Home Waters

With multiple personalities and great dry fly fishing, the Henrys Fork helps maintain family ties.

[by Will Rice]

We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always, it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.
—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

MY FAMILY COULD HAVE BEEN THE MODEL FOR MACLEAN’S MASTERPIECE, except my mother was religious, not my father, and my brother hasn’t yet been killed in a bar fight. The river that ran through our lives was the Henrys Fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho, and my family has fished it for more than three-quarters of a century—my father fished it before World War II, and each September, my brother, John, and I make an annual pilgrimage. And like Maclean’s Big Blackfoot River, the Henrys Fork was the shared obsession that tied the three of us together, although none of us ever believed that we knew what the river was saying.

The Henrys Fork is born full-blown, emerging from the flanks of the Island Park Caldera at a place aptly named Big Springs. Fishing is forbidden at the springs, and the crystal clear waters, striated with watercress and moss, are home to wood ducks, muskrats, and very large trout grown fat on the bread crumbs of tourists and small boys.

Three quarters of a mile below the springs, the stream meets the outflow from Henrys Lake and becomes a placid, silt-bottomed river, crossing the highway a few miles downstream at the once-stately, long-since-burnt Mack’s Inn.

At an age when I found dangling a fly from my rod only marginally more fascinating than chasing frogs and at a time when silk fly lines and catgut leaders were just disappearing, this stretch was my introduction to fishing Henrys Fork. We owned a classic wood-and-canvas canoe, almost too heavy to load on top of the old green Plymouth. With me in the bow, and my younger sister and brother astride the thwarts, my father and I would spend the afternoon casting to small trout as the four of us drifted down to Mack’s Inn, where my mother, her afternoon happily spent with a book, would meet us. There were no summer homes there in those days, and the river seemed as much a wilderness as anything described in the magazines that my favorite uncle, Chris, kept next to his recliner. It was on this stretch of water that, somewhere around age 12, a friend and I were allowed to complete a float trip unsupervised by adults, our first. It set me on a path that led to decades of floating remote wilderness rivers in Alaska—but that was years in the future.

The area below Mack’s is a stunningly beautiful lodgepole pine forest, the river ultimately transforming itself into the turbulent cascades of Coffeepot Rapids. Upstream from the rapids, however, the river is easily waded and heavily planted. In those days, the Idaho limit was 15 fish, and it was here that I first caught (and released) that magic number on a dry fly. It was of no importance that none of them exceeded five inches in length, but it was a crystal clear day, the weekend before the school year started, and a fully antlered bull moose waded the river just below me, leaving an image burned into my brain, as vivid today as it was 60 years ago.

My family had little money in those days and few indulgences. But my father had an eye, if not a wallet, for things of lasting beauty. When he brought home a new Orvis Battenkill bamboo rod, my mother was outraged.

“You spent a hundred dollars? For a fishing pole!?” I, however, was in awe of that wisp of golden cane with red silk wraps.

Below Coffeepot, the river becomes Island Park Reservoir, its flow controlled for the benefit of the downstream farmers. The dam discharge spews into the Box Canyon, a steep-walled stretch of pocket water with large trout, and wading that rivals the lower Deschutes for treachery. This is high country, a few miles from the continental divide, and it can resemble a wind tunnel when the weather is moving through. The Box, on more than one occasion, has provided a place of refuge from unfishable winds. Below the Box, the terrain flattens out into a broad meadow, and the river, as if fascinated with its new incarnation, meanders through cheatgrass and sagebrush country, with springs bubbling up out of the lava-rock substrate. The surrounding hills are covered with pine, and in the fall, the haunting bugles of bull elk will bring a momentary halt to the fishing.

In the iconography of fly fishing, this is hallowed ground. Perhaps the finest stretch of dry fly water in the United States, the best of it lies within Harriman State Park. No one uses the official name for the park, though. It’s just “the Ranch,” or maybe, for newcomers, “the Railroad Ranch.”

(Left to right) Henrys Fork trout grow big on the rich bug life. The Ranch provides some of the finest, most technical dry-fly fishing in the world. Brutal autumn weather can bring those big heads to the surface, and John Rice fools a nice one on a Mahogany Dun. Green drake imitations are mandatory in late June.

Growing up here when I did, though, I was forbidden the waters of the Ranch, a private reserve of the rich and powerful. But my father loved to fish in that long stretch above the logjam that marks the Ranch border, water that is still known as Last Chance. The river between Big Springs and Mack’s may have been for childish things, but this was grown-up fishing. As soon as I was tall enough to safely wade it, my father included me in his summer expeditions. It was 130 miles on two-lane roads to get there, and about five miles from the river, we would begin obsessing about the hatch. The big, orange splat of a salmonfly hitting the windshield would bring shouts of anticipation. We would fish until it was too dark to see, have dinner at Mack’s Inn, and then my dad would drive home while I slept. A size 16 Parachute Adams was pretty much the only fly we needed.

My uncle Chris bore a resemblance to the late Jim Harrison that was more than just physical, running to food, drink, and storytelling. He taught me and my father before me and my brother after me, how to fly fish and wing-shoot. So when Chris told me that, so long as you didn’t get out of the boat, the millionaires who owned the Ranch couldn’t stop you from floating through their property and catching their fish, it was a challenge that no teenager could resist. As for getting out of the boat, we were discouraged from that by the range rider who flanked us on horseback as we drifted through. We were pretty sure that the .30-30 carbine in his saddle scabbard was just for the coyotes, but we weren’t taking any chances. Chris, however, didn’t bother to warn us that there is a little drop on the downstream side of the Stock Bridge that can’t be seen until it is too late. The stay-in-the-boat rule apparently didn’t apply to capsizing. Fortunately, no one got shot and only our pride was injured. And, because it was the middle of a hot July day, with no hatches or rising fish, we had little pride left at that point.

In 1982, the Ranch became a state park and was opened to the public. As good as the fishing at Last Chance was, the Ranch was a revelation. This was dry fly fishing at its finest. The stretch below the logjam is easily waded, with no interference on your backcast, and full of fish. Although technically a tailwater, the Ranch section is in fact a giant spring creek, 100 yards wide, thick with moss, and incredibly bug-rich. Over the season, a dozen distinct species of mayfly emerge from its waters, ranging from size 22 Tricos to size 8 gray drakes. Add half a dozen caddis species, big lumbering salmonflies, and banks full of hoppers, and it is easy to see why a pilgrimage to the Ranch became part of every fly fisher’s bucket list.

But the quality of the fishing is matched by its difficulty. With all that food, the trout can afford to be picky—and they are. Subtle microcurrents act as an early-warning system for trout that know the dangers associated with a seemingly insignificant drag and can inspect a slow-moving fly at their leisure. Also, the wind is a constant. For many of the hatches, the appropriate flies are 18s and 20s, and designed to be indistinguishable from the thousands of mayflies that may blanket the surface. The fish rise in a rhythm that must be matched, and to complicate things further, they often move as they feed. It is easily among the most technical water in the United States. In reality, you don’t go to the Ranch to catch fish. You go to the Ranch to see if you are skilled enough to catch fish, testing yourself against an animal with a brain the size of an almond. And the average American League pitcher will have a higher batting average than anybody you find on the river.