September 9, 2011
We had truly been smiled upon these past eight days. Someone up there must really, really like us. I can’t explain it otherwise. I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sky, soaking it all in once more, taking one long breath. The water here was slow and slick. Only the warm breeze of the afternoon made its surface imperfect. And yet, still incredibly perfect. I turned back around to look at that one lone tree, half a mile off on the plain. A single cloud poised over it in a wonderful symmetry. Tall, golden grasses played in the wind all around us. The mountains on the horizon seemed a thousand miles away. Matt was twenty yards out beyond me in the river, and Ross was just downstream from us. Both of them were just tying, onto ultra-fine tippets, whatever size 22 something-or-other they had so very delicately selected from their very best fly box. Perfect presentation was of the utmost importance here. Weeks later, Ross would tell us, “Boys, that’s probably one of the toughest places in the world to catch a trout.”
The morning was filled with mixed feelings. Both Matt and I arose with purpose, and were eager. At the same time, we knew it was our last day on the water in Idaho for quite some time. We hated for the end of the trip to be close at hand. We would head back west to Boise the next morning, and hop our eastbound flight the day after that. During the planning stages of our trip itinerary, Matt had received an invite from our new friend, Ross Slayton, through their social media connection. Ross had so very graciously offered to show us around the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. The details had all been worked out, Ross took the day off from work, and picked us up at the hotel around 7am. We shuttled the gear into his Chevy Blazer and hopped in for the ride. Along the way, we got acquainted and listened to Ross spin some great yarns about his outings on the river, about fishing, and about life. He’d told us that today, were going to be fishing two of his very favorite sections of the river. The first was in the upper reaches of Cardiac Canyon, and later in the day, we would find ourselves farther upstream in the Harriman Ranch section.
This was one of a few days in the trip on which I’d decided to focus my efforts strictly on photography. It has often been a dilemma for me, having to choose between two things that I love so much, but realized that my greatest priority was to collect as many great images as I could before heading home. I kept my camera kit pretty light, with a Canon 5D Mark 2 body, a 50mm f/1.2 L-series lens, and a 28-70mm f/2.8 zoom. Spare batteries, lens cloths, Compact Flash cards, waterproof bag, that’s it. Even the laptop would stay in the truck today.
We paid our usage fee at one of the area campgrounds, and drove through the site to arrive at the river access. We’d be leaving the truck here and hiking a little over an hour downstream, then working our way slowly back up. The thin line of trail that wound through the woods along the river took us over boulders and deadfall, and occasionally made it necessary for us to wade the river where the trail became impassable. Wading the river was no cakewalk, either. Hard-edged rocks of all sizes lay under the dark water, sometimes obscured by vegetation, just waiting for the chance to threaten any shins or ankles that might come along. The going was slow. I’d often pause to photograph the guys ahead of me, and amidst Ross’s energetic chatter, Matt kept pausing to see if I was following along alright.
The country here was gorgeous. Again, different from any other place we’d fished in the days that had passed. Near the beginnings of the canyon itself, blocky, gray basalt ridges began to emerge from the soil. Downstream, these ridges rose up to become the canyon walls. Solid sentinels. Protectors of these waters. Along the trail, trees scarred deeply by the clawings of bears reminded us of our true position in the food chain. Usually not too much of a concern back east. (A week or two after our return home, the owner of one of the fly-rod shops we visited, and his friend, were attacked by a grizzly while hunting elk not too awful far from where we fished this day.)
Once we had arrived at our goal, Ross stood with Matt and shared some great insight on this section of river. Ross was an incredible wealth of information, particularly in the area of entomology. Bugs. Bugs that trout like to eat. Ross had vials in his pack that contained everything from stonefly larva to grasshoppers and emerging caddis. He’d collect these specimens during an outing to reference when tying his own flies to mimic them. At one point, Ross had reached into the water and pulled out a clump of aquatic grasses that were hung up under a log. He sifted through the vegetation, and pulled out several different types of bugs, explaining to us what each one was, and why they’d sought shelter among the grass, rather than under the stones in the river. We listened.
While the guys sought their own spots to fish, I began to work from the woods above and behind them, photographing the land, environmental details, and shots of Matt and Ross from that high perspective. It was important to me to pull back a bit, and create images that conveyed a true sense of space. Then, I’d find some good, flat spot for the camera bag in the woods, and wade into the river alongside them to shoot from very low perspectives, too. Back and forth, all morning. A couple times, I sat with Ross on the bank as he changed up his rig. We’d visit some, and I’d make some detailed images of his process. Each of the guys had some bites, and Ross landed a couple smaller rainbows. We were really hoping for something solid, and with some nice color, that we could photograph. Come on, boys. Catch something, will ya?
Hours had passed now, and I was starting to feel shot-out. The week of travel, early mornings and late nights was taking its toll. I’d accumulated over ten-thousand images at this point. Enough. Plenty enough. I moved a hundred yards upstream, and found a great tree-stump among some blow-downs on the trail, and set up camp there. I had packed the camera away, figuring the guys would be done soon, and kicked my boots up on a boulder to relax for a few. I had watched Matt pick his way across the river to a really good looking run. Ross was upstream from Matt, probably halfway between us. I think I closed my eyes for a few minutes.
My head lolled, and I snapped back awake. Trying to shake it off, I reached into my pack for a Coke and some beef jerky. Matt had settled into a nice rhythm out where he was, and I watched him. All of a sudden, during a drift, I saw him strip-set and raise his rod high. It was on! Crap! I could see that he was looking upstream for me, but we were too far away from each other to communicate very well. There was no way I could make it back down the trail through the blow-downs in time to photograph that fish. No way. “Aw, Hell,” I said to myself, grabbing the haul strap of the camera bag and slinging it over my shoulder. I whistled loudly to Matt, and motioned with my arm for him to come back across and meet me. I clambered over boulders and fallen trees, making the best time I could. I could see Matt picking his way back across, and still, he had his fish on. No way. Minutes later, we met up in a little protected eddy near the edge of the river. The sun was getting lower in the afternoon sky, and was behind all the pines on our side of the river. Miraculously, there was a six-foot-or-so area that was bathed in sweet, gorgeous, perfect light that filtered through a gap in the trees. I had Matt join me there, and we set to photographing his “Eleventh-Hour Rainbow.”
By now, the two of us had established a pretty nice routine. We wanted to have gorgeous shots of the fish, but not at the expense of stressing the fish out. Gentle handling and frequent underwater resuscitation were the key, mixed with short periods of photography. We’d got some good practice during the past week, and had it all down cold. That fish looked like Old-School Christmas ribbon candy, the iridescent way he glistened in the sunlight. Gorgeous color. Though he wasn’t huge, he seemed to pack a fair amount of attitude. We liked him plenty. Especially at this late-stage in the game. Within a minute or two, the fish was released, and he swiftly made his way back out into the currents. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the truck, and heading into the town of Island Park to check out the two main, local fly-rod shops.
After a bit of a break and chat with the fly-shop owners, and a couple of lousy Idaho Spud candy bars, we hopped back in Ross’s rig and headed up into Harriman State Park to fish the ranch section of the Henry’s Fork. Keeping with the rhythm of the week, it, too, was different from any other place we’d been. The Snake flowed in relaxed fashion through a broad, flat plain. God, it was beautiful out there. Stunningly serene. The afternoon sun bore down on us, and the breeze was warm as we geared back up. Realizing that this would be the last couple hours on the water for us, I did my best to absorb as much of it as I could. Every little detail. This stretch of the Henry’s Fork seemed to be a very fitting place to end our expedition. We wound down and relaxed. Wading was easy here. The landscape seemed vast, unlimited. Lone trees stood far off among the prairie grasses. The mountains in the distance were faint. Being there reminded me of how very small and delicate our spot is in this world. I could have stayed there forever.
I worked around the guys with the camera, getting some great casting shots of Matt, and some beautiful portraits of Ross. The fishing was slow, with Matt only getting one solid hook-up, only to have the fish come unbuttoned moments later. Defeated, perhaps, but not unfulfilled, the three of us stood there together in the water before turning our backs to it and heading out to the truck for the ride home. Until next time.
I really need to take a moment and express a tremendous, heartfelt thanks to the people that helped Matt Smythe and I make our journey truly incredible: Jason and Vicki Lindstrom of Flytooth (and family,) Rebecca Garlock and Robert Nelson, Sarah Bridges-Heusser, Colby Hackbarth of Kast Gear, and Ross Slayton. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Pretty sure we’ll see you all again – hopefully very soon.
Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark 2