The Henry's Fork: The Ranch

Part 3 of a 3-part series on fly fishing's Valhalla
Henry's Fork - The Ranch
Photo: Todd Tanner

The Henry's Fork is Valhalla, the place you visit when you've reached your pinnacle as an angler. This one river, more than any other, transcends numbers, size and every other form of tyrannical quantitative analysis; it is a star in the angling sky, a fly fishing temple where the only thing that truly matters is your next cast. I can't tell you "The Truth, The Whole Truth, The Nothing But The Truth" about the Henry's Fork. Nobody can. I can, however, offer a few personal glimpses, snapshots that stand out from the thousands of hours I've spent on this incredible stream. Maybe a small taste of my experience will whet your appetite for a more tangible introduction.

Part three.

The Ranch

I miss Whitefish Ed. Ed, which is his real name, and "Whitefish", which is his handle on the Henry’s Fork, is one of those wonderful, slightly-skewed individuals who make fly fishing the last true bastion of individuality in the angling world.

For all the years I’ve know him, Ed has worn the brightest, most garish clothes he can find; a riot of orange, yellow, pink, purple, and chartreuse. I’m not talking pajamas, either. Ed wears his collection of skin tight fluorescent spandex shirts in full view of his angling brethren. If you can imagine a swarthy, bearded Lance Armstrong in neon bicycle garb and waders, you’re awfully close. He also swears like a sailor, wraps his fly rod guides in excruciating hot pink and, when he arrives on the Henry’s Fork each spring, he angles not so much for trout, for which the river is duly famous, but for their much maligned cousin the mountain whitefish.

I saw Ed a bunch back when I was working in Last Chance. He was around for a couple of weeks each June and since he dressed like a fire truck with the lights and siren on, he was easy enough to spot from a distance. While I don’t guide anymore, and while I only make the occasional trip down to the Henry’s Fork, I still keep an eye out for Ed whenever I visit. I absolutely love his irreverent sense of humor and I also appreciate the fact that he has his priorities straight. For Ed, it’s all about having fun.

And there he was, standing bigger than life in the parking lot at the top end of the Railroad Ranch, on, of all things, the June 15th Ranch opener. Ed, bless his heart, looked exactly the same as he always had; like a slightly crazed, day-glow child of the sixties who’d dropped a little acid and decided to go fly fishing.

Ed saw me walking over, sneaking in between a brand new camper with Oregon plates and a beat up old Ford pickup from Colorado, and in that deep, showman’s voice of his—he must practice at night in front of the mirror—he said, “Son of a bitch, Todd, how the fuck are you!? Good to fucking see you again! Goddamnit, you look like life is treating you well. And how’s your wife?”

There are people who can, with no discernible effort, make you feel like you’re appreciated, like you’ve been missed, like you’ve just come home from a strange foreign land and now the town elders are rolling out the welcome wagon and putting on a parade. Ed, though he has all the subtlety of a garbage truck, is one of those guys. It’s probably only a coincidence that he loves to fish the Henry’s Fork.

You wouldn’t ever guess it, but the smell I most associate with the Ranch opener is hot asphalt. The big fishermen’s parking lot at the north end of Harriman State Park was paved over some years back, and on warm June days the aroma of all that tar permeates the air with a stench reminiscent of a suburban mall. When you combine the asphalt with the other odors on hand—coffee, grilled burgers, barbecued ribs, beer, whiskey, cigars, wet waders, wet dogs, pipe tobacco, car exhausts, and the camper waste disposal station—well, you’re not quite sure whether you're on the best trout stream in North America or in the midst of pre-game festivities at Giant’s Stadium. Still, like the cigarette smoke in a great blues club, it’s all part of the ambiance, and by the time you’re actually out on the water the odor is little more than a distant memory.

After I left Whitefish Ed, I walked back to my truck to gear up. I got my waders on, talked for a few minutes with my old friends René and Bonnie Harrop, wished them "good luck" (not that they needed it, but there are certain formalities that should be observed on almost any trout stream, and particularly on one as steeped in tradition as the Henry’s Fork), and headed down toward the river.

The main trail into the Ranch leaves the south end of the parking lot and cuts through a patch of shin-high flowers called Mule’s Ears. Their long green leaves look almost exactly like their namesake, and as my eyes swept across the golden yellow blossoms, I felt the first little jabs of adrenaline start to course through my system.

It was hard not to smile. In fact, it was too hard. I started with a little itsy-bitsy guy, just the barest hint of an upturn showing at the corners of my mouth, and then I moved right into a big, goofy, lopsided grin that was the perfect compliment to the giddiness I was feeling.

Which, all things considered, was not surprising. I love to fish, and since the Henry’s Fork is my favorite river, and the Ranch is my favorite section, and the Opener ... well, it’s not only the easiest fishing of the year, the day that all those huge, selective rainbows invariably eat my imitations with gusto, but it’s also the reunion that I’ve been looking forward to since the previous fall, the moment when I come face to face with a whole host of great memories and that estranged piece of my heart that refuses to leave Last Chance, Idaho.

So what can I say? I was happy as a pig in shit and grinning like a damned idiot, and if you’d asked me why, I would have looked at you as if you were nuts and said, “Don’t you know? It’s the Ranch Opener!”

Now you’d probably imagine that I walked down to the the water and stood there soaking in the spectacular beauty of the place like some sort of piscatorial monk, enraptured by the sun sparkling on the river’s surface, the clear blue sky, the huge emerald meadows and the gentle forested slope of nearby Thurman Ridge.

You would, however, be wrong.

I saw all those things, that’s true, and they certainly registered on some level, as did the fifty or sixty people wading the river below me, but to be honest, my mind, ephemeral as ever, had shifted again and the focus of my attention was now the 20” rainbow rising directly out in front of me.

How’s that for luck? I marched down to the water, paused to look around, and there he was, a great big beautiful rainbow trout sipping pale morning dun mayflies from the surface not twenty yards from where I stood. I can’t say if he’d just started feeding or if the dozens of anglers who’d preceded me that morning had simply missed his bulging rises, but to be frank, I couldn’t have cared less. I had a shot at a big Henry’s Fork bow and that’s all that mattered.

Which is the true beauty of the Ranch Opener. All those huge, skittish, Ph.D. trout have forgotten the painful catch and release lessons of years past, and they rise—Amen and Hallelujah, look at the size of that damn fish!—as if they haven’t a care in the world. I really don’t deserve fishing that good but I’d have to be some kind of dunce not to take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself.

Now without making it sound too easy, or worse yet, coming across as another arrogant, full-of-himself fishing scribe (the Lord knows we have enough of those already and it’s about time we realized that fly fishing isn’t brain surgery, nor does it feed the hungry, cure the sick, or shelter the homeless), I simply stepped into the river, made a couple of casts and hooked that nice 20” bow.

He didn’t do anything for a moment—I could picture him holding in the crystal current, coming to grips with the fact that he’d just eaten the year’s first nasty “drag-me- through-the-water-to-a-place-I-really-don’t-want-to-go” bug—and then he exploded. He ran toward the far bank, jumped, jumped again (his leap fractured by the strobe light effect of the sun flashing off a thousand tiny droplets of water), then he doubled back, turned and ran upstream.

I kept the pressure on, let him tire himself against the current and then, maybe two minutes after he’d first taken my fly, I slid him in close, reached down with my forceps, and twisted the little size 16 dry from the corner of his jaw.

He swam away, heading for sanctuary in one of the weed beds that sprout from the river’s gravel bottom, and an angler walking by on the bank paused and said with genuine warmth, “Way to go! That was a beautiful fish.”

To which I replied—and not just to the gentleman on shore—“Thank you!”

In retrospect, any Ranch Opener is less a running history, a ten or twelve hour video, than it is a fistful of colorful snapshots. A young fellow walked by me with his even younger wife; he in a well worn fishing vest and sun faded waders, she in cut off jeans, a t-shirt, and sandals, with a tiny little angler-to-be looking over her shoulder from her baby backpack. They said hello, and so did I, and I felt bad because it was only mid morning and they were already heading back to the parking lot. I could tell from the pained expression on the guy’s face that he wasn’t quite ready to call it a day.

“Don’t leave.” I wanted to say, “Not yet. It’s going to be great!” But I didn’t, and they kept going, and so, after a second, did I.

I found a spot just above Bonefish Flats with only a couple of other fishermen nearby, and there were ten, maybe even a dozen, big trout rising in the shallow water toward the center of the river. Rising steady. I hooked one fish right away, one of the other guys hooked up sixty yards above me, I stuck a second and then a third fish, someone else had a trout on, and then I noticed that there was one fellow standing very still amidst all the activity. He wasn’t casting, in fact I don’t think he’d made one cast in the twenty minutes I’d been there, and he waited like some great stalking bird of the flats - a heron, perhaps - looking in vain for a rainbow to tempt, for a nose poking above the river’s velvet surface within casting distance.

whitefish ed - fly fishing - henry's fork
Whitefish Ed (photo: D. Bone).

I was ecstatic, the fishing was wonderful, yet glancing over at this man standing there midstream, patient yet fishless, I again felt the need to call out, to yell, “Hey, you can move around. You don’t have to stay there. Slide over and grab one of those big guys.”

Of course I didn’t, and then I started wondering if this fellow’s patience was a virtue, a sign of his inner peace and serenity, and if all my activity, my wading here and there and then zipping casts at those huge trout, was possibly a sin (greed, maybe, or even gluttony), and I decided to move on before I started feeling guilty about the fish I'd just landed. Guilt being something that has no place on a trout stream, especially when the bugs are popping and trout are rising.

The day went forward and even more images built up: a five pound-plus rainbow breaking my tippet with a casual shake of his head; a guide patiently showing a client how to execute a drag free drift; a half dozen guys I didn’t know, but who nonetheless stopped to talk on the bank where we traded stories and wished each other well. It was a great day, even a grand day, a day when we joked, laughed, smiled; a day for the ages. And all because the Railroad Ranch, perhaps the best dry fly water on the planet, gives of her gifts freely on the 15th of June.

I also ended up running into my old pal Whitefish Ed again, and without much in the way of a preamble, I asked him how he’d done. Surprisingly, he didn’t swear, he didn’t wax poetic, he didn’t make fun of the trout he’d caught or brag on the whitefish he hadn’t. He just stood there looking tired, looking satiated, looking, quite frankly, pretty much like the other tuckered-out fly fishermen who were stowing their gear in the parking lot while the sun sank below the western horizon.

Then he smiled —a great smile, it actually lit up his face—and said, “Todd, it was good. It was really, really good.”

Amen, brother, amen.

Read part 1, The lower river or part 2, The Box.

Comments

I love the Ranch. Only fished it twice, the first time in 2001, the week of 9/11. I live in NYC. Enough said. The second time was 2015 and I had the pleasure of being guided by John McDaniel, who taught me anthropology way back when at W&L. Good fishing, good memories. Looking forward to the next trip.

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