The minute I got in the truck with Gary Eckman today on the way to the South Fork he gave me the somber news that a fishing guide drown on the river last night. He told me the few details he heard, one of which was that the guide was from Driggs, Idaho.
It was too early for such information. The whole thing hit me so fast that it took me a few minutes to process. Then like and siren sounding off in my head I realized what the likelihood was that this was a friend. The fishing community in Teton Valley is small and close. Everyone knows everyone and I am friends with most the fishing guides from Driggs, Idaho to Pinedale, Wyoming. Many are fellow employees whom I saw nearly every day for years. They’re like family. I urgently flipped open my phone and made some calls.
I didn’t find out much. I was just glad to hear some voices. I thought perhaps I’d be lucky not to know this person. But when Gary and I got to the South Fork I wasn’t so fortunate. The guide was indeed a friend, not from Driggs but rather Victor.
The friend was Rob Merrill. Rob was a fellow employee at the Jack Dennis Fly Shop and we carpooled from Victor to Jackson Hole Wyoming for several years. The last few years he has managed Three Rivers Ranch Orvis Fly Shop in Driggs. He made a great name for himself with his knowledge of the surrounding waters. Rob was as passionate about fly fishing and teaching others about the sport as anyone I’ve known.
Rob had more than enough experience wading and boating our fantastic fly fishing waters. Unfortunately Wednesday night his boat hit a tree and overturned. While his clients were lucky enough to swim to shore, Rob Merrill was wearing waders and could not. This type of accident can happen to the most qualified boaters but remarkably the possibility rarely crosses our mind.
Gary and I met up with fishing guide Mike Bean of Idaho Falls. Mike is highly regarded as one of the finer guides of the South Fork River. I’d never met Mike before, but I knew that even though I know the South Fork well, there was opportunity to learn a lot more from Mike. But although I should have been excited about this I couldn’t get my mind of Rob.
As we pushed off the Conant Boat Ramp to float the Upper Canyon section, police in jet boats, sheriffs on jet-skis and even a lone helicopter searched the river for Rob. Naturally on every cast I too was looking. Usually I found myself staring aimlessly in the water while other times I prayed to see him on the bank freezing cold just waiting to be rescued. As far as our fishing went, it was decent. I banged up a few nice trout on streamers and once the sun warmed Gary picked off some huge cutthroats with one of Mikes special ant flies. The fishing progressively slowed down and by 2 pm we had trouble catching any fish at all. We noticed that the water level was dropping. It was obvious that the Bureau of Reclamation reduced the flows at the Palisades Dam in order make the search for Rob easier.
Throughout the day Rob’s accident began to sink in. It was a challenging afternoon in many ways. Our fishing was tough while my mind raced with ideas on how Rob could be OK. We did have some high fishing moments. One thing about fish is, when the water drops they panic. But while it seems that most retreat to the deep, some quickly return to the shallows and feast like it’s their last meal. We managed to catch a dozen or so nice cuttys from the riffles on tiny size 20 Pale Morning Duns (PMD’s).
By the time we finished our float, Search and Rescue had retrieved Rob’s drift boat 1 ½ miles downstream of the accident, but there was still no sign of Rob. Deep inside I knew if Rob was alive on the bank he’d of been found by now. I was losing hope. The South Fork is a huge river and there are many pools that are far too deep to see bottom from standing in a boat with polarized glasses. As we left, divers were beginning to help with the search but as of nightfall they had no success. Tomorrow the search will continue.
As for me I’m going to take a fishing break for a few days. This will be a good time to stay around the house and catch up on many things. One of these things will be thinking about Rob Merrill and about life in general. What’s really important and what’s not? This is an accident that could happen to me or anyone reading this. What if? We all walk a fragile line and it’s unfortunate that it takes tragedies such as this for us to realize that.
Go fishing, spend time with family and friends and enjoy as much as you can.