Over the years the Harriman State Park section of the Henry’s Fork has had its ups and downs. Fishing really hit the skids during the drought years of the 90s but it has rebounded nicely. It was known as the Railroad Ranch when I was a kid when I fished there with my father. It was mostly fished by locals until the early 1970s when every fly fishing writer in America started to write about it. It wasn’t long before all of the parking areas were filled with out-of-state vehicles and rental cars.
In spite of the fact that the Henry’s Fork is one of the most diverse rivers in the world, most anglers focused all of their attention on the section of river that flows through the Ranch. Here the river is a huge spring creek more than 100 yards wide as it meanders across and through open meadows for at least 8 miles where trout can be almost anywhere.
Roland Harriman and his brother Averell deeded the property to the State of Idaho in 1977 when it became Idaho’s first state park. Today the park encompasses more than 10,000 acres of prime wildlife and trout habitat. The diversity of aquatic life including mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, midges, and other trout food forms is unrivaled by any other trout stream in America.
The growth rates of the trout are legendary. More importantly they continue to feed on the surface even after they reach mammoth proportions. These trout are unforgiving. They don’t know or care about your social status, how experienced you are, or how many articles or books you’ve written. All of us start with a level playing field and we all eventually get our butts whipped no matter who we are. But we all keep coming back for more.
The fishing season on the Ranch opens on June 15th and extends through the end of November. Many anglers flock to the Ranch during the first two weeks of the season hoping to hit the infamous Green Drake hatch. Even if it doesn’t happen there are plenty of other mayflies and caddisflies to bring large trout to the surface. You can usually use larger flies and heavier tippets in the early season.
The down side is that the river is crowded not only with lots of anglers but also insect eating gulls that ravage the surface making the trout skittish. Normally you won’t find me on the Ranch in June and early July. I prefer to wait until later in the season when the crowds and gulls are gone.
My favorite time to fish the Ranch is September and October. Normally you won’t see many other anglers and the gulls are replaced with scores of ducks and geese. The morning air is often pitched with the sound of a bugling elk. There are good hatches but you have to bring your “A” game. You’ll need size 18 fly patterns and smaller attached to a long section of 5X or 6X tippet. There is dense aquatic vegetation to decrease your odds of landing a big trout even if you are lucky enough to hook one. Yet some of my most memorable days of fishing this water have occurred in the fall.
No matter when you decide to fish the Ranch there are a few tips that will help increase your odds:
1. Be patient. Look for rising fish. If you can’t find one you should wait and watch. I don’t know of a more relaxing experience than sitting on the bank of the Ranch looking at the river. You have to meet the trout on their terms, not yours.
2. Understand the hatches. There are 12 major mayfly hatches along with a number of caddisfly species that emerge throughout the season. No matter when you plan to fish there will always be two or three important hatches. Check with the local fly shops to be up to date.
3. Stealth is mandatory. You must stay under the trout’s radar. Wade carefully and approach your target quietly. If you don’t he will start moving away feeding as he goes. Chasing a feeding fish as he moves away is pointless. If your fish moves away, wait and he will often move back to where he started when he gets comfortable again.
4. Comprehend the value of a drag-free drift. The undulating currents of the flat water of the Ranch are often difficult to understand. The trout will not eat your fly if it looks like a miniature water skier. You can often overcome drag by switching to a lighter tippet, using a longer tippet, or moving to a slightly different casting position. Proper presentation is far more important than using the perfect fly pattern.
5. Consider fishing in August, September or October. Fishing has improved over the past few years and I have heard a lot of complaints about the crowds. My friend John Gierach once told me that he didn’t feel he had a right to bitch about something if he was part of the problem. There is plenty of great water on other sections of the Henry’s Fork that fish well in June and July. Give the late season a try. You won’t regret it.