Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Minam River Headwaters

For those of you who don't like to read, the next post will be a picture-book version of this.  It should tell a similar story, but with no words.  For those of you who do like to read, read on.

As the last few posts highlighted, I took a trip last weekend to the Wallowa mountains to do some fishing and backpacking.  After a short 6 hour drive and well after dusk I made it to the trailhead and set up the tent.  I got a good nights sleep and was up at 6 the next morning to start walking.  The trail was a long but easy hike, about 6 miles up to Minam Lake, all along the Lostine river, which provided ample temptation to stop walking and fish along the way.

But self determination and will ruled the day.  I didn't stop all the way to the top.  After those 6 long miles and up and over a saddle to head down the other side, the Minam river was a tiny trickle and was picking up small amounts of water every few hundred yards.  After another mile or so the river meandered through a nice sunny meadow.  It looked like a fun, albeit not terribly productive place to fish, so I gave it a go and pulled a teeny brookie out with just a few casts.  It was a good start to the trip.

I moved on a bit farther downstream and set up camp right on the river.  I fished the afternoon and evening near camp where the river was still pretty small but fishable.  As always I did a poor job of counting, but I pulled out probably 15 or so brookies all 4-8 inches.  Part of the goal for this trip was to live of the land, so I kept two tasty fishes for dinner. 

Day 1 was a good start, but it also made me realize that I was going to have to hike to get to some bigger water and thus bigger fish (hopefully).  My best guess is the flow rate near camp was something south of 10cfs.  There were fish and they colorful and they were easy to catch, but they were also all small.

 On day 2 I hiked downstream a couple miles until I found a relatively easy way down to the river.  The trail was annoyingly a couple hundred yards uphill from river and the forest was nearly impassable in most places.  I was lucky enough that the spot that was easy to get to also hosted a large hole just under a sweet waterfall.  As I approached the hole with my usual lack of stealth I noticed two large fish sitting right beside a boulder in the center of the tailout.  I was stunned that they didn't see me or spook, but luck was on my side I guess.

I had on a big grasshopper that I had had luck on the day before so I gave it a toss upstream.  The first float didn't go where it needed to, so I adjusted and gave it a second go.  It floated directly down to the two big fish.  One of them looked up and started to rise as the big ugly hopper neared.  The water was slow and fairly glassy so I expected him to see the leader and pass, but to my surprised he sipped the hopper right off the surface and it was game on.

The fight was probably the oddest struggle I've ever had with a fish though.  When I first hooked him he splashed around like normal, then got back down under water and went to his spot.  And just sat there.  I gave a couple tugs and moved him a bit but he just went back to where he had been sitting.  I was able to move him a couple more times but he really didn't fight, just sat there.  It was as if he didn't even know that he was hooked I was pulling at him.  Finally, though, I was able get him out of the deep and into the relative shallows where I was to land him.

It was my first Bull trout ever, which was both disappointing and really cool.  It was disappointing because I couldn't keep him for my dinner, but cool because it was a new species for me.  Overall it was definitely a positive experience.  You just cannot complain about a wild 18" fish from a small mountain stream that has probably never been caught before.

I tried to get a self portrait, but did a poor job.

The rest of the day was full of a bunch of smaller fish although I did manage to spook one more big Bull.  I also stumbled onto an elk hunters camp later in the day farther downstream.  There was one guy there and I stopped to talk to him a bit.  They hadn't been seeing much, but this guy said he used to bring his fly rod up with him and that there were often salmon farther downstream this time of year.  Interesting thought for tomorrow.

Back at camp I cooked up a couple smaller fish I had caught, relaxed by the campfire, and thought about tomorrow.  I had my small dog with me and he was showing signs of serious fatigue.  Another 4-5 mile hike tomorrow down to salmon, then 4-5 miles back to camp before an 8+ mile hike out the next day could very well be out of the cards.  I would either be left leaving him for the wolves or carrying him out.  With that in mind I had to make the painful decision to forgo the potential for salmon.  The original intent had been to try out Blue lake, just uphill from Minam lake on the last evening to minimize the hike out.  So I decided on that and went to bed.

In the morning I packed up camp and started hiking back toward Blue lake.  It wasn't too far and I made it before noon.  When I got to the lake there were fish sporadically sipping bugs off the surface everywhere.  It wasn't a feeding frenzy, but enough action for me to set up my gear.  I started out with a BWO sz 16 tied on with 5x.  After 15 minutes of no action, I decided 5x on the still water of a lake was probably not the best decision.  So I reeled back in and tied on some 6x to 7x to a sz 18 BWO and cast it back out.  That seemed to be the ticket because very shortly I started getting bites.

The action came and went all afternoon.  Catching trout in a lake is quite a bit different than in a river too.  To me the fish can be a little tougher to control in a lake because there isn't a predictable current to use against them.  That actually makes it a little extra fun.  And it was nice to sit on the bank and rest at times because I was a little more run down than I realized.

In all I ended up with about eight fish from the lake before heading down out of the high mountain area to some lower meadows to cook and sleep.  When I got down to what looked like a good place to set up camp I couldn't help but go check out the meandering creek that flowed out of Minam lake.  There were some fish sipping an evening hatch of midges, so I grabbed my rod and tossed my small BWO in.  Instantly I got a bite.  The fish were so small they were pretty difficult to hook, but I did manage to yank a couple out of the creek.

And that's pretty much my story.  It was a fun trip and my first solo backpacking/fishing trip ever.  And I get to cross one of my goals off my list for the.  That's a good thing because I haven't done too well with them so far.

I'd like to do something similar again next year, and as improvements the dog stays home and I intend to pack a little farther in and fish farther downstream.  Salmon and bigger fish, here I come!


  1. I'm jealous man. Sweet trip. Glad your lake fishing was better this time...

  2. Ernie holding you back... instead of leaving him behind, you should start him on a training routine now.

  3. Clif: Even a fit full size dog would have trouble getting around where I was and would still be a hindrance. Plus Ernie would prefer to go visit some friends or something.