When we were planning this trip to Idaho, right up to the week prior, there were gaps in our itinerary. Even after we had finished dinner with Jason, Vicki, Rebecca and Robert our first night in-country, we had still only shored up about 80% of the next 9 days.
During the week prior to flying west, Ross Slayton caught wind we were going to be in his neck of the woods and dropped me a message. He offered to show us a few spots on Henry’s Fork if we made it up that way, provided he could get the day off. That was pretty much how we had left it until we talked on Thursday evening.
Well, he got the day off, and we had made it up that way.
7:00 Friday morning, Ross pulled into the hotel parking lot in his mid-80’s Chevy Blazer, fired up as any human being I’ve known. Grant and I, on the other hand, were tapping our gas gauges by this point in the trip hoping the needle would jump a little. But we were heading for Henry’s Fork. Storied water. The stuff of legends. We rallied.
Ross’s Blazer was a wild experience, and reason to rally, in-and-of-itself. A faded black warhorse with flies stuck, presumably retired, in various places on the dash and around the back hatch, Ross judged speed by RPM’s since the speedometer was out. His tire had thrown a weight which shook the truck like a leaf on a tree. It pulled to the left and the right, a steering-wheel dance that Ross had mastered to the point of it becoming an unconscious activity. Most everything rattled. It was a perfect beater fishing truck that he prayed would stay in one piece through this coming winter.
We barreled up Route 20 through Rigby and Rexburg, crossing the Snake, passing prairie and farmland and plenty of cows and climbed from Ashton into Targhee National forest with the Tetons yawning in the eastern distance. We passed through reforested stretches of lodgepole pine with road-side signs stating Planted in 1981, 1967, 1998, and turned into the Riverside Campground. Situated on the upper stretches of the Cardiac Canyon section, this was one of Ross’s favorite places the fish on the river. His usual MO was to hike 45 – 90 minutes downstream and fish his way back to the truck, so we figured we’d follow his lead on a similar excursion.
We followed a game-trail that ran along the river, picking our way over dead-falls and boulders, through tall brush and pine stands, occasionally dropping into the river to wade 30 or so yards downstream before climbing out again. We’d stop every now and again and Ross would give us some more insight into the river and it’s entomology, the wildlife and the region. A voracious reader, he was down-right wiki-pedic with the depth of his knowledge. It was like having a really cool professor leading really cool field trip.
We’d be working pocket water through what he called “Walter-land,” named after the giant rainbow that haunted Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. He told us the rainbows and cutts get big in this river. Good bugs, he said. He also warned us about pocket water pools that can drop to 7 feet deep under normal flows. Of course we weren’t looking at normal flows. The lake up at Island Park had been drawn down in order to repair the dam after the unrelenting spring run-off, and much of that water was still right in front of us. How in the hell am I going to wade that? crossed my mind more than once.
I tied on a weighted golden stone, the fly I caught my Metolius ‘bow on, dropped a red copper john about 18-inches behind it, added an indicator and stepped out into the current. Ross and I leap-frogged pocket water while Grant hunkered down in the tree-line and slack water to shoot pics. We were largely held to near-shore targets since the depth and heavier current made it dicey to attempt anything further out. Ross proved that point with a few half-dunks and great saves before the day was over.
After a few hours I was starting to fade and the wheels fell off my roll casts. Ross, on the other hand, laid his out in one effortless arc after another. Neither of us were catching anything, and Grant wound up with a bloody nose from the collective days of lacking of humidity. We pushed on. With the campgrounds in sight, we came to a stretch of the river that was wadeable out to the middle. Several dozen boulders broke up the current enough here that gravel collected and built up the bottom. I stood about fifty yards out casting to the pocket-eddys between four chutes that poured into a single white, churning run.
I worked every seam I could reach without even a bite. Rolling one last half-assed cast into the head of the near pocket, a flash went off in the bottom of the pocket and I was suddenly into a good fight in fast water. I hollered to Grant. The ‘bow ran to the far side of the four chutes and jumped, then dove into the current. It was all-or-nothing at this point–either horse the fish back to my side of the current and risk losing it, or play it in the current and possibly down stream and risk losing it, and probably my ass if I had to give chase.
I turned the fish back to my side of the fast water and started busting my way back toward shore, falling twice, playing the fish in pocket after pocket around boulders and a couple branches along the way. Grant was all mountain goat getting down the game trail to where I’d be landing. We were determined to get a shot of this fish. When I finally got my hand under the ‘bow at the shoreline, I could see he carried the scars of dodging an osprey or two. I felt like I just crossed the finish line. Our last of five rivers over roughly 8 days and I had managed to coax a beautiful trout from its belly in the 11th hour. I felt pretty damn amazing.
We elected to drive up to Herriman Ranch to try our hand at fishing this notoriously difficult section of the Fork, and at least be able to say yep, been there. When you hear someone mention Idaho or Montana trout water, the Ranch is usually the picture that comes to mind. Big sky. Wide, flat, gin clear water. Prairie grass and sagebrush and hoppers clicking in flight from your footsteps. We made the obligatory stop at Rene Harrop’s Trouthunters fly shop and Mike Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Anglers and then drove over to a stretch just off the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway.
The latest report for the ranch section of the Henry’s Fork read as such:
Henry’s Fork: Looking for the most difficult fishing you’ll ever experience? Look no further. The Ranch has plenty of big Rainbows and a decent number of insects. Mahogany duns and Baetis can both be seen. The hitch? Holy cow are these fish tough. The water is low and the trout are very selective. One bad cast or drift will send them fleeing to the next county. Bring only you’re A+ game here and hope for one.
At this point, Henry’s Fork – and Ross – had just put the perfect icing on the cake with that ‘bow, so I was game for the next-to-impossible. Ross, Grant and I stood on the bank for a few minutes watching the surface for rises and taking the whole landscape in. The wind had dropped and the fish were active. I tied on a big hopper with one of Rebecca’s #20 red zebra midges, all on 6X and waded slowly out toward the middle–about half-way to a few risers. Pulling about 40 feet of line from my reel, I stood hip-deep in the current and waited. Ross did the same about 100 yards up-river.
A good fish rose. I worked out line and made a cast that fell embarrassingly short. I let it drift below me before I reloaded another cast which didn’t raise any interest either. I waited again. A bigger, splash-rise. I laid the hopper about 15 feet above the expanding rings and it drifted directly down the middle of the lane until the water exploded like the fly hit a land-mine. I felt two big head shakes and then – boop – he was off. I smiled, wiped my face with some cold water and looked to the beautiful blue sky. The wind picked back up and the fish stopped rising. I waded slowly back toward Ross and Grant waiting at the bank, leaving my own rings to drift off on the current.