Idaho’s upper St. Joe River, one of the most scenic and productive cutthroat streams in the Northwest, has been the subject of numerous magazine articles and a few TV shows the last few years, but still nine out of 10 who fish it live in Washington and Idaho.
Publicity the St. Joe has received nationally apparently hasn’t resulted in the kind of pressure that Montana’s Madison, Yellowstone, Big Hole and Missouri and Idaho’s Henry’s Fork got when they were subjected to national exposure.
The Madison and Henry’s Fork are good examples. Fly fishers come from all over the world to fish the streams during the major insect hatches. The Madison became famous for its salmonfly hatch, the Henry’s Fork for its Green Drake hatch. Fly fishers joke that a fisherman has to bring his own rock to stand on.
Although some float the upper St. Joe in June and July, nearly all fly and spin fishermen fish from shore.
The upper section becomes too low by August for easy floating. That’s probably one reason the St. Joe isn’t as popular as rivers where a high percentage of anglers pay guides $150 or more to ride drift boats and rafts.
The St. Joe attracts anglers who have the physical stamina to do a lot of hiking and wading during a day’s fishing. The more sedentary fisherman doesn’t like to crawl down steep banks several times a day to get to the best fishing spots or hike 2 or 3 miles up the Forest Service trail above Spruce Tree campground.
The section above the mouth of Gold Creek is the most popular in the catch-and-release area. Most productive holes and runs are fished several times a day from June through September. The first experienced anglers to fish a spot each morning hook a good percentage of the cutthroat in the feeding lanes.
For example, Al Stier and I hiked up the Forest Service trail above the Spruce Tree campground early one day last week and arrived at a quarter-mile-long stretch we’ve fished in past years. I hooked 15 cutthroat in one hole, eight measuring 12 to 17 inches long. Stier caught several in a run below me, including an 18-incher.
We caught cutthroat in other holes and runs the rest of the day, but fishing wasn’t nearly as good as when we first started. We suspected, with good reason, others had fished the spots we fished after leaving the area.
The section from the mouth of Gold Creek down to Prospector Creek has a big cutthroat population, but much of it is harder to fish than the section above Gold Creek. Many trout-filled holes require scrambling down steep, rock-strewn embankments. Most fishermen give up after a few strenuous efforts to reach good spots, especially during hot weather.
Majority of the anglers who fish the catch-and-release section above Prospector Creek are fly fishers. Possibly one of every five or six, however, use spinning tackle.
The upper river has a thriving, healthy population of cutthroat ranging in size from fry to 18 inches. Although some anglers boast to friends they hooked many cutthroat in the 18- to 22-inch range, the fact is there are few trout in the upper river more than 17 inches long.
The river has massive hatches of caddisflies and good hatches of stoneflies and mayflies.
Like most other fly fishers, Stier and I used small Elk Hair Caddis patterns during the first 2 or 3 hours the days we fished the river. When the cutthroat stopped taking caddisfly imitations, possibly because they had seen so many, we switched to fairly large flying black ant patterns and continued catching fish.
Relatively few anglers, particularly those who don’t know much about the St. Joe, realize fishing can be just about as good below Avery as it is in the catch-and-release section. Many cutthroat hatched in the catch-and-release section migrate downstream.
The river below Avery and a couple of tributaries are easily floated in small, personal devices, such as the Water Otter.
One fly fisher told me he caught as many large cutthroat during a day’s float along the lower river as he did a few days earlier in the catch-and-release section. And he and his friend saw only a few other anglers.
For all the publicity it has received, the St. Joe still is full of cutthroat and remains one of the Northwest’s top cutthroat streams. Its trout don’t always cooperate with anglers, but even beginners can hook a few. Additionally, an angler can enjoy glimpses of wildlife, including elk, moose, deer, bears, otters and eagles.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Fenton Roskelley The Spokesman-Review