Tag Archives: Snake River

WEST TO WATER

 

Midway from Chicago to LA it still hasn’t hit me. Sprawling canyon, salt flat, scrub brown and mountains crawl below. I carried on three fly rods and a book of Jim Harrison’s poetry. Our platinum blond, plump-lipped stewardess calls me Skippy. She won’t take cash for a beer.

**
Here, I am slow motion. Layers of break-neck life peeling away. I know it’s the wide-open expanse of frontier plainsong. Forever rolling and howling as the speedometer pushes 85 and The Grateful Dead wander their highway through Althea in Nassau. I am small here.

**
Gas station coffee, grain elevators, rail cars, Friday night lights, onions, grapes, magpies, llamas, cottonwood groves, sunflowers, sage, corn, wheat, cattle, chukar, grouse, desert quail, winding roads, canyon, famous potatoes. One lone strip club hiding over the county line.

**
Hot copper-white and sage canyon floor. We sit in camp chairs with beers, grilling meat for lunch in the weak shade of a nearby tree. Driftwood and brush flood-woven eight feet up in its branches. On the other side of the willows the desert river pretends to mind its own business.

**
4 a.m. Roadside sage and gravel shoulder chase the curving road, a cold ghost-gray in our headlights. We make the Sawtooth Basin by sunup. Eggs, sausage, homemade white toast and coffee in Stanley. Outside, thin smoke from a small late summer campfire, quiet talk, mountains. It’s 27o.

**
To get here, switchbacks had us coming and going. We park on the shoulder outside Lowman, pull on waders and step-skid-step to the water. This seventy yard stretch runs twelve feet deep and gin clear right from the edge. Sun finds us at 10:38. Smoke from last season’s fire a thin film in the air.

**
We spot a moose as we haul the jet boat down Highway 26. Big black body in full stride a half-mile out into Swan Valley’s amber waves of grain. Her pine and brush foothills another quarter-mile off. A combine leads a yellow dust cloud across the next immense field. The sky looks like rain.

**
Mack truck river hauling the ass-end of mammoth runoff. There’s no thinking at this pace. We drift, I sling. Wail full-on gun-shots into slack eddies, under thick brush, against cliff wall undercuts and grass-sand banks. Swings and short-strikes. Dusk drops on our run back to Conant.

**
I know he’s going to take before he does. Everything’s right. Cast, distance, depth, slower- than-river-speed drift, Folsom Prison Blues playing in my head. The fly touches bottom a couple times, tumbles from the riffle into the pale green. I look him in the face, good one he says. Good one.

**
An hour-and-a-half drive north. The sun burns off the morning haze and the Tetons get to their feet. Riverside parking and talk of big fish. Forty minutes downstream from the truck, we scramble from a game trail into the river. At thigh deep, I’m the knife at a gunfight.

**
From where I stand, frontiersmen once contemplated their purpose in this landscape, the panorama of destiny. Motionless, forty yards into the river, a small whirling eddy in my shadow. Perspective. The wide arc of a distant osprey. Big fish rise carelessly, thinking the coast is clear.

**
Mesa Falls, Ashton, Rexburg, Rigby fill our rearview mirror. Windows down, simmering late-afternoon sun, we’re on the other end of the gauntlet and there’s nothing pressing to say. The last eight days packed tight in my tired, calloused hands, ready to throw like a sneaky left in the final round.

**
Snake, Payette, Salmon, Henry’s Fork, Owyhee—forever in my blood. These days and miles and fish and landscapes are forever in my blood. Tomorrow is 9/11 and our flight back east. Tonight we drink bucket-beers at the stock car races. I feel like a good fight or some Howlin’ Wolf but I’m hungry and still have to pack.

**
12:20 a.m. Wheels-down in Rochester. Shuttle ride to the car, Army duffel, pack and rods at my feet, two frowning wives cluck about Yellowstone’s rustic amenities. One husband nods, Good fishing? I nod back. Montana? he asks. Idaho. My voice is 10-day gravel and far from being home.

 

(Originally published in Volume 4, Issue 2 of the Flyfish Journal)

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THE IDAHO TRIP: THE SOUTH FORK, DAY 2

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.

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THE IDAHO TRIP: SOUTH FORK OF THE SNAKE

DAY 1

By 9:30 we had packed the truck, eaten some breakfast, gassed and coffee’d up and were on the road for our four hour haul to Idaho Falls. When we cleared the 30-some miles of construction east of Boise, I leveled out at 85 mph and and settled into the left lane. Highway 84 through wide prairie, fields of grain and farmsteads set back miles off the road. Past Mountain Home, Twin Falls and Rupert to highway 86 and on through American Falls and Pocatello. Then north on 15 through Blackfoot finally easing into Idaho Falls around 1:00.

About 45 minutes after we checked into the hotel, and a half-dozen phone calls to clarify directions, we met Colby Hackbarth from Kast Extreme Fishing Gear at a church parking lot off the Yellowstone Highway. After a couple handshakes, we threw our gear into the back of his truck and hit the road for the South Fork of the Snake with his jet boat in tow.

Colby was a guide in Alaska for around 10 years and has been fishing the South Fork since he was 8 when he used to drift with his granddad, so when he reported that the water and weather should be stellar and that we should be into some toads on streamers come dusk, I could feel the first twinges of adrenaline tighten my chest and raise the hair on my arms and the back of my neck.

I don’t know whether it was me settling into some sort of 6th-day-on-the-road groove or the aura of a potential X-games-esque afternoon of fishing, but at that moment I was feeling somewhere between Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. I was ready to take the mic and the mosh pit.

After a stop at South Fork Outfitters to pick up some bite-intel, a half-dozen sex dungeons and a decent hoodie so I wouldn’t freeze after the sun left the river, we drove another ten minutes to the Spring Creek boat launch. Rods rigged, gear stowed, Colby fired up the 90-horse Johnson, eased us out into the current, and lit out down-river for the first of his money spots– a heavy hatch of drift boats coming off in every direction.

It took less than 100 yards of drifting past perfect, trophy trout-holding river bank while I flailed my 8 wt. into half-assed streamer cast after half-assed streamer cast for that whole Beastie/Rage feeling to completely die. Another 200 yards and some brilliant line tangles and I started making up new cuss words, since none of the old ones seemed strong enough. Grant was gracious enough to hold the heckling for another time.

I was gutted. Bleeding out. Wasting world-class water and great drift position. Colby could see it, so he jumped from the oars to the engine and nosed us up onto a gravel bar. We switched to nymphing rigs and fished the riffles for a half hour or so. No bites, but the break got my head back in the game. As some weather began to rumble to the south of us, we piled back into the boat and moved on.

Maybe a half-mile down-river we had pulled up on another gravel bar and I was drifting a heavy point/dropper nymph rig through a deep chute. Two, three, four casts. Near seam, far seam, down the middle. A few steps with the current, another cast. The indicator dropped and I came tight against what I thought was the bottom, until the bottom flexed and took the shape of a strong cutbow–a rainbow/cutthroat hybrid. When Colby netted that fish, I could feel the High Plains Drifter making his way back.

After I let the fish slip back into the current, Colby told us that Idaho Fish and Game put a bounty on the head of several hundred (possibly thousand) hybrids to help promote the reduction of this source of pure cutthroat genetic dilution. They actually embedded tags in the heads of these fish and are offering up to $1,000 for the return of said heads. I’m not always the smartest dude in the room, but it seemed odd that they would spend the time and money to tag that many fish, only to spend more money rewarding other people to decapitate and turn in. Interesting.

Back on the drift, and back on my 8 wt. slinging a tan sex dungeon at the bank, my cast were on. Finally. I was dropping that fly on their front porch. Fish would appear from deep behind boulders, swing and miss, swing and miss again. Big fish. Then a cutty hit the fly and dove for the bottom. It wasn’t a long fight, but it was a damn fine fish.

Colby had a couple stretches back toward where we launched that he wanted to hit before it got too dark, so I got down from the back deck, sat down and we turned into the current for the ride back up-river. Every spot we drifted was money. Giant, hook-jawed browns, football-fat ‘bows and shadow-like cutties appearing from nooks and crannies all along the rock walls and brush-filled banks. But with dozens of swings, strikes, flashes and how’d that fish not get hooked?! I turned only one fish that promptly took my line into the engine and made off with my streamer. It was nuts.

As dusk went from a hint to last-call, we drifted one last stretch above the launch. I laid the streamer into a trough across a gravel bar that was under a couple feet of water. One strip and the water exploded. An immense brown peaked three feet out of the water, came tight in mid-air, crashed back into the water and shook the hook.

It’s all good. We’ll be back tomorrow.
Welcome to the South Fork.

 

 

 

 

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