Thursday, August 23, 2007

Butte Weekly: Silver Creek, Fly-Fishing's PhD Program

Paul Vang, an outdoor writer from Butte, Montana, filed this report in the Butte Weekly on his recent trip to Silver Creek:

It’s a stream full of history, with a cast of characters including Nobel Prize winning authors, movie stars and railroad tycoons. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy, it’s also a stream that offers ordinary people the opportunity to try their luck at this famous spring creek, which many describe as a graduate school for anglers.

The stream is Silver Creek—just a little way from the famous resort of Sun Valley, Idaho. In fact, Silver Creek’s history is an integral part of Sun Valley’s history.

More on that in a moment.

At the invitation of Matt Miller, an outdoor writer friend and public relations director for the Idaho branch of The Nature Conservancy, I, along with several others, spent several days trying our luck on Silver Creek.

Trout, we are told, have a brain the size of a pea. For being primitive creatures, they certainly can get well educated, especially on Silver Creek. They have to be, as they see thousands of anglers and every kind of fly that they can throw at them. Besides anglers casting imitation bugs, the fish also have to be aware of herons and other predators.

Still, fish thrive in Silver Creek. They feed on a rich diet of aquatic insects, terrestrials, such as grasshoppers and ants, plus the occasional mouse that blunders over the stream bank. They’re used to anglers wading clumsily in their midst and, by and large, know the difference between real and fake. E. Donnall Thomas, Jr., a writer and physician from Lewistown MT wrote of his visit to Silver Creek in the July/August 2007 edition of “Northwest Fly Fishing” magazine. After two hours of casting various flies, he caught a 17-inch brown trout. “On Silver Creek,” he reports, “this is nothing less than a triumph.”

Silver Creek’s modern history began in the 1930s, when Averill Harriman, a railroad tycoon, and later a distinguished diplomat and adviser to presidents, established Sun Valley, so he’d have a destination ski resort on the route of the Union Pacific railroad. In order to provide recreation attractions for the off-season, he bought up property along Silver Creek and then invited celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway and Gary Cooper to come to Idaho and sample the fishing, as well as hunt for pheasants and ducks along the stream.

In the 1960s, the Union Pacific sold Sun Valley, and in the 1970s, it went on the market again. Jack Hemingway, the then-deceased author’s son, had settled in the area, and served on the Idaho Fish & Game Commission. Hemingway learned of the impending sale and approached The Nature Conservancy about purchasing the Sun Valley Ranch property on Silver Creek. The Conservancy acquired the property in 1976, and now owns 850 acres along the stream as well as conservation easements on areas not in the Silver Creek Reserve.

Though the Conservancy could probably operate the stream on a pricey pay-to-fish basis, they maintain the Reserve as a public fishing area, open to all comers. They simply require that anglers sign in at the Visitor Center. You might have to walk a little way to find a stretch of stream without other anglers, but wherever you go, you’ll find fish. In addition, they offer guided and self-guided nature walks and educational programs. In this green oasis in the high desert of central Idaho it’s an area teeming with wildlife.

So, how did I do? In an evening session after arrival, I came up empty-handed. The next morning I had a couple momentary hookups but the fish quickly shed my hook and went their own way. That afternoon, while most of the rest of the group took a side trip to the Big Wood River, I elected to stay behind to fish the creek. I was rewarded with two 16-inch rainbows that came up to a ‘hopper imitation. The next morning I was striking out during the trico hatch, but noticed Pale Morning Dun mayflies floating down the stream’s gentle currents. I changed flies and quickly caught a rainbow—almost a clone of the previous day’s trout.

One some streams, we might have been disappointed with those results. On Silver Creek, we claim victory and put PhD after our name.

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