The tippy tops of the Grand Tetons were just in view to the east above a wisp of clouds as our drift boat floated silently along the glassy waters of the Henrys Fork in Harriman State Park in Idaho. “There are some fish working over there,” guide Phil Sgamma whispered, motioning to the right as he slowly lowered the anchor to hold our position in the river.
At first I saw nothing, but then small dimples were apparent on the surface, a pod of four or five rainbow trout gently sipping tiny insects from the surface. “There are blue winged olives and mahogany duns on the water,” Sgamma continued, “but I’m not sure what they’re eating.”
He tied a size 18 sparkle dun on the end of my angling partner Dinty Leach’s gossamer-thin tippet, a mayfly imitation smaller than my pinkie nail. A coyote loped by on the far bank, paying us little attention. “I want you to cast so the fly drops about 10 feet above the dimples,” Sgamma instructed. “Throw a little upstream mend and let it float through.”
“They look small,” Leach said, tossing his fly line behind us to begin his cast.
“You’d be surprised,” Sgamma said. “I’d say those fish are 18 inches.” The fly, barely visible in the surface film, floated toward the trout armada, which were now making small splashes as they eagerly slurped the bugs. “Be ready,” he whispered, as we all craned forward in anticipation of the tiny fly’s disappearance in a fish’s mouth. It reached the center of the pod as fish porpoised on either side . . . and floated downstream unmolested. “I guess we’ll try another fly,” Sgamma said, undeterred.
So it goes on the Henrys.
Idaho’s Henrys Fork — technically the Henrys Fork of the Snake River — begins at Henrys Lake, 15 miles west of Yellowstone National Park. Supplemented by cold, clear water from Big Springs a few miles south of the lake as well as a number of tributaries, it flows southwest for 127 miles before joining the main stem of the Snake River below Rexburg.
It’s a river of many shapes and personalities. In some sections it gurgles through pine forests or pasture, with snowcapped mountains hovering in the distance; in others it crashes through vertiginously steep canyons of frothing white water. Some stretches hold only rainbows; some a mix of brown trout and rainbows or brook trout and rainbows.
One consistent is big sky northern Rockies scenery, and the opportunity to spy the wildlife that call the region home — including elk and moose, as well as black and grizzly bears. “You have to learn different techniques to find success on different sections of the river,” said Sgamma, who has guided here since 2008. “That’s one of the appeals of guiding here.”
Fly anglers have been plying the Henrys Fork since the early 1900s, though it really entered the larger angling consciousness in the 1960s and ’70s, thanks to the writings of Charles Brooks and Ernest Schwiebert . Since that time, every fly angler worth her waders has either fished here . . . or dreamed of doing so.
There are rivers where you can find bigger fish, and others where you can likely land more. The great lure of the Henrys is the abundance of insect life, and the local trout’s inclination to seek sustenance on the surface. “If you could design a river for dry fly-fishing, this would be it,” mused Nelson Ishiyama, the founder and owner of Henry’s Fork Lodge who has fished the river for 53 years, missing only one season.
“It’s a very visual experience, and it has an intellectual appeal. You’re trying to solve a puzzle — determine what the fish are feeding on, and find a fly that’s a good imitation. But that puzzle is changing every day. It’s always a challenge, but it’s also dependable. The fish are almost always feeding on some sort of insect on the surface.” There are at least 18 insect species that appear on the Henrys at various times, multiple variations of each insect, and hundreds of fly patterns that have been created by anglers to trick the trout — or, in anglers’ parlance, match the hatch.
I’ve been to the Henrys six years in a row, drawn to its beautiful piscine puzzle. There’s good fishing to be had there throughout the year, though mid-June through mid-October tend to be the most popular times.
My base for fishing operations is a lodge called TroutHunter, which sits on the river in Island Park. TroutHunter offers comfortable rooms, and its restaurant and bar is the main gathering spot for local and visiting anglers alike.
More importantly, TroutHunter offers one of the most seasoned and competent guide staffs I’ve encountered over many years of fly-fishing travel. “On my first time out, I had zero expectation of catching any fish, and expected to make a mess of things,” said Way Cheng, a returning guest from Kuala Lumpur. “Instead, I caught 13, thanks to my very patient and excellent guide, who was always encouraging, never pressured me and corrected my casting throughout the day. I’m sure the whole river could hear me, as I screamed ‘Fish!’ every time I hooked one!”
“Our job here is to discover where clients are in their fishing journey and try to deliver what they’re hoping for,” said Pat Gaffney, a recovering attorney from Connecticut with a billowing beard who has been guiding at TroutHunter since 2007. “I like to say that there are four stages of trout fishing: One — I’ve never done this before, I want to catch one; two — I want to catch them all; three — I want to catch the big fish or the hard-to-fool fish; four — I’m just happy to be here. We have clients from 8 to 80 on the river.”
The fishing day begins at breakfast in the lodge, when guides pop by your table to plan the day. After breakfast, you’ll grab your waders and rod and drive to the river. Most fishing is done from a drift boat or raft. During my most recent visit, several anglers in our group opted to fish the “Cardiac Canyon” stretch; to reach the river, you descend nearly 600 feet over a quarter-mile. Watching your guide bounce the raft down the steep rocky trail is worth the effort in itself, though in this wilderness stretch, added rewards come in the form of animal encounters and especially eager rainbows and browns, as Cardiac Canyon sees few anglers. My friends saw two black bears on their float; another group floating the river below Big Springs came upon a family of moose.
My favorite float on the Henrys is the Harriman section, known among regulars as “The Ranch.” The river here is broad and moves slow and smooth around lazy horseshoe bends, but there are many tiny currents that don’t immediately meet the eye — microcurrents that can make an imperfectly presented fly skitter across the water unnaturally, sending fish scurrying for cover. Casts that slap the water or create too many shadows have the same result.
Sgamma, Leach and I were unable to fool the first pod of fish we encountered, but around the next bend our luck changed. Groups of fish were dimpling the water on either side of the boat. Sgamma decided we’d both fish. He tied a tiny mayfly imitation on Leach’s tippet and he began casting to the right. “Let’s show them something different,” he said, tying a purple and black Chubby Chernobyl on my line — a much larger fly that bore no resemblance to any insects on the water. Leach was soon fast to a feisty 16-inch rainbow that leaped three times before coming to the net. I cast a few feet above where a fish had just dimpled the surface. A largemouth parted the water and line hissed off my reel. “That’s a good one,” Sgamma said. The fish tried to part ways with me by tangling in aquatic plants along the river bottom, but the tippet held and Sgamma deftly netted the fish. He measured it — just a hair under 22 inches — and gently returned it to the river. (All angling on the Henrys Fork is catch and release.)
Back at the TroutHunter at happy hour, we gathered for a few drinks and to swap fishing stories. Between tales, I wandered outside to the patio overlooking the river. Sure enough, there were a few dimples on the surface — trout still feeding. I hustled to my room, slid into my waders and grabbed my rod and fishing vest. The sun was beginning to dip behind the Centennials, but it would be light for at least 15 minutes more.
There were still puzzles to solve.
Santella is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
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3327 N. Hwy 20, Island Park, Idaho
Eleven nicely appointed rooms with air conditioning and a deck overlooking the river. Packages for two anglers are available from $3,900 for six nights lodging and five days of guided fishing, including lunch. Flies and gratuities not included, approximately $150 per day for two anglers.
Henry’s Fork Lodge
2794 S. Pinehaven Dr.,
Island Park, Idaho
Designed by acclaimed architect Joseph Esherick, the lodge offers the region’s most opulent lodging option, with guests residing in individual riverside cottages or in the lodge proper. Guided packages start at $4,450 per person and includes six nights lodging, five days guided fishing and three meals per day.
There’s considerable public access along the river between Island Park and Rexburg, and several other renowned trout streams (including the Madison River) are within an hour’s drive. In addition to TroutHunter, Henry’s Fork Anglers can also provide flies, gear and helpful advice, as well as fishing licenses. You’ll need an Idaho fishing license, available at the fly shops or online. Nonresident licenses $98.25 per year or $15 per day, plus $10 access/depredation fee.
Sightseeing in Yellowstone
West Yellowstone Information Visitor Center
30 Yellowstone Ave., West Yellowstone, Mont.
From TroutHunter, it’s a roughly 40-minute drive to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park, where you can view geysers, bison and a host of other national wonders in America’s first national park. Seven-day entry passes cost $20 per bicyclist, hiker or pedestrian — or $35 per vehicle.