by Steve Trafton
When I was a teenager with a college professor father, I spent three years living in England. On one day each spring we would make the trip south to Hampshire, getting up early in the morning and driving out of London to the lush countryside and fertile chalkstreams that are part of every fly fisherman’s common history. The Test and the Itchen, rivers made famous by Halford, Skues, and other fly fishing pioneers, are found there, and we, pilgrims to the shrine, would spend the day casting dry flies to big trout in splendid surroundings. It was all wonderful, despite the minor irritations of a several hundred dollar daily rod fee and the nagging knowledge that the trout were, in all likelihood, recent arrivals from a hatchery.
Two days ago Tom McMurray, a friend from Jackson and one of the lead funders of the Henry’s Fork Foundation’s Caldera Project, took the afternoon and walked from the Last Chance angler’s parking lot to Pinehaven. We took in the length of the Ranch on a blustery late August day that had the feel of autumn by evening. At first, though, it was hot and bright, with the sun on the flowers in the meadows and grasshoppers underfoot, in the air, and on the water.
We followed the streamside path into the heart of the Ranch, looking for fish and rejoicing in the extraordinary scene that surrounded us: the Centennials on the horizon to the north and the Tetons to the south, the nearer, wooded ridgelines ever more clearly picked out by the sun as the afternoon progressed, the great open expanses of the rangeland in the foreground, and at our feet the incomparable Henry’s Fork, its surface constantly buffeted by the wind but every now and then – and often enough to hold out attention – broken by the snout of a feeding trout.
It was a different river from the one that I floated in late May with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game during an electrofishing survey. Then, in the midst of a long, cold spring and at lower flows, we encountered many long stretches of barren-looking shallows, with little habitat to appeal to trout. Three months later, after summer heat and at higher flows, the aquatic weeds have appeared in comparative abundance, and wading across the river was, even at one of its wider, shallower points, hard work.
The trout were there, too. In May, we surveyed decent if unspectacular numbers of trout, but long stretches of the river, in particular the upper end of the Ranch, appeared to have virtually no fish in them. Two days ago, Tom and I found fish throughout the upper Ranch, and over the course of the afternoon encountered fish from the top of Harriman State Park to the bottom. Ours was an unscientific survey, to be sure, dictated by the wind and the ratio of distance to be covered to time before dark. But the fish were there.
By the time we reached Osborne Bridge the shadows were lengthening, and the wind was howling. We did more walking than fishing, alternately stumbling along the steep, loose streamside and weaving our way along the narrow gap between the sagebrush and the electric fence. Just before dark the wind dropped, caddis appeared, and fish started to rise. We caught a couple of small, fat, and intensely lively trout, and then walked out to our car in Pinehaven. Although I had walked or boated piecemeal all of the water and ground that we covered that day, I had never done it in a single push. I wish that I had done so sooner.
In most places in the world, a readily accessible, gorgeous spot like Harriman State Park, run through with a trout fishery like the Henry’s Fork, would be private, or available to that tiny portion of the public able to pay the fee to gain access. On Wednesday, we paid $4 (on top of an annual pass). In most places in the world, if a place like Harriman State Park was open to the public, it would be overrun with people. On Wednesday, we saw 1 other person, and angler that we encountered in the first 15 minutes. When I fished the Test as a boy, on those painfully expensive occasions, scheduled months in advance and occurring only once a year, we caught the fish that were provided for us, graciously but artificially, by our hosts. This week, Tom and I decided to meet in Ashton the evening before, and we caught the fish provided for us by the Henry’s Fork. I went back for a couple of hours the next day, too.
We are lucky indeed.