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Cowboy Up - Part II

Feb 21, 2022 | Mike Lawson Harriman_Ranch_Mike_Kimball.jpg

The maiden guide trip of my career in 1974 on the Madison River was really a challenge. I took Fanny Krieger who was a part of a fly fishing school sponsored by Andy Puyans and Dave Inks from Creative Sports Enterprises in Walnut Creek, California. Thankfully she was happy with the trip but her fishing partner, a client of the school, was not happy at all.

The following day I was paired up with a couple of guys who weren’t part of the school. I was very happy with that arrangement because I didn’t have to follow the school program. I was free to do what I wanted and that’s exactly what I did. I went back to the Madison. The prior day I found the peak of the salmonfly hatch near the Ruby Creek Campground. I elected to put in there and take out at Story. In those days the boating access at Story was very primitive, about a mile further downstream from where it is now. It was a much shorter float so I took my time and walked the boat whenever I could. We were in big bugs the entire trip. It was a terrific day for the clients and a major lift to my own ego. I really hoped I could go back to the Madison the following day. No such luck.


When I showed up at Danskin’s shop with the rest of the guide staff I was assigned to stop at Henry’s Lake Lodge, pick up my clients who were part of the fly fishing school, and take them to the Ranch. A few days before I’d have been all over that but fishing the salmonfly hatch on the Madison was a piece of cake compared to what I’d be facing on the Henry’s Fork. The Ranch isn’t exactly the first option to take a beginner.

When I showed up at the lodge the clients were waiting. There were four of them. I couldn’t believe it. Four clients on the Ranch! I was really getting a baptism of fire. I didn’t have room for all of them in my truck. There were two teenage fireballs and two old guys who looked very hung over. They opted to drive another vehicle and follow me. It was a pleasant drive with two very enthusiastic young men named, John and Steve.


We pulled in to the upper parking lot and got everybody rigged up. It was early July and I expected to see some caddisflies, PMDs, Flavs and a few holdover Green Drakes. We started walking in as a group but it wasn’t long before the young bucks left us behind. They headed down the river fast and were soon out of sight. I couldn’t leave the other two guys who were poking along behind me.

When we got in the water there were a few fish rising. I got the first guy set up and moved down below about 40 yards with the other guy. The day started out exactly as I expected. Both clients had a lot of work to do with their casting. They both threw wide open loops and some of their casts didn’t go as far as the tip of the rod. After about an hour I could see that I was really going to earn my money. What was most frustrating was neither of them seemed to have their heart into it. We had only hooked one trout by lunch time and it quickly broke off.


My two anglers admitted that they were pretty hung over from the night before and just wanted to sit on the bank, relax, and eat their lunch. I found a good lunch spot and got them settled. I told them I needed to try to round up the two young guys and they said not to worry, they would be fine. I headed down the river.

I got down to the second fence on the bend where the river turned to the west. From there I could see all the way to the islands but they were nowhere in sight. I hiked on down below the islands and I finally spotted them. I rounded them up and we headed back upriver. I wasn’t surprised when they reported that they hadn’t hooked anything


When we arrived back at the lunch spot the other two clients were gone. John told me not to worry about them. He expected them to drive back up to Henry’s Lake but I had to check everything out and I hiked back up to the parking lot. They weren’t there and their car was gone. I knew there would be an ass chewing when I got back to Henry’s Lake Lodge.

When I got back to John and Steve they had finished their lunch and were anxious to get back at it. I told them I needed a breather and something to eat. I had just hiked a little over three and a half miles. I was only 28 years old but I couldn’t keep up with them. By the time we got back in the water the wind had come up and it was gusting up river from the south. After what I had experienced earlier in the day I knew I was in for a long afternoon.


The wind created a slick along the west bank where the emerging insects collected. There were big trout rising all the way down the bank. I told them we would take turns and only fish one guy at a time. Steve started out. I got him set up as close as I dared without spooking the rising trout. It would require a tight casting loop in order to get a proper drift to compensate for the wind. After my morning experience the last thing I expected was anything close to a tight loop. Steve stripped out some line and to my total amazement, the line shot out like a rocket and landed two feet in front of the feeding trout. The line and leader landed straight which allowed the current to pull the fly into drag before it reached the fish.

I explained my version of how to put some slack in the leader by stopping the cast short and feeding line down to the trout. Again, to my amazement, Steve threw the tightest loop I had ever seen. He had to work a little more on throwing some slack. He was casting too well to get a slack line cast. Eventually he got it down, drifted the fly over the fish and the fight was on. We chased the fish downstream until he worked it into the bank and I netted if for him.


As we sat on the bank admiring the fish I was in awe. Even though John and Steve were young and physically fit I couldn’t believe that anybody could learn to cast like that with only a few days of instruction. John spoke up and asked me if I knew who Steve was. I didn’t. All I knew was that morning my instructions were to pick up two guys from the school and take them fishing on the Ranch. Since we hadn’t had a proper introduction John introduced himself as John Williams and his fishing companion Steve Rajeff. He explained that earlier in the year Steve won the world casting championship.

From there I learned that they were assisting Mel Krieger with casting instruction at the school. Steve lived a block or so from the famous Golden Gate Casting Club and not far from Mel Krieger. When Steve was young Mel spent a lot of time with him at the casting ponds. When Mel signed on to teach casting at the Creative Sports School he invited Steve, and John Williams, who was also a terrific caster, to help with the school.


Although I never had the opportunity to fish with them again, I became good friends with them and Steve’s brother, Tim Rajeff. I always looked forward to seeing them on the sports show circuit. Steve went on to win over 40 national championships and 14 world all around championships. Over the years I’ve met and fished with lots of celebrities and fly fishing personalities but I’ve never met anybody as soft spoken and talented as Steve Rajeff. I just wish somebody would have clued me in earlier in the day, before John and Steve hopped into my truck.