The strike indicator dropped quietly below the water’s surface; I gently lifted the tip of my fly rod to set the hook, and the line went taught. Suddenly, a dark shadow bolted across the river channel toward deeper water. Line spilled from my reel as the drag gears let out a whine. The fish shot downstream, using the current and a powerful tail to strain my light tackle. Ed, our guide, pulled hard against the oar handles of the Mackenzie boat I shared with my father; we entered fast water, moving downstream with the fish still on the line. “Trout Re-location Project,” Ed quipped loudly over the roar of a short section of rapids while looking for quiet water to fight the fish. Ed eased us into an eddy, and the boat gently drifted upstream; the fish was still on.
My father and I had hired Ed, a seasoned fishing guide, to float us down the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho for catch-and-release fly fishing. It was late summer, the air was crisp, and the colors had not yet changed. The “Snake” begins as a trickle in Yellowstone National Park, flows past the Tetons, and across Idaho on a 1000-mile journey to the Columbia River. The 10-mile section we were fishing that day was about 100 yards wide, several feet deep, and continually dividing into smaller channels, pools, and rapids. This run was famous for its abundant natural Yellowstone cutthroat trout, our main objective for the day.
Ed set up our rods with a nine-foot tapered nylon leader and a very thin and light tippet, to which he attached one of the smallest flies I have ever fished. He called it a “Sunday Night,” just a piece of dark fuzz tied to a 1/4-inch barbless hook to resemble an emerging nymph. A small weight delivered the fly below the surface into the feeding lanes.
I stood at the bow of the rocking Mackenzie boat, my knees locked into supports, fly rod in both hands, as I battled the fish which shot up and down the river. The fish eventually began to tire, and I could pull it in, only to have it explode with new-found energy across the current, dragging 25 yards of line with it. The fish finally seemed to give up—we both had had enough. As it slowly swam toward the boat, being led by my line, I could see that it was a beautiful 20-inch cutthroat trout with brown spots on its yellow-green body and a distinctive red splash below his jawline. My father gently lowered the landing net into the water; the fish broke the surface, thrashed from side to side, dislodged the hook, and broke free. Released, it swam off to be caught another day.