The river carried us closer to a pair of black ears hiding behind a bush. I scrambled for my video camera as the bear covered ground with two easy hops. He stopped and stared right at me. Like he was glaring into my skull. I didn’t need any more reminders about how dangerous The Snake can be.
We launched the day before. At a concrete ramp next to a bridge spanning the massive river. I was warming up the casting arm when a local pulled up to trailer his boat. The typical small talk got real serious, real quick.
“We’ve lost three anglers this year alone.”
Shit. That’s the last time I ask what they’re biting on.
In Michigan, this stretch of The Snake would almost be considered another Great Lake. Wide and strong. I’ve only seen a couple of rivers that powerful. Neither of which I planned to call home for an entire weekend.
But we were rolling 13 deep. Assorted outdoorsmen, trout guides, ex-guides, travelers, hikers and backwoods brothers. Most of these dudes I met that morning. Either at the ramp or in West Yellowstone before we drove the few hours into Idaho. Two rafts and three drift boats carried our gear and our beer. This was Mike’s bachelor party after all. We had the crew to tackle just about anything.
I was floating in Paul’s raft. A dude from Oregon who is long on patience and great on the oars. An ex-guide, Paul was a champ with advice and had gear to share. We were off to a slow start so he tied on some crazy huge terrestrial fly. Something I’d classify as a muskrat-sized trout attractor. I splashed the critter at the mouth of a feeder stream and a river ghost simply appeared.
It was like slow motion. He inched closer to the fly. Then backed away. Then opened his mouth to kill it. I squeezed the line against the cork handle and set the hook.
I farmed that damn trout like a rookie. I casted again. And again. Hoping he didn’t taste metal. But he was gone. My first chance at a big cutthroat and I blew it.
We anchored up behind a small island and boated a dozen little cutties on dry flies. I was still kicking my ass for missing that hook-set. My first cutthroat was something like 7 inches long. Dinner for the one that got away.
When I opened my eyes the next morning there was dew on my sleeping bag and a bald eagle flying overhead. He battled an Osprey in an airborne tumble attack to claim a trout breakfast. Awesome to see but almost nothing compared to the visions of the rest of the day.
The Snake cuts through steep rock cliffs. Segments of rock, each a subtlety different color, reflected eons of our planets history. At times I felt like I was in Jurassic Park or something. Absolutely other-worldly. The vastness felt like only one other place I’ve seen. The Serengeti in Kenya. But Idaho captured me. Mostly because that river is filled with giant trout.
Minutes after the bear sighting we floated past a couple of hikers and their black lab. The dog was trying to swim to shore but was moving downstream instead. Paul cut across the current and pulled up tight against the steep bank. The lab paddled like a champ but the strong current and cold water was taking its toll. We inched closer and closer to the old boy but the river pushed us away. Paul rowed constantly until he finally got a hand on the dogs collar. We dragged him into the raft, scared out of his mind and totally exhausted.
His owners found us moments later. The poor old boy, pushing 11, was in no shape to battle The Snake. It’s like the river was flexing with another reminder that we weren’t in charge.
Outside of the canyon the river got wider and faster. Temps climbed into the 90’s, over 50 degrees difference than the night before. The adrenaline of operation save-a-lab wore off and I was fading fast. We landed a few more small trout before taking a break next to another ancient cliff.
Italian sausages, whiskey and sunset fixed me right up. Mike and Casey landed browns and cutties up-stream while I cooked and Reeves skipped stones across the river. The campfire lasted longer than most of us. Who knew sleeping on a bed of river rocks could be so comfortable?
We floated the final miles under a hazy sky of low clouds mixed with smoke from distant wild fires. The trout loved the shade. Within the first half-hour we had quality rises but no takers. I broke down. Frustrated by volumes of fly casting and little to show for it. I pulled out a Rapala countdown and my trusty baitcaster. We hammered the trout on our way out of Idaho. We put three nice fish in the net, saw two moose, packed-up the gear and headed back to West Yellowstone.
Now that’s a badass bachelor party.
Photo Credits: Some are mine. Some are B. Reeves at http://www.flickr.com/photos/apollosdad/