Time was running out.
I was midway through the final day of a three-day fly-fishing adventure on the South Fork of the Snake River, in the angler’s paradise known as Idaho’s Teton Valley, but I had yet to bag the prize I had come for.
I had already landed my share of fish, mind you. In fact, the first two and a half days of my trip had been wonderful in any number of ways.
On the first day, I met my guide and friend Tim Warren, a lifelong local fishing guide, at 8 a.m. in Victor, Idaho—a charming, one-stoplight mountain town of pickup trucks, barbecue joints, and black Labs wearing bandannas—and we made the one-hour drive to the boat ramp, with the snow-topped Tetons, the peaks Ansel Adams immortalized, in the distance.
I live and work in New York City, but I travel west, to Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, multiple times a year to fish, and there’s no river I love more than the South Fork of the Snake. The fish are big and plentiful, the water is crystal clear, and the banks are lined with aspen and cottonwood trees. On certain sections on certain days, you can find yourself in as wild and pretty a spot as you could hope to see, your only company a mama moose wading in the river or a bald eagle turning circles overhead. On that first morning, a sunny stunner, the setting was as captivating as I’ve ever seen it.
Just a few minutes after we backed our drift boat into the water and shoved off, I cast my fly, a design meant to imitate a grasshopper. I placed it just off the right bank of the river, to a spot where a real grasshopper might well fall in, and watched as it began to float downstream. If my fly were a diamond ring I’d just dropped overboard, I wouldn’t have stared at it any more intently. Part of the appeal of fly-fishing is the obsessive focus it demands; the complete, in-the-moment attention required drives all other thoughts from your mind. That’s the Zen of it.
Just above a log that had fallen in the river and lodged itself in place, I saw a fish rise to my fly, open its mouth, and strike. Just like that, I had my first catch of the trip. When I got him to the net, I could see he was a copper-colored Idaho cutthroat, measuring about 16 inches—a beautiful fish. I held him by the tail, released him, and watched him swim off. If there is a moment that puts you more in tune with the natural world than landing a wild, native trout on a big, beautiful Western river, I have yet to experience it.
I caught maybe 30 more fish that day—more cutthroats, plus a number of pretty rainbow trout and hard-fighting German browns, for a so-called South Fork Grand Slam. As the old anglers’ saw goes, it was more like catching than fishing. Around 4 o’clock, both for karmic reasons and because my arm felt like I had just pitched about 13 innings, I decided to call it a day.
That night, back in Victor, I enjoyed a plate of baby back ribs at Big Hole BBQ washed down with a couple of Snake River Brewing Company IPAs, then drove back to my hotel under a sky full of about a million stars, and was in bed and asleep by 9:30 p.m. My second day unfolded more or less the same as the first day had—I caught an almost silly number of fish, then enjoyed a bone-in rib eye and whiskey in town. Now, halfway through my third and final day, I had already caught a number of perfectly nice fish once again.
And yet, despite my abundant good fortune, I was in a state. I still hadn’t landed a big fish, something truly memorable, the sort of catch that has drawn me to this sport, and this place, for decades.
I fell in love with the American West as a child. Born in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains, I grew up in a family of skiers who had season passes to our local hill and made annual winter sojourns to places like Aspen, Vail, and Park City.
To a boy whose first experience of mountains involved comparatively pedestrian East Coast peaks, the soaring, majestic Rockies were a revelation. After college, I moved to Colorado and logged 113 days of skiing in one season. Two of my housemates were fly-fishing bums who told tales of spending long summer days on pristine Montana streams landing wild, native trout as long as your arm by day and camping under vast, moonlit skies at night. Not long after, on a vacation to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, my wife and I decided to give fly-fishing a try. I have a picture of myself from that day holding the first fish I caught, and beaming. I was instantly hooked.
I have since fished all over the world, but no place has maintained a hold on me like the American West. It’s not just the solitude, the wildlife, or the rugged beauty. It’s the spirit of wildness, the sense of freedom—the way the sheer scale of it can make you feel small in the best possible way. To the extent I’m religiously inclined, fly-fishing is my gospel, and Western trout streams are my church.
Back on the South Fork, with only hours to go before I had to head home to New York, I was beginning to question my faith. Twenty inches is considered large for a trout, but of the fish I had caught so far, none was bigger than that first 16-inch cutthroat I had landed, and most were smaller than 14 inches. To a jaded, longtime angler, small fish, while better than no fish, simply aren’t as exciting to catch as their more sizeable cousins. Land 50 dinky fish in a day, and you’ll forget about them before you’re out of the boat. Put one leviathan in the net, and you’ll remember it for a lifetime.
And so, as we floated downstream, I found myself fishing half-heartedly. This wasn’t my normal M.O., and it certainly wasn’t what I had flown 2,000 miles to one of the most celebrated fisheries in the Lower 48 to do. Tim had even stopped pointing out the promising water for me, suggesting that we take a break and look for a lunch spot.
“Sounds good,” I said, and made a last desultory cast before we headed for the bank to anchor.
That’s when I saw the wake barreling toward my fly. Little fish don’t make a wake.
As I focused my attention on the disturbance, I caught my first glimpse of the creature making it. I was fishing a long, pebble-bottomed flat, with no more than eight inches of water covering it. The sun was high, and the river was as clear as squeegeed glass. As the fish powered toward my fly, I could see his back—his long, dark back—barreling across the flat like a U-boat. Then he rose to my lure and hoovered it.
After a short fight, I had him in the net. He was a hook-jawed, male German brown, arguably the most sought-after prize on the South Fork. He measured 21½ inches long—the biggest specimen of his kind I’ve caught in 30-plus years of trying.
In a few minutes, Tim and I would unpack our cooler and eat lunch. Later—in the truck on the drive home, at a burger joint back in town, and anywhere else I could find a willing audience—I would retell the story.
But for the time being, we just sat there beneath the mountains with the sun shining on the water and didn’t say a word. There was a soft wind, and the aspens whooshed.
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