The Power of One

The Power of One

Fishing the One Fly in Jackson Hole

  • By: Greg Thomas

At 11:30 p.m., after ingesting a couple Maker’s Marks on the rocks, the last thing I should have done was commit to being early out of bed. But that’s what I did when Team Cloudveil, a participant in the invitation-only 2008 Jackson Hole One Fly contest, approached me in the lobby at Snow King Resort shortly after the contest’s live and silent auctions ended. With a perplexed look on his face, Cloudveil’s marketing director, Jeff Wogoman, said, “Brian Cousins (co-founder of the Jackson,Wyoming, based outdoor soft-goods company) is sick and can’t fish for our team. Can you throw a line for a couple days? We need you.”

Instantly, and with a reply of “yes,” I’d morphed from a simple jealous bystander to a nervous participant wondering what conditions I might find on the water and, most important, which fly I might choose to fish the following day.

That is the question at the annual late-summer One Fly contest in Jackson, where 160 participants are limited to a single fly each day during two days of serious competition on the Cowboy State’s Snake River and Idaho’s South Fork Snake. If that fly is lost—in a bush, to the bottom rocks, in the jaws of an angry cutthroat trout, or simply stolen by gnomes—an angler is done for the day, whether that loss occurs on the first or 500th cast. Overall winners, plus team honors, are announced at the end of the event. Scores are awarded according to size and number of fish landed each day. Overall, 40, four-man teams, each paying a $5,000 or $10,000 entry fee—$5,000 for general teams and $10,000 for One Fly sponsor teams (no more than 10 out of the 40-team total are sponsor teams)—take part in the event.

The following morning, at 4:30, the first of two alarms and a wakeup call roused me. A half-hour later, with a massive mug of coffee quelling a brain-dead state, I negotiated Teton Pass and dropped into Idaho, headed for an excellent stretch of the South Fork Snake, one of 12 river stretches used in the competition. A while later I took the back seat in guide Mike Bean’s McKenzie-style driftboat allowing fellow angler Kelly Galloup, an acclaimed angling author and big-fish expert who owns Slide Inn on Montana’s Madison River, to nestle into the front seat. Galloup dug into a massive fly arsenal and selected a streamer. I huddled with the guide and selected a tan Chernobyl Ant.

At 8:30, as the 23rd annual competition commenced, I didn’t even want to cast my fly. I was a bucket of nerves wondering what the Cloudveil team might say if I popped off a fly during the first hour. The night prior Cloudveil rep and team member Mike Atwell said, “Thomas, you’ve got the best stretch of water, so we’re counting on you to put up a good score. Whatever you do, don’t lose that fly!”

Eventually, my confidence grew and I was punching casts within inches of the brush-riddled and trout-saturated banks. However, as the day wore on those Maker’s Marks and sleep deprivation played fits with my distance estimates and twice Bean had to skillfully maneuver the boat into the brush where I could break off a limb, extricate my offering, and continue fishing.

That was a mild reclamation project compared to some of the stories that rose from the 2008 competition, held September 4th through 7th. One account told of a guide stripping off all but his jeans and diving under the water to retrieve a participant’s fly from a log. Another angler claimed that a dragonfly stole his fly when the poor sap set it on a rock and retied his tippet. Those stories, however, pale in comparison to the whopper told to me by event founder

Jack Dennis, a noted area angler and the owner of Jack Dennis Sports in Jackson. Dennis said; “The one that stands out took place in 2000. A guy cast a big foam ant into a nice run, hooked a big fish and broke it off. The guy was dejected because he thought he was out of the competition. But his guide said, ‘Just wait a minute. That’s a barbless hook and the trout will spit it out.’ A couple minutes later the guy’s fly floats to the surface. But before the guy could retrieve his fly another fish ate it. Again the fish spit out the fly and this time the guy got it. He tied the fly back on and the next cast he caught a six-pound brown.

“That’s one of the things I love about this competition,” Dennis added. “I’ve only fished it once, but you don’t have to fish to enjoy it. Everybody comes back with a story and they’re very enjoyable to hear.”
After day one of the One Fly contest I didn’t have a pleasant story to tell—I’d landed just a half-dozen fish and tallied 483 points. Galloup posted 490.

The One Fly contest began in 1986 after years of failed attempts. According to Dennis, the idea spawned during a float trip with the late sports announcer and host of American Sportsman Curt Gowdy. One day Gowdy said, “How about we do this with one fly?”

“You can’t imagine how that float went,” Dennis reminisced. “We drifted down the river casting our one fly with Gowdy announcing the whole thing like it was the World Series. It was quite a deal.”

In 1986, on the first day of the inaugural event, the One Fly nearly ended for good. That’s because one of the guides, Peter Crosby, drown. He left behind a wife and two young daughters. Consensus was to end the competition, but Dick Carlsberg took the reigns and insisted the event continue. He met with Crosby’s family and a banker and began a fund to put the children through school.

That’s the kind of consideration and positive return the One Fly is associated with. And, of all the great things the One Fly has funded, Dennis says he’s most proud of its contribution to the Bar-B-C Spring Creek restoration project. That spring creek rests inside Teton National Park and, historically, produced 20 percent of the Snake River’s cutthroat trout. By the 1930s that production ceased due to man-made habitat destruction, including a fish-rearing operation. Prior to 1998 park guidelines prohibited stream improvement projects to enhance fisheries, probably because managers couldn’t stand the thought of earth-moving equipment negotiating the banks of trout streams. Dennis and other area fish-heads, including Wyoming Fish and Game biologist Ralph Hudelson, knew the stream could be improved and they pushed bureaucratic buttons to do so.

“It was a landmark project,” Dennis remarked. “We penetrated bureaucracy and, in 1996, we funded the National Park Service’s Snake River Study Project. Finally, in 1997, permission to improve the stream was granted and work began. Today that spring creek is a great producer for the Snake River and that success started park managers and hierarchy thinking in a different direction. It was one of the best ‘dollared’ things we ever did.”

These days, the event remains ultra-popular and each year the One Fly board turns away a dozen or more teams based on extensive criteria. Because the event is so unique, and because the contest is a vehicle for major conservation efforts, it’s drawn prominent names. Over the years some of the most noted anglers include Dick Cheney; former Wyoming Senator, Al Simpson; former Secretary of the Interior, Donald Hodel; Hollywood’s Heather Thomas and William Devane; astronauts Chuck Yeager and General Joe Engel; the aforementioned commentator Curt Gowdy; former NFL player Merlin Olson; chairman of Coors Brewing Company, Pete Coors; former Wyoming Governor, Mike Sullivan; and noted anglers Lee and Joan Wulff, among others. Teams from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe have competed.

Sue Bashford, who’s served as the One Fly’s administrative director for all 23 years, said those people keep her coming back. “The diversity of people who come to fish, and the people who are part of the One Fly board make it enjoyable,” she said. “The most challenging aspect is babysitting 175 fishermen. I’m serious. Some of these people can’t function without a secretary. But that’s the way it is. I take care of them while they’re here and when they leave someone else picks up the job. But, really, I enjoy all the people.”

Dennis, too, acknowledges the quality of people involved with One Fly. And he says that the contest’s many social functions are a great place to network.

“People participating in the One Fly are a Who’s Who of business,” Dennis noted. “We meant to attract those people when we started the competition and they make it a great place to form corporate and personal friendships. But, the One Fly is about other things too: guiding culture, fly-tying culture, the weather and fishing.”

On day two of the One Fly, after refusing several party invitations the night prior, including what turned out to be a raucous affair at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where patrons sit on saddles rather than bar stools, I met up with angler Peter Gray and guide Trey Scharp. Gray is a lifelong Ketchum, Idaho, resident with ties to the airline industry and minor-league baseball. He also owns about a mile of Big Wood River frontage. Scharp is a Jackson resident who, when not guiding on the Snake, runs a fly-fishing program in Patagonia.

At the boat ramp Scharp asked to see our flies and quickly suggested alternative patterns. Gray accepted a Cripple. I sneered at Scharp’s Snake Drake, explaining that just an hour earlier, at the Gun Barrel Steak & Game House, the innovative fly-tier and author, Scott Sanchez, personally delivered a fly to my hand. His most famous pattern, the Double Bunny, was the wining choice at three consecutive One Fly’s before being banned from competition in 1995.

Still, I ended up throwing Scharp’s Snake Drake and, after an early debacle when an unwanted whitefish nearly tore that pattern in half, it performed diligently. In fact, by midday Gray and I each had boated several decent fish. And then the river broke loose, meaning all of a sudden every fish wanted that drake and I piled up the numbers at a steady clip, including a 17-inch cutthroat that grabbed the fly as I was lifting to make another cast. Pure luck. Shortly after, Scharp pointed out another 17-incher. And then he took me to his dream run where he’d seen a big fish a few days prior.

“Greg,” he cautioned. “Sometimes that fish sits above that snag, sometimes below. Be ready because if you get him you’ll have a great fish and a good score. You might even win.”

“Win!” I coughed.

With knees knocking and competitive juices flowing, I waded to midstream and delivered the Snake Drake to the far bank. Four minutes later Scharp released a beautiful, wild Snake River cutthroat measuring just over 20 inches long and worth 152 bonus points, my 30th fish of the day, worth another 50 bonus points.

That night at the awards banquette I sat with the Cloudveil crew enjoying a complimentary prime-rib feast and our 12th place finish. Later, at the Stagecoach Bar, where all avid anglers ought to go to die, the Cloudveil rep, Atwell, said, “Greg, did you have some fun?”

I quickly recalled the pressure he put on me to perform. “You bet,” I shouted, “And, by the way, I took third place.”

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s managing editor. He lives in Montana. Go to for a list of winning flies from each year of the One Fly; for One Fly info go to