Across The Great Divide: Idaho’s rugged Bitterroots beckon outdoorsmen to sample the West’s wildest fishing and hunting

The most arduous leg of the Corps of Discovery’s journey through the western United States began when the group entered Idaho. Once through Lolo Pass, in what is now a land of plenty paralleled by Highway 12, the men nearly starved for want of protein.

When the explorers undertook the crossing through the Bitterroots in September 1805, they were too far east to benefit from the steelhead and salmon runs. The smallmouth bass and catfish that now abound in the reservoirs created by dams were not there then, nor were the pheasants, chukar, valley quail, gray partridges and wild turkeys found in the mountains and their drainages today. And the Bitterroot range and its river valleys had yet to be altered by settlers in ways that changed the vegetative state and helped ungulates such as elk and deer thrive.

One thing was certain as the hungry party struggled down the Lochsa River valley to the Clearwater, however; all the streams along which they traveled flowed west. At last, they were in the Pacific drainage. By the time the explorers reached the Snake River between Idaho and Washington, the worst part of the trek was over and the endgame of the great exploration was about to begin.

TAKE A BREAK FOR LOCHSA TROUT

Crossing Lolo Pass on August 12, 1805, and leaving Montana near where the Visitor’s Center on Highway 12 is today, the company got its first good look at the Bitterroot Mountains. It was an ominous sight.

Near the mouth of Lolo Creek, Clark sent men to inspect its juncture with what is today called Clark Fork, 10 miles north. They didn’t descend to the fork. Instead, the party traveled the steep terrain above the Lochsa River, staying on high ground, only once going down to the water.

The wild Lochsa runs between the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area on the south and the last remaining roadless portion of the entire Lewis and Clark Trail to the north. Away from the roads, this land looks much like it must have looked to Lewis and Clark. It is still a hard place that doesn’t welcome visitors and is best suited for the strong and the wary.

In the Lochsa, there are salmon, steelhead and bull trout in season, and westslope cutthroat trout year-round. This is a phenomenal, nearly untouched fishery despite the fact that Highway 12 runs along its length. Numerous pull-overs and campgrounds make access easy. An angler would do well to stay along the river and fish, unless he opts to travel Forest Service Road 500, the last wild part of the Lewis and Clark Trail. The scenic vistas there match the tremendous fishing of the Lochsa.

The Three Rivers area where the Lochsa, Middle Clearwater and Selway come together also offers excellent trout fishing, as do the Little North Fork and most of the other tributaries. There is no road access to the Selway, though there are a few back-country airstrips and a trail along the river. Otherwise, it must be rafted or hiked.

HUNTERS EAT A LOT BETTER NOW

In mid-September 1805, about 13 miles west of Lolo Pass and adjacent to present-day Highway 12 near where the Powell ranger station now stands, the Corps of Discovery camped with hungry bellies. The land of plentiful game, of plains filled with practically docile bison and elk, was behind them on the eastern side of the mountains. During their sojourn in the Bitterroots, the pickings were so slim that the group was forced to kill and consume three colts and a stray horse. It was a bad place to run out of food.

After Old Toby, the Shoshone guide, lost the trail in the steep and heavily wooded mountains, the explorers kept moving, wondering if they would ever eat their fill again. Along the way, Clark named a stream Hungry Creek in acknowledgment of their perilous condition.

It would be nearly impossible for a hunter to go hungry in the Bitterroots today. Deer (mostly whitetails), elk and moose roam the valleys and drainages. Deer and bear tags are available across the counter; cougar, elk and moose tags by permit. Most of the best hunting land is within national forests, including the Bitterroot and the Clearwater, and there are plenty of guides better than Old Toby to keep you from losing your way.

It took the expedition 11 miserable days to make it through the Bitterroots. On Sept. 18, 1805, Clark set out with six hunters to find a way out of the mountains and to procure food. While Clark was gone, Lewis wrote in his journal, “[Saw] three species of Pheasants…a brown and yellow species that a goodeel resembles the pheasant common to the Atlantic States.” Undoubtedly, these were ruffed grouse and their Western cousins. These days there is excellent hunting for ruffed, blue and spruce grouse. For the most part, ruffs are in the brushy lowlands, blues are on the mountain ridges and spruce grouse are in higher yet sub-alpine forests.

Some of the best bird hunting is to be found in the highlands above the Clearwater River, in what is known as the Palouse Country, a land of rolling wheat fields and brushy sidehills. There is also excellent upland bird hunting west of Orofino–pheasants, chukar, gray partridges and valley quail.

This is turkey country, too, as the Clearwater region produced the biggest harvest of Merriam’s gobblers in the state last spring. Much of the land is privately owned, but landowners tend to be hospitable and a friendly approach often wins access. Surrounding public forests provide good hunting opportunities, too.

FIRST-RATE FISHING ON THE CLEARWATER

As the Lewis and Clark party floated on the Clearwater River toward the Snake, they didn’t take much time to fish or hunt. They ate mostly dogs they had bought from the Nez Perce.

Had they tried the fishing, they would have enjoyed much finer fare. Even today, from August until April, the Clearwater supports spectacular runs of the largest steelhead in the West. These “B-Run” fish have spent more than two years fattening up in the ocean and can weigh more than 20 pounds, with 12- to 15-pound fish common. A 30-pound 2-ounce steelhead caught from the Clearwater in 1972 is the state record.

Likewise, hefty chinook salmon work their way up the river later in the year. They offer quality fishing, usually in May and June, but sometimes as early as April. There are several places to launch a boat or fish from shore for either steelies or salmon.

While Lewis and Clark’s North Fork has changed dramatically, most noticeably by the construction of Dworshak Dam, the Middle Fork and the South Fork are undammed, and the latter is an especially prime fishing destination for a variety of coldwater species.

Dworshak Reservoir is well-known in the region for kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon), but don’t forget your bass outfit; the 8 1/2-pound state-record smallmouth came from here. Access to the water is easy to find, and numerous campgrounds surround the lake, though many are accessible only by boat. Also in the area, between Dworshak Reservoir and the city of Moscow Idaho, within easy driving distance, there are many smaller, stocked reservoirs (Winchester, Spring Valley and Moose Creek are three of the most popular) that hold plenty of hungry trout and bass.

TAKE YOUR TIME IN WESTERN IDAHO

Just before Columbus Day in 1805, the expedition reached the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers near Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash. Still looking for food, the travelers didn’t dally, pushing on instead toward the Columbia River and the Pacific Coast.

The 21st-century sportsman would do well to slow down as he enters this last stretch of the Idaho trail. Mann Lake, five minutes east of Lewiston, is full of trout, crappies and bass. The state-record channel catfish, 31 pounds, was caught there in 2001. The Snake itself is loaded with channel catfish, smallmouth bass and, during the spawning runs, salmon and steelhead.

A few miles upriver on the Snake from Lewiston, you’ll reach Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Largely inaccessible except by river craft, North America’s deepest gorge is best visited through one of the many experienced jet-boat outfitters in the area. Make an overnight trip of it. Have your outfitter drop you off on a sand beach, pitch a tent and take your pick–fishing, hunting or both.

In late October, you can expect good fishing for steelhead, sturgeon and smallmouths, as well as excellent hunting for chukar and valley quail. Catching a Hells Canyon sturgeon, which can reach huge proportions, has become one of the more exotic fishing quests available in North America. Get your photo taken with the sturgeon and then let it go–this is strictly catch-and-release fishing.

If you’re really ambitious and have the legs and lungs to go after one of the resident bighorns with a camera, you can hike all the way up to blue grouse country. The views from the summits are worth the effort, even if you don’t spot sheep during the trek.

No matter where you travel in Idaho’s Lewis and Clark country, however, the vistas are breathtaking and the fishing and hunting opportunities are as plentiful and diverse as you’ll ever experience.

 

About Connie F. Kirkland

View all posts by Connie F. Kirkland →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *