Cutthroat Chronicles: The Big Waters

Visiting the big waters. The famous ones. Fishing them relentlessly, pursuing their legendary fish with reckless abandon. It’s at once an adventure and a crime.

It’s a crime we’re all guilty of, no matter how many protestations we make to the contrary that secluded, high mountain streams are preferable to the crowded big waters of the West.

The big waters draw anglers for a reason – fishing them is nothing short of magical. Fishing the Henry’s Fork, Silver Creek, the Madison, the Big Blackfoot, the Flathead – it’s as though stepping into these rivers is a rite of passage and you haven’t really made it until doing so.

I preach night and day about the values of fishing where other anglers don’t often venture, of straying from the beaten path and losing myself in the wilderness. It’s easier, as John Gierach wrote, for me to realize where my life’s troubles fit in the grand scheme of things when I’m on a freestone stream at 11,000 feet than it is when I’m elbow-to-elbow on the Frying Pan River. Fishing is a way to realize that the problems I have are far less complex and worrisome than they seem up-close. On a river they seem manageable and surmountable. If fly fishing does one thing, it puts life into perspective in a fashion that no other sport can do.

Fly fisher in Idaho river
Yet, despite my claims that the only way to really “let go” is to get off the major rivers and away from people, I recently returned from an excursion to Idaho. The draw? Two of the world’s most famous big waters – the Salmon and South Fork of the Snake.

My good friend, and new photographer, Hyrum and I arrived at the Aspen Grove Inn, just north of Idaho Falls, late Thursday evening. The cabins are situated a stone’s throw from the South Fork, and they were rustic and comfortable – much more my style than some of the fancier lodges I’ve stayed in.

We woke early the next morning to meet our guide Jordan, from Heise Expeditions, grabbed some food and got on the river.

In short order I had a strike, then landed a cuttbow. Hyrum followed suit with two gorgeous cutthroat and a fat rainbow.

The day followed a similar pattern of steady-but-not-incredible dry fly fishing. I didn’t tie a nymph on once, so that’s a testament to just how good the dry fly fishing was.

This was my first time on the South Fork, and the first time I’ve had the luxury of fishing a river that large from a driftboat. (The largest river here in Utah is the Green, which isn’t close to the size of the South Fork).

Each bend revealed more breathtaking scenery; we floated the canyon section, near Swan Valley, back down to the Heise Bridge. 25 miles of river covered in a single day, but even at the take out, the beauty of the surroundings had my head on a constant swivel as I tried to soak it all in at once. As I lay in bed that night, after dinner at Smitty’s in Idaho Falls (get the German pancake!), I realized my perception of what it means to “let go” was quickly changing.

On the big water of the South Fork, not a second thought had been given to the death of my great-grandmother, whose funeral I attended a day before leaving for the trip. The tears, carrying her casket to the burial site next to her husband and two prematurely deceased children – none of that emotional baggage weighed on my mind as I’d fished the South Fork that day. Despite the abundance of other people, I’d escaped. I’d let go.

The following day began at 4am, when Hyrum and I geared up and left for Challis. A friend of mine knew a lady (who quickly became a good friend of mine) who’d willingly take two trout bums down the river.

The fishing was slow, but as we floated through a decidedly different setting than the canyon of the South Fork, I found myself so enamored in looking for any straggling king salmon that it wasn’t until the drive back to Challis that I realized the editing deadlines for my novel weren’t front-and-center, as they’d been for a month. I’m a bit of a procrastinator, and I should have stayed home instead of going on this particular trip, but the chance to explore somewhere new always trumps deadlines.

Fly fisher on a boat
Hyrum and I had a few tips on other spots to fish – mostly specific holes on the Salmon as the highway wound its way towards Stanley. After an hour of trying to decide which rock was the “Big Mothereffing Rock” behind which we’d been told some kings had been spotted the day before, we bagged fishing the Salmon and found a dirt road that took us up one of the river’s many tributaries.

The tributary was small in comparison, but still larger than the average river here in Utah. Full of juvenile steelhead, it was an incredibly relaxing way to end a day that’d largely been spent looking for a parking spot along the busy Salmon River Scenic Byway.

Returning home, as I gazed out at a now rain-soaked landscape in southern Idaho, I realized that a trip full of big waters accomplished what I thought only small mountain streams could do for me.

I let go. I relaxed. And suddenly, everything wrong in my life just wasn’t that big a deal anymore.

Spencer is a fly fishing writer and novelist from Utah. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant, or on Facebook @spencerdurrantauthor.