September 4-9, 2014
Every Fly Fisherman has the Green on his bucket-list. And I had never been there before. I had read numerous stories about 40+ fish days on the Green from my Fly Fishing Group, SD Fly Fishers. So when the O’Laughlin Father-Son team suggested the Green for our annual trip I jumped at the chance. I did a ton of research and got a ton of help from Lucky Ketcham of the SD Fly Fishers.
Well, the Good news is that I caught two fish of a lifetime on this trip; fish that every fly fisherman dreams of. But, that is not the only luck I got on this trip. The Bad news is that the fishing was slow and there were two major calamities on the trip.
The Green is a River you fish in the spring time when the water is low and the weather turns warm. It’s a tail water (behind Flaming Gorge dam), so in the summer, when they need to generate power they release a ton of water. And, unfortunately, in September when we were there the water was two times what would dictate good fishing conditions at 2500 CFS.
I got a good look at the water for the first time when we put the boat in and I could tell it was way up. But, it was crystal clear just like I read about so I was not worried about the fishing. The Green boasts the most fish per mile of any river in the US. So, not matter how raging the current was, I was confident I could find fish in the steams, pocket water and banks. The Green is separated into 3 sections A, B, and C. Section A is the first one and starts right behind the Dam. It’s the most prolific section and the one where we started.
The “Mother in Law” Rapids
The other thing the Green is famous for is a couple Class 3 rapids. Section A has one of those rapids. It’s called “Mother in Law”. And although not a legitimate representation of my mother in law, who is truly awesome, I believe we all understand why this rapid is named what it is.
More on the “Mother in Law” in a minute because right off the bat I got a huge trout to rise and take my “Huck-Hopper” in pocket water. And like the many huge trout I have caught throughout the years the bigger trout are older and just don’t have the fight in them anymore. So, I brought the fish to net quickly and released her quickly. I didn’t take a picture for that very reason. I wanted to get the fish back into the water as soon as possible because I could tell my dragging her through current really tuckered her out. But, it was a female rainbow that was way north of two feet. Probably 26” and football sized. Plus, I could tell Mr. O’Laughlin was cranky I caught that huge fish and he didn’t and wanted to move on.
The thing about the “Mother in Law” is that it is famous; famous for boat crashes and drownings. And there is a ton of guidance on the internet including numerous youtube videos on how to navigate it. And we got a ton of guidance on how to navigate it. The consistent message in the guidance is: “You are going to think you want to go right of the huge rock to avoid smashing into the canyon wall, but you can’t; The River sucks you into the rock. So, just stay left of the big rock and trust that the river will take you close to the canyon wall, but you won’t’ smash into it.” Now I am just horrible at the oars. I have only done it 3 times. I wish I was better, but I just cannot get practice in a drift boat without owning one. So there is no way I could have been at the oars for this bad-boy. It always makes me feel a bit guilty but, me at the oars is just not safe for anyone. And Drift boats are designed for fishing; not shooting rapids. But, how bad could this rapid be if my SD Fly fishing group peers, many of whom are over 60 go through it in pontoon boats? Mistake number one: Not insisting that Mike take the oars instead of his 75 year old dad. Mr. O wouldn’t give up the oars anyways because he’s a stubborn mule, but, we should have insisted. Mistake number 2: Not realizing at the class 3 rapid at 2500 CFS is a class 4 rapid. Mistake number 3: Not saying out load numerous times: “This is mother in law; you have to stay left of the Rock.”
This next 90 seconds was a surreal experience where it seemed like it happened so fast yet the entire thing was in slow motion. We were set up perfectly when we approached. I didn’t even button up my rod because these two O’Laughlins are so competent at the oars. I wanted to catch a fish in the “Mother in Law”. But, at the last minute Mr. O started back rowing aggressively trying to go around the rock the wrong way. We didn’t even have time to say “Left of the Rock!” because we hit the rock head on. Here’s what I remember: I found myself flying like superman; launched from the back of the boat from the impact of the crash. I remember hearing my fly rod snap in half as the streamer caught something on the boat as I flew over it. I don’t remember which side of the rock I landed on or if I flew over it (which seems impossible). But, I was told after I was in the big rapid to the left of the rock. I remember hitting the 42 degree water face first with enough velocity that I went under a good couple feet. When I bobbed to the surface I blinked a couple times hoping my contact lenses were still in so I could see; they were.
Good fortune number 1: The Green is the only fly fishing river I have ever heard of that requires you to wear a life jacket and enforces the rule with pricey tickets. I was just whining a few minutes before what a hassle it was to wear a life jacket while fishing and how damn hot it made me. That proved to be quite the stupid statement. Although fit, and consequently, I probably would not have drowned without the life jacket, it sure made it easier. So, I did what we are taught and have read so many times about fly fishing safety: I rolled on my back feet first down the river. At this point my first worry was: “There is a 75 year old in the river.” I looked to my left and saw Mr. O hanging onto the boat with a concerning look on his face as it zoomed by.
Good Fortune #2: many of the drift boats that hit that rock sink and get pinned under it. The fisherman get pulled into the current with the pinned boat and that is how they drown. Well, our boat, even filled with water worked itself free. I saw Mike too zooming down the rapid looking quite collected and calm. I looked to my right towards shore to see my path to safety.
Good Fortune #3: There were 4 young fishing guides on the side of the river drinking beer and watching the rapid. They saw the whole thing and jumped into their boats to chase us down. Right there to my right was another drift boat with a young guy shouting, “Grab the Oar!” By this time I had kicked out of the fast water, though and was in deep slow stuff. I grabbed their oar, then thought, “That’s silly; how is he going to row.” Then I grabbed the side of the boat. They said, “Pull yourself in!” But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t because with the high walls of the drift boat, I was too weak and too wet.” I told them something like, “I can get to shore. Please go chase down the boat.”
It’s when I got into shallow enough water where I could walk to shore when I said to myself, “Holy shit I am cold.” And “Oh no. I am holding a broken Winston Boron IIX that costs about $900 and cannot be replaced because it was custom made for a guide I have lost touch with.” Praying that Mike and Mr. O were safe, I started walking the shore down river in somewhat dazed state. There is no river trail on that side of the river so I was essentially bush-whacking and rock hopping and trudging through current, hoping to see everyone safe, down river from me. I came upon mike first about 200 yards up and didn’t even recognize him. For one, he didn’t even look up at me and didn’t respond to my words. It turns out he didn’t hear me and was gathering a bunch of the stuff from the boat that floated including one of the oars. I can’t remember the exact exchange of words, but I do remember mike saying, “He’s fine”. Which was a tremendous relief. But, I could tell Mike was a bit perturbed at his Dad’s mistake. I was just glad we were alive. I grabbed the oar and one of the fly fishing bags full of my stuff that I had on board. That little recovery of my stuff was a huge relief. But, everything in it was soaked. I had another bag with all my good stuff in the boat. I feared it lost. We bush-whacked together down river about ½ mile until we came upon the now 6 young fly fishing guides, Mr. O and the boat. During that walk I went through in my mind the rest of my stuff that was most likely lost: My beloved $500 Olympus camera and the handful of pictures on it (which is why I don’t have my usual set of great pictures for this blog post). My phone. My beloved Sage ZXL 586 and its $250 Galvan Rush R4 reel. I can’t remember what the guides or Mr. O said. But, they were working on righting the boat and bailing the water. I’m sure I heard, “You guys are lucky to be alive.”
One of the guides handed me a bottle of bourbon and I took a shot. It seemed natural to do. We gave all the guides a beer (they chased down the cooler in the current) and they seemed inordinately happy about it because it wasn’t 3-2 beer.
Once the boat was navigable again the guides took off in their boats down river and we collected ourselves. You can’t just quit and walk home at this point. There is only one boat take out and its miles down the river so eventually we would have to get back in the boat and row our way down without fishing. Mr. O apologized many times and I kept saying, “Fishing stuff can be replaced; lives cannot; don’t worry about it.” Once back at the camp site in Dutch John I hit the scotch and pretty much didn’t stop until I put my head on the pillow. I know that my fly fishing buddy Mark McGeary, who is studying to be a priest said a prayer for me because I had talked to him hours earlier. He had fished the Green; I had not yet. I also know my fly fishing buddy Ken Bendix who passed from Meso a few years back had a hand in our safety. I always try to say a little prayer that includes Ken when I enter a river. And that prayer usually includes, “I don’t need to land him, but Ken, please give me a shout at trout-zilla today.”
Huck-Truck proudly pulling the drift boat
Day 2: Section B
Fly fishermen don’t end a trip, 900 miles from home because of a “little boat crash”. Plus the boat had no significant damage. So, the next day we fished Section B, taking off right where we took out the night before. And right off the bat I saw that foot deep riffle water with yellowish cobble stone river bottom that Bighorn River trout love to hang in so much. I blind casted into it and after a ten foot drift, “Whack!” I saw the whole thing and set perfectly, thank god. It was a huge brown and it took my “Huck-Hopper”. I was locked again within first few casts. The big fish jumped twice. But, we were headed for another tricky section that we were warned about: a low bridge that had to be navigated perfectly on the right bank of the river. I told mike not to worry about the fish so he could navigate the bridge. I managed to finesse the fish, sitting and lowering my head as we went under the bridge and lowering my rod to parallel to the river out the back of the boat dragging the fish under the bridge. Mike quickly got to shore and we netted the huge Brown. It was also a two footer easily. I’m not a fish measurer and rarely take trophy shots anymore. I usually take pictures of the fish underwater these days. But, my awesome camera was at the bottom of the river about 8 miles upstream so Mike took the trophy shot for me with the fish wrapped by the dry dropper.
I believe I landed around 10 fish that day, but it was really slow at points. I was fishing all dries and occasionally a streamer. I had already decided there is no way I’m fishing the bobber on this awesome river when I have a shot at fish on dries. My most fun battles of the day were out of the boat. I just love wading in and making that big 40-50 foot double haul up stream and setting from what seems like a mile away.
During this stretch, Mike also navigated another one of those Class III / IV rapids beautifully.
Day 3: Section C
Section C is the most un-fished stretch. And it’s the slowest (safest) stretch. It also has legendary huge browns. And like the prior days, I caught a very nice brown right within my first casts of the day. And like prior days it got really slow at points. I did miss a beautiful fish that I called. I saw pocket water ahead and said to mike on the oars, “Watch this Mike.” I casted, it hit perfect. A Monster rose from the depths and took my Huck-Hopper and I set. And he wasn’t on. Sometimes those hooks face the wrong way in the trout’s mouth and just find a way out. Darn. But, that was sure fun. Mike and I were both laughing.
Day 4 required a lot of decision making. The storm was coming at 3pm so we needed to decide where we were going to float and we needed to float early and get off the river by or face horrific rain, wind and lightning. We needed to decide if we were going to face our fears or float B or C again. We did not face our fears. The dam was still releasing at 2500 CFS and raging. We fished a combo of B and C.
Mike and I also decided that because we were going to finish so early we’d get a jump on the 900 mile ride home and drive 4.5 hours that night to a Marriott in Richfield, UT to break the trip home up.
And like the prior days I caught a nice fish right off the bat within the first few casts. And like prior days it got really slow. But, this time we knew it would get slow. The guys at the fly shop in Dutch John (Ken and Steve) by the campground that were so tremendously helpful the prior days, told us that when we hit the Salt creek tributary the river would blow out with muddy water. I have successfully fished many a blown out river before, so I wasn’t worried. But, I grossly underestimated how much mud entered that river. It wasn’t even fishable after the first half, so mike pushed it…and because of the wind got a nice workout.
We were on the road by 6pm and at the hotel watching the Chargers choke another Monday night game by 10pm.
Calamity Number 2
The next day Mike and I were on the road by 6am. I was going to get to the office by 1:30 PM. We hit the first sign: “ I15 closed in Arizona” within a couple hours of the drive. “Do we even go through Arizona?” I said to Mike. Then we hit another of the same sign about an hour later. “Well, you cannot close 15.” I said, “There would have to be a detour.” So we turned on the radio and Mike searched the internet, but we got no real info. Kelly did mention, “Las Vegas is under water.” To me the night before. But, it didn’t occur to me how tame that statement was compared to what actually happened. Giant sections of the 15 freeway were gone-washed out by flash flooding. We just didn’t know it. So we trusted we’d run into a detour. When we got to St. George, Utah we were forced off the freeway into the city…with no detour…. In California there would have been a detour. In Utah you have to figure it out yourself. So, we pulled into a coffee shop with our computers and mapped a route home. And the route home was not going to be pretty. We’d have to backtrack 45 minutes to Cedar City. Then trek north on what is essentially a desert / farm route: a 250 mile detour; the only way to get around it. And even that would have been fine if all the truckers hadn’t figured it out too. It was a parking lot. It took us 14 hours to get home.
Notice the Blood on my nose. This is a result of Mr. O’Laughlin making a bad cast in the wind and snapping off a barbed pheasant tail nymph in my nose. His response: “Thank God I didn’t snap off that bad knot on a fish.”
The only day I fished a dropper was Day one and that was only for 15 minutes or so. I call that awesome. Mostly it was all double dries or streamers then entire time. For some bizarre reason I caught my best four fish on the first casts of each day…and then the fishing seemed to slow down. I’d love to fish the green again one day when the river is not raging…and I will. Sections A & B even have River Trails on the North bank so technically it is very wadable which would be really fun.