Northwest Fly Fishing

Cutthroat Utopia
By Clay M. Garrett


When I first moved to northern Idaho several years ago, I fished many of the local waters near my mountain cabin on the outskirts of Sandpoint. Surrounded by still water and myriad streams offering small, wild populations of cutthroat and brook trout, this beautiful enclave, replete with ski slopes and white sand beaches is a spectacular base for all manner of
piscatorial pursuits.
   While I thoroughly enjoy clawing my way up small streams for bejeweled little trout (affectionately called “slime rockets” by my fishing buddy, Matt Adams), I was pining for bigger fish. And having been spoiled to the fine angling and empty territories of southern Utah, I’m fairly entitled. I wanted more than just bigger fish—I wanted cutthroat utopia. Following a full season of scouting possible waters in a 100-mile radius of the cabin, I found what I was searching for in Tepee Creek.
   Tepee Creek is one of the best cutthroat fisheries in the United States. Period. That’s a bold statement given the Saint Joe River to the south and the many fine waters in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Yet Tepee Creek conjures the perfect stew of conditions, fishwise and otherwise, to back such a brash claim. So much of what makes an ideal fishery is subjective, as everyone differs somewhat in the idea of perfection. All stellar recipes are created around fine core ingredients, and in the case of Tepee Creek, those are pristine beauty, solitude, accessibility, as well as many large and feisty westslope cutthroat trout.
   The Tepee Creek watershed is in the headwaters of the North Fork Coeur d’Alene River subbasin in northern Idaho. This watershed exists mostly within the boundaries of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, but some of the land is privately owned. Such properties are clearly posted and easy to work around.
   Tepee Creek flows north, then east, and wiggles all around through steep canyons and lupine-filled meadows, eventually creating a confluence with the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River about 15 miles south of Jordan Camp. The water is crystal clear following the spring runoff and is rarely wider than the gravel road leading there. The creek is skinny in its uppermost reaches, but widens as it flows, bearing long, shallow riffles connected by deep runs and pools. The shoreline is often lined with dense willow, which can make getting to the water difficult. In many places, jagged rock ledges overhang the water, offering just enough cover to harbor the stream’s bigger fish.  
   I prefer such small, intimate streams as they usually receive less pressure from anglers, and the whole business of fast, deep water, a wading staff, and heavy boots clad in aluminum for gripping doesn’t suit me.

 

On the Water
Tepee Creek is primarily a cutthroat fishery, although mountain whitefish may make an appearance, especially if beadhead nymph patterns are fished close to the bottom in deep, slow-moving runs and pools.
   Barbless hooks are required on Tepee Creek and all cutthroat must be released immediately.
   Depending on water levels, fishing can be good in late May and early June. The water this time of year is usually turbid, so something flashy is in order. Try white or yellow streamers, and all-purpose nymphs with a brass bead or white head. 
   But at its heart, Tepee Creek is a classic dry-fly stream. Fourteen- to 15-inch fish, plump with bellies full of bugs, are easily taken on just about any dry fly that touches the surface. Fish are fond of the seams and frequently strike flies sweeping cross current. These are robust fish that run hard and are hesitant to give up
the fight.
   Hatches on the creek can be prolific during warmer months, beginning with the Blue-Winged Olive hatch in late June. The best condition for hatches is an overcast day; bugs usually begin hatching in early afternoon. Cover these hatches with Hare’s Ear Nymphs, Pheasant Tail Nymphs, CDC Cripples, Baetis Cripples, Parachute Baetis, Sparkle Duns, and Comparaduns in sizes 16 through 20. Brown and olive are the colors of choice. Also important in early summer are modest hatches of Salmonflies, Golden Stoneflies, and Little Yellow Stoneflies; midges are abundant at this time, hatching both morning and evening. Early in the season (and throughout the season), sculpin and other baitfish imitators are always worth trying. The cutthroat in Tepee Creek readily respond to Muddler Minnows, Woolhead Sculpins, Zonkers, Woolly Buggers, and Clouser Minnows in sizes 4 or 6. Cross-current sweeps are particularly effective.
   By the first week of July, the water has typically cleared from spring runoff, and the trout are looking up for surface flies consistently throughout the day, while continuing to feed subsurface. Pale Morning Duns are significant in July, with all life stages falling prey to hungry trout. Caddisflies are abundant, with trout feeding on both pupae and adults. Size 12 and 14 imitations are appropriate for subsurface patterns, while size 14 and 16 caddisfly adult patterns are best. Most any adult caddisfly pattern will take fish. Small Stimulators are also readily taken.
   Terrestrials appear in the trout diet by mid-July. Just about any rubberleg fly floating on the surface seems to work. Dave’s Hoppers and Para Hoppers in various sizes consistently produce fish. Patterns mimicking ants, beetles, and wasps also work well. Since grasshoppers, ants, and beetles are still available to trout in August, these fly patterns continue to produce. The same holds true for caddisflies. As the water levels drop in late August and early September, terrestrial patterns are less effective. Fish begin to stage in deeper pools, so my tactics switch to streamers, nymphs, and adult midges. For the latter, try a size 18 Griffith’s Gnat, a Sprout Midge, or a Renegade for some surface action.
   Timing on these smaller waters can be a little atypical. My experience on Tepee is that the fishing doesn’t turn on until late morning, usually around 10 a.m. Action is good for a couple of hours, then slows until late afternoon, then picks up leading into the evening hatch.
   Deep pools are the place to be as the sun wanes and the insects take to the air. During the fall, I have witnessed midge hatches so dense that keeping the bugs out of my eyelashes was a challenge. During this time, the trout key on specific insects and colors, no longer slamming anything on the surface. Sometimes, the number of fish leaping from the water is downright comical. There’s nothing quite like the urgency of trying to figure out the right bug with fish flying all around. If you can manage to match the hatch, you may land numerous 16- to 17-inch fish.
   This past season, my good friend, David Roberts, flew up from Texas and we happily hammered the stream for a solid week. During mid-July, just about everything above and below the surface will entice these hungry fish to strike. Terrestrial imitations, particularly pink-bellied hoppers, worked exceedingly well. We both caught gluttonous, 17-inch fish in fast, turbulent water. These spectacular fish, adorned with golden scales and crimson chins, rocketed upward from deep pools and breached with attitude befitting a lamniform shark.
   Late one morning, I climbed into the chilly water and cast an Elk Hair Caddis 20 feet upstream. Suddenly, I noticed what I thought was a small trout chasing my fly on the surface with undulating vigor. As the fly drifted by, a double take revealed a juvenile northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea). I quickly snatched it from the water and made a hasty exit to photograph the little beast. While its common name, alligator lizard, may lead one to expect it enjoys an aquatic lifestyle, it’s actually a semi-arboreal, forest-dwelling species that feeds primarily on insects. Hence, its interest in my caddisfly pattern. Another curious trait of this species is that it bears live young. As if that episode were not strange enough, when I walked back to my truck to photograph the lizard, I bumped into a guy changing a flat tire who had gone to grad school with a fellow herpetologist with whom I had been collecting salamanders in Arkansas just one week prior.

 

Natural History Moments
A great joy of fly fishing is that one is most often immersed in a beautiful environment conducive to observation of lesser-known natural phenomena. This past summer, while having a streamside lunch, I was annoyed by a plethora of common flies landing on and tickling every possible patch of exposed skin. I’m embellishing a bit here, but not much. I noticed a couple of bald-faced hornets—doubtless attracted to the many invisible chemical cues emitted by me and my pastrami sandwich—were taking advantage of a ready food cache…by mounting and stinging the flies, and jettisoning them away to their nearby underground hive. I’ve always loved hymenopterans (wasps, bees, and ants), and this little vignette underscored why. Visions of the hornets masticating the pesky little flies and feeding them to their larvae made me smile (and does still as I write this).
   Days later, I witnessed a small squadron of yellow jackets stripping the skin and flesh from a western garter snake (Thamnophis elegans) smashed on the gravel road running parallel to the creek. 
   Trout love to feast on hymenopterans, readily taking any species unfortunate enough to find their way to the meniscus of the fish’s aqueous realm. Trout can’t be bothered by the evolutionary implications of aposematic coloration, Batesian mimicry, and the like; they just inherently know that wasps and flies that look like wasps are protein rich and good for them to eat.
   Tepee Creek has abundant opportunities for viewing wildlife of all kinds. The avian fauna in this area is rich—somewhere in the ballpark of 240 species. Common raptors include ospreys, bald eagles, owls, turkey vultures, and various hawks such as the ubiquitous red-tailed. Belted kingfishers are one of my favorites and I often see them in the early evenings flying upstream at low altitude like some fighter jet on a mission; their loud, rattling call is always welcome. Mountain songbirds are a treat, too: while fishing Tepee Creek, keep your eyes peeled and ears tuned for such jewels as the orange-crowned warbler, western tanager, and mountain bluebird. Tepee Creek drainage is home to the calliope hummingbird, the smallest breeding bird found in the United States or Canada.
   Mammals also abound, including white-tailed deer, elk, moose, black bear, and, while rarely seen, all three of the native cats that inhabit this part of Idaho—cougar, bobcat, and Canadian lynx. Moreover, the region is home range to numerous mustelids, also seldom seen, such as the fisher, pine marten, and the one you don’t want to see up close, the striped skunk.
   As witnessed by my encounter with an alligator lizard, the drainage is home to a variety of amphibians and reptiles. Although difficult to find, this part of Idaho has rubber boas (Charina bottae), one of only two species of boa in the United States, the other being the rosy boa (Lichanura trivirgata), endemic to the nation’s southwestern corner. Amphibian species are relatively few at this northern latitude, yet those species that do occur here flourish. We are graced with the presence of several species of salamanders, including the beautiful Coeur d’Alene salamander (Plethodon vandykei idahoensis). Boreal toads, leopard frogs, and Pacific tree frogs are all abundant in most riparian habitats throughout the Coeur d’Alene River drainage. In addition, this region boasts a true anuran oddity—the tailed frog (Ascaphus truei). This frog gets its name from the tail-like copulatory organ in the male. Fertilization is internal, unique among North American frogs. Lay of the Land Tepee Creek, happily, flows through relatively remote country; it’s one of those places you have to want to get to—and, of course, the gorgeous dry-fly-loving westslope cutts make that a no-brainer for anglers like myself who enjoy small water and wild trout in pretty places. There are two ways to reach the creek, described as follows. 
   Access point 1: From Spokane, Washington, travel east on Interstate 90 for 62 miles to exit 43 (Kingston, Idaho); depart the freeway and travel 24 miles north on Primary Forest Route 9 (two-lane paved highway) to the Prichard junction. Continue on FR 208 (paved two-lane road) for 28 miles to the end of the pavement and the start of FR 6310 (gravel one-and-a-half-lane road with turnouts). The approximate travel time from Coeur d’Alene on this route is two hours. 
   Access point 2: From the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District (Fernan office) in Coeur d’Alene (I-90, exit 15), drive east on Kootenai County Road 208 (Fernan Lakeshore Road) for 5 miles; this road enters the Coeur d’Alene National Forest and climbs into the mountains on FR 268; continue on FR 612 (paved road from Fernan Saddle; turns to good quality two-lane gravel) and follow it 11 miles to FR 209 past Honeysuckle Campground. Cross the bridge and turn right (south) on FR 209 (good quality two-lane gravel road) for 5 miles to its junction with FR 422. Turn left (north) and travel 14 miles on FR 422 toward Magee Administrative Site. Road 422 is a fair-quality gravel road that is mostly two lanes but narrows to one wide lane with turnouts; the road is suitable for two-wheel-drive automobiles. Turn right at FR 6310. The approximate travel time from Coeur d’Alene on this route is just under two hours.
   Camping streamside on Tepee Creek is about as good as it gets. There are numerous tent sites nearly on top of deep pools lying at the base of steep cliffs. Dense stands of huckleberries, ripe for the picking, and the sweet smell of wild roses, add to the appeal. Being able to fish the evening hatch on a prime slot just 30 yards from a crackling fire implants memories that make a person yearn for the spring snowmelt round ’bout December.
   As the season draws to a close in late September, the water is low and the fish seek deep runs. Streamers will produce some bigger fish and they maintain their interest in dry flies, although they are more reluctant to rise to the surface. For some reason, I’m seldom surprised when I catch another 17-inch cutt in a deep channel barely wider than
my boot. 
   I consider Tepee Creek my home water even though I have to drive 120 miles to get there. The fishing is that good. But if I’m being honest, it’s less about the fish and more about the immersion experience. There’s something sublime about being in wild places and making that connection. All fly fishers are naturalists and we unconsciously acknowledge that fact every time we release a trout to swim another day.

 

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