Saint Joe and the Swan

Horror amid the Bridgestone Hatch

Story and Photos by John O’Bryan

The Saint Joe River, or the Joe, as it’s affectionately regarded, is a blue-ribbon freestone river (fed by snowmelt, not a spring) with aggressive westslope cutthroat trout that take the dry fly very well at certain times of the year. This beautiful course flows from Saint Joe Lake high in the Bitterroots, and then winds through miles and miles of Idaho before emptying into Chatcolet Lake on the south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

People from all over the country visit the river and during the fishable months, hundreds of drift boats are towed along St. Joe River Road to Marble Creek and then are floated down to the takeout at Calder. 

The Joe has some of the best and most varied insect hatches in the region. Huge fish can be caught if you have the right fly and perfect timing. Many books and hatch charts have been written about this river, but one hatch is never mentioned that needs to be taken into consideration if you plan to fish the river in summer months.

When this particular hatch is happening, fish before the sun is warm or stay home and tie flies. The other option is to fish the wadeable water above Avery.

The Bridgestone hatch, as it’s called, should not be confused with a stonefly hatch. Don’t bother looking up the Bridgestone, I’ll explain it shortly. For now, you should know that just like a stonefly hatch, the Bridgestone hatch usually occurs in July and August. Aside from this, the two could not be more different, because the Bridgestone is a hatch to avoid.

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A quiet moment on the Saint Joe River.
The giant swan looms.
Treg with a catch.
A wading cast.
Running the gauntlet.
Stonefly nymph.


The Joe’s best fishing is from late spring, when the water drops, to early fall. The first time I fished the river was in July a number of years ago. By the time my friend Treg and I turned into Marble Creek pulling his new drift boat, I was pretty anxious to get on the water. I didn’t imagine that in just a few hours I would be even more anxious to get off it.

The put-in was uneventful enough, among only a few other boats waiting to slide into the water. I was excited to crawl down this river and see what it had to offer, and as we floated through the first few seams, we hooked enough fish to make us believe it would be a good day. When we had floated the first half-mile it was still early but already very warm—well on its way to the forecasted ninety degrees.

I had never experienced a Bridgestone hatch, although I had heard of them, and when we swung through a blind corner in the river and came out near the first campground, it dawned on me that I was about to float into the midst of my first one. It looked to be epic—and not in a good way.

The Bridgestone hatch can alternately be called the Goodyear, Kumho, Dunlop, Cooper, or Hankook hatch. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this particular scourge of a hatch is so named because of the huge number of people who use inflated inner tubes, which makes it impossible for others to float the river in peace.

I now have firsthand experience with the Bridgestone hatch and get PTSD to this day when I see it on the river or, for that matter, sliding down a snow-covered hill in the middle of December. 

This particular hatch began slowly at first, with one or two black Bridgestone inner tubes, but as we got closer, additional tubers burst forth from the surrounding trees, hollering and flopping onto the water in their fat black rings. Straight out of a fly fisherman’s nightmare, droves of them flung tubes into the water, screamed, dove onto them, and shot into the current, where they flipped onto their backs and settled their rears into the holes like corks.

Their arms and legs, which dangled over the sides, were flaccid noodles that worked the water without thought. Like magnets, they were drawn toward each other by some unseen force until they stuck together in huge islands of bloated donuts. 

I pulled back on the oars and waited for them to move to river-right or river-left, but they camped themselves directly in the middle, unaware of anything other than those next to them. As we waited, they tied their tubes together, their shirts came off, music blared, and coolers magically began to float behind them, filled with assortments of adult beverages. A cloud of moist blue Woodstock-like haze hovered over us. 

The flotilla grew larger by the minute, and I had only one choice if I wanted to get past them into open water. With my window of opportunity quickly closing, I sculled to river-right and pushed the oars hard, hoping that the flow of the current would take me between the shore and the flotilla.

On the Grand Ronde River, a tributary of the Snake, there’s a stretch called The Narrows that strikes fear into the heart of drift-boaters. Other than experienced guides in rafts, most people will take out at Schumacher’s Landing to avoid it. I’ve floated this section with someone who had run it before and even then, it scared me. To make it through The Narrows you line up at the top of the chute, let the water take you, and then pull the oars in and hope for the best.

It’s a bit like being a ball in a slow pinball machine. If the water is right and you don’t mind bouncing off the rocks in your raft, you’ll make it through jostled, but unharmed. If the water is not right, well, that’s when bad things can happen. 

As I approached the first of the inner tubes, I realized I was running my own version of The Narrows. The flotilla must have held an enormous static charge, like a balloon gets when you rub it on your head, because it drew me to it as if it wanted more than anything to absorb me. I pulled hard towards the bank and then boated my oars and trusted to providence. The boat rubbed against the first group of tubers, which left more than one thrashing in the water, screaming at me. 

The bank was approaching fast, too fast, and I unshifted my oars. I tried to push past the tubers so I wouldn’t be crushed between them and the riverbank. No good. I pulled against the handles to keep from ruining my friends’ new boat, but I was too close, and brushed the bank with the bow. Like a fulcrum, the bow pivoted us sideways and I pulled again to keep us from spinning, which sucked us into their midst. 

They grabbed at our boat to keep from flipping out of their inner tubes. A number of hands gripped the low sides of the drifter now, and I started to panic. I’ve seen enough zombie movies to know that as soon as you let one get hold of you, you’re done for. I handed Treg the fish conker and pointed at the fingers. 

As he plonked fingers, I pulled hard on both oar handles. One oar found purchase in the water, but the other rattled over something solid—actually, a number of somethings solid. I pulled hard again and felt the boat shift, but also felt more solid hits. As the pressure of the boat pushed the sea of inner tubes toward the banks, which opened a clear lane downriver, a cacophony of  “Ouch,” “Sh*t!”, and “Hey, dude!” arose around us.

We drifted free of their gravitational pull and I looked back at “dudes” holding their heads or rubbing their fingers as they looked at us like we had just emptied a garbage can full of plastic bottles into the river. 

I continued to push the boat downriver, where we hoped to fish sections of it before Fantasy Island caught up to us. I was rattled and not much in the mood to fish, but Treg could fish in a lightning storm. He kept cheerfully casting. 

Once we were well past the flotilla and could only hear the occasional downbeat of the louder songs, I started to relax and enjoy myself. The Joe is very beautiful and there are so many promising places to cast a line. We stopped in a number of back eddies, keeping one eye upstream and the other on the fishable soft water.

Treg was rowing now, and I had just cast into a beautiful seam of water that I was sure held fish. A small insect hatch was taking place and I had it matched perfectly.

As the boat drifted through the bend, I stopped in mid-cast. My fly line piled up around my feet. Right in the middle of the river, what looked like a pagan ritual was taking place, as a number of kids and parents bowed down to the largest pool toy I had ever seen. People were climbing all over a fifteen-foot, inflatable, white swan anchored in the river. Okay, so maybe they weren’t bowing down to it, but they were bouncing on it, yelling and screaming and jumping into the premier freestone river in Idaho. Birds circled the swan as if drawn to it by their new goddess.

Horrified, I reeled in my line, put my rod down, and traded places with Treg. I was done. I am not a screamer or a yeller, but I have never wanted to yell at anyone more than I wanted to yell at that moment. Some of you may be judging me for judging those people. You may be thinking they have a right to use the water just like I do.

But really, do they? It just seems wrong. The Joe is a state treasure, a beautiful, pristine landscape to escape into for a few hours. That inflatable swan made it feel like a roadside attraction, like selling a ride on a white swan down a man-made log flume. 

I whistled. The “adults” waved and called their kids out of the middle of the river. I held my place until all the kids had climbed onto the huge pool toy and the parents had settled their backsides into their water chairs. I drifted close to the swan. The kids jumped from behind the big white wing, screamed and shot water at us with their battery-operated squirt guns. This did not improve my mood.

“Hey, how’s fishing going?” one of the “adults” asked.

“It sucks! Thanks for asking,” I barked at them.

As we passed, I pulled out my knife and plunged it into the swan’s empty heart. Nothing happened at first, but when we were thirty yards away, the head slowly tilted until it was touching the water.

“You’ll thank me later!” I screamed. 

I didn’t really do that, but I wanted to. We floated past. They waved. We waved and I pushed us down the river. The pool party continued unabated.

A few minutes later, I heard something that could not be good: the loud rhythmic thumping of party music. As we rounded the very next bend—and I am not kidding when I say the very next bend—we encountered a group of extremely drunken college students who held up their beers and staggered towards the river’s edge to watch us float by. One of the women hollered that she had a drift boat too, and then she tripped, and fell on the sand. The others chanted, “Beta! Sigma! Sigma! Gamma!” over and over.

I stood and held my arms out, palms up, in the position universally known as, “What the (insert whatever word suits you) do you think you’re doing?” They stopped chanting and stared. As a dad, I was concerned for the person lying on the beach.

I pointed to her motionless body and shouted over the music. “Check her pulse!”  They looked at each other as if they had no idea what a pulse was. Just as I was about to row to shore and help this poor woman, her hand slowly raised into the air, and she flipped me off! The crowd roared. I sat down, glared straight ahead, and pushed the boat downriver.

“Hey, slow down. I want to fish this section.” 

It was only about three in the afternoon, but I was done. Ignoring Treg, I pushed hard through some of the most beautiful fishing water in existence—beautiful if, like Treg, you could ignore the fact that every hundred yards or so, groups of inner tube rafters doubly baked by sun and spirits made their way to the takeout. Treg tried to cast as I rowed out, but every fly made a little motorboat wake as I pulled it along. 

It’s ten miles from Marble Creek to Calder and I think we fished maybe 1.3 miles of it. I was hellbent to get to Calder and spent the rest of the miles dodging rafts and pool toys and parties and the occasional drift boat. When we finally reached the takeout, I was tired and grumpy. 

And then we waited for a twenty-person flotilla to pull their tubes out of the water and another twenty to launch so they could float the lower half of the river. After an hour, Treg finally backed the trailer through a new crowd of revelers who were trying to get into the water, and we were able to pull the drifter onto dry land.

When we crossed the Calder Bridge for the three-hour drive home, upriver and downriver as far as the eye could see were black tubes. I am not a fly-fishing snob, and I will happily share the river with bait or gear fishermen, but this was too much for me to understand. I swore to never float the Joe in the middle of July again. 

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John O'Bryan

About John O'Bryan

John O'Bryan was born in southeastern Alaska, moved to Moscow in 1984 to attend the University of Idaho, and never left. He is a husband, dad, granddad, photographer, and fly fisherman—in that order. John can often be found with a camera around his neck, or chasing steelhead on the Clearwater River, or fly fishing Idaho’s blue-ribbon trout streams.

2 Responses to Saint Joe and the Swan

  1. Bob - Reply


    Great story as always. I’m with you! Hate those tubes!

  2. Peg Bowen - Reply


    John OBryan is such a creative storyteller. I thoroughly enjoy his articles in your magazine.

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