WORDS & PHOTOS BY Elias Carlson

I’ve been fishing the Priest River, my adopted home water in the Idaho panhandle, for 8 years now. It’s a stunning river, and one of the most frustrating I’ve ever fished. The few who fish it look forward to brief seasonal pockets when the river is full of fish and a streamer drifted through the right hole may yield a large cutthroat. The possibility of a chance hook up with one of the rare and protected bull trout that navigate the river only adds to its allure. But most of the year the Priest River is a ghost town, offering only warm water fishing for invasive smallmouth bass, and overrun with the local pikeminnow which can tolerate the summer water temperatures.

The problem is hot water. In the summer, a shallow outlet bay warms up and spills over a top-water dam at the mouth of Priest Lake, raising water temps into the 70s. In 2021, a particularly hot summer resulted in a big fish kill.

A native westslope cutthroat from the Priest River. Taken on a streamer.
A native westslope cutthroat from the Priest River. Taken on a streamer.

The Priest Lake/River drainage is bull trout & westslope cutthroat country – along with whitefish, the only native salmonoids to this watershed. They are cold water fish that require pristine habitat in which to spawn. The intolerably hot summer water fragments spawning habitat and cuts off migration corridors for these sensitive fish. In addition, they now face competition and predation from a host of introduced, non-native fish: rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, lake trout, and smallmouth bass.

Overhead view of mountains and lake in background, evergreen trees in the foreground.
Priest Lake feeds Priest River. Before 1950 it served as a cold water refuge where fish from Priest River could move in the heat of summer. After the installation of a top water outlet dam that refuge was rendered inaccessible. The dam may be contributing to higher summer temperatures in the river. Removing it is not an option.


A cold water bypass installation is being considered at the Priest Lake outlet dam. This bypass would siphon water from a deep, cold layer of Priest Lake to help reduce river temps during the critical summer months. A recent study has shown that the bypass would have no negative impact on the lake ecosystem, and may help the river ecosystem. A petition to Idaho State lawmakers has been drafted and needs your support.

If this bypass is installed, and proves effective, it has the potential to restore a vibrant fishery in this gorgeous river. To learn more visit priestriverproject.org

Whether or not you’ve ever fished in Idaho, I’d love your support. On behalf of healthy fisheries everywhere, please join me and sign the petition.

Elias Carlson – Design Director

Native bull trout from the Priest River drainage held in palm of hand.
Native bull trout from the Priest River drainage. These fish are rare and highly protected and it is illegal to intentionally target them in this system.
Long exposure of rushing water in Priest river.
A tributary of Priest River – a summertime refuge for temperature-sensitive trout species and important spawning grounds for its native salmonids.

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