I could tell you about agriculture - about crop rotation and science, soil enrichment and nitrogen. I could write about weed and disease management and improved yields. But, I’d rather leave you with blue skies and yellow fields and white clouds passing by. Let you lean in to hear the sound of honeybees flitting from flower to flower across what to them must be an endless sea of canola. And let you ponder whether they feel the unbearable weight of an impossible task or the immeasurable joy of vast opportunity.
The Bureau of Reclamation manages ten reservoirs in the upper Snake River Basin. At full pool, those lakes contain more than four million acre feet of water gathered from the western slopes of the continental divide in Wyoming and Idaho. The challenge the Bureau faces every spring is how to capture melting snowpack and dispense it evenly so that the competing needs of irrigation, recreation, and consumption are all met. That’s easier said than done and timing is everything.
Imagine twenty thousand basketballs coming out of a dam every second. That’s the rough equivalent of the water volume measured in cubic feet per second (cfs) the Bureau was releasing into the South Fork of the Snake River from Palisades Reservoir when we put on Thursday morning. By comparison, the average summertime flow is around twelve thousand—enough to keep cold water pouring over the gravelly river bottom sustaining aquatic life while allowing for the five thousand cfs local farmers divert to grow barley, alfalfa, and their famous potatoes.
Runoff has peaked and by the time we took out at the Spring Creek bridge in Swan Valley, the Bureau had tightened up the spigot, cutting the flows by ten percent. They dropped it again last night. And if the fishing the last two days is any indicator, the trout seem to be really happy with declining flows and improving clarity. And they’re happy because the insects they eat are happy too. Yellow Sallies, Pale Morning Duns, Blue Winged Olives, and a variety of Caddis were all out in the canyon yesterday fluttering among the cottonwood fluff making it look like a summer snowstorm. Fish were holding right where we expected to find them, in deep runs, behind ledges, and in soft water. And they looked healthy, their bellies full and getting fuller, grateful as we are, for the warmer days ahead.
In the years I’ve lived in Teton Valley, I don’t remember seeing so much life and so much greenery, so many young calves in the fields north of my house, so many Sandhill cranes squawking happily in the tall grass, so many wildflowers of every color in the palette. It’s more than I can put a finger on, but every sense is telling me it’s going to be a good season. There is plenty of water, a valley full of good friends, and a summer’s worth of opportunities to show visitors what a special place this is.
Jim Harrison’s poem, I Believe, is one of my favorites. So the other night with it in mind, I drove up the west slope of the Tetons, parked on the side of a dirt road, and wrote this, my version of I Believe.
Annie, my German Shepherd, trotted over to the bucket she saw suspended from a camera tripod. She’s generally inquisitive – interested in, well, everything, but her nose was telling her eyes that there was something worth seeing in that bucket. So trot she did across this stretch of the Oregon coast, her four-footed prance gently pressing the moisture from the damp, sponge-like sand that quickly soaked the salty water back up as soon as she’d passed leaving no trace that she’d ever been there.
Two men stood by the bucket. The taller man, wearing Gore-Tex waders a Chicago Bears cap was taking a silver surfperch off a hook. Turns out that was the second to make the bucket; he’d kept both silvers, but turned a redtail loose. “Three fish in three casts,” he told me, “and with a brand new rod and reel!” “Sounds like a good start,” I replied, “and justifies the new gear, doesn’t it?!”
We shared a laugh and I asked about his rig – like Annie, I have my curiosities. Standard for the application of putting bait in front of cruising fish, two hooks are suspended vertically above a four ounce pyramid weight to cover different portions of the water column. He and his friend were using worms, of the store-bought artificial variety, though they exchanged a look and shrugged suggesting it really didn’t matter, the fish weren’t all that picky. Apparently not.
The best time to fish for surfperch is on the rising tide. The tide charts called for a one and half foot negative low tide at quarter of ten this morning and high tide was still four hours away. They’d timed it just right. And with plans to be back at tomorrow morning’s low tide to dig for razor clams, and if their run of good luck held, they’d surely be eating well all weekend.
It’s called adiabatic cooling. It’s why the mountains get more snow than the valleys. When air rises, as it must when passing over mountains, into the lower barometric pressures associated with higher altitudes, the reduced pressure it encounters lets rising air expand and cool off. Cooling off causes the condensation of water vapor which is falling to earth right now as snow. The weatherman in Teton Valley measured new snowfall from the current winter storm at ten inches. Grand Targhee Resort, twelve hundred feet higher, reports twenty five - the equivalent of four inches of rain. SNOTEL sites from across the Snake River watershed indicate 121% of average snow water equivalency to date. Yellowstone’s at 167%. And that’s good, it will be fishing season soon and the solution to most worries in the west, whether they be fish, field, or forest related is to just add water.
However it’s measured and whatever its use, water is making life quiet in the valley. The already soft sounds of winter are muffled into silence by the snow piling up outside my window. I’ve been writing and have just sent off to my thesis advisor the first of five essays for critique with hopes the process of collaboration will let the words cool and expand and come back down to find a form, find a use, maybe even find a truth. Until then, I’ll enjoy the quiet and the fire, the work still ahead and the reassuring feeling that I am where I’m supposed to be.
A 5x5 - five tines on one side of his antlers and five on the other - is a respectable elk. Not as big as they can get, but strong and proud and more than capable of commanding a harem of cows. I saw a bull just like this one on the last hunt in the Teton Wilderness. We found him in a burned out part of the forest, above nine thousand feet and below the vertical drop of a granite ridge. Before daybreak, we rode horses up the northern slope of Joy Peak and tied them up near a clearing of golden grass that looked fragile, almost glasslike from the frost that the sun hadn’t yet worked up the strength to melt. We stalked uphill from there, pausing silently to let a mule deer pass when the bugling started, deep and gravelly.
Advancing slightly farther, we set up behind a fallen log on scarce level ground near a wallow. Upwind of us, a bull wandered into clear view between scorched lodgepoles searching for small patches of worthwhile grass - the first signs that the forest was healing. The rest of the world fell quiet. No more than forty yards away, I could hear each hoof he stamped down into the ashy, black soil. Each breath, each snort echoed through the charred pines as a narrow column of light broke through a hole in the clouds. He was right there in the middle of it, lit up, almost glowing in the sun and so close there was no need to dial in range on my rifle scope. It was an easy shot.
But, I didn’t take it.
You have to know what you want and why you want it. Doing something to indulge the ego isn’t good enough and I don’t believe there’s virtue in a short term fix. Letting a good thing walk frees you up for the best thing, and sometimes the best things are closer than we think. We just haven’t seen them. Sharpen your vision and look again. Yes, the best things you have to wait for, even when the air gets thin, your boots get heavy, and it seems like every effort you make only drives them further away.
Winds out of the west at twenty five stirred up the Black Canyon fire behind us. It was one of a growing number of wildfires surrounding the South Fork. The largest, near Henry’s Creek, had grown to seventeen miles long the day before and has claimed over twenty-five thousand acres. While smoke choked Teton Valley and Jackson Hole, favorable winds kept the skies clear for two days of fishing with Dick Boggs and his lovely wife of sixty years, Jo. We’ve been fishing together for six seasons now and no client has spent more time in my boat. But, Dick isn’t just a client.
With a goal of retiring at age fifty, Dick set upon and achieved success as a businessman and business owner. When he felt the time was right, he sold his company and he and Jo settled in among seventy-six acres of valley land in the mountains of North Carolina. There, he began his next career as a Christmas tree farmer planting and growing some twenty thousand Fraser firs, which he manicured by hand. I got to where I could trim a tree in eight seconds, he told me. But that care and attentiveness took its toll wearing out the rotator cuff in his casting shoulder. Now at age eighty, Dick can still fire a fly to the tightest of lies with laser accuracy. It’s more comfortable though to do so toward the left, so we hunt the best water on that side of the river. If only the trout on the other side knew how lucky they were.
Dick is no less serious than he’s ever been about fishing. You can see it in his quiet focus when we set up on a riffle and he casts small flies to rising trout. “That one is worth the trip right there”, he said after landing a sixteen inch Yellowstone cutthroat. Not the largest trout in the river, but there was grace in the way it sipped the fly and dignity in the way it battled. That splendor isn’t lost on Mr. Boggs.
He loves his wife and he loves his life and his appreciation for both reflect wisdom that deserves admiration. It’s in the moments when he sits down in the boat for a rest and looks up at the mountains and the sky and says simply, 'this is a wonderful day.'
We made the twelve mile drive down the dusty river road and back up US 26 to a lodge overlooking the river near our put-in. We sat for a drink, a pleasant way to make our time together last just a little longer — a few more stories and a few more laughs. When limes sat dry, stranded over cubes of ice in the glass we hugged and parted ways. The last thing we said to each other was 'I love you’.
It was a wonderful day.
I believe Tim's exact quote was “I feel like I could catch a fish on any cast.”
Tim was having a good day. It was windy. Upriver and out of the west, the wind blew at 20 gusting over 35. But, Tim could fish a nymph rig well and his determination was paying off in the front of the boat.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day, but the brightest sunshine came from his wife Jane sitting right behind me. Jane was two weeks removed from knee surgery. I’d guided them two years prior up in the canyon and know her to be a beautiful fly caster, but the wind was a foe she elected to avoid most of the day. She sat in the back seat and took in the birds and the mountains and was splendid company.
Tim caught all the trout species in the river with several browns pushing twenty inches. But, it’s the cutthroat in the picture above that was the best part of my day.
We anchored on a wide and shallow riffle just upstream from a secluded pool that dependably holds fish. The upstream wind would make a downstream cast tricky so I took a quick look into the water we’d just passed. Within a few minutes a trout rose. Jane made her way upstream and with sun and wind at her back, cast a small mayfly emerger. She cast like a lady; which is the way all anglers should cast — with sincerity and grace.
Her gentleness was rewarded.
I’ve had several women in the boat this week. It's a joy every time. I wish more women fly fished. The sport and the fisheries themselves would be better for it.
My friend Nancy joins me tomorrow; and she can cast, too.
For all the beauty of the mountain, its views and its smells, the people I’ve come to know here give this place its specialness. Most of them come from other towns and cities: Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta, but there’s someone from right here in Grundy County who is as responsible for my love of this place as anyone: John Knost. A former sheriff’s deputy, John knows the meaning of respect, how to treat people, and the value of friendship. To become his friend is to become his family.
John built this house. What was originally one-bedroom, 1891 construction, John turned into a family home in 1988. He’s taken care of it and us since. The original house had no foundation, rather beams sat atop logs placed in the dirt below, so John built one, and a dining table at which to eat, and a porch for us to gather.
One summer not long after I got my driver’s license, I took my truck out looking for a place to test its four wheel drive. I found a place so perfect for that purpose that I had the truck buried to the floorboards in no time. The landowner was displeased. John always told me (still does) to call him, night or day, if I ever needed anything. This was the first time I did. Half an hour later, John arrived with a tow truck and pulled me out of the muck, and assuaged the ire of the landowner. He said he wouldn’t take payment and he wouldn’t tell my folks. He showed me what it means to take care of someone in need. He bailed me out of a mistake in judgment without judging me for it. To the contrary, I’m pretty sure he was proud of me for getting out some rambunctiousness and getting into a mess, for getting out and doing what boys do.
Though my mother passed away eight years ago, right now I’m sitting on the porch of this house looking at the dogwoods John planted for her. “Your mom’s in every detail here”, John said to me the other day. The same is true about you, too, John.