Little river a long ways down

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    Photo by Eric Barker Steptoe Butte is a prominent landmark in Whitman County. A portion of the butte may be sold to the Washington Department of Natural Resources and preserved for its ecological and botanical resources.

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    Photo by Eric Barker Steptoe Butte is a prominent landmark in Whitman County. A portion of the butte may be sold to the Washington Department of Natural Resources and preserved for its ecological and botanical resources.

There’s a little river that everyone knows.

By everyone, I mean the people who like to walk several miles to hook a fish and let it go.

It’s a river with a name that tells of the big river it spools into.

It used to be the haunt of a lot of steelhead, those red sided trout that tail their way to birthing streams in an annual pilgrimage that anglers refer to as a “run.”

“Little steelies used to run up that river by the gobs,” one fisher, who is an old fisher now, said as he reminisced about the days when, as a younger man, he and his pals often hiked back to the little river and hooked 20-inch trout with the fluency of auctioneers at an all-day steer sale.

There are a lot of paths to this river; many of them are shorter than the 10-mile trail that follows the rush of water through tall trees and along rock cliffs as the little river tumbles down to the big fishing holes.

You can reach the honey holes from almost any direction, on a variety of trails, some of them entail casual hikes on well-worn paths that lead from parking lots with vaulted toilets, while others are bushwack trails and some require a good mule.

A lot of people, for many years have scouted the most reasonable access points to the best fishing holes, and once years ago a man assured me he had located the nirvana trail that dropped quickly from the side of a mountain to one of the best fishing spots on the river.

“It is a half mile down,” he said. “And 10 miles up.”

In Idaho, there are still a lot of rivers like this one.

It is mythical, in a sense, because of all the tales told of its legendary cutthroat and bull trout.

And because of all the anglers who are aging now, or gone, who have for almost a century slipped along its boulders and placed dry flies where the water bounced and flattened in the summer sun.

The stories go back to a time when anglers delicately cast dries with bamboo fly rods, and later steel, fiberglass and graphite.

It didn’t matter how careful the cast however, the fish were always willing and the stories always engaging, and it’s because of their relevance that the name of the river isn’t mentioned.

Go there once, though, and you’re hooked on it for a long time. Hike in any way you can, and exert the effort to reach its water and you’ll find the solace of silence, mostly, without the growing tide of humanity that shadows the banks of many other rivers.

Stay for a day, and the river seethes its way into your system.

It remains there for weeks as you plot how best to proceed when again you visit.

What is the most optimal shortcut from a nearby peak, or ridge, or a point of land?

What’s the best route to find the most seldom-fished water?

At night the sound of the stream nudges you to sleep.

During the day you remember the behemoth cedars on the opposite bank and how the devil’s club beneath them grew like wait-a-minute vines and scratched your legs as you slipped by eyeing the next wash, the next hole, the next run.

It’s hard to shake.

I stopped along a gravel road one early morning this summer to talk with a fly fisher who, despite being hard at work on his job, was thinking of a good trout stream.

We pondered Panhandle rivers and how many are stocked with anglers riding float tubes or rafts, or just people relaxing on float tubes or rafts. Flotillas of them.

He lowered his voice and mentioned this small stream as if it was a blessing, a place only for people who relished its import.

“Have you been there lately?” he asked.

I had not been there in years.

But, his voice did it, as well as the watery, reeled-in look in his eyes when he mentioned the place.

“You’ve got to go this summer,” he whispered.

From the Missouri River to the coast, a lot of fine fishing water plunges east and west, some is solitary and remote, some is a circus of Filson hats and Patagonia poster apparel.

This river is neither.

There’s a story at every turn of this river. A tale in every canyon. The stories get bigger as the river widens and the holes get deeper and longer.

Just listen.

There is plenty of time to hear the tales on the long walk through a fir and pine-scented forest.

I’m going back, I’m pretty certain.

I have a map a man made for me on a piece of cardboard that he laid on the hood of his pickup truck to show the preeminent path to the most astonishing holes.

I’m going back to fish it, and to listen.

Maybe this week.

Ralph Bartholdt is a staff writer for the Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached at

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