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Are Mountain Rainbows Panfish?

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
My friend June is among the handful of hardcore paddlers I go canoe camping with on the Kansas River. A substitute schoolteacher nine months of the year, in 2003 she had the good fortune to land a summer volunteer job with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho's Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Summer of 2003 marked the second time June worked there, so she was getting familiar with many of the indigenous plants and animals.

Before she left for Idaho, I told her of my plan to drive to California in August and visit my oldest son, and while there I'd be giving trout fishing a try in the Sierra streams. Hearing this, June suggested that on my drive home I take a northern route up through central Idaho and stop by Sawtooth NRA for a few days and try for trout in the East Fork. She'd heard the fishing was pretty good, but had never tried it herself.

Researching Idaho fishing regs before heading west, I learned that the East Fork is home to brook trout. Which meant nothing to me until I read on and saw that the creel limit on brookies was in the neighborhood of 25 fish per day. I took that to mean one of two things: either brookies are prolific to the point of being nuisance fish, or else Idaho's wildlife agency has a management reason for wanting anglers to kill large numbers of this species daily.

No tourist could be a more novice trout fisher; I would not contribute much to Idaho's brookie control program if they indeed had one. Still, the idea of keeping so many fish a day was enticing. The idea became irresistible after further research informed me that brookies are the best tasting of all the trout. A side trip to the East Fork now began appealing to my stomach as much as my spirit. I'd been on enough canoe trips with June to know how fine a cook she is. If I couldn't figure out what to do with a stringer of brookies, she'd know!

So in late August there I was, wading nervously into the chilly waters of the upper East Fork of the Salmon. Tell you what: when you've grown up fishing gentle Midwest prairie streams, the very slowest mountain stream in the West looks like a rocket ship. The water rushes at you then races downstream at bewildering speed. Keeping your feet planted on the slippery rocks is difficult at all times, even wearing felt boots in water only ankle deep.

Before leaving Kansas and again in California, I'd picked the brains of many fly shop employees for advice on how to catch trout. With their good help, I arrived in Idaho with some flies plus a few basic tactics to try. Still, as I stood in the river stripping line off the reel prepping for my first cast, with June standing on the bank watching expectantly and the water rushing by in a blur, I felt like a monkey flying a space ship.

First hard lesson the East Fork taught me is that even a doped-up Elk Hair Caddis, if cast into waves, immediately becomes a submarine whose underwater location is Top Secret. My line might have indicated the fly's whereabouts had the East Fork not been so busy express shipping both items to the Pacific coast.

I'd positioned myself at the inside arc of a 20-ft. wide curving run. Getting no hits in the swifter water opposite, I targeted the shallower, slightly slower but relatively smooth water of the inside eddy. Just like I do in Kansas when fishing a moving stream, I sent my cast into the "edge habitat" between the main current and the eddy, hoping the slower eddy water would float my Caddis down the length of the current break. Which it did, much to the pleasure of a 6-inch brook trout!

This first afternoon, June had been tour driving me around the valley when we stopped to fish this spot. I'd forgotten to put my cooler in the bed of her truck. Unable to protect my catch from spoilage, we wouldn't be having trout for supper tonight. So this was "experimental fishing."

But next morning, I got up early and hiked downstream from the cabin, where I found a classic straight-ahead riffle with a calm, wide pool below the drop. I waded into the shallow tail of this pool and began fan casting my way slowly upstream into deeper water, this time using a Parachute Adams fly because its little white topknot shows up on the river like a highway flare. Before long I felt myself starting to relax, adjusting to the quick cast-and-retrieve tempo demanded on mountain streams.

What relaxed me even more was that I was catching fish and getting lots of strikes. But losing my grip on netted trout, too - an education in itself. With five keepers on my stringer and it's only 8 a.m., I couldn't help fluffing up: Idaho Brookie Control had found their man!

About then, June appeared on the high bank overlooking the pool. Spotting the fish on my stringer, she nervously and apologetically told me that she wasn't sure they were brookies; they could be rainbow trout. If they were rainbows, she wasn't sure it was legal to keep them. I was in no position to argue; many weeks had passed since I last looked at photos of brook trout. I sure wanted these fish to be brookies, but suddenly I was afraid of getting arrested as a game violator. So to be safe I released the fish, watched them zoom away to safety, then quit fishing.

Back at the cabin, we looked at June's Audubon book and it was clear that the fish I'd caught the afternoon before, plus the five morning fish, were all rainbow trout. The question now was: is it legal to keep East Fork rainbows for food? If so, how many?

That afternoon we drove to Clayton and visited a general store where we got the straight skinny - rainbows are indeed legal quarry in the East Fork, they were in season and I could keep six a day. Hearing this, June felt awful; her concerns that morning had caused me to release a supper meal of trout when I needn't have. I told her not to grieve: the morning's luck had me confident that I might catch us some more.

Besides, had she not intervened I would never have made a special trip down the valley to acquire more Parachute Adams flies (I'd brought just one.). It's 80 miles and a minimum 4 hours over rough road from her Forest Service cabin to Clayton and back. I would have invented an excuse not to go.

So everything worked out. I camped at June's station four days, and three days we had rainbow for supper. I never caught a brookie the whole time I was there; turns out they live in the higher tributaries, in back country areas I wasn't geared to reach. And may I say that if brookies really are the best eating of all trout, then rainbows aren't far behind. I gutted and headed each one, June rolled them in flour and cracker crumbs and fried them in olive oil. Salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon were the only seasonings. Excello!

Two noteworthy highlights happened the last day of my visit. The first took place at a riffle that runs crosses the river on the bias. I hadn't got a single hit in the long pool below this riffle. After giving up I exited the pool, walked up the bank and started wading across the riffle so I could fish the next pool upstream.

Halfway across I stopped and glanced back at the pool I'd just abandoned. For some reason I was seized by the idea of casting into the pool then dragging my fly upstream against the current into the whitewater at the bottom of the riffle. All my life, I've read that one of the cardinal rules of trout fishing says you NEVER allow line drag to contaminate the natural drift of a dry fly. Deliberately pulling a dry upstream might be a violation of U.S. Code punishable by 10 years in Leavenworth. Or worse, I might get smoked by a lightning bolt hurled from the heavens by the enraged ghost of Isaac Walton.

Aw, what the hell. A Kansas tourist is about to do something really ignorant; so what else is new? Maybe the trout fishing spirits will let him off with only a mosquito bite on the wrist. I made the cast.

The Parachute landed in the pool, I began stripping line and the skittering fly never reached the whitewater foam before the surface exploded compliments of a 10-inch rainbow-hued torpedo. I was dumbstruck, but as I threaded this beautiful keeper onto my stringer an extremely happy thought occurred to me: "Trout can't read!"

My self-imposed feelings of inadequacy melted away and I began completely enjoying myself from that moment on. No longer did I feel compelled to use the textbook upstream casts and no-drag drifts. Because rather than fleeing in terror, this wild Idaho trout had just attacked a presentation that broke all the rules. Bless his heart!

The second highlight involved the last fish of the trip. I was working upstream from June's cabin that afternoon when the valley walls closed in, dead-ending me at a whitewater rapid boulder garden. Below the steep drop laid a short but very deep pool, judging by the color of the water. This pool was also narrow, funneling the river's entire volume through with considerable force and turbulence. No chance for a wading approach here.

Creeping to the side of the pool, I stayed low behind a huge boulder. My first attempts were with a Parachute Adams. No takers. No surprise, either; my fly could drift but a couple of seconds before getting washed out the tail of the pool. No takers, but this deep hole had Keeperville written all over it. So...what to do?

I clipped off the Parachute and tied on a #10 flashback Hare's Ear nymph. This would be my first use of a nymph. I threw it into the rapid just above the drop so that it would start sinking before it got swept over. I wanted it to go deep. An instant later I could see from my line angle that the drop had indeed taken it far down into the hole. Halfway through, my rod tip got yanked hard and the line moved off to the side - definitely a fish. Maybe a big trout or maybe a small one the current was helping, but I was in trouble. After many rod tip countermoves to keep the fish from rubbing my tippet against the rocks, I netted a 12-inch rainbow Big Boy - fish #6, and my day was done.

I was so impressed by how viciously that last trout took a nymph that when I left Idaho that Hare's Ear nymph stayed on my leader. As an experiment, a week after getting home I tried it on panfish so that Douglas State Fishing Lake's bluegill and crappie could express their view regarding its worth. The rest, as they say, is lunch.

But getting back to the title of this story: are mountain rainbows panfish? Every time I look at the stovetop photo of a day's limit sizzling in June's cast iron skillet, I still don't know if the category applies in the correct scientific sense. My taste buds can offer only a layman's opinion, and no doubt many books would disagree. ~ Joe riverat@sunflower.com

About Joe:

From Lawrence, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer. In addition to fishing, he hunts upland birds and waterfowl, and for the last 15 years has pursued the sport of solo canoeing. On the nearby Kansas River he has now logged nearly 5,000 river miles while doing some 400 wilderness style canoe camping trips. A musician/singer/songwriter as well, Joe's 'day job' is with the U.S. General Services Adminstration.

Joe at one time was a freelance photojournalist who wrote the Sunday Outdoors column for his city newspaper. Outdoor sports, writing and music have never earned him any money, but remain priceless activities essential to surviving the 'day job.'

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