St Joe River, ID – Cutthroat Fishing

Last week in August 2017. Air temperature 95 F. Water temperature 60 F. Flows ~412 cfs @ Calder, Visibility 48 inches.

Ten years ago, I hiked into Oregon’s Wenaha River for fish for bull trout with fellow fly fishers Ted and Ken. Three years ago this same trio rode pontoon boats down the Grande Ronde River chasing after smallmouth bass. Last year we rafted the Wallowa River looking to land a few trophy rainbows. I had hoped to backpack into the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area of the Wallowa Mountains for brookies this past summer, but Ken talked us into car camping on the St Joe River in Idaho. Certain concessions must be made to aging.

The 4-day trip reinforced that we had our own particular approach to camping, such as the type and amount of libation consumed, concern over wild animals in the night and whether details of a significant bowel movement were shared. Some of these behaviors were duly noted “for the record” and others were ignored, although situations of two against one occasionally arose. It’s human nature. You tend to team up with those who support your position, mostly about who starts where on a stretch of good-looking trout water and if someone really did catch as many large fish as they professed.

So how was the fishing? According to Ken, it was “as good as I imagined.” My guess is the result made up for previous trips I organized where his expectations were not realized. Based on journal notes, I caught and released over two dozen trout up to 15 inches long (most 12-13 inches) the first full day of fishing near milepost 50. I landed nearly an equal number of smaller fish on the second day near milepost 70, but had to work harder for them. Clambering up and down steep slopes lined with fractured rocks the size of a bathtub is hard work. My largest fish, an 18 incher, was caught downstream of Avery on the way home. Ted and Ken also had no problem bringing several equally nice cutthroat to their fly.

According to a St. Joe River fly fishing website, the “must-have” patterns in descending order of importance included #10-14 Hopper (peach, tan and red), #14-18 Sparkle Dun, #10-14 Stimulator (olive, yellow, orange), #16-20 Lightening Bug (purple, red, silver), Splitsville Caddis #14-18 (olive, tan) and a Splitsville Flying Ant #14-18 (black, red). In contrast, our go-to fly turned out to be a #12-14 Renegade. This traditional pattern remained visible in the shade and attracted aggressive strikes from cutts whether floated or drifted below the surface. A #14 St Joe Special (a local version of a Gray Wulff near as I could tell) produced fish where large sunlit pools and long casts were more in vogue. Ken tried at least 16 other patterns (some which fooled an occasional fish) but returned to his #14 Double Renegade when he really wanted to catch something.

There are plenty of wide spots along the road shoulder to pull over and work your way down a steep bank. More than once the thought of having a long coil of rope to assist the process of descent and ascent came up. Our best success was achieved casting at the head of holes and in deep runs having ample cover in the form of giant boulders. This approach was consistent with advice from a tackle shop owner in St. Maries who said, “Don’t fish the tailout. Fish oxygenated water.” We also found that staying behind the guardrail not only allowed us to fish water the average roadside angler ignored, but provided a measure of safety from logging trucks that blasted up and down the narrow winding road like Parnelli Jones.