There was a hiatus in my trips to the river in the ’70s. Girls, college, and ultimately, a career in Alaska, interfered with fishing. I was at the age, or perhaps the point in my fishing career, where numbers and size meant everything. Floating remote rivers in Bristol Bay and western Alaska was intoxicating. They were streams full of big, dumb trout, and the weeklong floats typically meant humping a lot of gear, navigating with paper maps and compass, and hoping for better weather. Henrys Fork seemed kind of tame in comparison. Or maybe it was just that the Ranch would kick my ass whenever I returned. But I began to appreciate the annual lesson in humility.
After the Ranch opened, trips to visit my family fell into a pattern—sometime in September or October, I would show up and spend a day or two visiting my mother and sister. Then my brother, my dad, and I would head north. We would hole up in some sleazy motel close to the river and watch post-season baseball at night. We prided ourselves on being among the first on the river in the morning and the last to leave as the sunset faded and our flies disappeared in the darkness. (West Coast ball games were much more angler-friendly.) It was quintessential male bonding—perhaps this is what Maclean meant about knowing what the river was saying.
Occasionally, we hiked into the middle section of the Ranch, along Stock Bridge road. It is about a mile to the section we liked to fish, too far to walk in the neoprene waders that were then the height of angling fashion. We carried our boots and waders over our shoulders and geared up when we hit the river. This is a magical stretch of water, remote and classically Idaho. Canada geese and white pelicans move up and down the river, sandhill cranes sound their rattling clarion call, and the crowds are nonexistent. More to the point, the fishing can be very good.
One crisp, autumn day, my brother and I stood 40 yards apart in a run called Avenue of the Giants and fished our way through three distinct hatches without either of us having to move. When we returned to change out of our waders, we discovered an ermine, its summer coat still brown and white, investigating Dad’s running shoes, apparently convinced there was a mouse tunnel in there somewhere. As an aside, never try to shoo a weasel. Their fight-or-flight switch goes only one way.
When I was in my 40s, I took a bit of time off work, and rented a cabin for the month of October just on the Wyoming side of the continental divide. Ten minutes from West Yellowstone, and 30 minutes to the Ranch. My friend Rich Chiappone came down from Alaska to join me for a week. One morning we drove into Yellowstone Park predawn, looking for those big spawning browns that move up the Madison from Hebgen Lake. But when I saw a black cloud rolling over the mountains to the west of us, I told Rich, “We’re headed to Henrys Fork. It may be a bust or it may be . . . Well, you’ll just have to see. And I don’t have chains, so we might not be able to get back across the divide.”
When we got to the logjam, there was not a breath of wind. Saucer-size flakes of snow were drifting down, blanketing our hoods. The water’s surface was a carpet of size 20 gray wings, and every trout in the river was up.
I have always enjoyed October on the river. There are a lot of bad days, and I have pulled the plug more than once— just gone to the bar and watched football. But the good ones are special, in part because you know they are coming to an end. As my father grew older, he accompanied us less often. But his cast, with that elegant bamboo rod that he now reserved for fishing the Ranch, never lost its rhythm. He didn’t quit, though, until his eyes grew so weak, and his hand so unsteady, that he could no longer tie on his own flies. That rod was his single bequest to me. My brother got the canoe.
The Stock Bridge bisects the Ranch portion of the river. Lightly fished, the stretch below the bridge is the heart of the Ranch’s mission as a bird sanctuary. A half mile downstream, where the river bends east at Millionaire’s Pool, are the old original Ranch buildings—cabins with massive stone fireplaces and log walls, classic barns, and split-rail fences. Since 1890, it has been and remains today a working cattle ranch, first established by the owner of the Oregon Short Line railroad, and later purchased by Edward Harriman, who built the Union Pacific Railroad. Fortunately for the rest of us, they were more interested in it as a fly fishing retreat than as a moneymaking operation. In 1977, the Harrimans, in a generous gesture of noblesse oblige, deeded the Ranch to the State of Idaho, stipulating that its waters should be restricted to catch-and-release, fly fishing only.
A half mile below the Ranch buildings, the river flows under the Osborne Bridge, and the water below there is deep, mysterious, and full of large trout. The river can be waded only in a few places at the margins, and the technical problems of drag and accuracy are magnified by the necessity of long casts, frequently with a high bank as a backstop. Floating it is the best way to fish it, but with effort and a willingness to explore, there is good water to be found by a wading angler. It is an area that I didn’t discover until late in life, and it became new water, with all of the pleasures and frustrations that involves.
If the fish on the rest of the Ranch seem to be college educated, the fish at the lower boundary, the infamous Wood Road 16, have postdoctoral degrees. Many old Ranch hands consider it the ultimate proving ground for the ability to make drag-free, timed-to-the-second, perfect-pattern drifts. Bring your A game if you are driving down the potholes of that road.
My brother and I returned last September; our fly boxes filled with the exquisite patterns that have been developed specifically for the Ranch—CDC Comparaduns, Last Chance Cripples, No-Hackle Duns. We arrived just as the first cold snap of the season hit. Our first morning, it was 34 degrees, 20 knots of wind, and raining. We wadered up, walked down to the river, and said, “Screw this.” We spent the day in Yellowstone Park, shooting photos of fishermen in a Firehole River snowstorm. When we got back to the Ranch late that afternoon, the temperature had risen to 36 degrees, the rain had stopped, and the PMDs were coming off. It was a good omen.
As the temperature rose over the next few days, so did the bug life. And the fish were apparently feeling the anxiety of an approaching winter. On what was intended to be our last day (we quickly canceled our plans to float the Teton River the following morning), a few mahoganies appeared just as we got on the river, and the bigger fish started to notice. Shortly after that, the PMDs began to emerge, and then the river segued into a Baetis hatch that continued through the afternoon. But those few mahoganies continued to drift down—big, dark, size 16 bugs among all those size 20 and 22s. And the trout loved them. The fish rose all afternoon, through the last gasp of evening. The day breeze finally died and the river glassed off, a liquid mirror reflecting a golden sunset, marked by the dark rings of trout confidently rising to a final flutter of caddis. We fished on until it was so dark, we could only hear the slurping noises.
As we stepped from the river, my brother gestured behind me, and I turned around to see the Tetons silhouetted against a brilliant red cloud in a darkening sky, the faintest of alpenglow touching their peaks. I passed him my flask of Irish as a toast. “I am pretty sure this is the best day I have ever had on the Ranch.”
“Yeah, me, too. Best ever.” He laughed. “And a Parachute Adams was the fly of the day for me.”
It wasn’t until later that I realized we had been the first car in the parking lot that morning—and we were the last to leave the river.
“Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” —Norman Maclean.
Will Rice discovered the relationship between fly fishing and beautiful places at an early age and has cultivated that bond ever since. He lives with his wife, Debra, in Anchorage, Alaska. His photos can be seen at willricephoto.com