The cotton hatch

How legendary days reduce learning curve
South Fork Snake River - Idaho
Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River hosts the largest cottonwood forest in the West. The trees release cotton into the air right about the same time big bugs hit the water (photo: Kris Millgate).

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The temperature is high, the bug count is high and spirits are running even higher. I hear hollers up and down the canyon and I know our timing is prefect. We’ve hit the big bug hatch on Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River and we are fishing one of the legendary days of wet-wade season, those few summer weeks when anglers shed coats and waders to fish in shorts and flip flops.

​In all reality, legendary days are talked about more often than they are experienced. I haven’t hit a legendary day in years, but I’m hitting one now and my senses are on high alert.

​I see a mass feathering of birds above. Gulls, swallows, eagles, osprey. I hear risers around me, laughter ahead of me and oars next to me. I smell water, willows and cotton. Yes, cotton. The sneeze-inducing kind. It’s so thick it looks like snow slowly drifting down the canyon with no breeze yanking it out of the corridor. The South Fork hosts the largest cottonwood forest in the West and it sheds its fluffy offspring in the heat of summer.

​For me, the cotton hatch is what legendary days are made of. I relish the hatch so much that I can’t take my eyes off it. That’s alarmingly obvious when my oarsman, Kerry Fisher, yells, SET! I look from the sky to my fly and see the swollen belly of a brown roll over my bug then disappear without a bite. Kerry laughs. Hard.

​It’s so hot, there’s sweat rolling down his face. I know he’s working in the heat to hold the drift boat just right, but he’s laughing at me. I shut him up quick with a snarky remark about how he’s not rowing well enough to keep my fly in the fish’s mouth. We both laugh not looking at each other, but scanning the water. There are fish lips every which way. Stoneflies and drakes are causing the ruckus. Chuck one or both and don’t be delicate about it. Hammer the bank, mark the middle, hit every logjam. My aim is solid, but my set is lacking. I miss two more fish then throw a fit. Fisher witnesses me at my finest. My rod turns into McEnroe’s racket and I slap it on the water. I cuss like a trucker and stomp my feet hard enough for every fish within three underwater miles to hear the fiberglass pounding.

​“I’ve never seen a woman do that,” he says. “I thought only men did that.”

​This coming from the guy who works for a woman with more spunk than me. Fisher works for Lonnie Allen, owner of Three Rivers Ranch. Allen is in the other boat. I don’t doubt her ability in anyway. She’s caught as many fish as I’ve missed.

​Allen is an outfitter. One of the handful permitted to guide on the South Fork. Her grandparents established Idaho’s smallest city, Warm River. Her parents started Three Rivers Ranch. Allen bought it from them in 1987. When she showed up to take her first outfitters test, she was way ahead of her time.

​“I walked into a room full of men who looked like they came right off the set of Rawhide,” she says. “I was there to take the outfitters test. They thought I was there to deliver doughnuts.”

​Allen tells me about the test. It includes questions like: What part of a horse’s body has the best hair for tying flies? Turns out it’s the inside of their upper leg. I didn’t even know horses had hair there.

​We jump to talk of using flies rather than tying them. Allen’s five shops sold 70,000 flies in 2015. Where in this world of ours are all those flies? I know where mine are. The grass, the bush, that tree. Fisher is teaching me to reduce my mend so I can increase fly float. Mending in the air, or a reach cast, does that, but now my aim is off. Way off. When I’m missing my mark, I’m hitting the cameraman in the back of the boat, or better yet, Fisher.

​We’re on the water 10 hours. My white-knuckled grip eases as I keep making adjustments suggested by Fisher. I’m missing some fish, but not all fish and more are coming so I’m not panicked.

Lonnie Allen - Three Rivers Ranch
Lonnie Allen, Three Rivers Ranch owner and outfitter, fishes in shorts and flip-flops during eastern Idaho’s short summer heat season (photo: Kris Millgate).

​By sunset, my aim is back and I can reach cast so I add a stern strip to my set. Fisher thinks I’m setting fast enough, but not hard enough. Big fish eat big bugs and if I want an up close look at any of these trout, I need a business set not a party set. It takes me three misses to get the rhythm of quickly raising my rod for a set and stripping line at the same time. On the fourth effort, I bring a brown trout to the boat. That’s just about the time I lose the best fitting pair of sunglasses I’ve ever known. I’m mad, but this legendary day during the cotton hatch is still glorious because I’m learning things. Many things.

​Learning is what legendary days are all about. It’s not fish count. Frankly, legendary days are the best days to lose count. Losing count means fish are in frenzy mode and you have everything to gain. Take advantage of that. There are three more fish following the one you just missed anyway.

​On legendary days, you have multiple chances to perfect something new and repetitiveness among so much action solidifies habit that much faster. So when a legendary day is upon you, ease your grip, try more reach for less mend and practice stripping when you set. That’s what makes legendary days worthy of the cotton hatch.