Fall Fishing in Idaho's St Joe River

by Dallas Cross

Issaquah Press, December 24, 2008

I left Issaquah in mid-September four days earlier than needed to meet my brother-in-law to fly fish near Dillon, Montana. This allowed me time to visit family in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and to fish the nearby St. Joe River. I packed my vintage VW Camper Bus, put on a hippie headband, practiced the V-hand sign, and headed east arriving at Coeur d'Alene late in the afternoon.

The next day I drove to Avery, Idaho on the St. Joe River. There I was advised that the road up ahead on the river was closed due to a landslide. Driving up the river five miles I found that indeed a huge mound of earth and rocks had buried the road just above where Prospector Creek dashingly joins the river. The only road to the catch and release stretch of the river I had planned to fish was now blocked by about a quarter mile of debris.

Uncertain of the rules applying to fishing the river below the catch and release area, I drove back down the road until I observed a woman fishing next to a rocky cliff. She was beautifully casting a tight-looped line with a Parachute Adams fly on it. After two fish jumped off her hook she paused to inform me that the fishing season on this portion of the river was still open but Cutthroat Trout had to be released.

Now confident that I would not be hauled in for poaching, I returned to the slide area and planned to fish above and below it by walking and wading for the next two days. In this stretch the river drops rapidly and runs fast in chutes between holes. With the water level down some of the runs below the deep holes were waist high offering opportunities to wade the river. At Avery I had been advised that cutthroat prefer the rapids so I concentrated my casting in shallow, fast water where I could see rocks.

From a visit two years earlier I knew what to expect in mid September. The bug hatch starts after the sun warms the canyon and is soon followed by surface feeding trout. The canyon is so deep that the sun hits the river around three in the afternoon warming it until the shadows fall at five making a short window of fishing time. Having arrived in early afternoon I hurried and managed to catch and release two cutthroat using an all purpose, Orange Stimulator dry fly. Shortly thereafter the shadows, temperature and fish interest all fell at once and I headed back.

On the way back to the camper I paused to look at a huge boulder overhanging the river. Beneath it I had, two years earlier, tried to catch a large trout working the surface for floating bugs. At that time I had cast to the area without success from across the river and then waded back and climbed on top of the boulder. From there I had stealthily dappled a hair wing Adams fly on the surface of the water ten feet below, bouncing the fly several times before it attracted attention. As I was lifting the fly off the surface two large cutthroat trout with mouths agape leaped at it. They cleared the water at the same time from opposite directions and collided in midair with an audible slap. They startled each other and me as well, causing me to yank the fly well out of their reach and loose my balance on the boulder. Under full steam the two fish took off in opposite directions and mirthfully I had to hold on to the boulder to keep from falling. Knowing I could not improve on the memory of this delightful past event I continued walking on to the camper.

There were many roadside camping sites along the river, some with no occupants. So I chose a site near the land slide area, but prudently far enough away not to get caught by an encore. Finding any vacant site a couple of weeks earlier during the throes of last minute vacations would have been a chore.

A mac and cheese supper in the tattered poptop camper was accompanied by river music and a rather sudden lights out when the sun disappeared behind the mountain ridge. After I went to bed the music included a shrill whistle followed by a series of bass-cleft grunts. A bull elk, intent on procreation, but also thirsty, was moving nearby in the night on the way to the river. Half expecting to feel the camper being rocked by his passage, I passed quickly through the anxiety of vulnerability I always feel when camping in the woods. Soothed in pine air and with quiet reflection on sounds of river and slapping fish I slept soundly.

Grandson Abe
Grandson Abraham on the St. Joe River