Backcountry Cast and Blast: Floating the Middle Fork of Idaho's Salmon River for Chukars, Grouse, and Cutthroats

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River runs through more than 100 miles of central Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. It offers people the rare opportunity to hunt fall chukars, fly fish for native westslope cutthroats and bull trout on unpressured waters, and paddle through whitewater rapids--all in the same day. Sounds like an outdoorsman's paradise, right? It is, if you can get there. The same protection that keeps this land wild and unfettered also makes it a challenge to access. After my experience there, I'd say the Middle Fork's most enchanting quality is neither exclusivity nor adrenaline rush. It is the way that a place so unchanged over time can be so transformative to those who visit it. Bound by the duties of protecting a wild and scenic river, you take out everything you brought in--but, you may leave with much, much more--as I did. On the first day of chukar season (a Eurasian upland gamebird) this September, I flew over the Sawtooth Mountain range from Boise in a bush plane for a four-day, three-night cast-and-blast float down more than 30 miles of the Middle Fork. A tough place to survive in any era, the region attracted only the hardiest of settlers in the early 1900s. I hoped I could tap into that spirit.
Though it may be located in one of the most remote areas in the lower 48, our hosts were quick to assure us that the Salmon did not garner its nickname simply for being treacherous--more likely it came to be known as the "River of No Return" when early settlers would head downstream to claim land and the swift current prevented them from easily heading back. Around the campfire at night, tales were told of a few of these homesteaders, like the rancher who went three rounds with a bear, lost half his face, and lived to tell about it. Looking at the landscape, beautiful as it was, it's tough to imagine trying to survive there year-round.
The only access to the Middle Fork is by trail, boat, or backcountry aircraft. Our group was split up into three 6-person planes to fly into Thomas Creek at river mile 35, where we were to meet the game warden and the outfitters from Far and Away Adventures, based out of Sun Valley, Idaho. After an hour-long flight over the mountains, where smoke billowed up from nearby wildfires, I didn't know why I was surprised to see that the landing strip rising to meet us was grass and not concrete. Still, the touch-down was smooth.
Our river guides had already spent two days traveling downstream from the nearest road access point with three 14-foot Maravia Ranger rafts and a large sweep boat piled with about 3,000 pounds of equipment. Their progress had been slower than expected because the sweep boat had to be pushed some of the way--with no dams or flow obstructions, this wild river is high in the spring as the snowpack melts and is spring-fed by the water table later in the season. Even so, our crew prepared a lunch of pulled pork sandwiches, baked beans, and thick, fudgy brownies by the time we arrived that Saturday afternoon.
Patrick, a veteran of more than a hundred trips down the Middle Fork, manned the sweep boat's oars--giant hockey sticks compared to the other rafts' wooden spatulas. He was jovial, joking, and full of song; except for the few times he needed help pushing the craft from the shallows. Patrick also managed to give a surprisingly polite briefing on use of "the groover," our portable toilet, on our first night in camp. Photo by John Burrell
The owner and founder of Far and Away Adventures, Steve Lentz, paddled a few guests in his 17-foot McKenzie drift boat made of Sapele, an African mahogany--but not without his own challenges. On Day 3, after my raft's guide Tex had just piloted us over Tappan Falls, we pulled over to watch the boats behind us navigate the drop. Steve's boat wound up in the same position we had been in moments earlier, sucked into a fast current headed for a tall boulder at the crest of the falls. Tex had to dig deep to slow us and pull back away from the rock, and Steve had to do the same. Our raft would have bumped and rebounded, potentially throwing us off balance, but nothing more terrible than that. Steve was looking at possibly cracking the front end of his boat. It looked like it was happening in slow motion as he battled the current, finally managing to barely slip by--the difference of maybe one paddle stroke--without making contact with the boulder. They eased over the ledge broadside to us, and I watched as he slumped back in genuine relief and fatigue. It was the only time I sensed any level of distress from our otherwise chill handlers.
I had a fly-casting coaching session with Fishing Editor Joe Cermele before I left New York. Our final exchange went something like this: JC: So what are you going to remember to do?
KB: Uh…? [I have never done well on pop quizzes.]
JC: Claim the front of the boat, that way you get first crack at everything. Now, go catch something ugly. Good talk, right? This isn't actually me at the front of the boat, but I did as I was told when I could.
The swivel seat on the back of the boat might have been slightly more convenient. We drifted from shore to shore, depending on where the water looked the "sexiest"--slightly more languid, pooling behind a large rock, or sheltered between two curves of the shoreline. Standing and fishing forward wasn't the easiest thing to do while still keeping my balance, so I'd sit on the front facing one side or the other. The challenge was switching sides without getting tangled or hooking something in the boat. I came up with a system that worked for me, but it wasn't very graceful.
The general consensus was that we should be throwing anything with rubber legs, and plenty of us saw success with hoppers and nymphs. We found some dried stonefly casings in the rocks at one campsite and tied on stonefly imitators for a while. One angler was given a particularly charmed fly--it was mostly white with a little orange on the body--by one of the guides, which he used to hook more than a hundred fish over the next two days. Every time I caught sight of this guy, he had a fish on and a huge smile on his face.
Cermele had me practicing on these huge, stocked New Jersey rainbows (top), but clearly I was still stoked to catch and release each of a dozen little cutthroats from the pristine waters of the Middle Fork.
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Top photo by Joe Cermele_
I felt most confident when I was fishing from the shore, where I could pick my spots more thoughtfully and cast to a section of inviting current over and over. I liked trying to get a better drag-free drift each time and to perfect mending my line without jerking the fly. And sometimes it paid off, even after I felt I had stayed too long in one place. My first catch of the trip was like that. No one else was around, so I felt like I really earned it. I released that little cuttie and was picking my way over the rocks further downstream to tell another angler about my catch, when I spotted seven or eight bighorn sheep way up the hill, drinking from a little spring. I zoomed in with my point-and-shoot camera and watched them for a long while through the viewfinder. What an extraordinary place. Was I sitting in traffic in a yellow taxi just 24 hours earlier?
My senses heightened as my heart rate slowed. The sound of the river was the constant accompaniment to our days and nights, but at a hundred different volumes and textures, whether it was rambling past camp, rushing in from a connecting creek, or plunging over rocky little falls. The faint scent of burning hardwood from the distant wildfires was especially apparent in the mornings. I had to force myself to acknowledge that the smell was out of place, and should be disturbing, even as it conjured comforting images of cozy New England evenings by the hearth, ski lodges, and friends around a beach bonfire. As much as I felt myself tuning in with the sights and sounds of the river, the guides were connected to our surroundings on a whole other wavelength. I was amazed to find that while paddling, watching out for rocks, and eyeballing better water and how to get to it, our guide was also able to hear the tiniest of chukar peeps, spot the golden eagle flying overhead, and notice that I had a fish on before I did.
Before leaving camp on Day 2, we filled our vest pockets with shells and our canteens with water in preparation for a day of chukar hunting. It was cold at night and slow to warm up in the morning, so I wore a waffle-textured, long-sleeve shirt under my blaze orange layer. I wish I had known what Shotguns editor Phil Bourjaily told me later: You should always start a bird hunt a little bit cold--you'll warm up quick. I learned the hard way, sweating right through my top once we started hiking over the uneven terrain. I didn't have much time to get comfortable with the semi-automatic Beretta A400 Xplore Action that I was carrying, and I found myself searching for the safety instead of making my first shot at a big covey of chukars. The only other time-pressured shooting scenarios I've experienced were speed-drills with a bolt action rifle at a stationary target. This Beretta suited me in every other way: I had no problem with the weight or the length, and it felt fine when I shouldered the unloaded gun in camp. I just underestimated the importance of familiarity with the controls.
I felt more of the history of the region while we were on foot up in the hills than I had on the water. We stopped to examine some Native American pictographs illustrating scenes of hunters, elk, and other animals. We came across dozens of skeletal remains of animals taken down by predators within the year. I picked up a broken-off elk tine I spotted and put it in my game bag.
John Burrell, a certified wildlife biologist and international outfitter who, even as a hunter on this trip, was nice enough to stay close and act as my guide, expressed some regret that I wasn't experiencing this hunt with bird dogs. As much as Burrell wanted to bring his own dogs, the risk of encountering rattlesnakes here was just too great. In fact, four or five of us came closer to a snake than we cared to at some point while hunting or hiking. Photo by Rachel Sturtz
Two of us ladies were relatively inexperienced with a shotgun, while the others in our group were fairly expert. Then there was Tex, who crossed a bridge to the other side of the river to try and flush some chukars toward us. This situation made me pretty nervous, with him over there and the other boats occasionally passing between us. So when a bird or two kicked up, I was relieved the shot wasn't mine.
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Photo by Rachel Sturtz_
The only chukar brought down by our group was shot on the very first flush just 15 minutes into the hunt. After a while, it seemed pretty clear that most of the birds had moved to higher ground and it would be a tough hike up to them. We unloaded and slid-scampered down the hillside to the water's edge to wait for the guide to meet us with the boat.
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Photo by Rachel Sturtz_
I could have waded for hours before lunch on Day 3. It was warm enough but I was too anxious to get back into some birds. The game warden was back in camp to check on us, and he mentioned there was a good spot to hunt for ruffed grouse near an orchard, and we could keep an eye out for chukars on the way. The terrain was different there--more dusty, and divided by decrepit barbed wire fences that we had to climb through with our shotguns unloaded. This time I opted to carry a Beretta 686 Silver Pigeon 12 gauge over-and-under, which just felt more intuitive for my level of experience. We started seeing grouse as soon as we got into some trees. I was trying not to let the giant berry-seeded piles of bear scat distract me when suddenly I heard branches rustling and wings drumming from my right. The grouse came through the trees maybe 50 yards from me, and Burrell urgently told me to fire. I somehow shouldered the gun, found the bird beyond the barrel, and squeezed the trigger in time. There was a barely discernable "pfft" of feathers and the grouse was on the ground.
By the time we arrived at our last campsite that third evening, I think everyone was tiring of letting the guides take care of it all. We grabbed tent poles and spread floor mats. I helped dress my grouse and gathered some dry firewood, and the guys let me invade their cooking space in order to pan-sear the grouse breasts and legs in olive oil and garlic.
After a short hike the next morning and an easy four-mile float, I found myself stepping out of the raft at the Flying B Ranch much too soon on Tuesday. Before I reboarded the backcountry aircraft--distracted by the calculation of body weight plus that of our luggage and the pilots' concerns over wildfire smoke, visibility, and connecting flight times--I took a minute to look out over the river and reflect on what I did over the last four days: I hunted, fished, soaked in a natural hot-spring hot tub, and cooked my own grouse over a camp stove. I ate and drank well, slept hard, and listened to the guides' tales of the region's most legendary homesteaders. I watched a shooting star blaze a path across the sky, glassed a black bear trundling uphill two peaks over, and came within steps of a rattlesnake before hearing its unmistakable warning. I slipped on wet rubber, slid on sandy slopes, sweated under my blaze orange vest, and shivered after dark in some of the most remote wilds in the country. Sure, I'd be happy to get to a hotel room and shower. But in that moment, I was proud to wear the grit of the West on my face for a little while longer and promised myself that I'd be back someday.