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Countless eons ago Mother Nature created a large spring creek in central Idaho. A resident tribe of Native Americans called the stream picabo (pronounced peek-aboo), meaning silver water. Today, it draws anglers from all over the globe who know it as Silver Creek.
In 1971, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards published their classic work, Selective Trout. That book (used copies are still available on Amazon) described the types of challenges that Silver Creek presents to the angler. In my own case, Selective Trout gave me a new way of looking at challenging streams. It nudged me toward becoming fixated on sight fishing the most challenging streams. In 1989, I invested with two friends in a small cottage located in the small farming community of Picabo, Idaho (population 158). Picabo is located about four miles east of the Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve.
Silver Creek is located about 35 miles southeast of Ketchum and Sun Valley, Idaho. Ketchum originated as a mining town and is located on the Big Wood River, a beautiful freestone fishery in its own right. Neighboring Sun Valley is a year-round resort offering golf courses and music events in the summer, plus world-class skiing in the winter. The area is a popular playground for tourists and wealthy part timers who have built riverside mansions.
Whereas Ketchum and Sun Valley are located in a mountain and river canyon environment, Silver Creek is located in an open desert valley amid large irrigated ranches. The only commercial establishment within 20 miles of the creek is the nearby Picabo General Store and Gas Station, a convenient place for lunch or replenishing the fly box.
The fame of Silver Creek is entirely focused on the unique characteristics of the upper creek, from its headwaters to several river miles downstream where the Point of Rocks public access is located. Silver Creek is a tributary of the Little Wood River. It rises in dozens of small tributary springs scattered on the valley floor. The springs feed a handful of small rivulets and streams that join to form the main stem. As the creek flows, it picks up volume, transforming itself from a narrow channel to a width of 100 feet or more in places.
Since the mid-1970s, the headwaters of Silver Creek have been owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. The original Nature Conservancy purchase (now called Silver Creek Preserve) exceeded 400 acres. It now comprises more than 850 acres, plus an additional area of more than 12,000 acres subject to conservation easements. The preserve contains upward of a mile of the main stem, plus sections of the main tributary streams and some spring-fed lakes or sloughs that seep into the main stem. Fishing on the preserve is limited to catch and release. Anglers must sign in at the Nature Conservancy’s headquarters cabin. There is no fee, but donations are gladly accepted.
The downstream boundary of the Nature Conservancy Preserve is located at the Kilpatrick Road Bridge. On the downstream side of the bridge, the privately owned RR Ranch property covers several miles of the stream, ending at the point that the creek starts a large northerly loop, crossing under Highway 20. Private fishing rights on the ranch are available for annual purchase; however, anglers who stay within the banks can float tube below the bridge if they exit by wading back upstream to the bridge. Incidentally, float tubing of the creek is done with wading boots, not flippers. The tube provides stability while the tube occupant “dances” along the silty bottom.
If anglers commit a full day (at least six hours), they can also drift all the way through the ranch, taking out at the Highway 20 bridge. Such a float requires a healthy bladder since the ranch is private property and there are no midway bail-out points.
Several hundred yards downstream of the Highway 20 crossing, there are two public access points controlled by the Idaho Fish and Game Department. These are the West and Point of Rocks access points. Here, the creek meanders through hayfields and willow thickets. The water you can reach from these two access points has prolific hatches and a healthy population of trout. This area is prime grasshopper habitat and is also the habitat for the large brown drakes that hatch in early summer. I consider Point of Rocks as the boundary of publicly accessible sight-fishing water – that is, clear water with prolific hatches and abundant trout. Thus, it is this upper portion of the creek that provides the main attraction for anglers, though there is some downstream water worth considering. I’ll discuss that water in a minute.
In my view there are several reasons for the notoriety of Silver Creek among fly fishermen. First, the word “creek” is a poor descriptor for what exists. Even disregarding the miles of water downstream, the preserve alone contains a wide variety of habitat, from smaller tributaries to the meandering main stem. In addition, sizeable springfed lakes or sloughs gently flow or seep into the main stem. These latter offer challenging still-water sight angling to large cruising trout.
Second, the entire complex of the preserve is an unparalleled “bug factory” and a near-perfect environment for trout and for anglers who like to pursue them with dry flies. There are times when an angler cannot avoid inhaling hatching tricos or blue-winged olive mayflies as they cover the stream surface and fill the air. During a single day an angler may see hatches of several species of bugs, and the feeding patterns of trout may change several times. Keen observation of these changes may make the difference between angling success and failure.
The third factor that characterizes the preserve is the angling challenge of crystal clear water, weed beds creating complex microcurrents, prolific insect hatches (often requiring small imitations and 6X tippets), and highly selective trout. On the preserve waters, most fishing is to sighted fish, demanding good casting skills and line management to attain drag-free presentations. In fact, most successful presentations are angled downstream or across. Upstream presentations are rarely productive.
As with most spring creeks, the fishing on the preserve and the Point of Rocks area is not a numbers game. To be sure, there are occasions when a skilled angler will land fish numbers in the double digits. However, there will be many occasions when even the most skilled will be skunked. The satisfaction derived from a day on Silver Creek is often the intangibles. Just observing a miraculous hatch of multitudes of tiny insects while hundreds of trout visibly sip them from the surface can provide a lifetime memory.
If there is one piece of advice that I would offer to a visiting angler, it is to hire a guide. There are some areas of the creek that are less demanding than others. And admittedly, at the right time of year, even a sloppily presented hopper may result in a trophy fish. However, there are long sections of the creek where a visiting angler will likely feel lost and confounded. It pays to seek the assistance of an experienced guide. There are many guides available through shops in Ketchum. I can personally recommend outfitter/guide Dave Glasscock, coauthor of Silver Creek, Idaho’s Fly Fishing Paradise and owner of Idaho Angling Services (www.anglingservices.com). Dave lives in Picabo and has more than 30 years of guiding experience on Silver Creek and other area waters.
Downstream Access Points
Well below the Point of Rocks public access, Silver Creek changes character entirely. There are two downstream areas of interest to the angler. Neither require the same degree of technical skill as the upper portions of the creek.
The first of these is a Bureau of Land Management access point called Priest Rapids. It’s located several miles downstream from the preserve, after the creek has once again passed under Highway 20 on its way south. This area is reached by a graded dirt road that starts just at the east edge of the village of Picabo. At Priest Rapids, the character of the creek changes from a meadow stream of crystal clear water and undulating weeds (common name, chara), to slightly turbid water flowing over lava beds. At Priest Rapids, the prolific insect hatches, dense trout population, and sight-fishing qualities of the preserve and Point of Rocks have evaporated. Here, blind casting of streamers and the possibility of large brown trout are more in order.
A short distance downstream of the Priest Rapids access point, Silver Creek crosses under Highway 93, which runs between Carey and Richfield, Idaho. At this point Silver Creek empties into the Little Wood River, which parallels Highway 93 for several miles. Technically, once it joins the Little Wood River, Silver Creek no longer exists. However, the Little Wood seldom contains significant flow due to agricultural diversions. Thus, the majority of the Little Wood flow is provided by waters from Silver Creek, and I personally consider it a part of the Silver Creek story.
The section of the Little Wood below its juncture with Silver Creek is a unique fishery, seldom fished by visiting anglers. Its uniqueness emanates from the fact that the stream flows through one of the harshest desert environments imaginable. The desert is the Picabo Desert, a wasteland of sage and lava flows. This area of the Little Wood is publicly accessible as it flows through the Taylor “Bear Track Williams” Wilderness Area. This section of the Little Wood does not look like a trout stream. The river has a narrow riparian corridor as it flows over lava-bottomed shallows with intermittent deep pools formed by constricting lava cliffs.
However, appearances can be deceiving. For two-and-a-half miles upstream of Highway 93 mile marker 190, the Little Wood angling regulations for brown trout are catch and release. The tactic that works here usually is blind casting to likely holding water. I can personally attest to the fact that large brown trout inhabit this section of river.
There are other central Idaho alternatives for great trout fishing, by the way. Three of my favorites are the freestone Big Wood River, particularly between Ketchum and Bellevue, the tailwater of the South Boise River below Anderson Ranch Dam, and the tailwater of the Big Lost River near Mackey. These all provide great fishing, but for technical challenges that require keen observation and finely honed problemsolving skills, the upstream portions of Silver Creek are unequaled. Be aware that the challenges can be addictive. Enjoy! – Bill Owen.