Tuesday, November 1, 2011

South Fork Farewell

The braids below a snow-capped Baldie.
'Tis the season of finality.

Just a few weeks ago, I had to bid a fond farewell to my favorite little backcountry trickle for the season. Today, I waded the braids on the South Fork of the Snake River near the Spring Creek bridge, likely for the last time this year. The weather's turning cold, the day job is keeping me on my toes and I'm starting to find myself watching the skies for ducks instead of watching the next slick for trout noses poking through the surface film. 

This time of year is bittersweet. While it might be the very best time of the year to be in the field with a rod or a gun, it's also that time of year when you can sense change on the wind. Today, as the breeze blew in from the north and crossed the river, depositing what's left of the faded cottonwood leaves on the dark, frigid water, I knew that winter in the valley was on the doorstep, and a daunting, icy finger was reaching for the doorbell. It was a chilly, penetrating breeze that sliced through three layers, right to my skin and had me shivering in my waders as I cast streamers to brown trout in the fading November light. Ice formed in the guides of my fly rod as I stripped line from the water to the reel.

South Fork brown.
The fishing was fine, if a little slow, but I didn't mind. I was going through the motions, mostly, just doing that last check on my favorite stretch of river until I come back again. Everything was in order, it seemed. Everything was as it should be. 

I saw moose sign just about everywhere as I wandered through the cottonwood forest (no moose this trip, sadly). The resident pair of bald eagles flirted on the cold northern wind–they'll be mating again soon, and come spring, new eaglets will poke their heads over the aerie and gaze down at a river full of wild trout. 

Feels like winter.
The river bottoms are unique. Underrated. No, they're not really wild. Not anymore, anyway. Cows graze among the cottonwoods toward the end of summer and knock the undergrowth down. Makeshift duck blinds made of old plywood dot the sloughs and the backwaters. I picked up a dozen shotgun shell casings in one hundred-yard span of riverbank. It sees its share of use, both good and not so good.

But the smell of the river is overpowering. It's a dirty sort of clean... fetid black mud mixes with fresh, cold water and the gamey smell of well-worn waders. It's a smell that takes me back a dozen years, when I first met this river and began what would be come an autumn ritual. I've come to know this little stretch of real estate pretty well over the years, yet I'm always amazed at how it evolves with each passing season. Channels move and shift, carved by water, which flows at the mercy of the season and downstream demand or upstream storage regimen. As it should, water dictates the river's mood.
The underappreciated whitefish.
The fish are seldom in a foul mood, however, adapting nicely to the subtleties of the river. This time of year, a day spent fishing here consists of casting tiny dry flies to rising trout, drifting nymphs through deep runs and then dredging the seams with fat streamers. It's a day of fly fishing diversity ... of variety, change and adaptivity. 

I used to think the fish just changed moods on a whim, but now I know the truth. It's the angler who truly changes on a day like this. The river tests you. It pries and pokes and looks you over. It makes you decide how to approach its riffles, its long slicks or its fast water that tails out into runs so sexy and seductive that you'll want to sit back on the bank, tip the flask a few times and just watch the water flow on by. 

I fished until damn near dark today, squeezing every minute from the last hours on the river that I could manage. Farewell, South Fork. Until we meet again.


  1. Great post and eerily similar to my tuesday and wednesday posts...might have a trout outing or two left in me, but I'm done with warmwater until at least march.

  2. I read your post on the bass-fishing... good thing you know how to spin fish, too... I would have been lost if the fly rod didn't work!

  3. Hard leaving water that you love. It's not that much different than lovers parting, in my experience. There is definitely an emotional and physical bond between a fisherman and his waters. Great writing yet again, Chris--thank you!! I needed this today.