Fishing the St. Joe River in Idaho
This August, fishing buddy Reid and I decided to go to the St. Joe River in the Idaho panhandle. I had previously read about the St. Joe in the Flyfisher’s Guide to Idaho, by Ken Retallic and Rocky Barker. But it was an article by Henry Ramsay in the June/July edition of Fly Fisherman magazine that rekindled my interest. After reading Ramsay’s article, Reid was all in as well.
Driving from Ennis Montana, we took interstate 90 to the town of Superior. There we followed route 320 to our destination, Heller Creek Campground. The Montana portion of the road is a well maintained gravel road. But the Idaho portion is a rough, single lane road with infrequent turnouts. Rarely could we travel faster than 10 mph. We were fortunate to only encounter one vehicle, an ATV, which barely squeezed past us at a shallow turnout. But we did arrive unscathed at our destination.
We were seeking a wilderness experience, with quiet solitude to soothe our souls. Heller Creek Campground, perched alongside it’s burbling namesake, met our hopes. It offered 3 campsites, and we were the only ones there! We pitched our tent, made dinner, and crawled into our sleeping bags, thinking of the next day’s fishing.
The Upper St. Joe
The upper portion of the St. Joe is designated Wild and Scenic. A 26.6 mile section from Heller Creek downstream to the Spruce Tree Campground is accessible only by hiking. The stream is flanked by steep hillsides of Douglas firs, spruce and pines. It is fairly wide, 30-50 feet. Much of the upper section is straight, with few bends or major structure. The water was crystal clear, and shallow, with a slippery rock- bottom. We thought that perhaps this had been a dry year, but the cfs (cubic feet/second flow) was 95, a bit higher than the 25 year average of 89 cfs.
The first day, we fished 2-3 miles of the St. Joe upstream of Heller Creek. The next day, we fished 2-3 miles downstream of Heller Creek, and a bit of Heller Creek as well. There were plenty of small cutthroat, 6-10″, but few larger fish. They hit both dry flies and small nymphs.
The Lower St. Joe
A bit discouraged, we packed up our camp, and continued on route 320 to the Spruce Tree Campground. It sits at the lower end of the hike-in section of stream. From there, the St. Joe road parallels the river downstream 70-80 miles, all the way to Lake Coeur D’Alene. It is paved, and provides easy access to those coming from Idaho.
The stream here is much wider, a hundred feet or more. It is still rather straight, quite shallow, and lacking in structure. There are widely spaced, large bends featuring deep, bankside runs, ideal for holding trout. The trail upstream offers easy hiking, but is seldom streamside. Side trails to the river provide access to the good bends, but once at the river, it’s tough wading or bushwhacking to reach another bend. Downstream of the camp, pullouts along the road provide access to good bends. But because of the distance between bends and the difficult wading, it is easier to drive from one bend to another.
In contrast to the Heller Creek access, the Spruce Tree access is much larger, and very popular. It had a lot of anglers, and they reported that the fishing was quite slow. Peak fishing is said to be July and August in the upper portion of the stream that we fished. But we didn’t travel from Virginia to have a brookie-like fishing experience.
Given the lack of solitude, heavy fishing pressure and poor results, we elected to return to Montana. We took the longer route home, downstream through St. Regis. Although longer, the roads were much better, mostly paved, and the travel time about the same. So, beautiful as the St. Joe wilderness is, we don’t plan on returning anytime soon!
- Fly Fishing Central Idaho
- Fly Fishing Southeast Idaho
- Fly Fishing Northeast Idaho
- Snake River, Idaho
Written by Al Simpson, October 2023.