By: Woody Venard
A native of Idaho, Woody has fished since he was six year sold. After traveling the world, Woody has returned to North Idaho, where he claims the fishing beats that of New Zealand any day. A graduate from Bonners Ferry High School, Woody has spent the past 18 years cultivating his fishing expertise in the lakes and rivers of the Panhandle. Presently, he resides at Priest Lake where he sometimes practices carpentry as a break from fishing.
I was sitting at home eating a bacon and egg sandwich when my boss called me.
“Woody, we’re not working today, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Sweet, see you then.”
Hanging up, I pumped my fist and hollered in exhilaration. All day free to do whatever I wanted; is there a better feeling?
For a long time I had wanted to fish the Upper Priest River during the June and July cutthroat run. This remote catch-and-release-only river supposedly contained trout of heroic sizes, and today I would finally get to find out myself.
From my small “jungle” cabin at the south end of Priest Lake, it took me exactly an hour of driving over potholes and washboards to reach the Upper River. Stepping into the blistering heat and ravenous Kamikaze mosquitoes, I could barely keep myself from running out onto the only bridge across the river. The water flowing under the bridge was crystal clear. I could see every granite pebble on the riverbed.
Not a fish in sight. This fact would disturb me immensely on any other body of water, but the tributaries of Priest Lake are different. Large cutthroat and bull trout swim up these tributaries to spawn briefly, and then move back to the lakes. All the fish born in these tributaries hatch and swim down to the food rich lakes, leaving the creeks and Upper River almost devoid of catchable fish for most of the year.
Standing on the bridge, I hoped there were some big cutthroats in the river. But where? Upstream or downstream? If I wanted to fish dry fliers and nymphs with my fly rod, that meant upstream. Streamers meant downstream fishing. I’ve always been a firm believer in woolly bugger streamers and decided to go downstream from the bridge.
I stung up my fly rod, tied on a two inch green woolly bugger and sprayed my entire body with mosquito repellent. Down by the river, I gazed downstream. A huge logjam. Colossal. Impenetrable. Oh, well. I stepped into the fast flowing water which was cold enough to numb my sandaled feet, and began the climb the climb over the logjam.
After a good five minutes of breathtaking leaps, balancing and sheer courage, I was over. I jumped back into the frigid water and walked downstream, letting the current push me along in huge moon-walking steps.
Stopping above a cedar shaded pool, I let the current carry the woolly bugger down behind a large overturned white pine stump I started twitching the streamer, and had to stop to slap mosquitoes off my ears. When I tried to pick up the line, I a fish. My fly rod bowed deeply as a large cutthroat surged downstream into the heaviest current.
After a tense but short fight, I brought in the 20 inch male cutthroat. He had a hooked jaw, fire engine red stomach, blazing brass back, and a few dark black spots near his tail. Perhaps the most gorgeous fish I’d ever seen.
Carefully removing the bugger from his upper jaw, I let the current wash through his gills to revive him. When he was ready, I let go. The beautiful native trout glided into the shad e of a 400 year old cedar.
About 50 yards downstream a cedar had fallen in the river at a 45-degree angle. The swift current was bouncing violently off the trunk. Behind this cedar, more fallen logs created a calm, dark hole, perfect for a lurking predator. Once again I let the deadly bugger drift down with the current, lifting, twitching and pausing the fly right in front of the cedar.
A bronze streak shot up from the dark water and ripped the woolly bugger viciously. Fish on! I had to put every ounce of pressure out that I could to keep the trout from diving back under the logjam. After several minutes. I hauled a female cutthroat of 18 inches into the shallows. She had a small jaw, was entirely golden with heavier spotting and bright red slashes under her throat. With a flip she was gone, back to her lair under the wind fallen trees.
Continuing downstream, I had to clear many more labyrinths of fallen trees, brush, boulders, and bloodsucking insects bent on tasting me. I lost several fish to underwater snags and poor hook sets. I also discovered that olive green was the only color these large but finicky fish would strike. At one point I climbed a small hill to survey the river and found a moose antler, my first ever. What a bonus!
The best cutthroat of the day came from under another logjam. I was balancing on a slippery barkless snag, twitching a green sculpin pattern streamer in front of the windfalls, when the behemoth struck. He was like a dark torpedo honed in on my fly. I decided to slip and fall at that moment to give myself an added challenge. With one leg stuck deep in the logs, I fought the fish out of the numerous branches and landed him one handed. I’ve never seen such a bright fully crimson fish. From tooth laden hook jaw to black spotted tail, this male was pure red, with just a bit of green on his tail.
I was wishing I had brought a camera when he flopped out of my grasp. Next time.
Deciding I couldn’t end the day on a better note than that, I broke down my fly rod and started the long hike back. My original plan was to head directly west, hit the navigation trail and follow that to the road.
But I didn’t calculate on the vast swamp filled with fallen trees, bogs, and devil’s club. After half an hour of tripping, slapping mosquitoes, and finally falling into a mud pit, I gave up on the plan. Heading back to the river, I found the skull of a bull moose, his huge antlers eaten by rodents down to a foot long.
Carrying the 30-pound skull back to the car was more than I could bear. So I left it in the woods for someone else to find.
After an hour of hurdling trees, skinning my shins and a heart-stopping game of teeter totter with a three foot wide 30 foot long cedar log, I crawled up the final bank on hands and knees to the glorious sight of my car. What a painful hike! My legs could barely move, but the clear waters, beautiful scenery and insanely gorgeous trout had been worth it. Now for the long drive back home!