There is a stretch of Highway that crosses the South Fork of the Snake, the Teton, the Henrys Fork and the Fall River. I would drive this highway daily on my way to work. At that point in my life I had no idea that blue ribbon fly-fishing waters surrounded me. I also didn’t know the difference between a Mothers Day Caddis and a Salmon Fly. I would in time. It became apparent that would be in Idaho for a while and I decided that I should find something significantly more Idahoan to occupy my time.
You see, I grew up in a state that starts with a “C” and ends in “alifornia”. I spent thousands of hours climbing the walls of Yosemite and sliding sideways on skateboards. In 2002 I would get squeamish dissecting frogs and pigs in Anatomy and Physiology. I knew that there was no way that I would be able shooting an elk or deer much less field dress one. (I have since cured myself of that ailment #canihavemymancardback).
One evening after work I decided to stop and check out the stretch of the Fall River that crossed beneath Highway 20. The cold water flowed over basalt tabletops, over ledges, and into great submerged canyons. Standing there, I felt something. (that’s what she said) I have always known that there was something restorative about standing in a river. Something about never standing in the same one twice.
I decided that I wanted to learn how to fly fish. I read books, I spent the winter pouring over websites and reading regional articles by famed anglers like Mike Lawson, Rene Harrop, and Jack Dennis. I even ate pancakes and bacon on a cold May morning at the annual fisherman’s breakfast in St Anthony, Idaho.
The following morning I was ready. I had a borrowed Browning 6wt and a Cortland Crown II reel. I drove up to an area on the Henry’s Fork that the report said should fish well. I didn’t know what that meant and much less what I needed to do to catch a fish. I arrived a little after lunch and it was as if the sky had opened and dumped a pile of drift boats and Utah License plates all over Freemont County. Every wadable stretch had someone outfitted in Goretex, waving rods in the air with a proficiency that had eluded me. I felt a sudden twinge of inadequacy. I didn’t want to be the newbie making a fool of myself.
I decided to try that stretch of the Fall River I had looked at before. I drove down and parked on the side of the highway. I put on a pair of PVC waders I found at the local thrift store, strung up the rod and tied on an old #10 Elk Hair Caddis.
I began casting. I quartered, mended and repeated. After about 5 minutes the fly was drenched and was invisible to me the moment it hit the water. After an hour and countless tangles later I was getting frustrated.
Having given up on actually casting, I let my Caddis swing and drift down about 100 feet and began reeling it in. Like someone had turned on a switch, the water was exploding. Fish were rising all around me and then I felt a tug on my line. I lifted my rod tip and began reeling in with more purpose. After a couple of runs I saw the water erupt and the biggest trout I had ever seen* breached the surface and then rocketed downstream toward the churning water below the bridge. I followed as close as I dared to the bridge and held my position trying to prevent the trout from getting into the rapids where I was sure to lose him.
Suddenly, I lost my footing and fell backwards. Cold water began running down my back. In my head I could hear the warnings and stories that people had been telling me about anglers that had drowned as a result of filling their waders. With the bent rod in one hand tugging at me in one direction, I turned onto my stomach and scrambled to the edge of the river in the opposite direction. Amazingly, the fish was still there. I tried to stand but had to settle for sitting on the bank. The trout must have taken pity on me because it had allowed me to get her within 10 feet of me. I could see the chrome and pink flanks and white tipped pelvic fins of the first fish I had ever caught on a fly rod.
As I rose my rod tip to get the fish closer she made a final run for the rapids. The screaming click of the pawl in my borrowed reel told me that she was moving with the full force of the river behind her. I panicked and choked the line between my left hand and the rod. I could feel the line surging with the flow of the white water below me. I could feel it writhing and pumping faster and faster with each crashing wave. Then suddenly, nothing…no tug on the line no surging and thrashing…just a limp line.
I lay back on the bank and all of the water that was stored up in my waders came rushing over me stinking of thrift store and someone else’s feet.