The next morning our drive to the South Fork felt entirely different. It was the same landscape of sprawling grain fields and foothills, beautifully wide blue sky and brush-stroke clouds. It was roughly the same river waiting on the other end of the drive. But everything was different.
We had been this way already. We’d already learned the roads from the hotel to the church parking lot. We’d already loaded our gear and hauled ass into the unknown of a new river. We’d already taken our lumps, managed to keep our dukes up and had held the reward, all cold color and fantastically alive. We had the thin-thread benefit of familiarity from one run-and-gun afternoon. But on this morning, our pace took a couple steps back, settled into the truck seats and tried to just take everything in. We were there, and that was enough.
We made another stop at the fly shop so I could replace the tan sex dungeons I had lost to the motor and the bottom of a greedy boulder. In the parking lot, I ran into Jeff Currier, a tremendous artist and rep for Ross and Scientific Anglers who I met at IFTD in New Orleans a week and a half earlier. Having met Colby for the first time at the show as well, it was pretty cool to cross paths with Jeff again, especially clear across the country. We put the boat in the water, pulled our collars up and hats down and turned down-river for the canyon.
About halfway there Colby pulled up on the throttle, swung the boat left back against the current below a giant gravel bar under six inches of water and then right easing us up on the bar. Over 100 yards long and 50 yards wide, he told us that this bar didn’t exist before the spring run-off. The extended bolus of snowmelt deposited the entire sweeping mass of rocks over the course of months, leaving a perfect section of riffles that drop into a deep, teal green run. I waded to the head of the riffles while Grant claimed a spot halfway down. Time to nymph.
After a couple casts I noticed a guy and his dog watching from the far bank, smoke rising slowly from a small campfire behind them. I waved. He waved. A couple more casts up and across the current and my indicator went under. I lifted the rod into a nice bend, collected my line on the reel and backed a flashy cutbow out of the heavy current. This is exactly how a day of fishing should start.
I picked my way back up to the head of the riffle and made a couple more casts. When my indicator dropped again, the hook-set stopped me short. I could feel a big body start to work up some heavy back and forth before it gave a couple good head-shakes, a few rolls and then put its nose as deep into the current it could. Fish on the reel, I backed into shallow water again, but this toad wasn’t following. I kept him from heading for bigger water, finally turned him toward shallow water and Colby slid the net under him to seal the deal.
I made a dozen more cast before I carried my big-honkin’ grin back to the boat to swap my rod for Grant’s camera. He had a couple takes that didn’t stick and I wanted to make sure I got some shots of him when one finally did. Within three or four casts his #16 rubber-legged prince nymph dropper found the jaw of a brown the size of a German u-boat, which bent his rod to the cork, turned tail for Canada and busted the line. And as luck would have it, I caught all 10 seconds of the fracas.
Enough drift boats had dropped below us by this point that Colby wanted to jet down into the canyon before the crowds socked it in. As we made out way down-river, we passed sheer rock walls that dropped into white current, stratified cliffs and pine, sage and grass-covered slopes. We pulled up into a small switchback to grab some lunch, relax, and burn a couple hours before the afternoon bite. Not one to sit still long, I ate my sandwich and waded out to a riffle. Colby picked up his rod, walked down the bank about 20 yards and promptly hooked up a nice cutbow.
That afternoon, we dropped down to another money spot Colby called the hog bar. A 100 yard sub-surface gravel peninsula usually stacked up with cutties, ‘bows and browns. Colby navigated through the drift boat fleet and drifted Grant and I down the right edge while we drifted our nymph rigs down the middle. Then he’d jet us back up to the top and drift it again. Grant was getting plenty of hits but no hook-ups. I on the other hand became a whitefish sniper, landing 15 or more in the 6 drifts we made. Having the fight at the end of the line was better than the alternative, but I was tired of getting my heart rate up over pike-bait.
Then it happened. My nymph rig dropped into a depression in the gravel bar and stopped. I lifted the rod and a flash appeared in the heart of the pool, turning into big rainbow as it blew into the far current. It took the loose line I had at my feet and then some from the reel. I could liken the fish to a football, but I’d be doing it a disservice. It was built more like a defensive lineman.
Colby rowed us into slower current near the bank and grabbed the net. Grant had finished his drift, collected his line and grabbed the camera. A few more runs and some dashes for the brush on the bank and I had his head up and pointed toward the boat–a cloud of iridescent silver and pink reflecting a universe around him. A foot off the net he came unbuttoned and I let go of a long, mournful noooooooooooo! that spooked birds from the trees on the hill above us. Non-native species be-damned, he would’ve been the fish of my trip.
As the afternoon wound down, we decided to head back up-river to the gravel bar we started on that morning before the clock struck the witching-hour for pounding streamers. In spite of that ‘bow, I felt about as full and happy as ever as Colby pushed the boat around bends, through rips and riffles and wide flat expanses, the sun moseying westward. We stopped and fished a few likely areas along the way with no takers. Reaching the morning’s gravel bar, I reclaimed my spot back at the head of the riffle for a handful of casts before deciding to pick up Grant’s camera again.
Further up-river I got back to pounding the banks with that tan sex-dungeon and a fast sink leader. Cast, strip, strip, strip, lift and reload, cast, strip, strip, strip, lift and reload. Under brush, against logs, through big pockets behind boulders, against cliff walls. Over and over, drift after drift. All I could draw were slashes, swings and short-strikes. Colby just shook his head in disbelief. If I would’ve converted on half the fish that I raised, we’d have easily had a 20-fish day. 20 big fish at that.
Colby had gifted us a personal tour of his life-long home water. We had caught (and lost) amazing fish in some magnificent country. We were exhausted and happier than hell. With daylight almost completely gone, we finally settled into the water at the bottom of the launch. Grant and I repacked all the gear and rods in silence while Colby went for his truck and trailer. We looked at each other a couple times, smiled and shook our heads, knowing we didn’t have to say a word. Waiting hip deep in the river, holding the boat, we were there, and it was more than enough.