It was one of those hopeful moments, laced with a touch of experience from years of watching Rocky Mountain skies and trying to decide whether it would be wise to wave a 9-foot lightning rod around with a potential thunderstorm building on the horizon.
“I, uh, think it’s going to go north of us,” I said, waving my arms off to the west and pushing them to the right like a local TV meteorologist. Only my greenscreen was the Beaverheads and Centennials as they poked into stormy skies off in the distance “We might get a little spray, but I think we’re gonna to be OK.”
The guys nodded. Local experience translates to clout. Well, until all hell breaks loose in the heavens, that is.
The three of us were standing on the banks of Sheridan Creek as it runs through a private ranch in Island Park. It’s a sweet little trout stream, no doubt the beneficiary of the introduction of Kamloops rainbow trout from British Columbia some years back. Sheridan likely won’t ever compete with the nearby Henry’s Fork when it comes to the size of the potential fish that can be caught, but I can tell you from experience that the little creek’s rainbows put on a hell of a show.
Every time I’m lucky enough to get a day on the creek — I know the ranch manager, and he’s always been very generous — I watch any guests I’m able to bring along really closely. When their first hook-up happens, I always think back to that line from The Greatest Showman — “Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for.”
And then I watch a 16-inch rainbow scream out of the water and start peeling line off the reel as it runs, inevitably downstream, sometimes circling bends in the creek and leaving anglers with a slightly terrified look on their faces as they hold their fly rods well over their heads and start running to catch up with the fleeing trout. These are not the fish they were expecting.
We split up, armed with the confidence a little local experience can provide (but me, being the local … well, honestly, it was a crap shoot) and started fishing Sheridan. The first drops of rain showed up shortly after that, and lightning and subsequent thunder weren’t far behind.
The fireworks were still off in the distance, so I wasn’t too deterred — I’ve fished in the rain for years. No biggie. But, as a kid, I was knocked out of my sneakers by lightning as I ran across a Lake Tyler dock during an East Texas gullywasher — my little ultra-light spinning rod virtually disintegrated, and I woke up lying supine on the gray, weathered wood, rain pelting my face. I really don’t like to mess around with lightning.
But Sheridan’s rainbows are hot. I tied on an old-school Hornberg and started fishing the riffles below deep runs while the steady, cold rain persisted, and the fish cooperated. They leaped from the water. They stole line from my reel. They cartwheeled. One erupted so high that it literally jumped out of the creek, landing in the grass at my feet. It was one of those perfect afternoons.
And then the lightning got a little close to home. The flash of light and the clap of thunder occurred almost simultaneously. I jumped out of my skin, awoken from my angling trance by the weather event I fear the most. And then the rain came hard. Sheets of it.
I looked around and found a copse of bright green willows. I ditched my fly rod in one thicket and quickly crawled into the little grotto created by another. Another blast of lightning touched down in the meadow just a few hundred yards away, and I caught a whiff of that telltale ozone smell. I made all 6 feet, 5 inches of me as small as possible, and pressed myself against the willow stalks in the fetal position.
And there I lay, as the storm that was supposed to go north pushed due west over the plateau and trounced the ranch — and three unlucky anglers — with a fresh dose of rain. I kept peering out of my little willow shelter at my fly rod, balanced precariously against the willows a dozen feet away. With every blast of wind-pushed rain, I kind of expected the rod to simply fly away … to lift off into the yellow-tinged sky and perhaps come down in Oz.
And the lightning kept crackling across the sky, sending waves of thunder rumbling across the meadows like a 16-pound Brunswick sliding down a polished lane enroute to the pins.
And then, after what seemed like an eternity, the storm blew through and pushed west into Yellowstone. The skies, still a bit dark, calmed a bit, and the wind died to a whisper. I slunk out from my little shelter, grabbed my fly rod that managed to weather the storm unscathed, and started fishing again. And I started catching again. The lightning and the rain and the wind hadn’t deterred these hungry trout, and my afternoon euphoria restarted with the first cast in the next tailout.
Half an hour later, my fishing buddies had wandered downstream and caught up with me —they spent the afternoon upstream, sheltering in one of the little ranch cabins as the microburst blew threw. They reminded me that they had a conference call coming up, and that they had to get back to town to get a signal. We’d come in separate vehicles, so I threw up my hands.
“Leave me here,” I said. “I’ll catch up with you guys later. This is just too damned good.”
And it was too damned good. That tinge of guilt that comes when the fishing is just a bit too easy? I was awash in that tinge. But … when another ‘looper crashed the wet fly on the swing and blew up the creek, I couldn’t help but giggle.
I waited out the rain for this. I huddled under the willows like a frightened fawn for this. I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Have a great conference call!” I shouted over my shoulder at my retreating fishing buddies.