July big month of transitions for Inland Northwest fly fishing
The Spokane region caters to eclectic angling persuasions. Within a few minutes or a few hours of driving are standout fly-fishing attractions for several trout species plus panfish, bass and steelhead.
The trick is timing. What’s hot and what’s not is particularly important in July, a month of major transitions in runoff, water quality and weather. As fly fishers ease into the Spokane area next week for the International Fly Fishing Fair:
• Locals will be transitioning from waders to wet-wading.
• The first steelhead of the season will be running up the Snake River.
• Bass and panfish will be coming alive on scabland waters as lakes turn over and trout go deep to flee the heat.
• Most of the region’s rivers will finally be clearing from spring runoff and coming into prime fishing condition.
Following is a sampling of the area’s top July fly fishing options from the expert view of local fly shop operators, guides and local fishing fanatics.
Spokane River: Redband trout
• Steve Moss, who fishes the city river year-round, says guided anglers drifting in boats can find the local rainbows even in higher water after the Fourth of July. For wading, he gets serious in more than 10 miles of river downstream from the Maple Street Bridge when river flows fall to 3,200 cubic feet per second or lower.
The higher the water, the more an angler will be at the edge of willows roll casting.
“Gads, at the slow rate the river’s dropping this year, we’ll be very lucky if it’s close to 6K by the middle of July,” he said Monday.
Wading boots with cleats are recommended for the Spokane River’s notoriously slippery rock shoreline.
If you don’t want to use flies with barbless hooks and release all your fish, check the state fishing regulations carefully for rules that differ by river stretch.
Caddis can be prolific on the river from dawn to 8:30 a.m. and again from around 5:30 p.m. to dark. Moss catches most of his fish in these periods swinging soft hackle patterns.
Moss carries several sizes of X Caddis and Troth Elk Hair Caddis, which he pulls under the surface at the end of the drift to trigger strikes.
The most consistent producers are soft hackle patterns. “I tie several varieties including some with bead heads so I can change the trajectory of the rise.”
Blue-wing olive patterns are never left behind. Moss is fond of up-wing patterns, which he often customizes by trimming the bottom flat to the hook in slower currents and seams.
Sculpin streamers, heavily weighted, 3-4 inches long, golden brown to olive with gray bellies and big eyes will take fish when other methods won’t. Moss fishes these patterns with a sink-tip line, a method that’s much easier from a boat on the willow-lined stretches of the river.
Dusk is magic. But anglers also can do well in some areas early in the morning until the sun comes onto the water.
Sometimes Moss tags on a dropper – a size 18 Prince Nymph or red Copper John.
“Some days the fish want dead drift, some days they want to see it move or wiggle, even the olives,” he said.
“The Spokane is a river of convoluted currents. It can be very technical. It will make a hell of a fisherman out of you, or it will break your spirit.”
Clark Fork: Trout
• Joe Roope Jr., of Castaway Fly Shop in Coeur d’Alene says hoppers come into play in July for the Clark Fork’s big rainbows, browns and cutthroats, “but the evening caddis hatches are of Biblical proportions.”
The Clark Fork River stretches up and downstream from St. Regis, Mont., and is easily reached in two hours from Spokane via Interstate 90.
Anglers look for rewarding fishing as soon as the river has calmed down from runoff to decent visibility. Once the river is down to 12,000 cfs and dropping, he works big Yuk Bugs, crawfish patterns and bead heads to hook fish the current is shoving into the shoreline willows.
A skwala stonefly nymph pattern bounced along the bottom under an indicator will produce fish most of the day. Have some large Prince Nymphs along.
But Roope likes to set his sights high. He’ll be ready with PMD patterns – Sparkle Dun, Parachute PMD and CDC Emerger – from morning through early afternoon.
Then he’ll likely switch to hopper patterns or large attractors such as the Chernobyl Ant, Chubby Chernobyl. “Don’t be shy of tying these patterns in pink – it works” he said.
By 5:30, he might be swinging an X-Caddis (tan) or CDC Caddis or maybe a Goddard or Elk Hair Caddis with a soft-hackle dropper, or maybe a Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail nymph.
“We take the majority of fish on soft hackles,” he said, noting that he may switch from Partridge Soft Hackles to Batman soft hackles as darkness sets in.
He goes darker as the evening progresses, all the way to Batman blue soft hackles.
“When the sun comes off the water in the canyon sections, the caddis event can start popping and escalate to phenomenal,” he said.
CdA River: Cutthroat
• Pat Way of Northwest Outfitters in Coeur d’Alene says July might be the best month of the year to find good fishing evenly distributed throughout 50 miles of the North Fork Coeur d’Alene River from its headwaters down to Interstate 90 near Cataldo. Catch-and-release regulations are enforced for native westlope cutthroat trout. Barbless hooks required.
The “vinyl hatch” can be a consideration, especially on warm weekends. Fishing weekdays or upstream from Prichard avoids most of the floaters.
Be prepared especially for caddis, PMDs, hoppers and terrestrials such as beetles and ants, he said.
The river is excellent for walking and wading. Paralleled by roads for most of its length, the North Fork also has walk-in sections upstream from Teepee Creek. “Great water right next to the road doesn’t get fished,” Way said.
Drift boat access is poor, but personal pontoons can be useful to explore portions of the river. The best float for avoiding conflicts with wading anglers is from the Kingston area downstream 9.5 miles to Old Mission State Park near Cataldo. Note: It can be a long haul to finish this stretch in a day when flows are less than about 800 cfs at the Enaville gauge.
Way favors Chernobyl Hoppers, sometimes with droppers, such as Pheasant Tails and Prince Nymphs.
“A lot of people who live around here fish only big bugs for cutthroats and they get away with it,” Way said. “But that doesn’t mean that small flies can’t be effective. They are. A size 16 or 18 Zebra Midge dropper can be effective.
“The fishing can be so easy one day, but the fish can be very particular the next. Fly fishers who are technically good on other rivers will do real well here.
“The cutthroats usually take streamers incredibly well. But if you hit it when they’re picky, you should go to a small tandem rig and prospect.”
St. Joe River: Cutthroat
• Sean Visintainer of Silver Bow Fly Shop in Spokane Valley tells his clients to come with 4- or 5-weight rods, 9-foot 4X and 5X leaders, floating lines and high expectations for this catch-and-release cutthroat stream. Barbless hooks required.
Floating the lower St. Joe below Avery might be the best bet in higher water of early season up to 7,000 cfs, when wading is difficult and many of the St. Joe fish haven’t started to move upstream. When flows drop below 2,000 cfs at the Calder gauge, wading becomes comfortable upstream.
Don’t overlook tributaries such as Marble Creek and the North Fork St. Joe in July.
“Cutthroat fishing is pretty straightforward,” Visintainer said. “Fish the riffles and drop-offs, the dark green emerald pools. Every turnout along the road seems to be near a deep, good-looking pool that obviously holds fish. But if the river is busy, walk an extra 50 yards or so up or downstream and you often can find some riffly runs that are waist to head deep and holding some fish.
“If the water is still running high, the fish will be tighter to the bank.
“Ants can be really productive in mid-July. It’s not quite hopper time, but they’ll be on the prowl for them.”
Visintainer likes to prospect with attractor patterns such as the Chubby Chernobyl in gold and brown, Royal Wulff, Renegade and Yellow Humpie.
“A newer variation, the Crystal Humpy, has a lot of flash and does double duty as a green drake or use a smaller size for the PMD.”
Especially in the afternoon, he likes to use dropper rigs. Try dangling a Copper John-Red, Lightning Bug or caddis pupae imitation 18-24 inches off a Chernobyl foam pattern or Stimulator.
Top streamers include sculpin patterns in olive or natural tan, and bugger patterns with rubber legs, including the Big Bird with yellow legs and an olive body.
Amber Lake: Rainbows
• Allen Peterson of Swede’s Fly Shop in Spokane enjoys pointing fly fishers to this special regulations lake, southwest of Spokane, stocked with triploid rainbows. The sterile fish grow rapidly in this nutrient-rich lake, averaging 14-16 inches but running up to 20.
“Although I’ve seen fishermen catch trout from shore near the boat launch, it’s best to have a water craft,” he said.
“Amber is popular with chironomid fishermen, but in July, I’d recommend rigging soft hackles on a short leader with a Type 3 or 4 full-sinking line.”
He even revealed a notable hot spot.
“Go left from the launch and boat about halfway down the lake to a building. About 30 feet out from shore at that point there’s a trench where a lot of nice rainbows congregate when the water gets warmer.
“Fish parallel to shore. Cast, let the sinking line settle and work the soft-hackle flies with short stripping.”
Peterson like’s the Olive Willie, size 12, on sunny days. On cloudy days he goes to a similar fly with a size 8 long-shank hook, but instead of a red bead it has a red rabbit strip that looks like a blood trail over the top of the fly.
“A key is to let the line settle for 30 seconds or so. If you’re fortunate enough to be out in a slight breeze, put your rod tip down and drift with the wind.
“Hot weather hatches of midges, blue-wing olives and the occasional caddis tend to occur in the transitional light of morning or dusk.”
Spokane Drainage: Bass
• John Clark of Westslope Fly Shop in Spokane makes most of his living guiding anglers to the region’s trout and steelhead hot spots, but he has good news for anglers with a yen for diversity.
“We have bass, pike and panfish all around us and they’re a blast to catch,” he said.
The Spokane River from the Idaho state line downstream to Flora Road Rapids (between Barker Road and Sullivan Road) is an excellent stretch for smallies accessible by drift boat. Wading anglers also have good access to this stretch by bicycle along the paved Centennial Trail.
“Below Flora toward Sullivan Road, the river starts getting more cool water recharge from the aquifer,” he said. “That’s where the trout congregate starting in July when the river’s overall water temperatures rise. But the smallmouth come down that far and they say, ‘Oh! It’s a little cold down there,’ and they head back upstream for warmer water.”
Clark usually starts by casting a size 6 or 8 Pat’s Rubber Legs. “Some like to fish it under an indicator, but when fishing from a boat, I like to cast it to the rocks and structure and strip, strip, strip, then let it sink down through the current.”
He pounds the rocky banks with an eye for working his fly in the soft water on the edges of current seams.
Anglers with a powerboat can have a heyday going higher in the Spokane River drainage to fish the Lower Coeur d’Alene River chain of lakes in Idaho.
“Launching from, say, Killarney Lake, you can boat into four lakes along the lower river, including Cave and Medicine, that have great fishing for smallmouths as well as largemouths and northern pike. The smallies are associated with current, such as at the edges of the lake outlets.”
For a smallmouth road trip, Clark heads south to the Grande Ronde River – with an eye open for the season’s first steelhead.