The South Fork of the Snake River is one of Idaho's greatest treasures. After its start in Yellowstone National Park, the river flows through the western edge of Wyoming before entering Idaho above the aptly named Palisades Reservoir.
Below the reservoir, the river flows past deep-sided canyons, magnificent stretches of beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife, then through agricultural land until it joins the Henry's Fork. Floating the river in a drift boat with a seasoned guide is a common means of enjoying the river, but if you are not careful, the fishing can be so hypnotic as you cast and drift you will miss some of the most spectacular scenery in the region.
The South Fork supports the largest cottonwood ecosystem in North America. It is home to a vast array of wildlife ranging from bald eagles to moose.
In the spring, the river flow can be as high as 18,000 cubic feet per second. During July, a flow of 14,400 cfs below the dam is common. September will see the flow reduced to 5,000 cfs or less. Even though the water is considerably lower in the fall than in the spring, it is still fished primarily from a drift boat or raft.
Because the non-native rainbow trout compete with the more valued native Yellowstone cutthroat, there is no limit on rainbow trout or hybrids, and harvest of these non-native species is encouraged. To increase the rainbow trout harvest, the entire South Fork is open all year.
The South Fork is a very large trout stream, even by western standards. Midsummer flows are usually between 10,000 and 20,000 cfs, making the river too fast to wade except near shore and broad shallow riffles. Most fishing is done with some kind of watercraft-primarily drift boats. Professional outfitters can be found throughout the valley.
If you're floating the river for the first time, with or without your own boat, a licensed guide is a worthwhile investment. Guides know the water and can help you with equipment and tactics. Once you've gone down the river with a guide, you'll be able to use that experience to do some exploring of your own-you'll just need the boat.
The South Fork is big water, and wading opportunities have to be searched out. For anglers who prefer wading, a drift boat can act as a taxi, taking you from one riffle or run to another. If you stay in the boat and float the river, you'll be able to cover much more water and see more of the beautiful Snake River country. Vertical canyon walls, hundreds of feet high, reach from the river to the sky above you. Camping along the river has some restrictions and is allowed at only 15 designated sites on the river.
There is camping at Palisades Reservoir and numerous private locations along the river from Palisades to Heise. Bed-and-breakfast facilities and lodges with tackle shops and outfitters can be found throughout Swan Valley. Jackson Hole is only an hour away.
Joe Evancho is the author of Fishing Idaho, An Angler's Guide published by Cutthroat Press in 2004 (www.cutthroatpress.com).