Utter the words Kelly Creek to a real backcountry trout bum, and they will immediately know you’re talking about an icy cold stream sparkling through a big chunk of east-central Idaho beginning near the Montana border. A blue ribbon, catch-and-release trout stream since 1970, Kelly Creek eventually mingles its water with the North Fork of the Clearwater River. It’s journey to that confluence is through some of the best wild country an angler could enjoy.
A University of Idaho archeology team verified 12,000 years of Native American food gathering along Kelly Creek, where historically huge runs of steelhead and salmon poured into their natal waters each year. Those runs are gone now, but a trout bum can still find Nirvana here today.
Upper Kelly Creek in particular gets very little fishing pressure, so sumo-sized cutthroat trout can grab your fly and test your mettle in the rocky stream bed filled with quiet pools, intersecting seams, and overhanging brush on a hot summer’s day.
The easiest way to access upper Kelly Creek is from the Montana side, so one hot early July day we packed up the oldest two grandkids, loaded horses and mules, and headed for this pristine trout water. We left Highway 12 just across the Montana border and headed toward the Schley Mountain trailhead, quickly leaving traffic, noise, and people behind as we moved further into the backcountry on serviceable gravel roads.
An outfitter friend of ours was bringing in tents, horse feed, and food for the group and, more important, for myself, the camp cook. All that our mules had to carry were sleeping bags, clothes, and fishing gear.
The pack in starts on a closed road, making it an easy beginning for the kids and stock. But within a half mile, the road dwindles to a well-maintained trail with no blow downs to cut out. We rested along the way in wildflower filled meadows, enjoying a repeat of spring at this altitude. In three hours, we were at camp, and the kids were ready to wade into the water to cool off.
Native cutthroat trout abound in the 23 miles of Kelly Creek, but the upper end is sheer magic. The water tumbles over boulders as snow continues to melt in the high country, and the water is gin-clear. It’s a classic small mountain creek with plenty of shade to keep the water frigid, even on the hottest day. These fish don’t get a lot of fishing pressure, so just about anything you want to use will work.
This is the perfect place for dry flies, but the kids used spinning gear, and they both caught nice trout throughout our stay. Barbless hooks are required in all of Kelly Creek, to make releasing fish less damaging.
While I prefer the solitude of upper Kelly Creek, the lower portion is nothing to sneeze at. About 10 miles of it is accessible by road, and there’s nothing to stop you from throwing a line anywhere along that stretch.
And even though there’s a road, you may be the only one fishing, especially during the work week. If you don’t have pack stock, this is a wonderful place to spend a day or a weekend if you’re lucky. And, as you drive to Kelly Creek, don’t pass up the North Fork of the Clearwater: you’ll find abundant fish, whether you’re fly fishing or spin casting.
For many anglers, the North Fork ranks right up there with some of the best fishing Idaho has to offer. But be sure to check the current regulations as they are different for specific sections and time of year.
Some of Idaho’s other streams, like Silver Creek and the Henry’s Fork, get a lot more attention, and they do indeed offer wonderfully abundant fishing. I sure wouldn’t dissuade you from plying those waters, but sometimes, the lesser-known water produces just as terrific fishing.
Kelly Creek, far from resort area amenities, offers a unique experience, rich in solitude as you catch and release those lovely native cutthroats. ISI