Most fly fishing folks that know me will know one of my most favorite rivers to fly fish is the South Fork of the Payette River. Other fly fishing folks will laugh or shake their heads when I tell them I prefer the waters of the South Fork Payette River over most other rivers. However you feel, for me the South Fork Payette River is my home water.
It’s an easy statement to make, but what most folks don’t know is I was raised fly fishing on a river in the southern Sierra mountains that’s almost identical in nature to the South Fork Payette. I think that has a lot to do with it but there are other qualities of the South Fork Payette that come close. Like lots of trout. Like lots of trout that like to take a dry fly. It’s close to home, just 45 minutes and its beautiful flowing water make it ideal for trout and fly fishing.
My daily routine at Northwest School of Fly Fishing during the spring and summer season, after I open the place up, is sit down with a cup of coffee and check the daily river flows across Idaho. My search always begins with the river flows on the South Fork of the Payette River, patiently waiting for the flows at Lowman, Idaho to be at the magic number of 1500 cfs. When that day finally hits the magic number, I immediately make plans to begin my season-long fly fishing affair with this beautiful river. The last few years I have started fishing the South Fork Payette with my long time buddy Bob Fisher. Bob feels the same way I do about the South Fork Payette River; he also grew up fly fishing the same river as I did. I met Bob at around 7am with plans to eat breakfast at the Banks Café in Banks, Idaho. Banks is where the North Fork Payette River and the South Fork Payette River come together to form the main Payette River. Having breakfast at the Banks Café is a tradition with me when I’m fishing the river in the morning. After 84 eggs and 2 gallons of coffee, Bob and I headed up to the Deadwood River and South Fork Payette River confluence, and from there upriver to begin fishing near Loman, Idaho.
Our goal was not so much to fly fish but to visit some of the places of old and to revisit that part of the river which I don’t fish very often. At the confluence of the 2 rivers I settled into working right where the Deadwood joins the South Fork. After just 2 casts I landed 2 nice 11 inch trout. I tied on an orange bodied Annihilator and doused it with some floatant and put a perfect cast right on the seam and surprised those 2 beautiful trout. Bob was working downstream from me, so I had little chance of moving down river to try to fool a couple more. Bob managed a couple of mis- strikes and a nice trout. We worked that section of river for about 15 minutes and decided to move to the canyon below Pine Flat Campground where I mashed 4 more nice rainbows.
So far, all the rainbows I caught where in that 10 to 13 inch range. Where were all those little trout that the river is known for? I should be careful of what I think because the next 3 trout I nailed were “Dinks in the Deadwood.” There are larger trout in the Deadwood, and I would recommend anyone fishing this river if the gate is open to the road. It’s a beautiful pine tree surrounded river, a bit rough, but none the less, a neat place for a change of pace.
Back on the South Fork Payette, Bob and I decided to eat lunch and fish the section of river between the road to Crouch, Idaho (Middle Fork Payette River) and Banks. That’s about a 10 mile stretch of river that’s full of trout. There are a couple of major rapids in that stretch of river and I usually will catch trout in those rapids working the pockets, however the river was just too high to work the rapids that day. Instead we started fishing the river just upstream of the rapids with success. What I saw upstream of the rapids were a series of rocks and boulders that slowed the river down enough to create multiple seams where plenty of trout were lying. Working and casting from downstream, I worked my fly slowly up the river. When I did hook a trout, I could get the trout to move or run down river and not up, scaring little or no trout. After releasing a trout I could continue the strategy of moving my fly upriver catching more trout.
On one location where a boulder caused a nice seam, at the end of that seam was another rock and a new seam. Multiple rocks in between created little mini seams and in that stretch of the South Fork I hooked and released over 10 trout. This is a prototypical pocket water situation, which we fly anglers live for. I was able to work my fly over multiple seams and when I did catch a trout on one seam, I could let the rest of the trout on that seam rest.
After a short period of time I could go back to that seam and bring another trout to hand. After working this section of river for a short time it was back to the truck and down the road to look for another likely spot. The beauty of the Annihilator dry fly is it’s an attractor fly, developed by Oregon angler with some fame by the name of Dave Hughes. I remember reading about this fly in one magazine Dave was writing for and immediately felt that this fly would work on most freestone rivers and proceeded to tie up a bunch to try. I have fished that fly religiously ever since with great success. I think what makes that fly work well is it is tied almost the same way as an Elk Hair Caddis except with deer hair instead of elk hair and the body is a bright color of orange, yellow, or red. The combination of high floatability and a bright color attraction, floating high and dry on the surface, makes this fly irresistible. Some folks call it a mini stimulator. It’s not a commercial fly, you probably can’t buy it at any shop, you either tie the fly yourself or you can purchase them here at Northwest School of Fly Fishing. TL Schindler, a local fly tier ties them for our shop.
What I, and the trout on the South Fork Payette River like best about the Annihilator is it just floats like a cork. To fly fish the South Fork Payette River successfully you must keep your dry fly floating on the surface. Like I always say about freestone rives is “If it aint a floating you aint a catchin”. The key to catching trout on the South Fork Payette river is to work yourself and your fly downstream or behind where trout will likely be and to present your fly, high and dry, on the surface. If you choose the right water, use solid strategy, and if you work all the seams you will be successful. As I watch Bob work a section of river from the road just upstream of some rapids It was fun to watch his fly float through a run and then see a trout lift off the bottom of the river to the surface to engulf Bob’s fly. This is prime time on the South Fork Payette and I’m not one for wasting time so I walked on up the river from Bob to where I spotted a section of river I have never fished before. Ahead of me in the river where 3 fair sized boulders set in a row about 30 feet apart. What I had in fly fishing terms was three consecutive 30 foot seams holding trout. For a freestone fly fisherman that’s like scoring a touchdown.
It was at this location where I caught most of my trout and the largest. Starting at the lower boulder I worked my way downstream up to the boulder catching and releasing 4 nice 11 inch trout. On my final cast, before moving upstream. It happened. A massive rainbow opened its huge mouth and engulfed my annihilator, I set the hook and held on as it exploded on the surface tail walking its way toward me. Quickly it dived down under and headed down river using the massive current as it’s aid. I’m standing on a boulder, in a boulder field, and just can’t follow the trout downstream to try and maneuver it to shore, it quickly broke me off.
After recovering from that fight I worked my way up to the next boulder and took another 5 trout before making it to the final boulder where my first cast to that seam brought my second monster trout, easily over 18 inches. An 18 inch rainbow on the South Fork Payette is rare and truly a trophy if you can beat the current and bring to shore. I did manage to get the best of this beauty and after about 5 or 6 minutes worked him to my feet where he popped the fly out and slowly finned away. I managed another trout or 2 from the last seam and then walked back downstream of the original boulder and began the same thing all over again. I managed to land over 18 trout on that stretch not counting the trout I missed.
We have two great river systems here in Southwest Idaho; the Famous Owyhee River drainage and the Boise River drainage. (Including the Famous South Fork Boise River) But there is another river drainage that is closer to the City of Boise than the afore mentioned river systems, that’s the Payette River System. If the Payette River drainage was an hour from a major city like Phoenix, Arizona, it would be considered one of the great rivers of the west. If you like beautiful mountain vistas, crystal clear water, restaurants, 54 miles of highway and river and no other fly fishermen to contend with then try out the South Fork Payette River. Be careful it might get into your blood.
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