Best of the Tetons

Calm Reflections

Fly Fishermen and Photographers:

Sharing the river bottoms, streams, and lakes in Jackson Hole.

Over the years, I’ve met many photographers who were also avid fly fishermen. If you are around either of them for very long, you might suggest they are “cut from the same cloth”. Not all of either do both, but it seems the proportion of people sharing both passions is abnormally high around here. If you take the time to think about why, it makes total sense.

Snake River Riffle

“Trout don’t live in ugly places.” I can’t remember where I heard this quote, but it stuck in my head when I heard it. Maybe it was in one of John Gierach’s books on the subject? We moved to Jackson Hole back in 1986 for exactly the same reason. We wanted to live in a place best described as “beautiful”. The Grand Teton range rises from the valley floor not far from my home in town. There’s not a better backdrop! Jackson Hole has some of the best wildlife and landscape photography in the U.S. and some of the best fishing to boot! If that’s not enough, within a relatively short drive, I can be in Yellowstone or other regional “Blue Ribbon” fisheries. I’d trade a Costco or a Target for the Tetons any day!

Cutthroat Trout

Many of the photographer/fly fishermen I’ve met come here for the same opportunities. Some are quite serious about both! Getting up long before sunrise wouldn’t phase either. Neither would staying out late into the night. Both “hope” for a fantastic day, yet are more than willing to accept only a good day. On days when the fish aren’t biting or the light and clouds are not cooperating, they are willing to concede the day was still great—if only because they got to spend it outside in such a beautiful place. Standards, like good and great, are not etched in stone, you know!

Salmon Fly

flyMost fly fishermen and photographers become good at either by paying attention to details. Fly fishermen are watching for hints of a pending hatch. A swirl in the water can indicate fish are seeing and feeding on tiny insects floating under the surface, while noses out of the water might indicate they are feeding on flies in the surface film. Bubbles after a take can mean they are feeding on flies on the surface. A photographer, tuned to the surroundings, might be changing lenses or settings simply because they heard the distinctive honk of a nearby Trumpeter Swan. They can be clicking off shots while others are just beginning to change lenses. A photographer might drive by an area and notice peeled branches where a porcupine has been feeding. Most people would drive by and never see the clues—much less know to be looking for the barbed critter that created them.

Calm Reflections

A photographer/fly fisherman can usually do both in the same day…coexist if you will.  Cutthroat Trout aren’t generally known to be early morning feeders. Perfect! A photographer has a chance to take images of the morning sunrise and even a few moose before the first hatch. On most days, the water warms slightly around 10:00 am or even 11:00 am, stimulating an insect hatch. Fishing can be great for an hour or two. During the heat of summer, terrestrials, like grasshoppers, can get blown into the water and bring nice fish to the surface. As the sun drops towards the mountain peaks, photography usually improves continually all the way to sunset. Caddis flies typically emerge later in the day—sometimes at sunset. It’s the one time of the day when the photographer/fisherman has to “pick a side”. For me, a fiery red sky trumps rising fish—but then again, that’s not etched in stone!

South Fork Sunset

Besides possessing great patience, both photographers and fly fishermen are wonderfully skilled at adapting to ever changing conditions. The more successful ones, do anyway. Cloudy days generally favor fishermen while photographers prefer to have a few clouds with patches of light or filtered light. A “bad day” for a fisherman is when you are standing in the stream with the hatch just beginning and then an upstream tributary gets hit with a heavy rain storm, blowing out the river under your feet. When the fish stop biting, for any of a variety of reasons, it is difficult to catch them. Even when the weather turns lousy, or if the wildlife seems to disappear, a photographer can find something to photograph. There’s a saying in fly fishing that goes something like this: “If whatever you are doing isn’t working, try something else!” It applies equally well to photography.


Solitude and Beauty: Most photographers and most fly fishermen I’ve met have spent time on the ski slopes at some point. They’ve chosen the solitude of a babbling brook and vista views over feeling like cattle being herded into chutes at a ski resort. Maybe I didn’t mind it when I was younger, but that’s how it struck me one day and I haven’t skied much since. It’s not that we (photographers and fly fishermen) are anti-social, but we simply made a lifestyle choice that suites us better.

Catch and Release

I am a “catch and release” fisherman. In some areas, such as GTNP, that’s a requirement. There are a few areas of the valley that allow taking a couple of fish within certain size slots. Aside from those stretches of the river, a fisherman normally comes home “empty handed”…and usually with a few less flies in the vest than when they left. They bring home memories of the day, some of which have a tendency to grow in size over time. Photographers, on the other hand, normally come home with a card full of images that permanently document their outing—for better or worse. The antlers can’t get larger, but the details of how difficult it was to get the shots can get hazy or embellished over time! Most fishermen can tell you story after story of the “fish that got away”. For whatever reason, they remain more vivid in their memory than the ones they actually caught. Ironic!

Henry's Fork

Photographers have their own stories. How about the time they lost a “once-in-a-lifetime” shot because they forgot to remove their lens cap. I heard about that guy. Or, the spectacular sunrise they missed because they left their tripod at home that morning. I heard about that guy, too!  Photographers possibly just want to forget the ones that got away, and at least in my experience, don’t talk much about them. A really good photographer would never make such a lame mistake, so in most cases, no one else will ever know! Fishermen, over the decades, become labeled as “liars”. Right? In some ways, I guess it’s totally understandable. River guides have a different “scale”—possibly to get a bigger tip. “Wow, Mr. Smith, that’s a 20 incher!” Even if the client knows the fish is only 17″ or maybe pushing 18″, he doesn’t disagree because…well because the guide is a professional! He knows! Even when the fisherman gets home, they are allowed to tell their spouse, “The guide said it was a 20 incher!” Unless a photographer takes a photo of the fish, there’s no proof. Catch and release…remember?

Winter Fishing

Winter doesn’t slow a dedicated fly fisherman, nor a dedicated photographer (much). Cold toes and fingers normally thaw out. Well, we all hope they do anyway. Hand warmers tucked inside gloves help tremendously. I don’t think most people realize it, but you might say 100% of the fish are crammed into 10% of the normal water in the Snake River. By that, I mean the river is so low, fish cannot inhabit the shallows in much of the river bottom and are forced into a limited number of deep pools and runs. Advantage fisherman! Winter photography is similar.  Of the wildlife that doesn’t hibernate or migrate, species such as moose, deer, elk, and bighorns move to small zones, such as the National Elk Refuge, to get away from the deep snows north of the Gros Ventre River. There are “fair weather” fishermen and “fair weather” photographers. I think the winter fishermen/photographers would tell them they are missing out! When the fish are biting, it’s definitely worth it. When they are not, and they are standing in a cold stream, a couch in front of a warm fireplace sounds very good. Photographers seldom stand in cold water, but they do stand around in the bitter cold hoping for color in the pre-dawn sky and waves of color. When it’s good, they seldom feel the pain. If not, that couch and fireplace sound so appealing.

Cutthroat Trout

In fishing and photography, timing is everything! A Green Drake hatch can bring big fish out of the shadows and deep water and into the crystal clear shallows. They feed with reckless abandon. A Green Drake is one of the largest Mayflies hatching in the system. The fish are always ready for a big, easy meal. A decent cast with a properly sized fly at the end of the line often yields great results. Those days don’t happen too often, so when a fisherman gets to experience one, they’ll remember details for a long time. I experience much the same feelings when I see a big bull moose approach a stream in evening light. They stop to take a drink and then look around. If the photography gods are on your side that day, they take that essential first step, then make their way across the stream. With every click of the camera and every step the bull makes, a soft voice in my head reminds me it is an experience to be treasured. Once the bull disappears into the brush on the other side of the river, I get to take a deep breath and let the experience validate why I live here and why I make it a point to be out as often as I can! >>MJ



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Comments (9)

  1. Maurice Horn

    Hey Mike. Buy some color film next time.

  2. That is why many of us do both – Well said Mike.

  3. Hi Mike:
    Beautifully written and photographed piece! It moved me from Hawaii back to the heart of the Tetons. Got the makings of a great book started there. Builds up even more excitement for my upcoming trip.

    Aloha, Bud

  4. Excellent post Mike. Something a little different and I really like the post processing. It goes very well with your theme. Nice self portraits too. Looking forward to your next post.

  5. Tony Boicelli

    You just nailed my two favorite things Mike and a belated thanks for cluing me in to the bighorn sheep near Alpine a few weeks ago, it was great to meet you!

  6. Bill Graham

    Great post, Mike! Except for one float on the Snake south of Jackson I haven’t done any fishing in the area but I definitely want to!

    So much water, so little time….

  7. Thanks to everyone for making a comment with this post! The fishermen reading this blog will appreciate this post…hard to say about the rest! It is easy to write about subjects you love. MJ

  8. Lowell Schechter

    Hi Mike
    I really enjoyed looking at these images of fly casting and the beautiful Tetons as a great back drop. I like the processing of these images. I never was into fishing but took a number of photos when we were in Yellowstone of people fishing on the Madison river.

  9. Lowell, I think adding a fisherman into a scene “can” help a lot. The Tetons make a great backdrop. Same for the steam from the Geysers in Yellowstone. Looking forward to doing more of these kinds of shots this year.

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