As a younger man, the thought of more than a few days away from fishing could bring on a state of self-pity based on deprival. This would invariably happen in December when seasonal closings or frigid conditions began to restrict opportunity for pursuing trout on the Henry’s Fork.
Although traveling great distance for fishing is a temptation I have typically resisted, there were many years when my winter sanity was preserved only by periodically driving to elevations lower than St. Anthony where Bonnie and I spend the winter. Less than two hours away, the Madison above Ennis could often provide the necessary temperature difference to make fishing reasonably comfortable when even the lower Henry’s Fork became icebound. A similar distance south, the South Fork of the Snake could also give relief from the cabin fever that would periodically set in during the coldest months of the year. More often, however, I would ignore the likelihood of futility when choosing to fish locally on days when only frozen guides and numb fingers were assured.
But as age crept into the picture, I began to notice a weakening of resolve when it came to the thought of pushing through crotch deep snow to cast on water too cold for the comfort of man or trout. As time progressed so too did the frequency of days when the rod stayed in the case and my only contact with the water was visual as I viewed the river through the window of my truck. Eventually, I stopped fishing when the temperature dipped below freezing, but I have never stopped going to the river just because I did not intend to fish.
Maintaining required contact with the river in winter is accomplished along a country road that I drive at least twice each week. Two miles of a six mile stretch run close to the river where the water is never out of sight. And because I do not view the Henry’s Fork solely through the eyes of a fisherman, this time has contributed to a larger understanding of its value as a nurturing force in the place I call home.
Bald Eagles hunt the river corridor and nest in adjacent cottonwoods not far from the sparse houses that are scattered along this stretch. Wintering waterfowl like Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, and a host of different ducks add interest to any lover of nature, and this includes their role as prey to the great winged predators. Fox, Coyote, Bobcat and other carnivores find sustenance in Whitetail Deer, rabbits, muskrat, and the assorted birdlife that winter in or along the lower Fork. And in particularly severe conditions, Gray Wolves and Mountain Lions are lured closer to civilization by larger ungulates like moose and elk seeking refuge from the deeper snow and colder temperatures of their traditional winter range.
As a hunter as well as an angler, wildlife viewing with no harm intended is as natural to me as being on the river without my fly rod when the survival of wild creatures becomes so precarious. Watching without disturbing means staying quiet, and this is what becomes most important when I am separated from conditions that are much more abundant in the warmer seasons.
Sitting in silence along the river is as emotionally settling as anything available when outdoor activity can be confined to fewer than eight hours of daylight. Winter is a season when reality can become blurred by too much darkness and time indoors, which for some can become a breeding ground for negative thoughts and even depression. Even when heavy snow is falling or the temperature dips below zero the river has a calming effect that helps to bring clarity and reason to a cluttered mind. And as humans, we cannot sustain our selves without these fundamental elements of existence.
As one of many creatures both wild and otherwise that attempt to survive in this beautiful but harsh place, I am alive because of the river. In the depth of winter one can witness devastating natural forces like gorge ice capable of moving a 1,000 pound boulder hundreds of yards downstream. Starvation can quickly become a reality on a river that remains frozen for sustained periods, and many in the wild will parish when it becomes simply too cold to survive. But despite the heavy hand that nature can apply, the greatest threats to the Henry’s Fork and every other river on the planet are human caused.
I find it worrisome that so many can believe all is well on the Henry’s Fork just because fishing happens to be good right now. Sedimentation, water quality, and insecure flows are among my strongest concerns when I reflect objectively on the current health of the river. And because the pressure being applied in the name of civilized progress continues to increase, there has never been a more important time to support the protective efforts of the Henry’s Fork Foundation. And it is a sobering fact in the big picture that there is really little more we can do individually and collectively to protect the fishing we currently enjoy.
Although the number will vary from year to year, there are days even in deepest winter when the temperature rises above 32° F and fishing the Henry’s Fork becomes practical. And while limited to areas of reasonably convenient access, I am happy to pull on the waders and fish with low expectation but a high degree of contentment. This is because catching fish is no longer the most important thing to an old man who loves the river and is happy just to be here.