By Ian Davis of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures
In today’s hectic world, it is challenging to create quality time away from the distractions of “constant connectivity”. Much of our cherished vacation time is invaded by Wi-Fi access or the ever-growing, worldwide umbrella of cell phone coverage. No matter whether you are on a fishing focused trip, a romantic couples get-a-way, or a family vacation…..can we totally disconnect? Many jobs today require us to always be available and connected. It is difficult to justify a vacation that is totally “off the grid”. We can conjure up numerous excuses ranging from vital conference calls for work, board meetings, or simply checking in with family to always be connected. The fact is that we all need to “unplug” and enjoy how simple life used to be before smart phones overtook our downtime. We must schedule time to be free and 100% focus on the natural world. Fly-fishing is a wonderful way (or excuse) to submerge ourselves into nature and chase fish with our friends and family.
It might be time to book a trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River if all this sounds too familiar. Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness area and the Sawtooth Mountains is one of the most secluded and rugged regions in the lower 48, and there is no cell service or WI-FI access!
Class three and four rapids, abundant wildlife, and typically crystal-clear waters make this one of most treasured multi-night camping float trips available anywhere in the western U.S. On a typical Middle Fork trip you will float for roughly 100 miles over six days, through an ancient granite rock canyon utilizing classic McKenzie-style drift boats. This fishery has been managed by the state of Idaho as a catch and release fishery since 1973, making it one of the finest fisheries in the northwest for both numbers of fish and for consistently good action on a dry fly.
Tightlines Fishing and the owner Jeff Helfrich is a third-generation outfitter in the US West, and currently runs the finest camp and fishing operation on the Middle Fork. Jeff's grandfather Prince Helfrich pioneered river running on both the Rouge and Mackenzie rivers and was one of the first guides to float the Middle Fork in the 1940s. Having first discovered the river while seeking a good summer trout fishing destination to compliment his salmon and steelhead outfitting business. Prince is enshrined in the Mackenzie River Driftboat Museum and is largely credited with the modern dory design. You will find the traditional, hand-built wood boats aesthetically pleasing and very comfortable.
This adventure is much more than just a fishing trip. It might actually take a day or two to settle into life on the Middle Fork (especially if this is your first trip), but as the days pass you will flow into the cadence of the river. Life is sweet when you are being so well taken care of by some of the most caring, hard-working, and professional guides found anywhere in the world. The Tightlines crew works like an outfitting orchestra of efficiency, with a heavy undertone of fun. All the guides have decades of experience and an undying passion to show you the river. You will feel this pride in the workplace from the effortless, expertise of their rowing skills to the homemade, delicious meals. You can always read a guide by the level of their confidence, and the Tightlines crew knows you will enjoy your time on the water. The guides allow for your personal experience to unravel organically whether you are fishing or not, so that you may discover the wonders of the Middle Fork on your own terms.
The fishing is straight forward and will entertain the most experienced to novice angler. Pure-strain West Slope cutthroat, rainbows (believed to be juvenile wild steelhead), and a few cutbow hybrid trout await your high riding dry fly. There are bull trout, but they are illegal to target and sometimes are accidentally caught. Any variations of a foam stonefly, Chernobyl ant, or foam hopper will produce consistently for the trout. If you really want to increase your catch count, a dropper nymph in the mornings will keep your rod bent. After a big rapid, the McKenzie style drift boats are all bunched up, floating together like a train, and amazingly the caboose boat is still taking fish on dries. This is a truly resilient fishery. Three and four weight rods are perfect, and there is no need to use less than 3X tippet. If you have calm conditions a fiberglass rod is a pleasure to fish. You can feather smooth presentations into the seemingly endless runs, pockets, and pools where the eager trout hold. Setting the hook and fighting a feisty 15-inch cutty can felt all the way through the tapered fiberglass and into the cork grip.
The fishery is ideal for all skill levels. The guides are educationally focused and keep the fishing interesting for those new to the sport of fly-fishing. The fishery allows for consistent action, so mistakes are welcome and allow the guides to teach through “trial and error”. This is a rare attribute for today’s trout fisheries. Even someone who has never fished can be successful. The guides will teach the “refloat” presentation, which is basically letting line out and trolling a dry fly, and with occasional lifting of the rod to “refloat” the drift. This is a deadly tactic and even the most novice angler will quickly be rewarded. As we all know, kids often require constant stimulus and immediate gratification and the Middle Fork will keep’em busy.
Aside from the fishing guests love the scenery, rapids, wildlife, pictographs, hiking, hot springs, and guides intimate knowledge of the history, flora, and fauna. Often the hardest core anglers take a break from fishing to simply sit back and “take it all in”. The guides will teach the youngsters about the geology and history of the Frank Church Wilderness area, take them swimming, and have water guns for the heat of the day. Floating down the majestic Middle Fork is a soothing, meditative experience. You will feel rejuvenated after your time on the river.
The outfitter will handle all the rigorous aspects of the outfitting process. As the sun drops below the canyon walls, you will ease into camp to find everything already set-up. Appetizers will be laid out and cold drinks set up at the bar. Your tent will be set-up complete with a raised cot, inflatable bedroll, and your personal dry bags waiting for you. All the tents are spaced out with-in a pre-determined campsite. A vanity table with mirrors, a private tent bathroom, and a hot water shower (available every other day) will keep you clean and comfortable. The kitchen, dining area, and campfire are the social epi-centers around camp. The children are encouraged to help the guides with cooking and cleaning, so they learn about backcountry outfitting. The outfitter tries to choose campsites with good wade fishing around camp. There are numerous smaller tributaries that enter the Middle Fork that provide an excellent opportunity for small stream wade fishing. If there is a “plug” of off-colored water from rain the guides will focus on these side creeks. Typically, the river clears quickly when rain storms pass through.
The guides all have their specialty meals. Whether it is Dino’s lasagna or Roy’s fried chicken the meals are often the highlight of the trip. Each evening freshly prepared soups start off dinner and are followed up by main courses such as ribeye steaks, Cornish game hens, salmon, fried walleye, and pork and lamb chops which are all accompanied by fresh veggies and salads. The Dutch oven turns out freshly baked breads and casseroles. Breakfast consists of freshly cut fruit, Dutch over pastries, eggs, pancakes, and even eggs benedict. Lunches are picnic style made up of salads, sandwich meats, chips, fruit, snack bars, and plenty of cold beverages. Seda’s fresh salads are amazing.
The outfitter will customize a trip based on your specific needs and group size. If you have a large family and only a few hardcore anglers, you may float down the river in a combination of rafts and drift boats. Most anglers choose the drift boats, where two anglers sit in the front of the boat and switch off fishing. Having the anglers both in the front of the drift boat enables the guides to safely navigate the white-water rapids, and store gear in the stern. Groups of three to six people can share a raft and this will reduce the per-person cost of the trip. The sweeper (gear) boat rowed by the swamper (a camp rookie who sets up camp). This is a large raft with everyone's personal dry bags, all the tents, kitchen, and outfitting gear. Just experiencing the finely tuned outfitting process is entertaining in itself.
Booking with Trouts Fly Fishing who partner with Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures will ensure you are fishing during the peak time, your trip is customized, and your expectations are realistic. They will also arrange for your travel, overnight accommodations in Stanley, Idaho on your first night, and making sure you have all the right gear, tackle and fishing equipment for this epic excursion. While this trip is not for everyone, it is an experience that most guests rebook immediately. It is imperative to book well-in-advance since space is limited and so sought after. We suggest booking at least 12 months out!