Dear Chad

You should have been here last week
south fork of the snake river
Photo: Idaho Fish and Game / cc2.0

Dear Chad,

Oh, man. You should have been here this last week. By the time you’re reading this, it’ll be over.

That first blast of real winter is on its way in a day or two. Not the snow. The snow isn’t what kills it. It’s that blast of Arctic air that crystallizes what little water is in the air around here and just puts everything in a funk.

The day after the deep freeze is the worst. Skim ice on the river. Layers of fleece under waders. Raw hands. Frozen beards. And fish that just don’t give a damn.

But did I tell you how good this last week was? Like, how it was the best week of the year?

Yeah, we got some rain and even some snow, but it didn’t get too cold. Yeah, it cooled off quite a bit. The baetis started hatching in earnest. The cottonwoods are finally changing to match the aspens, and the river, right after lunch, boiled with risers. Big ones, too.

Best. Week. Ever.

But you’re coming this week, right? Yeah, it’s supposed get down to 6 degrees up in Island Park. That’s cold for October. Really cold. The fishing might be shit. But, hey, the drinking should be epic. I’ll bring whiskey.

And, yeah, I’ll bring a fly rod. Because it won’t be cold forever, and because I’m an angler. That means I’m an optimist. Who else would stand in a freezing cold river and watch ice floes drift by while trying to coax a cold-shocked trout from its holding position on the bottom of the Henry’s Fork?

But this last week? Let me tell you about it.

First, I hit the South Fork. It was one of those Blue-winged Olive days. Cloudy. Blustery. It spit rain and sleet, and then it snowed a bit, even as the sun pushed through for 10 glorious minutes. I could almost watch as the cottonwoods went from mostly deep green to mostly bright orange. But the bugs hatched. The trout ate.

As I stood at the lip of the last pool, the one where the side channel meets the road, a guy driving a pickup pulled over and watched as I netted yet another tailwalking rainbow.

“See any ducks?” he asked from the driver’s seat.

I had, indeed, seen some ducks, and I actually thought about running home to get my decoys, and maybe even the camper. The next day was opening day for ducks, and this weather brought in a pulse of migratory birds heading south.

“Yes sir,” I said, realizing that the weekend was booked with more fishing plans. No ducks for me, but this guy could be in for a great day of shooting. “Lots of them.”

“How many fish you catch today?” He asked.

“I honestly have no idea.”

And I didn’t. I stuck a few right after I stepped into the river around noon. Soft hackle on the swing. I love how trout hit soft hackles. Then, as I worked my way up the side channel to the main river, I picked up a 22-inch whitefish on a Prince. Shortly after that, I saw the first risers.

They were small-ish ish. But I caught as many foot-longers as I wanted before I made my way up to the slick, where some big heads were rising to BWOs. Big.

I tied on a dun and was into fish for the next hour. I caught a couple of 16-inchers. Then a toad of a brown surprised me by taking the size 20 dun. I never saw the fish, but I know it wasn’t a cutty, and a rainbow would have jumped. This thing surged upstream so fast that the fly line got caught on the reel handle and the 4x tippet just snapped. Totally my bad. Damn thing was big.

I crossed the channel and hopped up onto the island. The low clouds lifted, revealing snow up high. The view over the suddenly golden cottonwoods across the river was stunning. This is where the South Fork breaks up into the sexiest braided channels you’ll ever see on a western river—dozens of fishy tailouts lay right at your feet.

But there, where the main channel dumps a sliver of cold water into a second side channel … that’s where I saw the tail the size of a boat oar as a fat cutthroat swarmed an emerging BWO. I cast. It rose. I’ll send pictures. Amazing.

Then, later in the week, I drove up to the Fall River in the southwest corner of Yellowstone. This is one of those underappreciated destinations. Uncannily gorgeous, it’s not a big-fish river. It’s full of foot-long rainbows that tailwalk after they’re hooked, and they just never seem to stop.

Standing there at the foot of Cave Falls, watching the entire river—and it’s a big river—tumble over a lip of black obsidian while I literally caught fish on every cast was the perfect way to say goodbye the backcountry for the year. Except I didn’t say goodbye. I went back yesterday. Same story. Dozens of fish. Blue skies. As the day ended, a bald eagle winged by at eye level. That was goodbye.

Damn. You should have been here.

Today? Well, it’s the last day of good weather. Supposed to hit 60 here in town. That means mid-50s up in Swan Valley. Hoping to head up after lunch. Should be the day, you know?

The rest of this week, though? Eesh. It’s gonna be a rough one. You didn’t time this well. Or, rather, Mother Nature didn’t time it well. Wonder what you did to piss her off?

Oh, well. Like I said. The drinking should be epic. Did I mention that I’d bring the whiskey?

Travel safe. I’ll see you soon ...

Your pal,