Fishing With A Jackson Hole Legend

Longtime tackle shop proprietor Leonard “Boots” Allen made a name for himself in Wyoming by operating a business that to this day trusts customers to do the right thing.

Born in Indianapolis in 1910, Allen, like many young men of his time, headed west in the 1930s to seek his fortune. Jackson Hole, Wyo., then a small town, became Allen’s home.

Arriving in Wyoming after a long and harrowing journey, the lad hiked up 10,000-foot Togwotee Pass, which gave him a magnificent view of the Teton Mountain range.

There, far to the north, he could see Jackson Lake, the pristine body of water that would someday enable him to support a family as a fishing guide and outfitter. But none of that would happen until he was given an appropriate nickname.

He was working on a construction crew building the dam to enlarge Jackson Lake. As the youngest member, “the kid,” as he was called, was the butt of any raunchy jokes that happened along.

Acquiring The Nickname
One Saturday night, as “the kid” was busy preparing for a night on the town, he finished showering and slipped his feet into his shiny new boots, and knew immediately something was amiss.

Boots Allen was issued the first Wyoming State license to commercially fish the Snake River, and he also pioneered the initial whitewater trips from ackson Lake downstream to the South Park Bridge.

A brown, smelly liquid squirted on his going-to-town-outfit. While in the shower, his buddies on the work crew had dumped a load of fresh manure into his boots.

“The kid” had passed his initiation, crude as it was, and from that day forward was known simply as “Boots.”

Along in the early ’50s, tourism had taken hold in the area, and Allen was able to quit his part-time job dealing cards at the Wort Hotel. A small tackle shop was opened, and Boots began guiding anglers on the lake on the Snake River. He was issued the first Wyoming State license to commercially fish the Snake, and he also pioneered the initial whitewater trips from the lake downstream to the South Park Bridge.

Purchasing World War II surplus rafts, his shop was responsible for creating a virtual flotilla of yellow craft on the river.

“We had to learn the hard way about these rafts,” he chuckled. “The first two we took down the river had been inflated at a local service station. Shortly after 2 p.m., in midsummer, I turned to watch just as the first boat blew up. I walked over and punched the second raft, and it blew apart, too. Well, by golly, I learned how much air to put in a raft that summer — and we haven’t lost one since!”

Working At The Fort
As Boots’ business continued to prosper, the Fort Jackson Trading Post, located on the town’s main east/west thoroughfare, was built. The fort, with its replica of a Pony Express rider high atop its roof, soon became a landmark in Jackson. Furs and other trappings of the West hung from the walls.

The family worked long hours at the fort, tying flies and handling the float trips. The top-selling fly pattern locally for many years had been the Humpy. Boots said he helped develop the pattern in the late ’40s. The sons then improved on it by adding another hump. Naming it the “Double Humpy,” they found the new pattern floated better and was easier to see in the area’s notorious whitewater.

Each long winter, the family tied over 15,000 Double Humpy’s and even today, say locals, more than half the flies sold each year in Jackson are Humpies.

After over 20 years operating out of this location, Boots and Gayle sold the business to their sons Dick and Joe, now known as “Little Joe from Jackson Hole.” After many successful years operating out of the fort, the building was sold to noted attorney Gerry Spence.

Though he retired in the early ’60s, Boots continued to keep his hand in the running of the business. He estimated that he and his many clients, including such dignitaries as J. Edgar Hoover and Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, had caught more than 300,000 trout. Most were released, and 10-pound Snake River cutthroats were common in the early days. Leonard “Boots” Allen died at his home in Jackson, in December 1993.

Fishing With Boots
My last trip with Boots took place in October 1993, two months before his death.

Since no guides were available, we decided to make the trip by ourselves. Shortly after 9:30 the next morning, we slipped the raft into the river below the bridge at Wilson, 10 miles north of Jackson.

The Snake River is a handful, even in the fall. It carries lots of water and each year claims several lives. Some are visitors, but several years ago a local guide, well acquainted with the river, drowned as he attempted to stop a runaway raft.

One secret to floating/fishing this large meandering stream is this: “Don’t even think about taking this journey until late summer, or even mid-October. During run-off, the river is far too high and roily to fish and far too dangerous to wade.”

The Snake meanders into a variety of side channels that offer the angler superb fishing. Many contain as much water as Colorado’s Roaring Fork or Frying Pan rivers.

As we sailed along, I lost some fish and missed some strikes, but no matter. The view of the snow-capped Tetons made it all worthwhile. The bright October morning passed all too quickly, and I noted all fish released were of the Snake River cutthroat variety. (Wyoming stocks no trout on the river; almost all fish taken are Snake River trout.)

Shortly after noon, we beached the boat, unloaded a cooler and settled down to enjoy lunch in the quiet solitude of the Snake River country.

Dozing in the warm sun, I was aroused by a poke in the ribs.

“See the sun reflecting on a shiny object, just below the summit of Mount Moran?” Boots asked.

“I think I do,” I replied. “It must be the wreckage of the plane that smashed into the mountain back in the early 1950’s.”

“You’re right,” Boots smiled. “Aren’t many folks remember that sad day.”

A Plane Crash
On November 21, 1950, a chartered DC-3 crashed into 12,549 foot Mount Moran, killing 13 adults and eight children aboard. The plane was en route to Billings, Mont., for Thanksgiving Day. Three crew members died in the wreck. The remains of the aircraft and its passengers are still entombed on the mountain.

Lunch finished, we resumed our journey.

“Want me to take a turn on the oars?” I asked my friend.

“Heck no, kid,” Boots replied. “I need the exercise. You do the fishing. I’ll handle the boat.”

It was hard to believe — a man in his early 80s, handling the clumsy raft like a man half his age.

As we continued downstream, I noted how more and more people are moving out West. Several once small communities I used to fish are booming now.

“Too many folks moving West to suit me — but what can we do about it?” I asked Boots.

“Not a darned thing,” he replied. “You might as well try to keep the Wyoming wind from blowing. When visitors first see this country, they fall in love with it. Now they love it to death.

“For many years I had the river to myself,” he added. “It was so pretty. You could spend half a day fishing a mile of water because of all the side channels. But those days are gone. Even with reduced daily limits, there is just way too much pressure on these rivers now. More boats and rafts, more fishermen — and too many fish are being killed.”

We floated in silence, lost in our own thought of how things have changed — how they were, and how they might be. I suspected that Boots knew this would be our final trip on the river together.

A Final Sunset
And so it was that we approached the South Park Bridge. Boots directed our raft toward a small beach in silence just as the sun slipped behind the Tetons. We both watched the changing colors without exchanging a single word.

Just as darkness began to envelop us, I rested my hand on my friend’s shoulder. “Just think how lucky we were, Boots. Having lived and fished during the Golden Years of trout fishing in the West.”

Boots’ unique honor system at the tackle shop still is in effect. Customers pick out what they need in the way of flies, tackles, etc., and, making their own change, leave the correct amount for their purchases on the counter.

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