My Day with the Duchess
During a picture-perfect day on Idaho’s Snake River, casting for The Big One while his picture-perfect wife relaxes, The Husband suddenly… Well, we’ll let you read the rest.
Story and photography by HOPE STRONG
Once the bailiwick of men and boys alone, fly-fishing now lures mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives into a world that can simultaneously sport the intensity of golf and the whimsy of bird-watching.
After more than a decade of guiding couples as they share an experience on rivers that run throughout the Rocky Mountains, I have witnessed a variety of family dynamics that range from borderline hostile to positively euphoric. Everyone hits the boat ramp with a story, though some are more colorful than others.
As we floated the South Fork of the Snake River, she described the elaborate gowns and difficult curtsies involved in her social debut.
Names run together a bit after so many years, but I can still clearly see the Duchess of Cascading Waters in the front of my boat. She was tall with long, dark hair, with a carefree attitude in a sport that her husband took much more seriously. She had earned her title as a debutante in the Dallas suburbs. And as we floated the South Fork of the Snake River, which flows through southeastern Idaho, she described the elaborate gowns and difficult curtsies involved in her social debut.
The Duchess and her husband caught fish together throughout the entire day, each celebrating the accomplishments of the other, as is generally the fashion in a healthy relationship among anglers. Eventually, the Duchess had caught enough, which is not to say that she wanted to push home or expedite the day; she was just satisfied, relaxing in the back of the boat as her husband fished off the bow.
For trout fisherman, the cycle of a bug’s life is a critical sequence to track. When nymphs emerge from beneath the water’s surface, shed their exoskeleton, dry their wings and begin to fly, fish start feeding. For many, this is the soul of the sport—the moment when big fish sip on tiny bugs. One mark of a fisherman’s skill is to foresee this moment, and choose (or make) an artificial fly that looks and behaves exactly like the new bugs rising to the surface. When you succeed, an entire afternoon can evaporate; time slows down when trout start to rise to your fly in a riffle—that stretch of ankle-deep water where schools of fish avoid heavy river currents so they can feed on a new hatch.
As the Duchess dipped her toes in the cold river and rolled up her sleeves and pant legs to receive an even amount of sun, we arrived at just such a riffle. Cutthroat, rainbow and brown trout were all feeding on a hatch of mayflies called PMDs, short for Pale Morning Dunns. After trying a number of different patterns—there are literally dozens of different colors, sizes, and body types of each bug in a trout’s diet —we eventually found one that worked, and the fishing was, all of a sudden, electric.
Keyed in on this specific insect that was no bigger than the smallest feather or puff of down, the husband presented his fly, which was alternately spotted, tracked, refused, and often eaten by trout as long and beautiful as his wife’s calf muscle. Some fish got away, others broke the line, but a few were landed to everyone’s delight. A little farther away, we suddenly saw the largest fish in the riffle—a rainbow trout with pink sides and a dark back. This beauty was virtually invisible against the rocks below, until it turned to take a fly from the surface. The husband used every ounce of skill he had to reach this wise old fish. If his line had too much drag, the fish refused his offering. If the line slapped the water with too much force, the potential trophy dove toward the bottom, disappearing for several minutes until it began to feed again.
Full of desire, the husband focused so intently on what lay before him that he forgot what was behind him. Consequently, he hooked his wife right between the eyes. The Duchess immediately let out a scream. “Oh God!,” the husband exclaimed, and then was struck silent.
“Is there anything I can get you to make things better?” I asked. “I’d kill for a shot of tequila,” she answered.
This is not a moment for a guide to speak up, so I simply clipped the line from the fly, which remained perched just above the bridge of his wife’s nose. She was wearing sunglasses upon contact with the tiny hook; when they were removed prior to extraction, they revealed two developing tears in her eyes, which were now turned inward. As the beautiful, cross-eyed Duchess clenched her fists, one swift tug reversed the angle of the barb and the hook came out, leaving nothing behind but a drip of blood the size of a pinhead.
“You’re going to be just fine now,” I told the Duchess from Dallas. “Is there anything I can get you to make things better?”
“I’d kill for a shot of tequila,” she answered.
My clients the previous day were from South Carolina, and they’d wanted a booze cruise as much or possibly even more than they cared about fishing. Among many six-packs of beer for my coolers that day, they had brought along a dozen mini bottles of liquor, the kind you get on an airplane. By the end of the day, they had consumed almost everything. All that was left were two little bottles of Josè Cuervo.
I nodded, reached into my tackle bag and handed the Duchess her heart’s desire. As her husband rubbed his wife’s shoulders, she uncapped the tequila and knocked it back, swallowing with a slight shake of her head.
When I glanced at the husband, who had remained silent in apology, his lips tried to take the first steps, emphatically mouthing the words, “THANK YOU!” By this time, the potential trophy had settled like a ghost into the deepest part of the riffle and wouldn’t rise again that day. But it’s not always the ones you catch that keep you coming back.