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Hemingway's Haunt

Silver Creek is the Superbowl of fly fishing

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Along parts of Highway 20, south of Sun Valley, an inconspicuous creek lazily flows from the base of the Picabo Hills, winding through more than 20,000 acres of high-desert plains.

Quiet and serene, the creek is about 20 feet wide at its narrowest and more than 50 yards at some of its widest points. To the untrained eye, it might pass for a man-made canal designed to irrigate the domestic fields that line its banks for seemingly miles on end.

At closer look, however, Silver Creek is a thriving ecosystem. The shrub land, riparian forests and wetlands are home to 150 species of birds, and attract deer, elk, moose, eagles and even mountain lions.

To the fly fisherman, it represents the foremost challenge in a pastime that has become more art than sport.

Fly fishing is not for the impatient or uncoordinated. And those who have logged sufficient hours on Blaine County's most famed water flow know all too well the lessons learned there.

"After you fish Silver Creek, everything else is easier,: said John Huber, fly fishing guide for Silver Creek Outfitters, author and international angling consultant for Silver Creek's travel department, Silver Creek Adventures. "The things you take away are tactics that allow you to really excel on other rivers. We love to see people who don't expect big fish, but a great day outside."

Landing the big fish, however, is always a possibility on the creek, which became one Ernest Hemingway's favorite fishing spots during the 1950s. Trophy Brown and Rainbow trout, to the tune of 29 inches, are routinely caught in this highly protected creek, which is one of only a handful of spring-fed ecosystems in Idaho. Through the cooperation of land owners and The Nature Conservancy, a national non-profit conservation organization, Silver Creek stands as one of the most successful and highly regarded systems in the nation.

One of the factors that make it so special is the natural artesian source responsible for the creek's constant temperature so important for wild trout, which rely on cold water conditions. Together, dozens of springs percolate up from an aquifer and merge to form Silver Creek. The alkaline and nutrient-rich water supports a prolific bug life. Cooperation between The Nature Conservancy and private land owners has helped to diminish domestic impacts, such as cattle grazing, preventing the destruction of the fragile ecosystem.

"Their stewardship (The Nature Conservancy) and their proactive relationship with area farmers has been vital in helping landowners understand the importance of conserving this water resource," said Skooter Gardiner, who runs Silver Creek Outfitters' travel department and co-produces the area fishing report with Huber.

The Nature Conservancy has implemented a long-term water program monitoring program aimed at studying how water ends up in Silver Creek and to monitor its water quality, which is crucial in making land management and restoration decisions.

The creek's reputation as a trophy fish habitat has also helped to raise awareness of this unique resource. But don't think plucking a trout from the 5,000 per-mile that exist is an easy task. Even the most seasoned professionals have been skunked, but it's all a part of the Silver Creek experience, according to Huber, who wrote The Fly Fishing Guide to Oregon, and Lessons of Fairsized Creek.

"Technique is more important than fly selection," he said. "The fish are particular in what they eat, partly because of the nature of the fishery, so presentation is important. You have to cast your fly with absolutely no drag, whatsoever. They can be so picky that even in the middle of a hatch, you could have the right color, but the wrong size fly."

If you choose to fish Silver Creek, there are a few general hatches to keep in mind. Memorial Day weekend signals the opening of fishing season and alerts anglers to begin looking for the famed Brown Drakes, a meaty mayfly that turns fickle fish into gluttonous predators. Look for them on the lower half of Silver Creek. Continuing into mid-June, the fish are biting on PMD's (Pale Morning Dunn), Callibaetis, Baetis and Caddis. Green Drakes, equally as hearty as their Brown Drake cousins, but not as prolific, begin to pop on the upper Conservancy waters in mid to late June. The morning Trico event of mid-July through August is referred to as a "Spinner Fall," because the bugs hatch at night and "spin" when the air temperature hits 70 degrees the following morning.

Terrestrial fishing also starts in July. Organisms that do not have an aquatic life cycle, such as ants and beetles, end up in the water through wind or human disturbance, providing another opportunity for anglers.

Directions to Silver Creek visitor's center: Drive east on Highway 20 through Fairfield-the Market Basket grocery store marks the point where you are about three-quarters of the way. Keep going past the flashing light at the Highway 20/75 junction. Drive 7.1 miles to Kilpatrick Bridge Rd. where there is a "Silver Creek Preserve" highway sign. Turn right, go over the bridge and follow the road to the visitors center on the hill. For more information, call (208) 788-2203 or email kpratt@tnc.org.