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What a difference a year can make. Here it is August and in the northern Rocky Mountain region rivers are just now getting into ideal fishing shape. Compare that to last summer, when at this time, wildlife officials were preparing to close to fishing some sections of some rivers because of low and warm water flows. In mid July of 2007, the flow of the Bitterroot River in western Montana was measured at 1,100 cubic feet per second an all-time low. This year, on the same date, the Bitterroot flow was measured at 6,700 cfs. The bottom line, it appears streams will be in near ideal condition for angling in August and September.
The streams I want to focus on this month are two of northern Idaho’s wonderful cutthroat streams, Kelly Creek and the North Fork of the Clearwater. Because of their remote, forested, mountain locations, where rivers are normally slow in reaching peak fishing conditions, late summer or early fall is always the best time to fish them. Kelly Creek is a favorite destination of many locals, and because one can drive along the North Fork of the Clearwater to get there, it gives anglers a pair of pristine cutty waterways to fish in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest.
The primary target trout for anglers fishing these waters are the native westslope cutthroat. On both the Kelly and the North Fork, the cuttys average around 14 inches, with an occasional 16- to 18-incher showing up on the North Fork, and 16- to 20-inchers on the Kelly. Both streams also hold rainbows and bull trout; plus, on the Kelly, some fishermen go after kokanee.
These streams run mountain-water clear. A 5X tippet on a 5-weight line is ideal. Come late summer, most anglers opt for dry flies. Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, Royal Wulff, Stimulators and yellow-bellied Humpies, in sizes 10 to 14 are the preferred flies. I also carry a few wets, such as the Hares Ear and Pheasant Tail nymphs, sizes 12 to 16, just in case.
Kelly Creek was one of the first Idaho streams to adopt catch-and-release, barb-less single hook, flies and artificial lures only regulations. No bait fishing is permitted. These rules have paid off, with large numbers of fat, healthy trout now inhabiting the stream. The same rules apply to the North Fork, with the exception that an angler can keep two 14-inch or larger trout per day.
Missoula, Montana, is the nearest city with a major airport and car rentals. You will need a vehicle with decent road clearance, as you’ll be driving on gravel and dirt roads. Idaho fishing licenses are available at most Missoula sporting goods stores. It is important to be prepared for any kind of weather, as conditions in this mountainous region can change quickly. To be closer to your fishing destination, you’ll likely want to drive about 60 miles west out of Missoula on Interstate 90 to spend the night in the town of Superior. Lodging is available in Superior at the Budget Host Big Sky Motel. Gas up in Superior and buy your needed supplies. Add insect repellent to your shopping list. There are no stores or gas stations once you leave Superior and drop over the mountains into Idaho.
From Superior, get an early start the next morning there is a lot of exploring and fishing to be done in a day’s time. Head south on a good 24-mile-long gravel road up Trout Creek to Hoodoo Pass, which marks the Montana/Idaho state line. You will then continue along Long Creek for about 10 miles, where you will cross the creek to its confluence with the North Fork. Stay on Road 250. At the next intersection, you may turn left to Kelly Creek (there was a sign here the last time I was in the area), or, stay on Road 250 to drive along the North Fork which will also eventually get you to Kelly Creek.
If you stay on 250, the often twisty and narrow road parallels the North Fork. Stop and fish when you get the urge. After witnessing the North Fork flowing beside you, it won’t take long for that to happen. The North Fork flows through a beautiful, forested wilderness setting. It is not uncommon to see deer, elk, moose and bear on the road or in the river. Without stopping, it takes under an hour to reach the point where Kelly Creek enters the North Fork.
Kelly Creek originates high in the Bitterroot Mountains near the Idaho-Montana border. By the time it dumps into the North Fork of the Clearwater at Kelly Forks, the Kelly is more of a river in size than a creek. A gravel road parallels the lower 10 miles of the Kelly. This stretch has some inviting runs and pools and despite being the heaviest fished section, it usually provides some fine angling.
If you follow the road up the Kelly from its confluence with the North Fork you reach a bridge crossing the creek. As the road leaves the creek at this point, many anglers park and hike up the creek on a well-marked trail. The further you hike, the less likely you are to run into other anglers.
Both the North Fork and Kelly Creek provide just about every type of fishing water an angler could desire, from deep pools and slow-moving flat stretches to swift, rolling chutes and shallow, rocky runs. There are many creeks tumbling out of the mountains that feed the North Fork and Kelly Creek. Hike up one of these smaller creeks and you’ll likely find some fun trout fishing.
Yes, both the North Fork and Kelly Creek are located in a comparatively remote and wilderness setting. But so as not to mislead you, know that both streams are quite popular with locals from both Montana and Idaho and traveling visitors from Oregon and Washington, especially on weekends. If you can, make the journey mid-week. There are a couple of maintained campgrounds and numerous do-it-yourself camping spots that fill up quickly.
If you have a few days to spare, a drive-by trip to these two Idaho streams can be combined with a before or after guided float fishing trip on the Clark Fork, Bitterroot or Blackfoot rivers. This can be arranged by any of the many fly shops in Missoula. No matter where or how you plan to fish, indications are this late summer/early fall will be a great time for fishermen to enjoy the warm days, cool nights, striking autumn colors and (for a change) good fishing conditions in western Montana and northern Idaho. Enjoy!