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In the Shadows of the Forgotten Saint Joe River

The journey from boomtown to a cutthroat and bull trout national treasure.

In the Shadows of the Forgotten Saint Joe River

Jesuit priest Pierre-Jean De Smet (top center) traveled across the Midwest and Northwest in the mid-19th century as a missionary. He christened the river the Saint Joseph. U.S. Army “Buffalo Soldiers” (bottom left) helped fight the Big Burn fire of 1910 and saved the town of Avery, Idaho. A historic photo of the St. Joe (top left) shows a high water event. (Henry Ramsay photo)

The hike from the dead end in the road to the mouth of Timber Creek was just over 2 miles upriver. There were a few places along the trail that offered a view of the green-tinted river winding its way through the valley below, and the occasional rest gave me an opportunity to catch my breath.

It was early October, and the forest was already showing a bright shade of gold in the cottonwoods, which contrasted sharply with the deep greens of the tall cedars, Douglas firs, and pines that grew thick along the slopes of the mountainsides. A cow moose snuck off ahead of us when we got too close to its bedding area.

There was a series of long pools below Timber Creek that had good depth and the cover of logs and woody debris that looked like they could hold a bull trout. I tied on a big, white articulated streamer that was nearly as long as my hand and began working it downstream and across through a pool on a sinking-tip line with a slow strip-and-pause retrieve. I was surprised that the big fly didn’t move a fish, but my own limited experience with pursuing bulls has proved them to be a very elusive species, to say the least.

Below the mouth of the little tributary stream, the river bottom was carved in a deep groove along the far edge, and there was a tiny, almost imperceptible rise at the head of the pool. I learned long ago that there is seldom an accurate correlation between the disturbance made by a rising trout and the size of the fish, so I leaned the streamer rod against a tree and reached for my 4-weight.

The trout rose again quietly. There were only a few insects over the water, which included a mix of midges and small caddisflies with an occasional Mahogany Dun in the mix. I knotted a small Mahogany Half & Half Emerger to the tippet, and dusted the CDC wing post with a desiccant powder.

With a gentle cast, the little fly landed gently in the correct drift lane, and it disappeared in a quiet head-to-tail rise when it reached the trout’s feeding position. The fish was surprisingly strong, and it pulled line from the little reel as it bulldogged along the riverbed on the first of a few runs. A minute later a thick 14-inch westslope cutthroat trout lay panting and exhausted in the net. I admired its bright crimson and peach-colored gill plates and the peppering of deep black spots for a moment before letting it swim back into the depths of the St. Joe River.

Panhandle History

Located in the Panhandle region of Idaho, the St. Joe begins at 6,487 feet as an outflow of St. Joe Lake, which is located to the south of Gold Crown and Illinois peaks near the border between Idaho and Montana. It flows northwest through the Northern Bitterroot Mountain Range for 140 miles to the river’s mouth at Coeur d’Alene Lake.

The St. Joe River system drains an extensive area of over 1,850 square miles. Its waters join the Spokane River and eventually empty into the Columbia River.

Over the course of its flow, the St. Joe drops more than three quarters of a mile in elevation and enters the lake at an altitude of 2,129 feet. The drop in elevation in its upper sections creates a river that has a great mixture of green-colored pools, swift runs, and bright riffles that provide great habitat for trout, and opportunities for fly fishers. The river provides an adrenaline-fueled whitewater experience during the early spring runoff period when the snowmelt creates a different type of challenge for serious rafters and kayakers.




Much of the St. Joe flows through the 2.5-million-acre Idaho Panhandle National Forest, which is home to grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, and elk among other species that inhabit this wilderness country of western larch, red cedar, fir, spruce, and cottonwoods. With the incredible beauty and wildness of the river, the mountainous landscape and the trout that call it home, it’s no wonder the Joe is a popular destination.

The original inhabitants of the St. Joe River drainage were the Schitsu’umsh tribe, which is interpreted as “The Discovered People” or “Those Who are Found Here.”

A fly angler fishing the gin-clear and forested St. Joe River.

The Saint Joe River has 66.3 miles of water classified under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers sytem. The section between Heller Creek and Spruce Tree Campground (26.6 miles) is the most wild and remote, and accessible only by hiking trails. (Henry Ramsay photo)

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The Schitsu’umsh people maintained their villages near the mouth of the “Gentle River” during the harsh Panhandle winters and moved to the river’s upper reaches during the summer months to trap fish in the “swift water.” When French fur trappers and traders first came to the area, they called these people the “Coeur d’Alene,” meaning “Heart of the Awl” for their savvy trading skills. All that changed when the Jesuit Priest Pierre-Jean De Smet came to the lower valley from St. Louis, and christened the river as the “St. Joseph.” He established the Sacred Hearty Mission in 1842.

The river was nicknamed the “Shadowy St. Joe” for its forests of tall spruce, pine, larch, and cedar that grow close to the riverbanks. While Father De Smet’s stay in the area was short lived, the word about the river valley soon spread to the rest of the world and led to a variety of people seeking to extract wealth from the resources of the Bitterroots. Miners descended in droves on the river valley to stake their claims and fortunes, and while the discovery of gold never really “panned out” in the St. Joe drainage, the river’s tributaries bear the names of their efforts in creeks that carry names like Nugget Creek, Gold Creek, Quartz Creek, Copper Creek, and Prospector Creek.

In the 1880s the river valley’s tall forests attracted lumber companies, and boomtowns like Avery sprang up around the logging industry. Some of these small logging towns were rough and lawless places inhabited by drunks, ladies of ill repute, and gamblers who supported the dozens of local saloons. In its glory days of lumbering and mining, the town of Avery had a population of well over 1,000 residents. Today, just over a hundred people call the tiny hamlet home, and nearly all of the other early logging towns are now only a memory.

In 1909 a spur line of the famous Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad was completed along the banks of the St. Joe. The newly created accessibility brought many travelers to the area, including President Warren G. Harding, who visited in 1923. Presidential candidate William Howard Taft visited the area while campaigning for office, and Harry S. Truman visited Avery, Idaho in 1944 as he campaigned to become vice president. Coincidently, all of them were well known for their love of trout and fly fishing. Legend has it that the river valley was also visited by the likes of movie star Clark Gable and Bing Crosby, who both came to fish the upper St. Joe’s waters.

In August of 1910 a massive fire burned more than 3,000,000 acres of forest in Idaho, Montana, and Washington State in what became known as the “Big Burn.” Entire towns burned to the ground, dozens of lives were lost, and the women and children of Avery were evacuated. The remaining men, along with the help of a regiment of U.S. Army “Buffalo Soldiers,” created a backfire, which saved the town of Avery from the flames. The last train rode the rails along the St. Joe in 1980, and the rails that brought people and industry to the river system were pulled up and sold for scrap, leaving the river to flow quietly again.

Wild & Scenic

In 1968 Congress created the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System to “preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” Within that system are several classifications including “Wild River Areas” for rivers or river sections free of impoundments and accessibility generally limited to trails. “Scenic River Area” designations are also free of impoundments, and are still largely primitive in nature but are accessible by roads.

“Recreational River Areas” are largely primitive in nature but may have some development and are readily accessible by roads or railroads. It’s no wonder that in 1978 the upper 66.3-mile section of the St. Joe from St. Joe Lake to its confluence with the North Fork above the town of Avery was added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The upper 26.6 miles of the river from St. Joe Lake to the mouth of Color Creek above Spruce Tree Campground is a designated Wild River Area, while the next 39.7 miles is designated as a Recreational River Area.

The upper Wild River Area of the St. Joe above Heller Creek is relatively small water and seldom exceeds 15 feet in width in spite of the eight tributaries that join it between the lake and this point. Heller Creek provides a good access point by hiking downstream from National Forest Road 320 to the river.

The section from the mouth of Heller Creek downstream to Spruce Tree Campground is the most wild and remote section of the river, and access is completely a hike-in experience from either end and provides miles of fishing in a wilderness environment. More than 30 tributary streams join the river between Heller Creek and Color Creek, which adds a considerable amount of water to the river, and creates some pools with good depth and increases its width considerably. Access to the Wild River Area section from the bottom end is by hiking upstream from Spruce Tree Campground. Color Creek is the first tiny tributary you will encounter and marks the lower end of this river section.

The next river section is designated as a Recreational River Area and begins at the mouth of Color Creek just above Spruce Tree Campground and continues downstream for just under 40 miles to the mouth of the North Fork above Avery. This section of the river is popular and has relatively easy access from St. Joe River Road which runs along the river from Spruce Tree Campground downstream to St. Maries. More than 60 tributary streams join the St. Joe in this section, and the additional flow creates some pools with considerable depth and currents that can get more difficult to wade. For adventuresome anglers, the extensive network of tributary streams provides hundreds of miles of remote small-stream fishing opportunity.

The primary native species in the St. Joe are westslope cutthroat trout, which are beautifully colored shades of gold and red peppered with spots that become more profuse closer to their tails. The St. Joe is also home to predatory bull trout, which migrate up through the river in the fall of the year to spawn in the river’s upper section. Their favorite food is whitefish, which are also found here in abundance.

A sign stating,
The St. Joe is home to predatory bull trout, which migrate up through the river in the fall of the year to spawn in the river’s upper section. (Henry Ramsay photo)

The lower river offers warmwater fishing opportunities for bass, yellow perch, northern pike, and other species, and there are nonnative brook and rainbow trout as well as Kokanee salmon in the lower river. Bull trout love eating juvenile salmon as well.

Tackling Cutts and Bulls

All cutthroat trout caught here must be released, and bait fishing and barbed hooks are prohibited. Nonnative species like rainbows and brook trout have a creel limit of six fish per day. Fishing for bull trout is permitted in the St. Joe River system. These rare and incredible fish must be released immediately.

The dry-fly season on the St. Joe begins in the late part of May with the appearance of Salmonflies. June sees more predictable river flows and the emergence of Pale Morning Duns in sizes 16 to 18, and Blue-winged Olives (Baetis) that are matched by size 16 to 20 parachutes or Vis-A-Duns in the appropriate colors.

During the summer months of July and August, terrestrial patterns such as ants and beetles are the most effective patterns through the day, and you’ll find Yellow Sallies (Isoperla) and Green Sedge Caddis (Rhyacophila) hatching in the evenings. As the weather begins to cool in the late summer and early autumn, the big cinnamon orange-colored October Caddis begin to hatch, and there are light hatches of Mahogany Duns (size 16 to 18).

While westslope cutthroats are seldom looked on as selective fish, patterns that imitate the lifecycle stages of these insects are most effective here, and a good selection of terrestrial patterns, hairwing dry flies such as Wulffs and Stimulators, small streamers, and soft-hackle wet flies are smart patterns to carry.

Bull trout are a different story, but they can be tempted with 6- to 8-inch streamers fished in the shadows of the deep, green-tinted pools they prefer. Use 9-foot rods: 4- or-5 weights for cutthroats, and heavier 6- to 8-weight rods with sinking-tip lines and big flies for bull trout.

A beautiful bull trout held just above the water and a net.
Westslope cutthroat trout are the primary targets in the upper St. Joe, but there are also thriving populations of bull trout (above). It is legal to fish for them, but you should use barbless hooks, and you must carefully and quickly release them. (Sean Visintainer photo)

The river can be tricky to wade with its smooth, rounded riverbed stones, and I recommend wading shoes with cleats and a wading staff for the river’s swift currents.

The St. Joe River can be approached from a few directions. From the town of St. Maries, St. Joe River Road follows the water for many miles and provides relatively easy access. St. Joe River Road dead ends at Spruce Tree Campground. Access above this point is by hiking upriver where a National Forest road crosses Heller Creek.

The small towns of St. Regis and Superior, Montana along Route 90 are to the northeast of the river and provide places to fuel up, buy supplies, and make the long drive over the mountains to the upper river.

There are several places near the town of Avery to find lodging. These include the Avery Schoolhouse BnB, the Avery Store and Motel, and the Cabins by the Joe.

Two more rustic cabins are available in the National Forest—the Beaver Creek A-Frame Cabin and the Red Ives Cabin, which served as a ranger station for St. Joe National Forest from 1930 to 1984. Rent these cabins through recreation.gov or by calling the St. Maries Ranger Station at (208) 245-2531.

At recreation.gov you can also find complete listings for camping in the Idaho Panhandle whether by tent, trailer, or RV. Camping areas close to the river include Spruce Tree, Fly Flat, Gold Creek, Conrad Crossing, Tin Can Flat, Turner Flat, and Packsaddle campgrounds among others. These camping sites offer no electricity or sewage systems, but some have outhouse facilities. Water is available at some but not all these sites.

If you are looking for a true wilderness experience away from other campers, primitive or “dispersed” camping and backpacking is permitted in the National Forest, and there are numerous marked trails throughout the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. “Leave No Trace” practices must be followed if you camp in the remote areas of the National Forest. Remember that you are visiting an area inhabited by timber wolves, mountain lions, and bears. Plan accordingly by carrying bear spray, and practice proper food storage methods to prevent attracting animals to your camp.

Today the upper St. Joe River is once again a quiet place. It has slowly been reclaimed by nature, and it’s now protected for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. Although remnants of its colorful past remain here and there in the forest, rusting away in the shadows of the woods, the St. Joe River and its valley have healed from those old scars over the course of time. The surrounding mountain slopes are once again covered by tall forests, the night sky is clear and full of more stars than one can count, and the shadowy St. Joe flows quietly through one of the most beautiful and wild places found on Earth.


Henry Ramsay is a photographer, custom fly tier, and a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor. He is the author of Matching Major Eastern Hatches: New Patterns for Selective Trout (Stackpole/Headwater Books, 2011) and coauthor of Keystone Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, 2017). ramsayflies.com | @henry.ramsay.1

Photo of writer Henry Ramsay in waders, holding a fly rod.
Henry Ramsay.

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