Anderson: Exploring the Selway River by helicopter

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 27, 2013 - 11:59 PM

Yes, a horse could get you to the Selway. But a chopper is quicker, and the fish don’t care.

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After a day of fishing the Selway River in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, anglers returned to the helicopter that brought them to the remote location. Various mountainous grass airstrips and landing areas exist in northern Idaho for recreational access, as well as for use by search, fire and rescue teams.

– Between steep canyon walls, the Selway River wound below us among boulders the size of pickup trucks. This was a few days ago, and Paul Ehlen banked the helicopter over the tops of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs so thick the craggy landscape seemed impenetrable. Losing altitude now and still more, Paul angled the Eurocopter A/S 350 steeply within the river canyon, then raced the machine downstream about a mile before arresting its forward speed, tilting it slightly tailward and settling us gently onto a bed of dry grass and small rocks. Not far away, the Selway, one of the world’s most beautiful rivers, rumbled and spilled, bisecting the Lower 48’s third-largest wilderness area.

We had come to fish the Selway’s westslope cutthroat trout in water so clear you can see a fish rise to a fly from 4 feet down. On this day, two small bush planes were parked helter-skelter alongside our remote landing strip, perhaps having dared the mountain updrafts and sudden cloudbursts on a lark, or perhaps to camp or to start or end a rafting trip. In any case, the strip undulated in the manner of a kiddie roller coaster, challenging pilots on approach, and is one of more than a dozen such makeshift fields carved out of Idaho’s backcountry, kept there for fly-ins such as ours, but mostly for forest-fire crews and rescue teams.

With six of us on board, we had come in heavy. Also we toted our fishing gear, lunches, emergency equipment and the odd really big revolver. This last, we imagined, might serve no good purpose, except perhaps to discourage the occasional rattlesnake. Also its heft feels comfortable in hand, and anyway we were west of the Mississippi, suggesting, somehow, the sidearm’s appropriateness, if not necessity.

“It’s about a 2-mile hike back upriver,’’ Paul said as we assembled fly rods in the chopper’s long shadow.

We were a motley crew.

Paul is a longtime friend from Bloomington and hobbyist pilot who can fly just about anything with wings — or, as in this case, with blades and a rotor.

Also along was Ken Weinheimer, a helicopter pilot who for years flew rescues, among other work, in these same mountains, before which he ferried L.A.’s beautiful people to fancy lunches and beach galas, all the while dodging other helicopters on similar vectors while hovering high above the clogged 405 or Hollywood Split.

“It was good to get out of there,’’ Ken said.

In our group as well was Robert Gary, an expert angler, Montana fly fishing guide and owner of Latitudes Outfitting Co. in Hamilton, Mont. And we had picked up my son, Trevor, a student in Missoula and also a Montana fly fishing guide whose boss, Robert, had given him the day off to fish with his old man.

Finally, and as evidence of just how accepting the five of us were of foreign cultures, we allowed a California guy, Doug Gloff, to tag along — but only because he’s originally a Midwesterner (Indiana) who is happiest while residing at his Montana river place.

• • •

Horses are the other way to reach this portion of the wilderness, and the six of us followed a tired path beaten over many years by tired hooves, this while the morning revealed itself in bursts of optimism.

As we hiked, the very wild Selway twisted below us in varying degrees of declension, and from the trail we spotted deep pools and other areas likely to hold trout. Littering the way forward were pine deadfalls and the craggy flotsam of ancient geologic collisions. Finally we dropped down to the river in ones and twos, tiptoeing from rock to rock with fly rods in hand.

Streamside, Trevor said, “Try this,’’ and handed me a Chernobyl Ant, also known as a foamy thing with legs.

I tied the fly on.

Then, throwing a 5-weight with 4X tippet, I sent a loop of line airborne, watching as the fake bug settled onto the rushing river, and watching also as it gathered itself quickly amid foam lines of separating currents.

Then it was carried downstream, its appearance to trout, I hoped, that of fast food offered free.

There.

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  • Ancient glaciation in the mountains of northern Idaho produced rushing rivers like the Selway, whose streambeds and banks are strewn with rocks and boulders.

  • Paul Ehlen of Bloomington cast a fly in the Selway River, Idaho, while fishing for westslope cutthroat trout.

  • Ranging from 8 to perhaps 18 inches, the Selway River’s cutthroat trout aren’t big, in part because of the river’s cold temperature and its relative lack of insects and other food.

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