Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Kelly Creek, okay
Cool morning, end of summer at Kelly Creek, Idaho/Bartholdt
KELLY CREEK—The man in Idaho said the road is long and rutted. Be careful around the curves.
It’s a 2-hour drive from the bottom of the pass in Montana back into Idaho on the other side, he said. Bring beer.
The man at the gas station in Superior, Montana said motorists bomb down that road pulling trailers, campers and ATVs so keep your eyes peeled and know where the shoulder ends.
He recommended taking the road to the Kelly Creek Forest Service work camp once we reached the intersection on the other side of Hoodoo Pass in Idaho.
There are people there, at the Forest Service camp, he said. The rest of it is plenty remote. Most anglers fish the upper part of Kelly Creek. The water only gets better the farther up you go.
I use a renegade, he said. Small, this time of year.
He reached inside the cab of his pickup and took an aluminum fly box as big as a pack of smokes from the ashtray, opened it and showed neat rows of little flies in drab colors like museum pieces sans formalin.
I see, I said.
When he left, crossing the underpass into town and toward the Clark Fork, I noticed the stickers of bears and bass and whitetail deer on the small camper that rode in the bed of his truck.
They looked like the faded emblems of Schmidt beer cans.
We fueled up and headed east from the gas station on the trunk highway past the mill and its mounds of wood chips, large piles by the hundreds in the former mill yard where stacks of logs, sprayed by water pumped from the Clark Fork River that flows nearby once towered as high as the tallest building in this western Montana town. The piles of wood chips are what remains of a timber industry in these Bitterroot Mountains that doubled incomes, economies and coffers before it doubled up. Before politics and the need to recreate outlasted the need to grow revenues, tax bases, curbs and parks.
What’s left of it are wood chips excavated now into long bed dump trucks.
The Superior, Montana mill blew its last sad whistle years before with families gone, and the remnants of this industry, its chips, decades deep, rotted slowly. The wood acid seeped slowly into the big river, flowing elsewhere, taking dollars with it.
Until the price of hog fuel jumped. Now the chips are sent for miles and there is a sort of industry again, as ephemeral, and on a smaller scale.
The washboard road to Hoodoo Pass tests undercarriages and suspension. It tests the will to plod on and not turn and head back downhill the way you came to seek out other destinations, maybe. Those less prone to pop a nut and leave you stranded.
On the Idaho side of the pass, the 250 Road is paved for many miles until the intersection.
One way leads to the upper end of Kelly Creek and the Moose Creek bridge. The other follows the North Fork of the Clearwater River to the work camp where Kelly Creek joins the river and a tent spot costs $7. Here you can build a driftwood fire in the metal grills and lay out your gear on a picnic table, take note, or pause, or just reconsider what was left behind.
You’re here now, in renegade heaven.
You can try the other road on your way out.
One Labor Day weekend, Kelly Creek campground was moderately full, or empty depending how you tip the glass.
We started fishing right away, enjoying a lower river devoid of long rod interlopers. Most of them gunned their vehicles south on the dirt road that follows the creek from the point where it meets the North Fork, having received it seemed, the same review: Fishing is better up higher.
We found the creek about the same, no matter where we went.
There were double hook ups, single larger fish and the usual bright and lean cutthroat, their slightly spotted forward end sprinkled heavier the farther south toward the tail, their cut slit throat and fighting throbs into the current.
We found the renegade worked, as did the parachute Adams, the purple haze, Griffith’s gnat and several hopper imitations.
When the fishing slowed, big green streamers with their fannies wagging pulled in fish.
What we found, in large is that this blue ribbon water, despite shouldering a gravel road for 10-miles, was extremely fishable.
Not epic. No catastrophically astound.
It was a solid cutthroat fishery, and if you wanted more, you would park and hike, “as far as my little legs will take me,” a fishing guide told me.
He often walked several miles up the trail that follows Kelly Creek long after the road has found another compass course and bid the moving water sayonara with a wave of dust and gravel knocked from the bridge rails where the road rises toward Cayuse and Toboggan Hill.
Fantastic, he said of that hiking stretch and it may be so.
We tried it and almost got caught in the after dark.
Slowly pushing downstream, casting into that glimmer glass of last light, raising the rod tip to a sound or a slight tug but not by sight.
I like the trees at Kelly Creek. The long spires, their gnarled and veined miasma, as if a gale could topple them but in these mountains, when the wind blows it pushes snow and even if they fell then, not a soul would hear it.
I like the mountains too, the Moose Creek buttes, miles of wild where a bear grunt, as ursus americanus tangles with a colony of bugs in a fallen log, falls deaf on ears intent on bird song, or the insect buzz along the water.
The granite cupolas and spring strung meadows are gaudy jewelry on a landscape that has little time to be admired before the winter shutters roads and trails.
So it puts on a show, like the old woman in the Faulkner tale.
It spruces up for a day on the town, or guests, but it's made more for the snow and cold and inaccessible when wolves walk ridges of drifted snow and moose settle in the aspen groves, the dogwood hillsides where the wind blows free, and mow the blue stem like buffalo.
We stayed two days and fished most of that time, but when the driftwood flames died down and the morning coffee was rumbling in our guts we followed the 255 back to Montana, hit the Interstate at Superior and veered from it at St. Regis where Brooks at the Clark Fork Trout and Tackle said how do.
The St. Joe is fantastic.
He was talking about another river on the Idaho side that we sometimes refer as home.
So, we went there on our last vacation day and caught all the cutts we wanted. Bigger fish than those on Kelly.
With a lot more room to play.
-Ralph Bartholdt (Skookum Photography)
Posted by About