KELLY FORKS, Idaho — The orange-colored artificial fly landed on the golden waters of Kelly Creek. It drifted like a puff of lint on the surface before a scrappy cutthroat shattered the mirrored surface of the creek, grabbed the fly, flipped, and dove into a deep, dark emerald hole bordered by granite walls resembling the front of a church.
The scene repeats itself countless times throughout the summer in Kelly Creek country, which can only be termed as the Cathedral of the Cutthroat in Idaho.
Thousands of vacationing anglers make a pilgrimage here in the Clearwater National Forest each July and August to worship in these hallowed waters of fly fishing in north-central Idaho.
They say this is where wild country meets wild rivers.
Anglers come to meditate on the silver flash of a west-slope cutthroat trout rising for a fly, to take in the incense-like aroma of huckleberries on a hot day in the cedar and fir forests lining the rivers, or to just listen to the flowing waters where they are seemingly baptized each morning in the gospel of the wild backcountry.
“The water is so beautiful with that Kelly green color,” said Barbara Plake, who travels from Buena Vista, Colo., to fish the waters of the North Fork of the Clearwater, Cayuse Creek and Kelly Creek, all roughly about 60 miles northeast of Orofino.
“The fish are beautiful, and a lot of fun to catch,” she said. “The fishing isn’t easy, and we enjoy the challenge as well.”
Plake and her husband, Jim Impara, make the area a fly-fishing destination as often as possible.
It’s just as much of a challenge to get to the upper tributaries of the North Fork of the Clearwater River. You have to drive miles and miles of washboardy and dust-blizzard roads to get to the prime, blue-ribbon fishing holes.
But it’s worth it once you are there and relaxing in camp along the waters of such places as Black Canyon, or in the shadows of Moose Creek Buttes or Twin Peaks.
Kelly Creek country is attractive to visitors because it includes 255,000 acres of backcountry in the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border.
Also included in the area is the Great Burn, the remnants of the huge fire of 1910 that changed the landscape of the drainage.
Although today Kelly Creek is a world-famous trout stream, it hasn’t always been that way for anglers seeking its piscine blessings.
The creek, like many cutthroat streams in the state, was almost fished out in the late 1960s because of an increased number of anglers, easy access to the fish, and the cutthroat’s gullibility of taking a fly or lure.
In the ’60s, the daily limit was 15, and it wouldn’t have been long for the good fishing to disappear out of places like Kelly Creek, the Lochsa River, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, or other prime cutthroat streams.
Fewer cutthroats were getting caught and they were smaller in size.
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission headed off the problem and set catch-and-release fishing for cutthroats in Kelly Creek in 1970. It was a new idea at the time, and it has been managed that way ever since.
A sign at Kelly Creek boasts that the catch-and-release regulation has resulted in improved fishing for both numbers and size of cutthroats caught in Kelly Creek, as well as the main stem of the North Fork.
The number and size of fish increased substantially in less than three years, according to a story in the May-June 1973 issue of Idaho Wildlife Review, a magazine published by F&G at the time.
In 1970, a study showed that the average size of cutthroats was 8 inches. Two years later, the average size was 12 inches. After that, fish appeared in the 14- to 17-inch range.
Before catch-and-release regulations, the catch rate was one fish every hour and a half. Two years after the new regulations, anglers were catching six cutthroats per hour.
If you dig up an old Idaho fishery study, you’ll see that the average number of cutthroat trout in a surveyed section in lower Kelly Creek increased from 0.2 in 1969 to 12.9 in 1989.
That’s why today you’ll see license plates from Washington, Montana, Oregon, Colorado and Utah in campgrounds and at pull-outs along the North Fork and Kelly Creek.
They come pulling tent trailers and camp trailers despite the long mileage on dusty roads.
They wade Kelly Creek. They float the North Fork in small rafts. Some even take on the canyon of Cayuse Creek — a tributary of Kelly Creek — in fishing cats.
One couple from Washington camping near the confluence of Moose and Kelly creeks said they blot out all of July to fish Kelly Creek country and also the Idaho’s upper St. Joe.
They “shower up” and get groceries in nearby Superior, Mont., while going from one river drainage to the other.
And it’s not all fishing. The huckleberry crop was so good in July that some anglers are planning their trips to coincide with the berries next summer. Incidentally, it’s catch and keep for huckleberries.
If you hit it right in July, you’ll have all the huckleberries you need for pancakes, granola and Dutch oven desserts in camp.
Hiking trails taking off from the rivers and also into the Great Burn, which is a proposed wilderness, lure anglers taking a break from fishing.
The area is also well-known for its numerous ATV trails and back-road touring.
As you look at the gin-clear waters of the streams in Kelly Creek country, it’s hard to believe that the remote headwaters in the Bitterroot Mountains doesn’t have a wilderness designation, or that the waters themselves are not part of the national wild and scenic river system.
Without a doubt, it’s among the best native cutthroat trout fisheries in Idaho, experts say, and the reason for the fantastic fishery is the water quality.
Protection of water coming out of the mountainous terrain on the Idaho-Montana border is the mission of conservationists, anglers, business people, tribal members and others who belong to the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.
For the last five years, representatives of different interests in the group have met to address the needs of the area from economic development to recreation.
There is also support for wilderness designation in some areas, special land management in others and designation of some waters as wild and scenic, or with special protection from mining.
Through the collaborative, proposals are being made for a variety of projects, including rural economic development, support for increased timber harvest in the roaded front country of the Nez Perce-Clearwater national forests and designation of cultural areas important to the Nez Perce Tribe.
The area is also popular for motorcycle and ATV riding, and the group is trying to create more and better trails open to them.
Yes, Kelly Creek country has been in the limelight of the fly-fishing community for more four decades, but it is even gaining more attention for other interests.
It’s a jewel in north-central Idaho.
One only has to visit it in July and August and spend time meditating on the flash of a cutthroat trout.
Angler Barbara Plake sums it up:
“We really love that area. Not only Kelly Creek, but also the North Fork of the Clearwater, where we have camped every time we’ve come here.”