Voices from the river

Voices from the River: The swimmin' hole

A fat and happy Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout.

By Chris Hunt

Two summers ago, as I walked along a small alpine creek in the Caribou Range here in eastern Idaho, I spied what may rightly be called the sexiest stretch of trout water I’ve ever seen.

The stream—by itself a modest flow—pushes down a canyon from a winding meadow above and simply careens into the rock wall of a high bluff overlooking the water. Over time, and I suspect with a little help from the placer miner who has the claim in this drainage, the stream has scoured out a hole that, at its deepest, is just over six feet from the top of the water to the bedrock underneath.

In the last two or three summers, I’ve pulled some the most impressive small-stream cutthroats I’ve had the good fortune of catching out of this deep hole. Fat and happy, some of the smaller ones live here all year, I’m sure. But the biggest I’ve seen—and I’m trying to keep my angler’s memory in check, here—probably pushed 22 inches, and most certainly ran up the creek to spawn in the spring from a nearby reservoir and then hung out all summer to feast on the fare of its youth.

Every spring, that fish and likely thousands like it push their way into tributary streams that flow into the lake to spawn, and every June, as runoff subsides enough to make the water fishable, I and a few devoted small-stream addicts wander up these rivulets and see if we can’t tangle with the running fish. In good water years, some of the fish will stay all summer, gorging on fat grasshoppers that end up on the water during, warm, breezy August days. Others are gone by the time runoff ends. In short, you never really know. But it’s always a pleasure to find out.

This summer has been a scorcher, and I’ve all but given up middle-of-the-day-fishing. And that’s not because the water is too warm—the creek is fed, as it flows off the mountains, by subterranean spring seeps and smaller, colder streams. It’s just … hot outside. And the deer flies and horse flies are brutal on hot days.

The author takes the plunge on a hot summer day. Photo by Mike Sepelak.

As I wandered up a familiar stretch of the stream the other day and approached the deep pool where I knew, if any big lake fish were still up this high, my chances were best here. Shaded by tall pines on one side and a high bluff on the other, this deep cut in the creek only gets full sunshine when the sun is directly above. As I slapped a deer fly on my arm, I looked up at the hazy blue sky. The sun was about to crest over the pines atop the bluff, and it was about to go from hot to sweltering.

I made a quick cast to the foam line, and no sooner had the foam hopper I’d been using all morning hit the water when a spunky 10-inch fish swiped at it and then dove to the bottom. I played the native trout quickly, and released it back into the hole. It swam once again straight to the bottom and disappeared into the green water. Another cast, another small fish. It seemed that anything big, if it was home, wasn’t interested.

And then the sun topped the trees and everything went quiet. It was officially hellish, and it was time to head back to the camper, take a chair beneath the awning and enjoy something ice-cold. As I moved to hop on a well-worn trail from my campsite atop the bluff to the water, I stopped. It was, indeed, hot. Sweltering. Brutal. Thankfully, we’d been spared the wildfires that were ravaging other drier regions across the West—but we’d been hit pretty hard by the heat.

I rested my fly rod against the willows, stripped down to my shorts and just started walking into the creek. It was the perfect contrast to the still sauna of the outside air. Cold water moved about me, and I felt my breath leave me as I got deeper and deeper. Over the next 20 minutes or so, I walked and pushed water around the deep pool. I found it’s deepest spot—it hit me just below my nose. And I’m 6-feet, 5-inches tall, so I estimated the water at that six-foot depth. And there I stood, letting the creek move around me.

Below, after the sediment I’d kicked up had moved on downstream, I could see a pair of really big trout, finning in the shade of an overhanging rock. There were still there. And tomorrow, before I went swimming again, I’d cast to them once more.

Chris Hunt is the national digital director for Trout Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls.

By Chris Hunt.