By RALPH BARTHOLDT
This time of year, Dan Mottern at the Avery fly shop gets the same question, over and over.
Friends, customers and people he hasn’t seen or heard from since September call the Idaho Fly Fishing Company or send Mottern an email.
“How’s the river?” they ask.
Mottern, who 15 years ago built the shop along the St. Joe River beside the highway that used to be a Milwaukee railroad yard, and just across the road from Scheffy’s general store and motel, has an answer.
“The river is high, but it is shaping up quickly,” he said.
In addition to his fly casting prowess, Mottern is a marathoner and bicycler who regularly runs boat shuttles up and down the river returning to home base in Avery on the saddle of a custom-built road bike. He runs the ridges too in the St. Joe Forest and climbs peaks sometimes via mountain bike, and sometimes using shoe leather.
What he has noticed this spring, he said, is a rapidly diminishing snow pack.
That means, despite fair warning from weather service sites that area rivers are bound for at least several weeks to flow husky and broad-shouldered as snow continues to run off the mountains, Mottern’s predictions run contrary.
“I was up high yesterday and there is not nearly the amount of snow as I thought there would be,” Mottern said. “The Lost Lake Snotel tells a far different story than what I’m seeing on the Joe.”
His forecast is for a fishable river this weekend.
Floaters will have the first opportunity, and wade anglers may have a shot this weekend as well.
“I think it’s going to be good,” he said. “According to Snotel data, we had a rather large snowpack and I was anticipating that it was going to be a fairly late start to the fishing season (but) with all the warm weather we’ve experienced in the last few weeks, I believe the snowpack has been tamed to the point that we’re going to have a fairly average start to the season.” That means decent bank fishing by the end of the first week of June, and wade fishing a week or two after that, he said.
Mike Beard, who has tacked his sites on the Coeur d’Alene River system the past few weeks, knows the river that pumps water through the tail end of the Silver Valley is flowing below historical averages for late May.
It’s been difficult, however, persuading his fly-casting customers.
“People keep saying everything is blown out,” said Beard, owner of Orvis Northwest Outfitters in Coeur d’Alene. “But, it’s not. The Coeur d’Alene is really not at all, anymore.”
In fact, the flow is amenable to wading.
“It’s in its banks; it’s clear, gravel bars are exposed,” said Beard, who grew up in Moscow and has spent most of his life fishing from Idaho’s Snake and Salmon rivers to the Panhandle waters.
Spring runoff can be difficult to predict, and for the past few years as snowpack has been average, or below normal, boats have scraped bottom on the Coeur d’Alene River sometimes as early as June, but this year the river is fit and ready to fish.
“As far as the Coeur d’Alene goes, it’s pretty game on,” Beard said.
On an average year, the Coeur d’Alene system shapes up first, then the St. Joe River becomes wadeable a few weeks later, and usually in July, the road to Kelly Creek opens, relieving angler pressure on the other Panhandle rivers.
The Coeur d’Alene has been fishable for at least a couple of weeks, Beard said — anglers from Montana have been fishing the system heavily because western Big Sky rivers are flowing very high.
Having the St. Joe fishable this weekend will slim river traffic elsewhere, he said.
“We just need another river to come around so it spreads the people out,” he said.
Anglers on the Coeur d’Alene have been successful with golden stoneflies trailing beadhead droppers, he said. Double nymph patterns or cripples have worked well, but Beard thinks a green drake hatch is in the offing.
“With this cool weather, I think we’re getting really close,” he said.
In the colder, steeper valleys of the St. Joe River, Mottern has watched big salmon flies lumber through the sun. The four-winged crawlers are usually gone by the time most anglers hit the banks in mid-June.
“We have also had numerous Drake hatches,” Mottern said. “The large, flying carpenter ants are starting to show in large numbers as is typical for the Joe this time year.”
Mottern’s shop has another draw in case the river doesn’t satisfy early anglers.
“Huckleberry shakes and huckleberry ice cream always rule the day,” he said.