Remembering an angling institution.
- By: Jim Dean
So the rumors were only partly true. As I drove into Island Park, Idaho, in mid-June, I saw that the A-Bar was not bulldozed into a pile of rubble, as some of my far-flung angling friends had heard. But there was not a single vehicle in the big gravel parking lot that was customarily jammed with dusty cars, trucks and SUVs, many towing driftboats; no wader-clad fishermen coming and going from the bar or the rooms upstairs; no loose groups loading boats or standing around sipping cool ones. The A-Bar sat vacant and forlorn, a “Closed” sign taped to the glass doors.
I parked in front and got out. Just behind the building, Idaho’s famed Henry’s Fork of the Snake River flowed through the ancient Island Park caldera in a gentle curve, its banks ablaze with yellow and white wildflowers. In the distance, Sawtelle Peak was covered with snow. How many hours had I, and so many others, sat inside at the horseshoe-shaped bar spangled with silver dollars and viewed that scene through back windows festooned with green drakes, pale morning duns and caddis? Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that any of us will do so again; one of the most cherished of fisherman-friendly bars in the American West was sold and some speculate that it will soon be demolished, ending a 27-year run (longer if you count earlier manifestations) as an east Idaho institution and the embodiment of the popular twist, “this is a drinking town with a fishing problem.”
The A-Bar is so fondly regarded by fly fishermen that writer Kirk Deeter described it in a lyrical tribute in Big Sky Journal as the student union of The University of the River, Henry’s Fork Campus. There are, of course, many great bars beloved by anglers and worthy of tribute, but this one can’t pass into history without some attempt at a eulogy for all the parched fishermen, guides, cowboys, loggers, hot babes, local dipsomaniacs, bikers and random tourists (if not outright lost, at least temporarily disoriented) who found a second home here since 1980. That was the year Larry and Helen Thompson bought the main building after it sat vacant for nine years. They opened the A-Bar on Larry’s birthday, October 4 (the building dates to the 1960s and previously was called the Riverside Lounge and, briefly, the Circle E).
Larry didn’t pick the name, as many believe, because of the commanding A-frame construction supported by flying buttresses at the entrance, but because he decided it was going to be just “a bar.” Even so, upstairs motel rooms were added in 1984, a year after their daughter, Korre Thompson, moved back home to help run the place. Her sister, LoAnne Strandberg, joined them a year later.
In 1986 Larry died, at 51. LoAnne, Helen and Korre decided to continue the operation and it flourished, partly because fishing was good in the late-1980s and because Korre and LoAnne had a flair for promotion.
“(Once) we were sitting around one hot summer day and realized that a lot of regular and potential customers were getting pretty thirsty standing in the river,” said LoAnne. “We iced down huge coolers of beer, loaded them onto a rubber raft and launched it at the head of the Box Canyon. We floated all the way to Osborne Bridge and offered a cold beer to every fisherman we passed.”
“What really impressed them was that we had any brand they wanted,” added Korre, “and we gave them away ‘Compliments of the A-Bar.’ The place was packed that night.”
When I first fished the Railroad Ranch on the Henry’s Fork in 1974, anglers coming off the river late had to drive miles to find supper or drinks, but the A-Bar solved that problem with a menu of massive cheeseburgers on buttered-and-grilled slabs of Texas toast, Killer Chili, steaks, fried shrimp and a salad bar. With Korre, LoAnne and Helen tending the herd until the wee hours, the place was the center of Island Park’s nightlife.
From Route 20 out front, the A-Bar Motel and Supper Club (its official full name) looked like a massive ark that washed up between the road and the river. At night, it sparkled with neon, inviting visitors to cocktails and dancing. Inside, it was sprawling, dimly lit and—some might say—magnificently seedy. There was a huge round rock fireplace beside the entrance facing a dance floor and stage, while the horseshoe bar sat to the left beyond a half-dozen long community tables and many smaller ones. A long, wooden shuffleboard sat against the wall in front of the bar, and there was a pool table farther back near the bathrooms and kitchen.
The walls were covered with eclectic memorabilia, including a dedication to an earlier band of fishing buddies who called themselves Hell’s Anglers. Behind the bar were countless cloth patches, many military, which Helen brought from The Stagecoach Inn in West Yellowstone where she worked in the 1970s. A stairway beside the jukebox made it convenient to walk—or crawl—up to your room.
I’m sad I never rented one of those rooms, but friends of mine did. In fact, Eddie Pinkston and Brian “Boudreau” Williams always stayed in the bunkroom above the A-Bar entrance and another friend, Dave Smith, claimed the room across the hall from them. One morning when I picked up Pinkston, the hall was crowded with fishermen ready to hit the river, except for one late-riser still sitting in bed, rubbing his eyes.
“That one’s stuck in the shuck,” Pinkston remarked.
The A-Bar has had its share of characters, perhaps none better known than “Whitefish Eddie” Dunn who, for years, convincingly argued that whitefish are superior to trout. His greater notoriety derives from the habit of fishing the river wearing outrageous clothing—bright yellow Tweetybird T-shirts, a blaze-orange cap or shimmering metallic gold and silver shirts.
“At first, my notion was to discourage other fishermen from crowding me and poke fun at ‘proper’ angling attire,” explained Dunn, who is an excellent fisherman and an otherwise seemingly normal advertising executive from Boise. “Now I have a reputation to uphold. I have also discovered that the trout don’t give a damn what you wear.”
One has the sense that this kind of behavior is simply part of the long, rich A-Bar tradition, and that this is where the torch has been passed from one generation of trout bums to the next, each group with its own stories and eccentric rituals—all different, yet all somehow the same. Years ago, my elderly mentor A.J. Johnson visited the A-Bar on the last trip he ever made to fish the Henry’s Fork, and his friends still love the story Johnson told about how he managed to land a whopper trout on Bonefish Flats midway through the Railroad Ranch section.
“I lost several good fish earlier in the afternoon because the drag on my reel kept seizing up,” Johnson explained. “I didn’t have any oil, so I greased the spindle with Preparation H.”
As I write this, I’m wearing a cap I bought in the A-Bar. It has a red bill and flames that flow rearward over a black background. The large “A” on the front (appropriately reminiscent of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter) is flanked by several of my derelict trout flies and the bar’s slogan, “Where the hell was I last night?”
The answer to that question is, we likely knew where we spent the evening, just not always precisely in what fashion. Still, like any truly interesting lover, the A-Bar combined her flashy attractions and wild inhibitions with a quieter, less knowable, core. Some of my favorite times there were spent when it was too wet, cold or windy to fish, and I joined the ever-present handful of long-time friends and afternoon tipplers sitting around the bar. They were more than willing to dismantle your theory of fly design.
Activity usually picked up around supper, but it seldom got really going until after 10 p.m. when anglers and guides came off the river. Bands were featured for the big weekend parties and special occasions, such as the June 15 opening day on the Railroad Ranch. Couples would spill from the dance floor and whirl among crowded tables. Striking young women thought nothing of driving over from Idaho Falls, West Yellowstone or any other place within 150 miles to party and flirt, especially with the guides. One guide I am sworn not to name wound up with two hot dates there the same night, and successfully managed to keep either from learning about the other until closing time when the tough choice had to be made. Alas, both were lost. “Shoulda’ used your boat net,” another guide observed.
While the A-Bar offered a friendly atmosphere it offered equal moments of trial, too. One night three pugnacious, would-be cowboys found it amusing to slap the hats off customers until guide Marty Reed intervened. Marty invited all three outside, and was holding the door for them when a massive fourth cowboy, half again Marty’s size, showed up. Marty stepped aside to let him enter, but the cowboy merely smiled and shook his head. “You’re with them?” Marty gulped.
“I knew I was in trouble,” Marty recalled, “but Dad always told me to get in the first punch. I hit him three times. He blinked, carefully took off his glasses, and threw a staggering punch. Somehow I kept after him until he was finally crouched over a car and the crowd stopped it.”
Marty earned legendary respect for his grit (along with a beauty of a shiner). After it was over, one observer offered a summation: “You know,” he said, “that a real cowboy... has the bullshit on the outside of his boots.”
Fly fishermen from Japan discovered the Henry’s Fork some years back, and they became so infatuated with the A-Bar that it was the subject of an article in a Japanese fly-fishing magazine. Despite the language barrier, communication did not suffer greatly. LoAnne recalls one jovial Japanese customer telling her, “A-Bar food good; Japanese food suck.”
“It didn’t matter who walked in, we treated them all alike,” LoAnne said, “and we learned early on that in order to put up with all the drunks, we had to drink, too.”
As difficult as it is to imagine the A-Bar closed, it hasn’t come as a complete shocker. Island Park has changed, and other good restaurant/bars have opened. Most notable is the handsome TroutHunter, located next to the A-Bar, offering upscale food, rooms and a fly shop—a sort of Ying to the A-Bar’s Yang. It’s no coincidence that a well-worn path connects them. Just a few years ago, Korre and LoAnne started telling friends that they might consider giving it all up. Business was off, the long hours were wearisome after 27 years. It just wasn’t the same.
On February 13, 2008, the sisters posted a sad letter on the door announcing the sale and closure of the bar, and thanking all patrons and friends for their support and for “putting up with us.” No one knows what’s next, but Hyde Last Chance Outfitters (now WorldCast Anglers Island Park fly shop) directly across Route 20 was also purchased by WorldCast Anglers, and the new owners have plans to develop both properties (see sidebar).
On the last day before my flight back to North Carolina this past June I stopped behind the A-Bar and peeked through the window, flushing swallows from under the eves. The tables and shuffleboard were gone, and I couldn’t see anything on the walls or whether the jukebox was still there. But the bar was, it’s top and silver dollars covered in plastic and tape—Korre and LoAnne insisted that it was not part of the sale.
I’d played a song on the A-Bar’s jukebox a few years earlier. It was almost closing time on a weeknight, and there were only a handful of customers at the bar. I punched in The Eagles’ “The Last Resort,” an evocative lament about how California was forever changed by the impacts of Manifest Destiny. I remembered being surprised when the place fell strangely silent as though we were all listening. The last line of that song is, “Call someplace Paradise/kiss it goodbye.”
Jim Dean is the former editor of North Carolina Wildlife magazine, and writes often about fly-fishing.