Reel Deal

One man is working to protect the rivers of Jackson Hole for generations of fly fishermen to come.

Wading through the Snake River—a body of water that winds and twists over 1,000 miles and cuts through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the mammoth and pristine Teton peaks towering behind it—you may come across a tan, clean-shaven man wearing a straw cowboy hat and a focused gaze with his fly line bent: “Fish on!” he’ll exclaim.

That’s Joseph Boots Allen, PhD ’06. He is on the river about 140 days a year. A third-generation fly fisherman born and raised in the western Wyoming tourism mecca, Allen is deeply rooted in the history and industry these local waters sustain. But 12 years ago, his life was on a drastically different trajectory: finishing his PhD at UT-Austin’s Population Research Center.

“I was studying the impact of community-based tourism on mountain communities,” Allen says, “focused on the post-Soviet area: Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe.”

In 2003, in Kazakhstan’s former capital city Almaty, Allen worked alongside researchers in the trenches of United Nations policy work. Some of Allen’s colleagues had been in the Central Asian country for over seven years, and many didn’t see a return to the U.S. happening in the near future. Allen knew that if he kept going along this path, he would be leaving the Tetons and access to his favorite rivers behind for a long while.

“I loved the research and Kazakhstan, but I couldn’t see that reality for myself,” Allen says. “I didn’t want to be away from the area I call home for that length of time.”

After summers spent guiding fly fishing trips to pay for his education, he realized that the mountain community he really wanted to study was located in his backyard. Allen completed his degree, and in 2006 headed back to the mountains—armed with his academic background—to become a professional fly fishing guide in the Tetons. The lifestyle shift was drastic, but he never looked back. “Fishing allows me to be outside with amazing people in this wonderful place,” Allen says. “And this is a very special place.”

His degree has come in handy over the years, too. Allen has written four books on the fishing industry, and spends his free time volunteering with and leading nonprofits like Trout Unlimited—he was the chapter president for four years—that focuses on watershed health and stream restoration and championing legislation to benefit the rivers.

Allen, 43, can’t recall exactly when he learned to fly fish. But he does know that the sport in which his father and grandfather made a legacy has always been at the forefront of his memories. In 1945, his grandfather, Leonard “Boots” Allen secured the coveted permits needed to guide the waters surrounding the Greater Yellowstone Region and created the nearby Fort Jackson, an outfitter and store. In the 1970s, his father took over. Today, Fort Jackson is now the renowned Snake River Angler, which still uses permits Allen’s grandfather obtained more than 70 years ago. Allen is their senior guide.

“Have you fished with Boots?” is a common question asked around these parts. Answering to the affirmative might gain you some extra clout when you get on the river.

But tracking him down might prove to be as lofty a task as hooking a 22-inch trout. When he’s not casting a line on local waters or traveling abroad leading trips to stalk taimen on streams in Mongolia or Siberian salmon in Russia, he’s  working to ensure the sport he loves has staying power.

“He has been a conduit for local fishing guides to care more about the environment and about the resources they use for income,” says Andy Asadorian, a retired guide and the retail manager at WorldCast Anglers in Victor, Idaho. Asadorian took over as president of Trout Unlimited after Allen, who he calls “The Doctor,” stepped down. “His efforts have made it pretty easy for us in the fishing industry in the region to become active.”

In outfitters from Oregon to Michigan, Allen’s name carries weight, whether they’ve read his books or fished alongside him. But Asadorian says Allen’s most significant work is with the regional nonprofits.

Beyond Trout Unlimited, Allen is a current board member of the local group Friends of the Teton River, which focuses on clean and healthy water and resilient fisheries in the Teton area. In 2012, Allen fought to keep funding from the Wyoming legislature that was helping rebound the region’s coveted native Yellowstone cutthroat population. Thanks in part to Allen’s influence, the legislators kept the funds.

Allen spreads his love for the sport through teaching fly tying classes to young students and hosting workshops on casting. His hope: Get more people hooked on the sport, while sharing the importance of maintaining river health.

“Fly fishing isn’t growing like people think it is—the growth rate is just 2 or 3 percent. When we are out here on the water, we assume it is booming,” Allen says. “That is the question: Why do these rivers look so crowded if it’s not growing?”

The reason? Fewer places to fish.

“If you go to Colorado and Montana, you’ll find stream closures because of warming water temperatures,” he says. “We don’t do that yet. Yet being the word.”

Where Allen calls home in Teton Valley—over a steep mountain pass in Idaho’s Victor,  just 25 miles from Jackson—access to rivers and lakes is abundant. Enthusiasts flock to the sparsely populated region seeking out Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake, Teton River, and Henry’s Fork, and Wyoming’s Snake, Gros Ventre, and Yellowstone rivers.

Both Jackson Hole and Teton Valley are just over 6,000 feet above sea level, where cooler temperatures and abundant snowfall help the rivers flourish. Allen is working to give Mother Nature a bit of help, so rivers like the Snake stay healthy with native trout. It’s his favorite spot, after all.

Photograph by Taylor Glenn


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