On a recent fly-fishing trip, my husband, Bill, and I floated down the Spokane River with local guide John Clark during the weekend of the...
On a recent fly-fishing trip, my husband, Bill, and I floated down the Spokane River with local guide John Clark during the weekend of the annual river cleanup. We watched as families, students and others picked trash out of the grasses and shrubs lining the banks where the river runs right through the city. Clark waved and shouted, “Thank you!” We joined in and added, “The fish thank you, too!”
The Inland Empire’s rivers tell a remarkable story of redemption: What was once considered an inexhaustible resource and abused accordingly is now a treasured community asset. After many disastrous decades, things are turning around for the rivers, the fish and the people who love both.
As the economy flourished in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, mining, industrial and human waste decimated fish populations in once-teeming streams. Lake and river bottoms are still laced with heavy metals, and dams obliterated salmon and steelhead runs.
But disparate groups have banded together to change rivers from dumping grounds into playgrounds. In the springtime, rafters plow through their rapids. In the summer, slower flows make for great kayaking and fishing.
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In town, but isolated
The strangest thing about fishing — or doing anything — on the Spokane River is how far removed it feels from the city that surrounds it. Much of the river’s path is through a narrow gorge, and buildings are only occasionally visible among the pines on the bluffs above.
Access points allow anglers to wade into the river both above and below the falls in the center of town, but getting a feel for the river may be best from a boat or raft. Wade-in anglers should note the algae-covered rocky bottom is notoriously slick.
Fishing gets good when water flows decrease in July or so (the upper and lower sections are also closed during spring for spawning), and remains so, to varying degrees, throughout the fall and winter. Because of shifting water flows and the trout’s wily nature, hiring a guide or befriending a local is a good idea. At the very least, stop in at one of Spokane’s helpful fly shops to get the scoop on which flies to throw and where.
“When you fish the Spokane, it’s not going to be fast and furious, but you’ll catch fish, and every one of them will be worth it,” said Clark, who runs Westslope Fly Shop with his dad, Jesse.
The fish population is diverse and different among the river’s upper, middle and lower sections. The local trout is the redband, a wild native rainbow subspecies with a distinctive red hue along its sides that ranges from a foot in length to 18 inches or more. “We hook a lot of big fish, 20-plus-ers, but we seldom land them. They’re educated,” Clark said. “They hit the fast water and before you know it, blink!” They’re gone.
On our trip, I managed to catch a gleaming, energetic medium-sized redband and marveled at the chance to snag this wild native beast in an urban river.
The Spokane River isn’t perfect. Boaters of any kind have few access points for put-in and takeout. Pollution is still a problem. The river lacks diverse insect populations that make for good fish food. But where else can you fish for native trout on a restored river within minutes of a bustling downtown?
Then get outta town
Spokane’s appeal as a fly-fishing destination is about more than the river that runs through it. Some of the nation’s best fishing, both for trout and for steelhead, is within a few hours’ drive. The Idaho panhandle is right next door. Hells Canyon and the Grande Ronde lie to the south.
While in the area, we headed 35 miles east to Coeur d’Alene and met up with Nicholas Slomski from ROW Adventures for a day on the St. Joe River, one of the region’s blue-ribbon trout streams.
While the Spokane was urban and convenient, the St. Joe required an hourlong drive from Coeur d’Alene — no problem when it takes you through a series of hamlets and ranches set in lush river bottoms and surrounded by tree-covered hills.
The St. Joe teems with cutthroat trout. Its combination of glass-clear water, boulder-filled bends, swarms of caddis and stoneflies and a few deep pools make it ideal habitat.
This river saw its share of pollution back in the mining days, but you wouldn’t know that from the way it looks now. The water is so clear that you can look down into it and see dozens of fish.
By mid-October, the water is low enough to make floating difficult, but it’s easy to fish from the bank. Much of the upper river, designated a national Wild and Scenic River, is flanked by national forest land. That makes for many access points, especially if you’re willing to walk a bit. Campgrounds are plentiful (remember that October also means rifle-hunting season).
We caught eight or so cutthroat and cutbow (a rainbow-cutthroat combo), attempted to land just as many and had numerous nibbles during our day on the St. Joe.
Remarkably, we didn’t see a single fellow angler on either river during our weekend of fishing, one of the best things about late-autumn outings.
Christy Karras is a
Seattle-based freelance writer
who went fly-fishing on her honeymoon last year.