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Home Waters: The South Fork Payette River

Boise Idaho

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.   

Mike on the South Payette River

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.

South Fork Payette Trout

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.

Beautiful South Fork Payette Trout

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.

Mike Sandifer

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Business and Pleasure Four Days in Montana

Boise Idaho

Trevan’s Fly

Recently Martha and I left Idaho for Helena, Montana on Northwest School of Fly Fishing business.  Of course, there comes a point where you have to separate business from pleasure and in my case, that’s fly fishing.  If you have ever driven the eight and a half hours to Helena, then you know all the rivers you drive by are enticing.  As I drove past the Beaver Head, Ruby, and Big Hole my mouth watered and my casting hand trembled.  By the time I hit the Boulder River outside of Helena I couldn’t hold back anymore and made plans with Martha to spend some time fishing this small river.

Spring is not a good time of year to be traveling 8 1/2 hours to get to Montana just to fly fish.  Much like Idaho, the rivers of Montana are very high and range anywhere between muddy to tea stained in color.  But first things first.  I was to visit with a young fly tier whose specialties are streamer, particularly the articulated type.  For most fly shops stocking their flies is as easy as emailing their order to a wholesale distributor.  It’s not that easy for me.  All our flies are tied by either guides or fly fisherman or commercial tiers here locally.  Quality flies tied by quality tiers are hard to come by and I will travel the west in search of them, which is why I ended up in Montana.

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Trevan Maharg

Before reaching Helena North of Butte, I had a good opportunity to follow the length of the Boulder River almost to Helena.  I made the decision the Boulder River and Prickly Pear Creek on the Prickly Pear Ranch was where I was going to fly fish.  Prickly Pear Ranch was where my fishing began, it was there that I met up with Trevan Maharg, a young fly tier who has grown up on the ranch.  Trevan is a remarkable all round fly tier but really specializes in articulated streamers.  I spent a few hours tying flies with Trevan and we created a couple of streamers perfect for our waters.

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Prickly Pear Creek

Prickly Pear Creek runs through the ranch property and the ranch lets the creek run wild and it was the perfect place to try out our new creations.  I have had the opportunity to fly fish Prickly Pear Creek a few times in the past and the trout in that creek are big and plentiful.  Walking out to the creek was painless but again Prickly Pear Creek is not immune to runoff and the creek was high and stained.  Our mission was not so much to catch trout but to see how our new streamers worked in running water. We chose a nice long shallow stretch that made it easy to cast sink tip line and have few obstructions. 

Trevan was up first and the fly landed just at the top of the run.  Trevan worked the streamer down and jerked it back up.  I admired the way the streamer moved, and its coloration told me this was going to be an effective and simple streamer to bring to the shop.  I was up next and copied Trevan’s cast as though Trevan himself made the cast. With streamers, next after trying to imitate a bait fish, I’m looking for how the streamer holds up during the cast.  Does it cast heavy? Is it moving smoothly through the air and lastly does it move life like through the water?  This streamer worked perfectly in the air and in the water.  It’s going to be a staple in my streamer box.

Along the bank, down from where I was standing were some small willows overhanging the creek.  My last cast I thought I would just retrieve with a little jerk just under these little willows.  I got a good cast and let the streamer, after its run across the creek, smoothly move to my side of the creek and began my retrieve.  As I moved the streamer just under the willows and towards me, I was just about to bring the streamer to my hand and call it good when a huge shadow quickly approached the streamer and all I could see after that was a huge white mouth open.

This truly was a huge brown trout tricked into believing it had a good meal to eat.  I set the hook and watched as the big brown rolled and dived back under the bank.  With side pressure I worked hard to move that beast from under the bank when suddenly my fly rod went straight.  I knew at that time the big brown had come off and that I had a winner for a streamer.  Trevan and I gave each other knucks and walked back to the ranch house. Trevan agreed to tie flies for the shop and I am proud to display then there.

Martha and I was able to spend the next day taking care of the rest of the fly fishing business we needed to attend to we were free to take in some more Montana fly fishing.  Our trip from Butte to Helena earlier revealed to Boulder River to us and we were both anxious to give it a try.  So early Saturday morning we packed up a lunch and headed for the Boulder River.  As I stated before at this time of the year most Montana freestone rivers are high, muddy or tea stained.  The Boulder River was no different, ranging from muddy to tea stained toward the upper river and that’s where I decided to give it a go.

At a likely access point I pulled off the highway and parked along a good section of river that had some great turns and some nice seams that I thought would hold some trout.  When I got out of the truck, I notice a few PMD mayflies fluttering around and settled on using a PMD with a beadhead nymph dropper for good measure.  Where I started that morning was a nice tailout where the seam between fast water and slow water was long and enticing.  After a few somewhat awkward casts  I managed to get the fly right where I needed it with a mid-air mend or reach cast.  The flies landed right on the seam and I watched with delight as I got that long slow drift that lasted around 30 feet. 

As my PMD drifted down that stretch of seam it suddenly sunk under the surface like a flash.  I set and with a tug back I stuck a healthy Boulder River rainbow trout.  The fight was quick but hard and was lucky enough to have this beauty release himself at my feet.  The first trout is either a curse or a blessing.  By curse I mean that’s all the trout you are going to catch today or a blessing, for you are going to catch a lot of fish for the rest of the day.  For me it was a blessing and what a wonderful way to end a business trip that started out hunting big browns and ended by fooling nice rainbows.

What I learned from this trip was I’m going to have to start combining more trips with business.  Some how I need to make these trips more fishing and less business.  However I do it I can’t think of a better way for Martha and I spend time together.  Tight lines………………………

Mike Sandifer

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Owyhee River Lessons

Boise Idaho

Owyhee River, Oregon Flow Rate: 302 cfs

Air Temp Midday: 92 degrees,   Water Temp: Not taken but cold

On Saturday, June 15th at 6:45 AM, we left Eagle, ID, for the Owyhee River.  Just an hour and twenty minutes to get to the infamous tunnel on Owyhee Lake Road from my home in Eagle, ID.

Upon the arrival to the river and up to the tunnel, the water was a milky, olive-brown stained color.  As we proceeded up river the water started to clear up. It was not until we were within a half mile or less to the Owyhee Dam Park that the water was actually clear.  We decided to fish the clear water near the park for the morning and see how things go.

Our first assessment of the water was it looked promising, seeing a few fish just downstream from the bridge and up to the first diversion.  A minor midge hatch, small and around a size 20 – 22, was happening but no rising fish.  One nice 14” rainbow caught while drop-shot nymphing below the bridge on a beadless Black Top Secret midge, size 20, in the riffle shown below. 

We fished for hours hitting as much water up to the first diversion without success.  The first PMD seen was around 12:00 PM and there were only a few popping off and no fish to compliment them with a “Hello, I am over here” rise to the occasion.  We saw less than a handful of fish rise as of 2:30 PM.  Counting the one rainbow mentioned above and what I observed of others fishing around us, only five fish were caught by 5:00 PM.

We decided to head down river to a check a few spots above the tunnel but the water was just too milky.  Not seeing anything we felt was remotely interesting, we decided to head back up to clear water and see if we could get a couple more hours in on the water.  We saw a few more PMD’s and Caddis on the water and only one fish rise above the diversion near the park.

Again, I went back to the drop-shot nymph setup with a PMD biot nymph size 18 and beadless Hare’s Ear of the same size.  I was working the water just below the diversion near the park.  I hooked up on one fish to only have it spit the fly. The fish were deep in the holes right under the diversion and rarely peaking their heads out around the edges of the seams or tail-outs.  With the various little micro currents near the bottom you will need to add some weight to the drop-shot rig to keep the flies in the zone, at least until the water speed has decreased to normal Owyhee cubic feet per second standards.

I moved above the diversion, cruising the shoreline to sight fish.  Fish were spotted 25 yards above the diversion.  I worked my way into the water, slow and methodically, until I had four fish within nine feet of my rod tip.  No takers and clearly interested in something else than what I was offering.  Not even a twitch of the head to glance at the fly sliding by them within inches left or right of their nose.

The bite was just shut off for us today.  This is a learning lesson not only for me but for my fishing partner, Larry Williams, as well.  We looked this trip to the “O” as an experiential challenge to work through the process when the fishing was tough-going.  Work the fly you have confidence in and add some variation to your presentation; up, down, swing, etc.  There are no bad days for fishing, just days where you might not catch.  We all have them and it is good to recognize this is part of the sport. 

Take the lessons the river affords you and make use if it the next time you are on the water.  This is how we become more dialed in, develop our skill sets, and hopefully share that knowledge with others.  Keep it simple and try not to over-analyze the situation.  The premise and purpose for our time on the water is our passion for the sport, relaxation, and clear the head from our normal daily life routines.  But of course to catch fish when they want to play is the goal, today was not that day.

Look for my next write up in the coming weeks on the Big Wood River above Ketchum, ID, near the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (NRA) headquarters where the North Fork Big Wood River converges with the Big Wood.  Also, at the end of July I will be heading to Henry’s Lake area to fish the lake, Henry’s Fork River, and the Madison River from the Three Dollar Bridge stretch up to Kelly Galloup’s Slide Inn.

Thanks for reading,

Dale Piocos










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Birth of an Idaho Fly Fishing School

Boise Idaho
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Idaho is arguably the best fly fishing state in America. Great destination rivers abound throughout the state of Idaho. The Henry’s Fork, South Fork of the Snake River, the many great rivers of Northern Idaho and the South Fork of the Boise River make Idaho stand out as a Mecca of fly fishing. Because of this, people from all over America come here to fly fish. Many people who have moved to Idaho are intrigued by the sport of fly fishing and soon want to learn. What most have discovered is there are more rivers and streams than they had previously realized and these waters are chalk full of wild trout.

For those want to learn fly fishing, it becomes apparent that there is a lot of confusion surrounding the sport. Every person has an opinion, every fly fishing retail establishment has a system and the internet can be most confusing of all. Eventually it all becomes intimidating and learning how to fly fish is put on the back burner.

As a full time fly fishing instructor who has fly fished for over 48 years I can see how fly fishing can be intimidating. When I first started fly fishing there was very little information available on the sport and most anglers taught themselves how to fly fish. Today fly fishing experts use the internet, social media and mountains of books and magazines to promote their opinions on how to fly fish. Mega fly fishing corporations are telling you if you want to be a successful fly angler you need to use their fly fishing products. Large retail giants selling fly fishing gear are telling you what gear you need to have and others are using your desire to learn fly fishing as a marketing tool to get you to buy their gear and after you have left with an arm full of gear you never hear from them again. When does the insanity stops? The truth is fly fishing is not complicated. In fact, it’s quite simple but being able to cut through all the confusion to see its simplicity can be difficult once you’re immersed in it.

A few years ago I was fly fishing on the Madison River in Montana. It was one of those days when the fishing and the catching were in harmony. Suddenly out of nowhere came a loud voice screaming profanity that would make a sailor cringe. As I rounded a bend in the river I could see downriver a young man sitting on a rock trying to make sense out of a bird nest of knots that made up his leader. Surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see me his profanity was quickly corrected but I could tell from my distance that he was frustrated by what was once his leader.

This poor angler eventually moved down the river and when I finally caught up to him he was sitting on a rock completely soaked after an apparent miscalculation with a rock landed him head over heels in the river. With water dripping off his nose he looked up at me and said “I quit, I just can’t get this fly fishing thing to work for me”. As a formal teacher of fly fishing for over 20 years I had noticed from a distance what the angler was doing wrong. He was simply trying to dry fly fish for trout that were not at the surface of the river but on the bottom. I gave him a quick remedy to try and went on my way. Later when I arrived at my truck I had another opportunity to speak with him. This time his attitude was one of triumph. He told me that after I left he not only caught a fish but spent the rest of his time on the water catching and releasing numerous trout. He thanked me and assured me that he would continue to give fly fishing a try.

The birth of Northwest School of Fly Fishing can be traced back to an accumulation of frustration by many anglers like that one on the Madison River. For many fly anglers fly fishing has become both a passion and a pleasure to be enjoyed for the rest of their lives. It’s the goal of Northwest School of Fly Fishing to open that option to all who have that desire. Many fly fishing schools across America are sponsored by mega fly fishing corporations or have a famous fly angler’s name on the school. I wanted to start a school that welcomed everybody and offered classes at a fair price. I simply want to give all Idahoans the opportunity to fall in love with fly fishing.

Northwest School of Fly Fishing is uniquely Idahoan. I know that we live in arguably the best fly fishing state in America. We are proud of our state and proud of our waters so we are not afraid to teach fly fishing from a leadership role. Because some accomplished angler who fishes a small limestone creek on the East coast believes fly fishing should be done a certain way to be successful doesn’t mean it applies to our big waters here in Idaho. So I see our school as a leader of cutting edge fly fishing and fly fishing instruction for Idaho and the Northwest.

There are many beautiful and wondrous things that surround us in Idaho and we often take these things for granted. What we don’t take for granted at Northwest School of Fly Fishing is the proper way to learn fly fishing. It’s important that you to be successful on the water so we are keenly interested in how you are progressing after learning the basics. The need for a fly fishing school dedicated to the core fundamentals of fly fishing became apparent to me after years of teaching fly fishing to new anglers who themselves had been mislead in some way by the commercial end of fly fishing. Simple things such as learning what flies an angler needs to be successful were always ignored while the necessities of a quality reel took precedence. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a trout always prefers a good dry fly over that of a good fly reel. Examples such as these, positive encouragement from many fly anglers and the desire to make it right took me down the path to creating one of Idaho’s only independent fly fishing school.

The first step in building a credible fly fishing school was to put together a fly fishing curriculum that encompasses every aspect of fly fishing. This means developing a class schedule that is attractive to those who want a beginning fly fishing course and advanced enough to make classes appealing to skilled anglers. The school also supports a seminar program. We bring in fly fishing experts present all fly anglers at every level of skill with continuing fly fishing education.

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To be a creditable fly fishing school it’s important to offer classes that also improve the skills of experienced fly anglers. It’s a given that in fly fishing you never stop learning and in my case I learn something new almost every time I go fishing. So really the bones of the Northwest School of Fly Fishing are in the quality, leading edge information and hands on approach to fly fishing that the curriculum is based on. But that’s not where it all ends.

The future looks bright for Idaho’s own fly fishing school. Plans are on the board to expand the school to a place where anglers can go to study fly fishing. High on the list is building a library of up to date books on fly fishing, a map room, internet access, free fly tying and multiple class rooms. The goal of Northwest School of Fly Fishing is to create an atmosphere where fly fishing is always the topic of conversation and the free flow of information is always current.

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