A great personality

The fishing is always better on another river
fly fishing cutthroat trout
Casting to native westslope cutthroat trout on a river with great personality (photo: Chad Shmukler).

Several years back, my buddy Mark Taylor hosted a group of friends for a smallmouth trip out of Roanoke, Va. — we were all in town for the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference, and Mark worked hard to get a group of friends together to do some fishing before the conference began.

Prior to the trip, Mark had subtly hyped the river he intended us to fish. Lots of smallies, he said, noting that he’d boated dozens of fish in a single day. And, he said, as a side attraction, the river was home to giant muskies — huge prehistoric predators that were caught often enough to make the river a destination for headhunters.

Of the latter, he carefully noted, June wasn’t the best time to boat a big musky. “But there’s always that chance …”

Predictably, we arrived to unsettled weather (it doesn’t really get cold in Roanoke in June, but it rained and blew a little), and about the most exciting thing that happened all day occurred when my friend Brett and I dumped our little canoe after going over a small cascade. The fishing was … slow.

But we were with friends. Good friends. We laughed a lot. We did catch a few small bass, but mostly, it was a daylong float in a gorgeous setting with people everyone appreciated. And we were gracious guests. Not one of us badmouthed Mark’s chosen river, although he was second-guessing himself the whole day, wishing he’d taken us somewhere else, like the James or the Jackson.

We, on the other hand, knew how these things happened. Yes, we “should have been here yesterday,” or we “should have seen this place a week ago.” We got it. We’d been there. We knew Mark had over promised, but we also knew that one guy can’t control the weather, the barometer or the finicky pea-sized brains that drive smallmouth bass to be voracious predators one day, and closed-lipped cretins the next. Instead, we gushed about the river’s beauty, and marveled in its geologic history.

“That’s kind of like saying the river has a nice personality,” Mark said in jest, but I could tell he was legitimately disappointed. Maybe even a bit embarrassed. And needlessly so, of course.

Then this week arrived, along with two friends from points east — one, a longtime fishing buddy with whom I've traveled the world, and another, a great stick from the South who’s never been west, never seen the Rockies and certainly never casted for native trout. I knew exactly where to take them. I had the week all planned out. Start small and work our way up… wow them with solid casting to feisty native cutthroats and blow it out with a day on an out-of-the-way stream that holds legitimate trophies.

It was going to be epic.

And, certainly, parts of it were. Take the mosquitoes, for instance. Epic. My buddy Chad from Pennsylvania, who’s fished the planet, made a note to tell me after the second day of kind of average trout fishing for kind of average trout, “I’ve never experienced anything like this,” as he swatted and swore at the bugs that, for some reason, were much more aggressive than normal (murder mosquitoes?).

But, as I noted, the fishing wasn’t great, certainly not what I predicted. And then, after the third day of driving all over eastern Idaho and western Wyoming, it rained. On the fourth morning, as the mosquitoes regrouped and worked their way through Thermacell fumes and citronella smoke to find the tender patches of exposed human skin, we’d had enough.

We packed up the camper and drove north, out of native cutthroat country to the Henry’s Fork, partly to escape the bugs, and partly because Chad is a believer in the mystic river’s big-fish reputation (which is well-earned, honestly, but, too often, you have to resort to fly-fishing calculus to make it happen. I got my C in college algebra, dropped the mic and walked over to the English department and said, “OK, I’m all yours.”). He wanted big fish. Fish that filled entire camera frames. He wanted to be a headhunter for a day or two.

I reluctantly persevered, smothering my embarrassment at not being able to put these guys on giant cutthroats — and knowing that our best opportunity to find them was on the very day we chose, instead, to head north to the Henry’s Fork. I apologized profusely for the less-than-stellar fishing (which, honestly, hadn’t been horrible — Johnny, who hails from Arkansas, did manage a dozen-fish day on the small creek where we camped). Predictably, they were gracious and good-natured. Well, as good-natured as two guys who had endured three straight days of mosquitoes that had tugged at the loose threads of their souls can be.

“But it sure is pretty here,” Johnny said to me as we rushed to lift camper jacks, tuck away loose objects and carefully stash glass bottles of booze so they might survive the bumpy ride out of the woods.

Yeah. I get it. It has a great personality.

So off we went to the Henry’s Fork, leaving me with three days left on my Wyoming licence and what I was sure now were a dozen trophy trout left unmolested by three guys who hadn’t shaved in a week, and who had gone through more whiskey and mosquito spray than would have been socially acceptable anywhere else. I looked off to the West.

Oh, the regrets.

We got to the Henry’s Fork later that afternoon and followed a mutual friend’s advice to hit a stretch of the river that holds legitimate trophy fish — 20-plus-inch browns and rainbows that rise to the river’s prolific mayflies and caddis all summer long, virtually like clockwork.

Oh, and they have PhDs in calculus, solid masters degrees in psychology and more experience with fur and feathers wrapped around hook shanks than just about any fish, anywhere.

I was woefully underequipped, given my sketchy mathematical upbringing. And, predictably, we didn’t catch much. I managed to bring two rainbows to hand that were smaller than the average cutthroats we’d left to come here in search of behemoths. Johnny and Chad enjoyed similar “success.”

But, we did fish all afternoon and evening while a cow moose stripped the willows of their leaves across the river from us, so there was that.

I did notice, though, that Chad was more upbeat. It might have been the lack of mosquitoes, or perhaps the actual prospect of catching a true beast of a trout, even as trophy fish rose to naturals as our carefully chosen imitations drifted by unmolested, inches away from educated mouths. Even in failure, he was excited. And that’s all I really wanted, to be honest. I wanted my buddies to be interested and engaged and thrilled to be in my neck of the woods.

But, as I drove home that night through an Island Park thunderstorm, I couldn’t help but look to the West. I still have a couple of days left on my Wyoming license.

I’ll send them pictures of the fish I catch. They have great personalities.