A road trip across North-Western USA

David Anderson – Photography & Writer

Leighton Adem – Writer & Editor

Henry’s Fork and Madison River

David Anderson – You’ve probably seen Last Chance, Idaho in American fly fishing photos. Wide, gentle ripples of the Henry’s Fork weave past tall yellow grass, Western-style timber fences and distant mountains. It sure is ‘purty.’ What they left out of the pictures were all the fly shops, gas stations, restaurants, bars, hotels and masses of holiday-mode humanity that gather here during the summer to fish the Henry’s Fork and other equally hallowed waters nearby.

We miss the morning rush at the famous Henry’s Fork Angler outfitters and fly shop by a couple of hours thanks to a long drive up from Idaho Falls. We were visiting the RIO Products factory and got distracted with the mesmerising process of laying up line tapers for every application you can imagine. If our guide Alex is upset, it isn’t showing and after a quick retail therapy blitz and a rather pricey licence purchase we are into his pick-up, boat in tow, and off towards the big skies of Montana just down the road.
On the way to the Madison River, he points out the landmarks and talks about some of the other productive streams we could investigate. It soon becomes apparent that he is trying to tell us (in a roundabout way) that we might have a better day off the Madison than on it due to our late start and high numbers of anglers around.

No sale for me, though. I’ve wanted to do a Western river drift boat trip since forever and Leighton, as ever, is as enthusiastic as a puppy and wouldn’t be deterred either.

Leighton Adem – We’ve come to fish the Henry’s Fork river legendary for its fly fishing and marathon hatches. Our first fishing stop on a road trip through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Everything is bigger here. The rivers are huge, the countryside vast and the fly stores numerous and chock full of gear and customers.

Standing at the front of Henry’s Fork Anglers, the river stretches out in either direction in a continuous glide that looks perfect. But Alex, our guide, suggests that the water release levels are not optimal today and the fishing is better just over the border on the Madison. Who are we to argue with local knowledge?

Long glides of the iconic Henry's Fork, Idaho

DA – Second thoughts rise at the put-in where the parking lot is full of pick-ups, boats, anglers, guides, dogs, RVs, kids and everything else America offers in such abundance. I’m also wondering if my five-weight will cut it as Alex sorts my rig out with a long leader and a pair of dry flies that would probably work for cod.

After a bit of wrangling in the ramp line, Alex soon has us in the boat and rocketing down the river. It’s much faster than I expected and much bigger water than anything I’ve fished in Australia. The ride of the big drift boat is silky smooth though and very secure thanks to the sturdy leaning posts in front of our seats and Alex’s experienced boat handling.

Fishing like this, standing while the world flows rapidly by, is an odd sensation. It’s easy to forget to look up and appreciate the grand surroundings while staying hyper-focused on the few square feet where your flies are. Alex calls this “seeing the goat”. It’s what happens when the fishing slows down, and clients start noticing the wildlife, the multimillion-dollar holiday homes or the big Montana skies above them.

LA – I’ve always had a fascination with metaphors. The problem comes with the abstraction of meaning, in this case, “seeing the goat” in my interpretation was opposite to Dave’s. As far as I was concerned, I was seeing the goat once in the zone and hooking fish in fluid succession.

DA – If the flies are big and scary, the actual bugs – huge stoneflies – are even more so and there’s plenty lurking in the bushes and buzzing around like small birds.
Our day started intensely, with lots of fish to hand that ranged in size from one pound up to three. Alex insists they go straight back into the water often before we even get a chance to take a picture. We didn’t see any goats until late lunchtime when the fishing slowed a little.

LA – When we hit the water, there were a significant number of float boats ahead of us. Most drifting the same line close to the bank, fishing back at the edges where enormous salmon flies were dropping into the water. I worried the fish would be put down following so closely, but I needn’t have, as the trout eagerly gulp down our garish flies that looked like madame x hoppers who’d just attended the mardi gras.

Alex worked hard at the oars to match our pace with the slower edge current while adding a decent mend all but guaranteed a eat. In the US they measure their stocks in fish per mile, the Madison readily sits at around 2,500 above 6 inches. No wonder we weren’t having trouble raising fish.

DA – As a side note – next time you hear an Aussie or Kiwi guide complain about being tired after a day out on the stream, spare a thought for the drift boat pilot that rows against the current all day long down miles and miles of Western trout rivers.