American Fly Fishing

Wild River in the Beating Heart of Grizzly Country
By Jeff Erickson

South Fork Shoshone River, WY

The South Fork Shoshone River threads through a spectacular valley with a mix of federal, state, and private land. On the lower reaches, anglers need to consult maps to find scattered public access points, or ask permission from landowners. ALL PHOTOS BY JEFF ERICKSON

Returning to my remote camp on Wyoming’s South Fork Shoshone River after fortuitous, bear-free cutthroat adventures, I spotted an incongruity at the nearby Boulder Basin trailhead. The sight filled me with dread: a just-landed helicopter, flashing ambulance lights, and milling emergency personnel.

“Someone just got mauled by a grizzly” shot through my mind. I hiked to the chopper to assess the situation: the EMTs received a report of an injured elk hunter above 9,000 feet, but didn’t know any details. They were allowing a gusty wind to ebb, gearing up for a daring emergency rescue in a rugged landscape punctuated by 2-mile-high peaks. I watched the chopper lift off, deftly darting like a dragonfly over rocky ridges and deep canyons, finally disappearing over the wilderness, high above the beautiful, lonely river.

In September, Bighorn Basin rivers like the South Fork are natural grizzly highways, funneling hungry bruins from the Absaroka Mountains to lower elevations for their frenetic, prehibernation feasting. The Shoshone watershed’s wild country exerts a powerful magnetism for intrepid fly anglers, but it’s a sprawling, primitive, sometimes dangerous land that leaves its mark, demands your attention, and shifts your role in nature into a different perspective. Fresh grizzly tracks near my camp one morning did that for me, triggering an instant adrenaline rush.