For live and premium content, sign up for our email newsletter and we'll send reports directly to your inbox
If wilderness fishing for trout that are large, eager and uneducated appeals to you, consider a trip to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness is vast by any standards. At 2.3 million acres (over 3 million acres if you include the adjacent wilderness lands of Gospel-Hump Wilderness and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness), it is second only to Death Valley as the largest protected wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Over half of this vast wilderness has no roads. It is rugged country, elevations vary from 2,000 to 10,000 feet and the few trails are steep. While frequented in the fall by big game hunters and outfitters, only a small portion of this wilderness is visited at all in the summer.
Fly fishermen tend to associate the Frank Church Wilderness with float trips down the Salmon River and Middle-Fork of the Salmon River, but there’s an alternative. Last summer, I joined three other fly fishers on an five-day, four-night fly-in/pack-in fishing trip to the Moose Creek drainage of this pristine wilderness. Our outfitter was Dave Hettinger.
Moose Creek is a tributary of the Selway River, which later joins the Lochsa to make up the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and subsequently flows into the Snake River near Lewiston, Idaho. From Salmon, Idaho, the route into Moose Creek begins with an hour-long backcountry flight north to a “grandfathered” landing strip, which is little more than a dirt path in a meadow. The views on the way in are breathtaking. At the air strip, all gear is tarp-wrapped and loaded onto mules for a two-hour ride to base camp.
Dave Hettinger runs elk hunts in the fall, so he knows how to set up a proper pack-in camp. His includes dome tents for sleeping on comfortable cots and a cook tent. The food he serves is hearty, tasty and plentiful. Breakfast and dinner are taken in camp, and each person packs whatever he wants for lunch. His package trip includes a guide for every two anglers. These guides, mind you, do little more than take you to the water; the actual fishing requires independent skills.
A creek by name, Moose Creek in many places is actually a river. The North Fork and East Fork both provide quality fish and a variety of water. All fishing is catch-and-release. Only artificial flies with barbless hooks are permitted. A wading staff is essential, both for the descents to the water and to navigate the boulder-strewn currents. Waders were recommended, but both my fishing buddy and I opted for wet-wading after the first two days. The trade-off for a cold start was easier hiking during the day with less weight. I should note here that I brought with me on this trip a pair of one-liter water bottles and a small purifying filter. With the altitude and exercise, maintaining adequate hydration requires several quarts of water a day.
July and August are prime months to visit this area. A 4- or 5-weight rod with floating line and 9-foot, 5X tippets is all you need in the way of tackle. The fish here respond well to Parachute Adams, Royal Wulffs in size 12 to 16, caddis imitations and orange Stimulators in size 10 to 14. I did not fish with nymphs, but carried a few Prince, Hares Ear and Copper John nymphs just in case. Stimulators and attractors worked especially well in deep pools, where cutts rose from depths of eight to 14 feet to slurp them.
The North Fork features boulder-strewn runs that culminate in deep pools. At higher elevations, very fast chutes drop into larger pools. The steep trail rises hundreds of feet above the water and the views are breathtaking. Downstream, it transitions to slow-moving flats and gentler runs. Rainbow trout averaging nine to 12 inches reside in the pocket water and near boulders in the runs. They rise readily to a dry fly. The primary quarry here, however, is the cutthroat trout. The quality of these cutts is excellent, with several fish per day in the 12- to 14-inch range and a few each day in the 15- to 18-inch category a reasonable expectation. I cannot recall fishing any large pools on any day without taking at least one nice fish and usually more. The biggest challenge is deciding which pools to fish and which to skip. My fishing mind told me that the harder it is to get to, the better the fish. This is most likely not true in these un-pressured waters, but the temptation to pick the hard pools was tough to resist.
The East Fork of Moose Creek is less swift than the West Fork, and it is wider with gentler runs and very broad pools. It is not unusual to take eight to 10 cutthroats from one pool here. Getting to the area called “Elbow Bend” of the East Fork requires a three-plus-hour horseback ride, so an early start from camp is necessary. During the ride, the forest changes from fir trees to meadows, to cedar groves, to narrow trails flanked by blueberries and thimble berries. Wildlife is abundant.
The most arduous part of an East Fork day trip is the three-hour return ride on horseback. A flashlight or headlamp is a must, as few of us have the discipline to stop fishing in time to get to camp by dark. Another option would be to set up a minimalist overnight camp and return to base camp the next day. Additional planning would be required for that, however. Even without an overnight stay, this particular outing is not for everyone, as it involves a very long day on horseback, walking, wading and fishing. The reward was seeing country unlike anything I had ever experienced and fishing for trout that had probably not seen a fly in years.
Actually, a trip into either fork of Moose Creek is not for everyone. Not only do you need to be in fairly good shape, but you also need to be able to select flies, read water and so forth on your own. Also, an appreciation for wilderness is essential, as a significant part of each day is spent getting to and from the best water. This was a plus for me, as the scenery and wildlife were magnificent. Actual stream time varied from six to nine hours per day. Each evening, the outfitter laid out options for the following day, matching the options to the fitness and preferences of each angler. I enjoyed myself immensely. – Sonja Nisson.
(Postscript: Hettinger charges $2,142 per person for anglers and $1,785 for non-fishers who just want to enjoy the wilderness experience. That’s for a five-day, four-night trip. Backcountry flights are additional and average $400 to $500 per person roundtrip. They can be arranged from Hamilton, Montana, or Orofino, Idaho.)