Photo by Ralph Bartholdt
Anyone who has waded the St. Joe River of Idaho’s Panhandle casting caddis imitations into run-outs to entice cutthroat trout has probably heard of Rodney Wolfe. And if the unfortunate angler cast nymphs or streamers — or some other sinking variation of fake trout food — he or she may have heard from Wolfe as well.
You see, the 80-year-old Wolfe, a former logger and mill worker, who grew up in St. Maries, Idaho, is a dry-fly purist. He has worked flies on the surface film of the more than 100 miles of fishable trout waters of the St. Joe River, one of the Panhandle’s premier trout rivers, since he was a child. Aside from a stint in the Army during World War II — he joined as a 17-year-old — Wolfe has spent all his years in St. Maries, a small logging town (population 2,600) that serves as the gateway to St. Joe River Country.
The country itself is a rugged expanse of timber and rock, with peaks that climb to 7,000 feet in the Bitterroot Mountains where the St. Joe begins. The size of the mountains gradually decreases the farther west the river flows. The mountains turn to hills that render into the rises and draws of the rolling Palouse in the far western reaches of Idaho’s Panhandle, but the river runs itself out long before that, draining into glacially carved Coeur d’ Alene Lake about 40 miles northeast of Palouse farmlands.
Before releasing its pristine water — the St. Joe River is one of the cleanest in the nation — into the third largest lake in the Gem State, the river runs swift and cold through rock valleys, and flushes through undercuts and ribbons of ripples and swift run-outs where cutthroat trout live and thrive.
Wolfe knows where to find them. He first dropped a homemade fly in this blue ribbon cutthroat stream more than 75 years ago.
He laughs at it now, but Wolfe learned how to tie fly patterns from a girl. Her name was Lilian, he says, and she was ahead of her time. “She tied flies and seined shiners and took them into the fish docks in St. Maries to sell them,” he recalls.
As a boy, Mr. Wolfe sold his first flies for a nickel apiece.
He’s been tying flies and fishing the river for so long now that many of his favorite holes have given way to the maw of progress or just the irascible push of the river.
Take a trip upriver with him and there’s no end to the learning experience.
“It’s an education,” said St. Maries flyfisherman Derek Darst, who learned to tie the many variations of dry flies used on the river from Wolfe, his mentor. “He has a story for about every hole you drive past.”
The biggest cutthroat Wolfe caught was at the mouth of a creek in a pool that he had to climb down to. “It was darn near 100 feet straight up and down,” he says. “I had that hole pretty much to myself.” He caught a 25-inch cutthroat there years ago, he says. “He took off downriver and I bailed in and swam down to an island before I could land him.”
When the St. Joe River Road was built decades ago, however, the days of that fishing hole were numbered. “The roadway filled the hole in,” Wolfe says as a man would who lost a favorite hound long ago. This displeasure of the deed has since been smoothed by the years, and given way to the realization that the road, when it was built to connect St. Maries to a ranger station at Red Ives, more than 90 miles upstream, has its benefits.
Fisherman can follow the road east into the Bitterroots for hours, stopping along the way to test the waters, because the river is seldom more than a roll cast from the asphalt of Forest Road 50 — another name for the St. Joe River Road.
According to Idaho Fish and Game, the number of cutthroat trout in the St. Joe River varies from 800 to 1,200 per mile, and more than 30 percent of the fish are over 12 inches long.
That makes the river an ideal place to spend a summer with a fly rod.
“The St. Joe is a very popular river,” said state biologist Ned Horner, who has studied the St. Joe fishery for years. “It’s readily accessible because the road follows the river most of the way.”
Combine the beautiful scenery, the mountain forests of fir and tamarack and the high piney knolls that overlook the blue waters of the river as it runs swiftly through crags and past stony bars, and it’s no marvel that the St. Joe is a much sought-after destination for cutthroat enthusiasts.
“It gets pretty good fishing pressure,” in the peak summer months, Horner said. “We’re noticing a pretty significant number of fish showing hook scars. It appears the fish are getting smarter and more difficult to catch.”
A lot of fishermen who first come to the St. Joe Country fish holes that are easy to spot and close to the road. They tend to hook smaller trout, he said. “They may fish and catch fair number of small fish and get the impression that there aren’t many big fish,” he said. “But, when we do snorkeling transects, we see a lot of big fish.
“The big ones just aren’t as dumb as they used to be. More than a third of the fish we see are over 12 inches.”
FISHING THE ST. JOE
Fishing in the Joe, as locals call the river, starts in the spring when the cottonwood trees along the lower river at St. Joe City, about 12 miles upstream from St. Maries, begin dropping their downy seeds. The snowflake-like seeds cover eddies in the lower river with a swirling white film.
That’s when Wolfe, who lives nearby, employs mayfly imitations. “About the first of June you start with mayflies and maybe a caddis,” Wolfe says. “Then about the second week of July your periwinkles hatch out and you go to a Goddards Caddis,” he said.
The Goddards is a spun hair fly with a hackle. Wolfe alternates it with a Stimulator, an attractor pattern that roughly matches the color and shape of insects on the water. The materials used in a Stimulator cause fish to bite by “stimulating” feeding reflexes. Stimulators are a combination of dry fly and attractor.
According to Wolfe, there are a variety of St. Joe River cutthroat, including pure strains of West Slope cutthroat that are found mostly in
feeder streams where they haven’t been subject to hybridization with the rainbow trout that were planted for decades by the game department.
The IDFG quit stocking rainbows in the St. Joe a few years ago after officials decided costs to continue the program were prohibitive and that the transplanted rainbows bred with the West Slope cutts, diminishing the pure strain of native stock.
The state of wild West Slope cutthroat trout in waterways, where they once were as common as caddis, has become a regional priority, with several organizations calling for tighter regulations to assure the survival of the native fish.
A more migratory variety of cutthroat begins moving upstream from the lower reaches of the river and Coeur d’ Alene Lake to spawn in spring and early summer before moving back downriver. And other cutthroat subspecies move from the upper river to the lower river. “Up there the river freezes from the bottom up,” and the lower river usually stays open, says Wolfe.
Biologists agree that many of the river’s cutts move upstream as the water warms in spring, and most anglers follow the fish from the slower water near St. Joe City to Avery, about 45 miles east of St. Maries, and farther upstream by midsummer.
The river east of Avery toward Montana’s Bitterroot Range has been designated as catch-and-release waters. Live bait is prohibited here as well. Fish and Game adopted the catch-and-release status after many years of prodding by Wolfe.
In a treatise written by Wolfe in the 1970s while he was a night watchman at the local sawmill (his credentials include a lifetime of actual study of fish and their habits in the St. Joe and St. Maries River drainages — a seasoned graduate of what he calls the Practical School of Experience and Common Sense) he laid out a simple plan for managing the river’s population of cutthroat that included allowing only single, barbless hooks on the most heavily fished sections of river and enforcing size and take limits on trout. He also proposed a catch-and-release fishery before the term was popular in the West, and admonished the game department for its continual stocking of rainbow trout in the river system.
“The planting of hatchery rainbows must be abandoned,” he wrote almost 30 years ago. “This ‘put-and-take’ method is not only bankrupting our fisheries program, but has an adverse effect and reaction on our pure strain cutthroat trout and their natural reproduction.”
The department was slow to quit stocking. It was quicker to adopt the catch-and-release rule on the upper St. Joe River. Catch-and-release became law on the river upstream of Avery in 1989.
When he proposed the rule years earlier, he says, the notion of letting trout go instead of stuffing them into a creel didn’t appeal to many traditionalist northern Idaho fishermen who were accustomed to catching and eating their share of any trout.
Even his best fishing pals admonished him, but, he maintained, “a dead fish . . . does not contribute to better fishing in our rivers.”
By high summer the upper Joe hops in more way than one, thanks in part to the catch-and-release fishery. When the less ethereal trout hobbyists fish the river’s abundant pools with a variety of nymphs, Wolfe turns to hoppers.
Wolfe’s disdain for nymph fishing is renowned. “I frown on nymph fishing,” he growls. “To me it’s just like bait fishing with a bunch of rags. What’s the thrill when all you do is wait for something to jerk on your line and you can’t even see it come up and take (the hook)?”
Anyone who is acquainted with the veteran St. Joe fisherman knows there are no streamers, bead heads or hare nymphs in the many plastic trays at his tying bench. “If I can’t catch them on a dry fly, the damn fish can starve,” he blusters.
The banks of the Joe teem with grasshoppers in the hot months, a phenomenon that Wolfe has observed and adapted to for decades. He designed the Bald Eagle, a high-floating hopper imitation geared at catching big fish, years ago as a variation of the Madam X that is more visible because it doesn’t hug the surface film.
“It’s been my secret hook on the St. Joe River,” he says. “I fish it dead drift and it floats like a cork. Give it a twitch at the tail of a good run or in a riffle and the big fish just blast it.”
In his St. Joe Hopper, another variety that Wolfe ties and fishes with some regularity, he uses foam wrapped around the hook eye. Deer hair is spun and trimmed around the foam foundation. The head is bullet style and turkey quill segments are tied on the sides of the body. The orange rubber legs make an X from behind the head.
“It should be fished dead drift and given occasional twitches,” he says. “If the action makes it submerge, the foam will bring it right back up.”
Wolfe doesn’t reserve use of hoppers for the upper river because he doesn’t much fish the more than 30 miles of river beyond the former railroad town of Avery.
He leaves those places to the weekend anglers who drive past the lower holes in shining SUVs. Although the Joe is still relatively devoid of fishermen for many days during the week, Wolfe prefers solitude when he’s fishing, and on the upper waters, he contests, “You might as well bring your own rock to stand on.”
Darst concedes that the river is on the radar of a lot more fishermen than in the past, but that doesn’t dissuade him from sojourning up to his favorite holes as often as he can.
“It can be bad at times, especially on weekends above Avery in the catch-and-release waters,” he says. “On some of the big holes there can be five or six people standing along the bank.”
Darst follows the same seasonal patterns as Wolfe, starting in the slower waters near St. Joe City in the spring using mayfly and caddis imitations, and slowly moving upstream as the water warms.
He switches to a Turck’s Tarantula — which imitates a stonefly or a hopper — when the weather gets hot. “From early July on to when it gets real hot, I use it the most,” he says.
In the late season Wolfe dips into his tins of small hooks, from size 16s to 22, and fishes in the middle of the day when midges dot the water.
“Fish feed on those midges, it’s strictly midge fishing,” Wolfe says. “They go crazy over those tiny little hooks. When they take it, you don’t set the hook on them. You let them set it. It’s amazing how a little 20 hook can hook a 17-inch trout.”