It goes without saying that 2020 was a terrible year on so many levels. Between the national health crisis and numerous natural disasters plaguing large swathes of the country from coast to coast, it was difficult to remain upbeat. Dealing with the angst of canceling three planned fishing trips during the year in no way compared to the travails a number of fellow citizens had to endure that were dished out by the dark hand of fate throughout those months. Although here in the mid-Atlantic the stifling gloom of record heat and humidity sobered any attempt to escape the prevailing shroud of bleakness on local waters, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm when the opportunity arose to fish a local stream with a young friend after a cool late September rain.
Barely thirty years old, Gene spent several seasons working at Backwater Angler fly shop near Baltimore while also guiding on Maryland’s Gunpowder River and several other local waters. Revealing to me that it was time to make a major career change, Gene had recently decided to move to Idaho to pursue life as a “trout bum” in an effort to seek a new beginning. Though this major lifestyle adjustment would include various forms of work, his intention would be to fish as much of the West as possible from his destination home base of Boise, Idaho. Knowing that I had started my lifelong fishing journey in Idaho as well, he thought that maybe I could share a few insights. Thus, much of the afternoon was spent fishing a bit while, at the same time, discussing all the possibilities that lay before him.
I have always felt that being a Western fishing bum was a lot easier to pull off in the 70s than it would be these days. Camping was free, gas was less than fifty cents per gallon, food was cheap, and rivers were uncrowded. Even when winter hit, there was always a random cabin to caretake or a place to rent for a pittance. Back then northern Idaho was raw and just a few decades removed from the Wild West, but any trepidation I may have had was overcome by the exhilaration of discovery akin to what early explorers must have felt on a more primal level. Eventually I bought some land in the mountains for next to nothing, built a cabin with discarded wood from a local mill, and landed a seasonal position for the US Forest Service. From there, it was one turn after another until the road finally led to Montana – and a career in fly fishing.
Reliving those memories in my mind and relating a few of them to Gene, I was truly excited for him and his journey. Being a trout bum these days would have to be modernized, and we discussed how it just would require more creativity. Although Gene confided that he was quite anxious about the trip, I told him that I knew the feeling as I recalled leaving Salt Lake in 1975 at his same age. With everything I owned packed under the camper shell on my pickup, the drive north into the unknown was not without apprehension. But since I have always encouraged students and friends alike to take the road less traveled, I was following my own advice – and Gene was doing exactly that too. We talked about Henry’s Fork, the South Fork of the Snake, the Owyhee River, and Silver Creek among many other Idaho fisheries, including steelhead on the Salmon.
At one point in our conversation I reminisced about my years fishing Idaho waters even when living in Montana. I noted that Twin Bridges as a hub was more conveniently located for traveling to more Idaho rivers than if one lived in Idaho, particularly if they dwelled in the southern part of that state. From the Coeur d’Alene River north to Henry’s Fork south and every one in-between, the Potato State’s rivers provided fun options at varied times of year – if only for a change of pace from my local waters.
Trips to the Salmon River in October were always on the fall agenda. When the changing leaves of cottonwoods tinted the river bottoms with an inviting golden hue, the two-hour jaunt to North Fork junction on the Salmon was always a soothing drive through the Upper Big Hole Valley that would regularly end in hooking a few steelhead during every two- or three-day camping trip. In fact, during one such outing I hooked a steelhead on the very first cast just a little over two hours from my home. The fact that steelhead swam so close to Montana in some of the most beautiful fly water imaginable consistently amazed me.
And when Montana’s rivers blew out with runoff in late May and early June, the spring creek-like tailwater Henry’s Fork was always a great option. Known for its early Pale Morning Dun (commonly referred to as PMDs) and Green Drake hatches, the Fork’s rainbows are typically fussy and always difficult to hook, but landing one while fighting the river’s weed growth was even more tricky. And though the famed Harriman Ranch State Park section did not open until mid-June, there was still plenty of water to hunt for and stalk subtle risers. For dry fly enthusiasts, Henry’s Fork was nirvana.
On one such occasion in late May I walked down below the Osbourne Bridge and was pleased to note the lack of anglers. Upon approaching a deep break off a long riffle, from afar I observed an uncommon number of noses sipping PMDs. Sneaking up on the pod, the fish did not seem too concerned with my presence as they kept chowing down. Cautiously I approached, unfurled my line, made a stealthy cast and immediately hooked a nice rainbow. A few casts later I hooked another, and then several more.
Ecstatic with this epically rare day on Henry’s Fork, I relayed my good fortune to a guy floating by in his drift boat who then kindly informed me that this section of the river was still in the State Park, and thus closed. Yikes! Immediately Catholic guilt kicked in and I snuck back to my truck as fast as possible. Living with this stain on my soul for years, at least now, a couple decades later, I believe I am past the statute of limitations as far as being nabbed by the long arm of the law. After regaling Gene with this confession, I encouraged him to go forth, have a great journey, and make sure his fishing stories are legal.
A few weeks later Gene posted a picture on Facebook of a rainbow he had just caught on Henry’s Fork. Obviously he had arrived safely in Idaho, and that photo sure took me back. The very road that I once traveled is now his to follow. Taking him where he needs to go, here’s hoping the rivers that await along the way are as good to him as they were to me.