Originally posted in The Drake. Written by Geoff Mueller
Last Chance, ID
[Last Friday we posted a short piece on Last Chance, Idaho, flyshop, The TroutHunter. Co-owner Jon "The Animal" Stiehl joins us today, filling you in on the dirt: High times, low times, drunken A-Bar debates, scraps with reps and the establishment, Idaho gun love, and Rene Harrop's penchant for Natty Lite. Enjoy. —GM]
Drake Magazine: When and how did the collaboration between yourself, Harrop, and Rich Paini come together?
Jon Stiehl: We always enjoyed drinking beers and talking about all that is flyfishing at the now abandoned A-Bar. When The Rockefeller family purchased Henry’s Fork Anglers we figured that dude is probably pretty smart so we should get a flyshop, too.
DM: Why the Henry’s Fork?
JS: We’ve always had the philosophy of go big, be it fish, ass, or buzzes, or don’t bother. That left no other place to go, we also lived here.
DM: What was the fishing scene like when you started?
JS: It was crazy. Previous to 1992 the HF was in a steady decline, then the sediment spill in the fall of 1992 filled the Ranch with muck. Everyone had written the river off. When Rich and I arrived as Henry's fork Foundation interns, living on Harriman Ranch, we were told to get Montana licenses and be prepared to fish the Madison if we wanted to catch any fish. What no one counted on was the huge number of fish that came through the dam. They made for a great summer of fishing. There were nightly debates in the A-Bar about the merits of river fish vs. reservoir fish which amounted to nothing because they were both great compared to what had been caught the previous years. Soon all types of partying fly fisherman were getting drunk in the A-Bar every night. It hasn’t really changed that much. The Henry's Fork the place where you go to see how you measure up as a flyfisherman. It still has a huge number of regulars who, when it’s on, won’t go any place else.
DM: Obviously there are some eclectic characters in the Island Park area. In your mind, what makes it a special place to live, fish, and do business?
JS: The river is really what makes it special. It attracts the characters which make Island Park, population of 269, a worldly location. Flyfishing Sales Rep Brooks Montgomery always called it the center of the universe. I recently bought a telescope and as far as I can tell when I look out around he’s right.
DM: How has the shop changed and evolved from its inception until today?
JS: We started small in an old antique store, most of our square footage was flies and fly tying materials from House of Harrop. There weren’t a whole lot of reps looking to do business with us thanks to the fly shop saturation in our area, so we had to scrounge for other products. One of our guides was a collector and had turned us onto Charlton Reels and Burkheimer rods which we brought in. He found the Charletons so impressive he put his collection of Abels, including some Big Game reels which made the reel case look full, in our shop on consignment. I think that summer we had one of the largest displays of Abels in the region. As a result our neighbor got pissed and sicked the Abel rep on us. Said rep got pissed and held back our Salmonflies. Rene’ got pissed and almost threw him out of a second story window.
We slowly built up a good selection of products which weren’t always mainstream, Enrico’s tippet, Steffen Bros Rods, Frog Fanny, but the HOH flies and materials were always what brought folks in to the shop. The river was on fire, it was not uncommon to see 50 to 75 guys in the evening prowling the banks of Last Chance on any given Flav Spinner fall, and they and everyone else needed Rene’s patterns to catch the fish. After the evening’s fishing was over Rene’ would pull his truck with cooler full of Bud Light to the shop and the party would start on the porch. In 2003, our hand was forced so we moved across the street, which again forced our hand to expand what we were doing. A Lodge and Bar&Grill became part of the operation, but the shop is still the heart of it. We still try and focus on TroutHunter products and other things that aren’t everywhere when we are stocking the shop. We still have a large fly selection, at the end of the day we still hang out on the porch, but Rene’s cooler is now full of Natty Lite.
DM: How has the fishery evolved over the past 10 years?
JS: The Henry’s Fork Foundation has played a tremendous part in helping turn things around since the 2002 dewatering. Through the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council the HFF established a relationship with the irrigators. As a result of this relationship HFF has been encouraging increased winter streamflows which the irrigators have granted. It helps that we have had a few good snow years and lots of rain, but the efforts of the HFF with the support of the irrigators can’t be overlooked. The Henry’s Fork went through a heyday in the '90s followed by a plummet in health and trout numbers more recently.
DM: According to Greg Thomas's recent article in FR&R The Fork is once again "on the rise.” Was this an accurate portrayal?
JS: Everything except the part about the Renegades was accurate. The past three years the river has been drastically improving while not quite exponentially it seems close. One of the most interesting observations is the numbers of truly large fish that have been caught. In the '90s a 20 incher was bench mark. If someone came into the shop to brag about a 24” fish you knew the guy was clueless. No one who fished the river regularly ever caught Ranch fish that large. We now have a class size of 22” plus fish.
DM: Why Trouthunter? Obviously, there are several specialty flyshops in Idaho, including a good mix in the Island Park area, how does TroutHunter differentiate itself from the competition?
JS: When we started we were up against the establishment as it were, and the establishment was unhelpful, serious, and boring. There were a good number of regular anglers that were being over looked by the existing shops because they didn’t need guides or rods. They needed flies, information, and a place to hang out and talk about how many fish they managed to catch "around the bend”. These guys gave us an opening. We all put a priority on giving out good honest information, and being helpful, but most of all its about having a good time. We have always brought on staff, in all aspects of the business, that have gotten that, and if they didn’t they didn’t stick around too long. After one of the shop guy flipped out on a customer we had to let him go, Rich was nervous about standing in front of a window for weeks. We love our guns here in Idaho, but we did not enjoy the possibility of being sniped. Everyone of our customers comes here on vacation, so the good time vibe is contagious. If we wanted to make a lot of money we would be doing something other that this. If we wanted to have a good time we would go hang out on the Henry’s Fork which is what we are doing.
DM: What’s new for 2010? Where are you guys fishing?
JS: Rich is currently in Belize attending a board meeting for the Turneffe Atoll Trust. He claims this is work, but I bet he gets a few days or Permit hunting in. I know Rene’ was up on Henry’s Lake this past weekend looking for some double digit fish. I’m going to walk behind the shop and fish in Last Chance when I get done here. I’m trying to minimize my carbon foot print.
DM: Conservation projects?
JS: Rich is on the HFF Board as well as The TAT board. The HFF has been a local force for the past 2 + decades, and while TAT is a new organization, I’m sure they will be successful in their mission to preserve the Turneffe Atoll. [turneffeatoll.org] I'm a founding board member of Friends of Harriman.
DM: Trouthunter tippet? With good product from the RIOs, Seaguars, SAs of the industry, why the venture into that realm? How is TroutHunter’s better or different? Who is producing it? What kind of specific applications does it excel in? Take us through the R&D process.
JS: With the Henry’s Fork as a destination for savy anglers most sports show up with the necessary gear, so we have finally figured out that anything beyond what is needed to actually get yourself on the water - leader, tippet, and flies is for us shop fluff. Don’t get us wrong we love gear and you need to be a dealer to get the proforms right? But the terminal tackle is what fills the cooler. Our friends from the land of the rising sun have always been huge fans of the HF. They always have some of the coolest gear you can find including excellent tippets. We wanted that for our fishing here, so through HOH, we teamed up with a japanese partner to secure the best leaders and tippets that could be found...remember about us going big? After 3 years of bringing and sending over samples which we diligently tested in our fishing, we found the materials we felt were the best for our angling needs. We were able to get Rene’ drunk one night and he agreed to allow his leader formula to be converted to an extruded version, now the 14’ RH Sig Leader, and it is wicked good.