DURING THE WANING DAYS OF SUMMER 2000, guide Dave Deardorff rowed his drift boat one stroke too far.
Idaho’s lower South Fork of the Snake had fished well that afternoon. Cutthroat sipped BWOs under tormented skies, while Deardorff storm-jumped his way downstream. Finally, something angry surrounded him and his two clients. He sunk oar blades into the flow and opened throttle through a tempest of marble-sized hail. Then fireworks erupted.
“Lightning hit us directly, knocking me and the elderly woman behind me out cold,” Deardorff says. “Her husband, Adam, was standing in the bow with his back turned to us. All he remembers was a ringing sensation in his ears.”
Awakening in the hospital the following day, Deardorff was relieved to learn that everyone had survived. The event would mark an early end to the season. But he vowed to be back the following summer— just like he has every year since 1995.
“This river has fascinated me since the get-go,” says the South Fork Lodge veteran. “Even after it tried to kill me, I still can’t get enough.”
Below Palisades Dam, near the booming 200-resident metropolis of Swan Valley, the South Fork unfurls beneath the Snake River Mountains to the east, the Big Hole Mountains to the north, and the Caribou Range to the south. Here, more than 250,000 vacationers annually mob the river corridor, including thousands of flyfishers propelled by dozens of guides from outlaying towns like Jackson, Driggs, and Victor.
DEEP BENDS AND BRAIDED POSSIBILITIES. ANY TIME IS A GREAT TIME TO BE ON THE SOUTH FORK. BUT FALL IS THE BEST OF ALL.
Powered by agricultural demand—barley for road pops, and spuds for the deep fryers of America—the South Fork is a good-sized river, typically flowing at more than 12,000 CFS through summer. And even with switch-button controlled levels, the esthetic remains remarkably pure. Groups such as the Teton Regional Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy have set aside more than 20,000 acres along the South Fork (and the lower Henry’s Fork). Today, the area has some of the best bald eagle habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Under the South Fork’s broad surface, Yellowstone Cutts swim alongside Snake River Fine Spots, a healthy rainbow population, and some sizeable cuttbows and browns. In total, more than 5,000 trout per mile. Their growing season ramps up in June. And during ensuing summertime weekends the menu includes salmonflies and golden stones, followed by a slew of baetis, PMDs, caddis, and mahogany mayflies. Mid-summer also coincides with drift-boat detonation on this much-loved tailwater, with upwards of 80 daily launches at the Conant ramp.
Downstream of Conant, the shape-shifting South Fork enters canyon country. Marked by towering bluffs and cottonwood-lined banks, camping options include public pullouts and a couple of private overnight stops: South Fork Lodge by Natural Retreats on river right and, just downstream, WorldCast Anglers (WCA) on the left. Below the canyon is prime brown-trout real estate. The stretch between Byington and Lorenzo is loaded with habitat: islands, midstream blowdowns, and cavernous cutbanks. A favorite of veteran WCA guide, Vance Freed, it also includes some of the more technical rowing along the river’s 66-mile course, before joining the Henry’s Fork near Menan Buttes, about 30 miles north of Idaho Falls.
ONE OF THE RIFFLIEST RIVERS IN THE WEST.
Around the time Deardorff was struck on the lower river, Freed was on the East Coast working for homemaking extraordinaire turned police suspect, Martha Stewart. He managed her Connecticut-based TV studio for seven years, but when Stewart’s legal troubles went public, Freed’s show-business career tanked. So he hopped a flight to Jackson and found solace under the Tetons. Freed attended WCA’s guide school and joined the company soon after.
Between gigs with his band, Alta Boys, and tending to a newborn, Freed tallied 173 trips last season, with the majority devoted to the South Fork. After more than 11 years in the mix, the river’s grip remains tight.
“To tie an adjective like ‘fun’ to your job is pretty uncommon,” Freed says. “On the South Fork I’ve witnessed some of the most fun experiences people will ever have in their lives. For me, it’s the best workplace, even better than Martha Stewart’s studio—which was like 75 percent women.”
BEST REASON FOR BUYING A TICKET TO IDAHO FALLS
The river’s eclectic personality fuels that good-timing vibe. Day-today, season-to-season, the South Fork feels like many rivers in one, holding side channels that look like gurgling spring creeks; extended riffles flowing over tempting drop-offs; and wide, remote-feeling canyon water.
The river is also full of surprises, which I learned while driving the upper stretch earlier this year. Bumping down an old double-track toward a bluff overlooking braided water, I came upon a parked pickup and a tent. The tent had a woman’s bare ass in it, wagging nonchalantly in the morning breeze. As I got closer, her back arched upward and she peered over her shoulder—a warning sign or an invitation? I took it as the former and promptly made a non-elegant eight-point about-face.
My morning ended with a couple of cutthroat, a nice brown, a forearm-sized rainbow, and an unexpected lasting image of the South Fork.
THE FAMOUSLY SLOWTAKING CUTTHROAT.