Fly Fishing the Secret Side of Idaho's Clearwater River

Updated on March 27, 2020
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CS is an lifelong, obsessive fly fisherman who is forced to work as a fish biologist and conservationist the PNW.

Clearwater River westslope cutthroat comes to net
Clearwater River westslope cutthroat comes to net

Lower Clearwater River

Season: June-October

Species: Bass, Trout

Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult

The Clearwater River meets the Snake in Lewsiton, Idaho, and while the Clearwater in town resembles the broad, slow lower Snake, just upstream is a very different river. The section of river between Orofino and Lewiston has much more character, with classic riffles, pools, and all the structures you would expect to see on any freestone river, albeit on a grand scale. It is still a huge river, so I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone new to the sport, as longer casts and more specialized techniques are often required.

The Clearwater is justifiably famous for steelhead, with the legendary B-run summer run fish. Heaven knows there are volumes written on the steelhead fishing here, and plenty of guides willing to take you for a drift, so I’m not going to beat that particular dead horse here. Of course, It would be sacrilege to not mention steelhead when talking about the Clearwater, so there, I mentioned it.

What I’ve found a lot more interesting than countless hours of swinging flies for a single bite is the almost completely-ignored trout and bass fishing found here. Through the summer months, there are excellent options here for both, and some true trophy bass, westslope cutthroat and rainbow trout, often on dry flies. Best of all, it’s hiding in plain sight, and the fish don’t see nearly as many flies as you would expect.

The river is generally a giant mess during runoff, so I don’t even start thinking about fishing the Clearwater until around the end of June. In the early part of the season, golden stoneflies and salmonflies are around, so you can sometimes coax fish up with a well-placed dry fly imitation. That said, unless there is obvious surface activity, the best place to start is generally a large stonefly nymph with a smaller nymph behind it. Streamers are great too, especially if the river is high (the river’s power will push small fish into the softer water along the banks, and the predators know it).

Best Resource for the Clearwater

Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho
Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho
This is the Gold Standard for fly fishing guides, and has a decent bit on the Clearwater drainage. Must-have if you fish in Idaho.
 
Solid cutthroat from the lower Clearwater during a blizzard caddis hatch in late July
Solid cutthroat from the lower Clearwater during a blizzard caddis hatch in late July

My absolute favorite time to fish this river are the dog days of July and August. Thanks to cold water emerging from beneath Dworshak Dam in Orofino, the North Fork of the Clearwater is consistently dumping cold water into the main stem, maintaining comfortable temperatures for trout even in the hottest, lowest water conditions. This is also the time of year when caddis hatches can reach mind-boggling densities; mating swarms form in the evenings above every tree, bush, and stump in the canyon like clouds of living smoke, and when they come back to the river to lay their eggs they can blanket the surface. PMDs are also here, particularly closer to Orofino, and given the choice, trout seem to prefer mayflies to caddis.

If you go at this time of year, aim for the evening or morning. Look for tailouts of pools, particularly where the river splits around an island, and slots and seams close to the bank. The fish here will form strange, mixed pods of several species, so on one cast you might catch a blushing cutthroat, and the next a broad-sided smallmouth, both sipping PMDs from the same tailout. You’re more likely to see tubers or swimmers than fellow anglers, so excepting the occasional local drowning bait in the deep pools, you can usually count on having the river mostly to yourself.

Highway 12 runs along the entire river, so access is as simple as finding a pullout and hopping a guard rail. That said, it’s a major highway, so the exit/entrance process can be a little dicey. For a more relaxed access point, the Cherry Lane Bridge exits off of Hwy 12 and becomes River Road, which runs along the opposite side of the river. There is much less traffic here, and the area around Fir Island is one of my absolute favorites. Just be careful; this is a big, powerful river, and even in low water can be dangerous to a careless wader.

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