Find Off-the-Radar Fly Fishing on the Kootenai River

Cover photo courtesy Aaron Gordon Long Drift Outfitters

As summer fast approaches, many local anglers are itching to wet a line after being holed up for most of the long winter. When we think of classic freestone river fly-fishing, the Coeur d’ Alene basin, the Spokane River, and the St. Joe River are three tried-and-true local flavors that always come to the front of anglers’ minds. There is one particular drainage in the northern Selkirk/Cabinet basin though that may not be at the top of your list: The Kootenai.

An international watershed encompassing roughly 18,000 square miles of British Columbia, Northwest Montana and Northern Idaho, The Kootenai River originates deep in the Canadian Selkirks and from there flows 485 miles south through Montana and Idaho, eventually returning north to Canada.

Aaron Gordon, owner of Long Drift Outfitters out of Sandpoint, Idaho, has been guiding this river since 2017. According to Gordon, Long Drift is the only true local guide service in North Idaho for the Kootenai River. “The Kootenai holds redband rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, bull trout, burbot, a few brown trout, kokanee, and sturgeon,” says Gordon. “It’s really a classic dry-fly fishery, but, with its size, it’s best fished from a drift boat.”

Photo Courtesy of Aaron Gordon Long Drift Outfitters

One of the benefits of the Kootenai’s size is that it is less affected by the spring runoff that can put fish down during its peak. As for the best time of year to hit the water, Gordon says it’s now. “Spring and early summer can bring great fishing days. With the Kootenai, we use a variety of techniques to target fish. Spring nymphing can be extremely productive with very aggressive fish and then July and August bring bigger bugs, great dry fly action, and, of course, beautiful days,” he says.  

Aaron Black, fisheries research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), has been closely monitoring the progress that the Kootenai River has made over the past few years. “Currently, we’re seeing fish counts that are higher than they’ve been in recent years due to the nutrient addition program that we incorporated back in 2005,” says Black.

“Drip stations are set up at strategic locations throughout the watershed. Those stations drip nutrients vital to fish health into the water that are then absorbed by aquatic plants. The bugs absorb the nutrients when they eat the plants and the fish absorb the nutrients when they eat the bugs,” explains Black.

The region’s native redband rainbow trout—prized for its size and fighting spirit, and a local legend amongst Spokane River anglers—has been the river’s fish population that has been most positively impacted by IDFG’s nutrient efforts. When explored a little deeper, these nutrient addition programs truly are a “bottom to the top” operation.

With ample opportunities for three-season, on-the-fly action, the Kootenai has plenty to offer if you’re itching to try some new water without having to spend days on the road to get there. You can reach Long Drift Outfitters at 303-917-2822 or

Brad Naccarato is a North Idaho native who’s been contributing to Out There since 2012. Chasing trout, waves, snow, dirt, and microbrews keeps him sane. 

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