Saturday, October 4, 2008

There's no fish in the Portneuf.....?

Having grown up with this river a mile from my house (where it flows through town in cement walls) you would have thought I new better. But this is not the river of my youth, it is a river reborn. Last time I was up on the headwaters of the Portneuf, on the backside of Pebble Creek, it was over half my lifetime ago. Approaching 20 years ago. Back then the river was highly impacted from cattle and fertilizes. The locals would always talk about how good the fishing was in its heyday, but during the mid 80s the river was pretty dead.

Backside of Bonneville Peak poking up above the foothills as seen from Kings Creek.
(Is this Bonneville, SnowPeak or Haystack? I think it is Haystack)

The conservation work that has been done on the river is nothing short of amazing, and those involved should be proud. There are now miles of cattle fencing to keep the banks from deteriorating. The banks are full of plant life, sedimentation is way down, the river runs gin clear and fairly cool. In most stretches it resembles a nice spring creek.

As I haven't been up that way in about 20 years, yesterday's trip was more of a scouting effort than anything, getting aquatinted with the river. The first placed I stopped was fairly far up the river and off of Topance Road. I believe it is called the Kings Creek access. Here the river is in pretty good shape and definitely resembles a spiring creek especially at the low flows of mid Autumn. The river here was pretty shallow, slow and slick. I hiked in along the access path to the footings of an old bridge. There were tons of insects on the water, mainly midges with a few small BWOs and there were a ton of small fish rising to the bugs.

Wanting something a little larger than 8" I started moving downstream with an eye on the water for risers. There were some more risers about 20 yards below the bridge, in a small riffle but the rise forms seemed fairly small. 15 feet below the bridge I had to stop. There was a pod of about 20 large fish in a deep slow hole. I thought that can't be trout, but looked into the hole and saw the magenta fins of cutthroats and the red lateral lines of rainbow. The hole was chuck full of trout, some looking to exceed 20 inches.

I drifted a grumpy over them a few times. They were skittish as all get out. The shadow from the line would send them running, but they would return after about 15 seconds. Not a one of them looked up at my frumpy grumpy. I drifted it over their heads dozens of times. This required a change of tactics. 2 zebra midges, a sinker and about 10 casts saw me into a nice fat rainbow of about 16 inches. I drifted my midges through the hole for another 20 minutes, these fish weren't having anything to do with me, and didn't even appear to be feeding. I decided to move on.

I drove a few miles downstream to the access that is now called "Mike's Place." Political correctness has renamed this spot from its old name of "Whiskey Mikes," the old bar on the side of the road. This access puts you on the driveway of a farm house on the river. Some ones private paradise (I may have to look for some land up there as it was very scenic). The water below there bridge was slow, slick and deep. I could see fish in the deep slow water but doubted my ability to catch any fish that has all day to examine my fly. I moved up along the banks to the wooden pylons of a bridge long gone. The farmer had an access point to the river here so I climbed up the fence poles and onto the old pylons to navigate the obstruction. Looking down into the hole created at the foot of the next set of pylons I saw some nice cutts and a pair of massive fish with deep blue backs that I can only surmise were some type of sucker or chub. They were huge..... could they have been 10 lb rainbows :0 ?

I moved up beyond the footings about 5 yards and started casting upstream along the bank. The fish were interested and a couple of my drifts saw some large upwellings below the fly. A sure sign of a fish coming up for a look. I moved up a little more and cast the grumpy across the river into an area with a little chop and WHAM a big fish nailed it. It took me quite by surprise but I remembered to set the hook.

Biggest fish of the day about 18 inches.
Looking at the pronounced lateral line, this may be a CuttBow.

This fish helped me meet one of my goals for the day, namely a large cutthroat on a dry fly. As I was on a bank about a foot above the river and the river was a good 5 feet deep right off the bank, and the bank was covered with weeds behind which I was hiding, landing this fish was an interesting proposition and involved along reach with the net. I am trying more and more to capture photos of the fish without taking them out of the water but this setting did not allow for it.

I spent a little more time working the river above this hole as there were some regular risers in a little riffle a little ways up. I number of little guys would molest my fly every drift but they were too small to take. I did catch a couple of more rainbows here in the 14 inch range.

Those of you who regularly fish this stretch, and whose postings inspired me to revisit the Portneuf have my admiration. Any one who can catch large fish on dry flies out of the spring creek like conditions and on this slow clear water where the fish have all day to examine a drifting fly, well you know your business. I was fishing my grumpies on a 12 foot leader and did ok... This is not the freestone type fishing that I am accustomed to. I usually fish fast moving freestone rivers and roiling alpine creeks, not this slow moving meandering slick water. It is much more of a challenge.

I had heard about a stretch called "The Canyon" and decided to investigate. I pulled off the road a bit below Whiskey Mikes at the bottom of said canyon along the side of the railroad track. I hiked over the track, and hopped a fence. I didn't see any "no trespassing" signs so I hope I didn't offend any local farmers.

Nice Colors!

I hopped down a small rockfall gully and found myself at the foot of a little waterfall. There were deep holes (over 10 feet deep in places) between large rock at the bottom of this little drop, and as soon as I got set a big fish jumped a foot out of the water at the base of the falls. I cast where he jumped hoping he would rise only to have my fly viciously attacked about 10 feet down stream. I cast at the aggressive attacker again and whamo. This fish promptly ran into a crevice between some rocks and was gone, leaving me stuck on the rocks and weeds. I fished this hole for a bit more but was getting snarled up on way too much greenery so I decide to move upstream.

I moved up to the next little drop area and started casting. I had tied a adams comparadun on as a dropper and picked a nice rainbow up after a couple of drifts. I must admit he hit when I wasn't paying attention and was pleasantly surprised to find him on the end of my line when I went to pick up my line to recast. This hole rewarded me with a couple of more nice cutthroats.

Portnuef Cutthroat

I ended up hiking the canyon from bottom to top and decided that I liked it a little more than the slower and slicker water above. It is a little faster moving and has more structure through the canyon so the fish have to react faster and don't have the seeming hours to examine a fly.

As I approached the top end of the canyon I heard thunder, the wind picked up and I decided it was time to get out of Dodge. The rain started to fall as I hiked down the canyon and the hike out seemed incredibly long on my tired legs. Hiking up and down a weed filled river with a soft bottom in areas really wears you out, not helped by the fact that I missed the rock fall that I hopped down and ended up a 1/4 mile further downstream wondering where the waterfall that was my landmark went and wandered circles a couple of times looking for the area where I left my car. The river around the fall looked completely different from the other bank ;)

All in all it was a very pleasant day. I will return to the Portneuf again. It is fishing very nicely and has some large fish inhabiting its depths. As the largest of the fish I saw (outside of the big bluebacks) were all cutts I would have to say the river is in great shape. Thanks to all of the volunteers who have put in time and materials protecting the banks! Kudos to the South East Idaho Fly Fishers and all the hard work they have done!


Cutthroat Stalker said...


Excellent report! It's nice to be able to hear from somebody about the "before" and "after" on the Portneuf. When I first started doing some research on the river this past spring I came across a couple of, "It used to be a great river, a blue ribbon trout stream, but then it went downhill." It's nice to hear that some things can get reversed.

Way to give credit to the SEIFF, because they are indeed instrumental in the Portneuf's recovery. It looks like they have a work day on the river today and and the 18th. Although, I'm hopeful I'll be somewhere around Johnny's Place instead of Mike's Place on that day (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

I know they (IFG?) were trying to eliminate the rainbows on the Portneuf not too long ago. I'm not sure if they are actively pursuing it at the moment, but I think I'll try to take some bows home next time I fish there to do my little part for the recovery efforts.

Those pods of fish are enough to make you giddy, aren't they?

Those fish can be tough in the stillwater when they aren't rising. Also, don't dismiss all of the "little rises" for little fish (unless you actually saw the fish)--I've caught and seen caught several whoppers that were small rises.

Have you fished Silver Creek much? Some sections of the Portneuf definitely remind me of Silver Creek. Except without the crowds. So anybody reading these reports, head to Silver Creek, not Portneuf.

(sorry to take up so much room on your blog--I'll shut up now)

BG said...

Very cool report indeed... purdy fish!

globaljunkie said...

Hey Bro...I used to duck hunt this stretch back in High School. Glad to hear the fish have returned, wasn't all that pretty back in the early 80s. And do you know someone last name of Evans in the Island Park area? Apparantly has a spot named after him. Working with his daughter here in Beijing.

jabberwock said...

Haven't fished Silver Creek in a longer time than I hadn't fished the Portneuf. Only fished it once briefly as a teen ager, but I can imagine the similarities. Though I think Silver Creek probably has more water in it than the upper Portneuf does.

There is a Rick Evans that own a motel, cabins and RV park up by Macks Inn. Is that the Evans you are talking about?

globaljunkie said...

think it's Bob or Bill Evans. Is there every summer, locals gave him a plaque or something like that.

Ben said...

Great story!