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Double rainbow over the South Fork in Swan Valley Idaho
Double rainbow over the South Fork in Swan Valley Idaho
Podunk Perfect - The Swan Valley Life

Swan Valley is a beautiful wide spot in the road between Idaho Falls and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, carved by the South Fork of the Snake River between the Caribou Range to the west and the Snake River Range and Big Hole Range to the east, and crowned by twenty-mile-long Palisades Reservoir to the south. It seemed to me a suitable place to land. I had driven through the valley often from my home in Jackson Hole, because Idaho Falls was where the affordable shopping was. I liked the valley because Podunk places have always attracted me. Even so, Swan Valley’s abundant charm hadn’t jumped out at me, because everywhere in the Greater Yellowstone region is like this, and as much as you try to fish and hike every location, it just isn’t possible.

[caption id="ps_captionIns" align="alignright" width="300"] The rolling foothills of the Snake River Range host a wonderful undulating snowy landscape facilitating a wonderful play of light and shadow. Mount Baldy Crowns this landscape in Swan Valley Idaho. (Daryl L. Hunter)[/caption]

After I finally took a closer took, I made an offer on my future home, cast a fly upon the waters of the South Fork of the Snake, and in no time at all had a writhing, two-pound rainbow tail dancing across an eddy as the fish tried for the fast water a short distance away. Ah, ha! I had heard the South Fork was a better fishery than the upper Snake, but had never bothered to try it. Now I was hooked.

For the first three years I lived in Swan Valley, I was a fly-fishing addict. I became a fly-fishing guide, which was convenient, because that was about the only good job in the valley. When I wasn’t guiding, I was fishing, and when I wasn’t fishing, I was tying flies. I nearly forgot about my previous job as a photographer.

Perhaps I should confess the worst, that I’m originally a California escapee. While planning my escape one day in 1987, I read an article in an outdoors magazine about Fred Joy, a talented photographer in Jackson Hole, who was making a good living there. I decided to go visit his gallery, which was excellent, but Jackson Hole was awesome, so I dropped everything and moved there. I lived on a ranch in a rented log cabin with a picture window that looked onto the Gros Ventre Wilderness. A mile away was the Snake River, where cutthroat trout constantly beckoned me to visit. I spent a ridiculous amount of time exploring the world outside my picture window. Eventually, having sat on my wallet too long, I could no longer afford a house in the newly ritzy and glitzy Jackson Hole. That’s when I found a reasonably priced home about fifty miles away, in Swan Valley.

The ranching and farming heritage is still alive and well here. Cowboy culture mixes nicely with fly-fisherman chic and trout-bum shoddy. The local cowboys and farmers often double as fishing guides. The ski resort types haven’t invaded yet, and Swan Valley remains Podunk perfect.

The South Fork is said to be the third-best trout fishery in the Lower Forty-Eight, after the Bighorn in Montana and the Green River at Flaming Gorge, Utah. The South Fork, however, can claim an important superlativeā€”it is the best wild trout fishery in the Lower Forty-Eight states. Superlatives can be subjective, but I’m standing by this one. The Upper Snake in Jackson is all cutthroat trout, which is a wonderful thing, but they don’t fight like the rainbows and browns of the South Fork. Cutthroats are the native fish and, sadly, the rainbows on the South Fork are displacing them. All trout in the South Fork are wild and spawn in the feeder creeks. The trout of the Bighorn and Flaming Gorge are mostly planted fish. Wild trout are more tenacious than hatchery trout, as they are they derive from survival-of-the-fittest genetics. They’re healthier, feistier fish.

One day as I was leaving the house to go fishing, my wife, Sharon, asked, “When will you be home?”

“A little after dark.”

“But what if the fish aren’t biting?”

“If it’s slow, I’ll have to stay until dark, because I won’t have caught many fish.”

“What if the fishing is really good?”

“In that case, I’ll have to stay until dark, because the fishing will be too good to leave.”

“What a fisherman,” she replied, not in a complimentary way.

I had the sickness bad.

I’ve always had many interests, which I think is good, because as much fun as one thing may be, other things are fun, too. After three years of intense fly-fishing, I decided it was once again time to widen my horizons.

I purchased a horse, and then bought others for Sharon and for the kids who had started filling our home. I began exploring deeper into the mountains surrounding the valley, including the Bighole Range, the Snake River Range, and the Caribou Range, all of which serrate the Swan Valley skyline. The streams in these mountains, where the trout of the South Fork Trout spawn, are flush with fish. The mountains also are heaven on Earth for the hunter, trail rider, and hiker. Lacking the fame of the nearby Grand Tetons, these ranges are filled with trails you have almost to yourself, and I grew to love this alpine solitude.

For decades, elk and deer hunters have prized the abundance of these mountains, and the variety of wildlife here is growing. Over the last decade, grizzlies have repopulated the Snake River Range, and wolves have appeared in all the surrounding mountains. Mountain goats often can be seen on the cliffs that tower over Palisades Creek Trail, which is popular among trail riders and hikers, because it has a couple of lakes along the way. Big Elk Creek, which supports a great yearly run of kokanee salmon and boasts outstanding scenery, was where I bumped into my first Snake River Range grizzly bear. Four miles up Bear Creek, we sometimes visit the hot spring. From my home, I can launch a drift boat on the river, a ski boat on the lake, or arrive at any number of trailheads within minutes.

With all these diversions, it’s not surprising that my attention deficit disorder flipped a switch again, as I realized that I couldn’t have a prettier valley to turn my camera upon. From the upper reaches of the valley, where aspen- covered hills flow down to touch the shore of Palisades Reservoir, to the terminus of Antelope Flats, beautiful vistas abound. Numerous promontories above the winding river reveal grand mountain panoramas.

Autumn in Swan Valley adds a splash of color that many mountain valleys lack, because of this region's mountain maple. Although it isn’t much of a tree throughout most of the year compared to its cousins to the in the East, during autumn the mountain maple glows an indescribable red. In a good year, the color change of the mountain maple will overlap with the golden aspens that generally turn a bit later. I also found that Swan Valley’s fishing and cowboy culture offer up interesting photo opportunities wherever they intersect with the scenery, while the rolling wheat and barley fields of Antelope Flats are rich in agricultural scenery.

Nowadays, I believe that serendipity, the photographer’s friend, worked its magic when a shortage of affordable housing options in a tourist town led me to this wonderful valley.


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Daryl L. Hunter