Friday, September 24, 2010

Henry's Fork: First Day

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That was a cold night. We were in a tent, as we had been on every other trip to the Fork. We've had cold before, and even a taste of snow one year. But when we rolled out in the morning there was consensus that maybe we were getting too soft in our old age for tent camping at 7,000 feet in September. But then the sun cleared the ridge and the day turned warm, and we agreed that September was prime time for the Fork.

We cooked up some breakfast that first morning, but it was the last morning we did. Too much fishing to do to waste time at the camp site. We'd just fire up the coffee pot, stuff some munchies in our vests, and throw some lunch things in a bag in case we decided to stop for lunch.

Even with breakfast, we got on the river in good time. We savored the moment: a fresh start on the river of dreams.

There's a place on the river we love. It's the place where we first found big fish, where I first hooked and netted a decent fish of 17 inches, and where I caught my first twenty incher, and several more besides. It's a place where brothers have bonded, memories have been made, and stories born. It's off the beaten track--it takes a ford and a bit of a hike to get to--and often the only other fishers we see are Eagles, Ospreys, and Pelicans. There have been some years, though, when hatches were sparse and big fish nowhere in sight. We wondered what we would find this time.

The Tricos were swarming along the bank when we got there, and the pleeps were up and feeding hungrily. "Pleep" is a term we first heard at the Fork, and it has become a part of our lexicon. It refers to the sound a little fish makes when it takes a bug off the surface: pleep. We were listening for the sounds of bigger trout: ploops and plops.

It wasn't long before Trico spinners began to appear on the surface, and some bigger fish moved out to join the fray.

We were there waiting for them. This is the good stuff, as in amongst the pleeps you begin to discern the bigger riseforms of bigger fish. You move in carefully, ignore the little guys, and target the big boys.

Sometimes they'll stay where they are. Sometimes they'll move off just beyond casting range, or go down and come up thirty yards upstream or downstream.

Sometimes they'll take your fly, if you get it in their feeding lane, avoid any drag, and make sure it's drifting over them right when they'll be coming up for the next mouthful. Most times they'll ignore it.

I tied on a #20 Trico spinner with long wispy tails and went to work. Both John and I hooked a few little fish as we were trying to get the big boys to take. Even the little guys are strong and fast, and they do themselves proud. But wait 'til you hook into a big guy.

I finally got a take from what I thought might be a better fish. I tightened and--yeah, I know it's a cliche, but it's what happens--the water exploded. A nice fish came up and jumped, then bore down for a run. I was able to turn him and begin working him in.

Surprisingly, you have a better chance of landing a big fish than a small one in a weedy river like the Fork. The smaller fish dive instantly for the weeds. Both of us lost several fish, and one or two flies, due to that frustrating tactic. The big fish, though, will make a run close to the surface, counting on their speed and strength to get them away from danger, escaping into the weeds only as a last resort. All you need to do with the big fish is keep their heads up. Easier said than done on 6X tippet.

I was succeeding with this fish, though, and was holding him against the current, close enough to see that he was a good fish, in the 17 to 19 inch range, maybe even pushing 20. I was just thinking about reaching for the net, when he turned, arced down and up with all his remaining strength, and launched himself out of the water a good three feet. When he splashed down, my line was limp. I thought he'd broken me off, but he'd simply jumped off the hook.

Good show, fish.

You know, I could have gone home then, content with the adrenaline rush of that great Henry's Fork moment. But I was really glad I didn't have to.

The Tricos began to dwindle, but we were seeing Pale Morning Duns, a few Mahogany Duns, and a mishmosh of other bugs. We took a break and compared notes. John had caught a couple in the 14 to 15 inch range. He had to listen to my story of the Lost Fish. It was lunchtime by then, but we decided lunch could wait until supper. We changed flies and went out again.

We ranged up and down that stretch and found good fish working all afternoon.

We found some plooping away and fished them together. John had told me about being broken off by strong fish, something I found hard to believe. (It's what we do; anything we hear that we weren't eyewitness to we automatically find hard to believe. Any size estimates that we were not present to verify we automatically reduce by a factor of 2. We may be smiling and nodding our heads, but we're doing it.) But then I watched John masterfully hook a fish and get broken off in about three seconds. Then I masterfully hooked a fish and got broken off in about two seconds.

I still found it hard to believe, even though I'd seen it with my own eyes. These were hot fish. There was no headshaking or jumping. No, these boys just turned on the jets and ran like powerboats as far as they could until they outraced the drag and the tippet popped. Or maybe, remembering the roostertail the tippet made as it was ripped through the water, it was simply the weight of the water that snapped it. Whatever was happening, it happened to me three times. The third time I thought maybe I had him. I bet I had him on for four seconds before the tippet parted.

That was a fun afternoon, but all afternoons wane into evening and the close of the day. We took a break and went back upstream to see what the evening would hold. Many smaller fish were up, and as I waded from the bank toward the middle of the channel a big fish moved out of the weeds ahead of me leaving a long wake. That gets you ready for some fishing.

There were many rises, though I couldn't make out any that looked like bigger fish. I cast to this rise and that rise, got some misses and some takes. I caught a couple like this one, beautiful, strong fish that make you pay attention as you're bringing them in.

It got darker, and I thought maybe that would be it for the first day.

But there had been a steady riser upstream from me and to my left. It wasn't a big rise; I heard neither a pleep nor a ploop. But it was steady. So I moved up a little and laid down a cast to it. Then another. I was getting good floats, and each time the fish would come up again.

Now, I have to be honest and say I was pretty sure it was another small fish. Maybe that's why I didn't get nervous or tight, something that can definitely happen when you know you're casting to a big fish. So I calmly laid out another cast, got a good float, and the fish came up and delicately sipped in my fly.

I tightened and began to strip in line, as I do for small fish. I don't know who was more surprised, me or the fish. He turned toward me in a big swirl and the line went limp for a second. I stripped furiously, still not sure what I had. When I came up tight on him again he came up like a racehorse breaking out of the gate. Then I knew I was onto one of those fish that keep you warm with memories through the long winter.

He ran right, then left, then right, and I quickly got him on the reel. He jumped, then jumped again, but I was able to keep him under control. And then, after a bit of maneuvering, I had him in the net. What a wonderful fish.

As you can see, these are heavy fish, perhaps the best conditioned fish we've seen at the Fork. And I have to report that, just out of idle curiosity, I measured my actual left hand across the knuckles. It's four and a half inches. Then, just for fun, I measured how many times my hand fit on that fish in the photo. Five.

Now let me see, that would come out to...just a minute...22 and 1/2 inches. But, since I wouldn't be able to get that measurement certified by the Bureau of Weights and Measures, I'm willing to knock off that half inch. (Even though, clearly, in the photo the fish is bending his head toward the camera.)

What a great day, one of the best we've had on the Fork. And what a pleasure to have such a good day on our favorite stretch.

We were back, and so was the river.

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