The Bitterroot Range stands like a granite battalion, guarding the irreplaceable treasures we value so highly: the airstrips of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Each is unique, but Fish Lake encompasses everything we enjoy in one backcountry destination. It’s not like some strips where once is enough; it demands our return.
Carved out of the pine and spruce forest more than 80 years ago, this secluded retreat offers hiking, wildlife spotting, and exceptional fishing for native cutthroat trout. Frosty September mornings reveal exhausted bull elk protecting their harem, bellowing their throaty, yet high-pitched bugle. Summer afternoons expose half-ton moose, muzzles dripping, grazing in knee-deep water along the shore. Constant companions are the gray jays darting between spruce branches and stalking the edges of the campsite, waiting for the inevitable handout.
Few airstrips exude peacefulness like Fish Lake. Gentle breezes stipple the surface and bring the water lapping gently on shore. Evenings are often spent relaxing around a campfire, sharing stories and a bottle of wine with friends. Steaks sizzling over glowing coals and firm-textured trout roasting in wrinkled foil are more delicious set to a true wilderness experience.
There are no wide-open vistas, but seclusion has its benefits. Within this spruce-shrouded valley, the wildlife is abundant, the sounds are intensified, and visitors are rare.
Fish Lake (S92) is in the remote Idaho backcountry, about 50 nm northeast of Idaho County Airport (GIC) in Grangeville, and 53 nm southwest of Missoula (MSO). The airstrip, Runway 5/23, is at 5,646 feet MSL on the west shore of Fish Lake, which sits at the bottom of a small bowl surrounded by 6,500–7,500-foot ridges.
From the southwest, you can purchase fuel at GIC. There are no major services, but you’ll find a 24-hour self-serve fuel depot at the easternmost end of the ramp. Departing GIC, head northeast 25 nm to the fork of the Lochsa and Selway rivers. Continue up the Lochsa River another 17 nm to the point where Boulder Creek enters the Lochsa at 46° 20.3' N / 115° 18.9' W. Follow the creek another 11 nm upstream to a 6,700-foot pass at 46° 19.1' N / 115° 05.7' W. When you reach the pass, you’ll see the strip 1.7 nm to the east.
From the northeast (Missoula area), you can fly up Lolo Creek, through 5,235-foot Lolo Pass, and then 21 nm down the Lochsa River to 46° 27.8' N / 114° 59.8' W, where Lake Creek flows into the Lochsa. From there, fly 3 nm up Lake Creek to the confluence of Fish Lake Creek at 46° 24.9' N / 115° 00.4' W, and continue about 5 nm upstream to Fish Lake.
If you’re coming directly from the east through Montana, you can take on a few more gallons of 100LL at Ravalli County Airport (6S5) in Hamilton. Choice Aviation is a full-service FBO at the northwest end of the field, open daily 7 a.m.–6 p.m., 406-363-6471. After departing Hamilton, you can either fly north toward Lolo Creek and Lolo Pass, or, if the weather is good, cross the imposing Bitterroot Mountains that run along a 9,000-foot ridge just to the west. A steep climb through 6,616-foot Lost Horse Pass at 46° 09.9' N / 114° 30.2' W crests at the north end of Twin Lakes at the top of the Divide. From there, you’ll angle slightly north before dropping into the east fork of Moose Creek. Moose Creek is a wide drainage that gradually arcs back around to the south. If you like, you can remain at 8,500 feet or above and proceed GPS-direct toward Fish Lake; otherwise, continue a slight descent before arriving at the north fork of Moose Creek at 46° 09.8' N / 114° 54.0' W. Turn right and climb the broad valley toward Fish Lake to the north.
Remain on the right side as you fly through valleys to avoid aircraft flying the other way. Announce your position on 122.9 MHz at key reporting points, like airstrips and the confluences of drainages.
Fish Lake Airstrip is hemmed in on three sides by timbered, granite ridges, and unless you approach from the northeast via Fish Lake Creek, you won’t see the runway until you are nearly over it. That’s great, because it will give you an opportunity to over-fly the strip at a comfortable altitude, assess the winds, and confirm that there are no moose or deer obstructing the runway. The strip is usually snow-covered until late spring. Then it becomes soft and muddy until it dries out in early summer. If there are still snow banks in the shade south of the strip, expect runoff to render the strip unusable.
There is one windsock at midfield and another at the east end near the lake, but it may be easier to read the water on the lake. If the water is calm at the west end near the runway, you’ll be landing into the wind. The strip is one-way; you will be landing to the west on Runway 23, and a successful go-around is unlikely. If the winds are beyond your level of comfort, hop 14 nm south over the ridge to Moose Creek (1U1) and come back another time.
North of the lake, the valley widens and a comfortable, spiraling descent can be made to pattern altitude. Most pilots make a left pattern for Runway 23. Since the winds are predominantly out of the west, you’ll rarely experience a tailwind when landing. Due to terrain south of the strip, a 45-degree pattern entry is not possible; it’s easier to enter the pattern on an upwind leg over the strip. The lake is about a half-mile long, permitting a normal pattern, with base and final out over the lake, and a stable descent angle.
Though Fish Lake is peaceful, it’s not necessarily harmless. The clear path over the lake has lured more than one unfamiliar pilot into a dragged-in approach. The cool air on final can create a strong downdraft that could cause you to land short, maybe even in the lake. A steep approach should always be flown in the backcountry anyway and this is no exception. With 2,870 x 50 feet of runway, the strip is plenty long, so relax. The first 200 feet or so next to the lake is usually a little soggy anyway. Watch for deer beside the runway, which may run out in front of you, and stay away from the runway edge on the north side, which is often boggy. For the same reason, do not taxi beyond the cones at the end of the runway near the lake.
Once you land, park along the south side of the strip, near mid-field. Bring your own tiedowns. The surface is mostly low-growing Sodar grass mowed twice each summer. Since wilderness rules prohibit mechanized equipment, the work is done with horses and an Amish sickle-bar mower. The strip is well compacted, although there are occasional soft spots, ruts, and some gopher holes. Once it dries out, it is suitable for most tricycle gear aircraft with adequate power. However, conditions can vary from day to day, so soft field operations are prudent. The oversize Bushwheels you see on my Super Cub are not necessary at this strip. The strip has become slightly rougher in recent years, although pilots and volunteers conduct minor repairs during their visits. As of February 2015, the Forest Service said it plans to conduct an analysis of the runway in 2015 and hopes to complete substantial repairs within three years.
The biggest hazard at Fish Lake is the combination of the inevitable downslope wind that picks up at mid-morning and the subsequent downdraft over the lake. Since terrain dictates a take off from Runway 5 toward the lake, aircraft have struggled to gain airspeed at a high density altitude with a tailwind while bogging down in the soft surface, and then were dealt a final blow with a downdraft and increasing tailwind over the lake. Since the first crash here in July of 1947, the sinking air over the lake has claimed six more aircraft. To avoid a similar fate, plan your departure as early in the day as possible, while the winds are still calm. You should be familiar with your aircraft performance at this density altitude and be prepared to abort the takeoff if airspeeds are not correct. Check for proper flap settings and fuel mixture, if applicable to your aircraft, before starting your takeoff roll. After departure, keep your speed up and maintain a gradual climb straight ahead and slightly left following the creek as you gain altitude. If necessary, leave some gear or passengers behind, take a smaller load over to Moose Creek, and return for the balance.
If this is your first time in the mountains, get some proper mountain flying instruction. Lori MacNichol, owner of Mountain Canyon Flying Seminars flight school out of McCall, Idaho, is one of the most sought-after local mountain flying instructors, 208-634-1344.
The Nez Perce tribe inhabited the Bitterroots for centuries prior to Lewis and Clark’s travels during the early 19th century. Subsequent to their expedition, news spread quickly about the abundant beaver and marten in the area. Mountain men established trap lines and began building cabins, each a day’s walk from the other. However, within three decades the beaver population dwindled to unprofitable numbers. Many of the trappers moved on while the Nez Perce tribe clung to what remained.
In 1855, the U.S. government established a reservation on the tribe’s territorial homeland that included Fish Lake. The reservation didn’t last long, since gold and timber interests sprouted nearly overnight. In 1863, the reservation boundaries were redrawn and the tribe was forced to vacate parts of the land allotted to them to accommodate the gold rush.
When logging became profitable, fire became the enemy. In 1895, the government began sending rangers to patrol the Bitterroot. The first of several cabins was built at Fish Lake in 1901 to support fire spotting and suppression. But this was rugged country, making it impractical to build roads for transporting supplies and equipment. So, as airplanes became more reliable, the Forest Service turned to aviation. During the summer of 1932, a crew of 40 men and 20 horses began construction of the airstrip.
The meadow where the airstrip lies was boggy. After removing waterlogged trees and shrubs, Civilian Conservation Corps workers elevated the runway slightly and created a drainage ditch along the north side to divert snowmelt in the springtime. Additionally, they cut trees from the west end to lengthen the usable runway.
Two years later, on the morning of August 11, 1934, Howard Flint landed his Stearman on the new strip. His timing proved almost prophetic, as lightning touched off one of the most devastating fires in the forest’s history that afternoon. Aviation became the first line of defense transporting men and supplies into a region where provisions had previously taken days instead of hours to be received.
The airstrip is within the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, established by Congress in 1964. Even though mechanized equipment is normally not allowed within federally-designated Wilderness Areas, airstrips currently in use when they are established are may be permitted to continue, and in this case the airstrip has been allowed to remain.
At first glance, the steep, timbered slopes on three sides and heavily-forested shoreline of the lake on the other seem to limit recreational possibilities. But once you tie down and wander around a little, you’ll notice inviting trails scattered around the airstrip. Each is a path to adventure.
It’s always fun to poke around old buildings and to marvel at the handiwork of the early occupants. Concealed in the dense spruce at the west end of the strip, two aging structures remain. The main cabin, built in 1933, is visible from the airstrip and still houses trail crews. Other outbuildings were added shortly thereafter to protect the horse-drawn equipment used to maintain the airstrip. Scrounge around a little more, and you’ll discover the moss-covered ruins of two other cabins built at the turn of the last century.
There are three lakes in Idaho named Fish Lake, so interpreting the fishing regulations can be confusing. All mentions of “Fish Lake” in the regulations refer to the other Fish Lakes, so the Fish Lake with an airstrip falls under general fishing regulations and seasons. As a result, the season is open year-round with a six trout limit. Non-resident fishing licenses can be purchased online, $12.75 for the first day and $6 per additional day or $98.25 per year.
Gleaming westslope cutthroat are tinted as though they belong in the tropics rather than a mountain lake. They, along with their dappled brethren, the eastern brook trout, are the most prevalent species in the lake. Both are aggressive and will attack most small spinners of the Panther-Martin or Mepps variety. Fly fishermen can’t go wrong with a five-weight rod, sinking line, and assortment of leeches, midges, and streamers. The lake is only about eight feet deep, which is why you may see moose standing around even at the center of the lake, where the water reaches neck-deep. The moose feed on underwater plants, and it’s best to leave them alone if they’re in the lake, fattening up for winter. The water is frigid, so you may want to pack your chest waders, or use a float tube or small inflatable raft. A good raft choice is the Denali Llama from Alpacka Raft. It weighs less than five pounds, accommodates two people, and takes up less space than a down sleeping bag, $895–$945, 907-533-7119.
A brief stroll along the northwest shore will usually reveal moose and elk, as well as countless songbirds. Bring your camera along, but beware, there is nothing meaner than a cow moose with a calf at her side. The smaller the calf, the meaner the mom. Bulls are especially dangerous in fall. Use a telephoto lens for these homely giants.
For impressive views, start out on hiking Trail 211, which runs parallel to the north side of the runway. Proceed west past the cabin where a gradual climb through a series of switchbacks brings you to Trail 206 at the top of Fish Lake saddle, at 6,790 feet. From there, it isn’t far west to the most prominent point in the area, 7,427-foot Eagle Mountain. Near the summit, a carpet of green and amber with creeks like silver capillaries spreads north in Gold Meadows and Sponge Basin.
If you’re a bit of a history buff—and part mountain goat—a short, steep climb up Wounded Doe Trail 39 south of the runway takes you to the top of Wounded Doe ridge. This narrow hump of granite forms the divide between the Lochsa and Moose Creek drainages, and was one of the most heavily used trails by the Nez Perce. Because of the nearly panoramic views, it also served as a temporary lookout point during the fire seasons of 1927 and 1939. Don’t forget to throw in a bottle of insect repellent for either of these hikes.
In the mood for an extended stay? The Forest Service recruits volunteer wilderness rangers to perform minor maintenance and to keep count of visitors from all user groups. They ask that volunteers serve for ten days, covering two consecutive weekends, if at all possible, but they will work with volunteers as each arrangement is individualized. With pay at $10 per day, you won’t get rich, but it’s a great opportunity to meet others who share your enthusiasm for backcountry aviation. In addition, you can act as ambassador for aviation to other visitors—sign up online; click “Contact Us” and send an email with your request and contact info. Another way that pilots can help is by contacting the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides trail maintenance and other volunteer labor to maintain Idaho’s two largest wilderness areas. Their slogan is “No politics, just boots-on-the-ground work.” Volunteer applications are reviewed and forwarded to the Forest Service, which has final approval. If funds are available, the foundation may pay up to $23 per day to help offset volunteer expenses. They prefer to have volunteers serve for at least three to four weeks, depending on the airstrip and time of year.
Regardless of how long you stay, when you get ready to leave, walk to the ranger cabin at the west end of the strip and ask how you can help. Some of the things in short supply at remote ranger stations are fresh fruits and vegetables, and one of the toughest things to dispose of is garbage (it is packed out via horseback). If you offer extra supplies or are willing to fly out a bag of garbage, the rangers will be grateful.
In the unlikely event you encounter a visitor opposed to backcountry aviation, explain some of the benefits that aviation offers to other users of the wilderness, such as medical evacuation or search and rescue. Do your best to keep operations to a minimum. The Forest Service, Idaho Aviation Association, and the Idaho Division of Aeronautics appreciate users who come—and stay. If you are just looking for a potty stop, loosen your belt a notch and push on toward Grangeville.
With the lake and boggy areas beside the airstrip, Fish Lake can be subject to mosquitoes. By the end of August, however, they are usually almost gone. Bring mosquito repellent and be careful not to leave your tent (or airplane) open. There are three campsites, with the most popular one at midfield near the creek crossing for Wounded Doe Trail. A couple of fire rings are there with adequate space to accommodate several tents. Most folks tie down in the same general area and simply set up under the wing.
If you don’t mind hauling your gear for a few hundred feet, camp near the west shore of the lake. Hop over the creek at midfield and follow the trail toward the sandy beach. You’ll need to be a little more diligent at low-impact camping here, but you’ll be rewarded with the sun glinting off the water and the ever-present moose in view across the lake. A curious moose may even walk over to inspect your tent, or walk right past it at night while you’re asleep. On cold mornings, fog rising from the lake creates an otherwordly scene.
The least popular site—at least for pilots—is near the cabin at the west end, because it lacks the solitude that you came here to enjoy in the first place. It is also not recommended to taxi your airplane here because the ground is rougher, and the Forest Service prefers not to have aircraft parked at this end. This is where hikers and horsemen tend to congregate. The outhouse is near the cabin and the Forest Service asks that you use it if at all possible. Keep in mind that the “leave no trace” philosophy should be adhered to even more diligently here in the wilderness. If you prefer not to use the outhouse, take a short hike of a hundred feet or so south of the creek and bury your waste six inches deep.
The old adage of “take only pictures, leave only footprints” still applies today, although the Forest Service has expanded their no trace philosophy as the sheer volume of users continues to have an impact on the wilderness. It includes things such as using tents of subdued colors, camping away from the view of others, and traveling during the middle of the week if possible.
Water is plentiful in the small creek parallel to the south side of the runway, but it is a good idea to bring a small giardia filter that can be found in most sporting goods stores. You probably wouldn’t get sick for a week or so, but why risk it?
Firewood is abundant on the north side of the airstrip. Just remember not to leave a log in the middle of the runway when the load gets heavy on the way back to camp!
Fish Lake offers backcountry activities for the entire family. Whether relaxing on the sandy shore, venturing miles from camp, or trying to find a fly that the trout won’t hit, each experience leaves you with one pervading thought: “Next time.”