At the end of a day’s float and fly-fishing on the south fork of the Snake River--the section that runs through Idaho’s Swan Valley--my cousin Don Granger’s assessment was unambiguous.
“This is the most magnificent river I’ve ever seen,” he said. It had come well recommended by Ron Simmons, another cousin. Silver-haired, patrician, a Westerner (from Salt Lake City, like Don), Simmons fishes everywhere, dedicating his semi-retirement from architectural practice to the pursuit of trout.
Don and I go way back as fellow fishers. We’d dunked worms in our teenage years, then cast flies as young men in Utah and Montana, but it had been decades since we’d fished together. When we had the chance to remedy this long oversight, and I looked to Ron to suggest a spot, he didn’t hesitate.
“Let me book you on the south fork,” he said.
Rising high in the back country of Yellowstone National Park, the south fork of the Snake River flows through the Tetons into Idaho, through the Swan Valley and on to Henry’s Fork (also a great trout spot on the Snake). From there the Snake River charges west across Idaho before turning north to form that state’s western border. In Washington it joins the Columbia on its journey to the Pacific.
“I bet the Snake irrigates half the potatoes grown in this country,” Don said.
The Swan Valley, where we floated, is tucked into the state’s southeast corner, about 40 miles from Idaho Falls and 50 from Jackson, Wyo., at the foot of Grand Teton National Park. It’s broad, open, classically western country of fields backed by mountains. Driving along Idaho 26 to the South Fork Lodge, where Ron had booked our guide and accommodations, we had scant sense of the river we were paralleling, since it was nestled out of sight in a deep canyon.
By the time we finished our float at about 8 p.m. the next evening, with that canyon deep in shadow, we knew it well. On the river since 9:30 in the morning, we were tired from mercilessly flogging the water with our fly rods, questing for trout. No doubt “Ooley” Piram, our gregarious and hard-working guide, was far more tired, but he was too good-natured to complain.
It seemed days ago that we’d shaken hands with Ooley, hopped into his battered Suburban and headed a few miles upriver, with his trailered drift boat rattling along behind. This wooden craft was brand new, and Ooley had made it himself. “Took me about three weeks,” he said. “I’ve done 25 or 30 of them, so I’ve gotten the hang of it.”
Called a “McKenzie boat” after the Oregon river where its design was developed, this high-bowed dory has become the standard for float-fishing on western rivers. It’s astonishingly stable--which is essential, since fly-casting is better done standing than sitting. The stubby craft has revolving seats fore and aft, while the guide rows from the middle.
While we puttered around with our gear, Ooley backed the trailer down the ramp and eased his boat into the chalky, turquoise water, then parked his Suburban and trailer out of the way (where a cohort would shuttle it to our arrival point). By the time he’d stowed our gear and settled us aboard, it was clear that he was there to do the work, leaving us to have the fun. In addition to rowing, he’d tie on the flies if we wished. He’d also net our fish, which was both a conservation measure and a convenience to us, since his release technique (using forceps) was sure and speedy. His hands would rarely touch the fish, which greatly increased their chances of survival.
Our job was to enjoy ourselves--which we did from the beginning, though the morning was gloomy under a gray sky that threatened rain. More serious, the river was high--very high--from snowpack in the winter of 1996-97 that was 50% higher than usual. Spring had seen destructive flooding on the south fork, and, even by late July, a date reserved months ahead in expectation of optimum conditions, the river was discolored and far from ideal for angling. In particular, dry fly-fishing--that delicate, exciting sport in which diminutive tufts of fur and feathers dance along the river’s surface to mimic adult mayflies or caddis flies--did not appear promising.
In the end, this mattered little. I was happy to be on the water again with Don. He’s the perfect fishing buddy: easygoing, gentle and generous. Watching him lay out a line and study its drift swept away the years, and it was good once more to be sharing things we both loved: the beauty of the West, the anticipation of trout. And if the fishing wasn’t fast and furious, all the more excuse to let the eye and mind stray to the beauty of the place.
Right off the bat Ooley took us into a side channel where the current was gentle, and where the trout typically took refuge from the power of the high-running river. Instead of a jaunty dry fly about the size of my pinkie fingernail, he handed me a green bead-head Woolly Bugger, a bristling, heavily weighted contraption the size of the whole pinkie and designed to imitate a minnow or perhaps a leech. I would be hard pressed to keep that thing airborne or get the hefty Woolly Bugger where it needed to be--into the dangerously deep brushy pockets of shoreline. As we slid easily along, Don and I bombarded the shoreline, hanging up the lines now and again. Soon I was into a good-sized brown trout, which duly came to net, and then another one. Clearly Ooley knew where the fish should be.
“My daddy wouldn’t let me on the river until I was 10,” he told us, “but I’ve been fishing it ever since.” He’s also been guiding for 20 years and is a strong, superb boatman--the perfect match for this strong, superb river. Almost as important, he was good company. Bearded, loquacious, unassuming, he had that invaluable knack of making his sports feel more competent than they were. And he wasn’t averse to poking fun at himself.
“The first thing to go on a brutally handsome river guide is the brain,” he’d say when he’d slipped up on something.
By the time we’d swung out of that first side channel, I’d hooked another fish; this one dove into what must have been tangled brush and branches deep below the surface, so I had no choice but to break the line. Regulations on this part of the Snake River allow fishermen to keep two trout daily, as long as they’re less than 8 inches or more than 16 inches long, but a no-kill approach better preserves the fishing. Now our little dory was grabbed by the current and whisked away by the impressive power of the big river, but always under Ooley’s sure-handed control. As we glided through riffles, we could hear the eerie rattle of pebbles below us on the river bottom, ever in motion.
“Cast to the seams,” Ooley advised us, meaning the places where boulders broke the flow, where chutes spilled into pools, where back eddies formed. This is where trout should be--and sometimes, in spite of the high water, they were. Now Don, casting from the stern, got into a fish. He brought a robust rainbow trout to net. “Finally,” Ooley said, tongue in cheek, “we’ve gotten rid of the stink in the rear seat.”
As we rode downriver, clouds parted and the scene became sun- splashed and shadowy by turn. A blue heron stood stock-still by the far bank, and a mother merganser floated by with three ducklings in tow. A sandhill crane soared overhead.
Now and then Ooley would beach our boat at a promising spot so Don and I could cast from shore. Other times he’d simply drop the stern anchor to hold us in the current. Always, when we were in good water, he’d back-oar to slow our progress and to hold the boat steady for casting. “Stay, precious, stay,” he said, cajoling his craft into cooperation.
By now we were getting deeper into the canyon. While this was hardly wilderness, it felt as if it were, and we saw only a handful of fishermen. Limited road access is one thing that makes the south fork such a splendid floating river. And only four outfitters’ boats daily are allowed on each of the river’s three sections, assuring that feeling of remoteness.
“This canyon is one of the best eagle rookeries in Idaho,” Ooley said, pointing out an immature bald eagle overhead. “But when the fishing is as slow as it is now, you don’t see many adult birds. They go somewhere else to fish.”
We were just finishing the shore-side lunch of sandwiches and fruit when the first drops of rain fell. Back on the river, we fished through a storm that began as a drizzle and ended as a torrent, soaking through what I had previously considered rain gear.
By midafternoon the rain and clouds had vanished, and bright sun, doubly welcome now, baked the dampness out of gear and clothing. Backed by cliffs, the river was more beautiful than ever.
As the sun dropped and the landscape’s colors grew richer, we startled a flock of eight pelicans into flight; parvenus on the river, they are unwelcome arrivals because of their voracious appetite for trout (they eat their weight in fish daily, and they weigh 40 pounds apiece).
We couldn’t tell how the fishing was for them, but thanks to the storm--or the bright sun that followed--it had slowed almost to a dead stop for us. But the river was lovely, and we were warm and dry in the late sun, so with Ooley’s blessing we lingered, casting again and again into the slow water along the banks until finally, sadly, the float was over.
We’d caught a dozen trout between us, a mixture of browns, rainbows and cutthroats--not many for the south fork, but a long way from being skunked.
An hour later, after a long ride on a rutted dirt road, we settled down for dinner at the Last Cast Restaurant, attached to South Fork Lodge. Yolanda, a sunny waitress with an irresistible Polish accent, brought steaks.
Ooley confided that, as fishermen, Don and I were in the top 10% among the sports he’d guided, which added to my euphoria. (Spence Warner, the lodge’s manager and former owner, had said that 60% to 70% of his customers were novices, which put Ooley’s compliment in perspective.)
Don and I made a pact to return next year--when the water would be lower, and the trout would rise to dry flies. But as we toasted the day we’d just spent, we could hardly imagine improving on it.
Casting About in Idaho
Getting there: Delta Airlines offers connecting flights from LAX through Salt Lake City to Idaho Falls, Idaho, with round trips starting at $258. It’s 42 miles from Idaho Falls to South Fork Lodge in Swan Valley.
Where to stay: South Fork Lodge, P.O. Box 22 (on Highway 26), Swan Valley, ID 83449; telephone (208) 483-2112; fax (208) 483-2121, on the Internet at https://www.ohwy.com/id/s/southfor.htm. You don’t have to be an avid fly-fisher to enjoy a float on the South Fork, nor an expert to catch fish. For three nights and two fishing days at South Fork it’s $675 per person, double occupancy; includes room, fishing with instruction (if needed), breakfast, boxed lunch, dinner and transportation to and from the river; for seven nights, six fishing days, it’s $1,835 per person, double occupancy. Nonresident fishing licenses cost $7.50 for the first day, $3 for each extra consecutive day.
For more information: Idaho Travel Council, 700 W. State St., P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID 83720; tel. (800) 635-7820 or (208) 334-2470, Internet https:/www.idoc.state.id.us.