March 10, 2022
By Matthew L. Miller
As I slipped the hook from a small brown trout, my eye caught a large pod of fish feeding enthusiastically downstream. In water this clear, I could tell these were significantly larger fish—the cast would not be difficult.
A blizzard cloud of Tricos drifted above, but these trout were clearly feeding on the less numerous but larger Pale Morning Duns—a common occurrence that’s easy to overlook. I tied on a pale yellow Compara-dun, my fingers trembling with excitement. I’ve fished Silver Creek in south-central Idaho countless times, but I still feel like a kid new to the sport every time I visit.
I botched the cast. Badly. The Compara-dun landed with a splat right on top of one of the feeding fish. I silently cursed as, predictably, I saw the wakes of fish. Then I realized the wakes were heading toward my fly. The lead fish gulped it without hesitation, and I was tight to a chunky rainbow.
By the time I brought it to net, I noticed that rest of the pod had resumed feeding. I made another cast and immediately hooked and landed another fish. A few minutes later, I added a third.
I’ve been fishing, exploring, and writing about Silver Creek for 20 years. It often lives up to its reputation: a creek where you have to bring your A game. Light tippets and tiny flies are the norm. There’s no margin for error in stalking or casting. The fish have plenty of natural bugs to choose from, the water is clear, and there’s a lot of angling pressure.
I’ve also hosted a lot of accomplished anglers at Silver Creek. Most depart humbled. It can be frustrating, to say the least, when the water is boiling with fish, and it seems like none will take an artificial. I’ve been there, many times.
But, as with any stream, there are days when the fish are much less difficult. In the past few years, I’ve noticed that these days come more frequently. Fly selection still matters. Most days, you will not get away with a sloppy cast. But I have had some of my best days on the creek in the past two years, days when good fish enthusiastically gulped dry flies.
It seems that decades of intensive protection and conservation have paid off for Silver Creek. It’s tempting, after experiencing such great fishing, to believe that the creek’s best days are ahead. And that may indeed be the case. However, it isn’t guaranteed. Silver Creek faces some of its biggest challenges yet, challenges that aren’t going away.
In 2021, The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve—the heart of fly fishing on the stream—closed all access for fishing due to low oxygen levels and high water temperatures. It was the first closure in the preserve’s 45-year history.
So what does the future hold for Silver Creek? That question is unanswered, but anglers can play an important role, as they always have at this special place.
Beyond the Preserve
Silver Creek was a destination stream before anyone coined the term “destination stream.” Located just to the south of Sun Valley, it became an important recreational option for resort visitors. A spring creek flowing through high desert, it provided an oasis of habitat for trout, waterfowl, and other wildlife. Hollywood actors and other celebrities visited Silver Creek for the world-class hunting and fishing.
Most famous among them was Ernest Hemingway. Whether Hemingway spent much time fishing the creek is debatable. Most photos show him hunting ducks and pheasants rather than casting a rod. However, his son Jack Hemingway immediately fell in love with fishing Silver Creek. Like many of us, he was thoroughly whooped on his first attempt, which only made him all the more fascinated with the challenge.
When the 479 acres of the resort property along the creek came up for sale in 1976, Jack urged The Nature Conservancy to purchase it. The organization at that point had not completed many projects in the Western United States, and it was hailed as a major conservation victory.
At the time, acquisition and preservation was seen as an endpoint. The Nature Conservancy even had a slogan that proclaimed it protected “living museums of primeval nature.”
A museum. Frozen in time. It quickly became apparent that a spring creek can’t be protected with that mindset.
The preserve was soon expanded to 881 acres, and the Conservancy began working with landowners along the stream. To date, more than 12,000 acres of private lands have been protected through conservation easements, representing nearly the entire main stem of the stream. Major restoration efforts on the preserve and private lands have stabilized streambanks and established native vegetation. It’s clearly made a difference for trout and other wildlife. Still, the conservation story is not over.
Lou and Cindy Lunte began as Silver Creek Preserve co-managers in 1988, a time when parts of the preserve were still in agricultural production. Lou went on to a long career with the Conservancy, but upon his retirement in 2020, he returned as preserve manager, living in the cabin that he and Cindy built more than 35 years ago.
“We immediately set up getting reacquainted with the stream,” says Lunte. “When we started in 1988, parts of the preserve were pretty rough. Today, the positive results of the restoration are obvious. Still, the preserve can’t escape larger trends.”
Namely, a prolonged drought and a warming climate in southcentral Idaho. In July 2021, just as Silver Creek’s famous Trico hatch was beginning, water temperatures reached 73 degrees F., putting significant stress on trout. The Nature Conservancy made the difficult decision to close fishing access to the preserve.
“We’ve had some tough years in the past,” says Lunte. “But as far as water conditions, it never got as bad as it did this year. And if you look at the data over the last 20 years, the trend is that it’s getting warmer and drier.”
Lunte notes that the decision was met with overwhelming support from fly fishers and the local community, who recognized the risks posed to trout. The nearby Big Wood River—the source of Silver Creek’s water—experienced a significant fish kill on its lower reaches. Many other trout rivers in the West experienced closures. Silver Creek proved relatively resilient.
The Silver Creek Preserve closed in early July and reopened on August 11, with fishing allowed from 9 A.M. to sunset. This was different from many stream restrictions in the West, which allowed fishing from early morning to early afternoon—often called “hoot owl” closures.
“With Silver Creek’s aquatic plants, the lowest dissolved oxygen levels are actually in the early morning,” says Lunte. “Those low dissolved oxygen levels put the fish at risk, too.”
I visited soon after the preserve reopened, finding a mix of Baetis, Pale Morning Duns, and Tricos hatching from midmorning through the afternoon. In keeping with my recent experience, the fishing was fantastic.
But as someone intimately connected to Silver Creek conservation, I still couldn’t shake the nagging feeling: What does the future hold?
The Long Haul
Successful conservation at Silver Creek has always meant adapting to broader trends that influence the watershed. “We’re managing here for the long haul,” says Lunte. “We can’t control the drought, but we can develop projects that help make Silver Creek more resilient in the face of changes.”
A significant component of that is a multi-phase restoration effort aimed at Silver Creek tributaries. The first project will restore a portion of Stalker Creek, one of Silver Creek’s main tributaries. Stalker and some other tributaries are often wide and shallow, not providing good fish habitat.
“Parts of this stream have no cover, so the sun warms up the shallow water,” says Erika Phillips, Silver Creek watershed manager. “These points are basically serving as heat sinks that warm the creek’s waters.”
The project will narrow the stream channel, restore wetlands, remove sediment, and plant native vegetation. Future phases will focus on other tributaries on Nature Conservancy property. “There’s an opportunity to showcase how we can accomplish restoration and then share it with other landowners,” says Phillips. “There’s a lot of interest, but they just don’t know how to begin. The hope is for this to be a demonstration project that can lead to more restoration.”
The bigger issue of prolonged drought, reduced snowpack, and changing stream levels will require difficult decisions by the surrounding community. Lunte emphasizes that Silver Creek exists in a valley where decreasing water is colliding with increasing demands from residents and agriculture. “Any decision about water has the potential to impact individuals and businesses,” he says. “We are part of this community. Any decision needs to be made in conversation with this community.”
The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations are working with a variety of water users to develop solutions. This includes buying or leasing water from existing water users, water that can be used to recharge the aquifer that feeds Silver Creek.
“There’s no easy solution. There is less water and more demand,” says Phillips. “But this community does value Silver Creek. In part, we need to remind people that Silver Creek needs water, too, especially if we want it to remain as the fishery people have to come to expect.”
Matching the hatch
Silver Creek is a storied trout water, and despite the challenges, it continues to have an incredible trout population. Coupled with profuse hatches and a picturesque setting, it still belongs on everyone’s bucket list.
Silver Creek is open to fishing from Memorial Day weekend through November. The preserve is free and open to the public, but all visitors are required to sign in at the time of their visit by scanning a QR code or texting at one of the access points.
Another recent development is designated angler access points. These are clearly marked, and funnel anglers to specific stream access points. This was implemented to protect the stream and the vegetation. Visitors were making their own trails, leading to an endless cycle of streambanks closed for restoration.
“Instead of telling people where not to go, now we tell them where they can go,” says Lunte. “We want to keep access fun and safe, and get anglers to excellent stretches of water.”
The preserve is restricted to fly fishing, and only one barbless fly is permitted. Camping is not permitted on the preserve, but there are several free campsites on nearby Idaho Fish & Game property. There is also a variety of lodging options in the nearby resort towns of Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Valley.
The preserve is often considered the heart of the stream, but it’s not the only access point. There are also private fishing clubs (some fishable by booking with local guides) that have access downstream of the preserve. Two Idaho Department of Fish and Game public use areas—Point of Rocks and Silver Creek West— also provide good fishing.
One of the more famous hatches on Silver Creek—the Brown Drake hatch—occurs only downstream of the preserve. The state access areas offer the best fishing for this hatch. It occurs for around a week in early to mid-June, although the exact timing is difficult to predict. The Brown Drakes are big mayflies, and the clouds of them provoke a feeding frenzy. The fishing during this hatch is easier than during other hatches, but the crowds can be considerable.
The preserve’s hatches are similarly famous, with the Trico hatch that occurs in July and August being one of the great spectacles in all of fly fishing. In the best years, the Trico spinner fall can look like snow. This calls for #18-#22 flies in emerger, parachute, spinner, and cripple styles. Downstream casts are the rule; upstream casts usually spook fish.
Throughout the summer, you can expect periodic and sometimes intense hatches of Baetis, PMDs, and caddis. During any hatch (especially the Tricos), trout take some time to look at the surface of the water. I have come to realize that one of the reasons fish are so difficult to fool during the Trico hatch is because they aren’t always eating Tricos. Often, several insect species are hatching at once. I am not by nature a “fly changer,” but on Silver Creek, if I put a fly over a pod of feeding fish without a take, I quickly try something else.
Silver Creek is known for its dry-fly, match-the-hatch opportunities. That’s classic Silver Creek. This is not only due to the hatches, but also because the dense aquatic vegetation (that provides food and cover for the mayflies) makes subsurface fishing challenging.
That said, it can pay to mix things up. Terrestrials like ants and beetles can be productive, especially on summer afternoons when no hatches are occurring. Damselflies are always present, and many anglers have great success with them. Hoppers can also work.
For the creek’s big browns, stripping streamers can be effective if you can avoid the vegetation. The Idaho Fish and Game access points are, to my mind, the best spots for this tactic, in part because you can also fish at night. Anglers should also pack a few mouse patterns. Mousing has accounted for some of the biggest browns I’ve seen taken on Silver Creek. This is especially true during periodic booms in the local vole population. These little rodents scurry along the streambank and often fall in. A research effort found many Silver Creek brown trout had these rodents in their stomachs. You can tell when the vole population is peaking because you’ll see inordinate numbers of hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, and other predators along the river as well.
Back to the Beginning
I like the match-the-hatch tradition on Silver Creek, but when I can bring myself to experiment, the results are worth it. My latest visit during the Trico hatch was pretty typical. I caught some nice fish throughout the morning. As the hatch faded, I found a deep channel filled with feeding fish that spooked on my approach.
The fish swam back to the channel but nervously darted back and forth as they clearly watched me. This means game over on Silver Creek. Or so I thought. But I saw no other activity, and it was about time to head for home. On a whim, I tied on a beadhead scud, with no indicator and no split-shot, and just let it drift down the channel. Several fish scattered. But I also saw one fish’s mouth open almost immediately.
I lost that fish, but caught one on the next cast, and then hooked several more. They didn’t seem legendarily difficult at all. They seemed like fish that had never seen a nymph.
Silver Creek fishing, like conservation, means adapting. That is what makes it rewarding, and that’s what keeps me in both games.
Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy. An avid and well-traveled angler, he’s written about Silver Creek for 20 years. He is author of the book, Fishing Through the Apocalypse: An Angler’s Adventures in the 21st Century (Lyons Press, 2021). He lives in Boise, Idaho.