Fishing Western Tail Waters – Part 3 - By Dick Landerman



By Mark Landerman

Kindly reproduced with permission from Mark Landerman
All contents copyright © 2006 the author


When I think of fishing the South Fork in the spring, I am reminded of a line from Forrest Gump, the one where Forrest tells Jenny, "I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is."  Wandering the banks of any river in March may not be the smartest thing to do, but you will love the rewards if you are patient and don't mind the cold, wet, windy conditions that frequent South East Idaho in the spring time.

The South Fork of the Snake River is a fishery that begins below Palisades Dam outside of Irwin, Idaho, and meets up with the Henry's Fork some sixty-four river miles downstream, near the farming community of Menan.  Technically a tailwater, the South Fork is more like a typical Western freestone stream.  It predominantly flows over cobble, and is known worldwide for its native species, the Snake River Cutthroat.                          Brown trout, rainbows, and the hybrid "cuttbow" also live in the river, as well as Rocky Mountain Whitefish --these fish thrive in the river, saving many days from being skunkings.  The Idaho Department of Fish and Game encourage anglers to keep all rainbows and cuttbows due to the threat of crossbreeding with the native cutthroat.  All cutthroat must be released immediately.  Idaho's fishing regulations are available here.


Basic Equipment:
Rods: In the spring, a fast-action eight and a half- to nine-foot, six-weight rod is a good choice.  The fast action helps in the sometimes relentless wind and a six-weight allows using any technique, from streamers to #20 dries.                  

Tippet: When nymphing, 4X works for the lead fly; I have found that midging with 4X fluorocarbon works just as well as 6X mono. Your nymph rig should be adjusted according to water depth; nine feet is usually what I end up fishing.  When fishing dries, twelve-foot 6X leaders will do.  However, I have taken fish using 5X and even 4X.  Throwing streamers is a different story.  A level five- to six-foot ten pound test leader helps turn over heavy flies.  Sink tips aren't necessary, but they are helpful when fishing deep runs.

Clothing: My biggest suggestion is to use good sense and dress warmly.  Layer from the skin out with thermal underwear, preferably made from capilene or other moisture wicking material, worn under waders.  A flannel covered by a hooded sweatshirt and a fleece jacket or vest covers your upper half.  If the weather is wet, or looks like it might get wet, it's wise to have a waterproof jacket, just in case.  Fingerless fleece or wool gloves are almost a necessity, too.  Polarized sunglasses and sunscreen are a must.

Nymphs: Stoneflies are present in the river year round, so a large black stone fly works well for a lead on a two fly nymph rig.  Brown Rubber Legs, Yuk Bugs, and 20-Inchers are good choices.  Other bead head nymphs such as Copper John's (especially silver), Pheasant Tails (Miller's Pheasant tail is a good choice), Princes, and Lightning Bugs.  For droppers, midge patterns are always good bets.  I like using an RS2, WD40, or a Brassie.  A friend of mine who guides for a local outfitter had an especially good day on his own creation, the Chronic.  It was a purple midge with a white foam head, which represented an emerger.

Streamers: I love to throw streamers and I have found a few to be quite effective on the South Fork.  I have caught many trout on a heavy Clouser Minnow tied in yellow and black with a Woolly Bugger trailing behind.  Double Bunnies are also effective --gray and white is a good color combination.  Also, articulated patterns are good choices, due to the action they impart.  I have had a lot of fun creating streamer patterns that I think represent the bait fish population and I feel that if you present a large morsel properly, a fish has no choice but to jump at the opportunity at an easy meal. 



Midges cover the snowy banks

Dry Flies: Midge hatches are the most important hatches on the South Fork.  Midges seem to always be present, but it takes time to search out pods of cutthroats feeding on the surface.  When you find them, it isn't hard to match the hatch.  Just present any small (#20-24) dry fly.  Parachute Adams and various tricos work. Blue-Wing Olives hatch on the South Fork, and one should hope for a typical BWO day. Clouds and a bit of rain can be the equation for an excellent dry fly experience.


Fishing from a Boat:
Getting a boat on the river in the spring can be a chore.  None of the boat ramps are maintained through the winter, and you can almost forget about putting in up the canyon.  First of all, the road to Cottonwood isn't plowed, and the upper section of the road (which takes you to Wolf's Flat) is closed to any traffic for animal migration.  The upper section (Swan Valley) gets a lot more snow than lower down, so it can delay launching a boat.  An adventurous soul can drag a boat over the snow if they wish.  I remember a time when a friend and I were scouting the put-ins and take-outs in Swan Valley.  John is another friend who guides, and wanted to get on the sticks early.  We drove down to the Spring Creek parking lot and saw tracks leading to the ramp.  "It looks fine" I told John.  Skeptically he drove his Tahoe down to the boat ramp and we soon saw that there was no way to get a boat on the water; the ramp was out of the question.  We tried to turn his vehicle around, but got stuck in two feet of snow rather quickly.  Thank goodness John kept kitty litter and a shovel in the back of his rig. 

Byington and Twin Bridges seem to get clear of snow quickly.  Since the backwater at Heise Bridge is usually iced-over, one has to make sure there is enough water flowing through the south channel at Twin before attempting this float (unless you want to go all the way to Lorenzo).  Flows of under 2200cfs make it hard to get a boat through.  Check out USGA Real-Time Water Data or the local newspaper, The Post Register, which reports the flows daily.  The Byington and Twin Bridges section is the most technical section of the South Fork to row.  Watch out for the Main Feeder cannel; half the river is diverted to the Dry Bed channel.  You need to stay river right shortly after putting in at Byington.  You don't want to get caught on the left bank because the river will slam your boat right into the head gates.   The diversion creates a nasty eddy, so be careful here as well.  There are many snags throughout this section in high water, but it is fairly clear when the river is at winter flows.

Twin Bridges to Lorenzo is one of my favorite floats any time.  I don't know why, but it always seems to produce quality fish, is chock-full of wildlife, and the total distance is under twenty miles.  I have floated this section in February and the biggest concern was staying warm.  Slam the deep under-cut banks with a streamer pattern or drift a nymph deep.  Watch for the deep runs and work a streamer slow; it may reward you with a very large brown.

Lorenzo to Menan (Pronounced mah-nan) fishes great throughout the winter and into spring.  The lower river is mainly home to browns due to warmer summer water temperatures here compared to the stretch upstream.  Fortunately, the water is warmer in the winter months as well, due to the distance from Palisades Dam and the numerous spring creeks that enter the river here.  This section doesn't have the numbers of trout the upper section does, but the trout that do make their homes here tend to be large.  As noted, I like to work a streamer through this section, but I always look for rising fish in the large back water sections and where the spring creeks meet the river.

Wade Fishing:

     When the river is at its winter flows, wading possibilities are numerous.  Just off the highway around Spring Creek and up Fall Creek Road an angler has many opportunities to get out and explore.  Another good bet is around Heise Bridge.  After you cross the bridge, turn left and head down the dirt road.  This road follows the river for about five miles and has some great water.  Don't forget the water above Heise Camp Ground.  If the River Road is passable, another ten miles of wading possibilities arise.

Reading the Water:

Riffles: Look for wide riffles that have a steady decline in depth.  Fish may hold at the head, at the end, but South Fork trout tend to stack in the middle where the water is fairly deep (four to six feet), for whatever reason. 

Inside seams: The slow water on the inside of riffles tends to hold a lot of fish.    

Runs: Look for big fish holding at the bottom of deep runs (ten to fifteen feet deep).  Streamers fished slow are the ticket in these spots.  I like using Clouser Minnows because the heavy lead eyes cause a jigging action which can be very effective.  I would suggest using a sink-tip line when fishing deep runs.

Eddies: Eddies are a great place to look for pods of rising fish.  Because the South Fork has a lot of Midges and Baetis, they can cover the water even in early spring, making for a wonderful afternoon.

Slicks: In the spring, I usually leave slicks alone, as on the 'Fork they hold too many whitefish at this time of year. 


If you can't wait for summer, spring time on the South Fork presents the opportunity to fish a beautiful river with little company.  Chances are you will see more moose and deer than other people.  Furthermore, with spring's lower flows, a fisherman stands a decent chance of hooking into a big fish.  When that happens, it makes the cold fingers, frozen guides, and numb toes all worth it.