It was more than 25 years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. There I was, standing in the fly shop at Last Chance Lodge & Outfitters, trying to figure out where in the world I was going to take my clients fishing the next day.
My options were limited. The Henry’s Fork was toast, as the powers-that-be were in the process of completely emptying Island Park Reservoir. The water coming through the dam looked like mud. Across the Montana border, the Madison was dead. It hadn’t fished worth a damn in weeks. So was the Yellowstone in the Park, and the Firehole, and the Gibbon. Slough Creek and the Lamar were actually holding up pretty well, but they were a solid two hour drive in one direction. We could make the long trek as a last resort, but four hours in the truck was more than most clients would sign on for.
I was talking to Lynn Sessions, Steve “Mac” McFarland and a handful of other guides — hell, we were all scratching our heads about where to go — when Braide, Lynn’s son, walked into the shop just as the light was fading from the western sky. He must have been 10 or 11 years old at the time, and he had this huge grin on his face. I heard him say something like, “Man, we catched ‘em. Big ones. They almost drug me in the river.” and I couldn’t help myself. I turned my back on the conservation with Lynn and Mac and focused my complete and undivided attention on Braide.
It was a mystery, right? Braide couldn’t drive. He wasn’t old enough. Which meant that he was either walking or riding his bike to the spot where he was catching all these big fish. How was that even possible? So I grabbed him, steered him back out on the porch, and went through a series of questions.
Was he catching trout or something else?
Was he fishing one of the local ponds?
Where? After all, it was nothing but mud.
And that’s where I was wrong. The Buffalo River dumps 200 c.f.s. of spring water into the Henry’s Fork right at the top of the Box Canyon. According to Braide, there was a clear water strip extending from the mouth of the Buffalo downstream for a half mile or more. And not surprisingly, it sounded like every big fish in the Box had moved into that narrow slice of cold, clean water.
Mac and I were up there at first light, and we honestly couldn’t believe how good it was. We were back at the shop by 8 am, and it turns out that our clients had a day for the ages. They just smoked those big rainbows. Over the course of the next few weeks we guided and/or fished it every day, until the word finally got out and more anglers started showing up. The fishing was so good that it was literally unbelievable. I landed a couple of eight pound rainbows in between guide trips, and lost some that were bigger, and I had one day when I caught eight fish on eight consecutive casts, with the smallest running about 16 inches and the largest topping six pounds.
Looking back, I learned three vital lessons that September. First, given the opportunity, trout will sniff out clear water when the river blows out. Second, the biggest fish love to hold right on the mix line, where they can eat food that’s tumbling down in the dirty water. Third, it’s important to know what’s actually in that dirty water. We had dead chubs and suckers from Island Park Reservoir floating downstream in the chocolate-colored Henry’s Fork, and anyone high-sticking a white or grey marabou streamer along the mud line was going to have the time of his or her life.
Oh, and lest I forget, I learned one other important thing that September. Always listen to Braide.