You can fish your nymphs (bead-heads, weighted or unweighted) deep or in the film as emergers. And, as in most freestone rivers, nymphing allows you to present your fly to the larger trout that are too cautious to feed at the surface. When using short casts, you must hold your rod tip high, keeping all but your leader off the surface and using a strike indicator for better strike detection. Slide your indicator down to within two or three feet of the nymph to detect the more subtle strikes in turbulent, shallow water.
Effective nymph patterns include the Pheasant Tail, Hare’s Ear (also in bead-head), and Olive Bead-head. Fish these alone or as a trailer beneath a weighted stonefly nymph or cased-caddis pattern. This combination offers the trout a choice between two good imitations of naturals they eat. You can also use a heavily-hackled dry as an indicator with a nymph dropper tied off the hook bend or eye.
Imitations and Tackle
Although freestone streams seldom have prolific hatches, Kelly Creek has a surprising number of caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies that hatch from early spring into fall. Brown, tan, olive, and black Elk-hair Caddis (#12 – #16) cover most of the season’s caddis hatches. Mayflies are represented with various tan, olive, gray, and yellow patterns (#12-#18). Drys for fastwater presentations should be tied with a heavier wrap of hackle than normal, and tails of elk or moose hair help these patterns float in fast water. In quieter runs, a parachute-style pattern presents a more realistic profile to the trout and helps you see your fly on the water.
In early June, a hatch of large stoneflies usually coincides with the high water of spring runoff. A #6-#10 black, brown, or tan stonefly nymph pattern fished deep, either alone or with a dropper, can be productive throughout the season. Runoff usually ends in mid-July.
In late summer, a grasshopper, beetle, or ant pattern drifted through a feeding lane will draw vigorous strikes. On one hot August afternoon, I spotted a large trout rising in slow water next to a bank under an overhanging tree branch. I drifted a black ant under the branch downstream and tempted the fish into an enthusiastic strike. The cutthroat measured just over 20 inches and was my largest fish of the trip.
From mid-September through October, both the North Fork and Kelly Creek have strong October caddis hatches (yellowish-orange) and they bring the largest trout to the surface. A #8-#14 October caddis nymph or adult dry-fly pattern will produce some of the best fishing of the season.
A 5- or 6-weight rod with a floating line is all you need. Wading shoes and a wading staff are a must for safe wading in the fast, rugged water. Although you can wade wet in the summer, it’s more comfortable to wear waders for early-morning and late-evening fishing. Even in summer, the evenings can be cold, especially if you are wet. Carry rain gear: Although summer daytime temperatures can be in the 90s (F.), afternoon and evening thunderstorms can rumble through the canyons.
If You Go
To reach Kelly Creek and the North Fork of the Clearwater, take U.S. 12 east out of Lewiston, Idaho, for about 42 miles to Orofino. Follow U.S. 12 from Orofino 8 miles to the town of Greer. Take Idaho Route 11 from Greer 28 miles to the small town of Pierce. Follow Forest Route 250 from Pierce 16 miles down to the North Fork.
Narrow paved roads lead from Orofino to the river, with the last six miles good gravel road. When you reach the North Fork of the Clearwater, cross the bridge and turn left for 17 miles of downstream fishing, or turn right for 19 miles of upstream fishing. The upstream access includes seven miles of road adjacent to Kelly Creek. If you want to leave the roadside fishing behind, use the trail leading upriver from the end of the road on Kelly Creek.
There are seven campgrounds along the North Fork and Kelly Creek that offer more than 100 sites, with safe drinking water, picnic tables, and toilets.
Cayuse and Weitas creeks are mountain streams similar to Kelly Creek, although smaller. They both have large populations of wild West Slope cutthroat trout in the 12- to 14-inch range; Weitas Creek has a few wild rainbows.
When to Go
Kelly Creek and the North Fork of the Clearwater are open from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through November 30. The best time of year to fish is from the end of spring runoff (usually mid-July) until the season closes.
In June, the water may be too high with runoff to wade safely. July brings lower water levels and warmer days and nights, continuing into early September. By mid-September the mornings and evenings are cool, but the days are comfortable and provide some of the year’s best fishing. You should remember that winter comes early in the mountains and be prepared with warm clothing.
We camped one night at the confluence of Kelly Creek and the North Fork of the Clearwater after a full day of fishing the October caddis hatch. As we sat by the dying embers of our campfire, we watched a distant display of the northern lights and marveled at how few anglers we had seen that day. We agreed that Kelly Creek and the North Fork offer fly fishers the opportunity to fish in near-magical surroundings for native trout that can approach 20 inches.
The remote location of these streams keeps the number of visiting anglers to a minimum. The insect hatches are steady and plentiful, and the trout are willing. The streams provide an opportunity to leave the crowds behind and enjoy exceptional trout fishing in an incredible mountain setting.
David L. Taylor retired last year and now works part-time at the Columbia Gorge Fly Shop in Hood River, Oregon. Fly Fishing Idaho Kelly Creek