GigBob on the Middle Fork

I have floated Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River in mid-September a few times for a fishing trip but always felt rushed. A fully-loaded raft tends to scoot through the water too fast for good fishing. I wanted to do a slower trip. So, I successfully talked some of the members of my fly fishing club into doing a largely self-contained pontoon boat trip down the Middle Fork for a week in September of 2008. 

The Pinocchio Fly Fishing Club crew, full of anticipation, the morning we left  Boise to drive to the launch at Boundary Creek. © Pinocchio Fly Fishing Club
The Pinocchio Fly Fishing Club crew, full of anticipation, the morning we left Boise to drive to the launch at Boundary Creek. © Pinocchio Fly Fishing Club

The Middle Fork is a 100 mile long wilderness river that flows through the heart of Idaho. It is one of the original Wild and Scenic Rivers designated by Congress and is home to the Westslope Cutthroat Trout and the endangered Bull Trout, as well as some wild salmon and steelhead returning 800 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is just a wonderful place to be, whether you’re catching fish or not. I love to fish on rivers, especially remote rivers where it is hard to bump into another fisherman. I love to float rivers, too. I just get a tranquil feeling that is hard to describe. Most of the people who float the Middle Fork are not fishermen and those who are usually aren’t that serious, so the fishing pressure is amazingly light. It’s a permit river and the Forest Service only allows a handful of parties to go down the river each day. Having a chance to float and fish this remote wilderness river is just one of those things you have to grab if the opportunity arises.

Our club is called “Pinocchio” because when it comes to the size or the number of fish we catch, you will never get the real truth from any of us. We are a small club and we get together during the winter to tie flies or build fly rods and then go on fishing outings in the spring, summer and fall. Most of us were born in the 1940s or 50s and for some this would be their first extended wilderness trip.

Rob Leonard shows what happens to anglers who exaggerate the size of their  catch. Let this be a warning to fishermen everywhere.
Rob Leonard shows what happens to anglers
who exaggerate the size of their catch. Let this be a
warning to fishermen everywhere.
© Pinocchio FFC

Doing the trip ourselves instead of going on a guided trip is like the difference between putting on a great big dinner party at your house and going out to a restaurant. If you go to the restaurant, you pretty much know what to expect. The food will be good, the service will be good, there will be no hassles and everyone will be nice to you. And if you pay the bill, no one will ask you to stay up late doing the dishes. If you have the dinner party at your house, it will take a lot of work and organization and clean-up afterwards and you will know that things just might not turn out the way you want them to. However, there is the satisfaction of doing it yourself and that was a driver for all of us.

I got together with the Pinocchio club and talked to them about my grand plan of floating and fishing the Middle Fork in small pontoon fishing boats. There was some skepticism but it was overcome by the prospect of adventure, especially the thought that we might be the first group to do the whole river in pontoon boats controlling them mostly with our feet instead of our oars. This was in 2006 and that winter I was lucky enough to get a permit for September 2007. We put our plans together over and over. We bought needed gear and planned the menus and did all the complex things that must be done before you can take a do-it-yourself trip like this. We decided that we would need some cargo boats to carry the common gear like the kitchen, the food, the toilets and fire pan, but each pontoon boat would carry about 75 to 100 pounds of personal gear like clothes, tents, sleeping bags, chairs, fishing equipment, etc. 

Steve topping off the GigBob chambers with his K-Pump
Steve topping off the GigBob chambers with his K-Pump.
© Pinocchio FFC

Five members of our club decided to take ten-foot pontoon boats, my son would take his nine foot Outcast 900 pontoon boat and I decided to try out the new NRS GigBob. I was able to acquire an early prototype of this new boat and was eager to try it out. That made seven in the little boats. Because the water is low in September and we were going to do the entire 100-mile trip from Boundary Creek to Cache Bar, I wanted to make sure the cargo boats were loaded lightly enough to handle the bony section at the top and to be able to carry us and our little boats if the river turned out to be too big for them.

We recruited some friends who loved to float and had their own boats and really weren’t interested in fishing. We arranged to take three cargo boats with only the oarsman on board (14’ NRS Scout, 14’ AIRE Super Duper Puma and a 16’ Cataraft). We wanted to have a couple of nimble safety boats so we put one person in an inflatable kayak and another in a 12' Cat. We also lined up a 13’ NRS Otter equipped with a fishing frame and two people and some gear. That meant that we had fourteen guys in all, which is pretty good size for a do-it-yourself trip. After all this planning and all this work a lightening storm hit the Middle Fork and started burning the forest right through the canyon. The fires were right along the water for ten or fifteen miles and finally in August the Forest Service closed the river for the season. They gave me a September 8, 2008 permit and I had to tell everyone that we couldn’t float until the next year. Needless to say, it was a big letdown.

I anticipated that we would have to start all over in 2008. Maybe we would have to recruit new people and plan everything again. Not a chance!  That next spring I found no one wanted to let a Middle Fork permit slip through their hands and we all just picked up where we left off the last year, which made for a pretty easy preparation.

When we finally approached our launch date, the river was flowing at 1.8 feet which was higher than I expected. This meant we had more cargo boats than we needed, but in the planning stages you never know and I felt it is better to have too many boats than too few. Taking more boats also allowed us to eat well since we could carry more food and drinks. Also, one of our club members volunteered to fly his airplane into Indian Creek airstrip, twenty-five miles downstream from the launch. The Forest Service has a ranger station there. He flew in with coolers stuffed with ice, food and beer. Maybe it’s because we are getting into the geezer age range or maybe it was because of the cool fall weather, but we brought in way too much beer and too much food. It’s a hard thing to measure and we felt we would rather have too much than not enough. The extra ice was unnecessary because it was so cold at night that we really weren’t losing much ice.

The way we worked things was that each day as we pulled into camp two different people would be responsible to set up the kitchen, prepare the evening meal and clean up. The next morning those same two people would prepare the breakfast and do the clean-up. Then they were through with that for the rest of the trip and the next day it would be someone else’s turn. Each morning all the lunch stuff was spread out and everyone made their own lunch, stuffed it into a gallon-size Ziploc bag and carried it on their own boat. The cargo boats naturally floated faster than the little boats and the little boats were spread out up and down the river, so we decided to eat lunch on our own so no one had to wait on anyone else. The food was all good, but I have never been on a river trip when it wasn’t. I don’t know if it is the fresh air or the beauty of the surroundings or if it is just that supreme state of relaxation you get into on the river, but the food always tastes great. 

Those of us on the pontoon boats and the GigBob wore neoprene waders with a tight wader belt. The neoprene waders fit snugly and held in warmth against the cold water. The snug fit of the waders and the tight wader belt minimized any water entering in the few times when there was a swim. We had on fishing boots and wore flippers (or fins) over the boots. We wore wading jackets and PFDs over them. Most of us opted for the NRS Chinook PFD because we could put our nippers, hemostats, flies and other gear in the pockets and still have the flotation we needed in the event of a mishap. Being dressed like this kept us warm and dry and still didn’t present a problem if we fell overboard.

Weather is unpredictable on the Middle Fork in September and we were all prepared for the worst, but we had nothing but beautiful fall weather: cold and frosty in the mornings, comfortable during the days and cool in the evenings. We had some friends launch one day after we got off the river and they had miserable weather. Be prepared because you just never know. We hauled all the bad weather gear, from extra warm clothes and rain gear to the indispensable NRS River Wing, which has saved many a day for me during bad weather, but we didn’t use any of these things on this trip.

When I was planning for this trip, I was nervous because I could not find any reports of anyone doing the entire trip in these little pontoon fishing boats and the GigBob was an unknown quantity to me. I worried that they might be too small for a Class III/IV river like the Middle Fork. On top of that, four of the six people who would be on these little boats had almost no experience on whitewater. As it turned out, the pontoon boats did well even in the hands of novices. The four inexperienced members of our party all learned from their mistakes very quickly. At low water, dodging rocks was a bigger problem than dealing with big waves, so most of the mistakes they made were recovered from easily. At the end of the first day, everyone was handling their boats like veterans. We used our fins to control the boats and only used the oars in the bigger rapids. 

All the pontoon boats did well but I was most impressed with how well the GigBob handled, especially considering it was a couple of feet shorter than the others. It floated through the shallows and over the barely submerged boulders better than the pontoon boats or the bigger rafts and cats because the bottom of the GigBob’s pontoons are flat and wide, drawing far less water with the same load. Even though it was only about eight feet in length, it handled the big water as well as or better than the ten-foot pontoon boats. I came to love the flat deck and my ability to store all kinds of stuff back there. Everything on the GigBob is smooth and there are fewer places to snag your fly line than on the typical pontoon boat. I just loved it.

Steve fishing the productive slower water as he maneuvers with his  fins.
Steve fishing the productive slower water as he maneuvers with his fins. © Pinocchio FFC

Since we were able to maneuver our small craft with our fins, we could spend almost all our time fishing. We could hold in the slower water and work the seams with our flies.  We could pick the pocket water with ease. Moving from river-left to river-right was usually an easy process just using our fins and this gave us access to all the holes and good water. Floating on these little boats was the perfect way to fish a wilderness river.

People say that there are five stages that a fly fisherman goes through. The first stage is that you want to catch a fish on a fly, the second is that you want to catch a lot of fish on flies, the third is that you want to catch a really big fish on a fly, the fourth is you want to catch a bunch of big fish on flies and the fifth stage is like Zen fishing: you become one with the habitat. That’s pretty much where all of us are in our Pinocchio group. We focus on a technique we call “Match the Habitat”. We try to acquire enough knowledge of the trout, the insects, the river and all the other variables to know what fly to put on and how to present that fly to draw a strike. So, the fact that most of the Westslope Cutthroat on the Middle Fork are only between 12 and 14 inches long didn’t bother us. There were plenty of them that were bigger but it really wasn’t all that important. We could always squeeze ourselves into the heavy crowds on some popular rivers where bigger fish live, but the natural and secluded feel of the Middle Fork made up for any lack of size in the fish. 

We caught a lot of fish every day and had a great time. We caught enough fish each day that most of us quit counting somewhere in the 20’s. We were catching the rare native Westslope Cutthroat trout, one of my favorite fish. I like these fish because of where they live: only in the remote waters of Idaho and Montana. They are a pure and natural strain of fish that hasn’t been altered by civilization due to the remote areas where they live. There were a lot of aggressive juvenile steelhead that we called smolts. They could be found in the riffles and the faster water. If you let your fly drift into their waters they would nail your fly in an instant. They fought hard but they were usually just little guys between four and eight inches long. 

A beautiful Westslope Cutthroat Trout, just before release back into the river.
A beautiful Westslope Cutthroat Trout, just before
release back into the river. © Pinocchio FFC

The Cutthroat does very well on the Middle Fork. They live in their habitat pretty much the same way they have for ten thousand years and the habitat of the Middle Fork really hasn’t changed in all that time. The one exception to this is the absence of the huge populations of salmon and steelhead that used to return from the Pacific every year to spawn in these waters. Their absence has really altered the ecosystem. The Westslope Cutthroat and the Bull Trout have managed to survive without them and to do pretty well, but still.... Anyway, the Westslope have learned over the thousands of years that they can derive the maximum food with the minimum expenditure of energy if they inhabit the pools, the eddies, the pocket water and the long and slow water of some of the runs.  We learned quickly not to waste our time fishing the empty water

Almost any properly placed dry fly seemed to work, but some worked a lot better than others. Grasshoppers, especially Dave’s Hopper, were very productive. Size did matter: they avoided the hoppers that were bigger than size 10. Stimulators produced well in orange or yellow. The Adams, the Irresistable and red ants also were very productive for us. Nymphs did not do very well but we did find we could really increase our catch rate if we “drowned” our dry flies by giving them a tug just after they hit the water. Our dry flies would be suspended just under the surface film and the Cutts hit them much more aggressively than they did with the flies on the surface. Because the water is so clear, you can still easily see your dry fly when it is drowned.

On the Middle Fork, the Forest Service ranger arbitrates with all the group leaders while they select campsites. Using a system of assigned campsites keeps the crowds spread out along the river so that you are rarely aware that you are not the only people on the river. No matter how much you prepare for this little exercise of camp selection you will be outsmarted by the professional guides who always get the best camps. I don’t mean that there are good and bad camps because they really are all about the same. What I mean is that it is the placement of your camps and how far you have to travel each day that makes one camp better than the other. We had only six days to float because a bunch of us had to get back to work afterwards. That meant we were going to have to average sixteen miles a day, but it never came out as average. We did 12 miles a day for the first two days, then we did about 16 to 18 miles a day for the next three days and we had to row like crazy to do 25 miles on the last day and still unload all of our gear for the ride home. That was a long day!

In the upper section, we did see a few bears and we had heard they were pretty aggressive. We used our trusty NRS straps to keep our coolers and dry boxes closed and suspended other food in mesh bags from branches high in the trees. We made sure no one had any food or anything sweet smelling in their tents. The way I figured it, though, was we had fourteen guys all sleeping by themselves in fourteen different tents because they couldn’t stand each other’s snoring, so the bears probably would leave us alone anyway.

Three of us brought our sons along, one was in his 30s and the other two were in their 20s. We stopped at the Flying B Ranch about two-thirds of the way down the river to get an ice cream bar and send a postcard home. My son sent a card to his girlfriend and wrote, “You know you are on a geezer trip when there is a last call for Aleve each night.” 

One of the sons, Scott, has been deaf since he was about three years old, a result of meningitis. Scott rowed our safety boat and hung at the back of the pack to pick up after any disasters. Fortunately, there were none, but we were all confident that Scott, deaf or not, would be there to handle the situation. Deafness was no handicap for Scott and he was able to communicate with us quite well. He did have one mishap, though. He had rigged a digital video camera on a frame rig set up above his head on the boat. He was able to run the camera continuously so that he would have a boater’s eye view of the whole river and then could edit it down after the trip was over. Scott was heartbroken on the third day when the bolts holding the camera to the frame worked loose and his camera fell into a deep hole. 

Larry Hughes at the oars and his son Raleigh, in the 13' NRS Otter, with fishing frame.
Larry Hughes at the oars and his son Raleigh, in the
13' NRS Otter, with fishing frame. © Pinocchio FFC

We had a father and son team on the NRS Otter fishing boat. Dad had a fair amount of river experience but his son had none. Dad really wanted to fish and the son really wanted to learn to row, but that isn’t how it worked for the first couple of days. After a couple of days, though, osmosis took place and the next thing we knew the son was doing the rowing and Dad was doing the fishing and neither one was willing to trade positions. On the last day, just when the son was starting to get cocky, he failed to hold on the inside as the river made a powerful and sudden left turn. He let the boat slam into and ride up on a giant rock, making it almost vertical. Both of them fell out of the boat into the rapid but the boat righted itself and continued down the river. They were able to swim to the boat and grab onto the safety lines and pull themselves back in. The only thing they suffered from was embarrassment.

Disaster strikes as one of the framed pontoon boats blew a tube.
Disaster strikes as one of the framed pontoon
boats blew a tube.
© Pinocchio FFC

We had a couple of incidents in the lower section. One of the members of our party scraped his “brand X” pontoon boat against some rocks in a rapid and the boat just shredded open, blowing out all the air in that pontoon almost instantly. He managed to hang on to the remaining pontoon and kick the boat to shore.  There were two lessons here. First, there is no better rescue than a self-rescue. Second, it was a valuable lesson in the importance of taking quality equipment on a trip like this. It also reinforced my idea that the GigBob, which has three air chambers instead of two, would be a safer boat in the unlikely event of a mishap like this.

One of the others in our party was on a 10’ pontoon boat and he underestimated the size of a hole he floated into and was flipped over backwards before he knew what happened.  He lost his fly rod and much of his dignity, but was able to self-rescue very quickly. Other than looking like a drowned rat, he suffered no damage thanks to wearing his new NRS Chinook PFD. The little boats give you a chance to stop your forward motion in most of the rapids and work your way left or right to avoid holes and rocks, but you still have to respect the power of the rapids and remember that a shorter boat cannot straddle a hole the way a bigger boat can.

In the GigBob, Steve takes the lead for the Pinocchio crew in running the new Cove Creek Rapid in theTappen series. The rapid was formed by a flash floodon the creek less than a month earlier.
In the GigBob, Steve takes the lead for the
Pinocchio crew in running the new Cove Creek Rapid
in theTappen series. The rapid was formed by a flash
flood on the creek less than a month earlier.
© Pinocchio FFC

It has been about eight months since we made our float trip. Everyone still wants to talk about the trip if they can find anybody to listen. We all are looking forward to getting another Middle Fork permit so we can do this again and this time other members of the club also want to take a pontoon boat or GigBob down the river. 

I am sold on the GigBob for a trip like this. It was obvious to me that the frameless design meant it would be much easier to transport and would be lighter, but I was really surprised at how superior it was to the conventional pontoon fishing boats. Now I am planning on floating and fishing many remote rivers when they are at low water and no longer accessible to conventional rafts or drift boats, letting me fish on less pressured waters. Also, because it is a lighter boat, I can take it on trips that will require some portages. Obviously, it will be my boat of choice for any quick trips after work since I can stuff the whole outfit and all my fishing gear into my trunk. I am looking forward to years of enjoyment from this great little boat.

Steve Leonard

Boise, Idaho