Just as the first morning sunbeams crest the mountaintop, they light up the deep green pools of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River near Jackass Rapids. Almost as quickly as the light hits the water, mayflies dance on the gin-clear surface while native trout lurk below.
Standing on my raft, tied up on shore, I strip out the orange floating line on my fly rod and cast a dry fly into a seam between two deep pools of water, about 25 feet off the bow. Bam! A healthy west-slope cutthroat nails the fly, and I’m ready, pinching the fly line with my finger as I raise the rod high in the air to set the hook and bring in that bad boy. It’s a 14-inch fish — a gorgeous red-and-green cut that mirrors the colors of the Middle Fork. I net it and release it.
In mid-summer, when the Middle Fork drops below 4 feet on the gauge, the river slows down, the water clears up and it’s a delight to fly fish. Hard-cores can fish every square foot of the river, casting hundreds of times throughout the day, and catching dozens of fish every day. I know one guy who caught more than 100 fish on the week-long trip. It’s all catch-and-release fishing, but it’s super fun when the fish are biting. From July to September, the fish are generally on the bite.
It’s a world-class experience to get a chance to float the Middle Fork in the first place — it’s a 100-mile trip that cuts through the heart of the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Central Idaho. Hence, you are completely off the grid. Quietude rules. The river is bordered with oodles of wonderful beach-front campsites with pine benches above for the “kitchen” area and tent sites.
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On private trips with my friends, we all take turns cooking, pulling out all the stops to make an unforgettable Dutch oven meal for dinner, capped off with another D.O. dessert. Devil’s Tooth Cheesecake, anyone? That’s one of my favorite recipes from Sheila Mills, author of “Dutch Oven Cuisine II.”
We also play bocce, volleyball, badminton and sometimes even cards. There’s a hot springs to visit almost every day. Indian pictographs to stop and view. Side hikes galore.
To get a chance to float the Middle Fork, a Forest Service permit is required. You either need to draw a private permit via recreation.gov or book a trip with one of the outfitters that has an allotment of permits for each summer. I’ve gotten most of my permits via cancellations on recreation.gov.
To do the trip on your own, you need to have your own rafting equipment to carry all of the gear. We usually get a group together of 14-16 friends with 5-6 rafts and have the time of our lives camping out in “the Frank.”
If you decide to go with an outfitter, I’d recommend several that specialize in fishing trips, including Solitude River Trips (Orvis-endorsed), Hughes River Trips, Mackay Wilderness River Trips and Aggipah River Trips. Prices range in the $2,000 per person neighborhood for a six-day trip on the Middle Fork. See the Idaho Outfitters and Guides website for a complete listing.
One of the great aspects of a Middle Fork trip is that you can fish as much or little as you want. You can fish from the boat or wade fish from shore. You can stop and fish tributary streams like Loon Creek, Camas Creek, and Big Creek — all of them are highly recommended!
I had a fun little bout with a big lunker on Big Creek one time, just a mile upstream from the Middle Fork. Professional photographer Mark Lisk was taking photos of me in some nifty chest waders, and I was wading in Big Creek up to my nipples. I was throwing out Dave’s hoppers in the middle of this deep hole, and then a big fish came up and nailed the fly. Got it! I thought. But no, I raised my arm to set the hook and the dang thing broke the tippet. That happened three times in a row before I took a beer break. He beat me that day.
For dry flies, I’d recommend black ants, elk hair caddis, salmon flies, Royal wulff attractor flies and a wide variety of hoppers. When the weather is hot, the cuts love to hit those hoppers all day long.
Many would say floating the Middle Fork is a trip of a lifetime. When you combine fly fishing with all of the other elements of a Middle Fork trip, it’s a deluxe trip that you’ll never forget, and you’ll want to go back again, and again, and again. There’s just nothing else like it anywhere in the world.
Outdoor writer and author Steve Stuebner has been fishing and floating the Middle Fork for 25-plus years.