Over the Backbone of the World (Fly Fishing Article) by Gary Lewis

With lots of dead and dying timber there is bound to be a wealth of carpenter ants at work. And trout take advantage of the bounty. Gary Lewis photo

With lots of dead and dying timber there is bound to be a wealth of carpenter ants at work. And trout take advantage of the bounty. Gary Lewis photo 

Into the Rockies, horseback,
to fish the North Fork Sun River
in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

by Gary Lewis

Out on the plains below us to the east, the Blackfoot made their home, traveling from camp to camp with their travois and dog teams or horses. Out on the plains they made a living from the buffalo. Only from time to time did small groups of warriors cross the mountains. And when they did, they might hunt the mountain goat. Aapomahkihkinaa.

mountain goat rockies fishing hunting fly Mountain goats were in the trail when we topped out on a knife-edge ridge. Snow buffalo, nannies and their kids. When they had moved out of the narrow path and scrambled up in the rocks, they looked down on our pack string.

After a long switchback climb, we dismounted now and led the horses past the herd of goats and down a long shale ribbon of trail cut out of the side of the mountain. Below us a green meadow signaled water for the horses and a place for us to stop for lunch. We had been on the trail for seven miles at this point and we had seven more to go before camp.

In the vastness that lay before us was the valley of the North Fork Sun River. Our outfitter, Joe Haas, led us to a spring where we drank the clean fresh water out of the earth then began the long, winding finish to our ride.

switchback horseback riding rockies mountain gary lewis photo

Thirteen of us in all, Joe Haas and his wranglers and guides, a teenager and two 20-somethings, Sam Pyke, Tracy Wilson and his three sons-in-law, Mark Roberts and a couple of dudes from Ohio. Thirteen riders, horses and a pack string with all the gear. 

August Yet Unsophisticated

The Sun River, what the Blackfoot called Medicine River, is a tributary to the Missouri. Down near Great Falls, the river is harnessed for irrigation, but up in these mountains, it is clear, wild and clean.

Camp was a mile up a little tributary. A wall tent served as our kitchen, while we slept in nylon tents spread out beneath the pines.

When we had planned this trip, Haas assured me these trout were unsophisticated and in August they would be looking up for hoppers and crickets.

But I knew we were not the first fishermen of the season. For the biggest trout, I reasoned, part of our group should go upstream a few miles on horseback. We saddled up after breakfast and lined out for the upper river.

A.J. Johnson releases a nice cutthroat. The trout would take hopper imitations, but ant patterns seemed to be the best bet.

A.J. Johnson releases a nice cutthroat. The trout would take hopper imitations, but ant patterns seemed to be the best bet.

Bears were never far from our minds. We had seen a small grizzly (or a multi-colored black bear, it was hard to say) on the way in the day before. On a narrow trail above the river we passed a burned out snag with fresh claw marks on its trunk.

Jet, the horse I was riding, tucked his ears back and glanced into the timber. He had seen the bear the day before and stayed steady. Whatever was nearby was closer, but we passed the spot and wound down a few switchbacks to a sand bar in the river’s flood plain where we tied the horses.

When it came to fly selection, I kept it simple. In August, hoppers, crickets, beetles, foam ants and caddis would be on the menu. I included leeches for searching deep water and a few very small nymphs to hang off the dry flies. Instead of a bunch of the same patterns in various sizes, I opted for variety.

If I had a dozen hoppers, each was a different pattern. I didn’t do this because I was smart, but because I had a dozen different types of hoppers. And ants. And beetles. As it turned out, a large variety of patterns was important.

cutthroat on a hopper

Walking downstream, I learned that the North Fork Sun River does not offer pool after pool of good water. Instead, an angler might have to walk a couple of hundred yards between some very good spots. In between there is pocket water, but such spots may only be worth one or two casts before moving on.

A log jam hole at the inside of a river bend had caught my eye from the trail. A.J. and I worked downstream, leapfrogging one another to cast behind boulders and along seams. Where the river narrowed and cut back on itself, I cast to a shallow riffle and caught a small cutthroat. Gathering line to cast again, I glanced down and saw a fossil at the toe of my boot. Picking it up, I turned over what looked to me like a big tiger prawn. A cephalopod, and me without butter and lemon.

At the bend of the river, a tangle of logs were stacked against the east bank and beneath the timber the water was deep dark green. In two main riffles, the water fed through a shallow rapid and turned a hard right. Foam lines marked the feeding lanes. On our bank, the west side of the river, a gravel bar offered an easy approach. We had to kneel as we approached the water.

To start, I cast a CJ Rufus, a leech pattern originated by Bob Gaviglio of Sunriver Fly Shop (Sunriver, Oregon), letting the current swing it into the deep water beneath the logs. Before it could get there, a 10-inch cutthroat grabbed it. Quickly I steered it out of the holding water and along the bank.

It was A.J.’s turn next, and floating a foam hopper, he teased up a 13-inch cutthroat. We rested the water for a few minutes while I looked around for clues. In some woody debris, I found a purple-backed beetle and matched it with a beetle from my box of dries. That proved the undoing of the next cutthroat. 

beetles fishing fly fishing gary lewis

There had to be a 20-inch plus cutt beneath that raft of logs, but we could not get our flies past the aggressive 10- to 14-inchers. Downstream, we skipped shallow runs and pocket water, searching for the log jam holes that held a lot of fish. A brown Jimmie Legs worked to pull larger fish out of deep holes until I stuck it in a log and broke it off.

The faster I changed flies, the more fish I caught.

The trout were looking for food on the surface, but they also wanted detail. Old faithful patterns like the Schroeder’s Hopper would take trout, but a detailed foam hopper with accented red rubber legs and eyes like Mason’s Secret Sauce (Rainy’s Flies) in tan drew more strikes. Unfortunately I only had one of those and lost it in a fish.

Rainbows, cutthroats and a couple of cutt-bows came to hand. The biggest of the day was a 16-1/2-inch cutthroat.

If there was one takeaway, it was the ant, the lowly ant, which the trout would take most often.

While the other members of my party would be fishing hoppers, I could go behind them and pick off fish they had missed with a Cinnamon Ant, any number of black foam ant patterns and even a purple Renegade.

In the morning, armed with what I had learned the day before, I approached the river with confidence. More than a mile out from camp, I realized I had left my fly box in the camp kitchen. “Uh! Oh!” 

 one of four bears rockie rocky mountain

One of four bears glimpsed...

How To Refill A Fly Box

I looked around and the first person I saw was Darrin. I offered to help him pick a fly to start the day.

“Whatchagot?” I asked, putting out my hand for his fly box. He dutifully put the box in my hand. I looked through the selection of hoppers and ants and pulled one out. “Whatelseyagot?” He pulled out another fly box.

“Central Oregon flies,” he said. “Ahhh!”

The biggest, ugliest fly in his box was a No. 8 Renegade. I palmed it. Slipped it into my pocket. Sleight of hand. I picked out a fly for Darrin and tied it on for him and sent him on his way.

From the next person in I encountered, I scammed a couple more flies in the same way and soon had enough to fish out the day.

Tracy Wilson and I spent some time working a slide hole with a long deep run and a lot of boulders. Ten casts with one hopper pattern would net him at least six grabs. Then the trout wised-up to his imitation. A quick change to a different fly restored the action. When the fish quit rising to dries, rather than move on, I tied on a dropper nymph for him and he caught three quick trout that way.

Time to ply my own pilfered flies upon the water.

I started with a Cinnamon Ant as we worked downstream. Now we were going back through water that at least half a dozen of our group had already fished. I did not hold out a lot of optimism until my little mohair-dubbed ant had taken a couple of fish. And I realized that the fish were used to seeing our hopper imitations, but the ant was what they were really keying on. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. Many years ago a huge wildfire killed hundreds of thousands of acres of timber in the Bob Marshall. And much of the dead timber was still standing, home to millions of ants.

pocket water hopper cutthroatPocket water cutthroat on a hopper 

The Big Ugly

Now we were close to the bridge. If there was one part of the North Fork that was fished more than the rest, it was this camp water stretch, easily accessed by through-hikers and horseback.

When we turned the corner with the bridge in sight, I hooked one small fish on a hopper then spied a small pocket reachable with a long cast at the mouth of a small tributary creek. There had to be a good fish there and it had to be well acquainted with our anglers’ artifices.

fossil fly rod rocky mountains

A fossil found, but not removed, from the waters edge. The rod is a custom tied glass rod built by the Authors uncle John Lewis of Wasatch Custom Rods.

Kneeling, I checked the fluorocarbon tippet for nicks, cut off a few inches and knotted on the No. 8 Renegade. It was big and it was ugly. It was probably tied in China. Judging from the company it had kept in Darrin’s box of “Central Oregon flies” it had come in a selection of bargain bin dries and wets—a dozen hand-tied trout flies for $4.99. But from down below, the trout would take it for an ant.

A big carpenter ant.

One cast.

The double taper slid through my fingers and shot through the guides, the leader straightened out, the fly dropped on the edge of the seam. A trout rose and gulped and when the line came straight, I saw it. Twenty inches of West Slope cutthroat. It took to the air time and again in long, high leaps, six jumps in all with two long runs down across the pool. Tracy brought the net and together we admired the biggest trout we had seen yet in the North Fork Sun River.

- written by Gary Lewis 

gary lewis fishing hunting author outdoor writer

For a signed copy of Fishing Mount Hood Country, send $29.95 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. To contact Lewis, visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com

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