Nine years ago Jackson Hole angler Joseph Boots Allen thought his future was set.
He was on the short list for a job in academia at Mississippi State University. His resume looked good, boasting a degree in international studies from Washington State University and a masters from the Population Research Institute at the University of Texas. His interview went well. Friends and mentors in the world of demography and community development urged him on.
“This job is you,” they said. “This is what you studied.”
Mississippi State would be a portal to a professional career that also would allow him to pursue his passion — fly fishing the Snake River every summer. Joseph Boots Allen thought his future was set.
Until he dreamed again about his passion. And about Mississippi, a place that’s about as different from the upper Snake River as he could imagine. He envisioned years, perhaps decades, divorced from the river he loved. So, after coming within inches of university employment, he changed his mind.
“Within two days I took myself off the list,” Allen said. He would still become a demographer, but not of people. Allen would become a demographer of fish.
He would become a full-time fishing guide, eventually head guide for the respected Snake River Angler outfitters. He would author three books on fishing the Snake River. He would carry on a family tradition for a third generation.
The other “Boots”
There was another “Boots” Allen, but his nickname was spelled with quote marks. Grandfather Leonard “Boots” Allen was a Snake River legend, an angler who plied the Jackson Hole waters starting in 1927. He was among the first guides in the valley and is credited with introducing rubber rafts to the Snake River. His family, including son Joe, operated its fly-tying and guiding business from its headquarters at the funky log-cabin Fort Jackson store, now the office of the Spence Law Firm on Jackson’s Broadway.
Long before fly fishing became trendy, fashionable and expensive, the Allen family was shaping its future. They continue today with “little” Boots gushing knowledge on the origins and evolution of Snake River fishing and fly tying and how it has influenced angling around the world.
Allen, 44, grew up in Jackson Hole on Flat Creek Drive, named after one of the most famous trout streams in the West. Fat, fine-spotted Snake River cutthroat loaf in the shadows under its grassy banks, sipping ants or slurping “parachuting” spiders that zephyrs blow in on gossamer filaments. In this magical world, “I could go fishing in 2 minutes,” he said.
Allen’s first fishing trip was on Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River in 1976. He was five years old and, as the son of a guide, was outfitted for the ultimate expedition.
“It was with a stick and a long leader and a minnow threaded on a treble hook and … actually catching fish,” Allen said of his inaugural float. “That’s why I remember it.”
It was Allen, as much as the fish, who was hooked. In subsequent years he learned of the importance of conservation, how to catch and release fish without endangering them.
These books are made for anglers
In his latest book, Snake River Flies: Eighty years of Proven Patterns for Fly Fishing Around the Globe, Allen describes the essential character of the native cutthroat and the “truly awe-inspiring sight” of one rising to feed on a dry fly on the water’s surface. (His other titles are Modern Trout Fishing: Advanced Tactics and Strategies for Today’s Fly Fisher and Snake River Fly-Fishing: Through the Eyes of an Angler-Guide.) He outlines the “broad” hatches of insects that occur on the river, often different bugs at the same time. In the relatively steep gradient of the Snake River, these factors make the cutthroats here opportunistic feeders, rather than selective.
To hook selective fish, anglers use flies that closely imitate insects. In still, glassy pools and eddies where an errant cast can create a virtual tsunami, cutthroat can be picky — selective, Allen writes. But in the tumbling froth of the Snake — it drops 25 feet a mile compared to the Madison River’s 12 — cutthroats don’t have the time or energy to be choosy.
Snake River cutthroat can lunge at big, sprawling shapes that float past. Successful anglers and fly tiers employ attractor patterns to provoke instinctive, aggressive strikes. Snake River tiers have been imaginative with their creations, adopting new materials, patterns and names.
From Guy Turck’s Tarantula to Jack Dennis’ Amy’s Ant, the monikers are as colorful as the creations. There’s the 747 Ant, the Pink Lady and the Circus Peanut. Melon Bellies and Fat Alberts fill the bins in local fly shops. Kasey Collins tied Kasey’s Creature and Scott Sanchez The Convertible.
Snake River Flies is only partly devoted to attractors. Allen writes chapters about mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and terrestrials — things like ants and grasshoppers that sometimes plop into the current. He has photographed each fly he describes and provides materials lists so readers can try to create replicas.
Allen’s work covers history, too. His documentation of “the long, mysterious journey of the Humpy” provides a family tree for the enduring fly pattern. It is a fascinating story, if one can be wound up by wee bundle of animal hair and feathers spun around a hook.
This Humpy was made for Snake River fishing
The Canadian fly, Tom Thumb, may have been the genesis of the popular Humpy. The pattern from British Columbia likely served as a template for California angler Jack Horner, who added sparse hackle — basically a stiff collar made from the barbs of a feather. West Yellowstone, Montana, angler Pat Barnes modified Horner’s Deer-Hair by adding more hackle and using local materials. His version became known as the Goofus Bug.
There were numerous variations along the way, and as many stories about who tied what first, Allen writes. By the 1940s, however, the Goofus Bug made it to Jackson Hole and Allen’s grandfather, Leonard “Boots” Allen, began to modify it. He switched body material to mule deer hair, selected from the deer’s face, neck and pectoral flank. That’s where the hair is hollow. In the turbulent Snake River, that extra flotation counted.
Leonard Allen also added more hackle, again to aid flotation. He tied the fly on a larger hook than was customary. In Jackson Hole, Jack Dennis then replaced deer hair with elk’s, a more durable fiber. Dennis used tough moose hair for the tail, producing “the most recognized version” of the famous fly, Allen writes.
Then Allen’s father, the late Joe Allen, entered the Humpy picture. In the winter of 1980-81 Joe Allen was tying Humpies for Fort Jackson. The store stocked them by the barrel and family members were responsible for filling them. Such production was mind-numbing. “He’s just tying, tying, tying,” Boots Allen said, describing his father’s evening of Humpy epiphany. “You’re in [a] trance.”
It came time to switch to another pattern — Joe’s Hopper. The grasshopper is tied on a larger hook, and Joe Allen put one in his vice. But instead of tying a hopper, he tied a Humpy. It covered only half the hook.
“So he has this hook sticking off,” Allen said. “Somehow he saw something. Maybe just for fun he tied on this second Humpy.”
People might have laughed at the hairy double bug. But Joe Allen had a pocketful by spring and set off for the river. “It was a pretty immediate success,” Allen said.
There has been one more step in Humpy evolution and Boots Allen took it. Rubber legs have become all the rage on Snake River attractors, so Allen signed on to the fad and added legs to make his own version of the Double Humpy.
The Allens got out of the outfitting and guiding business in 2003 when they sold to the Dornan family, which operates a restaurant, bar, and shops at Moose in Grand Teton National Park. In 2006, Snake River Anglers, one of the Dornan family businesses, moved into Jackson and now is established downtown. Boots Allen has year-round work there, guiding, tying flies, teaching and helping at the shop. “I can afford a ski pass, new skis every three years, and still have enough time off to continue to write,” he said.
These boots were made for stuffing
Allen’s family history includes the legend of how grandfather Leonard got his nickname. Seventeen-year-old Leonard Allen came from the Indiana-Kentucky border and crossed over Togwotee Pass in about 1927, looking for a long-lost uncle. Like so many others before and since, the view captivated him and he couldn’t leave the valley. He got a job with the Bureau of Reclamation that was completing work on Jackson Lake Dam. He was young and a practical joker.
But fellow workers got even with the young prankster one day when the gang came into town for a ballgame. Leonard had bought a western outfit, including a pair of fancy cowboy boots, and was ready to strut his stuff. But when he slid his feet into his new footwear, his toes squished into a pile of cow stuff.
Leonard’s nickname didn’t get in the way of a successful, multi-faceted career. He surveyed the snowpack in anticipation of spring runoff, dealt blackjack at the infamous Wort Hotel gambling tables, raised a family and operated Fort Jackson.
Leonard Allen’s grandson has inherited two generations of experience and acquired his own savvy in 44 years of Jackson Hole living. He’s fished around the globe and seen untold angling styles. “As a guide, I just don’t get to cast that much,” he said. So he doesn’t claim to be particularly artful.
His list of top casters includes Realtor Mike May, who launches an unbelievably tight loop, emporium owner Kim Keeley, who has a stunningly gorgeous cast, and investor Tim Brune, who’s off-hand throw is as good as anybody’s conventional one. All live in Idaho with Allen, just over Teton Pass from Jackson.
Among fly tiers, Allen lists Steve Hernandez of Venice, California, as an innovator who employs old-school materials to fashion beautiful creations. Boss Will Dornan, creator of the Circus Peanut also makes the list. Ken Burkholder, of Boise, Idaho, the designer of the rubber-legged three-layer foam Club Sandwich, has had the biggest influence on him, Allen said.
Although innovative flies will continue to attract trout, Allen worries about climate change and the future. “There’s a lot of places in dire, dire straits,” he said. This summer, Wyoming Game and Fish warned anglers not to fish in waters warmer than 70 degrees for fear of stressing trout to the point they won’t survive when released.
The cutthroats in the steep Snake may hold up for a while. Jackson Hole’s elevation and cooler temperatures are an advantage in a warming world.
“The saving grace for us is we’re in this area where we probably have a fighting chance from a fly-fishing standpoint,” he said. “With that is going to come the fact that it’s going to get more crowded out there. I think the fishing’s going to be more difficult.”
Gone will be the days of catching, and releasing, 40 fish a day, Allen said. He hopes newcomers will keep the sport alive. Of his 132 guided trips last year, 15 were with novices. “They catch six fish and say ‘I’m going to book the same week next year,’” he said. “These are the people we need.”
Joseph Boots Allen has cast in waters with exotic names that generate envy. He’s guided in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, cast lemming and mouse patterns to monster taimen in Eurasia, and fiddled with flies made of Siberian brown bear hair. But he’s always come home to the Snake River and Jackson Hole, enchanted by the same skyline that captivated his grandfather.
“Of all these places, this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever fished in my life,” he said. “The way these mountains rocket out of the valley floor — you don’t get that anywhere. Even if it is a slow day, we have the mountains and the wildlife.”