No Surrender: Fishing the Snake River

Illustration by: Chad Gowey

We’re picking up a few good fish, rainbows and cutthroat trout with fat bellies and black-peppered flanks. No one’s complaining, but we also know the fishing could be better—a lot better. I’m running a double stonefly nymph rig when my guide, Dave Deardorff, scratching a few days of stubble, ponders a pale morning dun hatch that’s so light I have to stop casting and squint to see the bugs. “Let’s switch things up,” Deardorff says. He swaps out the stones for a small Yellow Sally and PMD nymph. My next cast feels spot-on. Hopeful. Sometimes the subtlest shifts can make it happen.

When you’re drifting down one of the most revered pieces of trout water on the planet, Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River, it’s pretty tough not to fish with high hopes. Framed by grassy, rolling buttes that give way to 700-foot-tall canyon walls, the South Fork carves a twisting football-field-wide course through the western slope of the Rockies. Fly anglers lock down the best South Fork guides a year in advance. There are 6,000 trout per river mile here, with the largest native cutthroat population outside of Yellowstone, which makes every scoreless cast feel a bit like a screwup. I cast up and across, pounding every dark hole and cutbank. Ten casts and nothing.

“Keep at it,” Deardorff says.

I cast again and mend the line, managing its drift and my own expectations.

Snakebitten
I'd scheduled a two-day, 28-mile float to take in the South Fork's wild and roadless canyon stretch, with a bunk at the South Fork Lodge's private canyon campsite. It's a sweet spot shaded by cottonwoods, with cabin tents, woodstoves, and a monstrous fire pit, and overnighting on the river lets us skip the frantic dawn hatch of drift boats at the Conant Valley ramp. Deardorff and I launch at a civilized 10 a.m., and for the entire first day's float, down some of the most coveted trout water on the planet, we see only two other parties on the river. Hours into the float, though, the fishing stays slow. On a river revered for its dry-fly fishing, the hatches are spotty and sparse, hampered by rain.

Trout fishing has a long register of bucket-list rivers, but fishing an icon like the Snake has its baggage. Famous trout water is trout water nonetheless. It can turn off in a second, or it can never turn on. Any decent angler knows that any day can be a bust, and that there’s more to fishing a legendary stream than big fish and big fish numbers. But I’m starting to struggle with a demon that can bedevil any big trip to big-time waters: What happens when it doesn’t happen like you hope?

By the time Deardorff oars us to our camp, I’m a bit beat down from chunking streamers and nymphs for nearly seven straight hours. Within minutes I have a bracing drink in hand, a steak searing over the fire, and new friends around me. But later in my tent, as I drift toward sleep, the South Fork’s purling chorus reminds me of the gulf between the fishing I’d hoped for and the fishing I’d experienced. Try as I might, I can’t shake a nagging expectation that lingers just shy of presumption. It’s unfair to the fish and the river, I know, and it robs each moment of its precious, peculiar gifts.

Singin' (Reels) in the Rain
A third of the way through the second day's float, basalt cliffs crowd cottonwoods to the water's edge, and the river braids into a half-dozen channels. The skies are bruised and broken, sending out sheets of rain one minute, then thunder and sunlight the next. "This is the mother of all riffles," Deardorff tells me, back-oaring into a deep emerald run that knifes through the gravel. When the first bugs appear, I figure them for fluffs of cottonwood. Deardorff sits bolt upright. "Those are yellow PMDs," he says.

“There’s a mahogany. See it?”

Within two minutes, the hatches explode. We round a bend in the braid to find legions of mayflies springing from the water. There are bluewing olives, green drakes, and PMDs. The river is frantic, cobbled with the rain but boiling, as well, with trout snouts, fins, and tails. I scramble to tie on flies, my fingers shaking. This is what I’d imagined, but I can’t believe it’s happening now.

“This is unreal!” Deardorff hollers, as the storm drowns out his voice.

It seems impossible that an insect could hatch and fly in such a downpour, but the bugs won’t be denied, and the fish follow. An 18-inch brown clears the water four times before coming to the net. Rain nearly batters my fly into the drink, but in an hour and a half I rise who-knows-how-many fish. I land 11 trout in a 15-minute stretch, with rivers of rain running off my hat brim. One long cast puts my fly a half foot up the riverbank—“the emerging minnow presentation,” Deardorff says—but a half breath after the fly goes wet, a 16-inch cutthroat boils underneath. The strike happens so quickly that the details sharpen only after the fact—a flash of crimson slashes right to left in a dark hole where the fly was floating, and then my rod comes to life.

We get a solid two hours of what the South Fork can be, wrenching brown trout from the grass banks and cutts and rainbows from bubble lines that gyre below the riffles. By the time the bite peters out, we’re in the river’s slack section, and Deardorff cranks a small outboard to push us home. I lean back in the drift boat, stow the rod, and shake my head with gratitude. I got what I came for, and it was all the sweeter for what I knew in my heart: This time, it was more than I deserved.