Fishing Northern Idaho's St. Joe River

by Louis Bignami

Wonderful trout water just three hours from world-class resorts on paved and good gravel roads should be overrun with Idaho visitors all summer. However, even fishermen who school up to share holes on the Henry's Fork, or play bumper boats on the Snake or Clearwater Rivers won't find crowds on the 120 miles of the St. Joe River. Its tributary creeks hardly see a fisherman all season. Why is this the case? Regulations limit your take. But if you want to eat more than the single trout over 14 inches allowed in the downstream section, you can catch all the Eastern Brook Trout any frying pan needs in the holes of an assortment of steep tributary creeks.

Getting there can't be the problem. You can drive out Interstate 90 from Seattle in a day, or zoom up from California in two; Midwest types might take three days to motor in on Interstate 90. Fly into Spokane, rent a car and you can be fishing in two hours. So access isn't the problem.

The first time I fished the St. Joe I knew something was wrong. A buddy had touted the stream as "Idaho's best cutthroat water." I watched rafters bounce along the lower river downstream from the catch and release section that starts at Prospector creeks. The first eleven miles up to Shadowy St. Joe Campground looked like bass water, but only water skiers and canoeists broke the calm reflection of the cottonwoods along the shore. By Calder, the last good spot for provisions 24 miles upstream from the small logging town of St. Maries, the river looked more like trout water although kids sported through the riffles in inner tubes. Only above Marble Creek, a notable stream for "eating" trout, did the riffles and rapids remind me of a classic freestone stream. Even here we only saw three fishermen wading and a scant half dozen drowning salmon eggs on dime store rods from the bank below the "artificials only" section. So I felt sure the fishing ahead had to be rotten.

Above Prospector Creek things looked better. Every mile or so sported a fly fisherman. Even here nobody fished the best looking water down the boulder banks and scree below the tough spots where the gravel road looped high above the river. We left the North Fork St. Joe River Road for another day. It branches north (what else!) at Avery and runs along its namesake river and the old C M & St. Railroad over high trestles and through dank tunnels on its way to Wallace, Idaho. On later trips we stopped at Avery, once an important rail center. The old rail depot and the historic Forest Service Ranger Station built in 1909 deserve a visit. Above this point the St. Joe is designated a Recreational River.

Since I drove, and wanted to see everything, we passed 40 miles of likely trout water -- most just a cast and a bit across. Forest Service Campgrounds like Packsaddle, Turner Flat, Tin Can Flat and Conrad Crossing dozed empty even on Sunday. Highway 50 changed to Forest Service Road 218 as we passed the Historic Red Ives Ranger Station on the way to the road's end at Spruce Tree Campground, the downstream end of the Wild River Section.

That first afternoon we fished upstream a mile or so away from pavement. I took 17 cutthroat over a foot long, and a school of smaller fish, on a series of Size 14 Elk Hair Caddis flies -- I leave my share in trees and fish.

Access was disgustingly easy as trails follow the river all the way to its headwaters around Elbow Ridge. However, I learned on return trips that bigger and more plentiful cutthroat came from the less accessible sections of the "drive in" waters downstream. I suspect this is due to the "headwaters syndrome" which sends day trippers as far from pavement as possible.

A version of this hallucination -- "It's got to look like trout water" -- may be the reason the St. Joe gets so little pressure. At St. Maries on scenic Coeur d'Alene Lake you would never suspect it's Idaho's best cutthroat trout stream. For, in its lower navigable stretches which run from Coeur d'Alene Lake, 31 miles to St. Joe, the river looks like a bass slough with brails (rafts) of lumber, some pushed and pulled by tow boats to mills at the other end of the lake.

Even in these slack water sections it's special, for at 2,128 foot elevation the "Shadowy St. Joe" is America's highest navigable stream. It's not unknown for big trout, mostly cutthroat or bull trout, to bust poppers and bass bugs here. Add seasonal kokanee, stray pike, the (unless you opt for heavy leaders, "temporary") landlocked salmon and an assortment of perch and bass. So it's easy to see why locals more interested in dinner fish are not enamored with the special regulations upstream. So they fish near home in the "river between the lakes" section we'll mention later.

On my first dozen visits, I felt the hardest part of Idaho's St. Joe trout fishing may be figuring out the regulations. Upstream from Prospector Creek it's easy; catch and release is the limit, and single hooks and artificials are recommended. From the lake up to the Highway 3 Bridge in St. Maries it's one trout over 14" from the end of April to the end of November. Ice fishermen can add 25 kokanee per day, and the Chinook limit is two. You can't keep bull trout.

From the Highway 3 bridge to Prospector Creek and in the North Fork and Marble Creek except tributaries, the season runs from late in May to mid-September with a single fish limit not under 14 inches. Tributaries open from July 1 to November 30. Marble Creek is a good choice with road access. They'll doubtless change the regulations. So check before the game warden arrives.

Failing to catch trout can't be a reason locals skip the St. Joe. In 1990, on six day trips and two overnight stays, I took an average of 2.3 trout over a foot long per hour. Most ran 15 inches or so, with the largest fish just under four pounds. All were in good condition. Canoe trips downstream from Shadowy St. Joe Campground added other species too.

Methods, aside from the requirement of artificials and single barbless hooks in the catch and release areas, didn't seem to matter. We simply drove along the river, stopped and glassed for hatches and fish. On day trips -- it's a four hour run from home -- we tried to arrive near first light and fished until seven or so. Then we explored during the midday and fished again from four until dusk if we hadn't taken our fill of frisky cutthroat.

St. Joe Fly Flinging Simplified

In most of the river, size 12 to 16 Renegades, Adams, Joe's Hoppers and, for days without aquatic hatches, small Black ants and beetles did the job with fly rods. In faster water, and dimmer light, we did very well with an Elk Hair Caddis and Humpies. I did find larger, if more infrequently hooked, trout came to big muddlers and spuddlers. When we wanted brook trout from tributaries we went to size 12 Rio Grande Kings and took all we could eat. Local shops sell special patterns for the river. These catch trout too. So, just for the joke of it, did a six inch long bright red plastic worm with white dots! Cutthroats are not, in fact, selective.

Lusty Lures

Lure fishing seemed equally simple, and lures took bigger fish. Spinners suited shallow water. Spoons worked nicely in holes. I simply nipped off trebles and added barbless Siwash singles; you might similarly cut off two hooks on your treble hooks and mash down the remaining barb. The shallow riffles and slower chest-deep sections suited spinners with gold, brown or black blades. Panther Martins(r) and Mepps(r) worked interchangeably. In the middle of the day a home-made 1/8-ounce black body spinner with a green blade seemed the choice.

Deeper water suited gold 1/6-ounce Kastmasters(r) and 1/4-ounce Wob-L-Rites(r). The former was the best all-round lure for pocket water where high current speeds and spinners combine to twist lines. However, for big trout, pike, and the odd bass, plugs did the job best in the lower river. Rebel's tan "Creek Critter(r)" and smallest grasshopper plug produced lots of solid hits and some big trout before they were lost to pike. Larger minnow plugs three to four inches long in rainbow trout finish also worked when slow trolled from a canoe along the slow water sections of the lower river.

Scramble to Success

The key to the best action isn't, however, lure or fly choice; it's access. The access road runs along the north side of the river for miles and miles. Sometimes it's close to the water. Sometimes it's up the ridge. Sometimes you can fish right from camp. Sometimes you need to scramble down scree or broken rocks. It's clear that the least fished sections offer your best chances. Since my fishing buddies also elk hunt, own rifles and take a dim view of specifics, you'll need to prospect up your own honey holes. However, you will find three general points worth considering on the St. Joe, and elsewhere.

First, whenever possible, cross the river and fish holes or riffles from the roadless side. This way you can cover fish that might be spooked by the road addicts. You will need chest waders and I recommend a life jacket if you wade aggressively to spots the timid skip. A closed foam Steans(r) floatation vest with pockets is my choice as it also helps protect ribs in case of a fall or a feet first float through a riffle to follow a big trout downstream. Do consider traction cleats and felts; the bottom of the St. Joe can be quite slippery at times. A wading staff helps you reach some of the most productive spots in the middle of fast water.

Second, consider a float, raft, kayak or inner tube. Modest floatation gear, and some roadside scouting so you don't get trashed in whitewater, put you in top action above Avery where the river drops down into gorge sections. I particularly like an inflatable kayak that gets me from wading spot to wading spot without the need to hike rough rocky shore; even a simple inner tube can float you to sections most waders can't reach. The relatively new inflatable catamarans will also be popular.

When we wade or float we shuttle to cut walking. I get out of the truck and my buddy drives downstream two or three miles, parks and starts to fish. I fish my section, get the car and drive down below my buddy and start to fish again. This "leapfrog" lets us cover a lot of water and, since we always move downstream, cuts down on driving time to get home.

Drifts Without Drowning

From the headwaters, the first 17 miles of wilderness canyon has dandy fishing in areas hikers can't cover, but this section only suits very experienced kayakers; it's too narrow for big rafts. The next 12 miles of Class II and III water, a six hour run by boat, takes a looong day to fish. Much of this wades well.

Intermediate boaters might try the section from Bluff Creek to Turner Flats. The Class II water suits rafters and experienced canoeists who watch their takeout! For just below Turner Flats, Skookum Canyon bites unwary and unskilled types. Among other joys, there is a six foot waterfall.

Downstream from the canyon, family "floaters" can ease along for 38 miles spread over several days to St. Maries. This section collects some big fish that run up from the lake. It's best fished early and late in the year, and is an attractive canoe or dinghy stretch. Downstream the water suits power boats and warm water species like bass or pike. To sample and learn the water in the 14 miles above Avery for do-it-yourself float trips, check River Odysseys West for their June and early July raft runs. (208) 765-0841. They can refer you to local fishing guides as well. However, you can find all the cutthroat you need on your own no more than a quarter mile from the frontage road.

Avoid Piscatorial Compulsions 

Finally, don't fight conditions! North Idaho stream fishing is best in May and June and after Labor Day most years, and reliable all season if thunderstorms and showers don't muddy the water.

If they do, or the river is too high, too muddy or, as can happen in late summer, too warm, check your options. For example, consider the "river between the lakes" section east of St. Maries. Here the river meanders between its cottonwooded levees; behind the levees a number of small lakes wait. Most lakes connect with the river by channels. These lakes hold dandy bass, pike, perch and crappie, and, in the fall, offer fine waterfowl action. They can be clear when the river flows "cocoa."

Landlocked salmon, trout, pike, bass and other species are also found in Coeur d'Alene and in its tributary river and the small twelve lake chain upstream toward Cataldo. Lakes in this chain offer good fishing, but I don't eat fish from here as Coeur d'Alene River filters through millions of tons of mine tailings and has more heavy metal than a rock concert.

Head 40 minutes north from Coeur d'Alene Lake and you've Pend Oreille Lake with it's huge rainbows and decent lakers. Another hour takes you to even better lake trout fishing on Priest Lake. Add some spectacular panfishing and Idaho record pike in nearby Cougar Bay and you won't run out of fish to catch. The mouth of the Clarks Fork River and its lower stretches in Idaho and in Montana also deserve a look. A number of guides operate here and, starting in 1993, on the trophy regulated waters of Kelly Creek and the North Fork of the Clearwater River which can provide 20 pound steelhead in the early fall.

So consider your options if conditions aren't perfect in the St. Joe. Hit the St. Joe when it's right, of course, and you'll enjoy Idaho's best cutthroat. I know, when the hatches peak we'd fish until dark, then drive until midnight to drag home. You don't do that for less than the best fishing in the state which may have the best fishing in the states! I won't do this much after Labor Day anyhow. I stick down on the Clearwater River where the B-run steelhead that sometimes hit skated flies can top 20 pounds.

No place we know offers such a combination of lake and stream fishing with bird and big game hunting. So far, that's what we've found. The biggest problem is direction. Do you head for the St. Joe, or the Clearwater!

Food, Lodgings and Camps

It's a couple of hours drive from St. Maries, three hours from Coeur d'Alene or four hours from home in Moscow. Coeur d'Alene does offer what Conde Naste' readers called, "the best inland resort in the world." The high towers of the Coeur d'Alene Resort with its longest floating boardwalk in the world and superb golf course (featuring a floating hole!) offer five star lodging and dining at our favorite Beverly's. Coeur d'Alene offers one of every chain motel and eatery going, 400 antique shops, two good fly shops, water slides and enough other attractions to keep the entire family busy while you fish.

St. Maries has decent motels and fair restaurants plus a sporting goods store with reliable fishing information and a big selection of favorite local lures and flies. Calder and Avery have gas and supplies; the latter has rustic lodgings. If you camp on the lower river, Shadowy St. Joe Campground has 14 sites with water just 10 miles east of St. Maries. Huckleberry Campground has sites and pit toilets 19 miles farther upriver and, on the last two visits, we found the fishing quite good. If you like sites farther upstream, you need to bring your own water. We usually shop in St. Maries, but there is gas and some supplies in Calder and in Avery. Locals seem rather self-sufficient, but offer help if you need it. You may need some if you stray off the riverside road up into the Bitterroot Range, or try to fish my favorite top end of Marble Creek.

Extra Information Idaho Department of Fish & Game, 600 S. Walnut St., Box 25, Boise, ID 83707 208-334-3700
General Map: Idaho Panhandle National Forests (St. Joe National Forest) approximately $3 at St. Maries outlets.
U.S.G.S. Topographic Maps: St. Maries, St. Joe Baldy, St. Joe Calder, Mastodon Mountain, Avery