The Shadowy St. Joe, ID
By Joe Sanders (Lotech Joe), WA
In those tales and fables written by venerable old friends,
we hear stories of ancient rivers and streams brimming with
hungry trout ready to eat any hapless bug floating downstream
through a foam line or seam between fast water and slow. Such
was a day on the St. Joe River of northern Idaho. Don't get me
wrong though, while those highly educated cutthroat were sipping
dries, they were also ferociously attacking small streamers, and
they were tempted out of some 8-12 foot deep pools to do so.
It wasn't the best of fishing because we had to work hard for
our fish. But, it was the best of fishing trips.
It tumbles out of the Bitterroot Range on the west slope of the
Rocky Mountains, and then travels through deep canyons, steeped
in history. Added to by a myriad of tributaries on its journey, it builds
in volume and flow. The St. Joe is a freestone river and as such can
be a difficult river to wade. The riverbed is cobbled with an abundance
of round river rocks, and can be tricky to maintain balance. Marble
Creek, not the least of tributaries, joins the main flow a few miles
below the town of Avery. An exploratory trip up Marble Creek
should take you to several enchanted campsites, streams and ponds.
At the confluence of the St. Joe and Marble Creek is an interpretive
The museum there (closed when we visited) explains a great deal about
the history of the logging industry in the region. If you are there when it
is open, stop and visit. It is worth the delay in your fishing trip. It is
boarded up during the off season, but in the summer and early fall it
is open to the public, and it displays old photos and artifacts depicting
what logging was like in days gone by.
On its way out of the deep canyon gorges, it travels through the lowland
valleys, and past the town of Calder. A community fishing pond at Calder
has been established by Buell Brothers Logging.
You are welcome to use the pond, but only if you use it responsibly.
Below Calder, the river travels through widening flats, more private
property, ranches and commercial camping areas. By the time it gets
close to the town of St. Maries, it goes past the "Misty Meadows
Campground." A great place to camp on the lower St. Joe, alongside
the river, with full amenity hook-ups. (No RV dump-I think) A few
more miles downriver, and you are in St. Maries, a town of 2,600
with all you need as far as groceries, gas, hospital, high school, hardware,
sporting goods, liquor and laundromat.
Below St. Maries, the St. Joe dumps into Lake Chatcolet, then into
Lake Coeur d' Alene, then the Spokane River, then the Columbia and
finally the Pacific Ocean. The St. Joe River is noted as the highest in
elevation, fully navigable river in the USA.
While backpacking in the hills and ridges, camping in the flats or
travelling the river bottoms, it wouldn't be uncommon to encounter
several species of animals. Deer, bears and moose are all fairly
common. Ruffed grouse and blue grouse are everywhere. I haven't
heard of mountain lions in the area but I'm sure they are there also.
On my first visit to the St. Joe drainage, I stopped to watch several
fish rising and I was pleasantly rewarded with the sound of elk bugling
in the canyons. On my last trip in, as I rounded a bend in the road, I
was surprised to see two mountain goats sunning themselves high on
a rock outcropping. I didn't know there were any mountain goats in
the region, but there they were. It seems like with every mile travelled
there is candy for the eye and a treasure for the memory.
The history of the area includes mining and extensive logging, continued
even today. The region is a Mecca for big game hunters and is of course,
a blue ribbon destination for fly fishers.
One of the really neat things about this river is the availability of camping.
Along its 90 plus mile length is a myriad of camping locations. Some are
maintained with permanent outhouses and flat asphalt pads for camp trailers.
These camp spots each have a campfire ring, BBQ and permanent camp
table. If memory serves me, the cost is in the $6-$8 range per day. If that
is more than you want to spend, there are almost unlimited, totally rustic
sites available. If your lodging needs lean toward something more secure,
there is a motel in the town of Avery. Also available there, is a laundromat.
And, Sheffy's is like a remote lost in the woods "one-stop" with groceries,
gasoline, propane and fishing supplies. It is also a great place to find one
of those big bratwursts on a hardtack bun.
All of the St. Joe is catch and release for cutthroat. From Avery upstream
is single barbless hook and artificial fly. No droppers. The North Fork of
the St. Joe, which runs north from Avery for about 30 miles, is the same.
No dropper, single barbless hook, and artificial fly. The fish that inhabit the
river include Whitefish, Bull Trout (which must not be removed from the
water) and of course the Native Westslope Cutthroat. Cutthroat run from
8" to about 20". The 18"-20" trout are extremely rare, with 10"-14" being
the norm. The Bull Trout can get as big as a few pounds but they are also
I've seen cutthroat caught on streamers and nymphs, but upstream and
dry is how most everyone fishes. My favorite flies include: Adams, Elk
Hair Caddis, X-Caddis, Red Humpy, Yellow Humpy, St. Joe Special
(looks like a black gnat with grizzly wings), PMD's, BWO's, and a small
Sparkle Caddis. But, my all time favorite is the upright feather wing Royal
The St. Joe River is a unique and beautiful fishery, and it should be on
everyone's "at least once" destination list. As such, it can also be very
vulnerable. It deserves our kindest treatment and highest respect. If we
as sportsmen, in whatever user group we're in, treat that river right, it
will treat us right for many years to come.
So, Welcome to My Homewaters!
Come, Fish It, Enjoy. ~ Joe