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Following the heart

In the early evening, I watched one of the best dry-fly rivers in the world migrate in a broad curve down from the north and pass under the cliff where I stood on the elegant back porch of the Henry's Fork Lodge.

Behind me four guys from Boston sat around a table, drinking beer and recalling the high points of their day. They were happy and their faces were ruddy from the mountain sun. They would leave in the morning with a special regret — because the word was that the river was about to turn on like the Fourth of July.

It was the middle of May in this verdant, water-veined corner of Idaho. And as the shadows gathered in the gorge below, I could see several trout lying at the tails of V-shaped riffles created by large slabs of bench-rock — big fish, 20 inches and longer, holding in the glimmering run, then darting quicker than the eye to nail tiny caddisflies before turning back into the hypnotic flow.

My gaze drifted upstream to a lone figure, deep blue against the silvery backdrop of the river's surface. His fly rod was bending with life. I say "his" from habit. But it might have been a "her." So many women have come to love this muted endeavor.

The sky was clear except for a few pink wisps, sketched west to east. The air was cooling down. Swallows dipped and dived over the river. Night was taking over. An owl hooted, and I could no longer see the big trout. But I knew they were still down there, each on post. Everything pointed to a great tomorrow on the river.

The dining room at the lodge was filled with guests, each a traveler in search of the perfect trout. The food was as good as any fare between San Francisco and Vienna, which makes sense since the owner hails from the City by the Bay and the cook is Austrian.

I sat with my friend Jake, a young guy from Colorado who was trying to decide whether he liked training quarter horses better than setting up a flyfishing operation somewhere in the Rockies. The mountains were in front by at least a length.

In the morning, Jake and I joined our guide and launched a drift boat at the head of a stretch called The Box. The good weather held through the night, and with the sun warming us, we began our descent through some of the best-looking water I have ever seen. A rich diversity of boulders and deadfall littered both shores, providing a target for each cast.

We fished large caddisflies and salmonflies, dispatching them to the edge of the logs. Big trout, rainbows and browns, began emerging from the shadows. But Jake and I were not ready for the action. It had been almost a year since we had flyfished for trout and our timing was off.

Soon the cursing began, inspired as much by the size and number of trout as by our ineptitude. But, after missing perhaps a dozen big fish, we began to catch our rhythm, and, by the end of the run, we had landed enough large trout to save face.

In the afternoon, we put in at a spot perhaps 15 miles downstream, where the Henry's Fork is a different river. Here it moves through farmland, falling at a rate much slower than in the steep reaches of The Box. Here the river was wider and shallower, and we changed to smaller flies and lighter tippets.

To the east was the white magnificence of the Tetons. To the west, storm clouds were spiraling toward us across more mountains.

Our time was limited. Already, we could feel the temperature dropping out of the 80s — into the 70s, then the 60s and still falling. Snowflakes whirled in from an icy wall of grayness, and the fish stopped feeding and we stopped fishing. Within minutes the day had changed, and I wished I could give it a mood pill.

Back at the lodge we talked of the day, bemoaning its schizophrenia. Then, at a certain point, Jake looked down at the river, dark under the falling snow, while in the background the radio was predicting better weather for tomorrow — clear again and in the 70s. He looked at me and said, "Horses are nice, but I gotta do this."

A month later, he left his job at a ranch in Kansas, went to a guide school in northern California and in August got a job at the Henry's Fork Lodge.

At 23, he's doing something that few manage in a lifetime. He's following his heart.

Tight lines, folks.