Idaho – Fishing the St Joe’s

Gerry fishing about a mile up river from the lodge

    This is the second part of our August trip to Montana and Idaho; the first part is in the September column Montana – Three Rivers in Three Days. In 2011 a friend, my wife Barb and I made our first trip to the St Joe’s Lodge in the Panhandle National Forest. This year my Guiding partner Gerry, his brother Gary, Barb and I made the trip. We left Florence Montana early on August 8th and drove to St. Regis Montana. From there it’s 28 miles on a dirt road to the St Joe’s river. About half way the road crosses into Idaho and the Pacific Time Zone picking up an hour. It’s another 11 miles on a one lane road to the base camp for the lodge. Barbara and Will Judge own and operate the lodge six miles on horseback from the base camp.

Barb and Dusty crossing the river

Barb and Dusty crossing the river

Barbara Judge described the lodge as camping with meals; rustic would be a good description; two cabins with four bunks for guests; the lodge comprised of a kitchen and dining area with four bunks in the loft for wranglers and guides and a wash/shower building with quarters for the Judge’s in the loft. There are several outbuildings including the barn; the largest and newest building. In Idaho outfitters have licenses for hunting and fishing; the Judge’s have the license for 165 square miles. Everything for the lodge from food to hay is transported on horseback. The nearest store is 46 miles away in Avery Idaho; that was also the first inhabited house we encountered on our drive to Spokane. The only phone coverage is satellite. I would call the area remote; maybe not by western standards but there are few places in the east you could get that far away from everything. Like the 2011 trip; we were the only ones at the lodge


Pack train bringing in supplies with Dusty following

The trip in had six river crossings. On the 2011 trip the end of July the river was flowing at over 500 cubic feet a second. We were the first group that year to cross the river with horses; the other alternative is to ride in on the high trail; aptly described after having walked it in 2011 while fishing down river. This year the flows were around 150. I always have a problem riding; leg cramps; hip pain and any other ailment imaginable. This year the trip in was very comfortable. I started thinking maybe it would be worth trying the trip into the remote lakes; a full days ride.

We had the same guide we used in 2011, Steve Moran Steve is a rod builder who lives in Spokane. He walks into the lodge in just over an hour. On horseback the trip is about two hours. Steve has been fishing the river for fifty years and knows every pool and how to fish it at different flows; time of day and hatches. After lunch on the first day Steve took Gerry and Gary up river. Barb and I fished the pool around the camp. When I first talked to Barbara Judge about the trip she said some anglers are seldom out of site of the lodge; there’s no need to because there are several good pools within 100 yards. In 2011 the insect hatch activity was phenomenal; this year there were few hatches but the trout would take dries. From Avery upriver the St Joe’s is catch-and-release, using artificial flies and lures with single barbless hooks.  The trout are native cutthroat trout; there are Bull Trout in the river. We were 46 miles from Avery and the river went for miles above where we were.

I don’t like the word technical fishing. You could probably catch fish flogging the water but having the right fly, tippet size and cast made a difference in the number of fish. We primarily used size 6 tippet with # 16 and 18 flies. Gary did have some luck on a bee pattern; we got a few on hoppers and I got a few on an RS20 nymph as a dropper in heavy water, Most of the trout were on a purple haze or a tan caddis. By in large long casts were not required but accuracy was important. On some of the pools Steve liked to drift the flies into the pools from 10-15 feet above the pool. He said the trout would watch for the flies drifting into the pool and if you didn’t get the fly far enough up stream they would not take it. Crystal clear water and low flow conditions make it easy to watch a pool and see the trout feeding. Most of the time you could see the trout rising to the fly; requiring patience on setting the hook. Cutthroat are a little slower on the take and don’t require as fast a set.

Steve, Barb & setter

Steve, Barb & setter

On some of the runs in shallower water the trout would be holding under the banks. This required getting the fly within two or three inches of the bank and getting a good drift. Long casts were not required but keeping the leader behind the fly by using a reach cast or mending made a difference. On the second day Barb and I had Steve in the morning; he had his dog an English setter with him; one of three dogs at the lodge. The dog would stand beside Steve and watch the pool for rises; he seldom missed a rise. It was a bitter sweet reminder of our setter Duchess. I never took her out with clients but would take her in the canoe or drift boat with Barb or friends. She would set with her paws on the side watching for fish. We had to have her put down shortly after we returned from the trip. We worked the pools within a few minutes of the lodge. At one of the more open and shallow runs Steve had me run my wading stick along the bank pools. He said there would be four trout holding on the edge. That was the number I kicked out. We had a great morning working on the basics and catching trout. Barb and I fished the same pools the next two mornings with the same results thanks to Steve’s recommendations.

After lunch I joined Barb relaxing and reading at the lodge taking the afternoon off. Gerry and Gary worked downriver a mile or so with Steve. Steve headed home and Gerry and Gary fished their way back to the lodge. Evenings there would be a fire but by 9:30 we would all be tucked in for the night. There was a full moon but the mountains were so steep there was only a short time when the moon was visible. I saw it once on a jaunt to the outhouse. Breakfast was at 7:30 and we seldom started fishing before 10; the water had to warm up to get hatch activity going. You could pack a lunch but we always had lunch at the lodge. Dinner was at 7:30. The meals were phenomenal; resulting in a difference of several pounds on the scale when I returned. Everything was made from scratch with several meals cooked in a Dutch oven.

The third day Gary decided to take the afternoon off so Gerry and I hiked up river. I was thinking about hiking six miles upriver the last day to fish the gorge. I had never been there but Steve’s description had peaked my interest: Gerry was up for the trip. Getting up river required climbing up to the high trail. I had done it before but had to stop a few time to get to the trail. That was the last thought about going six miles. We had a good afternoon but on the way back I was dragging a few hundred yards behind Gerry. I thought it might have been the elevation or heat; it was in the 80’s in the afternoon. On the 2011 trip we saw a lot of wildlife in the meadow’ this year we only saw a few deer. The horse Barb used was named Dusty and she was in semi-retirement. She was not kept in the coral and allowed to wander around. She would chase any wildlife away if she saw it in the meadow. If we were going to the river she would stand sideways in the path to get her head scratched. Whenever supplies came in or out she would follow the pack horse to or from the river; she could always tell they were coming in.

The last afternoon Gerry, Gary and I fished down river. It was a great afternoon. Some of the smaller runs only one angler could fish. We set up a rotation where if you caught a fish or had a strike you were out. the rotation went pretty quick. The last day we packed out around 10 and made base camp at noon. We fished a few pools on the drive out. One was unbelievable. We followed the river to Avery; there were pull offs where you could park and fish and some camp sites but by and large the road wound around following the river; not a good drive after a long day or something you would want to do at night.

A week after returning we were at out camp in Brownfield Maine. I was planning on finally getting to use my new 6 ½ foot 2 weight. Coming up from the water I had to stop halfway up the hill to catch my breath. In the evening I took Duchess out for a walk and had the same problem. I sat down on the picnic table feeling dizzy and called Barb. I evidently passed out resulting in a trip to the hospital in Bridgeton. I was transferred to Maine Medical in Lewiston. After three days I was released. I had an ulcer as a result of taking Aleve for my back problem. I rescheduled my trips with other guides. A few weeks later I was able to fish from a boat with other guides; a week after that I was wading again. Barb & I just returned from a trip where I put my drift boat in. It was only a half day and she rowed for an hour. I won’t be taking clients out in the boat this year and maybe it’s time to pack it in; I had cut back on drift trips this year.

I wondered what would have happen if I had tried hiking the six miles up river on the St Joes and had the problem a week earlier. The signs were there I just did not recognize or ignored them.




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