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St. Joe Cutts

St. Joe Cutts

Known for years by local anglers, Idaho's St. Joe River is quietly stepping into trout-stream fame with its cutthroat fishery.

By James J. Krunich

It's time to add the St. Joe River to the Gem State's list of fabled trout waters.

While no one would dream of denying the Henry's Fork of the Snake and Silver Creek their crowns of trout-fishing aristocracy, Idaho's St. Joe River has quietly been stepping up as a prince of a trout stream itself, and for good reason. St. Joe cutthroats are abundant, dine routinely on highly visible fly patterns, and provide opportunities to land a cutthroat approaching 20 inches.

The St. Joe originates in the Bitterroot Mountains on the Montana border and flows about 140 miles across the Panhandle Region before emptying into Lake Coeur d'Alene. The St. Joe is diverse in nature, beginning as a mere 10,000-foot mountain rivulet before gaining volume and becoming a broad, navigable river. And along the way, the St. Joe becomes home to thousands of West Slope cutthroats.

The character of the St. Joe changes as it looses elevation. Protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the initial 26 miles of the St. Joe to Spruce Tree Campground are designated as a Wild River. From Spruce Tree 39 miles downstream to the North Fork of the St. Joe, the designation changes to that of National Recreation River, and in keeping with its designation, this section of river is popular with kayakers and rafters and is not conducive to floating and fishing except at the lower end near the town of Avery. Anglers should be cautioned that even near Avery it is foolhardy to approach the rapids without scouting. Rapids in this area can be treacherous.

The 15-mile stretch from Gold Creek to slightly below Spruce Tree Campground is popular. The river contains classic, Western pocket water, and of course, good populations of classic Western slope cutthroats live in these reaches.

Photo by St. Joe Outfitters & Guides

Anglers should also note that the Idaho Department of Fish & Game designated catch-and-release restrictions for the upper 50 miles of the St. Joe beginning in 1989. These regulations apply from Prospector Creek upstream.


Regulations change below Prospector Creek. Fishermen may harvest one cutthroat trout larger than 14 inches. Idaho DFG stocks hatchery rainbow trout in this section of the St. Joe. The stocked rainbows are hybrids that spawn in the fall. This particular type of rainbow trout has been selected to prevent the rainbow/cutthroat hybridization that is common in many areas of Idaho.

An interesting fact about the St. Joe is that the cutthroats migrate upstream during early spring each year. The trout leave the lower reaches of the river in favor of cooler water temperatures in the St. Joe and its tributaries. This migration is also spurred onward by the need to spawn. Many of the cutthroats do remain in the upper reaches of the river throughout summer.

Anglers should investigate the river from Gold Creek eastward since this portion of the St. Joe is classic pocket water, consisting of pools and numerous riffles. Some of the larger pools have the structure to hold good cutts. Anglers should, of course, spend some time at these prime locations, but it's also smart at times to overlook the obvious: Good trout are scattered throughout the river and also position themselves at the heads of smaller pools where the flow of the river begins to lessen. This section is popular with fishermen but keep in mind that it is popular for a reason: Good populations of cutts exist here.

Narrowing below Gold Creek, the river gains speed as it enters a gorge - to the delight of kayakers, not anglers.

Some of the most harrowing rapids on the St. Joe are in the 7-mile section to Bluff Creek. The positive aspect of this section is that the river, although harrowing, does contain some deep holes that cautious fishermen can access.

From Bluff Creek to Turner Flats Campground, the character of the river changes. Although somewhat swift, the rapids of this section are relatively mild. Only experienced canoeists float this stretch of water; it is not advised for novice paddlers.

The catch-and-release section ends at Prospector Creek. Good holes and riffles extend throughout this stretch. Although the river isn't strictly catch-and-release in this section, there are enough cutts to provide exciting fishing action.

Skookum Canyon lies below Turner and bodes ill will for inexperienced rafters and kayakers.

The float is easy by canoe from Packsaddle Campground through Avery. The fishing is good and just as enjoyable as the float.

The character of the river again undergoes a bit of a change below Avery as the river becomes navigable by drift boat. Bass fishing becomes increasing popular as the numbers of trout decrease due to slower and warmer waters.


Kelly Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Clearwater River in the Clearwater National Forest, traditionally hosted runs of anadromous steelhead, but the construction of Dworshak Dam in the late 1960s brought that migration to an end. Today it is home to some of the most famous cutthroat trout in the West.


Anglers can expect to catch cutts up to 14 inches routinely, and 16-inch fish aren't rare. While cutts exceeding 17 inches have been landed, few of 20 inches ever see a net.


The creek's remote location and catch-and-release regulations have combined to make this fishery a remarkable stream that calls strongly to fishermen from the United States and abroad.


Visitors do seek accommodations in Orofino or Superior, but such an arrangement requires a drive of about two hours to reach the creek. To save travel time each day, camping is a wise choice. The nearest towns are over 50 miles away, so visitors should have a full tank of gas and provisions before departure.


The best fishing on Kelly Creek occurs in July and August. The cutts move upstream to spawn in the high waters of spring and then generally begin a downstream migration to spend winter in big pools above Dworshak Reservoir. During high water years, the cutthroat may suspend their downward migration until September. Peak flows on Kelly Creek are around 1,000 cfs in the spring and about 200 cfs during late fall.


Hatches are similar to those of the St. Joe but with the addition of green drakes and golden stones. Dry and nymph patterns for these insects should be included. For information on specific hatches, refer to
kellyhatch.html. -- James J. Krunich


Although sections of the St. Joe, as mentioned, should be approached with some caution, fishermen should realize that a considerable amount of this river is classic pocket water; it is not one, long rapid. Pending water level, the wading and floating should be approached with caution. Anglers should just be certain to incorporate a modicum of common sense into their game plans. Don't be too bold when wading, consider a wading staff if the legs need a little extra support, and don't wade into stiff currents more than mid-thigh deep, cautionary practices that should be employed on any river of significant size.

One of the great joys of fishing pocket water is that trout under these conditions are forced to make quick decisions. "Do I eat today or don't I eat today?" Of course fish don't literally think that way, but it's this type of split decision a cutt must make under certain situations. Fortunately, some trout will make a mistake and grab a drifting offering. Visibility and a relatively decent drift are essential.

Since visibility is certainly a priority, attractor patterns are extremely effective on the St. Joe. Bright patterns such as the Royal Wulff, Humpies and Renegades are quite popular and certainly easy to see. High floating patterns such as Elk Hair Caddis and Stimulators are effective. Grasshopper patterns and other terrestrials such as ants are also good St. Joe bets.

Fishermen should be quite pleased with the typical cutts of the St. Joe. They are numerous and willing trout that average 12 to 14 inches in length. The challenge is to not become lackadaisical; a moment's hesitation or distraction could cause you to miss a 14-inch cutt that suddenly smashes a fly and races downstream.

Fishermen should seek some information from local fly shops and guide services when planning a trip to the St. Joe. Visiting anglers should check with the IDFG to see if any changes in the regulations have transpired since the previous year. Fishermen should contact local fly shops and guide services since the prime fishing on the St. Joe usually begins during July, but that July date isn't etched in stone since the best fishing is directly linked to snow pack and the variables associated with the subsequent spring run-off.

When June arrives and if the river isn't too turbulent, fishermen do have the opportunity to pursue cutts by tossing big patterns that imitate one of the largest insects found on Western streams, the salmonfly. Some pale morning duns and blue-winged olives are also present. The cutts can become selective when it comes to the smaller duns and olives, so flyfishermen should stash small patterns, sizes 16 to 20, into their boxes.

July is when fishing generally kicks off on the St. Joe. In the lineup for July, anglers should have Goddard Caddis, X-Caddis, and Sparkle Pupa in addition to the elk hair patterns (mentioned previously). Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ears and Zug Bugs function very well as nymph patterns. Pheasant Tail patterns are another possibility.

August is when the water slows from the melting snow pack. Anticipate that the cutts will be a little more wary than during early summer. Fly patterns are pretty much the same as in July but catch rates increase if the size of the fly is decreased a size or two. August water conditions may also mandate that a longer and finer leader is needed, although there is really little reason to ever go beyond a leader of 9 feet in length.

September can be challenging on the St. Joe. Water is low and the trout have seen quite a few presentations throughout summer. September is not without its advantages, however.

Numbers of anglers overall lessen since summer vacations have ended. Fly patterns from August will still produce in September waters but presentations must be more precise. Anglers should also consider approaching the water more deliberately. Utilizing a little more stealth when advancing toward a pool definitely translates into more fish on the end of the line.

During September the cutts begin to school prior to a downstream migration. The lower sections contain deeper water and larger pools, the types of structures that are suitable habitat for the upcoming winter. At this time, IDFG extends catch-and-release regulations throughout the river to protect the cutthroats from over-harvest.

October signals a change in seasons on the St. Joe and requires somewhat of a change in fishing tactics. Attractor patterns will still produce cutts, but patterns such as a Griffith's Gnat, Serendipity or a Chironomid should be on the leader at some time during the day. Midges are hatching and these patterns are excellent imitations for these diminutive insects.

Parachute Adams and Blue-Winged Olive patterns should also be in the box since BWOs will again appear on the water. Another option is to also toss around a Woolly Bugger because St. Joe cutts need some large meals to be ready for the upcoming rigors of winter.

In November, this country can be cold, and while patterns listed for October are also productive in November, anglers should consider selecting the warmer periods of the day for fishing as well as selecting a good pair of long underwear.

The St. Joe does not present any access problems. Forest Road 50 parallels the course of the river on the north side for miles and miles. Fishermen can park and walk to the river from numerous locations.

The trick to locating the most productive waters is to examine the contour of the land and its relationship to the river. The road is close to the river at some sections and farther away at others. Obviously, the best water to fish is the water that's most difficult to reach.

Another possibility is to cross the river whenever possible (if water conditions permit). As river levels drop during summer, adventurous anglers will cross the river to fish holes and riffles from the roadless side. Those who undertake this adventure generally wear a life jacket or inflatable vest, just in case they slip into the current. Fishermen should also wear felt-soled boots and should consider toting a wading staff.

A different option for fishe

rmen who want an even more relaxed approach on the St. Joe is to consider a hike or pack trip into the upper reaches of the river. St. Joe Outfitters & Guides caters to anglers of this desire. This outfitter begins where most fishermen leave off - at the end of the road. This operation is located in the St. Joe National Forest and operates under authority of a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Pack trips vary in length from four days and three nights to as long as a week.

To contact St. Joe Outfitters & Guides, write to 8311 Windfall Pass Road, St. Maries, ID 83861, telephone (208) 245-4002, or go online to

Locating the St. Joe isn't a problem but visiting anglers should consider taking along provisions since there aren't many accommodations or reliable services once one leaves Coeur d' Alene. Departing from Coeur d' Alene, follow Interstate 90 east to Highway 3. Turn south and follow Highway 3 to St. Maries. Turn left on the St. Joe River Road, which follows the river east for about 100 miles through Avery and to Gold Creek. The road is paved to Avery and then becomes gravel and oil to the Red Ives Ranger Station. From there a Forest Service Road continues to Spruce Tree Campground.

Visitors may also access the St. Joe via other routes. For a good overview of the area, acquire a map of the Panhandle National Forest.

While accommodations aren't numerous along the St. Joe, campsites and boat ramps are. The Twin River Anglers' web site at is an excellent source of information about the St. Joe. Twin River Anglers' phone is 208-746-8946. On the Web, provides a map of the nine campsites along the St. Joe.

The Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho, published by Wilderness Adventures Press, is a valuable resource. It highlights fishing locations, campsites, boat ramps and just about everything one needs to know about planning a trip to the St. Joe River.

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