A Day on the South Fork

Fishing Out of South Fork Lodge

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The first big cutthroat hit with a shark-like viciousness. It turned hard and dove, surging headlong downstream. It doggedly sought the bottom until I had it up on the surface, on its side, and slid it into the net.

This, my guide, Ooley, intoned is what nature intended a cutthroat trout to be: Thick-sided, spotted, with a bright amber-gold-olive body. These were Westslope cutthroats, the hard-fighting cousin to the more light-hearted cutts I had once caught in Yellowstone, on the other side of the Continental Divide. For some reason, that ridge of Rocky Mountain peaks makes a big difference in a cutthroat's demeanor.

The South Fork of the Snake River, where I was fishing, is full of Westslope cutts and also cut-bows, the cutthroat-rainbow hybrids that are a bit heavier in the shoulders and much more spotted than the pure cutthroat. And there were also browns, some very big browns.

"When the biggest browns come up," Ooley said, his eyes bright behind his tinted glasses, "man, it's like a toilet flushing they suck down so much water to inhale that fly. I mean it's like they were tarpon or something."

I gotta see that, I thought.

I was staying at South Fork Lodge, in Swan Valley, Idaho. The South Fork of the Snake River flowed past my cabin. The evening I arrived I sat on the bed at twilight and looked out at the river through the open deck doors. The river really did appear to be a huge, live, slithering thing; a beautiful green-and-blue giant serpent making its way to its union with the Columbia River, its waters ultimately flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

"When the Vice President fishes on this part of the river," Lodge director George Sporn told me at dinner on the deck of the main lodge, "you'll see Secret Service people patrolling on horseback on top of that butte." George pointed and I looked across the river to a high, wide tabletop. I imagined the dark silhouettes of men on horseback, like something out of _Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. _

"Does Cheney fish here often?" I asked.

"He has. The Henry's Fork too." Cheney's personal secret hideout, I learned, is near Jackson Hole. Good place to hideout.

After a great dinner during which I enjoyed a caribou dish to rival Jim Zumbo's recipe, I retired, hoping to get as much rest I would need to spend a day standing in the bow of a drift-boat, performing the "South Fork Slap" again and again.

The next morning, Ooley and I were chugging along in his old, brown Suburban, the dashboard upholstery dotted with flies of various kinds. Ooley loves his old Suburbans; he patted the dashboard as we motored up a hill. "C'mon, old girl, I love you," he said. "I got a guy who scouts out used models for me, but I don't need another one yet."

Ooley had the look of an old-school guy who knows every new trick in the book. His khaki hat, vest, trousers and shirt were all well worn and stained here and there. His bristly brown-and-white beard hid most of his merry face, and his eyes were half concealed behind tinted eyeglasses. But his smile was big and broad and he had an easy laugh. The name his mother gave him is Lyle. We were hauling a drift boat of his own making, one based on the MacKenzie style but with the bow and stern points squared off to reduce drag.

The salmon fly hatch was going on in earnest, and the public access lot back on Swan Valley road was jam-packed full of trucks and trailers.

"This is Mardri-Gras time on the South Fork,"Ooley said. "Everyone comes out. It's kinda crazy sometimes."

We launched at the beginning of a section of the river called "The Canyon," for a float that would end at the Byington ramp 25 miles away. Guide boats are pretty tightly regulated on the South Fork, the state giving each outfitter getting only so many boat passes per day per section.

Variations on the Chernobyl Ant and salmon fly were the patterns for the day. Ooley offered me a super-secret pattern that he ties himself and which I will only say is meant to look like a good-sized salmon fly; the secret is in the materials used to make the wings and wrap the belly.

Nearly all the casts I was making were to the banks - to low hanging branches, under-cut edges - or to island points and snag piles. The speed of the current and the quality of casting the situation demanded led me to work out a drift-boat fly-caster's primer in my head:

**1. Footing - **Keep your feet apart, your legs a little bent. Depending upon your boat's design, there may be anti-skid mats on which you want to stand; otherwise position your feet so they are as flat and stable as possible. I had a tendency to want to stand too high and too far forward so my toes were bent. Don't do that. And above all, wear the most comfortable, cushiony, supportive sneakers you've got.

**2. Stance - **Ooley often shouted, "Forty-degree angle. Forty degrees!" That is, he wanted my cast to go out from the boat and land at a forty-degree angle, thus giving the fly time for a decent drift before the boat or the fly line overtook it. So you need to open your hips to the side a little but face upstream. Don't hunch over the gunnels. Stand up straight.

3. Sight - This kind of fly casting is almost like a shoot-out. You've got to look where you want to go, put the fly there and watch it, but then quickly make your decision to cast again. And while you're watching the fly, you're also looking upstream for rising fish. Standing and casting at the 40-degree angle allows you this window; looking directly sideways does not give you enough of a picture of what's happening upstream. The three most perfect catches I made occurred when I was in the right position looking upstream, saw a fish feed, made a cast that landed just so right that the big fly carried right to the cutthroat and I set the hook fast enough. (Remember: You're moving and the fly is moving, though not at the same exact speed; the fish isn't moving, he's holding.)

4. The Cast - I eventually became proficient at what is called the "South Fork Slap," something you can only get away with during salmon fly time when the fly is so big and the trout so eager that slapping the fly in there like flinging a stone isn't a problem. Use just enough line to reach the edge of the water, trap the standing line under your index finger against the rod handle, and just go at it like you were whipping a team of horses. Maybe you let hang an extra 15 to 30 inches of line in case you need to adjust the cast length here and there.

5. Striking - Westslope cutthroats take the fly like a stroke of lightning. If you want to take fish, you've got to be faster. Mend the line to keep a direct feel to the fly because any slight bow in the line is a curse. Your casts have to be fast and straight. Get the cast out ahead of the boat, zapping that fly right in there. No, it's not easy.

Oolee and I had a great time floating along, taking cutts and a few cutt-bows in most places where we seemed to think one lurked. At one point, I had a good cutt-bow on and was battling with the fish as the boat ploughed over some riffles and I did a back-and-forth, foot-to-foot shimmy, rod held high, as I kept myself in the boat and kept the fish on the hook.

"What're you doing up there?" Ooley called out.

"That's the boat dance," I said, having no better answer than to state the obvious.

"You're making it hard for me to steer," he said. "Can't you just wiggle a little bit?"

"Whatever you say, Ooley. Fish coming up."

Near Pine Creek we pulled over and got out to work a small back channel as hundreds of Pacific gulls flocked over head as they filled up on the salmon flies. Here were about eight actively feeding cutthroats. They were slurping down small pale morning duns. I handed my six-weight to Ooley and took his Thompson & Thompson 3-weight to cast to the cutts. Wading, I cast and cast, and got a couple rises, but because the water spilled from three different spots into this section, I faced a kind of three-speed triple mend that I was unable to perfect before I had missed about six fish and was ready to stop embarrassing myself.

But no worries: I had already boated about eight big cutts and the day was very young. Yet soon came the biggest disappointment of the day.

About eight miles into the float, we went into a narrowing of the river where tons of water flowed through a deep channel. We drifted over some whirlpools and Oolee got on the oars to move us out and back across the river. I knew my fly had been sucked down deep by the swirling current and I was about to pull it up when I snagged bottom.

"Oolee, I'm on the bottom," I yelled.

"What?"

The bottom was alive. My rod was yanked straight down, the tip-top in the water, and it began to lash and vibrate like mad. Line sizzled out of my left hand. Whatever I had hooked was making a horse-heavy run across the river.

"Oh, man!" Ooley shouted.

I was too jazzed to say anything. And then I watched as the line shot right at another drift boat in the middle of the river, parallel to us. I tried to tender the line with my hand but it burned over my skin.

The surging, powerful mystery fish was a good distance away when the fly pulled free. Either the fish plucked the leader against the underside of the other boat or I had tried to slow the fish down too soon.

I thought I was going to puke. I couldn't look back at Ooley.

"Man, that was a big fish," he said. "When I saw your rod going straight down in the water like that, whew...You couldn't hold him, could you?"

"Shouldn't have tried."

"Yeah, you gotta let the big ones run."

"He went cross current, Ooley - and right into that other boat."

Ooley nodded, smiling. "That's why he's big."

By lunchtime, the awfulness of loosing the big fish had faded, as I had made some good casts and Ooley had netted about four more good cutthroats for me. Parked along a bank of cottonwood saplings, we ate lunch and jawed about fishing. Ooley exhorted me to be faster on my strikes. "Cross their eyes, man," he said. "If you miss, you should have a backcast all ready to go."

Other guide boats, some from South Fork and some from Henry's Fork outfitters, drifted by and Ooley and I waved and called out. A guide on his day off drifted by with his fetching girlfriend standing in the bow, casting.

"Swap you clients!" Ooley shthe salmon flies. Here were about eight actively feeding cutthroats. They were slurping down small pale morning duns. I handed my six-weight to Ooley and took his Thompson & Thompson 3-weight to cast to the cutts. Wading, I cast and cast, and got a couple rises, but because the water spilled from three different spots into this section, I faced a kind of three-speed triple mend that I was unable to perfect before I had missed about six fish and was ready to stop embarrassing myself.

But no worries: I had already boated about eight big cutts and the day was very young. Yet soon came the biggest disappointment of the day.

About eight miles into the float, we went into a narrowing of the river where tons of water flowed through a deep channel. We drifted over some whirlpools and Oolee got on the oars to move us out and back across the river. I knew my fly had been sucked down deep by the swirling current and I was about to pull it up when I snagged bottom.

"Oolee, I'm on the bottom," I yelled.

"What?"

The bottom was alive. My rod was yanked straight down, the tip-top in the water, and it began to lash and vibrate like mad. Line sizzled out of my left hand. Whatever I had hooked was making a horse-heavy run across the river.

"Oh, man!" Ooley shouted.

I was too jazzed to say anything. And then I watched as the line shot right at another drift boat in the middle of the river, parallel to us. I tried to tender the line with my hand but it burned over my skin.

The surging, powerful mystery fish was a good distance away when the fly pulled free. Either the fish plucked the leader against the underside of the other boat or I had tried to slow the fish down too soon.

I thought I was going to puke. I couldn't look back at Ooley.

"Man, that was a big fish," he said. "When I saw your rod going straight down in the water like that, whew...You couldn't hold him, could you?"

"Shouldn't have tried."

"Yeah, you gotta let the big ones run."

"He went cross current, Ooley - and right into that other boat."

Ooley nodded, smiling. "That's why he's big."

By lunchtime, the awfulness of loosing the big fish had faded, as I had made some good casts and Ooley had netted about four more good cutthroats for me. Parked along a bank of cottonwood saplings, we ate lunch and jawed about fishing. Ooley exhorted me to be faster on my strikes. "Cross their eyes, man," he said. "If you miss, you should have a backcast all ready to go."

Other guide boats, some from South Fork and some from Henry's Fork outfitters, drifted by and Ooley and I waved and called out. A guide on his day off drifted by with his fetching girlfriend standing in the bow, casting.

"Swap you clients!" Ooley sh