12,000 Years of Great Fishing

The following was written by BHA's Conservation Director Holly Endersby, after a recent fishing trip to Kelly Creek (Idaho).

Kelly creek hollyUtter the words Kelly Creek to a real backcountry trout bum and she will immediately know you’re talking about an icy cold stream sparkling through a big chunk of central Idaho beginning near the Montana border. A blue ribbon, catch and release trout stream, Kelly Creek eventually mingles its water with the North Fork of the Clearwater River.

A recent University of Idaho archeology team has verified 12,000 years of Native American food gathering along Kelly Creek, where historically huge runs of steelhead and salmon poured into their natal waters each year. Older folks still recall when steelhead runs were filled with heavy-weight bruisers of 18-20 pounds. But all that ended in the early 1970’s when Dworshak Dam was built, forming a quarter mile high block that no fish ladder on earth could compensate for. Ironically, the dam is now horribly inefficient, providing only 3% of the power to the electric grid. Now, all the superb gradient and beautiful spawning gravel goes begging for the return of salmon and steelhead in Kelly Creek.

But a trout bum can still find Nirvana here. Upper Kelly Creek in particular gets very little fishing pressure so sumo-size cutthroat trout can grab your fly and test your mettle in the rocky stream bed filled with quiet pools, intersecting seams and under over-hanging brush on a hot summer’s day. Last week a group of us saddled horses, loaded pack animals and headed in for three days of great fishing. Even I caught fish and since my knowledge of flies runs to color-black, brown or tan- it shows how robust the fishery is. I figure if it looks like an insect, some hungry trout will grab it, and once again, my simplistic outlook worked. In fact, I pulled the biggest trout I’ve ever caught-outside of Alaska-out of the waters of Kelly Creek.

Ironically, however, Kelly Creek is vulnerable. It doesn’t have Wild and Scenic River status nor are its surrounding lands protected legislatively by wilderness or special management area designation. The Clearwater Basin Collaborative (CBC), of which BHA has been a part for the past five years, hopes to change that. The creek itself is being recommended for Wild and Scenic status, and the surrounding land, part of the Great Burn(referring to the huge fires of 1910)of the Selway-Bitterroot National Forest, is being recommended for wilderness protection on the Idaho side. On May 22, 2013, the CBC unanimously agreed to send these recommendations forward to Senator Mike Crapo for his consideration.

I don’t know what will happen in Washington DC. But I do know that any place with a 12,000 year history of great fishing, is deserving of our best efforts to protect it.

About Caitlin Thompson