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Fire Season: Fall Fishing Along the St. Joe River, Idaho

Article by Diane Kelly-Riley

Diane Kelly-Riley - Fire Season Idaho - Smokey Bear

Finally. I won the annual lottery to stay at the historic Red Ives Ranger cabin in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. The cabin overlooks the upper reaches of the wild and scenic St. Joe River about 40 miles southeast of Avery, Idaho in northern Idaho in the inland Pacific Northwest of the United States. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the cabin in 1936 and along with several other buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1986. 

Every season, the St. Joe Ranger District holds a lottery to rent out the coveted cabin for three days at time. While there are plenty of beautiful camping sites along the river, staying at the cabin affords a uniquely comfortable experience in the rugged backcountry of Idaho along catch and release cutthroat trout streams.

The St. Joe River begins in the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho/Montana border and flows through the Idaho panhandle into Lake Coeur d’Alene a 40 mile long lake carved by the Lake Missoula floods 12-15,000 years ago. Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) are native to Idaho and are the state fish. The upper St. Joe River is designated as a Wild River and contains abundant West slope cutthroat trout identified by red slashes beneath their lower jaws. When we received the notice of our winning cabin assignment in the spring, we were elated—fall fishing on the St. Joe is the best as tourists have moved on and hunters haven’t moved in yet. We didn’t imagine when it was our turn to stay at the Ranger cabin that the Pacific Northwest would largely be on fire or be covered in smoke from wildfires.

Diane Kelly-Riley - Fire Season Idaho - Smoke Forecast Map
Screenshot of the Washington State University Smoke Forecast for September 7, 2017
Diane Kelly-Riley - Fire Season Idaho - Smoky View

The Strychnine Fire burned about 20 miles from us, and smoke blanketed the region from active fires in Western Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. We’re surrounded by wildfires on all sides. The air quality hovered between Very Unhealthy and Hazardous. Undaunted, Theresa–my neighbor, good friend, and tenkara angler– and I set out for the cabin with face masks in our packs.  Once we got up the St. Joe River, we stopped at the Idaho Fly Fishing Co. owned and operated by Dan Mottern who generously shared hot flies with us. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that cutthroats will take anything.  Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor fished the St. Joe one day in the summer of 2005 and was skunked. Like her, I have fished the St. Joe many times only be rewarded with beautiful scenery.

We arrived at the Red Ives Ranger Cabin in the afternoon and surprisingly found a respite from the terrible air—it was clear and cool, instead of hot and smoky. We got out our tenkara rods—mine a Tenkara USA Sato and Theresa’s a DRAGONtail Tenkara Shadowfire — as well as our traditional western fly rods and set out for the river. The cutthroats did not disappoint. 

I caught several beautiful, healthy, wild trout that evening. Once it got dark, we enjoyed gin and tonics and dinner on the front porch. Theresa read the cabin’s guest book entries: reports of no fish, days of rain, moose, and fishing tips — small flies, long leaders = cutthroat trout. The next morning, smoke had moved in and we heard several planes overhead. The Buck Fire burned about 20 miles away, and we worried about the possible change in the fire. We still went out fishing. I had luck with both my Tenkara USA Sato rod and my western fly rod. 

That morning along the river, we saw a Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) and soon after a Merlin (Falco columbarius) divebombed after it. The kingfisher dove into the water and sought the safety of the river. The merlin chased the kingfisher down the river darting from side to side of the tall trees. Occasionally, the kingfisher would wait on the shores looking skyward for the merlin. Like the kingfisher, we kept our eyes skyward too.

Diane Kelly-Riley - Fire Season Idaho - Kingfisher

Diane Kelly-Riley lives and fishes in the Palouse region of northern Idaho.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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