Monday, October 22, 2012

Silver Creek and the Union Pacific Years

A Former Guide’s Reflections on the Ultimate Trout Stream by Charlie Most

The Nature Conservancy/Ketchum Historical Society

Easing gently into that silky-smooth current was a near mystical experience for me. This was Idaho’s famed Silver Creek, long considered by many to be North America’s finest trout stream.  In my wallet was an Idaho Registered Guide certificate.

It was 1950 and I had just turned 20.

How a kid from Oklahoma came to be in that place at that time was the result of youthful fantasies, a passion for fly-fishing, a carefully written letter, and a rabbit hunt. 

When Averall Harriman, Board Chairman of the giant Union Pacific Railroad, wanted a place to ski, he just built one. Appropriately named Sun Valley, the new Idaho resort opened in 1937 to soon become a favorite of the rich and famous. And the Union Pacific streamliners took them there.

Although known primarily for its wonderful skiing, Sun Valley also offered many summer activities such as golf, tennis, trail riding, shooting, and trout fishing.

The resort lies along Trail Creek above its confluence with Big Wood River. The headwaters of the Big Lost River are just beyond the Pioneer range to the east. These are all fine trout streams, but Silver Creek, 30 miles to the south, was the crown jewel. So the railroad also bought 480 acres along the stream and named it Sun Valley Ranch.

Back in Oklahoma, my youthful fantasies were mostly about hunting and fishing. Reading the outdoor magazines at the local barbershop just fueled my dreams of living exciting adventures. And such magazines had advertisements for an intriguing place called Sun Valley, and a stream with the magical name of Silver Creek.

As my high school days were ending with little hope for college, I wrote a letter to Sun Valley asking for a job. A return wire offered one and a rail pass to get me there.

I was hired as a houseman, a janitor-like job, but then luckily assigned to the night shift in Sun Valley Lodge.  Our crew worked hard and fast from 1 to 6 a.m. getting the place clean and ready for early rising guests.   

The daylight hours could then be spent exploring and fly fishing local streams, but that did not include Silver Creek.   That dream stream was literally beyond my reach.  Sun Valley Ranch was closed to all but guided resort guests, higher level employees, or off duty guides, while private sections of the stream were rife with no-trespassing signs.

For two seasons, I hiked or bummed rides to all the other streams I could reach, while learning all I could about fly fishing for trout.

And, with youthful optimism, I also wanted to be a Sun Valley guide.  Strangely enough, a rabbit hunt opened that door.

Returning on snow-covered Trail Creek Road from an overnight ski trip into Sun Valley’s Pioneer cabin, I saw an apparition in some willow-fringed meadows.   It was a large white rabbit hard to see against the snow.   The next day I was back with a rifle.

The Lodge night mechanic took the two rabbits I shot, and later said they tasted great.  Hunting snowshoe rabbits or hares on skis became a regular pursuit that was soon known around the resort.   So when Sports Director Joe Burgy asked me to take a Lodge guest snowshoe rabbit hunting, I sensed a heaven-sent opportunity.

We skied up Trail Creek to those meadows where I floundered through the brush to flush out several rabbits.  He shot three which I cleaned and left with the Lodge’s head chef.   All he had to do then was call when he wanted his rabbits cooked. 

The man told Burgy about the great time he had and when Joe told me this, I said, “Joe, I’d like to be a guide.”   The hours spent watching Taylor Williams tie flies then paid off.   Burgy asked the head guide what he thought and Williams said “good."

As an apprentice, I helped other guides when they had two or more guests to take out. I went with Taylor Williams only three times, but was out with Don Anderson, Adolph Rubicek, and Dutch Gunderson on a regular basis. Dutch’s nickname came from his skill with a dutch-oven. I would guide until he joined us after burying the oven in hot coals. Those delicious streamside beef pies were an important part of his guided trips, and his “guiding” was much in demand. 

Sun Valley guides would fish only if our “guest” suggested it. Our fly vest pockets were stuffed with full fly boxes, leader materials, and other items for their use, and we had to know where, and hopefully how, they could catch some fish. Our rods were just to demonstrate the cast for a given situation, but many said go ahead and fish.  

Knowing little about Silver Creek, I began fishing there on my own when I wasn’t guiding and if the stream was not too heavily scheduled. Those smooth flows, dense beds of aquatic plants, deceptive depths too often over the wader tops, and rainbow trout wary beyond belief – collectively conspired into an angling experience that could be downright exasperating while still an all absorbing challenge.  This was graduate school!

Silver Creek often has multiple hatches, two or more kinds of mayfly coming off at the same time.  The fish would key on one of those, and deciding which was not easy.  And it wasn’t always the most obvious bug on the water. A fish conditioned to feeding on a smaller insect will often stay with the bug it knows rather than change to one it doesn’t. But then, they could suddenly start taking almost everything that came along.

It could be a real crapshoot, and finding the answer made your whole day.

After the 1950 season I left for college, but returned to Sun Valley and guiding for two more summers. Silver Creek was now one of my streams.

Silver Creek trout were seldom easy but with more experience, I became fairly successful there, even to reaching the point where former guests asked for me.

Early in that second year of guiding, Dutch Gunderson asked me to come with him and a Mr. Hayes to Silver Creek. I wasn’t booked that day and eagerly agreed. 

Mr. Hayes was from New York, in his 80’s, and with the tackle and demeanor suggesting wealth.   Most summer days on Silver Creek are very bright and this one was no exception. While insects often hatch throughout the day, trout spook easier under a mid-day sun. But Mr. Hayes did not want to drive down early, so it was 10 o’clock when we reached the stream. 

While Dutch fired up some charcoal to cook lunch, Mr. Hayes and I walked over to watch the water.  A hatch was on, the trout were feeding, and if we could just cast without spooking them, we might catch a few. 

In those pre-Polaroid sunglass days, a floating fly could disappear into the surface glare, and also be distorted to the fish.  A dark fly was the logical choice, easier to see against the glare, and in that brightness, perhaps acceptable to the fish. My choice was a Black Wulff, and I tied one onto Mr. Hayes’ tippet.It was almost as easy as the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel! My younger eyes saw the strikes and I’d say when. But not seeing the strike, Mr. Hayes broke tippets on so many fish I was getting low on Black Wulffs. But he did catch several large rainbows, and when Dutch joined us, Mr. Hayes was taking a rest on the bank.

On returning to Sun Valley, Mr. Hayes gave Dutch some bills, then turned to me
and said, “the sports desk will have something for you in a few days.”   That fine old gentleman had Abercrombie and Fitch, the great New York sporting goods emporium of those days, send me a Kaybar multi-tooled pocket knife with Fly Fisherman on one side of the yellow handle and my name engraved on the other. 

Greatest tip I ever had and I used that knife for years.

In 1964, the railroad sold its Sun Valley holdings, ending the Union Pacific’s management of Silver Creek.   Today, the Ranch property is the centerpiece of The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve.

I last fished Silver Creek ten years ago.  My wife Pat and I were heading home from attended a meeting in Oregon and pulled the RV into the Hayspur campground in late afternoon. We planned to overnight before heading on east, but I did want to fish Silver Creek the next morning. We drove over, put our donation in the box and walked upstream. Just past the footbridge over Sullivan Lake’s outlet was a long, grassy bank. A pod of trout was feeding steadily just upstream. 

Pat sat down on the grass, so saying “keep the camera handy,” I carefully waded in. The insects floating by were the fairly large Green Drakes and smaller Blue-winged Olive mayflies. I watched for a few minutes and saw the fish were taking the olives.

The size 16 hair-winged fly looked right but like many youthful experiences there, the fly drifted right through that pod as the fish continued taking the naturals. I cast for an hour with no strikes but at least my casting hadn’t put the fish down.

Could those clumps of aquatic plants, some just under the surface, be affecting the seemingly smooth surface currents? If there were such counter currents, the leader might be causing a nearly imperceptible drag on the fly. 

I changed leader tippets to a lighter one that was two feet longer. A tippet too long and light for the fly size would not straighten on the cast, and that’s what I wanted!

When cast, the tippet piled up around the fly but allowed a natural drift as the long tippet slowly straightened out. The fly was almost through the pod before a fish took it. I tightened up, moved the fish towards me so as not to spook the rest, and released a 14-incher. Three more casts and I hooked a 17-inch fish.   Several more casts and a big trout casually took the fly. I yelled, “here’s grandpa,” and after a spirited fight, landed and released a 20-inch rainbow.

Wading over to Pat, I said “now we can leave.”     

In 1972, I flew from my home in Billings, Montana into West Yellowstone to rent a car and drive to a Sun Valley meeting.  It was Sunday and the meeting was to start that evening. Reaching Picabo before noon, I drove up to the Hayspur Campground which was then adjacent to the hatchery diversion ditch from Loving Creek.  Loving Creek is Silver Creek’s largest tributary with its lower reaches now within the Silver Creek Preserve.  Climbing the stile over the brush-covered fence, I saw beautiful water and trout making scattered, lazy rises.

I only caught one fish that day but it was the biggest rainbow trout I’ve ever landed, at least five pounds and perhaps even six. Phenomenal!   It was so big I didn’t dare tell about it at the meeting.

A year later, I repeated that trip. With memories of that huge rainbow, I again drove to Hayspur Campground so I could fish Loving Creek for a while. But on climbing  the fence stile, I was dismayed to see a new house right where I had stood to catch that big trout!

This sort of thing seems to be happening everywhere today and, without Nature Conservancy protection, I can visualize a worst case scenario. Silver Creek would be flowing between expensive homes with manicured lawns down to the water. Those “No Trespassing” signs would just be for float tubers and such since locked gates would keep the rest of us out.

But under ownership of The Nature Conservancy, the stream will stay in its natural state and available for those of us who love the challenge of angling for sophisticated trout. After nearly 60 years of trout fishing in many parts of the United States and Canada, Silver Creek still gets my vote as the ultimate trout stream.

About the author
Charlie Most, with degrees in wildlife biology and in journalism, enjoyed a more than 30-year career as a biologist, public information specialist and public information supervisor with Federal land managing agencies.

He has lectured about or taught fishing at American University in Washington, D.C., Rocky Mountain College in Montana, Chesapeake College in Maryland, and  George Mason University in Virginia.
While serving on the National Conservation Committee of the Boy Scouts of America, Most wrote the earlier Conservation of Natural Resources Merit Badge handbook, the chapter on fishing in the Boy Scout Fieldbook, and developed the Scout’s national Fish-N-Camp program.  He also served as a conservation instructor for four Boy Scout Jamborees.

He has written many free-lance articles about fishing, hunting, natural history, and related subjects, and was an award winning outdoor columnist for two northern Virginia daily newspapers – the Potomac News and the Alexandria Gazette.

Most served three years on the Board of Directors for the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and two terms as president of the regional Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association. 
He and his wife Pat now live in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he wade fishes near  home for things big and mean.  He does try to go west each summer to fish for trout.  

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