Doing It All Wrong

Fishing upstream in the downstream drift.

[by Miles Nolte]

The first voices I’d heard all day shook me. When I came around the bend, a half dozen trucks sat dusty on the gravel shoulder. Their owners—all men older than me in waders and vests—reclined in folding chairs, leaned on hoods, compared fly boxes, tied leaders; none were fishing. I continued upstream, waderless and vestless, looking to the river for flashes or riseforms, feeling uncomfortable even before I caught snatches of their conversation.

“I’ve never fished upstream on this river. . . .”
“. . . no idea what he’s doing.”
“. . . can’t get a drift that way.”
“Well, we might as well cast at one of these fish instead of just talking about them.”

Their huddle didn’t so much break as casually disperse and then dissipate along the slight curve where a few dozen trout fed with some consistency. I had been told about the protocol here: An angler gets rights to individual fish, not entire spots, and the way these men spread out reinforced that notion. They clearly knew this river. I didn’t.

I walked past several of the men, who stood waist deep, casting downstream to their chosen rises. All morning I had stayed on the bank, fishing upstream. There was a significant gap between two of them and a nice trout feeding in the break. I considered walking around the bend and out of sight. Instead, I waded out behind the fish, cold water and a soft carpet of ranunculus tickling through my sandals.

The man closest to me narrated missed takes loud enough for me to hear. He eventually hooked and landed the fish, held it up in my direction, looked right at me. When I hooked and landed my own fish a few moments later, he addressed me.

“What’d he eat?”
“Rusty Spinner,” I said. “Size 18.”
“No kidding? Hell, I haven’t used anything but an ant in days.”
Then, in the other direction, to one of his cohorts: “John, this guy just got one on a Rusty Spinner.”
“The guy that was fishing upstream?”
“Yeah, that guy.”
I turned away to grin.

His name turned out to be Francis. He had spent 12 retired summers on the Henrys Fork and had never once cast upstream to a fish.

Harriman State Park on the Henrys Fork of the Snake River defines iconic fly fishing water. Though it is less than a half-day’s drive from my home, I avoided it for years. I’ve fished other parts of the Fork, the Box Canyon and the waters from Cardiac Canyon down to Vernon, but I skipped the Harriman State Park section (aka “the Ranch”).

Initially, I stayed away because it was so popular. I don’t like fishing in crowds, but there was more to my avoidance. I’d heard so much about enormous and brilliant trout, water so clear and slow the fish can see you from a half mile away, and complex microcurrents requiring an advanced degree in hydrology to approximate a good drift, that I was intimidated.

I have been a professional trout guide for a decade and a fishing writer for even longer. Much of my identity flexes between graphite fibers and rests on surface film. What if I couldn’t cut it on such a classic proving ground?

Last August, my fiancée’s family gathered for a reunion in Utah. It was my introduction to the extended family, a chance for them to meet me and, I assumed, assess my worth. To get to the reunion, I had to drive past the Ranch. With about 100 future in-laws to impress, a day of wary trout seemed like a good warm-up.

I started on a basalt bluff, figuring the elevation would allow me to spot fish. My pace was that of bowhunting elk in thick timber. Place boot, scan water, another ginger step, another scan. Weeds waved in perfect pockets, looking enough like fish tails to make me scout for routes of approach, but they never turned into trout, no matter how hard I stared.

Ninety minutes later and a half mile upstream, I hadn’t seen a fish. The bluff was petering out, and the water where it ended looked shallow and featureless. I decided to head for the current break 60 yards farther. When I stood to my full height, a big trout jetted, trailing a cloud of silt. How did I not see that fish? Why was it there? How did it see me? Do these trout have eyes in their tails?

Justifications followed questions, fisherman’s logic covering self-doubt. That fish was probably just resting, not feeding. There was no way I could have gotten to it without being busted. The high ground was not a good stalking solution. I needed to be lower. It was only 10 o’clock, I noted, reminding myself that I was still under 40 and could find a new career if this fishing gig didn’t pan out.

Slowing down again, I stared at each promising ripple as if lining up bank shots in a barroom pool game. Fifty feet upstream, a discrepancy in the surface caught my eye. A rise? I inched forward, measured distance, stripped line, stayed low, threw my backcast into a willow. Damn it! I retied my leader, tensed through about 100 drifts, concluded that I had conjured the rise from current swirl and optimism, took two steps, saw another fish flee.

Half an hour and 100 feet farther upstream, I found more disturbances. Instead of launching assault loops, I crept into position and watched. Definitely fish, several nice ones, rising behind a boulder. But what were they eating?

My first pattern, a flying ant, was ignored, so I changed flies every 10 drifts or so, pretending to
be scientific, unemotional. After going through mayflies in two different sizes and three different life stages, I tied on a caddis. Scientific method demands 
diligence, and I had seen one or two of the bugs fluttering drunkenly. When gray jaws engulfed the fly, I was shocked and set the hook late, a reactionary flail that ripped line off the placid water—a firecracker exploding in church.

The fish disappeared. Even the birds went silent. I became stone. Ten minutes later, the trout had not come back up, but I could still see flashes underwater.

I changed to a mayfly nymph and stayed low, sight-casting to a decent rainbow feeding in steady current away from the complex eddy of the boulder. It wasn’t the biggest trout, but it was the most accessible. I took what I could get. After three good drifts, I saw the white flash of his mouth at about the time I guessed my fly should be there. A clean rod lift, a few annoyed head shakes, and then into the current, where his fear and my elation intertwined along monofilament.

I caught, lost, and spooked a few more fish before running into Francis and the crowd of locals parked along the bend. Despite our rocky introduction, Francis and I spent a half hour chatting on the bank. When I told him how my morning had gone, he gave me the validation I hadn’t wanted to admit I was seeking.

“I’d say you’ve had a hell of a day, considering you’ve been doing it all wrong.”

I don’t do things wrong out of defiance, more like ignorance, ego, and impulse. I picked my undergraduate university on the advice of a stranger in a bar in Spain and earned a degree in World Literature despite the job prospects. Proximity to trout fishing and snow skiing dictated the town where I settled. I fell in love with a woman who lives on the opposite side of the country and asked her to marry me, though neither of us has any desire to move.

It’s not just about being stubborn, or being contrary for the sake of contrariness. I’m not Sinatra, needing to do it my way. Things would probably go easier if I were better at taking directions. I do alright anyway, usually finding ways to catch fish. But I still care what the guys on the bank think when they
see me walking upstream, flinging my best guesses.

After Francis and I parted ways, and I was safely out of sight, I did try drifting my fly down to a few rising fish. Turns out, that works, too. It might even be easier. When I head back to the Ranch next summer, I’ll mix in the downstream approach, but I probably won’t stop casting against the current entirely. 

Miles Nolte lives, teaches, and guides in Bozeman, Montana. He plans to spend more time on the Henry’s Fork. Art by Adriano Mannochia.