Upper Selway Float/Fishing


tryin' not to get too comfortable
I’ve been wanting to float and fish the upper Selway for a few years, but couldn’t ever score a permit. So this year, for our annual summer trip, Ron and I decided to do it post-season, launching on August 1. We flew into the Moose Creek airstrip July 29, with Dave Pettet at Orofino Aviation. This allowed us to avoid the bony late season water in the upper section, but we still had 25 miles of great wilderness floating and fishing. Nearby wildfires made it touch-and-go up to the last minute, but it turned out to be a memorable trip.

It was really hot, and the fishing was best early morning and late evening. We learned this right away. After Dave dropped us and our gear off, we strung up the rods and went down to Moose Creek to check the fish. At the ridiculously late hour of 9 am. We knew it was late when we started passing people on the way back from fishing, who told stories of numerous fish (mostly 5-10 inch) that would hit just about anything. “Just tie any old fly on.” Yeah, right. After two hours of zero, we hung our heads and slogged back up to the airstrip campsites for a much-needed cold beverage.

The campsites on the airstrip are nice. Old wooden picnic tables, plenty of shade and flat space, and campfire rings (that we couldn’t use because of the phase I fire restrictions). But they are about ½ mile from the river, and the airstrip is really busy with airplane traffic. So we humped 9 loads of gear down to the Moose Creek/Selway confluence, set up our boats, and ferried our gear to a nice little sandy beach just downstream. That became our M.O. for the rest of the trip. We avoided the larger, established high-water camps the whitewater buckaroos use in the Spring, opting instead for leave-no-trace stealth camping on little low-water beaches and nooks.

We spent three days at Moose Creek, until we could launch. From there, we fished upstream (not so good) and downstream (much better). The deep green flatwater pools were a bust. We could see fish in them in the afternoon, but they were lockjawed and lethargic. The rougher pocket water in the rapids, and the tail of pools right before they drop into rapids, was the best ground. Even though there were a lot of grasshoppers, the surface game was pretty slow. Instead, we were tossing nymphs and streamers. My favorite set-up was a #6 black rubber-legged wooly bugger with a #14 beadhead hares ear or prince nymph. We caught mostly small scrappers on the dropper, but occasionally a 12-14 inch westslope cutt would hit the bugger. It wasn’t the best catching, but it was some of the finest fishing I’ve ever done.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. In retrospect, maybe we bit off a little more than we could chew. I had been researching the Selway since last winter, and had a river map that showed all the rapids. I’d seen video clips on YouTube of huge boat-eating water, with big drops and foamy hydraulics. But that was in the spring runoff, I figured, and in low water the rapids wouldn’t be so bad. Heck, if we had to, we could just jump out of the boat and wade/guide it through the rock gardens. Wrong.

Me and Ron have done a few Class II-III- rivers, and weren’t prepared for Moose Juice. That’s the name of the roughly three-mile section of river below Moose Creek. Ten distinct rapids Class II-IV+. We had scouted all the rapids from the trail during a layover day at Moose Creek, fished through them, and had our lines pretty well scouted. Some of the rapids were narrow fast chutes with plunge pools below them, but most were technical little rock garden dances. Ladle is considered to be the hardest of them all. I was feeling pretty good, even a little cocky after we had gotten through Divide Creek rapid, Double Drop and Wa-Poots. It was my hubris that almost killed me. Near the bottom of Ladle, I got tossed from my boat when I didn’t hit a narrow chute head-on straight. My left pontoon got hung, and as the boat violently swung, the trailing pontoon sucked under, and I got thrown upstream of the broached boat. I came up between the pontoons, grabbed the footrests, and hung on for dear life as the raging current flowing between the rocks the boat was stuck on tried to rip me away. Ron told me later that I was only under for about ten seconds, but it seemed like forever to me. He also told me it was sheer terror for him, too, because he was too far away to effect any kind of rescue immediately. He thought I was dead when I disappeared beneath the stuck boat. Somehow, I managed to hang onto the boat, and pushing up with all my strength, against a boulder at my back, maneuver it so the current pulled it into the plunge drop below the V-entrance, dragging me along with it. After I got the boat out of the current, and signaled to Ron I was okay, I noticed one oar was gone. It was twenty yards downstream, and getting it back was another ordeal (even though I was carrying an extra). I shook for ½ hour after getting out of that, dumping off the adrenaline sweat. I skipped the next rapid, because it was an easy portage. Ron ran it easy, and I jumped back on the horse for the rest of the ride. Almost got dumped in Osprey rapids, too, but (barely) managed to hang on. Needless to say, it was a crash course (literally) in running hard rapids. Like I said, maybe more than we could chew, but it was certainly an adventure (if not a little bit foolish….)

By the time we hit Pinchot creek, 9-10 miles from the trailhead, we started seeing a few more backpackers, but mostly it was solitude for the whole trip (except near the airstrip). We saw deer and elk, osprey, geese, ducks, bear tracks and wolf tracks (in the picture next to my reel). We saw 4 rattlesnakes, and we were fully prepared (even excited) to kill and grill a buzzworm (we both had .357s with snakeshot loads), but we never saw one in the evening near camp. We made that rule early in the trip, and figured if we were meant to kill and eat a snake, we would get the opportunity, but we didn’t. Didn’t eat any fish either, because it’s all C & R. That prevented much fish porn, too, because with the warm temps, we played ‘em and released ‘em quick. Oh, well.

For the first three days at Moose Creek, we ate and drank heavy food and liquids. T-bone steaks, pork chops, fresh fruit and veggies, pinot grigio, magaritas and beer. By the time we launched, the ice in the cooler was gone, and we went mostly freeze-dried, to keep the weight down, but we saved a whole fresh pineapple for the last night. Man, that thing was insanely delicious!! We pitched a tarp at every site (unless there was good shade), and slept under the stars nearly every night, because the bugs weren’t bad at all, even though we had a tent. On the last day, about a mile after we launched, I spotted a fly rod/reel in the river, about 12 feet down, hung up on the bottom (the visibility of the river was about thirty feet….). We stopped, and after a few tries diving for it, came up with a GL3 8.5 foot 4 weight and a Ross Gunnison #2 reel. Crazy!

It’s a beautiful area. Even the road-accessible (a loooong dirt road) lower Selway is awesome, with good camping. But the best fishing is definitely on the more-wild and less-pressured upper river. It would make a great backpack trip in the fall. Hmmm. That’s a great idea!
All I can say is that if you happend to come across a Loomis/Ross rod reel combo on your float then that would be the one I lost a month ago. Totally Kidding!!!

I spent about 3 months on the Selway in the wilderness and loved that summer. The buzz worms are everywhere. I came across a old mining operation 1800'ish and counted about 12 in that one spot. The largest rattlesnake I have ever seen was on the Selway which looked to be about 5' long and very very thick. It was in one of the creek draws that you walk across on the trail. It never even buzzed, but upon glace, I let out a manly scream(probably sounded like a girl)!


Active Member
This is one hell of a trip. I guide on the Selway for Three Rivers Rafting and have run it from 600 cfs in August to 17,000 cfs in May. I cannot express enough how dangerous the rapids on this river can be, even at low water. This is a true wilderness river and help is a long ways away. As a float trip, I would strongly suggest that you only attempt it if you have solid Class IV whitewater skills, and have taken some advanced whitewater rescue classes.

As for fishing, this entire river has the best fishing I have ever experienced on a river. The section below Moose creek is classic pool-drop in character where the best fishing is in the tails of the pools. If it's deep and dark, don't bother fishing. If you can see the bottom, hopper/dropper is the way to go.

From the trail, the lower section of river (Moose Creek to Selway Falls) is challenging to fish because of the steep banks and the width of the river in the "fishy" areas.

At low water, A Paradise to Selway Falls float trip is only doable by kayak and even that is bony. You can fly into Shearer and float to Selway Falls, but the first five miles is Boat assisted hiking, and Ham Rapid is a solid class IV with a very tight line.

Attached are some photos of my August 06 trip.


Active Member
Great trip. I've done the hike from the mouth of the selway(wilderness gateway) all the way to the head waters of moose creek (twin lakes). Hot as hell and the water is too cold to swim in.:hmmm: Same experience as far as fish on the Selway. However, many miles up Moose creek (maybe 15) are meandering meadows with beaver ponds and the like.... and bigger fish!
Gods country no less.
Great report. Some brothers and I have tried for the permits with no success so far. I heard that was the most sought after permitted floats in the states. Although that was what one of my brothers said so it might not be true. One of my first backpacking trips was flying into Moose Creek and hiking out. I was probably about 14. Me and my brother sat in the backseat of the cessna with two backpacks in our laps. Not very comfy but I remember that flight from Orofino to Moose Creek like it was yesterday. I think the whole trip cost about $35 arranged through the Lewiston Parks and Recreation. Them were the days. Thanks for the memories.


tryin' not to get too comfortable
Looks like you had a fantastic adventure.Steve
It was a great trip.

Pretty cheap, too. The whole thing cost me and Ron about $450/each, including the flight into Moose Creek.

If anyone wants ideas or details for a DIY off-season float on the Selway, send me a PM. Heck, I'll send you my river maps. Once is enough for me (boating, anyway. I'm still up for a backpack trip in that area!).
Great report!

Brings back some great memories. I worked as a fisheries teck for IDFG from 94-96. My job consisted of surveying high lake CT populations in the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness. I spent weeks at a time in the wilderness between the Selway and Lochsa. If you are really looking to get off the beaten path this is your spot. My boss with IDFG told me to cherish this opportunity because it would be the best job I would ever have......he was correct.
The picture from above with the green water is great. I am going to make that my desktop background after photoshopping myself over the top of the fisherman in the photo.:p