Joseph Creek, Wallowa County, Oregon September 17 & 18, 2010

After returning to Joseph Creek the other weekend and finding a totally different creek from the one I had found this spring, I decided I should give the other sections a second chance.  My last trip into Joseph Creek was above Swamp Creek and there was not much water.  Lots of small rainbows, but not much water.  I decided to hike back in by Pole Patch Canyon and fish the 5 miles of Forest Service ground below Swamp Creek. 

Joseph Canyon

I had mixed feelings about this section of Joseph Creek.  This spring it held more Squawfish than anything, but the water above Swamp Creek was very small.  I was still in search of those elusive 18” Joseph Creek rainbows and I just didn’t think there was enough water above Swamp Creek to grow an 18 incher.

I was able to leave late Friday morning and head to Table Mountain.  This spring I had tried to find the trail that is shown on my Forest Service maps as #1725.  I had no luck in finding it, so opted for a little different route down the ridge that hugged the north side of pole patch canyon.  I had forgotten how steep it was though.  The other two ridges I have hiked down to get into Joseph Creek were cakewalks compared to this ridge.  Going down it was trouble enough and I wasn’t looking forward to walking up it.  To say the least it was steep.

When I arrived at the bottom I was happy to see the creek was substantially bigger here than above Swamp Creek.  I set up camp in the exact spot I did this spring.  Although this time when I got done I walked to the creek a little more cautiously since this spring I had only made a few steps before encountering a rattler.  No rattler this time, just one of those black snakes with some yellow on him.

Joseph Creek

I had been taking my Hennessey hammock tent the last several weekends, both into Joseph Creek and the North Fork of the Wenaha.  And I had not been sleeping well with the cool fall-like temperatures at night.  This spring I had used my kid’s tent that was only big enough for me if I slept in it diagonally, but my last trip with it left me a little damp.  This weekend I got to try out a new tent I had just received the week prior.  I bought a Kelty Corrie 2.  It was easy to set up, roomy for one person, lightweight, and best of all it had a rain fly that went all the way to the ground.  The weather reports were calling for a good chance of thunder, lightning, and scattered rainstorms and I did not want a repeat of my last spring trip into Joseph Creek with a lake in the bottom of my tent.

My goal for the weekend was to fish the 5 miles below Swamp Creek on Friday and Saturday and if my legs felt up to it, hike out Saturday night so I could make it to the Imnaha Sunday and look for early Steelhead.  By the time I hiked down to Joseph Creek and set up camp it was four in the afternoon before I was ready to fish downstream.  From where I camped at the bottom of Pole Patch Canyon there is a little under 2 miles of creek going downstream that is on forest service ground and I was hoping to get it all covered before dark.

I tied on the two flies that worked best for me the weekend before, an orange stimulator and an elk hair caddis.  Again they worked well.  The creek still had lots of fish under six inches but I was definitely finding more eight to ten inch fish.  I had to cover water fairly quickly since I wanted to cover 2 miles in just a couple of hours.

Joseph Creek does form some large pools, created by the water running into cliff faces.  These pools are almost stagnate though.  I had not found any squawfish yet and I thought maybe they were in these deep slow pools.  I tied on a woolly bugger and nymph to fish the depths of some of these pools to find either squawfish or the elusive 18” Joseph Creek rainbows.  I caught neither.  After trying several of these pools with both stimulators and woolly buggers, I quit switching back and forth and stuck to the stimulator/elk hair caddis combo.  The heads and tails of those pools where there was current did prove productive with dry flies.

At one of these pools I cast to a small eddy behind a rock at the head of a pool.  A large rainbow came all the way out of the water after my stimulator.  This was as close to an 18 incher as I had seen.  This fish was at least 16 inches.  I stopped and waited a minute or two to let him reposition himself behind his rock before I cast again.  This time he came out head and then tail taking the stimulator.  I had him.  And then I didn’t.  He would not come again, but he was as big of a fish as I had seen on Joseph Creek.  Well that is not counting the big suckers and squawfish I had caught this spring.

As sunset approached large numbers of October Caddis began dancing above the water.  I had seen a few of them on the water earlier, but now they were coming out in large numbers.  These fish were well accustomed to large orange bellied bugs.

By the time I had reached the end of the forest service ground the sun had set.  It was not dark yet, but it was only a matter of time now.  I had thought about turning around multiple times, knowing that if I didn’t I would be wading back upstream in the dark.  Oh well I thought, it is not everyday I get to fish Joseph Creek and I might as well make good use of the light.  My thoughts were a little different when I was wading upstream in the pitch black trying not to fall on my face.

The next morning as I got ready to start fishing upstream two deer came running around the hillside.  They skidded to a halt a bit taken back by me and my tent in their path to the creek.  They really seemed confused.  They stood there snorting and looking for at least two minutes.  It gave me enough time to get several still pictures and then get out my video camera and record them snorting and acting bewildered for another minute.

I fished my way upstream with similar results to the day before.  There are definitely more medium sized rainbows below Swamp Creek.  Almost everywhere I thought was a better spot I managed to catch at least one 8”-12” fish.  I also landed my biggest fish so far on Joseph Creek, a very healthy 14” rainbow.

As I fished upstream I would fish like most dry fly fisherman, trying to get the best drag free drift possible.  That is until I didn’t catch anything.  Then I would start skating and hopping my dry flies and watch the battle begin.  Large October Caddis do not sit nicely on top of the water waiting for a trout to come along and eat it.  They bounce up and down splashing the water and if they accidentally end up in the water they do not sit there patiently waiting for their end.  They fight to get airborne again.  One of the best techniques I found was to get above a good looking spot and then cast downstream with a tight line.  I would then use my second dry fly as an anchor and hop my big orange stimulator upstream through the water.  I caught far more fish this way then dead drifting.  Just watching the rainbows go crazy for the fly was worth the entertainment.  Often when one fish was hooked the other fish would swarm it trying to get my fly from the hooked fish.

I made it Swamp Creek by early afternoon.  I was curious to see how the water temperature compared between the two.  In late afternoon Joseph Creek above Swamp Creek was a warm 67 degrees while Swamp Creek was 62 degrees.  There is also a spring fed creek that feeds Joseph Creek about 2 miles below Swamp Creek that was 57 degrees.

What this means is that I got it all wrong this spring.  I had thought summer temperatures might be lowest above Swamp Creek.  There are numerous spring fed creeks above Swamp Creek, but they were all dry.  Swamp Creek and the unnamed creek not only provide needed flow but also cool the creek off substantially.  In the two days below Swamp Creek I never got a reading higher than 64 degrees.  The squawfish that occupied this section of the creek in the spring must have been on a spawning run similar to the suckers I found even farther downstream.

It seems that no one really knows much about Joseph Creek.  This has been my fifth trip into the canyon and I learn more each trip, often disproving what I thought I knew about fishing Joseph Creek.  I bought “Fishing in Oregon: The Complete Oregon Fishing Guide” and it claims that all access to the creek is private.  It then says that fishing is best at the mouth of Swamp Creek in early spring for rainbows and during summer for smallmouth.  Neither statement is accurate and the only smallmouth I have seen have been much lower on the Nez Perce tribe’s land.

Old sickle bar under tree on Joseph Creek

What this means for me is that as long as my legs, lungs, and mind can handle it, I will be trying to learn more about Joseph Creek in the coming years.  It may not hold huge numbers of large rainbows, but there seem to be some and I feel like I am only beginning to understand the creek.  I see no humans while I am down there, which is a great plus.  I have found many abandoned farm implements and remains of cabins and I enjoy letting my imagination go on what it would have been like living and trying to make a living down there.  And sooner or later I am sure I will learn the secret haunts of the elusive 18” Joseph Creek rainbows.

Trip Notes:

2010 Joseph Creek Photoset

-Access by Highway 3 going north from Enterprise, FS RD 46, FS RD 4650, FS RD 150

-On my hike out I decided that next time I will try hiking the ridge south of Pole Patch Canyon.  I think I should be able to park close to the canyon edge and although the ridge does not look substantially better, it looks a little better to hike down and I would take a little better.  If a person hikes down this ridge, they will want to stay to the right, hugging the edge of Pole Patch Canyon.  This will keep you off of one of the small patches of private property inholdings.  This will also bring you right down to where I have camped the previous two trips.

-Ridge Length is about 1.5 miles

-Maximum elevation 4,746 ft

-Minimum elevation 2,502 ft

-Elevation change 2,244 ft

-Flow at mouth according to Washington DOE website was 20 cfs


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3 Responses to Joseph Creek, Wallowa County, Oregon September 17 & 18, 2010

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