Living in Eastern Idaho allows me to fish some of the finest trout water in the country, from the South Fork of the Snake to the Madison in Montana. But lately, nostalgia has drawn me south, to northern Utah’s Logan and Blacksmith Fork rivers, both of which flow through the fifty-mile-long Cache Valley where I grew up. Each of these rivers had healthy salmonfly hatches when my grandpa was a kid, but now only the Blacksmith Fork does, and few people seem to know why.
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Once known as little more than a railroad hub, prime agricultural center, and adjacent to the first economically viable nuclear reactor in the United States, the community of Idaho Falls has since become known as centrally located to some of the best trout fisheries in the country. These include the main Snake River, the Bear River, American Falls, the South Fork of the Snake, the Henry’s Fork, Yellowstone National Park, and more water in-between than you can literally and metaphorically shake a stick at. And, if you’re looking for one of the best all-purpose and all-species fly shops to service you in this flyfishing mecca, look no further than Jimmy’s All Seasons Angler in Idaho Falls.
Clouds and rain threatened as I stepped from the single-prop onto the tarmac at the Alaskan village of Galena, home to a few hundred residents along the north bank of the Yukon River, 270 air miles west of my home in Fairbanks.
I knew Patrick had a wedding the night before, but I didn’t know he’d be coming straight from it. His wine-stained dress-shirt hung untucked over his pants. He had no bag; he walked up my driveway from our mom’s car just after 5 a.m. with a five weight in one hand, a pair of cowboy boots in the other, and a hip pack and a pair of jeans slung like saddlebags over each shoulder.
“Prob hooked 50.”
The words felt strange as I texted a quick report to my friend Dave. But it was true; I’d spent the better part of the afternoon Euro-nymphing, and the fishing was indeed ridiculous. Within the first hour, I had already hooked more than a dozen; by hour two, I lost count. Wild browns—nice fish up to 18 inches—with the occasional thick, foot-long brookie mixed in. In the evening I switched to twitching attractors in some fast runs and landed another ten or so until I finally quit at dark.
In the fall of 1993, then-President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12866, requiring all Federal regulatory agencies to publish a list of anticipated rulemaking actions for the upcoming twelve-month period. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is such an agency, and its rulemaking process requires four steps: Publishing a proposed rule in the Federal Register; Inviting public comment; Considering the public comments received, and Publishing a final rule in the Federal Register.
If Hexagenia limbata isn’t the GOAT of all bugs, it’s at least squarely in the conversation, beginning with its sheer size and density. “Nothing in flyfishing even comes close to the spinner fall,” says the legendary Kelly Galloup in Chris Santella’s book, The Hatch is On! “I don’t care how big a salmonfly or Mother’s Day caddis or Hendrickson hatch you’ve seen, it doesn’t compare in pure biomass.”
I was caught between two worlds: human and piscine. I had been welcomed into the school. I moved with them, as they moved. I observed their feeding habits, their societal structures. I was like a salt-crusted, Ichthyological Jane Goodall, except that my silverbacks weren’t gorillas. They were bonefish. Scores of them. Possibly hundreds. All around me, glimmering tails flapped like the banners of their clan—a clan of which I was now an adopted son.
I wish I knew more about bourbon. All I really know is that I like the taste, and that there are some I enjoy more than others. This may be the result of growing up in Kentucky, where my friends and I were introduced to good bourbon at an early age. Had I grown up in Poland or Scotland or the Caribbean, perhaps I’d prefer vodka or Scotch or rum. But bourbon is my thing. The details don’t interest me, however. Percentages of various mashes, types of wood in the barrels, the aging process? I just don’t get it. From people with more discerning palettes, I’ll hear things like “vanilla overtones” or “notes of cherry and chocolate.” Here is part of an actual description I found on a website for one of my favorite Kentucky bourbons:
Clyde had been sitting in a barn outside of Gadsden, in West Etowah County, Alabama, for nearly six months, with a flat front tire and a massive gash in his gas tank. He wanted to rumble his Detroit muscles, but hadn’t done so for some time under my watch. I never developed any mechanical skills, but my friend Adam has worked on cars since his youth, tinkering with his grandfather in their garage in Decatur. He put on a new gas tank in a little more than an hour, performing what seemed to me a mannish miracle. Clyde was purring again, and my passion for flyfishing culture would be realized at the Fly Fishing Film Festival at Cahaba Brewing in Birmingham the following weekend.
“The topic of stream access illustrates one of the most perplexing types of legal conflicts that can arise… Indeed, it is difficult to find a legal issue that is more tangled and uncertain.” —A Wildlife Primer (2009), by Eric Freyfogle and Dale Goble
Colorado’s river laws might be in trouble. Roger Hill, the octogenarian trying to fulfill his dream of legally wade-fishing the Arkansas River, was at the Colorado Court of Appeals on January 27 and got good news about his case—Hill v Warsewa.
There was no doubt it was a steelhead. Until it wasn’t. The grab had been so jolting, the head shakes so violent, that no consideration was given to the fish being anything but a steelhead. Yet there at my feet, in six inches of water, lay a brown smallmouth of grotesque proportions. Pulsing and flexing, flaunting its outsized strength.
In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost. —Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
In Appalachia, there’s no straight way to travel. Laurel hell grows thick, and the only way to navigate it is to put your feet in a streambed and follow every meander and oxbow of the creek.
Mighty Waters, a wonderful movie released last year by Austin-based filmmaker Shannon Vandivier, tells the story of beloved Bimini-based guide and boat-builder Ansil Saunders, in particular how Saunders had taken Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. out for a peaceful day on Bahamian waters just four days before King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The fascinating story was part of the 2021 Fly Fishing Film Tour and was broadly shared with the public in early February by two of its sponsors, Simms and Costa.
The setting is the dining room of a fishing lodge in remote northern B.C. It’s early morning on a gray, drizzly day during a very slow week. Levine, one of the anglers, is talking to the head guide before the rest of the camp has come in for breakfast.
I find it best to begin all writing about flyfishing by first writing about hunting. Or, alternatively, the Asian culinary arts. I’ll start this one by talking about Boomer.
Sitting on my fly-tying desk, on a shelf above the straggle chenille and holographic tinsel, is an 80-year-old Richard Wheatley fly tin. The edges of its aluminum lid, with that distinctive satin finish, are rubbed bright from the friction of bouncing about in a fly-vest pocket. It bears the inscription:
4, Short St.
There are two primary fishing cultures in Alabama: 1) The esoteric and exceedingly idealistic group of anglers that enjoy flyfishing and eating greasy Jack’s biscuits before a fishing trip. 2) Ricky-Bobby types who fish with junk baits. Needless to say, tournament pros burning up the interstates and roaring across impoundments with their 250-horse motors vastly outnumber those with “tippet” on their shopping list.
Memorial Weekend is typically a time to avoid fishing. But Clyde opens doors. And gates, with bass ponds behind them. I’m not a private-water-with-pellet-fed-trout guy, but access to an un-public largemouth lake in Tennessee? That’s another matter.
Let this be a warning to you and to me and to all the other salmon killers out there; to the moochers and trollers and dam builders; the seiners and gillnetters; sushi chefs and leach mines; treaty breakers, billy clubs, old-growth bulldozers, and an ocean of plastic; to fillet knives, fish farms, and this ever-warming world, let this be a warning: These fish will outlast you.
“Look at that baby!” Bob Jacklin exclaims as the foamy waters of Montana’s Madison River churn steadily around him. Elegantly draped out of the net he’s holding is the tail of a now-famous 30-inch brown trout—a fish that Jacklin had caught before. “You talk about a fish—that is a big boy!”
I thought I was still buzzed from the night before when I first saw what appeared to be a person lounging in a yellow pool-floatie on the water. “Only in Vegas,” I thought. Some drunk idiot ends up using Lake Bellagio as his personal swimming pool. But looking closer, I could see that the person was a man moving his arm back and forth a few times before bringing it to rest. “Is he casting?”
None of us guessed what was coming. Within hours of our leaving the river, the county would close all boat ramps and Oregon’s governor would implement stay-at-home guidelines. We were fishing on the last days of winter steelhead season 2020 and we didn’t even know it.
Until January 4, I’d never even heard the term “float-n-fly.” It sounded like a kid’s ride at the fairground, or the street name for some illicit new drug. But I Googled it that day—the same day Oroville, California-based flyfishing guide Ryan Williams, and his partner, Logan McDaniel, won the Shasta Lake Wild West Bass Trail tournament.
In April 2019, Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, gave a somewhat stunning keynote address at an environmental conference hosted by Boise State’s Andrus Center for Public Policy. His comments were thoughtful, educated, and encouraging. But mostly, they were surprising, particularly his thoughts about what might be necessary to save Idaho salmon. Rep. Simpson and I discussed the topic in mid-December, and his quotes below come from his keynote and our conversation. Can Idaho salmon truly be saved? No one knows. But the Congressman has been down a similarly daunting path. In 2015, Mr. Simpson’s 15-year effort to broker a seemingly impossible deal resulted in the creation of Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness. (Which Mark Menlove covered in his 2014 feature, “A Fisherman’s Monument.”) If wild salmon and steelhead can indeed be saved, then Rep. Simpson is providing these essential fish the best shot they’ve had in decades.
I think that Ingrid would want you to know—as she stands in her waders, stands by her weir, looking down at a dark mass of grayling that were trapped in the night—that there was a time when no one would’ve thought fish would ever need to be counted. But she’d also want you to know that these don’t have to be the last wild days. She would want you to know that not everything has been lost, and that there is still the hope of unknown waters.
My first tarpon on a fly was a stout, laid-up fish that ate my worm and broke me off an hour later. I was a teenager at the time, and fortunate to have a father who took me on an annual spring trip to the Keys. But as I grew older and started achieving some success on the bow, my focus shifted to permit. Like many permit anglers, my trips often ended with a long flight home, followed by a long-winded explanation to my wife about how I could spend three days fishing, catch nothing, yet still feel the trip was “a step in the right direction.” At the height of my addiction, I was focusing more on the seconds ticking away on my watch than I was on scanning the water. I’d lost the mental game before even stepping on the skiff.