Fishing on the Little Minam River August 2012

I found this trip report from last summer that I had nearly completed but never posted on the blog.  On this trip I explored most of the Little Minam River, including an awesome gorge section with many waterfalls that the trail does not follow.  So without further introduction, a trip from last summer:

Now that I have hiked, fished, and floated the majority of the Minam River and the North Minam River I decided it was time to turn my attention to the last major stretch of water that I had not explored, the Little Minam River.  There is a waterfall on the Little Minam River that stops upstream migration of fish and now presumably a genetically isolated fish population above the falls.  Below the waterfall section is the Little Minam Meadows which I had also not visited yet.  The combination of the Little Minam being the main tributary in the lower half of the river system, a waterfall somewhere with a genetically isolated fish population above it, and some lovely meadows sounded like plenty of good reasons to start exploring.

Minam Motel

The easiest way to do this trip was a thru hike beginning at Moss Springs trailhead, walking that trail until it crossed the Little Minam River at Boulder Creek and then leaving the trail there and bushwacking along the river.  Fishing and hiking my way down the Little Minam would lead me to the Rock Springs trail at the mouth of the Little Minam River.  From there it is about a 4 mile hike out to the Rock Springs Trailhead.

I had hoped my wife, Lottie, might be able to join me since the bulk of the rafting season is over, but she got a few people wanting to take rafts even though the river was low.  Don’t get me wrong the Grande Ronde can be floated all through the summer, but most people decide not to once it gets below 800 cfs.  The lowest I have floated it was 600 cfs and that will certainly exercise your rock dodging skills.  But 600 cfs really isn’t that bad.  Yes, if you screw up reading the river and don’t take the deepest channel you may have to hop out and help the raft over some shallow spots, but the water feels pretty good and you typically have the whole canyon to yourself at low water.  That is a trade-off I am happy to make.

I drove my Explorer to the Rock Springs trailhead and Lottie followed me in our pickup.  We dropped the Explorer off and headed towards the Moss Springs Trailhead.  There are two routes you can take to Moss Springs.  The smart way is along a good road that leads you down to Cove and then back up the mountain to Moss Springs.  There is also Forest Service road 6220.  6220 was a direct route that didn’t stray too much from a straight line to Moss Springs on the map.  I decided 6220 was the road for us.  Well, that was a mistake.

6220 starts out OK.  It has large baserock that is hard on tires and it is steep enough in spots that we had to put the pickup in 4 wheel drive just to keep going.  A little ways down the road there is a turn off to Point Prominence Lookout.  After this turn off, the road gets substantially worse.  I drove down it a little ways at a very slow speed and when there was a wider spot with a bank I thought I could crawl the pickup up, I turned around.  Turning around was no easy task either.  I had to jockey forward and back what seemed like 100 times to get the pickup turned around, but I had enough of that rough road and didn’t feel the need to beat my pickup up when there was a good road around it.

Back to the gravel I only wasted 45 minutes checking out this alternate route making it a whopping 2.5 miles down the crappy road and back out.  That is why I am in the research department of Minam Raft Rentals and Shuttle Service.  I had just established that if we run shuttles between Rock Springs and Moss Springs, the drivers should NOT take Forest Service Road 6220.

I pulled the pickup over to the side so we could unlock the hubs and take it out of 4 wheel drive.  This is when Lottie noticed that there were large chunks of rubber missing from both back tires.  The front tires were brand new almost.  Lottie had tried to convince me at the beginning of July that she needed 4 brand new tires for the pickup.  With the cost of good tires, I grumbled and fussed and said I didn’t think so.  She had rubber left on three tires counting the spare and only two of her tires were showing steel at the time.  “You can easily get through the rest of the rafting season with two new tires for the front and keeping those bald ones on the back,” I told her.  And I was right.  The rafting season had just ended and the rubber stayed on them through it.  I saved her a full month’s worth of wear on two expensive tires.  Now the only question was whether our two tires with steel showing were going to get us to the next trailhead.  I quickly forgot about our bad tires once we were on a good road.  We made it without a problem and as I write this I will simply assume that Lottie made it to Les Schwabs.

Molly and I headed down the trail from Moss Springs.  It was about 4 miles down where the trail departed from the Little Minam River and headed towards Red’s Horse Ranch.  I decided that would be a good starting point to begin fishing.

I strung up my rod on the Little Minam and tied on what have become my two favorite freestone stream dry flies: a Hedge Hog and an orange stimulator.  The Hedge Hog has a lot of deer hair and is nearly impossible to sink.  There are days when the fish clearly prefer this very large fly.  The orange Stimulator is a classic that always works well and there are days when the fish clearly prefer it to the larger Hedge Hog.

In this section of the Little Minam it is typically 15 feet wide perhaps.  Sometimes wider, sometimes narrower.  It is creek fishing.  The Little Minam moves along at a good pace crashing into basalt boulders and making small scour holes behind them.  There are very few traditional runs and pools in this section and you are simply looking for the best spots behind boulders, next to bedrock, under tree roots etc.  and the fishing was not disappointing.  My flies were being attacked consistently almost every good spot I tossed them.  I was getting into quite a few rainbows in the 10”-12” range as well.  I was actually expecting the rainbows to be primarily 8” and less.  There were plenty of those as well, but there was a good number in the 10” range.  Besides rainbows in these isolated waters, there is also supposed to be a population of resident bull trout that grows up to 12”.  I was fishing dry flies the whole time, but I did see a couple of what I believed to be bull trout take my flies.  I never got any of them landed, but the color of the fish were that bull trout golden olive color.

I did not have a definite plan on where I was going to stop and make camp for the night.  Around 6:00 I found a good spot and contemplated stopping.  It still seemed early though and I kept going.  The canyon through this section of the Little Minam is narrow and good spots to pitch a tent are few and far between and I wondered whether I would regret not stopping.

My understanding was that the falls was just above the Little Minam Meadows so I really didn’t plan on seeing the falls or the meadows until the next day.  But before I knew it, I was to a waterfall.  I crawled and shimmied my way down some big boulders and across some logs to the downstream side of the falls.  The canyon is more of a gorge in this section and travel was becoming difficult.  I stopped and took some pictures of the falls and then tried to make my way downstream.  The river began losing elevation quickly and besides the main falls, there were an awful lot of small falls or drops between large boulders.  It was making the going tough.  I couldn’t simply walk beside the river now.  The boulders were too big and the water was often too deep or the drops too far.  I began being forced up on the hillside through dense brush.  I hate brush.  It began beating me up pretty bad.  I was getting stabbed and jabbed and scraped as I tried to make way through dense branches over large boulders with poor footing.  There were several times I had to check my rod to be sure all the cracking and breaking sounds did not include my fly rod.  I kept easing my way back down to the water on steep hillsides or steep rock bluffs trying to find a better path, but large boulders forced me back up.  I was beginning to wish that I had taken that good camping spot around 6:00.  It was slow going through this stuff and I really didn’t want to be doing it in the dark.

Upper Little Minam Waterfall

I did not find a good flat spot of dirt before dark, but I did find a very large flat piece of bedrock when I was forced up off the river again.  This piece of basalt with a thin layering of granite on top had just enough of a flat spot that I thought I could sleep comfortably on it.  The only problem would be my tepee tent.  I needed to tie the five corners out and there was a thin layer of moss on top of the granite, but not enough soil to hold a tent stake.  I decided rocks were the answer and hauled five large rocks up from the river to tie my tent to.  Not bad, I was beginning to worry that I would be scrambling over boulders and through brush into the dark and now I had a nice view from the top side of one of those boulders, or bedrock I guess.



Sunday morning Molly and I started our rock scrambling exercises all over again.  Up and down slipping and sliding crawling from time to time.  It was a lot of work with a 40 pound pack on my back.  As the morning progressed I was rather surprised to find a second substantial waterfall.  I guess there are two Little Minam Waterfalls.  I took some pictures and fished the plunge pool and kept going.  This gorge section had a decent number of rainbows, but I think the size of the rainbows may have been slightly better just upstream of the gorge.


It is a good thing Molly is a good swimmer and a very athletic dog in general.  She trustfully follows me back and forth across the river, up steep hillsides, and down steep hillsides.  She is very good at finding her way over, under, or around things and she can very gracefully jump from log to log when we are finding our way through log jams.  One thing she has learned is that it isn’t always necessary to cross the river when I cross.  She used to cross each and every time I did, but this past winter when the Wenaha got really cold she decided that she could simply follow and wait for me on the opposite side of the river.  I didn’t blame her, I wouldn’t want to swim icy cold Wenaha water in the winter any more than I had to either.  This has worked well, she will often shadow my movements on the opposite bank if it is easier going.  She knows eventually I will cross back to her side anyway, and if not I will call her and let her know.

Today in the gorge section she got herself into a little bit of a pickle.  I crossed and she didn’t.  I pay close attention to her and try to make sure she has good spots to swim or get around things.  Molly began to shadow me on the opposite side, which was fine.  But the rocks and the bank soon ran out.  I stopped and I was going to call her across when she quickly found herself a goat trail up the rock wall.  It made me a little nervous since she was a good 15-20 feet up on a ledge.  I was looking at her potential path ahead of her and could see there was a 3 foot gap where her ledge had fallen away and she would have to either turn around or jump the gap.  She jumped it without a problem even though I was a bit nervous about it.  I turned took a two steps downriver when I heard a loud splash.  I looked back towards Molly and she wasn’t on her ledge anymore and I couldn’t see her in the river.  She quickly came swimming around a large boulder to my side of the river.  I was scared she may have broken something hitting a rock on that tall of a drop.  I am not sure if she fell or intentionally jumped, but she got out without a limp and went merrily about her way down the side of the river.

Molly’s jump or fall behind us I began to think about something I had read in the book Into the Minam.  The book had mentioned Red’s Horse Ranch advertising about the fishing in the pool below the Little Minam Falls.  There were no real good fishing pools below the two waterfalls I had passed and someone would have to be pretty motivated to fish them to scramble over all these boulders.  I was in the middle of them now and had no choice to but to keep going until I got to the other side of the gorge section.  What I began to wonder in my mind was whether I had actually come to the real “Waterfall.”  Perhaps there was a third waterfall.

Molly and I come out of the gorge though and the river flattened out.  The gorge was pretty, but I was glad to be done scrambling.  I stopped along the side of the river and took my pack off and rested for a little bit.  Molly and I both had a snack and then just sat there riverside enjoying the piece.  We started back down the river again expecting it to open up and flatten out even more to a large meadow of some sort.  But instead I came to the third waterfall.  The canyon had really tricked me.  This waterfall looked passable for fish though.  It had several good steps on river right and surely motivated fish can get past this one.  Once past this one, they have a steep and arduous path over many boulders to get to the other two waterfalls and I don’t think they are passable.

Now to the meadow section I went back to fishing my hedge hog and stimulator combination.  There were plenty of rainbows, but I was not finding as many in the 8”-12” range.  In fact, it was rare to get anything over 8” all day.  I had been rather surprised at how good the rainbow fishing was above the falls.  Often when you get that high in a system, the fish tend to thin out and be quite small.  The Little Minam above the falls was the opposite; there were plenty of rainbows and they ran closer to the 10”-12” range than the 8” minus range.  Typically the lower in the system you go, the bigger the water gets the more resources and nutrients there are in the river, the bigger the fish are.  The Little Minam was proving to be the opposite.  There were however quite a few Chinook salmon spawning in the good gravel of the meadows.  That is always nice to see.

I fished my way down to within a mile or two of the confluence with the main Minam River and made camp.  My hike out the Rock Springs trail would wait for Monday morning.

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