Silver Creek In Winter

Only trout longer than 24 inches attract knowing anglers in this renowned Idaho hotspot. To catch one, you'll need some of these expert tips. (February 2006)

Photo By James J. Krunich

In south-central Idaho, Silver Creek flows forth from the base of the Picabo Hills as a spring creek that's renowned for trophy rainbows and browns. Trout of 20 inches aren't just common, they're average. Any angler who catches one will garner a mere nod and a smile from local enthusiasts. They save quiet discussion for fish hitting the two-foot mark, and true exclamations for anything bigger. Tough crowd, this Silver Creek crew!

Rainbows and browns in Silver Creek grow to dramatic proportions for good reasons. These waters are rich, having gained nutrients by traveling underground below the Picabo Hills. The creek is fed by Stalker, Loving and Grove creeks, and by springs that surface at various locations inside the confines of the property held by the Nature Conservancy. When these waters emerge, they provide the nutrients needed to promote abundant aquatic growth.

That growth, in turn, provides an ecosystem teeming with insects. In the flows of Silver Creek, fortunately, mayflies are the featured, permanent residents -- and trout love mayflies. Hatches are abundant and diverse. Pale morning duns, callibaetis, baetis, tricos, mahogany duns and brown drakes arrive at varying times throughout the summer and into fall. Caddis, some golden stones, and a few green drakes also inhabit these waters. Midges, scuds and aquatic worms provide available sources of protein for rainbows and browns here. For chunky browns and rainbows, red-sided shiners are also a food source.

For those not familiar with the term "spring creek," some clarification is required. In the case of Silver Creek, you must understand that the word "spring" can be misleading. Silver Creek isn't a true spring creek. Rather, its tributaries arise from the emergence of an underground aquifer. At many locations, "the Creek" (as locals call it), is 30 feet or greater in width. The force of its current is minimal, since for the most part, it's a shallow, slow-moving stream that flows across a wide valley with minimal gradient.

Silver Creek is famous because of the area owned by the Nature Conservancy. In 1975, the Conservancy purchased from the Sun Valley Company the 479 acres that form the core of Silver Creek Preserve. Previously, the area had been used as a fishing and hunting retreat for guests visiting at Sun Valley Lodge. Since 1975, an additional 403 acres have been added. In addition, the Nature Conservancy has partnered with neighboring ranchers and farmers to protect 9,500 acres, accomplished through conservation easements. Fences have been constructed to keep livestock away from Silver Creek and feeder streams, to safeguard riparian areas. Some shrubs and trees have also been established to improve habitat. The Nature Conservancy assists with habitat improvements on easement lands.

Fishermen aren't the only creatures that enjoy Silver Creek. The diverse ecosystem comprises shrubs, riparian forests and wetlands, making this area unique. Because of its lush habitat, more than 150 species of birds visit Silver Creek Preserve at various times of the year. Deer, elk, cottontail rabbits, jack rabbits, eagles, beavers, otters, muskrats, geese and ducks are commonly viewed at different seasons of the year at the Conservancy and in the surrounding area. The wildlife display at Silver Creek is so amazing that many people who aren't interested in fishing come just to see the numerous animals and to enjoy the beauty of the area.

As mentioned earlier, trout food is abundant in Silver Creek. Browns and rainbows also prosper at Silver Creek because water temperatures remain relatively constant. Fluctuations can be expected during late July and into August, when summer weather is at its warmest. The rest of the year, the trout glide along for a smooth swim in cool waters.

During winter months, hatches do take place when the temperature permits. Midge hatches can be quite rewarding, especially on days when the wind is minimal and the sun is shining. Keep in mind that Silver Creek isn't far from Sun Valley, a ski resort that got its name because it sees sunshine some 300-plus days a year. Baetis and blue-winged olives also hatch on days when the weather cooperates. Nymphs are always present in the stream in great numbers.

Other species that can lead to your angling pleasure are scuds (freshwater shrimp) and aquatic worms, which will not be affected by the same weather constraints, since they don't hatch.

WINTER FISHING

Winter fishing takes place outside of Silver Creek Preserve. Downstream haunts have benefited from land easements and the purchase of property outside the preserve by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The public is afforded excellent access at this area, known as Point of Rocks West. Winter fishing basically transpires on portions of the stream on the north side of Highway 20. This area contains a very brushy section that the locals call "the Willows" because those trees line the banks and form ideal habitat for rainbows and especially monster browns. From Highway 20 downstream, the dominant species is brown trout. Winter fishing is strictly catch-and-release.

Winter fishing begins immediately below a bridge that crosses Highway 20. The best stretches are "the Willows" and the Point of Rocks area downstream to the Picabo Store, a small country store that sells coffee, food and flies, and which is a great place to obtain information from locals.

The area from below Point of Rocks to Picabo Store is private land. Easements provide some access, but fishermen should consider floating through this stretch of productive water. Float-tubing is possible on warm, windless days, but anglers should understand that Silver Creek meanders in slow fashion through this area. On a day that becomes blustery, this could prove to be a very, very cold undertaking, even with the best of layered clothing. Instead of tubing this stretch, it is a good idea to use a canoe, and always float with a partner.

Anglers who consider floating this stretch should note that there are no significant rapids. It's easy to pull your canoe off to the side of the creek to fish. The only problem may be snowbanks, depending on snowfall in any given year. Fishermen must take note that any winter fishing along this stretch should be leisurely; snowbanks may hide weak or hollow areas beneath their surface, and a sudden fall may send a winter angler into icy water. Backstroking, breast-stroking or any type of swimming is not a rewarding experience during winter at Silver Creek. The risk of hypothermia should always be considered when doing any type of winter fishing.

December fishing can be cold unless you follow the weather. As with all winter fishing, check the forecast before venturing to th

e Creek. Always target sunny, windless days, and never hurry to hit the water too early in the day. Sunshine is necessary, especially during winter, to raise the temperature and assist with hatches.

MATCHING HATCHES

Winter fishermen experience the best success by using Pheasant Tail nymphs in sizes 14 through 18. Soft- hackle nymphs and emerger patterns are also productive. Midge patterns are also a must for your fly box. Midges will vary in size, from No. 18 to 24. Baetis, also in sizes 18 to 24, will hatch along with the midges on warm days. Green scud patterns can be effective at times, when used in sizes 14 through 18. Large San Juan worms sometimes attract attention when the fishing is slow.

Presentation mandates that unless nymphing, anglers use 6x leaders for the smaller flies. Sometimes 7x is necessary, since on these placid waters, a small midge pattern looks like a rope is towing it. For nymph fishing, start with a 5x leader, especially if the day is slightly overcast. Then go to 6x if the trout aren't cooperating. All leaders used for presenting dry flies should be a minimum of nine feet in length; 12-foot leaders are your best choice.

Tossing streamers can also work here. At least 80 percent of the fish in this stretch will be brown trout, so streamers are a natural match for this section of Silver Creek. Woolly Buggers in various sizes and Clouser minnows are excellent choices. Local fishermen often begin casting streamers in various sizes and colors, especially during February. Many veterans begin with small streamers and change to larger flies. When tossing these minnow imitations, you can use leaders from 4x or even heavier.

In February, stream conditions will often be different from those experienced during December or January. Because of snow melt and ice falling into the water on warm days, Silver Creek's flow often turns off-color. On these days, definitely spend some time fishing streamers; the browns won't be as spooky as normally and need minnow-sized offerings to sustain them through the winter.

Presentation is crucial on all Silver Creek waters. To achieve a dead drift on dry flies, you must make the cast downstream, since it's rare to catch anything other than small fish with an upstream cast. Bring the rod forward and stop it prematurely at about the 10 o'clock position, causing the line to recoil slightly. Next, bring the rod to waist level, where you can shake the line through the guides of the rod. (Always shake the rod up and down while using your free hand to help feed line. Shaking the rod from side to side will sink the fly and also interfere with its natural drift.) With a little practice, a relatively competent caster can become proficient in a very short time.

Nymph fishing follows the normal modes of presentation: cast upstream, and mend the line as needed. Because Silver Creek flows slowly, have small split shot handy. An indicator is recommended.

For best results with streamers, cast upstream and don't be in too big a hurry to mend the line. Allow the fly to sink as quickly as possible. Often, a slight belly in the fly line may actually pull the streamer downstream. This is one time when a belly in the line is acceptable. Watch the streamer and you'll notice that it flutters and actually looks like a minnow. Just be ready to raise the rod quickly to recover slack when a brown hits.

Wispy rods of 3- or 4-weight are wonderful for presenting small flies. Keep in mind that wind, or changing to a nymph and indicator, may make casting with 3- or 4-weight rods difficult. One-rod anglers are best advised to use a 5-weight rod. Streamers, if used in large sizes, are somewhat awkward to cast with a 5-weight; a 6-weight would be better.

OUTSIDE OF THE PRESERVE

Silver Creek Preserve generally receives some major front-page space in the outdoor press, as well it should. Areas outside the preserve have benefited as a result of stream easements and habitat improvements.

Idaho Fish and Game is conducting studies at various locations along Silver Creek to maintain this amazing fishery. Doug Megargle, fishery manager for Region 4 based out of Jerome, Idaho, has been supervising what's called a "standardized monitoring program," designed to identify fluctuations in the numbers of trout at various locations along Silver Creek and also measure relative abundance (the percentage of brown versus rainbows). Trout are also weighed and measured to determine their relative health.

In general, trout in their first year will be four to five inches in length. After the first year in Silver Creek, most trout will grow about two inches per year. Some of the rainbow trout -- the real monsters of Silver Creek -- may be over 12 years of age. These waters are obviously rich and fertile.

Winter fishing here is not for the faint of heart. To assure optimum use of time on Silver Creek, it's a great idea to hire a guide who will know the best locations for access when snow covers the ground. A wise choice to contact is Bill Mason Outfitters in Sun Valley, Idaho. Mason was the first fly-fishing outfitter in the area, and his guides are experienced. Call (208) 622-9305.

The winter season on Silver Creek runs from Dec. 1 until Feb. 28.

BIG WOOD RIVER

Fishermen on the Big Wood River are fortunate. Rainbows are numerous and often found in high concentrations in specific areas, due to the low stream flow in winter.

A great tactic is to concentrate on the obviously deeper holes or slots while drifting Prince, Hare's Ear, or Pheasant Tail nymphs through these promising locations. Use an indicator for the best results.

For dry-fly fishing, anglers can't go wrong by throwing size 16-20 Parachute Adams. On warm days, and especially during March, hatches of blue-winged olives will occur. Dries should be presented on 5x or 6x leaders of nine feet in length for a realistic presentation. Midge hatches are also a delight on the Big Wood. Griffith's Gnat, small Parachute Adams, and the Serendipity are the most popular midge patterns.

Nymph fishing dominates January on the Wood, with some limited midge activity on sunny days. February is similar in temperatures to January, with the end of the month seeing more midge hatches. March can be characterized as a month of variety. Nymphs are still productive, but midge hatches and blue-winged olive hatches are more frequent and longer in duration.

As waters warm up, fly-fishermen should approach pools with more subtlety; rainbows frequently position themselves in shallow water at the tailouts while slurping midges or olives that float downstream. Scuffling feet or errant shadows will send the rainbows back to the safety of deeper water. Be slow and cautious.

The Big Wood is only a few miles from Sun Valley and flows southward through the towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. Highway 75 has several bridges that allow for easy access. Designated points of access are also identified at various locations along the river. Fly shops in Sun Valley and Ketchum can provide advice about access and "hot" flies for winter fishing. On the Big Wood, t

he best winter fishing is from the town of Ketchum downstream through Hailey and into Bellevue.

BIG LOST RIVER

Winter fishing on the Big Lost River can be spectacular, for an unusual reason. During summer and into early fall, the river is used for irrigation. Throughout the summer, high flows and the fact that the Big Lost is narrow and tree-lined keeps anglers from wading much of the river. By the time winter fishing arrives, irrigation is finished, the stream flow is minimal and you have an opportunity to approach fish that haven't seen too many anglers for a while.

To find the Big Lost River, locate the town of Arco on the map, and then take Highway 93 north toward the town of Mackay. There is a public access point along the highway and another access point immediately below Mackay Reservoir. (Above the reservoir, no winter fishing is permitted.) Anglers should know that much of the property surrounding the Big Lost is private, but Idaho's trespass laws are accommodating to fishermen. After accessing the river, fishermen must stay below the river's high-water mark. The river is low in winter, so wading the Big Lost during this time of year is not a challenge.

The Big Lost is an amazing fishery. During a winter visit, a proficient angler can realistically expect to hook at least one fish over 20 inches. Nymphs, especially Prince nymphs in sizes 14 to 18, are deadly on this river. Pheasant Tail nymphs are also quite effective. San Juan worms can be deadly on some days while fishing the Lost.

Late February and March are logically the times when midge and blue-winged olive hatches occur with the most regularity. Parachute Adams and Griffith's Gnats are two of the most popular patterns. Harvesting rainbows is not permitted during the winter season on the Big Lost, but brook trout and whitefish may be taken.

Fishermen should be cautioned that as the winter season progresses into late February and March, some of the rainbows in the river will be spawning Anglers should be cognizant of the spawning redds, being careful not to wade through these sites and to restrain themselves from throwing casts at spawning rainbows.

Winter fishing on Silver Creek, the Big Wood River, and the Big Lost River will warm the hearts of many fishermen on even the coolest days. Anglers need to consult with locals and outfitters for sound advice and for current "hot" trends on cold days. Along with those precautions, layers of clothing and a thermos of coffee are added necessities. Oh, and sunscreen. No kidding! Windless, sunny days at high altitudes will cause sunburn that goes unnoticed during the heat of battling coldwater trout.

Two tributaries of the Big Lost River not open to winter fishing are the North Fork and the East Fork. These tributaries can be rewarding summer fisheries and, because they are stocked, are good places for beginners to hone their skills. Some wild populations of trout do exist, but numerous years of drought have not been kind to them. The spectacular setting for these waters includes mountain peaks that remain snow-covered throughout much of the summer. For specific information about these two tributaries, call (208) 525-7290.

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