Third time’s a charm on the St. Joe
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.