Sunday, January 31, 2016

One Cup Land, Two Cups Water, Sprinkle in Trout and Enjoy.

     Last spring I came to realize a lifelong goal of owning a piece of land in the mountains. It was the culmination of a decade of searching, and two years haggling and diplomacy. I owe much to my aunt who shares in part the same dream and who also provided an impressive down payment which sealed the deal on the property. The land has everything I want, solitude, wildlife and endless possibility. When I am not walking it's meadows or exploring it's forested borders I am thinking about it. In idle times, at night or early in the morning, my mind races with ideas for the land. I've pondered things like building an outhouse, bridges, tipis, and a dock.  My ideas of altering the property, ironically called "improving the land," contradict my own desire to preserve the wilderness which is why I love the retreat in the first place. It is a strange tug-of-war we humans play with creatures and wild places do to our yearning to enhance or tame our surroundings. 
   This is a fly fishing blog however which leads me to how I found the land in the first place. I was fishing of course. I like to think it was fishing that brought the land and I together. Here is a bit on how that happened.
              Experience has taught me that the best place to find fish is where there is water.  I say that tongue-in-cheek but in southern Idaho it is best to do a bit of research before going fishing. More than once I've driven two hours to little known reservoirs that fished well in the 1980s only to find them bone dry. Aside from research another way to eek out a little success in fly fishing for trout in southern Idaho is to fish early in the season. By early I mean January, February and March. I use the snow line as a gauge and try to hit my favorite lakes just as they thaw and stream when they are just at the melt line. There are plenty of trout to catch on the Snake, Payette and Boise river drainage in winter. These simple tricks help mitigate against reservoir and stream dry socket if you are willing to risk the weather. 

   As luck would have it these strategies lead me to Smiths Ferry, Idaho one warm spring day in March. I had been eyeing tributaries of the North Fork of the Payette and wanted to hit a few before spring runoff blew everything out. Mid afternoon found me exploring a creek that meandered its way through a narrow valley. Small but energetic brookies kept me entertained as I fished and drove higher up the valley. Soon deep snowdrifts hugged the road and I had a decision to make. If you have ever driven a backcounrty road in winter then you know the struggle I had at that moment. Press on and risk making the 10 o'clock missing persons news or turn back. I checked my phone, "no bars" and drove on compelled by adventure. The road was sketchy but never got worse as I climbed up to a ridge shouldering snow. Snowmobile tracks lead off in various directions but the main road headed down the other side of the ridge into thick Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine groves. A few shaded turns had me gripping the seat with my butt cheeks but I eventually started to descend into a wide, high valley filled with yellow Buttercups. From a height I could see clusters of Aspen groves and small meadows that cradled a series of reservoirs or ponds full of clean, cold water.  The whisper of fish urged me on. Intrigued, I explored the valley which held a few ancient and broken homestead cabins. A cattle ranch sign was the first bit of modern civilization. It warned me not to visit unless "By appointment only."  Spring had just starting to put on a show here. Purple, yellow and white wild flowers burst forth from dry clumps of last years meadow grass. No green on Aspen trees but their blotchy Dalmatian-like bark is always striking. I felt alone in a private sanctuary. So it came as a shock when I can across another sign newly hammered into the meadows wet soil. "For Sale." Behind the sign one of the little lakes or reservoirs I'd seen from the ridge, twinkled in the afternoon sun. I stood transfixed and then a glimmer of a thought took hold of me. "What if I could own this." I had found my dream and I was hooked. Visions of feisty rainbows filled my head as I stared at the water shimmering in the distance.
   On the drive home I daydreamed of cool, calm mornings adrift in my float tube. I also imagined inviting friends and family up to play, explore, fish and stay the night.
  My poor wife took the brunt of my neurotic quest for the property. She sat through my brainstorming and looked over my sketches of cabins and teeter-totters and bridges. She supported me as I conjured up wild financial schemes and tried to play them off as "really quite reasonable." We discussed the latest in culvert design and erosion mitigation. I worked and reworked budgets. The woman's stamina under my rants deserved my admiration. I am not known as the follow-through-type so my determination must have been disturbing to her. 

    We signed the deed in the spring, 2015. An exciting feature of the land is that it is nestled up to a little reservoir that I estimate at about 15 to 20 acres in size. The reservoir covers a corner of our property giving us about 2000 ft of shoreline and about 2 acres of submerged land. I couldn't wait to flick my line out that spring to check for fish. Everything about the little reservoir looked "fishy." The size was good. A quick trip out with my canoe revealed that it was about 14 feet deep at the dam. Water bugs and zillions of tadpoles cruised the shallow water by April. The valley sits at 5,000 feet elevation which I deemed would be helpful for keeping summer water temperatures down a bit. The potential for trout looked great.
   Before I had a chance to fish a local rancher told me "they used to grow some nice fish up here too...about that big." He then spread his hands about chest-width apart. "Then somebody stocked bullheads. Now they are everywhere and the trout are gone." 
   Unfortunately what the rancher said appears true. The reservoir has not seen a trout for more than 40 years I estimate. In fact, most of the habitat in the surrounding valley seems infected with bullhead catfish. While that news disappointed me, it also inspired me.  A catfish is a fish, not my favorite type but at least it is a start. I have found no evidence of native trout in any of the valley's small creeks so far but some ponds are stocked with trout by local ranchers and land owners. 

     With no trout to catch this year, I have turned my efforts to researching the area, its weather, wildlife and stake holders. On the bright side ranchers and old timers tell me the valley was once full of trout. Their stories, all to common nowadays, go something like this..."oh yes, we used to have trout up here in 50s, 60s and 70s but they are all gone now." Then they fill in the blank with a reason or hypothesis.., "disease, drought, government mismanagement, etc." The truth is that Idaho Fish and Game used to stock the lakes in that area when they had leftover fish after stocking Sagehen and Tripod reservoirs. At the time IDFG would stock trout for free if land owners provided public access. Stocking ended in part due to local ranchers who reported destruction of private property and then pointed their fingers at visiting campers, hunters and fisherman. I've had trouble finding any history of fish in the area prior to the 1950's, so native fish presence remains elusive. Most of what I have learned comes from listening to ranchers, the older the better.

The Lake Looking North
   The trout seem to be gone for now but I hope my future writing includes a comeback story. I have spoken with my High Valley neighbors, ranchers and some water rights holders. So far everyone agrees that having trout would bring back something that was lost. I hope in the years to come I will be writing about a wonderful day I had on the lake catching trout with my family and friends. One dream complete and a new one is born. "Can I restore the valley to whatever trout holding potential it had in the past?" Time will tell.