Snake River

In praise of native trout.

Illustration by Bob White / whitefishstudio.com
John Gierach

Ww drove north in August to fish the Snake River where it loops from Wyoming into Idaho, more than a thousand river miles from its confluence with the Columbia. Now everyone knows you don’t need a reason to go fishing. In fact, reasons (as in ulterior motives) have a way of sullying what could have been an innocent impulse, but in this case Doug and I just wanted to get our friend, Vince, out fishing for a few days before he went in for his third hip replacement.

Until recently I’d known Vince as, among other things, the big guy who could grab my wading belt and drag me across currents that would have otherwise washed me downstream like so much driftwood. But in his late 50s, after years of weightlifting, near-suicidal downhill skiing and four-wheeling extreme enough to bend the frames of Jeeps, his own undercarriage was finally shot and in need of a re-build.

At this point he’d had both hips done in the previous two years—by two different surgeons—and they’d both been botched. Relatively speaking, the second operation went OK, except that the leg came out eleven millimeters too long: enough to induce a limp and to twist Vince’s lower back painfully, even with multiple insoles stuffed uncomfortably in the shoe on the short side. And the first hip was a factory defect that had never worked right. It not only popped and seized up like a worn-out bearing—keeping him from wading anything much more demanding than a boat ramp—but it was also leaking chromium and cobalt into his system, causing a condition appropriately called “metallosis.” It was probably just as well, since the only way to fix the length discrepancy was to “go back in,” as surgeons say, to lengthen the first hip so it matched the second, which entailed quartering him like an elk for the third time.

But when he called the first surgeon to talk about all this, he learned that the guy had walked into the mountains a month or so earlier and committed suicide with a shotgun blast to the chest, thereby permanently closing the complaint department. What followed was the usual shit-storm of doctors and lawyers (the two kinds of people everyone avoids until they need them).

If that sounds like too much information, you should have talked to Vince. These operations had cost him time, frustration, discomfort, whatever faith he still had in the medical-industrial complex, and the better part of two fishing seasons, so it didn’t take much encouragement for him to deliver the full play-by-play account. He understood that when people ask how you’re doing they don’t really want to hear about your operations in excruciating detail; it’s just that this whole hip business had consumed his life and he couldn’t help himself. He’d even lurch to his computer and show you X-rays of his pelvis that made him look like a robot cobbled together with mismatched components. Put simply, the guy needed to go fishing.

We made the 12-hour drive to Victor, Idaho on a Monday, stopping often to let Vince get out and work his faulty joint back into place. Then early Tuesday we drove over Teton Pass into Jackson Hole, Wyoming’s morning rush hour. Bumper-to-bumper traffic wasn’t really on the itinerary, but we wanted to do Dam to Deadman—the iconic Snake River float that passes right under the magnificent Tetons—and the guides we’d hired worked out of a fly shop in downtown Jackson.

The day was unseasonably chilly, cloudy and rainy, with a leaden sky reflected in the puddles in the parking lot. The weather felt more like October than August and would normally have been promising, but Snake River cutthroats don’t care for gloomy days. They’re friskier when it’s warm and sunny, which makes them seem more carefree than the dour browns and rainbows that have taken over so much of their ancestral range and changed the character of the fishing.

While the guides got the boats in the water, I killed some time watching a kid of about 12 in comically oversize waders he was probably expected to grow into. He was making some high-quality dryfly drifts without getting any takes, but without losing interest, either. At first I decided he’d grow up to be a good fisherman; then I realized he was already a good fisherman, just a little one.

When the kid finally reeled in and waded to the bank, I asked him how he’d done and what he was using. He said he hadn’t had a touch and showed me a fly identical to the one I’d tied onto my own leader: a medium-size stonefly sort of gizmo that the guy at the shop had hinted was all but a sure thing.

I said, “Well, good luck.”

“Yeah,” the kid replied, hitching up his drooping waders, “You too.”

That morning my guide, Ben, had taken in my worn-out tackle and the difference in our ages and decided I didn’t need a lot of coaching, but when I missed a strike from a good-size cutthroat 50 yards from the put-in he may have begun to rethink that. I almost always pull the trigger too soon on my first fish because I’m more excited than I think I am, and then waste five minutes of fishing time feeling sorry for myself. But I pulled together by hooking and landing the next fish. It was smaller than the one I’d missed (what else is new?), but I felt like I’d found my rhythm and the day had begun. From then until near dusk I’d have nothing to worry about and nothing to do but see if I could catch a few fish. The worst that could happen was that I’d have a pleasant float on one of the most beautiful rivers in the Rocky Mountains. This must be how it feels to be rich.

The conditions were weighted against us that day, but we teased up some fish to dry flies anyway. I imagined this was how it was for that kid back at the put-in. Not so much that every fish hooked is a surprise, but that they all seem like a triumph of artistry over probability. And as a bonus, the corniest mountains in North America put on a show worthy of Ansel Adams, with black clouds pouring through the high passes like the weather at the end of the world. We ran into Doug and Vince in the other boat from time to time and they were doing about the same—not a whole lot of fish and no real big ones, but they were all native Snake River cutthroats swimming in the water they’d evolved in and been named for. No complaints.

Vince was in the bow of the other skiff, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, sometimes leaning heavily on the casting brace; whatever was easiest on his sore hip. He’d said that nothing lasted for long, but that if he kept shifting around it was usually tolerable. It didn’t matter because he’s a casting instructor who could probably pull off a decent throw while standing on his head, but even from a distance he looked uncomfortable and maybe a little discouraged. I know from experience that being hurt in your 30s can feel temporary and even a little heroic, while later on, knowing now that physical insults are cumulative and that you’ll never quite come back to a hundred percent, you simply think, Shit, I didn’t see that coming. So whenever I see a friend going through something like this—and it happens more often as we get older—I experience genuine sympathy, but also hope that being secretly happy it’s him and not me doesn’t make me a bad person.

After breakfast the next morning, Doug and I went to wade-fish the Teton River while Vince camped in the room to make phone calls to the opposing lawyers. They were trying the old legal maneuver of burying him in paperwork in hopes that he’d get frustrated and just go away, but they’d picked on the wrong guy. Vince has a reputation for being agreeable almost to a fault, but when pushed far enough he becomes coldly diligent and ever-so-slightly menacing. That morning he was armed with a pot of coffee, notebooks, pens, stacks of photocopies and the knowledge that he wasn’t fishing because wading a trout river on his bad hip had become too painful to even attempt. I could almost hear him on the phone saying, “So you want my entire medical history from birth? OK, you got a pencil?”

Doug and I had never fished the Teton, but we followed a hand-drawn map down a county road to a dirt turnout and a fence stile. We parked our vehicle, then waded through a waist-deep bog and hiked across a meadow to the river. It was wide and slow here in the open valley, with thick weeds growing to within inches of the surface. There were a few Pale Morning Dun mayflies drifting down the current in slow motion, and now and then one would vanish in the unhurried rise of a feeding trout. It was all as quiet and proper as dowagers in a garden sipping tea.

I’d seen this kind of thing before on large and small Western rivers. What looks like a uniform sheet of current is actually hundreds of conflicting micro currents that drag a fly line in all kinds of unpredictable and annoying ways. As for the rises, they reveal where a trout is at the moment, but fish feeding on a sparse hatch in slow water will sometimes cruise upstream, taking a fly here and a fly there until they reach some seemingly predetermined point where they drop back down and start again. This creates the illusion of more fish than there really are, and presents an unknown number of invisible moving targets.

And we didn’t have forever to figure this out. The morning was warm, calm and summery, but yesterday’s storm was still piled up in the Teton Mountains and pieces of it were periodically tearing off and scudding across the valley, pushing wind and towing curtains of rain. It was only a matter of time before one of these squalls hit us and put off this halfhearted rise for good.

I’d bought three different Pale Morning Dun patterns at the fly shop that morning, each more insubstantial-looking than the last, and I picked one with either the confidence that comes from years of experience or the kind of wishful thinking that gets a fisherman through the day. A little over an hour later, Doug had hooked one fish that stayed on briefly and then spit the hook, and I’d stuck one that took me into the weeds and broke off. Then the rain hit and the rise was over, just like that. It was a relief, as if I’d been four shots into a game of 8-ball only to realize I was being hustled, but then the bar closed before the game ended, so the bet was off and my pride was technically intact.

By that afternoon, what began as an isolated shower had developed into a steady rain and we fished a few miles downstream where the river narrowed into riffly, willow-lined meanders. By fishing blind with dry flies, we easily caught more than enough fat little browns and rainbows to pull out the day.

Back at the room Vince asked, “So, how’d it go?”

I said, “Well, we caught some fish, but I’d much rather have spent the day talking to lawyers.”

Thursday morning we met our guides at the fly shop in Victor. We were floating what they call the South Fork, which isn’t a fork at all, but just the main branch of the Snake below Palisades, the second of the 16 dams that amount to choke collars on this big, once-wild river. Vince and I were in one boat and Doug and Melanie were in the other. Doug is on the board of directors of Casting 4 A Cure, an event that’s held in and around Victor every year to benefit Rett Syndrome, so he knows everyone in the area in the fishing business, plus a whole lot of others, including Melanie. She’s the assistant manager of the lodge where the event is held, and she took the day off when she learned there’d be an empty seat in one of the boats.

Our guide was another friend of Doug’s, named George, and I liked him immediately. He was 25 years old, happily married with a three-year-old daughter, and said all he’d ever wanted to be was a fishing guide. In fact he’d wanted it so badly that in his teens he lied about his age to get his first guiding job. This is the guy you want on the oars when you’re launching a small boat on a big river: young, but seasoned and with the easy confidence of a man who’s achieved his goal. I remembered a similar feeling from when I was 16 and all I’d wanted from my own life was to get a driver’s license and lose my virginity. (This was the era of drive-in movies, and I had correctly surmised that the former could lead to the latter.) I may have dimly understood that in the fullness of time I’d aspire to something more, but at the moment there was no way things could have gotten any better.

We put in at Spring Creek and started out pounding the banks with dry stonefly patterns that went by our ears on the forward cast with a sound like paper tearing. The fish were holding so tight to the bank that you had to aim for that inch-wide tongue of current against the grass. Two or three inches would sometimes be enough for an eager trout—usually a small one—but at six inches out you might as well have been fishing open water.

Banging banks is an instinctive skill. The boat and the current are traveling at different speeds, your targets are advancing and receding unpredictably, and canopies of overhanging willows appear like premonitions in your peripheral vision. It takes a feel for spatial relationships and timing as well as some low-level athleticism with the fly rod. The only analogy I can think of is my father’s descriptions of shooting at enemy planes from the rear turret of a torpedo bomber during World War II. No two set-ups were the same and everything was moving except the sky, but if you knew what you were doing you could still draw a sinuous line from point A to point B with .50 caliber tracers. That was the only war story he ever told that involved actual gunplay, and then only as an example of the techniques of marksmanship.

Things started slowly, but the trout got grabbier as the morning sun warmed the river, although they still stayed tucked against their banks as if they were hiding from fishermen. And maybe they were. This is a hard-fished river—the shop in Victor alone fields upward of 30 boats a day—and everyone pounds the banks in the mornings. But as George pointed out, even the best caster can only hit one out of every three or four good lies as the boat drifts past, and many of these fishermen aren’t the best casters. He didn’t seem to mean that unkindly; it was just the observation of a hardworking guide.

We caught trout on stoneflies in fits and starts all morning, periodically switching out one pattern for another as the ones we’d been using went cold. No one knows why this happens—some think it’s a collective mood shift among the trout, others believe it’s the quality and direction of the light hitting the water—but sometimes the pattern that’s been working for the past 45 minutes abruptly wears out its welcome and you have to change up the game. You’re looking for something identifiably similar, but noticeably different, and luckily there are as many stonefly patterns in the Mountain West as there are tiers who have put their minds to the problem. This is one reason why the fly boxes of 20 years ago would fit in your hip pocket, while many of those made today are the size of briefcases.

George timed the float so that we’d come into a stretch of shelving riffles just as a Pale Morning Dun hatch began late in the morning. We anchored out and caught cutthroats on light leaders and small dries, switching one pattern for another to find the killer fly and then switching again when the fish got suspicious. In the shallow, clear water and bright sun we could see the rising fish clearly; we picked out the biggest ones as if we were window shopping.

These were long, wide riffles and we were among a dozen other boats anchored at a respectful distance from one another, including the one that held Doug and Melanie. The day had turned warm, and Melanie was now fishing in short shorts and a halter top. It was fun watching fishermen in the other dories gawking openly while big cutthroats ate their flies and then spit them back out again with impunity.

After the hatch petered out we went back to stoneflies, and by late afternoon we’d caught so many trout that Vince and I each offered to take the oars for a while so George could fish, but he declined with the kind of rote professionalism you often hear from guides. “I just like to see the eat,” he said, “I don’t have to be holding the rod.” This is undoubtedly true, but it can also be a polite way of saying “I don’t let strangers row my boat.”

We did the full 34 miles from Spring Creek to Twin Bridges, motoring through the last few miles of frog water with a little outboard and watching bald eagles perched on volcanic cliffs that looked like melted chocolate. We’d spent a good 10 hours in the boat and I should have asked Vince how his hip was doing, but the truth is, I forgot all about it. With any luck, so did he.

We drove home on Friday and Vince went in for the operation on Monday morning. The surgeon said the procedure went perfectly, but then he wasn’t the one who had to recover from it. For his part, Vince was sore and woozy, but he said the first time he stood up he was happy to find that both his legs were the same length.

Three weeks later we went fishing again.

John Gierach
About John Gierach 8 Articles
John Gierach's latest book is All Fishermen Are Liars (Simon & Schuster).

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