Fly Fishing w/ Bicycles by Joe McCann
The healthy rainbow finally came to net, tolerated a quick photo, then flashed out of sight into the current. Two others, much larger, were never under control in the fast current with a five-weight rod and 6x leader. They’d provided great entertainment as they cartwheeled out into the middle of the river and broke off. Three others had also been missed.
Signs of fish became scarcer as the mini-hatch finished. Time for a break and I sat down next to my wife, Marti, on the grassy bank just below the cattle bridge at Harriman’s Ranch on Henry’s Fork. After again thanking her for spotting the fish sipping in a seam close to the bank, I reflected on what had happened.
Here was a beautiful blue July 4th morning on one of the world’s most famous and challenging stretches of trout water. Both of us were newbies to this river, but we’d just had an action-packed hour or so while a trio of fly fishers across from us had not. Neither had we the previous day.
We had driven cross-country in a new RV, determined to fish Henry’s Fork on our way to British Columbia. Equipped with a handful of flies from one of Island Park’s great fly shops, we hit “The Ranch” section to see what the stories were about. Harriman State Park gives wonderful access to the river meadows and the reputation for holding large, difficult trout had long been established—trout with PhDs, the brochures say.
And so it proved to be. After hours of fruitless casting, we returned to the RV for lunch. We were sitting under the trees as three seasoned, smartly equipped gentlemen rode up to their SUV on dusty bicycles. They were wearing waders, boots and vests in the hot sun, fly rods streaming backwards in their hands.
Ever curious, I asked how they had done and, sensing our newness to the river, they chatted freely, thanking their good fortune in part to their bikes. The bikes allowed them to move quickly up and down the more than two miles of dirt trail running next to the river, hitting the sporadic and brief mini-hatches coming off the river. The fish were actively feeding wherever those hatches appeared, but they still had to put the right fly where it needed to be.
The best news was we had our hybrid trail/road bikes on a Thule rack on our Winnebago View. The next morning we were back at the same parking spot, bikes ready, a bit puzzled about the next step. Did we ride with boots and waders on or not? While experienced bike riders, we knew the trail had loose dirt and rocks seeded everywhere. It was already getting warm, too. We elected to carry rigged fly rods with our gear in bags, bungeed on racks. Sure, we’d have to quickly suit up, but that was the trade-off. Later that summer we’d learn to ride with gear on, but this was new terrain and not worth an early injury.
After the small hill at Harriman lodge, the trail was flat and easy to ride. It still deserved careful attention due to dozens of maturing cow paddies and nearby weed thickets. A bear and moose had been around the area, and much to our surprise, a pair of nesting Sandhill cranes swooped on us, yacking, wings flaring. There was also the sheer beauty of the meadows, rangeland, and mountains against a blue sky.
One eye was on the river, however, and we moved along the trail to the cattle bridge area where short whitewater rapids churned the river. Slower seams flowed away along grassy banks on our side, and that’s where Marti spotted the first mini-hatch and fish. We repeated the pattern of riding, parking, walking, and fishing over that day.
Back at the RV, we both agreed that we would have never covered that much ground so quickly and easily if it weren’t for the bikes. I’d never seen such an efficient and effective use of a bike. Maybe I’d simply missed the ascendency of the bike as fly fishing tool, as a hundred bikers will doubtless tell me.
Henry’s Fork proved just an introduction to bike use on our trip. We also used them for scouting different parts of the Bulkley and Skeena rivers, saving a lot of time and energy. No, we never jousted bears using 13 foot-long Spey rods on bikes and kept it to scouting.
The biggest lesson came on the lower Deschutes in late September as chinook salmon poured into the river where it met the Columbia River a few miles east of The Dalles, Oregon. Some B Run steelhead were also moving into the river, and I wasn’t ready to head back across country without giving it a try. The Deschutes River State Recreation and Campground just off Highway 84 provided a crowded but incredibly convenient location. After settling into an RV spot backing onto the river, I watched two bikers ride off the trail and through the park. One had a bright 20-pound chinook with its head and tail hanging over the edges of a milk crate strapped onto his bike.
Later I would be happy that I would be walking, not riding, the river. The Deschutes requires more planning and preparation than I’d certainly anticipated. Over 252 miles long, the river carves through harsh, deep rock canyons and dry sage mesas. It is a famously tough river to fish, and wading fishermen are lost every year on it. Saying that, it is a great place for fish, and the trails running along both sides gives hardy souls a shot at them. Hundreds of fly fishermen hike and camp it, just as many bike it. Bikers and hikers don’t necessarily mix well on some parts of the river so there are separate trails for each. While trying to be bike friendly, parts of the trail can be uneven, rocky, and higher off the river, necessitating solid off-roading skills.
All the trails share the most vexing creation known to man—Tribulus terrestris, alias the “puncture vine.” It produces large steely-spine seeds that easily puncture bike tires. Signs posted in the campground advise bikers to take “several” replacement tire tubes, not just a spare or two! After watching two bikers replace tubes along the trail, taking their precious fishing time, I was okay walking the mile and a half each way up the river.
I did land two smaller steelhead and have another toss a fly while spinning into the evening air. However, this story is about bikes, not fish. After listening and observing for several months, we found decided pluses and minuses to bikes as fishing tools. As pluses, bikes:
- Offer exceptional mobility, opening more territory to fishing, but also more time fishing one spot before moving quickly to another. The mobility is important where truck and RV access is limited and trails long.
- Give greater access since they are being allowed on more trails. While some locations limit use, many allow them, even providing special trails like on the Deschutes. You definitely need to know when they are okay to use and not.
- Are healthy. You get your exercise, like walking, but there are other parts of your body used and strengthened when biking. This requires being healthy enough for such exertion, so there is another reason to stay in shape.
- Move easily. One or more bikes are easy to carry on a rack or pickup truck. The better racks are easily locked and can eat dirt and dust without gumming up.
- Easily accessorize. The large range of accessories available for them, such as saddlebags and racks, allow carrying a great deal for multi-day trips. Pay special attention to foot pedals since they have to handle wader boots. Maybe add saddlebags, but definitely a strong rear rack and good headlight for dark trails.
- Require modest investment. No, a cheap bike is not a good investment since breaking down 20 miles from camp is not fun. However, spending over $500 for a good off-road or hybrid bike isn’t necessary either. There are dozens to select from at good bike shops, but those with lower center bars make mounting and dismounting with waders easier.
As minuses, and there are certainly some, bikes:
- Cause preventable injuries. It may be comfortable wearing your fishing hat, but bike helmets are an absolute necessity. Tumbling on a rocky trail without protection is just dumb. Safety first has to be the rule.
- Complicate the sport. A bike is a complex machine and another thing to worry about in a sport supposed to do the opposite. You have to feel comfortable enough with a bike so that it is never a big barrier to enjoyment.
- Require reasonable care and service. A good bike can be tough and reliable, but trailside repairs are inevitable, particularly tire tube replacement. This means carrying a few spare parts and a small bike tool set. Practice doing basic repairs off the river before ever needed.
- Create a security issue since you have to leave them for periods of time. Lockable racks and good cable lock can handle that.
We found our trip this past summer eye opening, and while maybe late to our own bike lessons we encourage non-users to explore their use. If already using a bike without safety precautions, which we too frequently observed, here’s a reminder. "Give bikes a try and happy trails."
About the author:Joe McCann has fly fished more than fifty years throughout the Northwest, BC, and United States. He and his wife, Marti, are often partners on those adventures. He now resides in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida.