The Henry’s Fork - By Steve Schmidt
The Henry’s Fork
By Steve Schmidt
It’s 10:00 pm Friday night. Having just gotten home from a shop meeting I was contemplating whether I had the energy to pull a red eye off to the Henry’s Fork. A co-pilot alongside would have made for a more levelheaded decision, but solo at this hour after a long week gave me pause for reflection on the sanity of such a trek.
By 11:00 pm the ludicrous nature of my resolution was obvious as I packed the final items needed for my travels. My wife was shaking her head, but after 20 years of being together it was nothing new. I barely made it to the Coffee Garden for a cup before they closed. Hopefully a good jolt of caffeine would be enough to get me safely from the confines of the city and my final destination. I popped the latest Neil Young CD in figuring quiet music at this juncture would add little energy to the evenings task.
I don’t quite recall arriving in Ashton, yet ahead in the darkness Frosty Top looms before me. My caffeine push got me to Tremonton. After that I don’t remember much. Crossing the Henry’s Fork for the first time I pause on the bridge long enough to send regards to an old friend. The evening’s cool air fills the car and awakens my senses. The smell and sound of the river far below confirms my convictions. Only a few miles remain, a distance that will easily be attained even at this late juncture.
Shortly after passing the Henry’s Fork for the second time, I turn onto the scenic- by-way that takes me to one of several camping options. It’s a little after three in the morning. I’m hoping my first stop will be final. Pulling into a familiar lone stand of pine headlights show no sign of occupants. Within minutes the tents is up, camp pad is filled with air and I’m soon numbly horizontal. Coyotes woke me sometime before sunrise. I can’t recall a night here where their lone calls don’t penetrate the still air.
After only a few hours sleep first light has me rustling from my bedroll. Decades of fishing here have taught me how promising the mornings can be and how inhospitable the afternoons oftentimes become. Within minutes of waking my thirty-year old Coleman is hissing blue flame below a pot of camp coffee. It doesn’t take me long to prepare and again be on the road.
Millionaires Pool is one of the most photographed sections of any river in all of fly-fishing. This time of year it’s home to big Callibaetis spinners that on a good quiet morning can last well into the afternoon. Dressed, rod together, pack slung over my back I grab a second cup of coffee, a handful of Oreos (breakfast of champions) and begin the short walk to the river.
The water shines like glass, not a dimple on its surface, calm in morning’s stillness. Wild flowers, still brilliant from summer’s cooler weather and persistent afternoon rains, stretch as far as the eye can see. My first view of the river from this vantage point is as impressionable as the first day I laid eyes on this section of the Henry’s Fork. It’s part of the magic of this great fishery, magic that draws one back year after year.
Settling into a familiar spot that gives me clear vantage of the ribbon of glass the flows before me I tie on Mr. Dependable, the Spent Partridge Caddis. At this early hour, as often is, I’m alone There is no hurry, no need to rush. It’s how fishing and life should be. Just at the edge of my periphery remnants of a rise catch my attention. The ring undulates and melts eventually into the stillness of the silent currents. Makes me question whether I saw it at all.
These fish are notorious cruisers so my eyes span the reflective surface for a second rise. The trout’s nose barely pierces the meniscus in taking another natural. It doesn’t take me long to slip quietly into the water as the game begins. On these waters a ripple from a careless wade will put down any fish and on some days such lost opportunities may be the only prospect of the day.
Cautiously I wade to a position close enough to effectively cover the fish. Since entering the water the trout has only risen one other time. In the process of careful approach I notice a young bull moose has entered the water several hundred yards downstream. The rainbow I’m pursuing again rises. Typical of these trout it has moved, yet remains close enough to be within range. The caddis is easily seen after it gently lights on the silvery surface. It passes unnoticed. Several more casts and I bring the fly in fearing that I’ve spooked the lone rainbow. My attention again diverts to the moose now swaggering just a short distance from where I stand.
My morning companion dips his head for a refreshing streamside meal. Lifting, he shakes his massive head sending shimmering droplets arcing in all directions. At fifty yards I can see his small eyes, here his deep resonant breaths and feel his carefree prancing. He walks through the water as if on dry land, effortless in his steady gate, pausing to listen somewhat cautiously. Climbing onto one of several small islands he prances much like young dogs after their first swim. Thirty minutes later he vanishes from sight as if he wasn’t even there.
During this pleasant diversion I hadn’t noticed that a number of trout are now keying in on the morning spinners. Mornings sun now shimmers off the growing number of dying mayflies wings as they gather helplessly trapped. An audible sip grabs my attention. The opportunity to take a fish on the early morning caddis has passed. The mix of PMD and Callibaetis spinners now drifting helplessly on the placid currents are easy prey to the Henry’s Forks opportunistic rainbows lying silently in wait suspended inches below the dying insects. I quickly switch patterns.
Forty feet out a pod of three fish work rhythmically. Before casting I carefully slide several steps closer to the nearest feeder. The fly gently lands inches from the a trout’s last rise.
Anyone who has fished to these fish knows what I experience next. Either the shadow of my line or a careless approach have sent the trio of nice fish into motion. With each cast and each step they move. Haplessly each drift falls short of the target. Regardless of ones stealth they just seem to know. I call it “dog on the leash”. After hours of being led about I manage to get one fish to take the fly. Unfortunately I wasn’t expecting the rise since the trout had moved several feet downstream my gaze focused on where I last saw the fish. Hearing the rise before seeing it I pull the fly from the rainbows mouth. The leash goes tighter realizing my misfortune.
As the spinner fall subsides only random rises remain. Stationary for fear of spooking an invisible trout I remain as a sentinel turning only my head; looking, listening. For a moment blackbirds are all I hear. An eagle cries in the distance, circling overhead on the mornings gathering thermals. With no trout to focus on other sights and sounds fester my attention. The finality of the moment and lost opportunities gradually sink in. Reeling in my line, I make my way to the vantage point were I started. Picking up my pack I’m soon headed to the Grub Stake for lunch, a cold dark beer and to ponder my options.
Driving into the lower sections of the Ranch among gathering road dust I run into Chris Latour, a long time friend of the shop. Although fishing reports had been poor, it’s not enough to keep either of us at bay. It also doesn’t suck that this is one of the most beautiful fisheries in the world. Not a bad place to take a nap when all else fails either. Over the years I’ve had my share.
Dark clouds from the NW are starting to build. Clouds on these waters are a fly-fishers friend. They mask shadows and gossamer tippets that under sunshine easily reveal their presence even in such fine diameters. On the Henry’s Fork, if you are to succeed, you’ll need all the help you can get.
Chris and I head to an area that shoulders the river elevated above the waters surface offering great vantage of unsuspecting trout far below. It doesn’t take us long to spot several nice rainbows. We split up since we are the only ones here and analyze the task at hand. PMD’s have been steadily fluttering by. Carefully climbing off the basalt ledge I settle into the grasses thirty feet behind where the trout last rose. The trout again rises.
Tying on a pattern that has been good to me when Henry’s Fork rainbows are feeding on PMD’s I cautiously work out line, measure the distance and wait for the fish to take another insect form the surface before making a casting. It’s common here even with the utmost caution to not get a single cast to these wary trout, let alone several. These currents are tricky raising havoc with drag free drifts. I make a cast to the side and short of where I last saw the fish to judge the drift. Satisfied, my second cast is true to it’s mark. My offering slips by unnoticed. A slight bulge in the smooth currents hints that the trout is still there. I again present the fly. The trout rises yet my fly remains afloat the trout taking a natural just inches from my imitation. Again I cast, the rainbows nose penetrates the rivers surface and the fly disappears. I lift. The set is solid. The initial surge is powerful and sends my old Hardy singing into the surrounding silence. Seventy feet upstream the trout easily clears the waters surface. It’s my first good look at what I’m thinly attached to. Once settled, it again makes my reel sing, pulling line off the reel now moving rapidly downstream. Several minutes later the big rainbow comes to hand. I admire the fine dark spots that anoint its back, the hint of pink down the side before slipping the rainbow back into the rivers cool currents.
For thirty years I’ve been fortunate enough to fish here. There have been many trips were I haven’t even felt a pull on the line let alone land a good fish. Trips where just hooking a trout was a measure of success. Rather than hurry off I secure the fly to my rod, take a seat and watch the mounting storm as it continues to build. Lightening flashes. Thunder soon resonates throughout the lush valley. The storms intensity is in stark contrast to the warm sun and lush green grasses I’m bathed in. Relaxing I’m thankful just to be here.
By the time I climb back on top of the cliff Chris has moved on. With no one around there is plenty of room to spread out. I finished the afternoon fishing to a trout for several hours. During the ordeal it took my fly twice, yet my line never came tight when I lifted, the infamous Henry’s Fork “empty take”. They are never more common than on this river. Ones humbling do not take long after ones successes. Just when you think you’ve got it dicked, you get your headed handed to you. This trout poignantly ends my afternoon of fishing.
The evening storm produced and excellent caddis hatch on the upper end of the Ranch. Chris and I again cross paths and join company. We spot a bank feeder, which he promptly puts a great cast over. The trout eagerly takes his parachute spinner. Its initial surge parts his fine tippet. Before the night ends we each hook several more fish and miss on a number of other opportunities. There are few people around to share in the good fortunes that we have blindly stumbled upon. Content, we head back.
As darkness settles in my lack of sleep from the previous nights drive finally hits me. I eat and old sandwich while driving to camp to tired to get something better, to tired to care. At this juncture all I can think of is sleep.
First light again has me stirring. I thought about sleeping in since the prior days spinner fall took time to materialize. In my delirium I notice that the air temperature is much warmer than on the previous morning. Sometime during the night clouds moved in, the air hangs heavy and frost is absent from the ground. It doesn’t take me long to realize the implications: mornings lifeblood, coffee, is soon brewed. Looking through a soiled windshield I head to the upper reaches of the Ranch.
Pulling into the parking lot I’m the only car there, and indication of how the fishing has been. It’s not yet seven, maybe that has something to do with the lack of cars gathering, anticipating, preparing for the Ranch’s famous morning spinner falls. Even at this early hour it’s a rare scene. Chris soon joins me. We share in the previous days successes, as we ready. Since it’s our last morning, we waste no time in dressing and heading out.
Caddisflies are already gathering as we move downstream. A dense layer of clouds lies overhead. Chris and I both sense something special is going to happen. It’s too bad there aren’t more flyfishers to share in such a perfect morning. Ever vigilant we make our way through dense grasses and carpets of late blooming wildflowers that line the calm waters. We settle at Big Bend, a favorite post, to wait for the gathering mating flights of PMD and Flavs to end their morning dance. Chris has a cigarette. I pace in anticipation.
Chris barely finishes his casual smoke when he excitedly declares “first fish up”. It doesn’t take him long to gently slip into the rivers cool currents. Watching him get into position I spot another rise fifty yards downstream and I to begin the game.
After an hour of doing my best “dog on the leash” impersonation I eventually find another hopefully more willing subject. As typical on last days I’m a little wound up. I promptly put this and several more fish down before I hook a small Rainbow that pulls a fair amount of line from the reel before throwing the fly on its third aerial assault. Perfect release….
Moving back towards Chris I spot a fish I put down earlier now steadily rising. I enter the river and cautiously wade to a location slightly upstream of where the trout is feeding. Momentarily I remain motionless before quartering a cast forty feet down stream. Although the fish is moving as it gorges on spinners, its movements are confined to an area that is easily within casting distance. Another shimmering spinner disappears, my fly short of where the fish rises. On the third cast the rainbow lifts to take my fly. I let its head disappear before beginning to set the hook. Before I can fully lift the rod and send the small hook home, the reel screams in resistance. The backing knot soon leaves the reel and thumps through the guides as the fly line disappears. The trout momentarily pauses upstream somewhere contemplating its next move. My reel again comes to life reaching a velocity that leaves me chasing the trout downstream with no chance to ponder my predicament. Moments later the line goes slack as the big rainbow now swims free.
It takes a while to retrieve my line. The fly is still attached, yet the hook is broken clean at the bend. The sight leaves me with an empty feeling of what could have been. The last time I had a fish rip me like this was on this same river. I now reflect on that encounter. I didn’t land that fish either. We parted company much further into the struggle, the tiny hook pulling free as the fight was nearing its end. Fish like these are easy to remember. It’s another element to this place that draws one back time and time again.
After gathering myself I rejoin my fishing partner, who has to head home soon. As we head up river comparing fortunes on this beautifully still morning we almost spook another good fish that has slipped into the shallows to feed on scraps leftover from the mornings dying spinners. Since Chris is running short on time I offer up the opportunity taking a seat to watch.
From where I sit I can easily make out the shape of the trout. Its audible precise sips lend to its size. Chris has moved well away from the bank, moving upstream of its lie so as not to be detected. He’s soon in position, but like many of the trout we’ve encountered over the past several days, it has moved out of reach. Chris waits patiently for several minutes before rising and moving on. We exchange pleasantries and part company.
I remain seated still eyeing the cruising trout. It now moves upstream towards where I’m patiently waiting. Just in case I move down to where I can get a cast to it without getting into the water for fear that I’ll also give away my presence. Several minutes go by without seeing another rise. I’m just about to follow Chris out when the rainbow rises thirty feet in front of me. My lines ready to cast, fly in hand I let go and put the imitation in front of the rainbows path. The fly passes unmolested. The rainbow again rises, anxious I cast again. Just like the freight train I hooked earlier there is no mistaking “the eat”. I come tight to a solid weight that immediately leaves the water upon feeling the pull of the line. Again the sweet sound of reel music fills the air and I’m the only one left to hear such a concert. Again the trout jumps, giving me a great view of its size. Several more jumps occur followed by shorter runs before the fish is near enough to net. My rod arm and tippet strain under the pressure of trying to land this spectacular fish. Finally the fish comes to rest gently in the bottom of the net. It’s the largest rainbow I’ve landed in a decade on this river. Gently cradling the rainbow in my hand I take in its size and those distinct Henry’s Fork markings before it to slips easily back into these deceptive currents. Now only it’s memory vividly swims in my mind.
Reeling in I remove the fly from my line, putting and end to my fishing for the day. I can smell the rain as the storm approaches. I haven’t noticed but the wind is picking up as a squall moves over the ridgeline. As rain begins to fall I settle into the bank, no other anglers insight. With reluctance I begin my solitary walk back.
The style of fishing that the placid waters of the Henry’s Fork offer epitomizes what I believe fly-fishing should be. Where a single fly on gossamer tippets are presented with the utmost stealth and accuracy to a single fish. Where complex hatches challenge the best hand tied imitations. Where ones fly–fishing skills are continually pushed to the limits, all played out on a stage of great grandeur and beauty. This is why I fish the Henry’s Fork and other such similar waters. It’s what draws me back. It’s what fly- fishing should be.