Updated: Dec 30, 2022
Left to right: Myles Greenberg, Michele Greenberg, and Scott Jolley.
Written by Scott Jolley
*Scott passed away in 2021. Below is his last story on the Henry's Fork, shared by his wife, Jackie.
What do you say when your best friend calls and asks you to be part of a plan he hatched for his daughter’s sixteenth birthday? His gift to her, in abstract, was a fishing experience that would be forever connected to this milestone day. I was asked to be part of the expedition because my friend is a novice angler with no knowledge or experience fishing the Henry’s Fork River. On the other hand, I had a reasonable amount of experience fishing this river and had most recently been mistakenly spinning tales to both him and his daughter about the beauty, bugs and big fish I had encountered while fishing in Southern Idaho during the past few weeks.
Before I consented to being part of his scheme, I asked for some clarity on the exact nature of her birthday request. I said, “What is it that she wants for her birthday?” His reply seemed like an innocent and reasonable goal. “She wants to go fishing on the Henry’s Fork River.” And then came the inevitable pause, followed by the true birthday wish. “She wants to catch a fish in the Railroad Ranch.”
After pondering the enormity of the latter request, my first move was to talk my friend out of such a plan. The first thing out of my mouth was something along the lines of, “The three of us will not have a chance in hell of catching a Ranch fish.” I then tried to buy time to think about this endeavor. I asked him to give me some time to call around and find a professional female guide who could fulfill the birthday wish. I called TroutHunter Fly Shop. No luck. “Our only female guide is all booked during your dates,” was the response at the end of the line. I called my friend back to explain that the Ranch was arguably one of the world’s toughest fishing destinations and that the river demanded a multitude of high level fishing skills, utmost on the list being the ability to cast a long leader downstream, drag free. I said, “That’s not all. You need to be a great entomologist, hydrologist, fish sighter and fish fighter, too.” I pleaded to his conscience by asking him, “How am I going to confer 20 years of fishing experience on her during a three-day trip?” After uttering these worries, my thoughts began to shift to a more positive way of thinking. I began to imagine what this fishing experience would mean to a 16-year-old young woman. At this age, most young women just want to be popular, have thousands of Facebook friends, and have a cool and exotic talent. I also thought that her demographic was most unique – teenage, female, redhead, Jewish, lover of outdoors and entomology. I thought to myself, “Yes, that magical makeup would indeed make her a most valuable recruit to the tribe of fly fishing. Why not make this birthday memorable?” In the end, I consented to be their guide after my friend brought me back to reality with the line, “Look, all she wants to do is fish with you on her birthday.”
Her birthday falls on the first day of July, which is an interesting date on the Henry’s Fork fishing calendar. You see, by my estimation, the fish in the Ranch would have been pounded by the most calculated, conniving and skilled anglers during the previous two weeks since its annual opening date on June fifteenth. I also figured that it would be unlikely to see the granddaddy of all mayflies, the Green Drake, since I had seen them emerge on the lower river more than two weeks prior. I began to think about the key elements of what a legendary birthday gift might include: catching a fish, in the Ranch, on the mighty Green Drake. I also had one more selfish wish…that she would catch a fish on a Green Drake imitation tied by my own hands. I then began to worry that my hoped-for gift was most likely impossible due to weather, hatches, and my ability as the guide.
I soon found myself mulling over the details of a three-day fishing trip. My first thoughts turned to the fish and the flies necessary to fool them. The fish have emerged from their cold winter and spring only to be rewarded with some of the largest insect biomass found on any river in the world. By this time, the large stoneflies have given way to Golden Stones. The Green Drakes are waning only to be replaced by the savory smaller Flavs. A truly prepared angler will have PMD’s (Pale Morning Duns), PMD spinners, Caddis, Green Drakes, Gray Drakes, and Flavs. The PhD angler will have all the bugs listed above in emerger, dun and spinner form. Let’s just say that with my chest pack and vest fully loaded I might look like a dirty brown version of the Michelin Man.
I thought about the three geographically diverse sections of the Henry’s Fork River that I usually inhabit during this part of the season. The lower section, locally called Ora to Chester, and the two upper caldera sections, Box Canyon and the Railroad Ranch. Each section requires a distinct skill set in terms of casting, wading, reading water and fishing technique. My plan was to spend the first two days of the trip fishing, teaching and improving casting skills on the lower river with plans to spend the last day in the upper river. I was still undecided about fishing in the Ranch.
In the lower section of the river, I have found several spots that predictably hold fish, one by the Ashton Dam, and then several in the mile above and below the Vernon bridge. These sections of the river are easily accessed by walking and wading. The view from the river is always majestic and changes daily. The Tetons in their purple majesty ring the eastern horizon. If you look east or west you see farms with hundreds of acres of potato fields speckled with white flowers, bordered by lush golden fields of wheat. The river runs right down the middle of all this beauty. The fish are found in abundance, both rainbow and brown trout. I often find them in shallow water hugging the thick grassy banks, or catch a glimpse of them as they rise in the current on seams created by the volcanic boulders that shape the flow of the river. There are very few casting obstacles in this section, unless you are incredibly close to the high-pitched banks.
On our first day of fishing, we arrived at the river in the late afternoon and entered it from the west, just below Ashton Dam. From this point, you stand maybe 50-100 feet above the river on a huge platform of dark gray volcanic rock. I love to get out of my vehicle, stretch my legs and take a sweeping look at the half mile stretch above the bridge. As I stand on the horizon, I am looking for fishermen, birds, and fish breaking the surface of the water. There’s no use in hiking down if the place is packed with fishermen, or if there’s no feeding activity. On this day, we found the river deserted, with birds hovering above the surface and fish rising.
The three of us wove down a steep, rocky path to the river and then made our way through a small trail in the reeds that hug the river bank. We carefully waded out to a small metal pipe that sits in the river and serves no purpose other than to mark the middle of a very fertile, 50-foot-wide by 100-yard-long riffle. I often use the pipe as a place to rest out of the current while I retie flies to the line. I have fished this section in the last two weeks, with great success, using caddis emergers in the late afternoon. At this moment, I became mindful that I was now transformed. I was no longer fishing to create my own indelible moments. I was now a guide, and it was up to me to put my friend and his daughter in a position to have their own memorable fishing experience.
Now, let me diverge and give you a description of each of the anglers on our trip. Our first angler, Myles, is a little over six feet tall, right handed, and he has less than 30 fly-fishing days under his belt. He can tie knots, but he has a very limited knowledge of entomology, and he carries very few flies of his own. He is a very cautious wader, and his casting is limited by a lack of power in his forward stroke that I haven’t yet figured out. In the interest of time and efficiency, I tied on all his flies and positioned him in productive sections of the riffle. Our second angler, let’s call her birthday girl, or Michele if you prefer, is a beautiful, tall, redhead. She looked so elegant in her waders and vest and is perfectly suited to wading in the water. She too is right handed but has more casting skills than her father. She loves insects, has some rudimentary entomologic identification skills and is willing to tie on her own flies. I still selected and tied on her flies…but not for long.
The three of us spent the first 10 minutes chatting and watching the riffle while I rigged both rods. I surveyed the water at a distance and then close to the position where we were standing. I could see the occasional adult caddis on the smooth sections of the run. Thankfully, the sun was at our back and was beginning to set on the horizon. I could sense the fish becoming bold and aggressive as the direct sunlight began to fade in the western sky. They were making the splashy rise of fish that are eating emergers. I positioned Myles near the top of the run. I knew there was a deeper pool that would be holding feeding fish which would gladly eat the imitation caddis tied to his line. Within several casts, he connected with a firm, fighting rainbow who sent sparkling sprays of mist into the air during his multiple attempts at freedom. Michele was perfectly amused to net and release the fish. The three of us spent the next hour in the waning sunlight moving up and down the river casting to rising forms. In spite of all our efforts, Michele remained fishless on day one.
On day two, we allowed our teenager to sleep in at the fancy condominium in St. Anthony, Idaho. Even though it was late June, and Coronavirus was still a concern, we made our way to the one local breakfast spot. The three of us walked through a parking lot dotted with work trucks and entered a room full of grizzled old men in overalls and big coats, but no masks. We were seated by a man who was wearing a cap that made his political opinion very clear. He didn’t flinch, smirk or opine about the fact that we were the only three mask wearers in the joint. Breakfast was all-American fare: meat, eggs, toast, and hash browns. I felt lucky to pay the bill with a fed belly and a mind focused with two cups of coffee. I smiled as we made our way to the river at 10:30 a.m.
We chose a more southerly route to the river this morning, moving out from the restaurant, and rolling along a lonely country road that was bordered by huge fields full of cattle or long, rolling, metal sprinkler systems that glistened from the spray of irrigation water. We parked among the trucks and trailers at the Vernon takeout. We made a hike along the eastern bank of the river. We crawled through small openings in the trees and carefully stepped over fences strung with barbed wire. We walked about a half mile through a farmer's field to where we found a steep embankment with a small passage that led down to the river. We made our way down cautiously and quietly, because I knew that with the cloudy conditions, and with our investment in distancing ourselves from the angling pressure near the bridge, the fish feeding on the river below would be spooked by a clamorous arrival.
As we emerged from the passage, I could see that this was an ideal teaching spot. This section was a long flowing flat punctuated by boulders which provided shelter for feeding fish above and below their positions in the river. These boulders created seams in the current that the fish would try to use to their advantage. I showed Myles and Michele how on these micro currents the natural insects were drifting whimsically to the rhythmic gentle flow of the water. I made a few small casts to demonstrate how our flies, the insect impersonators tethered to the fly line, bobbed and darted clumsily against the weight of the current if not perfectly placed and mended. I could see flies in the water, so I took out my dipping net and discovered Pale Morning Duns.
At this moment, I had every reason to feel confident that Michele was going to catch a fish in this trough filled with fishy water and insects. We had an idea where the fish were located and also the insect found on the main course of the menu. And then, suddenly, I saw something move in the peripheral vision of my right eye. I thought to myself how human predators and their central nervous system had evolved very sensitive motion detectors which are extremely useful for hunting fish. I then focused both of my eyes on the skinny water, about a foot off the bank to my right and twenty feet above my position. There I found a water monster. He was a large brown trout, hugging close to his lair in the undercut bank. He was eating emergers, no splash, no sound, just a big push of water as he sucked his lunch off the underside of the water. I turned to Michele and said, “You have a chance at a very big fish above us on the bank.” She said, “You first.”
I tied a size 16 PMD cripple as fast as my old hands and eyes could muster. I moved out into the river and away from the overhanging tree limbs on the river bank. I made several casts to my left trying to measure the perfect amount of line, while trying to not to spook the big fish. Feeling confident about my fly selection and casting distance, I took my chance. My first attempt was a cast that allowed the line to gently unfurl the emerger six inches from the bank. The take was no different than what I had seen when I discovered the fish – just a large push of water and then, bloop.
The fight was less than memorable, in fact I think the big fish was very surprised at being discovered, let alone hooked. Expecting to hear line start screaming off the reel at any moment, I began to back down the river, raising my rod and putting the slack line on the reel. I handed my net to Michele. I then angled the tip of my rod down to where it was parallel with the water. In this position, I could feel the heavy shake of his head, but not power from his tail. Michele gently glided the net into the water, fully expecting the fish to surrender in the one foot of space between his body and the net. But with one kick of his powerful tail that splashed us both in the face, he was no longer our prisoner. We looked at each other and laughed quietly, without anger or remorse, and no words about our loss were spoken.
Emboldened by the experience with the big fish, Myles and Michelle spent the next two hours of the hatch casting all forms of PMD’s, Flavs and Caddis to numerous fish. The fish were smart, only taking perfectly floating imitations. With every splashy cast or imperfectly presented fly, I began to feel what I’m sure many guides feel daily about their clients that they so urgently want to catch a fish. “We need better casts!” I knew at that moment that I needed to be a teacher more than a guide. We stopped casting, and I asked them to watch the wonder of the current as it moved around downed trees and boulders. I showed them the beauty of subtle rise forms and where the fish took flies off the current. My next thought was how to make their casting more efficient. I urged them to patiently allow the rod to load on the back cast. I then showed them how the rod had to decelerate with the tip up on the front cast. To my amazement Michele began to make beautiful casts. I felt the joy of a teacher as she began to point out the subtle takes and lies of the feeding fish. I knew that very soon these developing instincts would pay a dividend. By the end of the day, she had some eats, head rises, refusals, and early releases. I could see progress in her skills and felt that she was truly a developing angler. This hopeful thought was rapidly replaced by a more anxious feeling that at day two of her birthday trip she had yet to bring her own fish to the net. I began to feel the pressure of the guide, that tight, burning feeling that extends from your stomach to your Adam's apple. I began to abandon all thoughts associated with the Ranch fantasy. I moved into survival mode. It was then that I remembered the voice of a well-respected fishing guide who recently said, “You can catch 60 fish a day in Box Canyon on a nymph.” And this became my singular thought, a plan to recover at least the dignity of our trip. By whatever means necessary, Michele was going to catch a fish in the Box tomorrow.
The Box canyon holds a special place in my own fishing tapestry. It is called the Box because the river descends through a short stretch of canyon that is shrouded by 30-50 foot walls of volcanic rock that act like a box to contain the river. The walls remind me of gothic sentries keeping watch over the harmony of the ecosystem. I spent many days of my early fly fishing education wading through the boulders and water, nymph fishing with heavy flies, in search of the majestic, muscled, silver and green backed rainbows that make the canyon their home. The fight only begins when you hook a fish in this part of the river. It is not uncommon for an angler to catch a fish and then find themselves fighting both the fish and the current below them.
Michele was coerced out of bed early, and agreed to take the long drive on our final day of fishing with the promise of delicious TroutHunter breakfast burritos and the hope of catching rainbows found in abundance in the waters of Box Canyon.
The drive to the upper caldera is always a spiritual experience. To me, the reverence commences as I cross the river flowing into Ashton reservoir and begin the long climb to Island Park. Thirty minutes and thirty miles later you crest the hill and cross the beautiful white Osborn bridge. If you are one of the lucky ones, those who can recognize the quiet splendor of a moment, you will feel the same reverence as looking at stained glass from any place of worship in the world. I always pause and acknowledge this as mine. The silence, the wildness and the natural beauty of this place always seem to restore my soul.
Rain was in the forecast, and we could see the ominous clouds on the horizon as we put on our rain gear and waders in the parking lot. We headed upstream in hopes that we could reach a long deep pool just below the dam at Island Park Reservoir. But once again, my fishing plan was thwarted by a small, rocky, feeder stream just below our destination. The three of us all made our own futile attempts to cross the river bed that was no more than twenty feet wide. Every attempted pathway was hindered by downed old tree stumps and large boulders gurgling with the heavy current. They all led to the same conclusion: one of us is going to get swallowed up by the swift water and drown.
With my plan now defeated, the rain began to fall. Quietly and carefully we marched uphill through the dark green forest, coated with mossy, wet boulders. Michele would tell me later that she remembered the canyon being dark and wet, but that she felt so happy hiking through the trees while trying not to poke a hole in her waders. We all slogged along southward, downstream, along the muddy path, in silence, for what seemed like a mile. All the while, I examined every little trail that led down to the river to see if it led to a big pool. The guide in me could feel time melting away the last rays of my hopeful plan.