It’s Friday, again. That means as of today I have been here for three workweeks. In that time, I have spent many days out on the river both working and playing. I have gotten to know some of its stretches and had some excellent luck fishing. Catching two fish in three weeks may not seem like much to some people, but I am from the east coast and not only are these two fish the largest I have ever caught, but they are the first I have caught in January. With the two fish I have landed have come two that broke my fly off and five takes that I failed to set. But again, landing two fish of a lifetime. You will not hear me complaining.
I learned to fly fish in the small, mountain streams of southern Vermont. The narrow waters snake their way through dense canopy, leaving very little room for a proper cast. The ever-changing river bottom adds another dimension to reading and understanding these streams and where fish will be hiding. The fast currents swirl around rocks and fall into narrow pools littered with debris. It’s a good day if I don’t get snagged a dozen times. The fish in these streams are small, feisty, and spook very easily. It is amazing how powerfully a seven-inch rainbow will strike a nymph and take off upstream. Over the years I have grown accustomed to catching native Brookies and Rainbows typically in the four to six inch range. The day I pulled a nine-inch rainbow out of a hole smaller than the bed of the 2000 Toyota Tacoma I drive around for work was a memorable one. I was fishing my favorite stretch of stream with my 1968 Orvis Battenkill Bamboo rod, a bead-head, gray-bodied caddis nymph on my line. That to me was about as good as it could possibly get. Catching a twenty-inch rainbow was entirely out of the question. Such a fish I could only dream about. So you can imagine then, my reaction when the first fish I landed on the Henry’s Fork was just that.
It was Tuesday the 19th of January. I finished my work for the day and with the remaining daylight I decided I had just enough time to go fishing. I headed out to buy a couple flies at the Three Rivers Ranch outfitters here in Ashton before making my way to the boat launch below Vernon Bridge. I walked straight into the water and upstream a few yards before finding a sturdy rock to cast from. I dead-drifted the middle channel drawing in line only towards the end of the drift. I had been out all of twenty minutes when I felt the soft, but definite pull of a fish. I set the hook and immediately felt the rod spring to life. The feedback was slow but powerful, much different then the vicious thrashing of the high-energy fish back home. I knew this was a big fish. Desperately trying to contain my excitement I carefully walked off my rock and toward the shore, where I could more easily land the fish without a net.
I was terrified I would lose the fish, so I played it gently and took my time bringing it in. After a few minutes of give and take I managed to get the fish close enough to reach into the water and slip my hand under its body. I admired its dark, speckled appearance a moment before freeing it from my hook. I grasped it underwater for a moment before it wiggled free and darted off, back to the channel. For a moment, I sat in the snow on the bank and just chuckled to my self. I could barely contain my excited astonishment. That was not only my first fish on this river, but the largest I have ever caught.
Over the next week I fished a couple more hours, but to no avail. On Monday the 25th I took the day off after working both Saturday and Sunday. A good friend and fishing partner, Cole, made the trip down from Bozeman, MT to spend the day fishing. Despite the temperature we were determined to get out on the river and at noon we arrived at Vernon to get on the water. It was around 19 degrees and ice build-up on our line guides was a constant battle. An hour and a half later, Cole had caught two fish and we were frozen. We decided to head back to the car to warm up and drive up to Ora Bridge. It had warmed up a little by now but, again, we lasted about an hour and a half before getting too cold to keep fishing. It was three o’clock and Cole had now landed four fish, three Browns and a Rainbow all about the same size, nine to ten inches. When it comes to fishing, I am not a particularly competitive person, mostly I was excited that Cole had caught four beautiful fish for the day and that meant it was already a fantastic day on the river. However, I was getting anxious to land a fish. Cole and I agreed that we would warm up one more time and drive down to Vernon Bridge. After sitting in car for about 15 minutes I felt that my feet were finally warm enough to brave the water once more
I decided that I would just wade straight out from the launch and fish that channel deep with a neon green Wooly Bugger led by a split shot and trailed by a red worm. I had such a good feeling about fishing the run from the moment I left the car and that feeling proved to be correct. On my fifth or sixth drift I felt the unmistakable tug of a fish. I lifted my rod tip and the fight was on!
This time it was much shorter and with the help of Cole’s net we landed the fish within two minutes. A big, heavy Rainbow. I was thrilled. Feeling satisfied and generally effervescent I hung my rod up in a tree on the bank and took over as cameraman while Cole fished further up the channel.
After hooking a rock and losing his fly, Cole tied on a large, black fly. The last thing I remember saying to him was, “That thing looks like a sausage”. Two casts and a little conversation later he hooked into a fish. Instantly we could tell it was not small. I started snapping photos while Cole swiftly retrieved the fish. He netted the fish and looked up at me grinning. We exchanged a very satisfying high-five and marveled at the beauty of the silvery and purple Rainbow. After releasing the fish we again high-fived and let out some hoots and hollers that I am not ashamed to own up to, though anyone who heard that may have really wondered what in the world was going on. I still cannot recall what we were discussing immediately before Cole hooked that fish, in the excitement of the moment it was completely erased from my memory. At this point the sunlight was beginning to fade and the sky was turning a cream color. We fished a few more moments just to enjoy the day before packing up and heading home. Catching two giant Rainbows in one day alone would have made for the day of a lifetime, never mind braving sub twenty-degree weather in the middle of January. Having the river to ourselves was only a small bonus.
Photography by Cole Phillips and James Chandler