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Destination: Idaho

Prized Catch

Crossing lines with their past, two cousins angle the Snake River

July 26, 1998|KARL ZIMMERMANN | Zimmermann is a freelance writer who lives in Norwood, N.J

SWAN VALLEY, Idaho — At the end of a day's float and fly-fishing on the south fork of the Snake River--the section that runs through Idaho's Swan Valley--my cousin Don Granger's assessment was unambiguous.

"This is the most magnificent river I've ever seen," he said. It had come well recommended by Ron Simmons, another cousin. Silver-haired, patrician, a Westerner (from Salt Lake City, like Don), Simmons fishes everywhere, dedicating his semi-retirement from architectural practice to the pursuit of trout.

Don and I go way back as fellow fishers. We'd dunked worms in our teenage years, then cast flies as young men in Utah and Montana, but it had been decades since we'd fished together. When we had the chance to remedy this long oversight, and I looked to Ron to suggest a spot, he didn't hesitate.

"Let me book you on the south fork," he said.

Rising high in the back country of Yellowstone National Park, the south fork of the Snake River flows through the Tetons into Idaho, through the Swan Valley and on to Henry's Fork (also a great trout spot on the Snake). From there the Snake River charges west across Idaho before turning north to form that state's western border. In Washington it joins the Columbia on its journey to the Pacific.

"I bet the Snake irrigates half the potatoes grown in this country," Don said.

The Swan Valley, where we floated, is tucked into the state's southeast corner, about 40 miles from Idaho Falls and 50 from Jackson, Wyo., at the foot of Grand Teton National Park. It's broad, open, classically western country of fields backed by mountains. Driving along Idaho 26 to the South Fork Lodge, where Ron had booked our guide and accommodations, we had scant sense of the river we were paralleling, since it was nestled out of sight in a deep canyon.

By the time we finished our float at about 8 p.m. the next evening, with that canyon deep in shadow, we knew it well. On the river since 9:30 in the morning, we were tired from mercilessly flogging the water with our fly rods, questing for trout. No doubt "Ooley" Piram, our gregarious and hard-working guide, was far more tired, but he was too good-natured to complain.

It seemed days ago that we'd shaken hands with Ooley, hopped into his battered Suburban and headed a few miles upriver, with his trailered drift boat rattling along behind. This wooden craft was brand new, and Ooley had made it himself. "Took me about three weeks," he said. "I've done 25 or 30 of them, so I've gotten the hang of it."

Called a "McKenzie boat" after the Oregon river where its design was developed, this high-bowed dory has become the standard for float-fishing on western rivers. It's astonishingly stable--which is essential, since fly-casting is better done standing than sitting. The stubby craft has revolving seats fore and aft, while the guide rows from the middle.

While we puttered around with our gear, Ooley backed the trailer down the ramp and eased his boat into the chalky, turquoise water, then parked his Suburban and trailer out of the way (where a cohort would shuttle it to our arrival point). By the time he'd stowed our gear and settled us aboard, it was clear that he was there to do the work, leaving us to have the fun. In addition to rowing, he'd tie on the flies if we wished. He'd also net our fish, which was both a conservation measure and a convenience to us, since his release technique (using forceps) was sure and speedy. His hands would rarely touch the fish, which greatly increased their chances of survival.

Our job was to enjoy ourselves--which we did from the beginning, though the morning was gloomy under a gray sky that threatened rain. More serious, the river was high--very high--from snowpack in the winter of 1996-97 that was 50% higher than usual. Spring had seen destructive flooding on the south fork, and, even by late July, a date reserved months ahead in expectation of optimum conditions, the river was discolored and far from ideal for angling. In particular, dry fly-fishing--that delicate, exciting sport in which diminutive tufts of fur and feathers dance along the river's surface to mimic adult mayflies or caddis flies--did not appear promising.

In the end, this mattered little. I was happy to be on the water again with Don. He's the perfect fishing buddy: easygoing, gentle and generous. Watching him lay out a line and study its drift swept away the years, and it was good once more to be sharing things we both loved: the beauty of the West, the anticipation of trout. And if the fishing wasn't fast and furious, all the more excuse to let the eye and mind stray to the beauty of the place.

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