* Featured in Virginia Living Magazine Apr 2007
and American Angler Mar 2007
After a cold, fairly snowless Idaho winter, my brother Mark and I headed north toward St Anthony for a few late afternoon hours on the lower Henry's Fork — I needed to step back from just illustrating trout and try my hand at landing a few.
These lower stretches of the Henry's or North Fork of the Snake are often overlooked, and most visiting fishermen will continue north to the Island Park stretches where the water is ideal for flies. But walk or wade the river below the Ashton reservoir, through Chester, St Anthony, Parker, Salem, and on into Plano, and you'll find beautiful, rugged land and water all along the way. The Snake weaves through hay fields, cattle grazing serenely, and miles and miles of cottonwoods — which are branchy and often difficult to traverse, but are the tree I grew up climbing and pruning, so, despite their homely way, they remind me of the Henry's Fork of my youth where cottonwoods grow tall and dense on the river banks in Salem. The lower Henry's Fork is the river on which I learned to fish. It is the water I go back to, inevitably. The water is coursing with memory.
But back to St Anthony: on this trip we were accompanied by one of the nation's top fishing and hunting guides (who happens to be my brother's neighbor). Sidenote: I had just given a lecture at the university and had stopped in at Mark's to play catch with a baseball and savor one of the first springlike days of the year. So the neighbor-guide had felt the pull of the Snake at the same time and we all packed up and were soon striding across a railroad bridge to the river's north side where the deeper water hugs the bank and my brother had landed over 20 browns and rainbows the previous fall using a bead-head nymph (all within a 45 minute window). Of course, a performance like this is rarely repeated, especially on the same stretch. The Snake is like this: one sweep of water will be great one day, then it up and leaves, moves out. So we are constantly searching for the nomadic, trout-heavy pools, year after year.
My brother and I were quickly aware of our guide's river acumen, his perception, his accumulated expertise at all things trout. He quickly landed a series of fish. On this day, however, I was off my game. Mark and the professional landed 6 or 7 trout, a mix of rainbows and browns. These were taken just below a small but rushing falls — surely a quintessential haunt of dark, lithe shadows. But on this spring afternoon the larger mouths weren't interested in our wares. The largest trout was around 13 or 14".
As the sun hung low behind the stark cottonwood branches, thawing but still leafless, I was heartened by the prospects of a new year on water. I was driving away fishless, but the Snake is like this, a mystery — I never know what I'll be leaving with. A new years rolls around, the Henry's Fork thaws, the ice cracks and each spring a new river emerges. It is the abiding Snake, but it is endlessly changing. I accelerated south toward home on the gravel road, cottonwood sentinels in my rear-view. Some things should never change.
For the past few years, a group of devoted fly-fishermen have congregated in October on the Yakima River in Washington. They meet to fish, to swap tales, and to burn a wooden boat in a Saturday night bonfire. The boat this year was named Rosebud, and sat serenely in the Big Pines camping area on Saturday morning, unaware of its fiery fate. By luck, I quickly met with Mike G., who was reclining next to a campfire with a host of delicious steaks sizzling and smoking on the barbecue, and through whom I had heard about the event, which has come to be known, descriptively, as the Burning PRAM. While discussing the event around the campfire, other PRAMmers passed through, one of whom bearing special pickled and spiced peppers with a flaming head logo on the front. He assured me this was just a logo, but that the yellow pepper inside (there was just one amid the green ones) might actually start a premature bonfire. Soon after, I was sleeping soundly in bed, trying to recover from a frigid, sleepless campout the previous night on the Boise River.
The next morning, my brother and I were up early (coming from Idaho we had an hour on everyone) to try our luck on a non-Idaho river. Mike had said that fishing picked up around 10 am, and that nymphs were standard fare for the Yakima, with an occasional dry fly thrown on when overcast. So we headed out at about 8 am, and Mike's wisdom and prophetic soul were dead on: no fish, not even a strike. As we returned momentarily to camp, we could sense a quiet amusement among the others. I'm quite certain they were saying to themselves, "Why won't these guys believe us? Blasted potato-heads."
At 10:16 (that's what the date says on my camera), I hooked a 13" rainbow running a beadhead deep through a slow section of water. Then at 10:39 I hooked another of almost identical size, brilliant with translucent fins. They were my first fish in Washington and ran up and downstream, putting on a show for out-of-staters. Uncharacteristically, my brother ended up catching only a whitefish, snagged in the belly and dragging like a rock. He is usually the trout-landing master, so it must have been the Washington air.
Unfornately, we couldn't stay for the boat burning (we had many miles to go before we slept), but we are still savoring the noggin-scorching peppers, wondering how Rosebud fared, and asking ourselves if we should be asking for stock tips from those clairvoyant Washington staters.
Just West of Stanley, ID and Northwest of Redfish Lake on Highway 75, my brother and I stopped on the North bank of the Salmon River hoping for some evening trout. After wading midstream and casting a few times, my brother hooked two 13" rainbows. Soon the sun had dropped behind the hills and the riverside temperature was sinking.
By this time, my brother had waded to the far bank and was standing above where the Salmon hugged a rock outcropping and plunged beneath the black rock, creating a dark and deep section of water, unlike the surrounding riffles. Fitting for such a spot, his pole soon arched under a trout's weight. He landed it, but to his surprise he wasn't sure what it was. It had the look of a brook trout but not the markings. It was a bull trout, his first ever, which explains the confusion. He released it and continued fishing.
Within a half hour he had hooked three more bull trout, the largest at 22", lean and long, and all brutes to bring in. The bull trout's name comes partly from its voracious predatory feeding style--and, by extension, the unrelenting pull and fight that ensues when hooked. These fish fought, ran upstream and down, stressed the line to near breaking, and continued the show until my brother's wrists ached.
As a native fish in Idaho, all bull trout must be released, so these four bulls are most likely cruising the Salmon River at this moment or hanging low under that rocky overhang, waiting for supper, strength incarnate.
Just outside St Anthony, ID the railroad crosses Henry's Fork of the Snake River. The river, after passing through the Island Park fly-fishing Mecca, descends through a valley and emerges near Ashton, ID. St Anthony comes next, and this was our first stop. Just downstream from this railroad bridge and in a chill breeze, I hooked a 14" brown trout. As usual, my brother soon trumped the feat and had landed four or five of about the same size, all browns.
The Henry's Fork, though most famous near Island Park and Harriman State Park harbors large (and plentiful) trout from start to finish, so we set out North for Ashton next to test the waters below the reservoir. We ditched the car just off a potato field and descended into the canyon. Halfway down, we were being pounded by harvest-time hail, and five minutes later, on the bank, the sun was out again. I had only cast a few times when I thought I was snagged. The snag then started to lunge, and I was guiding an 18" rainbow to the bank.
Near the bank, I was shocked to see a black form approach the hooked rainbow then disappear, then return. This other fish must have been curious about the commotion, something I've seen other times (like once on the Teton River when a 21" cutthroat was being shadowed by a larger form). But what was most shocking was the size of the shadow: the 18" rainbow looked tiny in comparison, so this other trout must have been at least 25". After landing the rainbow, the stretch was spooked, so we never found out the phantom's true size. The Snake River is constantly spinning this kind of tale, of pre-industrial age monsters, still fanning their tails in deep water. But I swear the stories are (mostly) true.
The Warm River flows into the Henry's Fork East of Ashton, and the merge makes for some large trout and swift water. Just up from the merge, a section of the Warm River is off limits to fishing, and from an observation point carloads of travelers stop and watch truly epic trout hovering midstream, sipping up bread and Cheerios and whatever the human benefactors have handy. Occasionally these fish will leave the safety zone and venture upstream (or down) and it is for the chance of catching one of these well-fed fish that we venture to Warm River.
It didn't take long for my brother and I to hook a few smallish rainbows (both heavily spotted). But small trout would not satiate with largish ones around. My brother waded midstream and found what we had come for: a herd, a pack, a school, whatever the word is for a grouping of hulking trout. We dragged everything we could think of past their noses, but no response. They must have been for display purposes only, or already filled to bursting with red licorice. So we soon gave up on landing a Ulysses-size rainbow, and headed out for the day, sailing West beyond "the baths of all the western stars."
The true tales recorded here are of fishing adventures on various rivers and streams in the Northwest, but mostly Idaho, the artist's home state. Although one purpose of these fishing expeditions is to procure photos of fish for illustrating, the fishing is still truly amazing.
If you are interested in exploring more of what's going on in Idaho and elsewhere, see my Idaho and other links page.