Imagine the perfect fishing hole. A shallow green riffle defines the top. Water tumbles over stones and moss into
a deep blue hole. Toward the end, river rocks materialize as the bottom comes back into view. Below the hole, the water drops and bends into a long, deep run. On shore, mountaintops barely show above the wooded hills. Big ponderosa pines lean out over the river. A bald eagle flies over while a kingfisher chatters and a dipper shakes water from its feathers.
And, of course, big fish swim at your feet. Really big fish. Now link a couple hundred of these holes together, and you
have the South Fork of the Clearwater River. For ten days in the fall of 1805, the Corps of Discovery camped along
the Clearwater River at the mouth of the North Fork, at what they called the Canoe Camp. Here the men recovered from their arduous journey over Lolo Pass (they walked 160 miles in eleven days), and built five dugout canoes for their journey down the Columbia River.
They also recovered from a terrible affliction: the change in diet from an all meat diet to dried fish and grains caused violent dysentery in most of the men. "Capt. Lewis & myself eate a Supper of roots boiled, which Swelled us in Such a manner that we were Scarcely able to breath for Several hours," Clark recalled. Diarrhea and vomiting ran rampant for ten days. Because the men were so sick, they had little energy for exploring or fishing. Instead, they stayed on the bank of the North Fork, working on canoes and moving as little as possible.
Sadly, of the three forks of the Clearwater River, the North Fork has changed the most. Dworshak Dam,an impassable concrete
wall just two miles up from the Clearwater, halted all fish migration and made the North Fork an unchanging tailwater
river. The world’s largest steelhead/salmon hatchery sits at the mouth of the North Fork, yearly pouring hundreds of
thousands of fish into the river in an attempt to make up for what the dam has taken away.
This hatchery also attracts hundreds of fishing boats during the season, making the river congested.
While Lewis and Clark’s North Fork has changed dramatically, the Middle Fork and the South Fork
have avoided being buried behind concrete dams and the South Fork is a prime fishing destination.
The Clearwater River is the main tributary of the Lower Snake River and offers some of the best
steelhead and Chinook salmon fishing in the lower 48 states because these river systems are
lined with large tracts of wild, roadless forests. From October until April, the Clearwater hosts runs of the
largest steelhead in the west.
The large "B-Run" steelhead have spent over two years in the ocean and can weigh over 20 pounds, with 12 to 15 pound fish common. The Chinook salmon work their way up the river a little later in the year, offering quality fishing in
May and June. These beautiful fish can also weigh over 20 pounds.
Clearwater fish are heavily managed by state and federal agencies. Numerous hatcheries
supplement the declining wild populations. These hatchery fish are easily identified by a missing
adipose fin. Release all fish that still have this fin; they are wild and can not be kept. Regulations
change yearly, so be sure to check the latest opening dates and regulations before heading out.
Photo: The Clearwater is the main tributary of the Lower Snake River and offers some of the best
steelhead and Chinook salmon fishing in the lower 48 states. Photo by Drew Winterer.