Saturday, July 3, 2010
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Having no good information to rely on I looked at my maps and picked a ridge that looked “hike-able.” I had not scouted the road that leads to the canyon rim on this section, but I had noted a tree blocking the road where it first leaves FS Rd. 4650 so threw my chainsaw in.
I headed out Friday afternoon and found where road number 080 took off. To my surprise someone had drug the tree out of the road so I didn’t even have to get out the chain saw. I had planned on driving to the end of this road and hiking down the ridge between Bull Canyon and S. Fork Cliff Creek. As I came near the edge of the canyon I noticed that there was a road of sorts going off to my right that the map had labeled as a “jeep trail.” I thought I had better check it out for any future hikes. A ways down the jeep trail it kind of disappeared but I saw what looked like a nice ridge to hike down so I drove my jeep across the hillside and parked at the top.
Plan B. I didn’t see any reason not to hike down this ridge. So I did. This ridge ran between N. Fork Cliff Creek and Rim Creek and was really a pretty nice ridge to walk down. It was a beautiful day and I reached Joseph Creek sometime after six. After hiking down, looking at that beautiful canyon, the creek was kind of a let down. I knew it was not going to be clear, but that murky water made my heart sink a little. I am used to seeing the clear water of the Wenaha and the S. Fork of the Walla Walla and after hiking down a canyon like that, you expect to see clear water even if you know better.
I found a decent place to pitch my tent at the bottom of the ridge. I noted that there were several decent spots for a hammock tent as well. By the time I got camp set up and firewood gathered I still had an hour or so of light left so I grabbed my fly rod and headed to the creek. I tied on a woolly bugger followed by a couple of nymphs. I caught a few rainbows right off before sticking my flies in a bush across the creek. There was a lot of insect activity so I decided to try a couple of dry flies.
I tied on some sort of foam terrestrial and an elk hair caddis. No disappointment there. The rainbows were happy to nail the hell out of the elk hair caddis. The fish were still all under 10”. After rising and catching quite a few rainbows I decided I had better head back to camp. I felt good though. There was definitely more rainbows in this section of the creek. Perhaps I had finally found the trout Shangri-La my book had spoken of. Tomorrow I would ply the waters more thoroughly in search for the 18 inchers.
Saturday was a beautiful morning and I was thinking to myself that I was happy when the weathermen were wrong. After some quick breakfast and coffee I headed downstream. I still had the elk hair caddis on and decided to leave it on there for a bit. It produced similar results to the evening before, but I didn’t hike down a steep canyon to hook fish up to 10.” I tied on another olive woolly bugger, a caddis emerger, and a mayfly emerger. Those fish loved the woolly bugger. I tried quite a few different combinations of nymphs behind the woolly bugger, but the woolly bugger out fished them all. Twelve inches was about the biggest of the trout I caught, but I did not catch any squaw fish and it wasn’t until I had worked my way downstream a couple of miles until I caught a sucker fish.
Swamp Creek is one of the major tributaries to Joseph Creek and I wanted to see exactly how big it was and whether or not the water was clear. I had fished my way down to Swamp Creek by early afternoon. It was a decent creek but not really fishable. Or I should say, not really cast-able. You would be dabbing flies off the end of your rod. The water was a disappointing murky color as well. It surprised me a little bit. Most of Swamp creek and Davis Creek (a main tributary to Swamp Creek) run through a pretty steep canyon with no roads. At the very upper end you actually cross the two creeks on FS rd. 46. At this spot the creeks are only about 2 feet wide. I measured the water temperature and swamp creek was running at 58 degrees to Joseph Creek’s 63 degrees. I also took a peek at the “trail” that is supposed to run beside Swamp Creek. I could see where it was, but it was definitely not worn. I followed it upstream until it went into some thick brush. It does not look like anyone maintains the trail this far down.
I was hoping to make it back to camp in time to fish upstream as well, but a breeze picked up and soon some gray clouds appeared at the rim of the canyon in the north. I picked up my pace, remembering that the weather forecast had called for rain and thunderstorms. At last, perhaps the weatherman was not wrong today after all.
Along this section of Joseph Creek there is a trail. Most places it is fairly easy to follow. Some places it splits into several game trails then disappears for a distance. If you keep your eye out, you will pick it up again. On my walk back I ran across two rattlesnakes. Counting the one alongside the river earlier in the day, that made three rattlesnake encounters for the day.
I made it back to camp at 4:30 just in time for the first rain drops. I shed my waders and hopped into the tent, hoping the rain would be short lived. I laid back on my sleeping pad listening to the plop, plop of the rain and soon fell asleep. Around 6:30 I woke and the rain had stopped. Not for long though. I no more than boiled water for dinner and the rain was at it again. Around 7:30 I began to notice that my tent was not so waterproof. I seemed to have moisture running down the inside walls and beginning to form small puddles inside my tent. Damn! I thought. I tried to decide if I could hike out before dark. It would be cutting it close and after already hiking quite a few miles today, I would probably be slower. I have hiked in the dark. I have hiked into strange places I have never been before and up out of steep canyons with no trails in the dark. I have not really enjoyed any of those experiences that much so I decided to stay put and hope that the rain would let off.
What is it they say about hope? Never mind. Soon it was good and dark and the rain was loud hitting my small tent, but not near as loud as the thunder. There were a few times that I could really feel the thunder it was so close. I did not sleep well. Between the rain and thunder I was in and out, but mostly out, of sleep most of the night. The cloud cover must have been pretty dense as well. Whenever I opened my eyes I couldn’t see a thing. Usually you can see something, even if it isn’t very clear. This was pitch black. Around 3:30 in the morning the rain began to let up and I could begin to see inside my tent a little. The lull in the rain finally let me get some sleep.
There were small puddles inside my tent everywhere and my sleeping bag was a bit wet by the morning. If it weren’t for the sleeping pad making an island, I would have been soaked. During a break in the rain I got out and made breakfast and coffee. But I had to eat and drink the coffee inside the tent because it began raining again. That tent was beginning to feel way too small. I had been in it about sixteen hours.
I finally gave up on the whole idea of the rain stopping anytime soon and simply got out and got a good soaking. I just threw all of my stuff into my pack wet. That is a great benefit of the rain as well, it made my pack weight heavier hiking out. By the time I got to the top there wasn’t a dry spot on me.
What to say about Joseph Creek? I feel a bit let down by my Angler’s Guide to Oregon. On Joseph Creek it says it “ranks among the best wild rainbow trout streams in the region. Trout here reach at least 18 inches and typically range from 8 to 14 inches.” There may be trout up to 18 inches, but the average or typical is much closer to 8 inches or less. I must say it is difficult to judge a section of river by one day of fishing. At least I finally found the right section of water to fish. If you ever fish Joseph Creek, I highly recommend staying above Swamp Creek until they get the summer water temperatures under control.
Perhaps I will ply its waters again. Maybe this fall when the water temperatures drop again, or perhaps next spring if it drops down before any of the other streams. For this spring my explorations of this creek are over. The Wenaha is calling me.
-Ridge length: about 2 miles
-elevation change: 2200 ft +/-
-Streamflow from DOE website at mouth: 150 cfs
Write-up by Grant
Sunday, June 13, 2010
I called Jeff and told him I had a great adventure for us to go on. We could take my pontoon boats and float the Wild and Scenic River section of the Powder River from below Thief Valley Reservoir to where Big Creek runs in 10 or so miles downstream. We had both fished below the reservoir and wanted to see what the upper, hard to reach, BLM sections had to offer. There is roughly 10 miles of BLM ground below the reservoir, but you can’t access it from the north end because of private property. You can access it from a dirt road on the south end and I had done just that a month or so earlier.
The opening weekend of Southeast Oregon fishing is April 24 and I had hiked much of this section of the river. My wife and I had hiked from Big Creek upstream about 4 miles. The river looked quite pleasant for a float. As I walked up the canyon that weekend I made a mental note of an especially rapid section of the river that I thought looked a bit treacherous if someone were going to try and float the river. Other than that I thought the only drawback to floating the river would be the spots where you might have to stand up and drag the pontoon boats through water that was too shallow to float.
Our basic plan was to leave Friday morning with two vehicles. We would take my Jeep Cherokee and leave it as close to the river as we could get near Big Creek. We would then take my pickup with the pontoon boats and put in below the reservoir. We were going to spend Friday fishing below the dam and sometime in the afternoon float downstream to a ¼ mile section of BLM ground that was in the middle of private ground. Here we would camp and spend part of Saturday fishing. We would then make our way downstream fishing the BLM ground where we wanted. I assumed that we would not make very good time floating since the river is fairly small and we would have to drag the boats around protruding rocks and shallows. We would have plenty of time to make it out by Sunday when our wives were expecting us home. That was the plan.
Plans never quite seem to work out, do they. Driving down the freeway along the Powder River Jeff and I both noticed that the river looked about as high as either of us had ever seen. This section of the river was upstream from Thief Valley Reservoir, so we assumed the flows below the dam would be less.
We made our way up the Medical Springs highway and up the dirt road that leads to the BLM ground. We even found a dirt road that leads right down to the river. But the river . . . Holy Crap! There was a lot of water. I looked at the positive side. “This will just make it easier to float the river. We probably wont have to drag the boats around much of anything,” I told Jeff. We left the Jeep there and headed for the reservoir.
When we arrived at the reservoir I had a hard time not saying Holy Crap! Over and over again. There was a lot of water! We packed the pontoon boats down to the river and made a second trip for our dry bags and fishing gear. The three other times I had been there, it was quite easy to wade the river. If you wanted to cross the river this day, you were going to do it swimming or in a boat. We had boats so we paddled across.
It was a tough day of fishing. The wind was relentless and second cast out my fly line broke. I had put a nick in it last year and it finally gave out. I often take a second line and reel, but I had too many other things to remember to take this weekend to remember an extra reel and line. I tied the line in a square knot and had to keep my casts under 30 feet or so. With the wind pounding us that was about all the longer you could make successful casts anyway. I did lose a couple good fish when they made runs and the knot in my fly line caught on the guide.
There were not any hatches on the river or the lake and the fish did not seem to be feeding actively like they had on the other trips I had made. Jeff and I both managed to catch quite a few fat fish, but you had to work at it more than usual and they did not seem to be keying in on any particular fly. But when you did hook one watch out. Those fish are fat and full of life. I had fish come out of the water up to five times.
Sometime around four o’clock we decided we had fought the wind enough and would head down the river and find a good place to pitch a tent for the night. We launched the pontoon boats and enjoyed a short float down to the first section of BLM ground. The property boundary is not marked, but I had drawn the property boundaries from my BLM maps onto my mapping program and downloaded it onto my GPS. We landed the boats and found a great place for a campsite on the BLM ground.
It was still pretty early so we got out the rods and fished a little. With the water flows as high as they were it was difficult to find water that wasn’t too fast. Jeff and I began to drift our flies and I swung a woolly bugger in front of a big rock. The end of my swing was about ten feet in front of Jeff and the water just exploded. I let out a whoop and almost simultaneously a fish took Jeff’s fly at the bottom of his swing. The exploding water at the end of my line disappeared with my fly. Jeff proceeded to tell me that was probably the biggest rainbow I would ever see. “The biggest rainbow you will ever see you mean. All I saw was exploding water,” I told him. I was using good quality 2X tippet. After fishing a bit longer we decided we would go ahead and float down to where the BLM ground runs continuous to Big Creek.
It was a great float for a while. The river was easy to float and we both got out our rods and fished as we floated along. We saw at least five small herds of elk cows and calves on the drift down and I found it challenging to hold my rod, video tape the elk, and keep the boat from running into things all at the same time. Jeff caught a fish on the float and it was quite entertaining to watch him try to steer his boat and land a fish.
We were on the lookout for a good camping spot when the character of the river changed dramatically. All of a sudden we weren’t gliding along peacefully. The water got fast in a hurry and started to get rough. I tried to row to the bank several times with no success. Whether I liked it or not I was in for a ride.
Let me just say I am an absolute novice when it comes to floating rivers. I have had almost no boating experience. My first time floating anything was floating the S. Fork of the Walla Walla last year. I tried it again a week later only to tear a hole in one of the pontoon boats. After that I decided a better built pontoon boat was in order and found two used Buck’s Bags boats. Jeff and I floated the roadless section of the Imnaha River below Dug Bar Road last year for Steelhead. That has been the extent of my boating experience and I don’t think Jeff has had a lot more.
Again let me remind you that I thought the extent of our difficulties floating the Powder River would be shallow or protruding rocks that we would simply have to drag the boats around. This was not the case. The waves were big and were scaring the crap out of me when they were at eye level. I got good and soaked as well. I had a raincoat on, but did not have time to zip it up when we got into the rapids. Wave after wave began splashing down the top of my waders. After a mile or two of rapids (I am not real sure how long this section of river was, but it seemed really long to me) the river finally smoothed out a little and I was able to row the boat to shore.
Jeff and I had a big laugh at how unexpected that was and how scared both of us were. We had made it a long ways down the river and we now only had 4 or 5 miles to go to the Jeep. Jeff suggested that we might as well float all the way to the Jeep that night since we had made it that far. He also suggested that we do it again the next day, but we should figure out a way to strap the video cameras on the next time so we could record the rapids. I thought that sounded pretty good since we had survived the first run.
I knew there was still one more bad section of river and I found it on my GPS before we launched the boats again. The next mile or two of water was nice again and I continually looked at my GPS so I could make sure we landed the boats in time and could portage around if necessary. And it looked bad. Neither Jeff nor I wanted to attempt the corner. It looked extremely scary with a huge car sized boulder that looked like it would eat pontoon boats for fun. The really scary part was only a few hundred feet long. Below it was rapids, but it looked easy compared to some of the stuff we had already ran.
Our options for portaging were straight up the canyon, very steep and quite a ways down stream before you could easily make it back to the river. Or we could try to find our way through a mess of flooded brushy bank. I thought we could kind of push our pontoon boats and wade/float behind them on these side channels. Jeff didn’t volunteer to go first so I did. The flooded banks were surprisingly deep and I often couldn’t touch the bottom. As I made my way around a large clump of small trees the water went into a small rapid section and sucked me and the pontoon boat down it fast.
I am not sure exactly how it happened, but it had me pinned beneath the pontoon boat against a rock. I yelled at Jeff not to follow and worked to get free from the boulder. Once I freed myself and the boat from the first boulder, the boat and I went down the chute and after banging my shins a few times we were pinned again. A second time I got free and again I went down the chute. It didn’t pin me down anymore, but it gave me a good beating. It banged me against several more boulders and drug me head first through brush. I finally came out the ringer on the other side into a small pool. I pulled my boat up on the dirt and let loose a good string of cussing. I struggled back upstream through the brush and water to help Jeff find a different way through. We picked a different way through the brush and Jeff and I had to pack his pontoon boat sideways to get it through the brush.
After beating a path through heavy brush we made it back to the river and put in. The rest of the float down to the Jeep was fairly uneventful. For my part, I was soaking wet and felt like I had come out on the losing end of a fight. I was extremely happy to see my Jeep.
After pulling the boats up to the jeep I pulled my dry bag off the back of the pontoon to inspect for dryness. I had a feeling that the contents might not be dry after getting it pinned under the water a couple of times. I also didn’t get as many rolls on the bag as I would have liked due to the long tent I had in the bag. My “dry” clothes were wet. My sleeping bag was wet and the clothes I was wearing were wet. I had planned on putting an extra set of clothes in the Jeep “just in case” but had forgot to do so.
Our enthusiasm had suffered some blows since an hour or two earlier when we were talking about doing it all again the next day. Now it was 8:30 at night and I was wet and beginning to get a bit cold. Both Jeff and I thought a warm motel room and a real bed didn’t sounds half bad so we headed to Baker City.
Little did we know the Hells Canyon Motorcycle rally was this weekend as well. The town was full of Harley’s and other kinds of motorcycles all trying to make their exhaust blow your eardrums as they went down the road. Our thoughts turned from getting to dinner to making sure we could find a bed to sleep in. After stopping at several motels we finally found one with a freshly cancelled reservation.
The next day our enthusiasm for doing a second float trip was completely gone. We were both wore out. We decided we would do a nice easy day of fishing the Powder River below the dam. The wind blew even harder on Saturday and casting was even more difficult than the day before. We stuck it out most of the day and fished until early afternoon, our fishing interrupted only by a short nap in the shade of the one tree down there. We had carried the pontoon boats down to the river again so we could get across. Casting would have been nearly impossible on the other side with the wind blowing so hard.
After packing the pontoon boats back up the hill to the pickup we headed to North Powder for an early dinner and a Hungry Man omelet. If you like omelets and are near North Powder, make sure you stop at the café.
We decided on the way home we would go over Tollgate instead of taking the freeway over Cabbage. We wanted to see where the snow was on the road to Jubilee Lake. After going through La Grande my pickup sputtered and died like it had ran out of fuel. I had just switched tanks and had one full tank of diesel still. My mind went racing through what the problem could be. After a few phone calls and running around La Grande trying to find a parts store that was still open at 6:45 p.m. we ended going to the local Wal-Mart and buying a set of fuses. Someone I knew had a fuse that was labeled “trailer battery charge” go out in his pickup within the last month and that killed the fuel to his pickup. Luckily for me, he was unlucky before me. Otherwise I would have never thought to check a fuse labeled “trailer battery charge.” After a few minutes of cranking and getting fuel worked back through the system the pickup was running and we were on the road again.
We took the side route we had planned and were happy to see that we could make it past all the snow on the way to the Wenaha. There is still some snow left to melt off so it will probably be another two weeks I am guessing before the Wenaha is wadeable.
Now that I am home I thought it would be really valuable to find a site that listed the streamflow for the Powder River. So here it is http://www.usbr.gov/pn-bin/rtindex.pl?cfg=powder It is a Bureau of Reclamation site and has historical data as well as current flows. When we floated it on Friday the flow was around 1300 cfs. The other times that I fished it the river was between 150 cfs and 250 cfs. For floating, I imagine the higher flows would be better, but I will leave that judgment to those that know something about floating a river. For me, my main objective is fishing so I would prefer a more normal flow so that the fishing was better even if it means having to drag the boat around a lot of stuff.
If you want to find the road to the BLM section of ground, take the Medical Springs Highway (203). After you cross the Powder River look for an unmarked dirt road on the left that goes over a cattle guard. If you have to go through a closed gate you have the wrong road. If you follow the dirt road it will lead you down a draw to Big Creek. The first weekend I hiked the canyon I parked my Jeep at the top of the draw and walked along Big Creek down to the Powder River. The road down looked a bit rough and steep and the weekend I was there, if you tried to ford Big Creek you would have been washed downstream. The road going up the canyon on the other side of Big Creek looks pretty rough as well. This makes Big Creek the upper end of the road in my mind. From here it is all foot power if you want to explore upstream. From Big Creek to the reservoir is 9 river miles with 6.5 of those miles being continuous BLM ground. There are several miles of BLM ground below Big Creek as well.
Write-up by Grant
The weekend before, I hiked down the Warm Springs trail and found more warm water fish than trout. This weekend I decided to try about 14 river miles upstream at the northern limit of the Forest Service ground. I was hoping that this would be far enough upstream to get out of the sucker fish and smallmouth bass water. Here there is no trail. All of my maps show a trail going down and on my forest service map it is labeled #1725. This trail is supposed to start north a ridge or two from Pole Patch Canyon. Let me assure you, there is no trail there.
When I arrived Friday evening I got out my Delorme PN-40 and found where the old trail was supposed to start. I wandered around that area looking very closely for any old paths. I found none. I worked my way down the ridge a little bit to see what I had in store for me the next morning before heading back to the jeep for some dinner and bed.
The next morning the weather was not particularly bad but not particularly good. It was overcast and looked as though it might rain at anytime. I used my Delorme PN-40 GPS again to follow the alleged trail down into the creek bottom. A very short distance down I came to a drop off of about a 100 feet or so. The ridge to the south of me looked much better and it was fairly easy to side hill over to it. So I abandoned the trail my maps show and simply made my way down what looked like the easiest path. There is a fence near the top of the canyon so if someone wanted to ride a horse in they would have to start down the ridge I ended up on. At the top of it there is a gate.
When I got to the bottom of the ridge I found an interesting tree. It was hollowed out in the middle and I could stand quite comfortably inside of it. The inside was charred along with many other trees on the creek bottom. I decided to leave my pack at the hollow tree and walked down by the creek to find the best spot to pitch a tent for the weekend. I explored upstream and downstream and only found one fire ring right beside the river. It did not appear to be in a spot where someone would have been camping. Again I found old farm implements lying about here and there.
Upstream a little ways I saw an old stove sitting in the middle of a flat area beside the river. I thought it was a really strange place for a stove just to be sitting there beside the river. I walked up and began to inspect it and realized that the couple of rotten logs on two sides of the stove were the remains of a cabin. Either that was a very old cabin for the rest of it to have completely rotted away or the logs were salvaged or perhaps burned in the fire that had charred a great many of the trees.
I finally decided to pitch the tent just below the ridge I hiked down. After setting up camp I took a few steps toward Joseph Creek and heard that all too familiar rattling sound that makes my heart jump. Not ten feet from where I pitched my tent a good sized rattlesnake was sunning itself. To say the least, I did not let the rattlesnake share the campsite.
I fished downstream from camp working my way down to the northern end of the forest service boundary. This section was another disappointment. The rainbow’s that allegedly grew to at least 18” were sparse once again. Or perhaps I should say that rainbows much over 10” were impossible to find. I fished a woolly bugger followed by two nymphs on my way downstream and caught a pretty good batch of squawfish. I did manage to land a few more suckers as well, but the squawfish seemed to outnumber the suckers in this section. I caught some other fish as well that closely resembled a squawfish in body but the mouth was not the same. This mouth was almost square and oriented more towards the bottom like a sucker, although it did not have a sucker type of mouth. The fish baffled me. I am not up to snuff on my non-game warm water fish. Whatever it was, it grew to decent size.
On my way back to camp I fished two dries followed by a dropper. The dries rose lots of four to six inch trout and the dropper (Barr’s emerger) caught the bigger fish in the eight to ten inch range. When I got back to camp I was a bit disappointed again. I had done a lot of walking to prepare for exploring this creek and I was getting paid back in squawfish and suckerfish.
The next day was beautiful. The sun was shining and it didn’t seem to matter too much that the fishing was turning out to be less than expected. After all the rain and overcast days, the sun felt like heaven. I fished a mile or so upstream with similar results to the day prior. There was a nice spring with good flow coming down from the draw below the viewpoint. This spot did hold a few more rainbows. When I was done fishing for the day I walked up the hillside a ways and followed game trails back downstream towards camp. I did manage to startle two groups of turkeys on my way back as well. I got back to camp in early afternoon and packed up for the hike out. There is nothing like a nice 2500 foot climb out of a canyon at the end of a day filled with catching big suckers and squawfish and rainbows up to 10”.
From the water I covered so far, the rainbows have been almost all in the riffles while the slower pools and runs seem to hold good size pods of squawfish or suckers. I am not ready to give up on the creek yet. I am hoping that upstream may hold some better water still. There is a section farther upstream, but still on Forest Service ground, that has several small spring fed creeks feeding Joseph Creek. I am hoping this section may stay colder in the hot months of summer and therefore harbor the elusive 18”+ trout. Both times I have fished the creek, the water has been pretty murky as well. I have no problem fishing off-color water as long as there is enough visibility for a fish to see my fly if it gets in their strike zone. Perhaps clearer water might help though. I have no particular reason to believe it will other than I want Joseph Creek to be a decent trout fishery and it has been disappointing so far.
-Access by Highway 3 going north from Enterprise, FS RD 46, FS RD 4650, FS RD 150, on FS Rd 150 park anywhere you want to start down a ridge
-Distance from road on top to Creek: about 1.5 miles
-elevation change on hike: +/- 2,250 ft
-Flow from DOE site at mouth: 140 cfs
-Water clarity is definitely not good at 140 cfs, but it was fishable.
Write up by Grant
Sunday, May 30, 2010
As a kid I remember stopping at the Joseph Creek Viewpoint on our way to Enterprise and peering down into the steep canyon with awe. Later in life as I was perusing the waters on a map I would look at the continuous switchbacks of the creek and wonder how much water was in the bottom of it and whether there was any good fishing to be had. Last year I decided to try and start exploring more waters and I bought “Complete Angler’s Guide to Oregon.” Under Joseph Creek it says that there are rainbows up to 18” primarily because of the sheer remoteness of the creek. The book also says you have to either have deep pockets to pay for access at the end of the road on private property or you had better have “the lung capacity and stamina of a mountain goat.” Deep pockets, no. Lung capacity of a mountain goat . . . I’m not sure.
Reading about Joseph creek peeked my long lingering interest and I began to think seriously about hiking into it. I first gathered the right maps. I had good topo maps from my mapping program from my Delorme handheld GPS. To get more detail of property boundaries and roads that get close to the creek I ordered a BLM map of the resource area and a Forest Service map of the Ranger district. Armed with these I had an excellent picture of Forest Service & BLM ground on the creek.
As I went through last fall and winter my interest would peek and then wane in cycles. I had a hard time deciding if I had the lung capacity and stamina of a mountain goat. But sometime in January I made up my mind and began training. Since January I have been hiking up ridges on the South Fork of the Walla Walla that gain around 2300 feet elevation, going up to 4 times per week. Most of them gain that elevation in roughly a mile. I began packing 30-40 pounds of rocks in my pack as well to get my legs in shape for the hike out. By early May I felt like I could give a mountain goat some competition even if I couldn’t beat him.
If you have googled Joseph Creek you have found, as I have, that there is not a lot of information. Your access points are limited. There is Ninebark Outfitters who own the property at the upper end of the creek and they own the ground that the county road dead-ends on. To access Joseph Creek on their property will cost you a minimum of $900. To some that may be well worth it.
There is the Chico Trail which is somewhere around 12 miles long. This trail drops down from Highway 3 to Davis Creek, climbs a ridge, drops down to Swamp Creek, and then winds its way down to the confluence of Swamp Creek and Joseph Creek. According to the Forest Service office in Enterprise, The Back Country Horsemen of Oregon go through and maintain this trail once a year. This trail is a bit long for a weekend fishing trip powered by your own two feet, but I do plan on making a trip down this trail with some other mode of transportation.
The other options are a bit more rugged. According to the book, there was a trail leading from the viewpoint on Highway 3 at some point in time. But I have found no secondary source to confirm it. All of my maps do show an old packer’s trail that drops down from a ridge across the canyon from the viewpoint. Basically you would need to find a ridge that looks hikeable and try it out.
In one of my google searches I did finally find some good information. I found that the Nez Perce tribe was given 15,000 acres of ground on Joseph Creek. What I found online was a 23 page management plan that called for open access to the public and building a trail down into the canyon from Rye Ridge Road. The plan was almost 10 years old and I could not find any other information about public access to this ground or whether or not they had built a trail into the canyon. There is also a trail that begins on Forest Service ground on the east fork of Tamarack Creek that leads onto the Nez Perce ground.
Joseph Creek apparently gets pretty warm in the summer and it is best to fish it right after runoff or in the fall. The head waters of Joseph Creek are actually quite low so as other rivers were beginning to rise and swell, Joseph Creek was dropping and looking like it might be fishable by the opening day of fishing. The only trouble then was deciding which spot to try and access first. I decided on the Rye Ridge Road access point, not knowing whether or not they had actually constructed a trail. This spot did have a pretty gentle ridge that I could walk down though.
As May 22 approached the weather forecasts were looking bad. Rain and possible snow showers were in the forecast. My plan was to hike in Friday afternoon, fish Saturday and Sunday exploring up and down stream and then hike out Sunday afternoon. Thursday night when I checked the weather forecast again it had a special alert for overnight lows to be close to freezing and snow levels down to 2500 feet. At that point I don’t think a forecast for tornadoes could have stopped me. I had been waiting and planning for this trip all winter. I called Jeff and asked to borrow his good GoreTex coat that he had bought last fall and luckily my new waders showed up Friday morning as well so I wouldn’t have to worry about leaky waders.
Friday afternoon I hit the road. On the drive over it rained, snowed, and hailed. I was definitely wondering if I had also inherited the brain power of a mountain goat with all the hiking I had done this winter. The weather was much better once I dropped down into Elgin. It was still cloudy and rainy looking, but it wasn’t a fierce storm anyway.
I found the spot where the Nez Perce ground intersected with the road without a problem. They had built the trail after all and it is called Warm Springs trail. There was a nice sign there welcoming me. I had been a little worried about parking my rig in some random spot on the road all weekend, so I was really relieved that there was kind of a trailhead area.
I threw on my pack and hit the trail. It was cloudy and looked like it could rain at anytime but it held off for the walk down. The trail the tribe constructed does not look like it gets heavy traffic. I lost it several times on the way down where game trails diverged and were more heavily worn than the manmade trail. I found my way to the bottom and sure enough there was warm water running out from under the rocks at the bottom. This spring smells a bit bad to be honest, a bit like rotten eggs or something. It must have something to do with the minerals in the water. My brother lived on a place on Grouse Flats (above the Grande Ronde River) and when you heated the water it smelled the same.
I walked to the edge of a small drop off and looked at the creek. I could see fish all over the place. There were quite a few in the shallow gravel beds and they appeared like they might be spawning. I knew the fish were definitely not trout, but could not quite tell what they were. I only had a few hours until dark so I began hunting for a good place to hang my Hennessy hammock tent.
It took a bit of hunting to find two trees of a big enough size and close enough together to hang a hammock. I had expected the fir and pine trees to go all the way to the bottom of the canyon but they don’t this far down the creek. After some searching I finally found some sort of scrub brush/tree about a half mile downstream I could hang my hammock on. I set up camp and had about an hour left of daylight so I took a walk downstream to see what the trail and creek was like.
This section of the creek was mostly riffles and pocket water. Just a ¼ mile from where I camped there was an old homesite. The roof was completely gone from the cabin and the log walls were leaning a bit. There were several pieces of old horse drawn farm equipment there as well. It seemed strange to me that someone tried to farm that creek bottom. The flat parts with decent soil are pretty narrow and short. They would have had to drag their equipment across the creek constantly to get to the next field. I guess I am just used to modern agriculture where farmers work fields that are thousands of acres instead of small acre plots. There was a sickle and hay rake down there though and I wondered where they were taking that hay. Perhaps there was a big barn somewhere down there that I did not see. I would have hated to try and haul hay out of that canyon.
The next morning I set out with great anticipation. I was anxious to revisit the water below the warm springs to see if the unidentified fish were still there. According to the DOE’s website, Joseph Creek was running at 115 cfs that day. The water was off color but not brown. I checked the water temperature that morning as well and found it to be about 48 degrees. I tied on a woolly bugger and a couple of nymphs and cast downstream to where I knew those fish were holding. First swing and wam, I had a fish on. “Man”, I thought, “that sure feels like a rainbow.” And it was a nice 12” rainbow. After releasing him I cast a few more times and had a second rainbow on. After releasing a second decent rainbow I began hooking into some larger but definitely different feeling fish. Pretty soon I got one landed and saw that all those fish I was seeing were suckers. The creek was full of them. They seemed to be spawning and the rainbows seemed to be waiting behind the suckers for eggs.
I worked my way upstream catching a rainbow here and there but hooking a lot of heavier fish that I did not get landed. Presumably these were suckers since when I did land one of the heavy ones it was a sucker. As I came around the bend of the creek to a deep long pool, I stood there just looking at how pretty it was, and a post-spawn steelhead came floating down towards me and swam right beside me on its way downstream. I also began to see small pods of small fish with dark tails. I knew I should know what they were but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what species they were. As I fished the upper end of one of the pools I hooked a decent fish that did not feel like a sucker. It got close to the surface and it did not look like a rainbow either, it was much browner. I did not get that one landed, but upstream my suspicions were confirmed. It was smallmouth bass. This section of creek was full of suckers and smallmouth bass.
I was a little disappointed, but I had a great time anyway. It was my first camping trip of the year and I forgot how good it feels to get out, stretch your legs, and do some exploring on new water. And the smell of my first campfire of the year, it was heavenly laying there in my hammock at night with a warm fire beside me. Sure it rained most of the time I was down there, and sure I was catching mostly suckers, but I was out where the world feels right. I got to hike down a beautiful canyon, and to boot, Sunday was a beautiful clear day.
I had planned on fishing Sunday as well, but decided to hike out early and spend the rest of the day exploring other access points for Joseph Creek. After hiking out I basically drove around the mountains all day seeing how close to the ridge roads led me and seeing what ridges looked like good prospects for another weekend. Stay tuned. I will be trying to explore Joseph Creek every weekend until the Wenaha is wadeable. So, probably most of June I will be hiking into Joseph Creek.
Some Trip Notes:
For those who just like to hike and explore it would make for a fun hike to go down the Warm Springs trail, hike a few miles down stream to the East Fork Tamarack Creek Trail and then hike out. This would make a great 2 day hike. The Trail going down the East Fork Tamarack Creek is actually a road that leads to some buildings owned by the tribe. The public is welcome to hike or ride horses or bikes (no motors) on this road. After the road reaches the buildings the trail is not visible from google earth. I have no idea if it is maintained by anybody the rest of the way to Joseph Creek. But that last part is fairly short. There is about a 2500 feet elevation difference between where you park your car and where you reach warm springs. The trail is about 2.5 miles long, or if you simply follow the nose of the ridge you will cut off roughly a half mile.
Upstream from warm springs there is another old cabin that is pretty neat. This one has the roof partly intact and is still mostly furnished although not usable. There is a big wood cook stove in there that is half sunk into the floor and part of the roof is on it as well. There is also an old bed, stools, and shelves in there still.
Write-up by Grant