By Hartt Wixom
“Home of Thousand Springs and Abundant Wildlife”
The area is known as home of “Thousand Springs.” They gush from walls of the Snake River gorge, off the valley floor and just about anywhere within sight. For this reason, it has more fish hatcheries per capita (taking advantage of a reliable cold water source) than possibly any place on the planet. In fact, nearby Buhl bills itself as “Trout Capitol of the World.”
It’s debatable whether Buhl or Hagerman deserves the title but since the springs sprout all along U.S. 30 between both towns, either can claim the title. Hatcheries include the National Steelhead (there is also a state steelhead hatchery near Twin Falls), a state trout facility between them and a score of private hatcheries. Plus an Idaho University Fisheries Experiment Station on a Snake River tributary, Billingsley Creek.
The latter, named after a local settler, is an excellent fly fishing (only) stream coursing out of a private hatchery some four miles south of Hagerman. Nearby is Riley Creek beneath another hatchery. I’ve taken a number of 2-3 lb. rainbows from the latter, although I prefer Billingsley’s cress-laden flow for floating a dry fly. Actually, it is difficult to cast anything but a drifting artificial among so much salad.
I’m intrigued with efforts to restore the steelhead (sea-run rainbow trout) to its native Snake River habitat. The same is necessary due to the many dams downstream on both Snake and Columbia rivers curtailing spawning efforts. A brochure explains that all could be left to nature but there are many predators. Instead of only three per cent of wild steelhead reaching maturity, hatchery officials claim an estimated 67 per cent. As 7-8 inch fish, the smolts are released into the Salmon River (Snake tributary) to make their way to the ocean and return as tackle busters.
On the lower end of Biliingsley is the old home, or what now remains, of “Idaho’s most famous novelist,” Vardis Fisher. One might argue for Ernest Hemingway but while making a temporary home in Ketchum, he wasn’t born there or grow up there. Fisher saw his first light of day along the Snake River at Burns Creek (upstream from Ririe) and in moving later, chose to remain near the Snake. As author of the Mountain Man book, from which Jeremiah Johnson was made, one could say Fisher was an early Rocky Mountain outdoor writer.
All that is left of Fisher’s burned out home now are two chimneys, and a few outbuildings on a ridge overlooking Billingsley Creek near an Idaho state park. There are no signs at this time leading to the old homestead; Idaho University fish researchers about 1.5 miles northeast of Hagerman pointed out the way to me just north of their hatchery.
The entire region is rich in wildlife. Near the National Fish Hatchery, I looked at hundreds of Canada geese sitting serenely. I’ve stalked Canadas with a shotgun along the marshes of Great Salt Lake but never have I seen so many geese at one time.
Another area trout stream is the crystalline Malad River which spills into the Snake north of Hagerman. The 2.5 mile long spring-fed flow is billed as the “world’s shortest river.” Rainbows which I caught there on sinking nymphs were as brilliantly hued as any painted on magazine covers. Clear flow requires an angler moving slowly along bank side boulders to meet the challenge.
Another interesting feature in Hagerman is the Fossil Beds Visitor Center, with bones of saber-tooth cats, horses, camels and mastodons. The beds were made a national monument shortly after the Smithsonian Institute visited this sector of the Oregon Trail in 1929.
To reach Hagerman, exit I-84 at Wendell. Or drive west through Twin Falls and remain on U.S. 30 for some 30 miles. The State and National fish hatcheries are well marked.
I spent fully an hour attempting to get directly below some of those “Thousand Springs” erupting from the canyon walls but finally settled on shooting pictures from across the Snake River along U.S. 30. Historic signs indicate that Indian tribes once netted Chinook salmon nearby at Bells Rapids on the Snake. The salmon runs have greatly diminished but attempts are obviously being made to restore the steelhead as much as possible to its former glory.