Photos by Kenning Arlitsch

Kenning tempts me with a well-cast email: “Wilderness fishing.” Rob drifts the perfect attractor down my lane: “Miles of untouched water.” It’s an invitation to join two friends on a 10-day, 90-mile trek through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in north-central Idaho. We would enter the fabled bear- and wolf-haunted wilds of the Nez Perce; trace Norman Maclean’s footsteps through Blodgett Canyon, Montana; behold majestic groves of old-growth cedar; and touch miles of pristine trout water.

“Sounds great. I’m in!” I type back.

We train and gear up. Kenning, an experienced hiker, researches the route and contacts the Fenn Ranger Station overseeing the area, asking if there is anything we should know about the trail. “Well, that’s very rough country,” the ranger says.

“Rough?” Rob shakes his head, gulping water and smacking a horsefly on his neck. “This trail hasn’t been maintained in years.”

We start near Hamilton, Montana, clear Blodgett Pass in blistering July heat and follow a dent in the bugleweed to Big Sand Lake. But on the third day, the Little Dead Elk Trail nearly drops me. Bearing 50-pound packs, we climb over, under, around and between the limbs of massive downed trees that block the route every few hundred feet. Other sections of the pathway are completely overgrown. Thorns and branches tear our legs, mosquitoes pierce our Deet-numbed ears, and flies bite our hot skin. After a four-mile morning, I’m breathing hard, sweating and thrashing through a wreck of downed ponderosa pines from the previous year’s fire, wondering why I’m on this damn hike.

The promise of good fishing kept the hikers from fixating on the bugs and downed trees during their 10-day odyssey in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

The promise of good fishing kept the hikers from fixating on the bugs and downed trees during their 10-day odyssey in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Pushing ahead — what else to do? — and parting a jungle of leafy brush, my only orientation is Rob’s voice: “This way, over here.” I find him waiting with a handful of huckleberries. I nod thanks, savoring the quench of juicy sweetness but feeling completely spent. “Only five miles to go,” Rob says evenly. “We’ll camp by the water.” The trail gets worse and vanishes. Kenning takes a satellite GPS reading and divines the way. Legs wobbly, I stumble over roots and rocks.

A Little Fish that Lifts Me

It’s 6 p.m., and we’re pressing above the rumble of East Moose Creek, desperate for a campsite. Kenning turns to me. “I’m sorry about getting you into this.”

“No, no,” I say, touching his char and sap-smeared shoulder. “As long as you get me the hell out of this.”

“Stay on your feet, and we’ll get you out,” he says.

Kenning and Rob are stronger hikers, but we’re all exhausted. Kenning battles his way down to the creek one more time, then shouts, “Hey, this will work.” Rob and I stagger and slide down the canyon to a massive waterside patio of moss-covered rock.

My legs are lashed, bruised, whipped and bit, and my back is strained. Even my hands throb from gripping trekking poles, but when I see the series of boulder cascades and deep pools, I feel a surge of energy. I quickly assemble the nine-piece, 5-weight backpacking rod Ted Leeson lent me. A month earlier, Leeson had listened to my training reports and plans for a fish-filled Bitterroot adventure.

“Ninety miles, wow,” he said. “Well, I hope you get through without too much pain.”

“Pain?” My eyebrows arched.

“It seems backpackers enjoy some pain. I don’t understand that.” Leeson smiled, wished me luck and gave me a box of his fine flies.

The river gave up a westslope cutthroat, an offering that was prepared and consumed fireside after a long day under way.

The river gave up a westslope cutthroat, an offering that was prepared and consumed fireside after a long day under way.

I tie on and grease up one of Leeson’s small stimulators, and step to the rock edge — mindful of my shaky legs. Drawing out a few feet of line, I flip the fly into the swirl behind a sunny break, and three fish instantly rise. In the shadows at the end of the run, a feisty 7-inch cutthroat snaps up the fly and turns, pulsing life back into me. Rob applauds, and Kenning takes a photo. The fish, a burnished bassy green, is finely spotted, with red blushes on its gill plates and sanguine slashes below. A little fish that lifts me. I land a couple more small cutts, bull trout and a few brook trout that are browner, with dazzling light-colored spots and glowing red pectoral fins. Wonderful. I sleep like a rock on the rock.

The next morning is chilly. Kenning and I rise early, delighting in the sound of moving water and the absence of mosquitoes and horse flies. He sets up his tenkara rod, and we both tie on wooly buggers and catch several cutts, bulls and brookies. “You were looking pretty beat yesterday,” Kenning says to me. “Until you saw the creek.”

“I was destroyed, man. But there’s something about the promise of fishing. It’s crazy, isn’t it?”

Tired but Inspired

Day four of hiking is even more difficult. We battle more downed trees and cover less than seven miles in nine hours; it’s painful, but the memory and promise of fishing keep me going. “Just think how good it will feel when you’re casting this evening,” Rob cheers.

Relaxing late afternoon fishing in pristine pools made the pain the hikers endured to get there worthwhile. 

Relaxing late afternoon fishing in pristine pools made the pain the hikers endured to get there worthwhile. 

He reminds me that in 1919 a young Norman Maclean hiked 28 miles in one day through this country. “He was 17; I’m 53,” I shout.

Kenning laughs and chimes in. “You and Norman are both fueled by fishing. We’ll find some nice water for you.” We all smile as we watch a black bear gorge on berries and saunter across the pale granite flanks of Diablo Mountain while a young golden eagle sounds its high, short whistle over the canyon. A mile down the trail, there’s a half-eaten deer and fresh wolf tracks.

Tired but inspired, we walk into a cathedral grove of towering western red cedars, many of their trunks 8 feet in diameter, the ground below a profusion of soft ferns ignited here and there by needled rays of sunlight. Cool, fragrant and tranquil, the place feels holy, a forest of dreams spared the violence of logging, fire and storms.

We camp beside the creek, and I fish the fading light. This time I keep and clean a 10-inch westslope cutthroat, rub it with olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper, and wrap it in a page of foil unfolded from my pack. Raking out a few coals from the fire, the fish cooks four minutes on each side. We share its delicious flesh and delicate skin — a welcome complement to rehydrated curry, dried peas and filtered water.

The trail gets better, and we march on. We reach the Selway River, drop stimulator and caddis patterns in tailouts and over deep, blue pools, and catch and release shining trout that fight hard and come to our wet hands like living gifts. We bathe, rinse our clothes, step around sunning rattlesnakes, and marvel over western tanagers and a wilderness night sky of brilliant stars and a sanguine Mars. After 10 days, we walk out to the road at Paradise, Idaho. I luxuriate in the finish but feel let down that the hike is over.

Postscript

A couple of days later, I’m sipping a gin and tonic with writer and angler David James Duncan. The air is hot, and my feet and legs are beat-up. Duncan leads us into the creek behind his Montana house, where we soak in cold, mineral-rich water. I tell him about the hike. “It was brutal at times, but the fishing kept me going.”

Duncan is not surprised. “Good fishing turns some of us into yogis,” he says, swirling the lime around in his glass.

He recounts a day on the Missouri River: “I knelt on rocks all day in the heat, fishing tricos for 10 hours.” He describes rainbows and browns rising constantly. “They averaged 3 pounds, and several went 4. There are very few aches and pains that a cartwheeling 4-pound rainbow can’t cure.”

My fish were small, but I know exactly what he means.  

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