Hiking Joseph Canyon and Fishing Joseph Creek September 4-5, 2010

Most of Joseph Creek has no roads close to it and runs through a deep canyon that is 2,000-2,500 feet deep.  Joseph Creek begins where Chesnimnus Creek and Crow Creek run together.  This upper end of Joseph Creek proper is followed for about 6 miles before it ends at private property.  This upper portion is almost all private property except for one very small strip.  At the end of the county road, the creek is owned by Ninebark Outfitters for a short distance until Joseph Creek enters forest service lands.  The forest service ground is about eight and a half miles long, but there are two small inholdings of private land owned by Ninebark Outfitters.  What all this means for anyone wanting to access Joseph Creek is that there are no easy options for access other than paying Ninebark Outfitters for access at the end of the county road. 

Joseph Creek

For those with good legs, strong lungs, and a sense of adventure there are many options for exploring Joseph Creek.  Your options are only limited by the number of ridges you consider “hike-able.”  For me, hike-able means that there is no cliff face.  Joseph Canyon is best explored by those who like a challenge.

I began my hiking and fishing explorations of Joseph Creek this spring on the opening weekend of fishing for rivers and streams in Northeast Oregon.  I made three different trips into Joseph Canyon.  My first expedition was much farther down on the Nez Perce tribe’s ground, the second trip I hiked into the lower end of the forest service ground, and my last trip in this spring was on the upper end of the forest service ground.  I have written and posted about these first three trips already so I wont go into detail about them here.

After three trips into Joseph Creek, I had not found the trout Shangri La that I had hoped for.  The only source I have found for fishing on Joseph Creek is John Shewey’s “Complete Angler’s Guide to Oregon.”  According to this book, fishing is best right after run off and again in the fall when water temperature’s fall and flows get a small bump up from the summer time flows.  The past few weeks we have seen abnormally cool temperatures and we even had a good summer rain.  These two things made me think of Joseph Creek again.

I decided to hike in the upper section of the river again since this section had the most trout and the fewest warmwater species this spring.  This section is above Swamp Creek (a major tributary to Joseph Creek).  The ridge I had found between Rim Creek and North Fork Cliff Creek was about as gentle of a ridge as I was going to find in Joseph Canyon so I headed there once again.

Let me say first that this canyon is spectacular.  Like most of our Eastern Oregon mountains, it is arid and a bit rugged.  The south facing slopes are covered with bunch grass and basalt rock outcrops with some tough, drought resistant, tall ponderosa pines scattered throughout.  The north and east facing slopes are typically covered with dense brush, firs, and a few ponderosas.  When you drive to the edge of the canyon you will be close to 5,000 ft in elevation and taking a deep breath of mountain air while surveying the canyon makes me feel right with the world.

You leave your cell phone, laptop, and all the other modern conveniences behind for a few days and live a little closer to how man was meant to live.  Breathing air filled with the fragrances of the plant life around you, using your own two feet to transport you into a world less effected by mankind.  And if you go by yourself into such places, you begin to really hear yourself and the world around you.

When I fished Joseph Creek this spring it was running between 150 and 200 cfs.  At that flow Joseph Creek is a good sized small river.  Summer and fall flows are more in the 15-30 cfs range.  This past weekend Joseph Creek was running between 17 and 18 cfs near the mouth.  When I got down to the creek I was surprised at how small Joseph Creek was.  Where the creek was 15-20 feet wide, the water might only be 3”-6” deep.  Where the creek narrowed up it ran as deep as a foot or two with an occasional deep spot of several feet.

With some encouragement, I convinced my wife to join me for the weekend.  She was a little unsure of the hike out, but I felt confident that she could make it in and out without dying.  We arrived at the creek late in the afternoon and she had developed a very large blister on her big toe from the steep hike down.  So after finding a good spot to hang our Hennessey Hammock Tents, I fished down stream while she gave her blister a rest.

Since the creek was small and shallow, I tied on a size 12 orange stimulator   and a size 10 Joe’s Grasshopper with a small Barr’s emerger off the bend.  I was a bit skeptical about the creek.  I really didn’t think there would be many fish in it and I did not see the huge numbers of caddis casing on the rocks like I do on the Wenaha.

A good spot on Joseph Creek

With my first cast, my skepticism began to change.  My flies were attacked savagely.  It did not matter where I cast flies into the creek.  There seemed to be small rainbows everywhere waiting to devour anything that looked like food.  The fish were not big, in fact they were quite small, but what they lacked in size they made up for in numbers and aggressiveness.

I fished my way a mile or so downstream quite amazed at the number of trout in this section of water.  This kind of fishing is pocket water fishing in miniature.  In search for the bigger trout, I scanned and cast to exceedingly small pockets.  A small deep spot behind or beside a rock, a small riffled area that provided a little more depth and cover, and the occasional small run created by some bedrock.  Rather than reel in and walk between spots, I simply walked and cast.  Rarely was there a section of stream that did not hold fish willing to rise.

If like me, you have been fishing almost all nymphs and streamers this summer, there is a great deal of enjoyment in being reminded of all the ways rainbow trout will attack the fly.  There is the simple suck where your fly gently disappears under water as though it sank all by itself, except when you lift your rod there is a fish on the end.  There is the full body tackle where the rainbow comes all the way out of the water and then lands on top of your fly.  This kind of take probably won’t end in a hookup, but it is well worth the excitement and entertainment it provides.  There is the nose bounce where the trout comes completely out of the water with the fly bouncing off it’s nose to go sailing through the air away from the trout.  There is the swirl where the trout seems to circle the fly first to capture it and then grabs it with it’s mouth.  Perhaps one of the rarest of all, is the simultaneous double rise.  I can’t recall if I have ever had it happen before this weekend, but time and time again I had two fish take my two dries with perfect timing.  What became clear is that there is fierce competition on this creek for food.

As the evening wore on, I kept telling myself that I should turn around and head back to camp.  But it was too fun and although I had fished this section of river in the spring, it was a completely different creek from the high flows of this spring and the urge to see what was around each corner kept me fishing until it was nearly dark.

I did finally turn around and made it back to camp before it got good and dark.  The night was clear and the spot where we hung our hammocks provided some pretty good stargazing lounging in the comfort of the hammock.  I decided to leave my rain fly off to provide for better stargazing as well.  Unfortunately I woke up plenty of times during the night to note how clear the sky was and how bright the stars were.  The weather is definitely getting to be more like fall weather and the combination of my lightweight sleeping bag and my hammock’s underpad were beginning to feel a little too lightweight for the nighttime temperatures.

The next day my wife and I fished our way upstream to the upper limit of the forest service ground.  The orange stimulator seemed to be the most popular fly the day before so I gave my wife a couple of them and tied one on myself.  Behind my Stimulator I routinely changed my second dry fly to give all the other classics their due.  Before the day was out I settled on the two dries that I often reach for first, the orange stimulator and an elk-hair caddis.  Although all the flies drew some strikes, these two flies outfished the rest.  Strangely enough, there were almost no caddis on the water except Saturday evening I saw several large October Caddis flying about the water.  During Sunday there were several blizzards of very small mayflies, but the fish were happy to continue taking the stimulator and elk-hair caddis.  Joseph Creek also has a very healthy population of crawdads.  Whenever I actually stopped walking and fishing and looked among the rocks, I could easily find a few crawdad moving about.  There were several times when one would go fleeing out of my way as I was wading as well.

Although the fishing was pretty easy for the most part, I was reminded a time or two to use stealth when I walked up on a particularly slow, calm section of water and saw trout scurrying away.  When approaching these spots I simply lengthened out my cast a bit so I could stay back and then put a bit of hook on the cast to put my flies where I thought the fish would be and kept my fly line off to the side.  I would give the water good clearance when passing so as to not ruin the water for my wife.  And although I was fishing over the water before her, I think I simply got the fish warmed up on some of the sections since she caught the two biggest fish on Sunday.  And how big were they?  Well they were only 10’-12”, but in that section of creek, they were trophies.  I did manage to catch several 8”-10” rainbows as well.

Most of the fish in this section of the creek are 6” and under with the occasional trophy rainbow running 8”-12.”  I say trophy with only a bit of sarcasm.  Joseph Creek is very small in this section above Swamp Creek.  If you combine the fierce competition from other rainbows with the creeks diminutive size, I believe a trout reaching 12” in this section is truly a champion among fish.

Grant at trail sign

If you are only after large trout, do not hike into Joseph Creek.  If you like tough hikes into places that few others go, then get out the topo maps and start planning a hiking trip into Joseph Creek.  You will be rewarded with bountiful numbers of rainbows, beautiful country, and a sense of accomplishment when you make it out.

Trip Notes:

2010 Joseph Creek Photoset

-Access is from Enterprise going north on Highway 3, take a right on Forest Service road 46, follow it until you get to Red Hill Lookout.  Stop and climb the lookout tower before continuing on.  Continue down Forest Service Rd. 46 until you get to Coyote Campground, take a left onto Forest Service Rd. 4650.  Follow it until you get to road 080 and take a left.  This is a dirt road, when it y’s take a right, when you get to the corrals stay right.  You will follow this road until you reach a barbwire gate, go through it, making sure you close it well and follow a dirt track until it ends.  This should put you on the right ridge.

-Ridge length is around 2 miles long with about 2200-2300 ft elevation change

-Streamflow at mouth according to Washington DOE website was 17-18 cfs.  The creek was definitely small at this size.  Looking at the streamflow history, it looks like that is a normal flow for this time of year.  In October it looks like the flow bumps up to 20-30 cfs which would probably be better.

-I began carrying a thermometer and checking water temperatures this year to try and understand bull trout migrations on the Wenaha better, but it has been interesting seeing what water temperatures are in other creeks and rivers as well and seeing what differences there are between places with different water temperatures.  Since summer water temperature is a concern on Joseph Creek it seemed like a good idea to record water temperatures there as well.  When I arrived at the creek on Saturday late in the afternoon, the creek was up to 65 degrees.  The next morning the creek was running 54 degrees and at the end of the day on Sunday it had only risen to 60 degrees.

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One Response to Hiking Joseph Canyon and Fishing Joseph Creek September 4-5, 2010

  1. Pingback: Joseph Creek, Wallowa County, Oregon September 17 & 18, 2010 | fishingandhiking.com

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