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The Canyon Part II

Mar 14, 2022 | Mike Lawson Mesa_Falls_jpg.jpg

Way back in high school one of my favorite places to fish was below and across the river from Upper Mesa Falls. In those days there were no improved trails, railings or stairs like there are today. My high school fishing buddy Jimmy Meyers and I liked to climb down the steep trail below the brink of the falls and wade across the river at a point about 100 yards downstream. There was only one place to cross and you had to hit it just right. Once across you had to wade upstream along the far bank to a big pool just below a 10’ ledge slightly downstream from the big falls. It wasn’t for the faint of heart but once across it was heaven.


It wasn’t finesse fishing. We attached a four or five foot section of 20 lb leader to our old silk fly lines. Most large wet flies worked. Our favorite set up was a weighted olive green wooly worm with a Triple Bar-X dropper that imitated a wet salmonfly adult. Potts hair wing wets also worked. My favorites were Sandy Mite, Lady Mite and Yellow Fizzle. A big Renegade fished wet was another good option.


When we hooked a big trout it was a standoff. If it headed downstream all you could do was dig your heels in, keep your rod tip up, and snub the fish off. With this method something always had to give. Either the leader broke, the hook straightened, or the fish gave in. If you treated them just right you could coax them back into the deep pool where the water was not so swift. You could also climb up over the shelf and fish directly under the big falls but you had to wear a raincoat. We were usually soaked anyway before we got back across the river from wading wet. It was almost impossible to make it over and back without falling.

Occasionally we climbed down the trail that is now the boating access and hiked ¾ mile upstream to the base of Lower Mesa Falls. It was a great spot to fish but a hard place to get to.


About 30 years ago, not long before the forest service improved the access I decided to fish my old “honey hole” one more time while I could still get over there. I was young and fit enough to make the crossing. I talked David Klein, one of our young, very fit fishing guides, into joining me. I had enough sense not to try it alone. I also took my SLR camera. We didn’t have cellphones to take photos and videos. Consequently you had to take it serious if you wanted to take photographs. I had never seen a photo taken of Upper Mesa Falls from across the river. I fully expected to lose the camera but it was worth the gamble. We caught a few nice fish and, somehow, managed to get back across without killing my camera. I got a nice series of photos, a couple that I have featured with this post.


From Hatchery Ford the Henry’s Fork loses exactly 1000’ in elevation over the next 14 miles until it reaches the confluence with Warm River above the Stone Bridge access. Most of the drop in elevation occurs from Hatchery Ford to Lower Mesa Falls. The canyon is only accessible by foot in this 9 mile stretch.


There are several access roads to the canyon rim for walk-in access from Highway 20 on the west and the Mesa Falls Highway on the east side of the river. Most of these roads are rough two tracks best tackled with a 4 X 4 vehicle. The road to the Sheep Falls access from Highway 20 is usually pretty good. The trail from the parking area to the river is less than ½ mile. Even if you don’t fish, the scenery of the canyon is spectacular. Sheep Falls is actually a narrow strip of whitewater that cascades through a chute in the lava rock. I had an issue with my heart in 2010 that left me with a couple of brand new stents in one of my coronary arteries. That procedure left me a bit discouraged and depressed. As soon as I felt like I could make the trek Sheralee and I hiked down to Sheep Falls. It was spectacular. I was still a few weeks out from being able to handle fishing this water but the experience was exhilarating.


It is possible to float from Lower Mesa Falls down to the Stone Bridge access below Warm River. There is a trailhead at the Grandview Campground. The 1000’ trail is steep with a 50% grade to the river below. Hard boats are not permitted. This section is often referred to as Cardiac Canyon. We always referred the 1 mile section between upper and lower Mesa Falls as Cardiac Canyon. Like many places that were once out-of-the-way, this float has become very popular with more adventuresome fly fishermen. Guides have been limited on all of the sections of the Henry’s Fork since the 1960s so the commercial traffic has remained relatively steady but use of the non-guided public has increased substantially. For that reason the forest service has put log step-downs to cut down erosion.


The first time I floated below the falls was when I was in high school. Two of us lugged a 4 man army surplus raft down to the river. We were lucky there weren’t four of us because the raft only had room for 2 of us with our gear. We had a couple of canoe paddles for steerage. It was like trying to steer a runaway horse. We made it out without losing the raft but we lost some of our gear. We didn’t get much fishing in because we were too busy trying to keep from drowning.

Later, after we opened our business, we dragged our drift boats down into the canyon or rather, they dragged us. We used an ingenious rope system to prevent a runaway. After the trail started showing wear and tear we stopped using drift boats. Our first rafts were large whitewater pontoon boats which was overkill for this water. Now we use modern rafts that are almost as easy to row and fish as a drift boat.


The first time I watched A River Runs Through It old memories that had been hidden in time came flooding back. Even though Norman McClean based his book two generations before me, the way we fished wasn’t any different. Our tackle was pretty much the same until we could afford a new glass fly rod. A leather book of wet flies and a wicker creel rounded out our gear. The simple act of swinging wet flies in the fast current with the expectation of a hard pull was all that mattered.

The movie took me back to the canyon; the sound of the river, the sweet fragrance of the forest and the rush of the heavy current against your legs. There are no stones in the canyon, only rocks, some of them quite large. Because my father’s health was frail he couldn’t fish the big water so I fished with a couple of friends until my younger brother Rick, was old enough to accompany me. The the memories of fishing with my brother was pricked by the movie. In the canyon I can always go back in time. It was a good time to be a fisherman.