I went fishing along the North Fork of the Clearwater with Tyler and Dan, two graduate students in the department. Unfortunately, it was a short trip, leaving Thursday morning and returning late Friday afternoon, but that’s just how the timing worked, and it was a much needed getaway for all of us.
We camped at Kelly Forks campground, luckily snagging a spot along the river. The campground is located at the confluence of Kelly Creek and the North Fork of the Clearwater which has some added benefits. Kelly Creek has an amazing fishery, but it is catch-an- release only. At one time, Kelly Creek barely had any fish left due to over fishing and habitat degredation. Thanks to recovery efforts started in the 60’s and a no-harvest rule, Kelly Creek is one of the best fishing grounds in the state. The North Fork, on the other hand, has a trout limit of 2 per person per day, which meant we could potentially bring some home to cook up.
We must have been on some pretty popular spots on Kelly Creek. The fish were biting, though they were pretty small. We each caught at least one, though all were 8 inches or less. My first catch was a fluke. I was showing Tyler how to cast a fly rod and during the demonstration, I had a bite that hooked. Tyler and Dan were having more luck with their spinners, but I was having more fun casting flies.
We moved to a spot along the North Fork before dinner to try and catch something to bring back to camp. Tyler caught a sizeable mystery fish, so ultimately we let it go. We went back to camp and decided to try our luck along the confluence. I caught a small cutthroat, but it was nowhere near the 14 inch limit. We made spaghetti, lit a fire, and relaxed before bed.
Friday morning, we tried a spot two miles downstream from camp at a place called Cold Springs. It turned out to be a good spot. Almost immediately, Tyler brought back a nice Mountain Whitefish which we promptly threw into the bag for keeping. Soon after, Daniel reeled in a nice Cutthroat, but it wasn’t quite big enough to keep. I was getting some bites, but eventually realized that my leader was too short and should be extended, so I headed back to the car to add a bit of tippet to my line. While I was trying to figure out the surgeon’s knot, I heard a big splash in the pond beside me. I looked over and saw that a moose had just jumped in and was swimming for the other side. I dropped what I was doing, grabbed my camera, and ran, hoping to intercept it as it climbed out onto the bank. I didn’t run fast enough for it was long down the dike and there was no way I was going to get a decent shot. I went back and finally figured out my knot when Dan and Tyler returned to tear down camp and move on.
We intended to hit up Weitas Creek on the way out. The bridge over the North Fork to the campground has been closed on account of structural unsoundness. When we got there, it was completely gated off and closed to pedestrian traffic as well. We found a trail down to the river and waded across. Here, the water was relatively shallow: waste deep but fast flowing. Add some slippery rocks and it was quite a challenge to cross, but we made it to the other side and to the confluence with Weitas Creek. There was a nice rapid below the confluence and that’s where we all headed. I found a set of rocks that Tyler had been fishing, but decided to leave, so I gave it a chance. I landed my fly right beside the rock in a small pool of calm water and immediately, a fish jumped after it. Unfortunately, it did not hook. So I re-casted a few times and then waited a bit, threw the fly in again and got another bite, but no hook. I threw it in a third time and again, got a bite. This one held on for a few seconds, but ultimately I could not get him hooked. Of course, I was excited that I was actually getting bites. However, I kept casting and noticed that my fly wasn’t very far away from the line. The leader had gotten incredibly tangled. I tried to untie it, but the mess was too much for me to handle while standing in the middle of fast flowing water. Frustrated and hungry, I headed back upstream to cut off the knot and tie on a new piece of tippet. At that time, I also noticed Dan was heading back. It was about that time that we needed to head home anyway. So there’s my story about the one that got away.
Of course, I learned a valuable lesson from this experience:
1. Always bring all of my equipment with me onto the stream, especially if it’s going to take considerable effort to get back to the car.
2. Bring a snack.
The North Fork of the Clearwater is beautiful country. Like the Clearwater/Lochsa river that flows along Rt. 12 from Lolo Pass, the North Fork winds through a deep V-shaped valley flanked by peaks that reach 7000 feet. It’s a beautiful drive that is more remote and slower paced than Rt. 12, only because the roads aren’t major highways. The North Fork still sees a lot of visitors, but as many people as there are back there, there still seemd to be room for that feeling of isolation. I’m so glad I finally got down there and I’m looking forward to planning my next trip, hopefully spending more than one night out in paradise.
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