Gray Beards and the Henry's Fork
The Henry's Fork of the Snake, located in Last Chance, Idaho, is one of the most challenging and unique trout streams in the nation. The river is slow, wide, and relatively shallow. Cool temperatures and a fertile environment produce a tremendous amount of insect life. There are so many bugs in the river that large trout continue to feed on insects rather than converting to a predatory diet. Once past twenty inches in most rivers, trout feed on sculpins, minnows, and juvenile trout, ignoring mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, and terrestrials. On the Henry's Fork, by contrast, one can find huge rainbows feeding on size 22 blue-wing-olives. The stream is also unique because it is a sight-fishery. One wanders the bank in search of big trout to cast to. "Searching" the water is unproductive and generally frowned upon by other fishermen.
There is a catch. Due to years of catch-and-release management, the abundant food supply, and clear, shallow, water, the large trout of the Henry's Fork are notoriously picky. The old refrain that "90% of trout can be caught on a Adams or a Hair's Ear" simply is not true on the Henry's Fork. Fish key in on particular hatches and stages of hatches. They closely inspect flies for comparison to the natural. Some of the most accomplished fly-fishers on the Henry's Fork, such as Rene Harrop, owner of the Trout Hunter lodge, carry up to 18 fly boxes while on the water.
My own experience on the Henry's Fork has me yearning to go back. My friends and I began the morning near the log jam pullout just down the road from Last Chance. Walking a mile or two into Harriman Ranch, we did not see many risers until about 10:00 in the morning. When I finally had the opportunity to fish to a couple, the trout spooked at my offerings. On the way back to lunch, we had the pleasure to witness an accomplished angler hook and land two large rainbows. The older gentlemen informed us that he had caught the trout on a Pale-Morning-Dun emerger.
The afternoon brought more much more opportunities and an up-close-encounter with what appeared to be a 25-inch trout. We made the critical mistake, however, of not following the old fly-fisherman's advice and picking up some PMD emerger pattterns. Instead, some kids at a fly shop we stopped at insisted that brown ants were the way to go. We drove further from Last Chance, taking Wood Road to a secluded part of the river. At about 4:00 pm, a plethora of large fish started rising, sometimes only 10 to 15 feet away from where we were standing. The largest of them--the 25 incher--had its fin sticking out of the water like a miniature Jaws. We tried for three hours to hook up with one of these monsters, but could not select the right fly pattern. Brown ants garnered no interest, neither did PMD cripples, nymphs, or spinners. I had one strike on a PMD sparke dun, but it was a smaller fish that got off the hook. Finally, around 7:30 pm we decided to call it a day. Walking back to the car, I stopped to confer with some other fly-fishermen. They had done well on--guess what--PMD emergers. My friend Mike remarked that we "should have trusted the gray beard." I could not have agreed more.