A Henry's Fork unicorn

An ode to an ant
henry's fork cutthroat trout
Photo: Rich Paini

"Pretty frustrating, isn’t it?"

Those were the four words Rich said to me ten minutes before it happened. It was a breezy, gray afternoon on Wood Road. It felt like rain and it certainly would before dark.

"Fish further up the road," I’d been advised. "Those fish can be caught."

But I’d taken plenty of lumps down on the lower ranch. And I hadn't planned on going back for retribution. That has never worked for me. I had learned through experience that particular stretch of water requires an angler to measure success, or enjoyment, in ways other than fish in the net. It’s perhaps the most difficult, most technical mile-long stretch of river on the planet.

Still, back I went down that beat up stretch of “road” miles off the highway one recent August day. As expected, the trout were assembled in maze-like beats, feeding. Everywhere. It’s the nature of the beast. Yet, several hours and hundreds of quality casts and drifts later, I’d produced nothing, save a thorough examination of my patience and determination. Or masochism. Or stupidity.

So consumed was I with the task at hand, that I’d forgotten that Millie, Jake and Rich had set out on a family float. I was chuffed when I saw them floating in my direction around 4 o’clock.

“Rich! Come over here and help me pick off one of these heads. I can’t get it done,” I said.

“Absolutely!” he said.

Rich joined me a few yards downstream on the bank and got in the game. Twenty minutes and several obscenities later Rich said it. “Pretty frustrating, isn’t it?”

I don’t know what those fish were eating, but it must have been microscopic, wiggly and one to three inches subsurface. I stuck with the #14 black ant with a red hackle. It was August, after all.

“Stay in it,” I coached, trying to encourage myself more than Rich. I kept sending that ant into the feeding lanes, carefully pacing 20 yards or so, upstream and back down, chasing the fish.

Then it happened.

At the very limits of what I could see against the darkening water reflecting a darkening sky, at around 30 feet or so, there was a subtle eat. With a hopeful, patient yet solid set I got tight. Important note: TroutHunter 5.5X tippet — good stuff.

The fish used its heft to push downstream. “Not sure I can keep this thing up here,” I warned Rich who was still fishing below me.

Rich, who happens to be a hell of a guy, waved off the concern. A few moments later, I came to a realization that is, in many ways, unwelcome to any angler that's not fully in command of their quarry. Placing myself righteously in Chief Brody’s rubbers, I realized that the fish at the end of my line was going to require a bigger net—assuming I even got a chance to net it.

“Rich,” I said sheepishly. “Um, we’re gonna need a bigger net.”

“Paul, this is your lucky day,” Rich said. “JAKE!,” he shouted behind him, “Paul needs a bigger net!”

With the wind picking up ahead of the approaching thunderstorm, Jake couldn’t hear him and so Rich walked off, while I remained leashed to the trout that had grabbed my ant. Mercifully, it seemed content staying even with my position, but insisted on holding 20 or 30 feet off the bank, and I let it.

Strangely, the fish hadn’t jumped once. Nearly 100 percent of fish in that seven miles of river are rainbows. And acrobats, who, on occasion, deliver delicious, tarpon-like tail-walks.

Jake arrived with the big boat net, and Rich with his camera. Jake and I slid off the bank and into the water—which we both agreed was the only way we were going to get it done. After some measure of tension-filled, distorted time, the fish—a pure-strain Henry’s Fork Cutthroat—was in the net. It was just the second or third non-hybrid native reported caught in those ten miles of the Henry's Fork in the past two years.

As anglers are wont to do, I asked Rich how big he thought it was.

“Who gives a shit?!” he said.

By that time, a gaggle of other anglers had gathered, gawking from the bank. A sense of euphoric relief set in while Rich snapped an image of me and the fish.

After we fully resuscitated and released the Henry’s Fork unicorn I quipped to Rich, “I guess I can stop fishing now.” The assembling thunderclouds clapped in agreement.

Rich, Millie and Jake trailered up their skiff and I rode it back up to my rig. Another clap of thunder, more wind and heavy rain. I stuffed my gear into the back of my truck - careful with the rod, though.

“Perfect!” Rich exclaimed. We were out of there just in time.

Wide eyes and astonishment filled the bar an hour or so later as Rich graciously insured that the photo made its way in front of anyone he knew would find it of interest. For the next 48 hours or so, I was a local celebrity, if one can in fact be a celebrity in a place like Last Chance, Idaho. And I'm only mildly embarrassed to admit it—I don't think I've ever been more proud of an angling effort and result.

The next afternoon found me sitting on the tailgate having lunch, back at the same spot. Why not?, I thought. A truck stopped. The passenger window came down.

“Are you the guy that caught the cutthroat?” he asked.

I grinned widely and nodded.