Travels and Trips

Big Lost River Idaho

Fly Fishing the Big Lost River in Idaho

March 22, 2008

Only 3.8° Fahrenheit this morning – brrrrr! Hopefully it warms up soon. We busy ourselves with breakfast and tie up a few flies. We put in another DVD, the Underwater World of Trout: Feeding Lies, by Wendell "Ozzie" Ozefovich. Another WOW! This shows how and where trout feed. Great underwater footage! The narrator’s voice put me off at first (you can listen for yourself on the small trailer at the above website), but the information is just so incredible, I soon forgot about it and focused on the content. Another must see! Unfortunately, the DVD distracts me from my real task – cleaning.

One of the things about "free" cabin privileges, it’s not completely free. But certainly worth the price. We clean the cabin from top to bottom, whether we used the space or not. I clean the lime deposits off the little sprayer-rinser thingy on the kitchen faucet. Take care of the vacuuming. Dan gets toilet duty.

It’s about 10:30 when we finally hit the road. Today’s route takes us back to the Snake River Plain then east. The Plain is flat and desolate. Even though we’re at about 5,000′ and the mountains around us are 10,000′-12,000′, the mountains are also desolate. We travel through the northern edge of Craters of the Moon National Monument. Aptly named, although there is a nice coating of snow on the north-facing surfaces which adds an extra dimension of weirdness.

East of the Monument is Big Southern Butte, a rhyolite dome from millennia old volcanism. It looks pretty interesting. This picture shows the butte as well as two smaller ones even further east. The entire Snake River Plain was formed from the hotspot underneath the North American Plate that now creates the thermal activity at Yellowstone.

It takes a couple of hours, but we make it to Arco, the first city in the world powered by nuclear energy. Now, I don’t want to dis somebody’s hometown, but Arco just doesn’t strike me as a place I would want to live. I guess I’m more of a trees and greenery kind of guy, not sagebrush. Granted, this is not the best time of year to be checking out the landscape.

Mountains Around the Big Lost
Mountains around the Big Lost at 12,000′.

North of town we see a small "bridge" with the standard green river sign: "Big Lost." Dan peers out his window and I look out mine. Nothing. Dry bottom (good for babies, but not a river). Actually, a bit of snow is clustered along the southern shore, hidden from the sun. This is a river that definitely lives up to its name. At various locations along its course, the river vanishes. Historically it infiltrated (soaked into the ground) at the Big Lost Sinks, but that is east of Arco and we’re north. I wouldn’t think that irrigation demands would start taking water, but it is definitely empty.

The cottonwoods snake up the valley ahead of us, marking the Big Lost’s route. We make our way through Moore and Darlington, mere hiccups in the road, then roll in to MacKay, gateway to the Big Lost access. We stop at the Forest Service building on the north end of town, right on Rte 93 ("Custer St."). They’re closed, but there is a box of maps of the National Forests. We figure there might be access to the river in town, but unfortunately the map is too small to see any detail of MacKay.

Our research team (us) has determined from our sources (the Ketchum cabin owner and the internet) that the best fishing is below the reservoir. But there are only a couple of public access points below the reservoir. So we hope one of them is in town. We take a road heading west and end up by a park or golf course, or something. Whatever it is, it isn’t the river or close enough to the river. It’s after 12:00 now and we want to hurry and get on the river, so we bag the idea of looking around town for access and head north out of town.

About two miles north of town the river runs next to the road for a couple hundred feet, so we know the river is no longer lost, that’s a relief. We’re watching each road and lane that heads toward the water, but they all have a gate, a "private" sign, or both. We finally find a public campground, but it’s unmarked.

The campground has four other vehicles parked: four with Idaho plates and one other with Utah plates. We head as far south as we can. The road dead-ends against the bank of the river. Another truck is here, we assume the fisherman has headed downriver, since this is the access’ furthest point downriver and the other vehicles are upriver from here.

We stretch then hurry to the river – it’s about 1:00 and we want to get on the water quick. Dan checks out the water close up then turns back toward me. I’m standing a little further up the bank and he asks if I see any rises. I watch three fish steadily rise. Dan stands by me for a moment locating the risers. We quickly gear up and hop in right where we’re at. The idea that you need to head up or down from the parking place flits through the brain, but with as many rises as I’m seeing now, forget about that.

Dan enters the water a little further upriver of me. The fish are working pretty hard and I put on my modified Sprout midge. Each cast seems to put down the riser. I work in the middle of the river on the right side of a chute, then left of the chute in some slack water, and nearer to the east shore, but I just keep putting them down.

Dan is having a great time: he keeps casting to a pool at the tail of a riffle and has landed about four beautiful rainbows over 16". The water is clear and only running about 96 CFS. It reminds me a lot of our Logan River home waters in volume, although probably even less. It’s amazing to see so many large fish stacking up and surface feeding in such small water. Dan keeps telling me to get up there and fish where he’s at. I’m trying to outsmart the fish and would really like to take one of these buggers I keep putting down. I believe Dan is fishing with a BWO emerger pattern. I see BWO coming off the water and a few fish take, so I switch to a parachute BWO. I finally take one after about 30 minutes. It’s a beautiful 17" rainbow.

Nice rainbow Colors

The colors on these fish are incredible: brilliant green backs
and flashy pink sides (pix don’t show true colors)..

I finally catch up with Dan and cast where he’s at, but he’s pretty much done all the damage to that hole and we move up. There’s a small pocket we fish for a minute then head to the tail of a large 30′ x 150′ pool. The water is still and I spook about a dozen large fish that were hanging out on the shallow riffles at the end of the pool. I see a couple hanging just above the riffles in the still water.

I cast a few times but the ignore my fly. Dan is a bit below me and to my right casting across the bottom section of still water. I work up the lower left side a couple of yards. The wind kicks up a bit and I try a few cast to a couple of the rises in the faster water where the wind has created a bit of a disturbance. I hope the ripply water acts as camouflage for my casts. It must work or I’m lucky because I land a nice 17"+ after a few casts.

As the breeze tails off, I’m again amazed at the quantity of large fish cruising in this huge slack pool. They don’t seem to be terribly skittish, they spook if you get too close, but they don’t disappear completely, just relocate.

We decide to head downstream, past where we started fishing. Earlier we saw a lone fisherman just around the bend below us. We figure it’s worth a try because we see three fishermen upriver (they hopped in when we did) and we believe several others headed up before them.

We pass the spot we first fished and round the bend below there. There are two fisherman 200′ below, but there is a nice pool and run between us and them. Fish are vigorously rising. The head of the pool is formed by two small riffly chutes from the tail of the previous run, with some smooth water between the "V" of the two riffles. On the far side of the chute is a nice back-eddy with several heads rhythmically breaking the surface. I approach the top of the slack water in the "V" where fish are also rising. I cast dowstream to them several times. I catch the lip of one, but he’s quickly gone. I slowly work my way across the "V" and downriver toward the back-eddy.

This is some of my favorite fishing, I call it the dip-n-dab method (not sure how accurate of a description this actually is, but that’s what I started calling it years ago, so that’s what it is). I only need a short amount of line because the tip of the rod is either over the fish or very close to the fish. I flick the fly onto the surface and I’m able to control the fly on the surface quite easily because the line is tight, no slackness on the river. As the nasty curls of current sling my fly about, I keep it on the surface and acting natural. (This is of course the theory – there are occasions where the current still steals my fly.)

This time I’m able to keep it hovering on the surface until it’s taken. I lift the rod tip. The hook sets and line zips off my reel as the rainbow heads downstream with a couple of leaps. I take about five minutes to land this guy. I have a habit of using as heavy a tippet as I can while fishing so I can get the fish in quick and release it. Today I’m fishing with 4X tippet. This beauty is 18"+. I catch a 17" out of the same hole behind the eddy.

Dan on the Big Lost
Dan’s fish.

Dan is fishing the riffles through the center of the hole and the far side under some branches. He hooks into a nice fish and within seconds I’m on to one too. He asks me to take his picture while I’m still reeling in. I grab the camera and snap this photo.

We’ve each caught 10+ fish by now, nothing under 14" and we’ve only fished about 500′ of the 800′ of river we’ve walked through so far. For some reason Dan wants to take the following photo of me. He keeps telling me to move the fish up and over. I can’t figure out what he’s trying to do, but I seem to be pretty uncooperative because he can’t get me to do exactly what he wants. He finally tells me to look behind me.

Big Lost River Access
Look over the right shoulder.

Idaho has river laws that allow fisherman access to water that runs through private land as long as you access that water from a public access place and stay below the high water mark. So we come across a fair amount of "private" land as we fish.

Unfortunately neither of us are good at remembering to take pictures, so when we catch the bigger fish, we forget to photograph them. We’ll have to work on that.

We catch a fair number from this section, considering at least a couple of people have fished through it recently. We decide to leapfrog the guys below us. We now see three guys below us instead of two. We hustle down to see if they mind us swinging past them a hundred yards or so. They are on the first long sweeping curve of the river that meets the road below the public access. They tell us to go ahead, they’ve been fishing awhile and won’t be out much longer. They say that the third guy came from downstream, saw us upstream, and turned back around downstream.

We hustle down so we can get past him and further downstream to fish back up. He is at the bottom of the first horseshoe bend (there are two horseshoe bends in a row make a backward S). We talk to him for a few minutes. He says he’s from California but has a place on the Big Lost. He’s here for a week and doesn’t mind us passing below him. He says the best fishing is March and September/October. Otherwise the river just gets too low during the summer. He says that after the next horseshoe bend is a long straight piece that usually isn’t productive.

We move down and enter the second horseshoe bend. On the inside of the bottom of it is a fisherman so we head back upriver. The guy we passed before says that must be his fishing partner. We head to the northeast (upper) end of the first horseshoe bend where fish are rising in a pool. We take three or four, but they’re all about 12".

We head past the other two fisherman and the hatch seems pretty mush over. There are a couple of fish still rising through this hole, but not many. I return to the back-eddy and see a fish rising. I switched to a callibaetis pattern a while ago because of the larger mayflies on the water (couldn’t tell if they were callibaetis or bigger BWO). It has taken a couple of fish already and I repeat the dip-n-dab method. Sure enough, another nice fish. This one about 16".

Callibaetis pattern You can see this callibaetis has taken some fish (notice the missing tails, unwrapping abdomen and frazzled upright turkey feather).

Dan has headed upstream and wants to fish our first hole, but a fisherman and his dog has it. I cast down through the center current below my back-eddy and catch another 16".

It’s feeling like it’s time to head out. I exit the water, go around our first hole on the bank through the parking area and to the large, slow hole. Dan is casting at some big cruisers at the bottom of the pool. I flick my fly at some cruisers in the middle of the pool, but Dan is ready to go.

Big Lost Below Dam
Above the river at the dam access.

It’s about 4:30, not quite time to leave. So we load up and head upriver to check on the other sportsman’s access that is supposed to be at the base of the dam. It’s only a couple of miles, if even that, when we come across the access. Nobody is there. The parking is some height above the river. We walk down and see a few nice pools. There is a fair amount of barbed wire around, even crossing the river. We cross it 100′ downstream. I head down and Dan stays at a nice long pool.

The wind has picked up a bit, but I cast into it at a couple of small risers. I get one rejection and a lot of apathy, so I catch up with Dan. He’s moved to the head of the hole. Again, I can’t believe the number of decent-sized fish in this small of a river.

I cross under the electric fence (carefully) and head to a small pool two pools ahead of Dan. I don’t see any risers so I toss on the trusty Modified Copper John Emerger. I catch a small 10" rainbow. I move to the pool closer to Dan and he is moving into the pool too. I cast the nymph into the chute create the head of the pool a dozen times or so and finally catch a 12". I think Dan has put on a Copper Johnt too.

The hole is pretty deep and I see some decent fish down there, so I tie on a purple wooly bugger. I’ve only fished with a streamer a handful of times. I cactch two: one about 10" and the other about 12". We’re tapped out and the dry fly action is over, so we decide it’s time to go.

Note: In talking with others familiar with the area, that river does get pretty hard, especially in March. If you plan on going, expect plenty of people and hard-to-find access.

We do head north a couple of miles to see the famous Mount Borah, highest peak in Idaho at 12,600+ feet. Dan has been telling me for years it tops 13,000′ so he doen’t believe me when I say the thing is only 12,600. I’m not sure about Dan’s facination/fixation on the mountain, but we see it. Unfortunately, some of the surrounding peaks are a little more "dramatic."

Now we’re homeward bound.

Be Sociable, Share!


8 comments for “Big Lost River Idaho”

  1. Great blog!! I live and work in Arco and do all of my fly fishing on the Big Lost river. The shame that so many people know nothing about is the way the river is shrinking every year due to irrigation “needs”.
    I’m 30 years old now and I remember watching my dad catch 5 pound rainbows 3 miles South of Arco when I was 7. The readers of this blog need to know that the river “sinks” because the water goes out in torrents to feed the crops in the summer and livestock in the winter. It’s a shame you had to experience Arco when you did, after it has been drained of all beauty due to over adjudication of water. It really use to be something here. You can see my short video about saving some of the Big Lost river rainbows after irrigation dried up one of the more fertile sections of the river 2 years ago. Here’s the link:
    It’s good to see you guys enjoying the river and it’s wealth of fish.
    Tight lines in all your Cutt stalking!!

    Posted by Boone Barnes | February 12, 2009, 6:04 pm
  2. This is just a personal memory comment. My grandfather fished the big lost river for over 50 years. It was his favorite place to fish and when he wa alive I would have challenged anyone to try and out fish him. He had the magic. My grandfather Is deceased now but I remember as a young boy going camping with him, my father, and uncle every summer for 2 weeks to fish the big lost river above Mackay. What I remember is the fishing was outstanding and always yielding large fish. At that time we camped at a place called Cottonwood, which has been closed to river access for several years now. For those that remember there was a train car across the highway from Cottonwood’s entrance. I live in Kansas and the last time I passed through the Cottonwood area was approximately 15 years ago and noticed a great decline in the once beautiful place. I am now 53 and saddened by what is happening to the river and surrounding area. I hope to return to fishing the Big Lost River so keep up the good work.

    Posted by Rick Looslie | August 4, 2012, 9:36 am
    • Hi Rick. I have now talked with several people about “the old days” and what the river used to be. It’s really a sad state of affairs to think of what once was. I hope they get the irrigation stuff figured out (although, why anyone would want to even try farming there is beyond me). If the warming trend in the US continues, it might be a losing battle though. Take care, ~S.

      Posted by Cutthroat Stalker (Scott) | August 10, 2012, 7:11 am

Post a comment


Cutthroat Stalker’s Gallery

mayfly Reflected Branches eagle Frosty Reed Tony Grove Floating Log 05 Heavy Frost lower harriman river Yellow Aspen package-front.jpg
Fly Fish Literati
Fly Fish Literati 29 members Fly Fish Literati is a group of readers dedicated to those writers who have blended the experience o...

Books we plan to read

View this group on Goodreads ยป