Fall Browns and Desert Grouse
Last fall on Idaho's Little Wood River,
by Sharon Watson
I was sitting under a shady rock tying on a big grasshopper fly for that stream's teeming brown trout.
Suddenly a whooshing sound
startled me and my ever-present Brittany companion. A single thirsty sage grouse zoomed around our rock and landed at water's edge just 20 feet from my waders. I wanted to watch the big bird gawk and strut, but my dog would have none of that. A solid pointer, most of the time, he made a crazed dash at the grouse before I could stop him. The startled sagehen thundered up, roared across the river, and sailed out into the desert till I lost sight of him.
East-Central Idaho is like that in the early fall.
Lots of desert-dwelling sagehens in the foothills, with trout-filled streams and reservoirs in the low spots. Each September I like to make a fishing-and-hunting combination trip into this region. My favorite targets are sage grouse and browns with big rainbows happily thrown into the "bag" if they want to play.
You can catch rainbows most anywhere in Idaho,
plus lots of cutthroats up north and over toward the Montana/Wyoming border. But, I've got something special going for browns, especially big hook-jawed lunkers lurking in lonely desert streams. That pretty well describes southern Idaho's lower Silver Creek, Bear River, Camas Creek, Portneuf River, Willow Creek, the entire Wood River system and lower Henry's Fork.
In the fall, resident browns in all these rivers
feed actively on anything they can wrap their fangs around. This is also when even bigger browns swim up certain tributary creeks on fall spawning runs. Another good point about autumn brown trout fishing in Idaho is that you'll probably have the river all to yourself. Everybody else is off hunting somewhere. And, that's exactly why I'm there too -- to hunt sage grouse and catch big browns.
With little competition from other anglers,
spooky desert browns are easier to approach and hook this time of year. On a recent trip to one of the streams mentioned above, I walked only 100 yards from a major parking area and flipped a muddler minnow into an attractive riffle. On my third cast, a yellow-bellied brown measuring nearly four inches between pectorals rolled up and slapped my fly out of the water! I missed the strike, and the fish wasn't dumb enough to hit again.
my husband and I parked our camper on an isolated sage flat right by a certain clear-water channel in the Magic Valley area. I figured we'd hunt sage grouse till late afternoon, then try for some browns near sundown -- a most reasonable sequence according to our excited pointer. But then I strolled over to the water...
I crouched down and beckoned for my mate to come quickly.
There, between waving strands of river moss lay an 18" brown, black spots clearly visible, fins and tail working steadily in the current!
Much to our brittany's disappointment,
we forgot about sage grouse and went trout fishing instead. The dog's insistent howls back at the truck were heart-rending, but we had two long days to hunt sagehens and those trout just couldn't wait.
At it turned out,
we caught only little browns that afternoon, with one 16" fish taken in frosty conditions before breakfast the next morning. I guess the moral is that you should always listen to your bird dog's advice!
When our September sun climbs high,
desert browns usually quit feeding. Some anglers keep working deep pools and undercut banks with fair success, but I prefer hunting birds in late morning and late afternoon. In Idaho's sagebrush deserts, hot mid-day hours are best spent in camp reading, snoozing, and sipping cold drinks. More than once I've sat under a shade-tarp and watched sage grouse sail in to water from far out in the desert, usually about mid-morning or toward sundown.
What a tough life:
mark the birds down, grab gun and shells, call a sleepy pooch from beneath the truck, and go! Even if the drinking birds get up and away before you corral them, this method sure beats roaming around scorching sageflats at high noon.
If sagehens won't cooperate
by coming to your trout-fishing camp, you'll have to go to them. When I was younger, stronger, and dumber, I used to hike around at random compulsively looking for sage grouse, determined to find their sign and kick them up. I knew they were there in those sagebrush seas somewhere! No more. That country is just too big.
I prefer slowly cruising remote backroads checking for tracks, droppings, feathers, or even the birds themselves. They will often cross the road in front of you, or be within a few yards of the road. Look for fresh sign especially near any kind of water - creeks, cattle tanks, springs. Once I find sign of sage grouse presence, I release my dog and hoof after him for an hour or two, four at the max.
Another sage grouse technique
that works well in south Idaho's agricultural lands is to wait at dawn and dusk for birds to fly in from the desert to lush alfalfa fields. In early season, before sagehens get spooked and thinned out, you can even pass-shoot the big critters as they fly in! Several of the desert brown trout rivers mentioned above also irrigate nearby farmlands. Look for this made-to-order setup not far from your streamside camp.
Once you know about it,
south-central Idaho's combined sage grouse hunting and autumn brown trout fishing are just too good to miss!