The St. Joe River in Idaho has become one of my favorite places to fish. It’s no Yakima River, mind you, but that’s a good thing. My older brother Hal (not necessarily his real name) and I first fished “The Joe” during the summer of 2008. We’d been talking about taking a fishing trip together for a couple years, and had pondered visiting the Bitterroot River in Montana. The year we were going to go was the same year that half the state of Montana was ablaze in wildfires: If it wasn’t burning, it was being smoked out. We never made it that year, and I figured a fishing trip would become like so many other things in life that never materialize. Maybe next year. Then maybe the year after that. We’d keep talking about it until we’re too old to do anything but talk about it.
During the winter of 2007 Hal forwarded a New York Times article about fishing Idaho’s panhandle. The article suggested that the St. Joe Westslope Cutthroat trout could be easily fooled into taking just about any fly, and that was good enough for me. I needed some stupid catching on some gullible fish and so armed with that information, we booked a 3-day stay with the St. Joe Outfitters. I began putting together a box of highly technical flies especially for this trip: Stimulators, Royal Coachmans/Wulffs, Humpies, and some big Chernobyl stuff. Mostly red, as red was said to be the ticket on the St. Joe. Having only driven through Idaho’s panhandle at 75 mph on previous occasions, I was greatly looking forward to visiting a new area, and enjoying a couple days of easy catching. After recent butt kickings on the Yakima, and another trip to Yellowstone with Marck, my self-confidence needed some coddling. The stupid Westslopes would be just what the doctor ordered.
Hal and I drove from my home in western Washington to St. Regis, Montana the day before we were to meet the St. Joe Outfitters at their base camp operations. From St. Regis it was about an hour drive up the Little Joe Road; a winding, gravel forest service road that climbs to the top of the Gold Pass. Once there, we crossed into Idaho where the road changed over to pavement, and we roller-coasted all the way down to the junction with Red Ives Road. I won’t bore you with the rest of the directions, but suffice it to say it was a beautiful drive the entire way and we saw only one other vehicle, and that was some dude on a dual sport bike who was pulled over to the side of the dirt road wishing he hadn’t because what followed us was a plume of thick Montana dust which quickly engulfed him. Right on schedule, we arrived at the base camp at 10 AM and were greeted by Will Judge. I don’t meet many guys who I can look straight in the eye, but when I shook Will’s hand I did just that. With a welcoming manner about him, Will is a great front man for the operation and I liked him instantly (us vertically challenged guys have a common bond). After introductions had concluded, I made it clear that under no uncertain terms were Hal and I “partners”. One never knows what folks from Idaho think when they meet two dangerously handsome young men from Seattle, and I wanted to set things straight (pun intended) right away. It should also be noted that neither of us are dangerous, handsome or young, and only Hal is from Seattle. With a sigh of relief, Will introduced us to our horses and we set off up the trail. Barbara (Will’s wife and boss) would be expecting us for lunch by 1 pm, and Will was adamant about arriving on time, as if he’d made the mistake of being late for a meal once – and only once – before. He wouldn’t seem fully relaxed until we’d pulled up to the hitching post, right on schedule.
The trail follows the St. Joe for 5 miles, crossing the river six times en route to the St. Joe Lodge. Let me say first off that as proprietors of the St. Joe Outfitters, Barbara and Will have something very unique and incredible – a little slice of heaven nestled in the Bitterroot Mountains. The scenery all around is breathtaking, and the Lodge itself is something to behold.
Situated at the edge of a large meadow, the lodge was originally built in the 1940’s, and has the authentic flavor that only an old log structure can have. Thankfully what you find here is far from a swanky bed and breakfast. It’s rustic to say the least, as the outhouses will attest to: There’s one for the “Bucks” and one for the “Does”. I spent as little time in the Bucks hut as necessary, and only to take care of business – not to spend leisure time with a good fishing magazine as I so enjoy in the comforts of my own home. Curiously, the men’s outhouse has side-by-side seats. Luckily, I had the place all to myself, as the conversation would have been uneasy had another Buck been occupying the seat next to me:
“Mornin’. How’s the fishin’?”
“Great dinner last night, eh?”
Other than the no-frills-but-perfectly-acceptable amenities for lightening one’s load, the rest of the accommodations feel like a home away from home, only with roughened edges. When you gather around the large dining table and enjoy some of the tastiest, stick-to-your-ribsiest food available anywhere, it’s hard to imagine there being any better home than this. Barbara works hard to present the crew and guests with three squares a day and it is my recommendation that if you’re on a diet, plan to throw that silly notion out the window while you’re guests of Barbara and Will. There’s plenty of time to resume your calorie counting after you return home, so eat up and enjoy. Besides, you’ll also burn a lot of calories if you fish hard while you’re there, which we did.
In the afternoon of our first day we didn’t venture far from the encampment: We didn’t need to, as good water is close at hand in all directions. We familiarized ourselves with the lay of the land, and caught some beautiful, modest sized cutties. But it wasn’t a slam dunk like I’d been led to believe, and we each had enough refusals on the first day to conclude that these fish were neither stupid, nor even slightly gullible. Yes, some fish (mostly the smaller ones) would hit a big attractor pattern, but even more would balk and refuse, which made me feel right at home on The Joe. Even when I did manage to fool a fish into taking a purple foam ant, it had to be presented just right – a perfect drift. No drag. Easier said than done on a freestone mountain river with a wide array of current seams.
On our second day Hal and I spiked out to explore and see some more country. A good trail follows the river farther than most would care to follow it, but with the river in sight nearly the entire time, good water beckons at every turn so we didn’t hike more than a couple miles. Plus, my brother is no spring chicken so I didn’t want to wear him out by leading him on a forced march up the trail unnecessarily (I’m gonna catch Hell for that statement). The Joe was running higher than average for this time of year due to a heavy winter snowpack and a long, cool spring, so some of the best water was difficult or not possible to reach. But I like a challenge, which is a good thing, because there is never a shortage of challenges whenever I fish. While struggling to entice a fish with my Stimulator, I had noticed the occasional hatch of small, tan-colored mayflies, and dug through my fly box to find a match, which I didn’t have. I tried close approximations, but the PMD’s and Light Cahills were too light; the Adams too dark. These hatches were not epic events, but when they came off, the fish wanted nothing else, and it had to be perfect. I was not prepared for this sort of encounter. This was an outrage – the St. Joe fish were supposed to be stupid! I thought about running back to the Lodge and demanding my money back, but Hal, always the voice of reason, talked me out of it. I think his exact words may have been, “Shut up and fish.”
As I said, when these little mayflies were hatching in the late afternoon/early evenings, the fish – particularly the bigger fish that taunted me – would look at nothing else. Well, that’s not true. One big fish kept coming up from in front of his rock as my Adams drifted by, only to look judgingly at it, roll his eyes and then make a “pppffffttt” sound before disappearing again. I felt so helpless, and when I trudged into camp for supper that night, my slump-shouldered, pouty lower-lipped body language must have been a telltale indicator of my frustration. I shared the day’s events with the other guests in camp, one of whom was a guide that was accompanying some other guests. When I mentioned the little tan mayfly hatch, the guide raised an eyebrow and smirked in the way that only “One Who Knows” would smirk. He leaned over toward me as if he was going to whisper the key to success for only me to hear. Instead he asked me to pass the mashed potatoes.
That night I dreamed of the secret weapon needed to fool these fish. My dream was more of a premonition, as the next morning after awakening to banjo music (seriously) I was presented with a gift that would change my luck. The guide handed me 3 tan-bodied Sparkle Duns, size 16. Bingo. He also told me to go to 6x tippet. I’d already been fishing 5x, and I shuddered at the thought. But this was our last full day of fishing, and I did as I was instructed in hopes of maximizing the enjoyment as pertaining to catching fish. The fishing had been stellar, but I was consumed by the desire to outwit a big fish. With my secret weapon and spider web-thin tippet, I sought out a run that had previously revealed the presence of at least a couple nice, but uncooperative fish. And so I fished, and I waited for the hatch to start. And it did, and while my hookup rate increased notably, the solution was not without it’s own challenges. As anyone who has fished 6x knows, playing a solid fish in a strong current on fine tippet requires finesse. And anyone who has fished with the Unaccomplished Angler knows that finesse is not one of his virtues. I did land a couple respectable fish that afternoon, but there was also some carnage. Luckily I’d been gifted with 3 of these magical flies, because I lost two of them on a couple of very nice, fat 15 inch fish. The third and last fly nearly landed my best fish of the trip- an honest 17 incher that finally accepted my offering after an hour of ineffective presentations.
I’d observed this particular fish lying just below a large rock on the far edge of the river. Every so often he would casually rise to sip a bug, then vanish back to his hold. If a bug was 3 inches too far out of his zone, the lazy ingrate wouldn’t even give it a sideways glance. He wanted it his way, and there was no negotiating. The challenge was that with the high water there were 3 different current seams to cross before getting to his haunt, and even with the best mending of the line, my fly might get 3 seconds of natural drift before being ripped away by the current. I thought I heard laughter each time I attempted this seemingly impossible feat, and looked over my shoulder to see who was so amused. But I was ¾ of a mile from the Lodge, and nobody else was fishing anywhere nearby. Rather than admit that I was getting loopy, I concluded that it was the fish who was laughing. With the clock ticking, and dinner scheduled to be served in less than an hour, and the fact that we packed out in the morning, the pressure was on. I had one more shot at this beast. I adjusted my Lucky Fishing Hat, cracked my knuckles and gave one last cast. Uncharacteristically, everything felt just right: The cast was spot-on; the mend better than could have been expected. My fly had just enough time to drift right into the feeding lane, and the fish was mine! I played the fish in a manner that defied my true angling skills: I got the fish on the reel quickly and gently gave him line when called for to protect the 6x while steering him clear of the rocks that he so badly sought to wrap himself around. Things were going my way, and for one brief moment in time I felt like the The King of the World – an accomplished angler! However, two paragraphs above where you’re now reading you will notice that I made reference to nearly landing this fish. “Nearly” is the key word. I played the fish close, but didn’t want to drag it across the rocks so left it resting in shallow water a couple of arms lengths away. Right as I reached for my camera to snap a photo of this 17 inch beauty, he gave one last desperate shake of his head, spit the hook right at my feet, and dashed off toward his rock. Luckily I still had the fly. I looked first at my watch, then across the river toward the rock that held the fish, and contemplated making just…one…more…cast…But sound judgment prevailed this time – I did not want to be late for Barbara’s fixin’s (I’m no fool). Besides, those stupid Idaho Cutties were so easy to catch—what would have been the point?
Oh, and I got chased by a moose, but that’s a story for another time.