"Aim for the heart ..."
That’s good advice for elk and whitetails, and it also holds true for those of us who chase trout with a fly rod. If there really is a heart to American fly fishing - a physical location at the center of our sport - then it’s a wide spot in the road called Last Chance, Idaho. Assuming you’ve fished for a while, you’ve likely heard of Last Chance and the river that runs through it: the Henry’s Fork.
Some years ago, three exceptional anglers - René Harrop, Rich Paini and Jon Stiehl - decided to build what may well be the finest fly shop/guide service/watering hole/lodge/restaurant in the United States. They put it square in the middle of Last Chance, within a stone’s throw of what many anglers consider the top river in the country, and they had faith that their considerable skill and intimate knowledge of the fishery would translate into something special; something beyond the run-of-the-mill fly shops and soulless corporate lodges that dominate America’a angling landscape.
They’re all a little older now - René and Jon have more gray in their beards, and Rich actually donated a finger to a hungry grizzly bear a few years back - but they have, at least in my opinion, exceeded any & all reasonable expectations. TroutHunter is the shining star on the Henry’s Fork; the place where experienced anglers head for the best flies, the best gear and the best guides - not to mention an excellent meal, a cold beer and a comfortable bed.
Pat McCabe and I stopped by TroutHunter this past July for a homecoming of sorts. Pat and I were both Henry’s Fork guides back in the early 90s, and we made the long trip to Idaho to see a few old friends and reacquaint ourselves with the best fly fishing we’ve ever experienced. Or maybe I should say “the toughest fly fishing,” because the Henry’s Fork has always been the place where anglers go to challenge themselves against difficult trout under the most demanding conditions: flat water, intricate currents, incredible hatches and discriminating fish. As any number of fishing writers have pointed out over the years, if you can catch fish on the Ranch - that epic stretch of water just downstream of Last Chance - you can catch fish anywhere.
Honestly, that’s what keeps us going back; the certainty that we can park next to the river, throw on a pair of waders, grab a fly rod and then slip into pristine flows where our best efforts might not be good enough; where one of the Good Lord’s most beautiful creatures might turn down our offerings while he eats every single natural that floats by.
Which is damn near what happened this past July. The wind was gusting - am I the only one who thinks the wind blows more than it used to? - and we had to wander around and find a spot where the surface was calm enough for the trout to rise. It took a while, but when we finally chanced upon a little cove with lots of bugs and no breeze, we hit the mother lode. Rainbows - big rainbows - were rising everywhere we looked. Only they weren’t really rising. What at first seemed like trout feeding on the surface turned out to be trout taking emerging mayflies an inch or two below, bulging the meniscus but never actually breaking through to the air above.
Now on one hand, it usually doesn’t take a whole bunch of talent, or luck, to catch Henry’s Fork trout under those particular conditions. All you have to do is fish a tiny, unweighted nymph a foot or so behind your little dry fly. You make your cast, get your drift, and then lift the rod tip when the dry fly stops or ducks under the water.
(A caveat: there are times when those trout key on nymphal movement, which adds a whole new level of complexity to the game. Of course, you can always lengthen the distance between your flies and try a modified Leisenring lift with you dry/wet combo.)
On the other hand, it takes a fair amount of talent, and a whole bunch of luck, to hook those fish on top with a single dry fly. Why? Because you’re asking the fish in question to eat something it doesn’t really want to eat. It’s like trying to convince a guy dining on elk steaks and roasted red potatoes to switch over to the fast-food burger you’re trying to hand him. It’s not exactly an impossible sell - after all, some folks are addicted to Wendy’s or Burger King - but it’s a long, long way from being easy.
So why do it? Why walk such a hard road when we don’t have to? Because it’s possible, and because some of us really do live for that kind of challenge. There’s incredible satisfaction in doing something - let me rephrase that; in trying to do something - at the very highest level we can personally attain. We simply love to push the limits.
Does that make us heroes? No, it doesn’t. In fact, Pat and I got our butts kicked time and again. A perfect cast, a perfect drift, a perfect fly ... nothing. Nada. Not even a refusal. And that was with dozens of huge trout bulging all around us. Here’s a news flash. It’s hard to be a hero when your competition has its foot - or in this case, its fin - on your throat.
But you know what? We got a few. Pat had better luck than I did, which isn’t unusual - he’s a great angler. Every once in a while, though, one of us would find a willing trout and that particular over-sized rainbow would engulf whatever funky little emerger pattern we happened to be fishing at the moment. Then a heavenly choir on high would start to sing, and the fly rod would bend, and the fish would run upstream toward the pristine springs that emerge from beneath Yellowstone Park, or downstream toward the distant Pacific ocean, or it would jump, incandescent, perfect, launching itself toward the brilliant blue Idaho sky, and that incredible moment was seared into our lives as if someone had walked by wielding a red-hot, fish-shaped branding iron.
You know what’s really crazy? I can’t even tell you that the fishing was the best part of the trip. Because hanging out with our buddies at TroutHunter, and spending time with Pat, and sitting on the tailgate of my pickup as those last subtle evening colors bled from the western sky over a darkening river ... all those things - all of them - are part and parcel of a wonderful experience I hope never to forget.
There’s no doubt about it. Sometimes we’re blessed. Sometimes we’re gifted with far more than we deserve. Sometimes, when we aim for the heart, our arrow flies true.
Author’s note: While the long stretch of slow water between Last Chance and Pine Haven is unparalleled in American fly fishing, the Henry’s Fork also offers exceptional - and more forgiving - angling for novice and intermediate fly fishers.