Friends made during your formative years are special. Some helped you through tough times, and you’re not sure how you would have made it without them. Others shared your passion for obscure books or hobbies, giving you a circle to enjoy things that other people just didn’t understand. Others were the kind that made your parents worry every time you hung out together because if you were reckless separate, together you were fearless. My buddy Joey somehow fits into all three slots.
We originally met through my parents store, and then my brother and I started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu where he was one of the instructors so we ended up spending a lot of time together. Over the years we’d hang out and talk about a huge swath of topics, went on an ill-fated canoeing trip on the New River at flood stage, and somehow ended up in each others weddings. Joey once handed me a Stars and Bars bandanna to “help me blend in with the local mountain folk”, so to say he has my back is an understatement. But life happened, we got busy, and like every other friendship in this day and age, it became regulated to occasional messages on Facebook and liking pictures on Instagram.
Joey followed his life long dream and moved West, to Boise Idaho, a year ago and in early June I was out there to hike, backpack, and fish with him for 5 days. The day I flew in I was treated to the traditional Idaho greeting of honored guests which was a VIP pass to the local rodeo that night. There are few things as American as being in Idaho, at a rodeo, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, as they invited a veteran of D-Day to kick off the event. An eagle flew over, shed a tear that as it fell burst into a fireworks display. Another pro tip, always splurge for the VIP seats at a rodeo in Idaho; they feed you nonstop, the beer is free, and when the thunderstorm breaks and dumps buckets you’re under a cover while all of the peasants are running for cover.
Starting at 6am the next day we drove 3 hours northeast to the small town of Stanley, population 62, as our jumping off point for an overnight trip in the Sawtooth mountains. I had brought all my backpacking gear, minus food and cooking supplies as Joey had assured me he had that taken care of. As we packed our things that morning, I realized he had a pot and stove, and a Ka-Bar branded Spork to eat with, but that was it…for the both of us. I asked if he had anything else we could use, and he replied that there’s an outdoor store and grocery store in Stanley we were stopping at for supplies.
As we drove north, and gained elevation, the temperature steadily dropped from 50, to 40, to 32 degrees and visibility went from slightly overcast to heavy half-dollar size snowflakes coming down fast and hard. By the time we arrived in Stanley, a short 15 minute drive to the trail head we planned taking, we were both nervously quipping about how “epic” this was going to be while secretly wondering if this was a good idea or not. Neither of us would back down and be the wuss, so we stopped into the outdoor store for a map and the grocery store for supplies.
“Do you want chicken, pork, of beef ramen?” Joey asked, in the small and cramped grocery store.
“Uh…Chicken I guess. But don’t we need more protein if we’re backpacking in the snow?”, I asked, with my rudimentary grasp of nutrition and common sense.
“Nah. I like to keep things simple when I backpack. I’m not really into fancy cooking on the trail”
“Well neither am I, but I’m going to grab some packs of tuna and at least toss that into mine. What are we planning to eat out of?”
“I don’t know…the pot?”
I bought 2 oversize enamel mugs along with 6 packets of ramen, 3 pouches of tuna, some granola bars, and an undisclosed amount of whiskey, and our supplies were set. We visited the dock on Redfish Lake which has a shuttle that runs from one end of the lake to the other since we were debating on what our final destination would be. I’m sure the guys who ran the shuttle immediately thought we were going to die as both of us, wearing sandals and light jackets as the windchill off the lake dropped the temperature to 20 degrees and snow began accumulating on our clothes, asked them what the trails were like around the lake. Spring was still looked forward to, as the creeks and rivers on the south side of the lake were either still frozen or overflowing from snow melt; that, coupled with our rising dread at the possibility of camping overnight going sideways, we decided to take a shorter spur up to Bench Lakes, which gave us the option of hiking out if conditions got too bad. A fun fact about the western edge of Idaho, is it’s right on the border of the Pacific timezone, so in June the sun doesn’t fully set until 10pm. So even if we didn’t start hiking back to the car in shame until 8pm, at least we had several hours of daylight left and wouldn’t be hiking in the dark.
Our bags packed, and rain jackets sloughing off snow constantly, we started hiking up from the Redfish Lake trail head at 6400’ to Bench Lakes at 7700’. Once we crested 7000’ the snow was falling harder, matching our breathing since neither of us were handling the altitude very well but still plunging ahead at a brisk 3 mph pace to not be the “slow” person in the group. Once we finally got to the first lake, which we couldn’t even see across, we searched and found a relatively flat spot and started setting up camp. The rest of the afternoon was spent gathering and chopping 5 dead trees worth of firewood to keep ourselves warm and eating mug after mug of ramen (with tuna in mine). During this entire time, my inner monologue was repeating “Don’t be the wuss, don’t be the wuss, don’t be the wuss”, and as I later learned so was Joey’s.
It cleared a little that afternoon, so we could at least see the outline of peaks in the distance, but that was it. As the sun fell, later than I thought possible with snow still falling, the temperature finally settled around 20. After a restless night, barely warm enough in our gear, we woke up to clearing skies and arguably the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen. Layer after layer of fog and cloud began rising and burning off, finally letting through the rays of the sun as they crested over the mountain range 4 miles to the east. Once the beauty had passed, we packed our gear back up and shuffled down the mountain in a hurry, wanting a breakfast of literally anything other than ramen.
Eating at the diner in Stanley, we spread out the map and started making plans for the rest of the day. A large circular path was drawn, over 200 miles of road, back to Boise with stops at the world-famous trout waters of the Silver Creek Preserve and then a hike up to Baker Lake before finally crashing again at Joey’s house with a shower and bed. As we started the drive around the Sawtooths, I quickly realized that this mountain range is arguably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen with my own eyes; more than the Tetons, more than the Cascades, the Sawtooths have that mix of lakes, rivers, plains, and forests which make it the most multifaceted and accessible mountain wilderness I’ve been to yet. Joey stopped at a few small rivers to try and find some trout, but they were either hiding or non-existent.
Baker Lake was our first stop, an alpine lake positioned beneath a granite peak nearly 8900’ above sea level. Already a little sore from our previous backpacking, the 900’ of elevation gain was made even worse by the fact snow was still 3’ deep for the last mile, making us work twice as hard for the same gains. Exhausted, we finally crested the summit to find the lake was still 90% frozen over, only the outlet for the stream was open water. In that open water though, a monster-sized golden trout was lazing around the submerged logs forcing Joey to attempt some casts which only resulted in the trout moving at a sloth like speed to the frozen portions of the lake. Vowing to come back later in the summer with a float tube, Joey headed down the trail thinking that today just wasn’t his day for fishing.
Not surprisingly, Joey was also skunked on the famously tough Silver Creek. I didn’t even bother putting a fly in the water, as I knew my skills were no match for the trout that have been making fisherman angry since Hemingway gushed about the area back in the 1930s. The high-desert surroundings though, coupled with the lush greenery and wildlife around the river, made the several miles of hiking worth every mile it took to get there. Moose, sandhill cranes, beaver, and large fat trout not interested in anything the fishermen had to offer were just some of the sights. Vowing that he would put me onto trophy trout the following day, Joey turned his truck towards the setting sun and Boise, finally getting us in for a shower and bed around 11pm. Total, we had hiked 13 miles with several thousand feet of elevation gain and loss. Neither of us were worried about wussing out anymore; the hard days were behind us.
My last full day dawned early once again, on the road by 6:30am heading towards the Owyhee River in Oregon. Geography not being my strong suit, I didn’t realize Oregon is only an hour away from Boise, and the Owyhee is one of the premier big brown trout waters in the west. While I love the idea of fly fishing, and have done it on occasion, to call me “experienced” or “competent” is a bit like calling your 5 year old finger painting Rembrandt; the love might be there, the passion might be there, but the skill and talent are nowhere near to the task. Joey knew this, and tried to teach me the most idiot proof way to fish this stretch of water which was several feet above normal due to snow melt. He decided nymph fishing with a leech higher up would bring the highest chance of success.
Standing in the frigid water, he grabbed the rod and reel I would be using.
”You’re going to want to cast up stream, around there, and start stripping the line to keep it tight in case you get a strike. Once it gets to about he-”.
Whoomph. A trout struck the nymph, hard, and Joey set the hook and then open mouth stared at me.
”I’ve never caught a trout on the very first cast! I wasn’t even trying to catch anything with this cast, it was just for practice!”
”This is either going to be a very good day, or that’s going to be the only trout that gets netted” I replied, as I scooped up a nice 18” brown that would have been the largest fish I’d ever caught if I was the person with the rod in my hand.
So I set to work, doing my best to imitate the technique that Joey showed me as I watched him catch another beautiful brown trout, this was a bit smaller at 16”. And suddenly, whoomph, I had something massive hit the leech on my line and take off. I set the hook successfully which cured my recurring nightmare of Joey taking me to a magical river full of hungry trout that hit every fly I put in front of them, but being unable to set a hook, I went home skunked and ashamed. The hook set, I fought the trout, maybe 16” long, as Joey resembled a bear running across the river in his excitement at me having hooked a fish. He netted the fish for me and kindly complimented the big-to-me trout as a “butterball” and began instructing me on the second most important aspect of fishing which is the proper way to take photos for Instagram to make it seem as large as possible.
Giddy beyond belief, happy knowing I wouldn’t go home skunked, Joey took off down river again and I kept casting with the same technique Joey showed me. 15 minutes later, something that felt like a baseball bat hit my fly and I set the hook hard. In my mind, I was calmly yelling at Joey “I think I’ve got a big one, can you help me net it?” but more likely It was a run on sentence of “HOLYCOWTHATSENORMOUSWHATTHEHECKWASTHATGETHENETGETTHENETGETTHENET”. I saw a flash as it whipped around, and I thought it was a giant rainbow trout; apparently I was able to communicate that clearly to Joey because he immediately dismissed it out of hand. “There’s big rainbows here, but they’re rare and hard to catch. It’s a big brown”. But as a 20” slab of rainbow colored trout was scooped up into the net, Joey’s mixed look of shock, anger, and happiness was priceless. “I’ve been trying to catch a massive rainbow for a year, and you come out and do it on your first day? Man, you’re getting the full experience today!”
Beaming, and even more giddy than before, we snap photos where it’s obvious I’m holding onto the trout like a drowning man to a buoy, afraid a single thrash would let him slip away before I could get photographic evidence of the biggest trout I’d ever hoped to land in my life. As he swims away, and I start fishing again, the pride has reached it’s zenith, I try a fancy cast, and quickly create a Gordian knot of my line. The true guide, Joey wades over and hands me his rod and reel so I can keep on fishing instead of untangling line; I try and refuse, but he says he can fish here whenever he wants and I’m only here for the day so make the most of it. Getting used to his slightly different setup, I make a few casts when I feel a torpedo hit my line. Now that I’m on my third fish, I keep the high-pitched squeals to a minimum but inform Joey that this is the biggest trout yet. Ever doubtful but helpful, he comes back to me and nets a fish, looks at it barely fitting in the net, and stares deadpan into my eyes and says that he hopes I fall down and fill my waders full of water. 21” long, spilling out of the net, is the largest trout we’d catch that day and breaking Joey’s personal best of 20” on the Owyhee; a record, apparently, he’s repeated 8 times but never broken. Happy for me, but still grumbling, he snatches back his rod and reel, handing back mine properly sorted, and stalks down river fishing aggressively.
By days end, I had a total of 4 trout, 2 browns in the 16-17” range, a 20” rainbow, and the lunker 21” brown trout. Joey also had 4, including the 9th 20” brown trout that he’s pulled out of the Owyhee. His curse also came true; while he was landing the 20” trout, I tried to rush over and help him net it, but slipped and fell face first filling part of my waders with water. After several hours with no bites, we knew we couldn’t improve on an already perfect day so we headed back to Joey’s place to eat pizza and tie flies, him teaching me to tie the leech pattern that had proved so effective that day; he also gifted me the leech that had caught me the 21” brown, saying I deserved it for beating his record. They were both packed carefully away in my luggage, me hoping that the TSA wouldn’t think it was a secret weapon to hijack the plane.
The final day dawned early, and found us once again on the road at 6am for a quick trip before my plane left at noon. We drove to Jump Creek, a fun hike through a slot canyon to a waterfall plunging into a pool surrounded by a desert. Joey was there to practice setting very tiny barbless hooks on the miniature redband trout that filled the pool. I took pictures, and then tried my hand, possibly bringing my skill level up from “rudimentary” to “vaguely capable”. On the way to the airport, we stopped at a Seirra Trading Post store where I bought a Simms hat featuring a trout on it because I was obviously a trout fisherman now.
Saying our goodbyes, I went into the airport and then had several hours to reflect on this trip. Friends are rare, friends who are into the same interests rarer, and friends I’ve found who can keep up and go as hard as I do in the woods are even more scarce. The only problem I had coming home was realizing I want to move out to Boise.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.