Big River, Dark Forest

Fly Fishing Kelly Creek

Story and Photos by Ray Brooks

The cutthroats in Kelly Creek were sipping nearly invisible winged ants off the water’s surface. It was a little breezy, which contributed to some of the most challenging dry-fly fishing I’ve ever done, although at the same time the breeze helped to hide my large leader from the sharp-eyed fish.

The previous September I had encountered a similar winged-ant hatch on the St. Joe, the next river north, so this time I was equipped with a passable one-quarter-inch-long, size eighteen, winged-ant fly. I watched patiently for my fly to vanish and then lightly set the hook.

Before I got cold and returned to my SUV in late afternoon, I had caught and released seventeen cutthroats in the range of twelve to sixteen inches. During one of these fights, a twenty-five-inch bull trout roared up and grabbed the cutthroat briefly. Kelly Creek is completely catch-and-release fishing, and I was glad to see that the bull trout’s teeth didn’t leave wounds on the cutthroat, so it could be let go undamaged. 

This was back in September 2013, and one reason I’ve been thinking of that trip is because at age seventy-four, I’m no longer planning the more physically challenging experiences on Idaho’s mountains and waters that I’ve had throughout my life.

In the spring, my wife Dorita and I sold the last of our whitewater rafts. After fifty years of rock-climbing, I retired from that sport three years ago, and last summer only twice did I brave dangerous backcountry roads to get within hiking distance of the high-mountain mines I’ve long explored.

Nevertheless, this visit a decade ago to the North Fork Clearwater was adventurous for me. I always get a little adrenaline rush from wading in fast water, and fishing solo in a remote area adds to the fun. The possibility of a moose encounter in the thick brush along Kelly Creek added a little more excitement, as did the presence of spawned-out dead kokanee in bear country.

For the past four Septembers, I’ve intended to get back to Kelly Creek but usually had to cancel because of forest fires in the area. This year, I just didn’t get around to making another big drive from our home in Hagerman to northern Idaho.

In 2013, I was on a road trip through western Montana and northern Idaho as an outdoor gear sales representative. After a Friday morning sales call to a favorite retailer in Moscow, I headed east to revisit a canyon up the remote North Fork Clearwater River, where I hadn’t been for about thirty years.

On the advice of Moscow friends, I decided to take an adventure route that would follow State Highway 8 fifty-two miles out to the small town of Elk River, followed by many miles on gravel and dirt roads, across Grandad Bridge on the fifty-four-mile-long Dworshak Reservoir, and finally on to the undammed part of the upper North Fork Clearwater. There are less difficult routes into the North Fork Clearwater I could take if I go back, but none of them is a casual drive.

I was set for three days of car camping and fly fishing but still needed a Clearwater Forest map. The ranger stations that I remembered had been east of Moscow didn’t exist anymore, but I found a map for $16.95 (a bargain even then) at the general store in Elk River.

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Ray Brooks

About Ray Brooks

Ray Brooks is a native Idahoan. Beyond retirement age he remains an active rock-climber, river runner, and hiker, who keenly appreciates Idaho history. His climbing career started in central Idaho in 1969. To support his outdoor habits, he worked on Forest Service helicopter fire crews, was a Middle Fork Salmon boatman, ran an outdoor shop in Moscow, and became a sales representative for outdoor gear.

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