size to the cut-throat.  If you fish deep, you may catch bull trout (formerly called Dolly Varden), especially with spinners.  We seldom take them on top with dry flies.

While fish aren’t huge, numbers are good.  Thirty to forty fish per day per boat is a reasonable expectation when fishing from drift boats.  With good fishing and good fishermen, that can be doubled.  Fishing is catch-and-release.

There is usually not a great deal of surface activity by trout on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Occasionally on the upper river there will be very heavy caddis hatches, but still not a lot of fish working the surface. There are salmon fly hatches, but not of the scale of the southwest Montana streams. Later in the summer there is a lot of grasshopper activity. The Middle Fork provides good dry-fly opportunity, with fish being not especially particular. Matching fly to particular emerging insects is not a major issue. Common patterns are elk-hair caddis, parachute adams, stimulators, grasshoppers, and humpies–but many flies will work just fine. I mostly use a simple elkhair caddis, size 8, with a red body. Some people scoff at that as being old-fashioned and obsolete, but if fishing is slow the situation is rarely improved by a different pattern. For fishermen who can handle a dropper, adding a beadhead (copper john, pheasant tail, etc.) can be very effective. It can also be a pain in the neck (literally) if casting skill is a little rough–may be more trouble than it is worth.

I have always been more concerned about placement of the fly than pattern.

Tournament-distance casting is not necessary if the boatman does his job. A moderate length but accurate cast is all that is needed. Wind is usually not an issue on the Middle Fork. A five-weight rod works very well. A heavier rod can get tiring after a long day. Usual fishing water includes eddy lines, cushions above rocks, and next to cliffs.

Trout fishing on the Middle Fork of the Salmon is primarily a summer activity, typically July-August-September, after the river level drops from the peak of run-off in mid June.

Learn about the Best time to Fly Fish

fly fishing Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon River

Aggipah River Trips provides knowledgeable Idaho fishing guides

Not all river companies are particularly interested in fishing. With some outfitters, unless arrangements are made for a fishing-focused trip, you may be on your own, fishing from camp or from a loaded inflatable boat as you float in mid-stream. Your boatman may be a fisherman, or may not know a fly from a spinner. Other outfitters are totally focused on fishing.  While many Aggipah clients do not fish, we can provide special fishing boats, and help fishermen on larger boats.  Aggipah fishing guides often provide fly casting lessons for those who are interested.

Often our McKenzie fishermen are couples.  If one of the partners has limited fly fishing experience, boatmen will help with casting technique.  A week-long trip in a drift bot on the Middle Fork will sharpen anyone’s fishing skills, and particularly a person just getting started.  Sometimes a family group will arrange for a fishing boat or two on a trip, and take turns.

Fishing the Middle Fork of the Salmon from a drift boat, camping on the river bank each night, is one of the most memorable, classic Idaho fishing trips.  A pitfall is that a person easily becomes so absorbed by the fishing that the beauty of a mile-deep canyon passes by unnoticed.

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