A Day on the “Fork”

Just a little story that I wrote years ago about a particularly memorable day on the Henry’s Fork, a river that looms large in my fly-fishing memories.

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The Harriman Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork is not so much about catching fish as it is about solving problems, surmounting challenges, engaging in study, and finding proof. The “Ranch” has been a favorite flow of mine since early childhood. Many of the lessons that I learned on its storied flats and riffles during my younger years paid fish-rich dividends on other waters as I grew older. All of those lessons came together one day when I fished the Fork with a friend from halfway around the world.

It was the second week of July and I was in West Yellowstone teaching fly-fishing schools with GB. I had arranged a day on the Henry’s Fork with my friend, Tomonori “Bill” Higashi (who now edits “FlyFisher” magazine in Japan). Our goal was simple: get a cover shot for the magazine. With the PMDs hatching, plus tricos, caddis and midges on the water, I figured it would be a fairly simple matter.

I met Bill and his group of fishing companions in the parking lot of the Circle K motel. A quick introduction in two languages followed, and we headed across the highway to get a last-minute update from Rich at the Trouthunter. Rich said that the PMDs had been looking good, and passed out a few of his favorite CDC patterns for the hatch. We shook hands, called out our “good lucks,” and we were off.

It was turning out to be a brilliantly sunny day as we headed down the famously bad Wood Road 16. Driving to the start of the cliff section, Bill and I took the upper water and the others headed down below. Bill I walked to the river to have a look. There were few insects hatching, but plenty of food in the water column. A few small rises near the middle held the promise for better action to come. We headed back to the truck, suited up and decided to drive back upstream and have a look at the corner just below the Railroad Ranch line.

The corner had been kind to my father and me in the prior year, including a rainbow to hand that taped 22 1/2 inches with another lost in the weeds that would have dwarfed its sizeable companion. The fish were not there on this particular morning; instead an angler had taken their place. Fortunately, the corner was big enough for two and I staked out a spot to watch.

While we waited for the hatch, Bill and I talked and I rigged my leader. With drag reduction paramount in my mind, I tied up a slightly longer system. The formula looked like this: 5 feet of .020”, 2 feet of .013”, 2 feet of .010”, 2 1/2 feet of .007” and 2 1/2 feet of .005”. If the wind picked up, I could easily shorten the butt or taper. My beginning fly selection was a soft-hackle emerger pattern. It was a simple fly—nothing more than a trailing-shuck Tube Bodiz in PMD yellow combined with a dubbing-loop-spun soft hackle. I call the fly the TB Wet/Dry Fly in reference to one of my father’s patterns that he based on the old soft-hackle designs of yore. With everything rigged, it was time to wait and watch.

As the clock ticked, a few fish rose sporadically out in front of me and I eased into the current. Occasional feeders can be difficult, if not impossible, to raise and the fish near my position were no exception. After several fruitless casts, I eased back to the bank and settled down, scanning the water as far as I could see.

Minutes passed, and then a fish above my position began to rise with a rhythm. I watched as another fish rose above it, then another. As I scanned the water, I realized that I was not seeing three fish, but only one. The fish was cruising, and cruising fast. I would have to get the fly in front of the fish before it reached the top of its feeding lane, or I might lose any chance for connecting. The problems were multi-fold. First the water was typical Henry’s Fork smooth. Fast wading would telegraph my presence to the fish in a few moments. The fish was too far from the bank to reach without incurring an accuracy penalty as well as instant drag. In addition, a small flock of ducks had taken up residence along the grasses and flushing them with a rushed approach was out of the question. To top it all off, I was quartering below the fish—not where I like to be when dealing with leader- and drag-sensitive trout. I moved as quickly as I dared, trying to achieve a balance between ripples, ducks and casting distance.

I did manage to get what I felt was one really good presentation to the fish—a longer cast, but with a good Puddle Mend and proper accuracy. Unfortunately one presentation was not enough. Either the fish didn’t see the fly, had already committed to taking another or had decided that something was not right with the imitation. I will never know which it was. I shook my head at Bill. “Cruising,” I said, “too fast for me to keep up.”

Looking at our watches, Bill and I realized that the PMD hatch was turning out to be anything but. There was certainly plenty of other food on the water—the near-bank “chow-line” was full of tricos, caddises, rusty spinners and midges—but the fish were just not there. It was time for a reassessment. Bill and I decided to head for Piney Point, were we hoped to find a few stationary bank feeders that had yet to be disturbed by passing anglers.

We started our cross-country trek, keeping one eye on the water. After a few hundred yards of hiking and talking, we spotted a tell-tale rise-form. A moment of watching revealed another rise, then another. It was definitely a single fish, and it was holding its position. I eagerly headed up and around, entering the water above the fish. I waded into position as the fish continued to feed with a focused continuity. This was a perfect situation: good light, easy casting, gulping fish.

Thinking that the first trout I had to cast to in the corner might have refused the fly, I decided to switch over to a small black beetle. The beetle was just a simple variation of the famed Crowe Beetle, tied with a single clump of deer hair that imitated both a beetle’s legs and body. The fly had worked wonders for me in tough situations before, and I had a feeling that its solid profile and low-riding surface impression would hold this fish’s attention.

The beetle floated down drag-free and the fish rose to intercept it. This was going to be easy. The fish opened its mouth, sipped the fly and then, before I could react, surged down and away. I struck, but got only the tiniest hint of contact. In the final instant before I tightened, the fish must have sensed that all was not as it should have been. I was left with nothing. I waded back to the bank and Bill and I looked upstream once again.

Walking through the marshes that line the Fork’s banks, we soon spotted another sipping nose. I made a wide semi-circle around the trout’s station, making certain that I was out of sight and that my fast footsteps fell on ground that was well away from the water’s edge. I eased into the river 30 yards above the fish and angled down and out. I wanted to get a good down-and-across float. As I alternated between watching the fish and watching my wading, I caught sight of a PMD dun struggling to free itself of its nymphal fetters. “Finally,” I thought, “the hatch is getting going.” If the insects came, so would the fish. I felt a surge of confidence as I slid into position.

Watching the fish rise, I decided to switch back to the TB Wet/Dry. The fish was moving back and forth across a wide feeding lane, and I keep my first casts close to my side of the lane. After half a dozen passes it become quite clear that I would have to put the fly into the middle of the lane if I wanted the trout to get a good look at it. The first pass was not the best, and the fish rose on the far side of the lane. The next pass was spot-on and drag-free. I watched the fly intently, knowing that the Wet/Dry was where, when and how it should be. The fish agreed and rose confidently, heading away from my position. My leader twitched on the surface and the trout splashed and spooked. I struck, but got nothing in return. The fish had mouthed the tippet on the take, and spat the fly before the hook could find a hold. It was certainly not the first time that I had seen a fish spook from the tippet in such a manner, but this time it was particularly disheartening.

I got out of the river and Bill and I moved on. It was becoming apparent that getting the cover shot was not going to be the simple task that I had envisioned only a few hours earlier. I apologized to Bill as we walked, but there was not much I could really do about it, other than to keep looking and to keep fishing.

Within 15 minutes we had found another fish. I switched back over to the beetle. The gape on the beetle’s hook was wider than the gape on the Wet/Dry’s hook and I wanted every advantage I could get. Both flies had worked, so I was not overly worried about refusals. Once again I got into position and made a good cast. Once again the fish rose to the fly. And once again the fish spooked in a sudden surge before the hook could get a purchase. It was almost unbelievable.

Had all of the fish been hit so hard by angling pressure that they were hypersensitive on the take? Had it just been coincidental? Perhaps it was a combination of the two. Henry’s Fork has a reputation for a reason, and Bill and I were getting a lesson in Fork frustration. It was a bad sign.

Then Bill called out and pointed. He had seen another fish working farther down. I watched and the fish rose again. I moved, stripping line and getting ready once again. The fish was being quite erratic, feeding here and then there, with no real pattern. I could catch glimpses of the trout as it drifted up and down and back and forth, sampling the currents. I double-checked the hook point and took my best guess at the presentation position and drift line.

A dozen fruitless passes later and it was apparent that the fish had stopped feeding. Frustrated, I took a deep breath. Perhaps I had spooked the trout with the leader or perhaps the fly had dragged too much at the wrong time. Not wanting to give up, I scanned along the slight crease of water near the bank. After a few seconds, I could make out an elongate, gray shape some 10 feet upstream from the fish’s last rise position. The watery vision was there and then gone. I decided to chance a cast. The fly floated two feet and a nose appeared from below to intercept. As with the previous three fish, this rainbow also sensed that all was not as it appeared once it had committed to the fly. The fish splashed suddenly and turned away, but this time, the fly’s tiny hook caught the edge of the trout’s mouth and held. Beetle Bingo! I raised the rod tip—more to clear line in anticipation of a run than to set the hook—and yelled to Bill. We were in business.

The rainbow wasted no time in heading to mid-river. As the reel buzzed frenetically, I raised the rod as high as I could to keep excess line out of the water. I turned to keep track of the trout as Bill waded in behind me. I pushed up and out after the trout as the backing knot slide softly through the guides. I was determined not to lose this fish, and winced as the rainbow dove under a pad of weeds. I ran at the fish and pulled from the side, clearing the line from the extra burden, but still leaving enough weeds on the knots of my leader to tension the line more than I would have liked. The rainbow made a picture-perfect jump directly upstream of my position. The extra mass of weeds on the line immediately prompted me to envision a sheared tippet or a bent hook. Everything held.

The fish and I traded thrusts and parries as I worked the rainbow closer. Amidst the rapid-fire of the motor drive on Bill’s camera, I finally got the fish in sight, trying to balance photographic urgency with the need to avoid a last-second break-off or pull-out. I was glad that I had brought my net. I slid the fish into the calm hydraulic-lee below my legs and guided it toward me. I thought I had the timing right, but as I scooped the fish surged away. My net bag tangled around itself and I quickly shook it loose for another try. The second pass was the charm, and the rainbow slid into the mesh headfirst and went immediately still.

Bill and I waded carefully to the bank as I cleared the fish’s head from the bottom of the net so that it could breathe more easily. Bill gave me the okay and I lifted the ‘bow and smiled. The motor drive whirred and in a few seconds it was over. I noticed that the barbless hook had slipped out on its own accord as I prepared to release the fish. I was indeed glad that the fish had held still for the camera! I slid the ‘bow back into the river, and after taking a moment to right itself, the fish swam purposefully way, heading upstream.

As Bill and I headed back to the truck we discussed all that we had done and seen on that unusual morning on the Fork. It had not been easy, but we had solved problems, surmounted challenges, engaged in study and found proof. And we had gotten our cover shot:

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