Last Chance, Idaho – Twenty-five years ago, when I was full of myself as an emerging outdoor writer who thought he could handle any trout on a 3 weight, I was invited to visit Henry’s Fork and fish with a friend who had a cabin in Pinehaven near Nelson Ishiyama’s classic lodge. Along the riprap behind the A-Bar, a hefty rainbow rising to Baetis skated across the river by a gentle but incessant west wind disabused me of my hubris. It took my olive, pivoted into the current, turned on its afterburners, and beat it downstream toward Osborne Bridge. Having had enough of me, it broke me off.
I still dream of that fish, and every five years or so I make it back to Henry’s Fork in hopes of landing its progeny. I came close the last time I was on the river. Gathering photos for the third edition of the TU Guide to America’s 100 Best Trout Streams, I floated Henry’s Fork with Jonathan Heams of TroutHunter, the same outfitter whose owner, Rich Piani, was mauled by a grizzly and featured in the cover story of the September/October 2017 issue of Sporting Classics. Not being able to take pictures and fish at the same time, I asked Jonathan to cast. He tied on a mahogany dun and promptly hooked, fought, landed, and released the most lovely 25-inch western rainbow I’ve ever seen.
A couple weeks ago I was introducing my friend Chris to Yellowstone and scouting the region for a family vacation next year. We didn’t have much time to fish—only one day—and that had to be the Railroad Ranch section of Henry’s Fork. We made the circuit from Gardiner down the Yellowstone to Livingstone, across I-90 to Bozeman, then up through Big Sky along the Gallatin to West Yellowstone. Throughout the drive bright sun was interrupted by intense bursts of rain, corn snow, and gusting wind. Lovely for scenery; lousy for fishing.
We put up at TroutHunter Lodge in Last Chance, and after a surprisingly fine dinner, which equaled anything that our foody-town of Asheville, North Carolina, has to offer, hit the sack with an eye on the weather. By morning the leading edge of the cold front had passed. Behind it the thermometer registered 27 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind was not at all strong, although low gray clouds hovered on the horizon.
Piling into guide Ryan Loftice’s truck, we beat it down to Osborne Bridge, where he launched his drift boat. I rigged my 6-weight bamboo for nymphing and a 3-weight fiberglass rod for dries. Chris tied a #12 bead-head pheasant tail 18 inches beneath an orange strike indicator on her 5-weight Winston.
As the breeze was freshening a bit, rather than row Ryan decided to wade and haul us up to the last set of rapids below the ranch, where he said smallish rainbows were always feeding. After half an hour’s slogging, he nosed the boat into the eddy behind a boulder and instructed Chris to cast across a lens of current into the seam along another patch of still water.
She cast, remembered how to mend her line for a good drift, and began to work the seam. The wind was picking up and casting was becoming more challenging, but she kept at it. Her casts were not long, only about 15 feet, but with the current that was enough. After one false alarm when she snagged a wad of aquatic grass, her strike indicator stopped. She raised her rod sharply and was onto a heavy fish.
Its jump showed us it was a ’bow and not a white fish, which also put up good tussles on fly tackle. Rather than turning downstream, it continued to fight against the current. After a few minutes Chris guided it into Ryan’s net; he guessed it ran about 16 inches—a great introduction to Henry’s Fork rainbows.
I was intent on fishing dries, so we began to drift downstream. Spent tricos and mahogany duns floated with us, but no fish were taking them. The sky was clouding and the wind was becoming sharper. Beautiful as the scenery was, we were all well chilled. With no top-water action, Ryan pushed us downstream to the take-out along the woods road opposite Pinehaven.
As we approached a bend, we saw a bald eagle hunting over flats where little fish were beginning to break the surface. It landed on a fence post and stared at us with utter malevolence. Who were we to interrupt his foraging?
Along the bank stood other anglers bundled stoutly against the blustery wind and waiting for rises. The cold front had put the fish down, and after only three hours, we were glad to be off the river. All of us were delighted that Chris had brought to net her first western ’bow, especially me. It had come from Henry’s Fork, just like mine had so many years ago.
Read the story of TroutHunter owner Rich Piani’s grizzly mauling in the September/October 2017 issue of Sporting Classics.
Cover Image: Kevin Cass/iStock