“That’s a big-fish cast,” guide Jim Santa said as my fly landed on the far side of the creek just shy of the willows lining the bank. The fly caught the current, drifted through the ripples into the shade, swirled once and flowed under the overhanging bush in the deep water. “Whoa. There’s gotta be a fish there. Put it back there again.”
I recast and landed the fly in the same spot, watched it run with the current in the shade, under the willows and through the deep water again. But no strike.
“People say they catch fish but only small ones, and I tell them they’ve got to put the fly where the big fish are. That cast was right where the big fish are,” Jim mused, as I couldn’t tempt a trout to rise to the fly.
“I’m pretty good,” he continued, “but I couldn’t make a better cast than that.”
That, of course, was music to my ears, even though I suspected that he said the same thing to everyone.
We were fishing Wild Horse Creek, a quintessential Idaho trout stream in Copper Basin in Challis National Forest 26 miles north of Sun Valley. Jim was leading me and three of my best friends through a morning of fly-fishing that promised lots of contemplation and — we hoped — a few fish.
I’m not an avid fly-fisherman. I don’t have the gear, the box of intricately tied flies arranged in rows like museum specimens. When I fish at home I still use the $10 fly rod I bought more than 30 years ago after good buddy Lee showed me why fly-fishing was more fun (and usually more productive) than spinner or bait fishing. In a good year I fish maybe three days, and I usually spend more time pulling my flies out of trees and shrubs than tempting trout, but today I had Jim Santa to tell me how to do it.
“When I was an eight-year-old in Duluth I cycled to Amity Creek as often as I could,” Jim said when I asked how long he’d been guiding. “That’s where I learned to read water. I guess I’ve been guiding here since about 1997. I majored in ‘Steelhead Fishing’ at UMD and minored in Accounting.”
For me being here was a last-minute decision to join a mini-reunion of my Dartmouth pals — the only impediments being the usual ones of time and money — and in the high mountain sunshine I couldn’t have been happier that I’d come. There were bragging rights, after all, to be fought for.
Lee and George had their own gear, everything they needed to both look the part and entice trout to strike. Dave and I needed everything from Jim and Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters in Sun Valley. Dressed in waders, rigged up with a Parachute Adams fly on the line, Dave and I were ready to join Lee and George as we fished upstream.
Idaho is legendary country for fly-fishing. The snowmelt streams that flow out of the high-desert mountains and cut through the valleys are loaded with trout and have drawn avid fishermen (and fisherwomen) for decades. Names like Big Wood, Silver Creek, Big Lost, and Trail Creek get the blood flowing, not to mention such renowned rivers as the Salmon and Snake. Fishing here is as good as it gets.
“We’ll just pick and move,” Jim said, fishing a pocket here, a riffle there, leapfrogging each other so we’d all get a chance to hit different stretches of the stream first. The river was shallow enough to easily cross back and forth to fish the deep water in the bends.
It didn’t take me long to get my baptism. I was feeling my way across the stream in calf-deep water when I lifted a foot to step over a boulder. The fast-flowing river wasted no time in pushing that raised foot downstream, pivoting me on my one solid foot and planting me nearly on my face. Lucky for me I caught my fall and kept the water out of my waders, but I was otherwise soaked.
The good thing about being out of sight of your fishing buddies at times like this is they don’t see your pratfalls. The bad thing, though, is when you do catch a fish, no one will believe you unless you produce some evidence.
About 30 minutes later, after having got my bearings and made my way upstream, I cast into a ripple glistening in the sun. I felt a sharp tug, pulled the line to set the hook or see if it was a trick of the current, and sure enough I had a fish on. He pulled like mad, as strong a fight as I’ve ever felt with a fly-rod, this way and that across the stream, downstream and up, and when I finally saw him he was a nice big guy with a broad head, bigger than any trout I’d ever caught.
I got him to the streambank but wasn’t sure how to land him without a net, and since we were catching and releasing I didn’t want to keep him out of the water long, but I had to have some proof. So I managed to get him next to my boot, pull my camera out of a dry box and snap a shot. A moment later, fly extracted, he was swimming again. And I’d caught the first fish of the day.
But as often happens when fishing, the day was more about the practice of fishing than the actual catching of fish. The stream bubbled over the stones, cutting a sinuous path marked by green willows through the valley. Sage ran to the brown mountains, casting its earthy kitchen-spice scent everywhere. A songbird atop a willow protected its territory or simply enthused about the happy existence it had here, repeating its call over and over much like I repeated my casts and tracked the fly over the clear water.
Jim stopped by and gave me just the right amount of advice: “see the line dragging you under, get the tip up a little”; “you’ve got too much line out, if you cast and hit the bush, then you know, reel some in”; “see that bubble line, that’s a good spot”; “hit that pocket”; “fish the green water.”
“This pool’s loaded with fish,” he said, but it was his hole now.
George and Dave got skunked, but the experience of the winding stream, sharp-toothed mountains, pale sky, and no sounds other than the breeze and the stream and the birds brought enough satisfaction.
As for bragging rights, well, they weren’t much. Based on the photo of the size 11 boot next to my trout, Jim guessed he was about 16 inches. “But every day it’ll grow two inches!”