Fisheries Conservation photo

Hansen Meadows is about five miles away. We’re on a fairly level trail that skirts the toe of mountains that wall the north side of the valley. Gary Peters is leading on his mule, pointing out some of their hunting country as we travel. The creek is far away, but we can hear it sometimes through the harsh jumble of deadfall and obstacle course of thimbleberry, fireweed and young lodgepole.

It’s been 100 years since the 1911 fires, and a glance at the mountains all around shows the lodgepoles that were born in 1911. They’re now dying from old age and beetle infestations. A lodgepole is a tree that it truly native to the Western mountains. It has adapted to the one constant of the Western mountains: fire. That’s because lodgepole cones are serotinous, meaning they will only release their seeds and start new trees after being burned. A big black bear spooks out of a patch of elderberry on the hillside and glides downhill into the bottomland tangles, moving with a grace that seems impossible for its size.

We bail off the trail as the country suddenly opens, ride across a wide sucking bog of horsetail and break through a fortress of willows. We emerge into the warmth and heat and tall grass of Hansen Meadows. I tie Ruby quickly because I’m anxious to get at the water, which runs deep and fast and green right along the grass – the ultimate place to throw a big hopper. As I’m rigging up, I notice a strange camp in this wild place. There is a fire ring and a bizarre, labor-intensive wikiup big enough to shelter two people. The wikiup is made of small sticks, birch and willow branches bent and fastened with bits of nylon cord and cordage made of bark and twisted grasses.

I crawl inside. There is nothing special, but I like the idea that someone was patient and here long enough to build this structure. I wonder who built that wikiup, where they came from, where they went. It looks too elaborate to be made by a child, so the builder might have been someone traveling with children or someone who retained a child’s sense of wonder. I’m reminded of an old Louis L’Amour western I read as a kid. The hero is on the run and finds a secret cave in the far reaches of the desert. There is a fire pit and a cup hanging from a stick, left for some fellow traveler to use inside the cave.

But to heck with that, it was time to fish. And the fishing was very good right off the bat. Cutthroats are among the world’s most beautiful fish. I landed and released a couple of 13- and 14-inchers that rose to a big gray foam hopper cast right under the overhanging grass.

For all their beauty, cutthroats are unsophisticated fish. They live in an unforgiving world. The cold, clear water they call home is locked away in ice for much of the year, and then flushed hard with snowmelt for months. It gets dangerously low in most years by the end of August (this past year was an exception, with record snowpack in these mountains). A cutthroat has to seize the moment and attack in order to survive and breed. Caution is not a virtue. That is one reason why cutthroats often fade away quickly in easily accessible areas. A good fisherman with a can of worms and no scruples can singlehandedly clean out a whole creek.


There are holes on that stretch of Kelly Creek that look like something from a fisherman’s dream. Places where you cast your hopper from far away, delivering it to the tail of the pool upstream and take a 14-incher. Places where you can release a fish, cast just upstream from where that one hit and take another. Some of the best fish lie in the churn, out in the current, in what at first seems like the most unlikely holding water. It’s exhausting fishing, but it’s full of glory.

Brad Brooks, a fanatic hunter and fishermen who works for the Wilderness Society, reminded me that before the construction of Dworshak Dam Kelly Creek, cutthroat fishing was just as spectacular as it is today. However, the annual runs of monster Chinook salmon and steelhead overshadowed it. The tiniest tributaries would boil with big fish that had only recently been keeping company with sharks and tuna in the Pacific Ocean. That idea seems impossible nowadays, considering how much of our natural wealth we have squandered. Yet, just looking at the river and those cutthroats, an embarrassment of riches remains. We stopped fishing around 3 p.m. and headed back to camp.

I had another day in that valley, or at least the better part of one, just to roam around and look at things before the long ride back up to the ridges and the trailhead. I noticed that, for all the incredible array of flowering plants in that valley, I didn’t see any honeybees. Instead, I saw a different set of pollinators: a dozen smaller bees I’ve never noticed anywhere else, and a whirl of butterflies, moths and bats flying in the bright sunlight. I don’t know if that has any significance, but it was new to me.

There will be continued debate as to how much and how to protect Kelly Creek; whether there will be an allowance for chainsaws in the new wilderness to clear trails, where the roadless boundaries will be established and set. It seems that a growing number of Idahoans agree that what is currently found here is worth keeping for the long run. As both Scott Stouder and Brad Brooks explained to me, “It’s not a political issue any more at all. Idahoans know why we love this state, and why so many people want to come here to live and visit. It’s not just about good-looking potatoes. It’s this, right here, that people want, and what they cannot get anywhere else.”