The St. Joe River flows from deep within, or perhaps high in, the Bitterroot mountains that divide Montana from Idaho’s Panhandle. To get there we traveled from St. Regis, MT over the Little Joe Road (a well-maintained gravel road) 14.5 miles to the top of Gold Pass, where Idaho takes over. From here the road changes in both name (becomes Gold Pass Road) and surface material (becomes pavement). We descended another 12.5 miles before turning onto the St. Joe River Road toward Red Ives Ranger Station. From this junction the St. Joe River can be accessed fairly easily from the road for the next 12 miles until the vehicle access ends at Spruce Tree Campground. If you’re willing to walk a ways beyond this point you can find some drop-dead gorgeous water. The farther you hike the better your chances of having the river to yourself. If you want to go one step further, you can ride a horse upriver and leave civilization behind in the dust.
Near the end of the St. Joe River Road is the Base Camp for the St. Joe Outfitters, owned and operated by Barbara and Will Judge. I won’t go into a detailed, nuts and bolts description of their business here, but if you’re inclined to read more about it I’ve posted a copy of an article I wrote for Fly Rod & Reel, Spring 2010. “Cutthroat Commandos” wouldn’t have been my choice for the title, but I had no say in the matter; apparently the editor thought it fitting. For the record I have never fished commando style for any fish, cutthroat or otherwise.
When you book a trip with the St. Joe Outfitters you will travel 5 miles by horseback on the main trail that follows the river the entire way; sometimes right along the banks, other times high above the river. If you prefer not to ride you can hike the high trail on foot, as did Hal. He has no opposition to horses, he’s just a hiker type. Schpanky and I were happy to be paired with Pancho and Chett for the journey upriver. During your 2 hours in the saddle you will cross the St. Joe six times before arriving at your destination: The St. Joe Lodge.
The Lodge lies at the edge of a sprawling meadow, tucked amongst the tall spruce trees. It’s really something that words cannot describe, and while photos do a better job, visiting firsthand is really the only way of gaining a true appreciation for the place. The Lodge itself is a log structure built in the 1940’s that has retained much of its original rustic charm. Guests stay in cabins situated a few feet away from the Lodge, where meals are taken. Accommodations are far from fancy, but they are comfortable in a rustic, authentic manner. The Lodge has a lot of character, and as you might imagine there are stories to be told about its history.
I’ve fished the Joe a mere 4 times, and until recently had been to the St. Joe Lodge twice before. Upon returning from a third visit I must say that it was a very special trip thanks in no small part to the company I kept: I was joined once again by my brother, Hal, and my son, Schpanky. Hal and I went together the first time in 2008, and Schpanky has heard me talk about it ever since. I promised him that one day, when he became a big boy, I would take him. Well, he’s now bigger than I am so I finally made good on my promise. In 2009 I visited the Lodge with Marck and Jimmy. There followed a couple years that I didn’t get back to fish the Joe, proceeded by another year that Marck, Jimmy, Morris and I did the trip on a budget and camped at Spruce Tree. Last summer I was not able to make the trip so this year it felt great to be back on the Joe; even sweeter to be back at the Lodge.
This past winter the Bitterroots saw an abundant snowpack and the runoff was slow to subside thanks to some cool, wet weather in June. During this 3rd week in July the flows in the upper Joe were higher than the seasonal average, but the river was very fishable. Only a few spots, where one might normally wade with ease this time of year, were a bit dicey. However it was no problem for those who are quick on their feet (and I only lost my footing once). Deep holes held plenty of westslope cutthroats, but they were pickier than I seem to recall them having been in the past and we had to work awfully hard for most of the fish we caught. Whomever said the Idaho cutthroat are stupid fish that will take any reasonably well-presented didn’t formulate their opinion this year, on this river.
We fished 2-1/2 days and on the first afternoon we were not met with a very warm reception on the part of the fish. We hiked about a mile upriver from the Lodge to a run known as Whitefish Hole, and though we didn’t see any whitefish we did see scores of cutthroat rising to midges—size 12 chernobyl ants didn’t even get a look. Hal and Schpanky each managed to catch a fish but I was denied such accomplishment. Only after hiking back down toward the lodge was I able to land a fish on a size 20 Griffith’s Gnat in what is referred to by the locals as Wyatt’s Hole. Despite a slow few hours of catching we didn’t think too much of it because we were just getting started. Back at the Lodge, a fine feast of fresh-baked pizza made everything OK, followed by fireside comradery and a good night’s sleep.
The next day we hiked upstream about 3-1/2 miles before dropping into the river to fish our way back down. The first stop was along a gorgeous stretch of river where the Joe was braided into several channels. Logs and woody debris formed some of the tastiest-looking trout water one could imagine, but this first spot yielded no fish. Throwing a streamer next to the logjams should have, and likely would have, produced at least several nice fish, if not for the presence of vermin. Once I saw that I reeled up and moved well downstream. No sense wasting time where the otter had been fishing.
Downstream a half mile Schpanky and I observed what may have been the largest trout either of us had ever seen. The leviathan was every bit of 24 inches as it cruised slowly through the crystal clear water. Big fish don’t get big by being stupid, and once it saw us it made a U-turn and swam rapidly off through a shallow riffle, headed downstream before we could get our hopes up. It may have been a bull trout as they were known to inhabit the upper river this time of year, or it may have been a monster cutthroat—we’ll never know. Had it been a bull trout we definitely would not have targeted it because targeting bull trout is legally frowned upon in the upper Joe. Another big fish, though not quite as big as the first, was observed moving under the logjam, but nothing we tried could entice it to come out and play. While fishing was outstanding, catching remained a bit slower than we’d have preferred the rest of the day. Hal and Schpanky could blame their choice of headwear for the slow catching, but I had no such excuse.
We fished dries in a variety of sizes and patterns but the most success I had was fishing white conehead streamers. I hooked and mostly landed (read: broke off at my feet) a couple very respectable 16-17 inch fish, but only a small handful of smaller fish were caught the rest of the day. We didn’t see another angler during our entire day on the river, but we did see plenty of gorgeous country. We also caught a fleeting glimpse of a moose crossing the river a couple of hundred yards away. Those are the best kind of moose—the ones at a distance.
That evening back at the Lodge we were glad to get out of our waterlogged boots and have a cold beverage or two. Come supper time we were treated to an exceptional fried chicken and mashed potato meal thanks to Barbara’s amazing culinary talents. After dinner we moved to the campfire to stare into the flames, discuss the likelihood of Bigfoot’s existence, and share bad jokes. By 10 pm we retired to the bunk cabin for a solid night’s sleep. We needed to be well rested for the next day’s activity: more fishing.
While the fishing on day two had proved slow and challenging, on the third day things picked up. A father knows his son, and I could tell that, despite enjoying himself in the backcountry, Schpanky was a bit frustrated by the lack of ample catching—especially since I had told him he would have the best trout fishing experience of his life (he may have misinterpreted that to mean the best catching experience of his life). He quickly got over that as he caught fire on the third day. Armed with a yellow conehead version of a Woolly Bugger, the lad was catching fish left and right, pulling fish from runs that Hal and I had already fished through. It wasn’t until he broke off the magic streamer that his catch rate slowed to that of his uncle and his old man. I reminded him that he owed me $3.25 for the lost fly.
Hal was fishing his 3 weight Redington 7′ Butterstick for the first time and had very favorable things to say about it. I grabbed it for a few casts and will say that it’s a smooth casting stick worthy of its name, and 12-14 inch fish are an awful lot of fun on a rod that bends like a noodle. Surprisingly it can also throw a fair amount of line for such a soft stick.
We fished below the Lodge for a mile and a half or so, encountering some fish willing to eat dry flies without being too finicky, although presentations still had to be spot-on. I managed to fool a particularly nice fish that had been rising in a mid-river seam. It took several drifts but I finally got the fat 15 incher on a black caddis. It was a dark, beautifully colored fish—as pretty as they come, and an awful lot of fun on my Sage Circa 3 weight. I’ve always fished a 4 weight on the Joe, and while the 3 weight isn’t particularly well-suited to chucking streamers, it makes fighting even 10 inch fish fun.
Each of us enjoyed good catching on this third day and we were mindful to appreciate the day because it was our last: in the morning we would have to pack out and return to civilization. I hesitate to mention food again, but the last supper consisted of short ribs and potatoes, cooked in the Dutch Oven, that were over-the-top. It was a meal fitting of a birthday feast—Barbara’s birthday, as it were. On a day when she should have been waited on hand and foot while sipping lemonade in the hammock outside the Lodge, Barbara was busy making sure her guests were well-fed, again. Every meal is excellent and you will not go hungry while you’re a guest at the Lodge. I’ve always teased Schpanky because he tends to have a light appetite, but on this trip he ate food like a big boy—even went for thirds on the ribs. Made is Pappy proud, he did. As per protocol, after stuffing our faces we waddled outside to the fire for the usual antics, and something a good bit less usual.
No matter your personal feelings about the reintroduction of wolves in western states, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that hearing a wolf howling in the back country isn’t pretty awesome. The first howl caught us off-guard: a long, low and mournful call—nothing like the high-pitched call of a coyote, in case you thought us mistaken. We ceased the bad joke telling and sat in silence trying to determine if what we’d heard was our imagination. It was 9:30pm as the fire crackled and the generator powering lights in the St. Joe Lodge hummed in the background. Normally by this hour the generator would have been turned off, but Barbara was celebrating her birthday by playing a game of Scrabble with one of the other guests: If she wanted the lights left on, by golly they were going to be left on. We waited for another howl, which came shortly after the first. It was neither our imagination, nor was it someone engaging in a bit of backcountry hijinks. I mean, who other than Lone Wolf McQuade would go to the trouble of hiking up to a ridge at night and imitating a wolf? The lone animal called out 5 or 6 times with no response. There was a ten minute break before we heard another howl, this time downriver but still high on the ridge across the river. After speculating whether it was an answering call or perhaps the same wolf that had moved rather quickly along a game trail, we concluded that it was more than likely the latter. On this third night, on my third trip to the St. Joe Lodge, it was my first time hearing a wolf in the wild. After crawling into the fart sack a short while later, I will admit that I hoped I wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to go outside and
relieve myself mark my territory.
While riding out on the final day of our trip, Will noted some oversized canine tracks on the trail. Unless someone had been hiking the area with a St. Bernard, the tracks very likely belonged to the wolf we’d heard the night before. Chett and Pancho seemed to agree, and had a skip in their steps that was missing on the ride in 3 days earlier.
If you’re looking for a very unique backcountry fly fishing adventure—something the likes of which you’ve probably never experienced before—I highly recommend you contact Barbara and Will Judge at St. Joe Outfitters. Their calendar fills fast, so you’ll not want to wait too long. And when you go I recommend you bring Chuck Norris along for protection. You never know what you may run into in the Idaho wilderness.
Wishing all y’all a fabulously fishy fourth.
If you like this design and want a t-shirt, they can be had HERE.
(I make just enough off each shirt to buy about a quarter gallon of gas to go fishing, so thanks in advance)
I don’t have an offishial bucket list—to keep one would surely lead to disappointment. I do, however, have an idea of some rivers I’d like to fish before I kick the bucket. One of those rivers is the Missouri. I know lots of folks who’ve fished it, and I’ve read much about it. While it always sounded a bit too busy and populated for my tastes, I have always wanted to experience it firsthand and draw my own conclusions. The allure of 8,000 fish per mile (and nearly as many anglers); a river that fishes like a giant spring creek; wind that can literally blow boats off the water, etc. Yeah, I’ve wanted to visit the Missouri for some time, and if I kept a bucket list I could now scratch this river off the list.
Prior to our annual Firehole Rangers excursion we had made plans to fish Rock Creek on the last leg of our journey. We had cabins booked at the Rock Creek Mercantile and we’d lined up a guide: Scott Anderson, owner and outfitter at Montana Fishing Company. As the day drew nearer, reports indicated that the Creek was running extremely high and fast, and it was Scott’s assessment that it would not be a good idea to float it. The Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork—all nearby rivers—were also out of shape. We were told the only viable option was the MO. With that guidance we canceled our lodging at the Merc and, after fishing the Madison on Monday, drove to Helena.
As The Rangers headed north of I-90 we found ourselves in uncharted territory as none of us had been to Helena before. Nor were we there long enough to do more than grab a bite to eat and sleep before heading out the next morning toward the bustling troutopolis of Craig, MT. The countryside traveling from Helena to Craig made me wish I’d been there before. I imagined Lewis and Clark as they passed through this area over 200 years ago, and surmised that the countryside probably hadn’t changed all THAT much since then. Ever since the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark’s journey to the the Pacific coast I’ve fancied myself a bit of an armchair historian when it comes to the epic journey of the Corps of Discovery. As we proceeded on I began to feel all romantic about the unspoiled Montana countryside of the past. That said, I have to admit I was glad to be traveling at a high rate of speed on a paved highway, drinking coffee within the comforts of a minivan rather than walking overland and/or
paddling dragging heavily-laden canoes upstream; worrying about my scalp and lamenting the fact that the whiskey had run out.
It was with great excitement that we pulled into Craig, a town that needed no introduction. Three fly shops and a restaurant and a bar, and not much else, comprise this angling destination which likely wouldn’t exist if not for fishing. We browsed through Headhunter’s Fly Shop to kill a little time before meeting our guides at the Craig boat ramp. It was there that I was surprised (and delighted) to see a certain set of books on the shelf (I hear that those books have since been purchased so it is my hope the folks at Headhunter’s have ordered more—gotta pay for my gas to go fishing, you know…).
At 9 AM we met Scott Anderson and the other guides from Montana Fishing Company, loaded our gear into their trucks and drove a few miles upriver to Holter Dam, our launch point. Holter Dam is a a massive, aging structure measuring 1364 feet long and 124 feet high that, as one might imagine, presented quite an obstacle for Lewis and Clark and their men as they pushed up the mighty Missouri River in the spring of 1805. But I digress, back to present day…the current powers-that-be that manage the water coming over Holter Dam had been busily reducing the flows from 11,000 CFS the day before, to 5,000 CFS the day we fished. We anticipated that this would be a good thing, and the water was running clear and cold as we boarded our vessels for the day. We’d drawn numbers the night before to determine who would fish with whom, and the results were that Jimmy and Morris would share a boat, as would Marck and Nash.
Goose drew the unlucky number and was paired with yours truly. We carefully took note of the very important information clearly displayed on the sign at the launch and mentally prepared ourselves for a day of fishing. 8,000 fish per mile: surely a couple would offer themselves up for the catching. Undoubtedly Marck would catch at least 4,000 of them. We set off for the day under partly cloudy skies, pleasant temperatures, and no w#nd. Yet.
With Holter Dam still in view behind us, fish began to fall for the scuds that dangled beneath indicators and split shot. Goose was first on the board in our boat. He was also second on the board in our boat. I was down 2-0 before I knew what had happened. Then I reminded myself that Goose and I were on the same team. Now before you roll your eyes and proclaim that fly fishing is a leisurely activity intended for pure enjoyment and not meant to be a competition, keep in mind that we had three boats. It wasn’t important that any particular boat caught more fish than another, as long as you weren’t in the boat that caught the least.
After an enjoyable morning we broke for a shoreside lunch and compared notes: none of the 3 boats were slaying fish, but all had caught some.
Drifting with the lazy, often swirling current, we saw hundreds of large fish sunning themselves in the shallows as we floated overhead. The Missouri really was living up to its billing as large spring creek with an
abundant insane trout population. Despite that it isn’t really a spring creek, it fished like one: in spring creeks the fish are not very often easy to catch. We confirmed this later in the day when our boat anchored up on a large pod of rising fish, just about the time the w#nd started to pick up. We must have seen 30-40 noses sipping small mayflies at any given time, and many appeared to be rather large fish. Goose was first to take a turn on the one boat rod that was pre-rigged for dries. As he wiped sweat from his brow he declared that he’d only ever caught one fish on a dry fly. After three casts—casts that may have lacked finesse and delicate presentation thanks to some annoying gusts— Goose could no longer say that he’d only ever caught one fish on a dry fly. The fish ran downstream like a freight train, taking line to the backing. These Missouri fish certainly proved strong…especially when ass-hooked.
After Goose made it look so easy, it was my turn. Now bear in mind I’ve caught a few more fish on a dry fly than my teammate, so I fully expected that it wouldn’t take 3 casts before I got a fish to take my
expertly presented fly. “When you see the fish take the fly, count to 3 before you set the hook,” was the advice of our guide, Scott Anderson. That’s easier said than done, particularly when your nerves are shot from 20-30 casts, made between strong gusts of w#nd, to large rising fish that want it placed right on their nose with no drag. I finally got it right and the result was a beautiful Missouri hen, a fish I felt I had really earned. My nerves were shot, my casting arm spent.
We were about to pull anchor when it happened again. I may have been hard to live with for the next few minutes.
Distracted by the rising fish, we’d lost over an hour and it was decided that we needed to make some fast time in order to catch up with the other two boats. By now the w#nd was really started to rear its ugly head, and we pushed through a lot of slow water without really fishing much. No worries, we’d caught some fish nice already.
We did finally catch up with the other boats, and while they hadn’t enjoyed the dry fly fishing we had, they’d been catching a few fish and hopefully having a good time. There was an uneasy tension in the air as we approached and asked how everyone had been doing. Answers were vague.
Goose and I had been a well-oiled machine for most of the day and had even enjoyed a double on nice rainbows. That’s teamwork, folks. We were in it to win it.
By the time we got off the water that evening at Craig, the Missouri had partially flexed its muscles by offering up some pretty serious w#nd—not the stuff that legends are made of, mind you, but enough to make a person realize what it’s capable of. I’m fairly sure I’d rather not experience the Missouri’s full potential if given a choice. We were also not heart-broken to have dodged a thunderstorm which had been threatening for the last hour of the day.
All in all it was a fine day on the water, and everything I’d hoped it would be—and less. The river was not crowded. I imagine that in another month we wouldn’t be able to say that. We drove off into the setting sun en route to Missoula where we spent our last night. The next morning The Firehole Rangers headed west, taking a more direct route than the Corps of Discovery had done 209 years before us. I still don’t understand why Lewis and Clark continued south, then west over Lolo Pass. I-90 is so much faster.
Oh, and lest one should forget about the score at the end of the day, the tally went something like this:
Morris: “A little less than 10, but I don’t count fish. A couple whites. Are there browns in that water? I think I may have caught one.” (His words, not mine)
Jimmy: 5 rainbows
Nash: 3 rainbows and one 20″ whitey
Marck: 3 rainbows, one golden bone and one whitey
Goose: 5 rainbows
UA: 4 rainbows
By my reckoning, Team Goose/UA won, because Morris doesn’t count fish and cannot be relied on for the truth. And we
didn’t catch any trash fish caught only trouts.