Pandemic helps reel in more Idaho anglers

The numbers don’t lie. More Idahoans and people across the nation decided to take up fishing or return to fishing in huge numbers this past summer.

Experts, and at least one study, point to Americans rediscovering the outdoors during the pandemic. In Idaho, fishing license sales generally increase a few thousand each year, but in 2020 more than 41,000 more people bought fishing licenses from January to through October compared with all of 2019 — 2019: 185,812 and 2020: 226,928 (January through Oct. 31).

The rush to do more things outdoors did not go unnoticed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

“The South Fork at times was especially crowded,” said James Brower, regional communications manager for Fish and Game. “Camping was more crowded. Those places that are well-known and easy to access and close to the major population centers, those places got pounded pretty hard.”

Brower said family fishing ponds, such as those at Ryder Park, were busy almost daily.

A national study and survey sponsored by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation found that when Americans saw their typical summer activities and vacations squashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, they turned to outdoor recreation. Many people were trying activities for the first time.

“With all the uncertainty that 2020 has brought, fishing and boating provide a host of benefits including peace and relaxation, quality time with family and loved ones and even simply the calming effect of nature,” said Stephanie Vatalaro, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation.

The group’s national study found that millions of new anglers are “younger, more urban and more diverse” and nine out of 10 new anglers plan on continuing with the activity in the future.

In Idaho Falls, Samuel Helmuth said he took up fly fishing last year.

“No knowledge and not much gear except a rod and dry flies, but I’m hooked,” Helmuth said. He said the pandemic influenced his push to fish and “it was a good way to get out and socially distance while trying to find small streams to wade through.”

Taylor Rusinsky of East Idaho said, “I took up fly fishing this summer. It has been a huge learning curve but I am loving every second of it.”

Heidi Carson of Idaho Falls took up “tenkara” fly fishing last year. Tenkara fishing is a simple, reel-less type of fishing imported from Japan usually done in mountain streams.

“I was getting outside more because of COVID, hiking and backpacking,” Carson said. “I like fishing in general but gear is heavy to pack. I discovered the tenkara fly fishing rod … The whole things weighs and packs down to half the size of a flute. It is fun and an effective way to fish while hiking.”

Carson said she started up an outdoor women’s Facebook page last year and now has more than 300 followers.

“I think it is because of COVID that more people are getting outside,” she said. “Among other things, I wanted to put together a small group in my group of tenkara hikers.”

Fish and Game said it is happy to see the resurgence in outdoor activities and encourages the use of the resource.

“Nationwide, the trend is that hunting and fishing are on a slight decline,” Brower said of years past. “In Idaho, we’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve been stable or sometimes on a slight increase. Partly that’s due to the fact that a lot of people move to Idaho because of the resources that we have here, the public land that we have to enjoy and the hunting and fishing opportunities. For many people it’s the reason they’re coming to Idaho.”

Not everyone is happy about the resurgence fishing has seen. A Facebook query had some grumping about crowds, more trash, and out-of-state anglers.

“Every single time I floated the river this summer (30+ times) non-resident plates outnumbered local plates. And I rarely floated on weekends,” one poster wrote.

Forest Service, BLM offers Christmas tree cutting permits

The National Forest and Bureau of Land Management are offering Christmas tree cutting permits starting this month for families to march around in the backcountry and find that perfect holiday tree.

If you have a fourth-grader in your house, the Every Kid Outdoors program provides one free Christmas tree cutting permit for every valid Every Kid Outdoor pass.

“We are super stoked about being able to do online permits,” said Caribou-Targhee National Forest spokeswoman Sarah Wheeler via text.

Permits to cut Christmas trees up to 20 feet high cost $15 — one per household — and can be found online at fs.usda.gov/detail/ctnf/passes-permits/forestproducts or by going to recreation.gov.

“We are excited to offer online purchasing this year,” said Tom Silvey, timber program manager at Caribou-Targhee. “We decided to offer online sales as an added convenience for visitors and because it provides an attractive alternative to in-person transactions at offices that remain closed to walk-in business due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Forest Service website also includes safety information, maps on where it’s permissible to cut trees and how to care for your tree.

Permits and maps are also available through local ranger district offices and participating vendor locations. District offices include Dubois (208-374-5422), Ashton (208-652-7443), Teton Basin (208-354-2312), Palisades Idaho Falls (208-523-1412), Soda Springs (208-547-4356), and West Side Pocatello (208-236-7500).

Bureau of Land Management information can be found by calling the Idaho Falls office at 208-524-7500 or the Pocatello office at 208-478-6340.

“Households that purchase a Christmas tree permit are encouraged to harvest their trees as soon as possible due to weather conditions,” Wheeler said in a news release. “Mountain snowstorms and subsequent road conditions can limit access to cutting areas. The earlier folks cut their trees, the greater the chances of getting into areas where previous year cuttings have limited the number and selection of trees.”

The Every Kid Outdoors offer can only be validated through the local Forest Service or recreation.gov site. The Every Kid in a Park initiative allows fourth-graders to go to the Every Kid in the Park website and obtain a pass for free entry for them and their families to more than 2,000 federally managed lands and waters for an entire year starting Sept. 1, 2020.

COVID changes winter: Outdoor retailers anticipate winter rec changes influenced by the pandemic

All summer long the outdoor industry went berserk as people’s normal vacation plans were upset by a pandemic and replaced with camping, hiking, biking and other outside recreations.

Now a pandemic-laced winter is on the horizon, and some questions loom on how people are going to react to the changing recreational landscape and if outdoor gear suppliers will be ready or caught off guard in a similar way that bicycle suppliers were this past spring and summer.

“Particularly we’re seeing already an explosion in anything dealing with backcountry,” said Davin Napier, manager at Idaho Mountain Trading in Idaho Falls about recent winter recreation trends. “I get it, everyone is pretty uncertain about what the resorts are going to do fully. Even though (Grand) Targhee (Resort) says absolutely they are going to open. Kelly (Canyon Ski Resort) is on track. Everyone in the local area is, but a lot of people are taken to the (alpine touring) or backcountry aspect and that’s where we’re seeing a major pinch in available items.”

With the early closure of ski resorts in March because of the pandemic, backcountry ski hotspots such as Teton Pass were slammed with extra visitors.

Regional ski resorts plan to open as usual this winter, but with added precautions promising a different experience. Some resorts expect to limit numbers on the ski hill and at lodges. Outdoor retailers say changes at resorts may drive recreators to different activities, such as cross-country skiing and backcountry skiing and snowboarding.

“I think we’ll see a big boom in Nordic this winter,” said Scott Hurst, manager of the Outdoor Resource Center at Brigham Young University-Idaho. “I’ve heard from Rossignol and Alpina that their Nordic is all sold out for the season already as far as from the manufacturers. My Rossignol rep told me they were oversold in some categories for their Nordic. The Alpina rep said they have a feeling that Nordic is going to be like bicycles were this past summer. Because you can do it by yourself and it doesn’t require any special equipment, it’s good for social distancing and it’s a great way to exercise outside of the gym with the COVID still going around.”

Taylor Houck, of Idaho Falls, said via Facebook that the pandemic would be changing her winter recreation plans.

“I chose not to purchase a ski pass this year at (Grand Targhee) partially because they shut down early last year and partially because their social distancing protocols add more challenges that I don’t want to deal with,” Houck said. “I will be replacing that winter activity with others however.”

Yostmark Mountain Equipment in Driggs reports seeing a spike in interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding recently.

“Equipment, avalanche courses, education has skyrocketed,” said Yostmark co-owner Rich Rinaldi. “With the pandemic that hit in March, lift skiing was closing and the uncertainty of lifts running, etc. People figured, ‘I’ll climb the mountain and ski it.’ Simple as that.”

Both Rinaldi and Napier said certain specialty items needed for backcountry adventures have or will become harder to acquire from manufacturers, such as some specialty bindings and avalanche airbags. Most items are available now, but may not be here later in the winter season. Interest in avalanche courses has also increased.

“We always host an avalanche class — an avy 1 or avy 2 class — here in the store,” Napier said. “We have from six to 12 people. … By this point I would normally have maybe two or three interests in an avy class. They’re not inexpensive – $450 bucks generally. It’s a couple of nights here and then a Saturday and Sunday field training at Teton Pass. … What’s interesting is I’ve already had two dozen interested. There are all these telltale signs of the influx. It’s going to be interesting.”

Barrie’s Ski & Sports in Pocatello notes the same trend.

“Year after year we have been seeing more people interested in that level of skiing,” said Nick DeTore, a bike and ski tech at Barrie’s. “The companies are making more of that style of equipment, too. It used to be a high price point, but now they’re making a lot more entry-level setups just because the market for that has grown so much over the past couple of years. This year seems to be shaping up the same way.”

The new outdoor retailer in Idaho Falls, Al’s Sporting Goods, sees a similar view.

“We’ve seen an increased interest in backcountry skiing as well as cross-country skiing,” said Dustin Peterson in Al’s bike and ski department. “That also includes splitboarding for snowboarders out there. I think as we get into the season, if we see an increased interest as we did with bikes, it’s going to be really hard to get that stuff. Normally by the end of December, we’re pretty scarce on equipment.”

Cross-country skiing is also seeing an upward trend. DeTore said when the snow comes, his shop “will rent out our entire fleet of Nordic skis every weekend. We have 75 sets of cross-country skis; all the adult ones will be rented out.”

For some, the momentum carried over from summer outdoor activities will continue into winter.

“We plan on doing a lot more cross-country skiing, and I would love to learn how to snowshoe,” said Idaho Falls elementary teacher Heidi McJunkin via Facebook.

Joe Hill, co-owner of the Sled Shed shop in Rexburg, said his shop has received increased orders to supply the city with cross-country skis for its operation at Teton Lakes Golf Course. “The popularity just keeps on growing,” he said.

Zoom towns

Another interesting recreational trend affecting eastern Idaho is called “Zoom towns.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent many remote workers away from crowded cities, some temporarily, others more permanently. National Public Radio defines Zoom towns as housing markets that are booming as remote work becomes more popular or necessary. Remote workers are leasing out their homes or apartments in cities such as San Francisco and moving to places such as Driggs, Sun Valley, Jackson, Wyo., or even Idaho Falls, to give them access to a nearby ski resort, more space, outdoors, less traffic and nature. They retain their big-city salaries and prosper with a small-town setup.

Forbes magazine said, “Recent trends in the real estate market reflect this shift: Rental vacancies are surging and rental costs are declining in urban areas — as housing prices are increasing and inventory is becoming more scarce in suburbs and rural areas.”

The trend has been noticed in Driggs.

“Driggs definitely has a lot more people moving here this winter. Just because everyone is able to work remotely so why not move to a ski town, kind of vibe,” said Heidi Marquart, a bike and ski tech at Peaked Sports in Driggs. “We’re seeing that. We’re getting more people moving here that would probably have not moved here had COVID not hit.”

Marquart said her shop reported seeing more new faces this summer with people renting mountain bikes and expects to see them again renting skis and snowboards. She wonders how many will last after they get a taste of a real mountain winter.

“I’ve noticed people moving here, and they’re already complaining about how cold it is,” she said. “I’m thinking just you wait. It’s barely been freezing. … The overall vibe with Driggs is that it’s busier than it has ever been as far as people here.”

Deer hunters asked to submit samples for chronic wasting disease testing

Idaho Fish and Game is ramping up its efforts at detecting chronic wasting disease, especially in East Idaho, by calling on hunters to provide samples from harvested deer this hunting season.

Although the disease — also called “zombie deer disease” — has not been detected in Idaho, the bordering states of Montana, Utah and Wyoming all have chronic wasting disease in their big game herds. Some animals have been found with the disease within a few miles of the state line in Star Valley, Wyoming.

The contagious disease is fatal to mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, caribou and moose. Chronic wasting disease is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Infected animal symptoms include “excessive salivation, drooping head or ears, tremors or shaking and extremely low body weight. The animals may also show no fear of humans or lack coordination,” according to Fish and Game.

“There is no known cure for (chronic wasting disease), nor any way of testing live animals, so hunter-harvested animals are a primary way of testing for it in Idaho,” said Roger Phillips, Fish and Game public information supervisor. “(Chronic wasting disease) poses a serious risk to Idaho’s deer, elk, and moose populations, and ultimately, to hunting opportunities.”

Fish and Game said the main push to obtain samples will begin at the start of the general season Oct. 10.

“We’ve got some (chronic wasting disease) barrels that we’ll be putting out shortly,” said James Brower, Fish and Game regional communications manager. “We’re doing our best efforts to make sure we’re able to detect it if it does come to the state so that we can act accordingly.”

Hunters are being asked to provide deer heads or lymph nodes from harvested animals to help Fish and Game biologists increase the number of animals tested this year. The hunter-supplied samples will add to the data Fish and Game collects from road killed animals.

Besides regular check stations, Fish and Game plans to have barrels at various locations similar to wing barrels used by grouse hunters. Hunters can also take samples to regional offices. Hunters can get detailed information about the disease, including how to provide a sample, online at idfg.idaho.gov/cwd. Drop-off locations are also available online at idfg.idaho.gov/cwd/sampling/locations.

Hunters are also asked to not bring certain parts of deer, elk or moose into the state from other states known to have the disease.

“It’s a pretty scientifically based monitoring effort to be able to detect it in areas where it is mostly likely to cross the border,” said Morgan Pfander, regional wildlife population biologist during last year’s hunting season. “I think we’re just doing everything we can to keep an eye on it. We’re doing everything we can to keep it out of our state. Hunters being really responsible about where they transport game is a big part of that.”

Fish and Game said its current sampling strategy has a 95 percent chance of detecting a 1 percent prevalence of the disease.

“It’s not a mandatory thing, but it is definitely a helpful, useful tool,” Brower said of the hunter sampling request. “People who get their samples tested will be able to know whether their harvested animal is (chronic wasting disease) positive or not. It’s good peace of mind.”

Online download of Fly Fishing Film Fest to benefit local club

The Snake River Cutthroats chapter of Trout Unlimited has a deal for anglers.

The club has teamed up with the once canceled Fly Fishing Film Tour to allowed interested anglers and outdoor enthusiasts to watch the film from an online source.

Since the Fly Tying Expo and Fly Fishing Film Tour was canceled earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Snake River Cutthroats haven’t had much in the way of club-wide activities. Offering people a chance to see the 2020 film is its way of engaging people, a club representative said.

“When you see the trailer (to the movie), it’s pretty impressive,” said Rob Knox of the Snake River Cutthroats. “It’s just magnificent cinematography. It’s pretty cool stuff.”

East Idahoans will have access to the film beginning Aug. 27 for a limited time. Cost is $18, which allows people to view the movie at home or a single digital device. All of the money, except for a small percentage, will go to the Snake River Cutthroats for local conservation projects.

“I’m really stoked and the club is really stoked that the Fly Fishing Film Festival went through this effort,” Knox said. “We’re hoping that the funds that come from this will keep us in the game.”

For information on the online film festival, go to snakerivercutthroats.org/how-it-works.

“The Fly Fishing Film Festival is running a raffle nationwide for a bunch of trips and a bunch of gear donated by YETI, Simms, Costa and other stuff, but the Cutthroats are going to do one too,” Knox said.

To see the two-minute trailer to the 2020 Fly Fishing film, go to snakerivercutthroats.org/event/fly-fishing-film-tour.

‘Latrine Queen’ fancies up Henry’s Lake toilets

The self-professed “Latrine Queen” has struck again.

If you’re on the south side of Henry’s Lake on Bureau of Land Management land and nature calls, prepare yourself for an artistic experience.

In an effort to spruce up its property at Henry’s Lake, the BLM improved the dirt road, worked on fences and replaced portable toilets with two new vault toilets. The BLM also plans to eventually upgrade the primitive campsites and work on bank stabilization there.

Monica Zimmerman, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM’s Upper Snake Field office saw the blank interior walls of the new vault toilets as empty canvasses. Zimmerman was put in contact with Helen Seay, a Tetonia artist who painted murals on three other vault toilets along the Teton River last summer.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a regular gig, but people hear about it and see it, it gives them an idea to reach out to me,” Seay said. “It’s not something I’m doing every month or that I market myself as, but I’m happy to do art anywhere, anytime.”

Bruce Hallman, a BLM spokesman, said the reaction has been enthusiastic.

“Nothing but wow, that it’s the best bathroom ever,” Hallman said.

“Wish more camp restrooms looked like this!” wrote Nyta Pea on the Bureau of Land Management – Idaho Facebook page.

Seay said each mural is unique and she tries to match the artwork to the surroundings. One restroom she completed at Spring Hallow near Felt east of Ashton on the Teton River had a special request.

“I try to learn about the area and the flora and fauna for every bathroom that I go to,” she said. “The Spring Hallow one I asked if there was anything they wanted to see me paint. One of the ladies of the Friends of the Teton River told me, ‘I really want you to paint a canyon wren,’ because it’s the only place in Idaho she’d ever heard a canyon wren.” Seay also included fishermen, rafters and bighorn sheep because “(Idaho) Fish and Game was saying that it was an old winter range for bighorn sheep.”

At Henry’s Lake, Seay painted one restroom with a variety of birds and the other with a fishing theme. “It’s kind of a fisherman’s paradise and a birder’s paradise.”

Zimmerman said the Henry’s Fork Wildlife Alliance and Henry’s Lake Foundation contributed ideas and funding for the murals.

Seay is a Georgia transplant who said most of her art is on canvas or wood, but also sells artistic hats, T-shirts, postcards and prints. Her business webpage can be found at helenseayart.com.

“I have been doing the annual posters for Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival and Targhee Festival, but those got canceled this year unfortunately because of COVID,” Seay said.

Cleaning up after history: Collaborative effort hopes to restore Yankee Fork for salmon, steelhead

A 10-year restoration project to repair catastrophic ecological damage to the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River is expected to be mostly concluded this summer.

The Bonanza project has seen about 100,000 cubic yards of old mining tailings removed from the area in an effort to restore the Yankee Fork and offer Chinook and steelhead improved habitat.

Bart Gamett, a fisheries biologist for the Salmon-Challis National Forest, said the project of removing mining tailings, restoring the floodplain and rebuilding stream channels started as a collaborative effort between the Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Custer County, Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, J.R. Simplot Company, National Marine Fisheries Service, Salmon-Challis National Forest, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and Trout Unlimited. The restoration project is one of the largest in Idaho.

“This project is significant because it substantially improves the health, diversity, and productivity of the Yankee Fork watershed,” said Heath Perrine, a ranger on the Challis-Yankee Fork district.

Gamett said the timing of heavy construction work on the Yankee Fork is limited by nature.

“We have a fairly narrow window we can actually do that work because the steelhead spawn in that area in the spring and their eggs hatch in the early summer,” he said. “Then the Chinook come in and spawn in the fall. Their eggs are in the gravel through the winter and early spring. So there’s only about a one month window we can actually do stream work in the Yankee Fork without it having significant effects to the Chinook and the steelhead. That runs from July 8 to Aug. 15.”

The project is an effort to repair damage to the stream caused by a gold mining operation between 1940 and 1952. The dredge tore up 5.5 miles of the river bed. The Yankee Fork dredge still sits in the canyon as a museum of a bygone era.

“I don’t want to speak too negative,” Gamett said. “It was a different time. Part of that was coming at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. It certainly provided employment opportunities for people and helped Idaho’s economy. Yet the impact on the Yankee Fork — the valley floor, floodplain and the channels — it was just devastating. It significantly reduced the ability of that section of river to support fish. Those dredge tailing piles are so big that the river doesn’t have the power to move through them and do what it would normally do.”

Not all of the tailings left by the dredge have been removed, said Amy Baumer in a news release about the project. About 7 acres of tailings near the dredge are “being left in place to help preserve the mining history of the area and maintain the historic setting of the dredge.”

Visitors to the area can expect heavy equipment operating during the next few weeks and the project may cause short traffic delays, Baumer said.

“A lot of people feel very strongly about those dredge tailings,” Gamett said. “Their dad or their grandpa or uncle worked on the dredge. It was a way that they helped provide for their family. They see a lot of value in the dredge tailings and the history of that area.”

Gamett said it is costing substantially more to clean up the destruction than the value of the gold that was removed. According to the Yankee Fork Dredge website, the operation extracted $1,023,024.89 in gold and $14,298 in silver.

“They didn’t give a lot of consideration back then to some of the other values that we find are important today, like fish,” he said. “That’s been one of the big challenges with all the work that we’re doing up there, from an ecological perspective that dredge mining and the legacy of that has been catastrophic on the river.”

Spawning salmon once numbered in the thousands in the Yankee Fork. Today, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes operate a trap that allows them to count migrating salmon before they are released back into the stream to spawn.

“I would not expect there to be more than 30 fish come into the Yankee Fork this year,” Gamett said.

Gamett said the project is only one piece of the puzzle to save Idaho’s declining salmon and steelhead.

“Our efforts by themselves in the Yankee Fork will not save Chinook and steelhead but we’re hopeful that our restoration efforts will increase the ability of the Yankee Fork to produce Chinook and steelhead,” he said. “This will contribute to an overall recovery. We’ve got to take care of issues in other areas where they complete their life cycles as well.”

Gamett said the lion’s share of work will be completed this year and there will be some replanting of vegetation next season.

The acres of tailings hauled out of the site have not gone to waste. Custer County crushed some and used it to resurface a section of the Yankee Fork Road. A private contractor took the rest to crush up and sell in his business.

The Bonanza project, which covers about 46 acres, is located on both private land owned by the J.R. Simplot Company and national forest land administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

City of Rocks has new plans to update camping, parking

The City of Rocks National Reserve has big plans for its big challenges.

Chaotic, congested and messy might be kind words for some of the parking and camping during a busy weekend for visitors at City of Rocks near Almo.

But hope is on the horizon in the newly released General Management Plan by the National Park Service. The finalized plan was presented this week.

“The general management plan is sort of the marching orders and the Bible for how the park will be managed in the next 15 to 20 years,” said Wallace Keck, superintendent at the City of Rocks.

Keck said most of the plan calls for reorganizing campsites, parking areas and some high-tech aids, but there is also a perk for horse people.

“We are looking at creating an equestrian trailhead that’s on the north side of the reserve,” he said. “It’s been promised to the equestrian user groups for a long time. Now we have the property and the planning to go forward on that. That will be exciting.” Keck said the new equestrian parking lot will accommodate six to eight horse trailers.

The park’s 64 campsites will be changed up to remove conflicts with hikers and day users and eventually total 70 campsites. New vault toilets will also be added.

“We’re going to reconfigure camping and parking so that people at major trailheads aren’t competing with the campers and campers aren’t getting invaded by the trailhead day hikers,” Keck said. “We’re trying to separate those users. We’re going to create more campsites and new campsites in some places, but also removing some others. There will be a no net loss of campsites.”

Parking, a bugaboo for years at the City of Rocks, also gets special attention in the new plan.

“If you were here three or four weekends ago, we were at 120 to 130 percent capacity,” Keck said. “People were parked along the county road. There was literally nowhere to park.”

He said special attention will be made to improve the parking at Parking Lot Rock and Flaming Rock.

“Those are all going to get reorganized,” he said. “They’ll have wheel stops and people will know how to park to maximize the parking lot and where not to park.”

Keck said most of the improvements will occur in the next five to six years.

The park also plans to give visitors online/phone apps to aid in navigation and other information in real time.

“But it takes someone behind the scenes,” Keck said. “We will shift some of our face-to-face employees to behind the scenes to package together some of the kinds of information that visitors want. They’ll have it at their fingertips. Things like maps, history, frequently asked questions, so they can have it when they want it.”

Keck said he expects to be following the new general management plan for the rest of his career at the City of Rocks.

In the future, the park plans to update its climbing management plan.

“We will be looking at a climbing management plan rewrite, a trails plan, and things that have been neglected for 30 years,” he said. “The climbing plan was written in about 1997. That’s too old. Climbing has really evolved at City of Rocks, and we want to make sure we are reflective of our policies on highlining, on bouldering, sport and trad, and other things that seem to keep popping up on the grid. That’s another plan that will go through the public process.”

Backcountry fishing: East Idaho is blessed with many opportunities to get away and fish

It’s like combining two great flavors — peanut butter and chocolate or pie and ice cream. Backcountry fishing melds the fun of hiking or exploring with the pursuit of fish. And summer is the prime time to do it.

Idaho has about 3,000 backcountry lakes and hundreds of miles of streams that are generally lightly fished and surrounded by world-class scenery.

Getting to these backcountry gems is half the fun and fishing them in total solitude is the cherry on top.

“We like to backpack into an area and disappear from the world,” said Kara Dressen, of trips with her husband. “I catch a couple and then he just goes until he’s done. No busy roads or traffic or competition, it’s just how fishing should be I guess, surrounded by majestic features and silence.”

Brett High, fish manager for Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Upper Snake Region said “backcountry” means different things to different people.

“Some people think Ryder Park is backcountry,” High said jokingly. He said East Idaho has about 50 alpine lakes in the surrounding mountain ranges, including the Centennial, Big Holes, Snake River, Lemhi and Lost River ranges.

“I’m biased but the alpine lake fishing in the Upper Snake Region is as good as it gets,” High said. “We have diversity, we have size, we have diversity of access with some trails being open to motorbikes and ATVs, and some without any trails at all. Nearly all of the lakes have fish. The lakes that have fish, all fish pretty well.”

To avoid “hot spotting” and listing specific lakes or streams in the backcountry, High spoke mostly in generalities about where to go. One good place to start in choosing a mountain lake or stream is Fish and Game’s Fishing Planner found on its website. Find the Fishing Planner’s interactive map that shows trails, stocking records and fish survey records on fish species present. Contour maps can help users determine how difficult or remote an area is to get to.

“That’s a great resource for people who are trying to do a combo trip,” High said. “That will help them tailor their trip to the type of experience they are looking for.”

East Idaho outdoorsman Fred Eaton also turns to the internet for directions.

“I usually will use Google maps and OnX to check out streams and hiking areas,” he said via online message, “then I go on a hike to a river and try it out, maybe make a backpacking campout out of it.” OnX is a hunting app that offers GPS mapping for hunting nationwide.

The appeal of backcountry fishing is a regular draw for Eaton.

“I love the peacefulness of fishing in the backcountry, seeing the amazing trout and wildlife you can find out there, and having that waterside campfire where you can enjoy your catch right where it came from,” Eaton said. “I try to get into the backcountry for fishing at least once a month. Sometimes it will be a few times a week, or go a month or two without.”

Another avid fisherman from Rigby, Eric Call, said he enjoys going to places that require effort to get to.

“I’ve fished most lakes through the Sawtooth mountains as well as some in the Lemhi mountain range,” Call said via online message. “Alpine lakes and the fish are spectacular.”

Speaking once again in generalities, High said most alpine lakes and streams have brook, rainbows or cutthroat trout in them. Waters that are fished less frequently often have smaller fish but greater abundance. Specifically, he said most of the streams flowing into the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River have brook trout. One example is the Buffalo River in the Island Park area.

“The Buffalo River has a lot of brook trout in it but they‘re not big fish,” High said. “You can drive to the springs that are the source of Buffalo River but there’s several miles in between where there is no access other than floating or hiking.”

Another stream that requires some hiking is Robinson Creek flowing out of Yellowstone National Park.

“There are places you can drive to Robinson Creek, but there’s some really good fishing off the road if you’re willing to hike and get up in there,” High said. “The same with Warm River.”

In the early 1900s, most of Idaho’s alpine lakes and streams were fishless. Fish and Game’s Roger Phillips explained why many of Idaho’s mountains lakes now are good fisheries.

“Most have fish in them thanks to Fish and Game’s mountain lake stocking program,” Phillips said in a news release. “Every year, crews hike, pack in by horseback and fly in fingerling trout, which typically grow to catchable sizes within a few years.”

Brook trout sometimes dominate streams where they are present.

“Brook trout can provide lots of fishing action, and they can be a lot of fun to catch for young or new anglers,” Phillips said. “There’s typically a 25-fish bag limit for brook trout, but check the Fishing Seasons and Rules booklet because there are exceptions. The trade off with brook trout is they can overpopulate mountain lakes, and while catch rates can be high, fish are likely to be small.”

High recommends the motorized users check on access before setting off.

“With ATVs, I’d recommend you first get the (Bureau of Land Management) or Forest Service travel plan maps to verify that the location you want to go is open,” he said. “There are some trails in the Salmon-Challis National Forest in the Copper Basin area that have access to ATVs, like Lake Creek or Corral Creek.”

For all backcountry visitors, the experts recommend going prepared with navigation tools and skills and extra clothing backup in case of nasty weather.

“Be sure to pack clothing for cold and wet weather, even during summer because thunderstorms are common and can drop the temperature by 20-30 degrees, and a warm, sunny day can turn cold and wet within minutes,” Phillips said. “Bring enough food and water to enjoy a day outdoors, and don’t forget other items, like sunscreen and bug repellent.”

“Nearly all the streams in Eastern Idaho have fish in them to one degree or another,” High said. “What better way to get out and learn what your backyard is all about, than by hiking and doing some fishing and just exploring.”

Chasing Chinook: Outdoor journalist lives in the back of a truck while following Idaho’s migrating fish

Kris Millgate has been traveling like crazy lately. Her schedule is relentless, similar to the migrating fish she is following.

There’s little time for showers — maybe every 10 days — just stop for gas and get going. She sleeps by herself in the back of a loaned truck and camper. The outdoor multimedia journalist has been hunting down pertinent people and places along the route of one of the longest fish migration paths in the world, and puts a camera and microphone in their faces, gathering a story to retell. Her project is called “Ocean to Idaho.”

“I’m following salmon,” Millgate said. “I’ve been researching it for months and months and months. I feel like I’ve been living, breathing everything fish. This time of year, you have 15 hours of light. So, you’re working 15 hours, and I go back to my camper and input everything so I’m up all night. It’s kind of like a crazy crunch, but I love every minute of it. I’m not even tired like I think I should be.”

Millgate is inviting people along for the journey via social media posts. You can find them at tightlinemedia.com/oceantoidaho.

The idea for the project came from a broken leg. While couched up for four months she hatched the plan to follow migrating Idaho salmon from the mouth of the Columbia River to their spawning waters in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, 850 miles away.

“During that time on the couch I had a lot of time to think about my work and my life, everything I wanted to do and what I hadn’t done yet,” she said. “I knew the end of the salmon route at the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. I’ve shot that. I was intrigued by the idea of what on earth was it like for salmon to swim from the ocean all the way to Idaho.”

She made her plans, then a pandemic hit and she had to rethink everything.

“That’s adding an extra layer of challenge that I didn’t even see coming,” she said.

Dams were closed, people were staying home, she originally planned on flying places and staying in hotels. As sponsors Northwest Toyota Dealers offered up a Tundra pickup and Four Wheel Campers fitted it with a camper. She would ditch any helpers and go solo.

“When I do interviews, I have masks, I have wipes, I do not touch the microphone to the people,” she said. “They handle it and I sanitize it afterward. There’s all these extra layers that have to go on during a pandemic. It makes the job more challenging. It’s hard enough to travel across the Pacific Northwest and then to add extra layers of pandemic pressure makes it a little bit interesting.”

Her end game is to produce a documentary film to come out next spring and several stories for local media outlets, including the Post Register. She is focusing on Chinook salmon because “no one really remembers being able to fish for sockeye, they remember fishing for Chinook. So, I’m following Chinook salmon.” Specifically, Chinook from the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. They use the Columbia, the Snake, the Salmon and the Yankee Fork and return by mid-August.

Along her journey she shoots photographs, video, an underwater camera, a drone for overhead, and her phone. “Sometimes two at a time, but if I’m doing my drone, it’s just the drone and same with underwater.”

Already, she’s learned a few interesting tidbits.

“I’ve talked with a tribal fisher and her son off of their scaffold,” she said. “They caught their first sockeye of the season. It was for dinner. It was magnificent. They were mostly catching shad. … Watching them off that scaffold is amazing. … They’ll be there every night for hours on end. They just shove that dip net down into that fast water. If I ever did that it would fling me right into the current. It’s so fast.”

Another thing Millgate has learned during her venture is about fish rest stops.

“I went to a spot where Chinook salmon from the Yankee Fork of Idaho stop as a rest area,” she said about an area downstream from Portland, Oregon. “It’s an amazing chunk of backwater that used to be like a pasture for cows. It’s been restored and fish come in there. What they’ve discovered is that everyone thinks that salmon head straight to the ocean and they don’t stray. Or they head straight back to Idaho and they don’t stray. But they do. They stray into estuaries. They’ll hold in these safe backwaters. It’s just like a rest stop. Then they’ll get back on the route. They take these little detours to get a break.”

Besides closely following the fish, Millgate is interviewing other stakeholders along the way. The commercial fishermen, sport fishers, tribe fishers, the Corps of Engineers, dam operators, scientists, hatcheries operators, historians and more.

One big issue that comes up is the impact of dams on the fish.

“There are so many dynamics to this,” she said. “Of course, what comes up is the dams, should they stay or should they go? The answer to that is it depends on who you’re asking.”

Millgate said her journey ends in August when the salmon arrive at the Yankee Fork.

“It’s a very packed and tight schedule,” she said. “I have to stay on schedule or I miss something. I’m in country I’ve never seen. The farther you put me from Idaho, the less I know about the landscape and the people. I’m going to put in thousands of miles to follow a fish for 850.”