By Mike Lawson
From a starting point of March 1st, forecasting what the fishing will be this season is like trying to predict who will win the World Series this fall. As we saw last year, it is mostly dependent on the weather. From that standpoint the start of 2012 looks very different from a year ago. As of this writing the snow pack in the Henry’s Fork basin is about 85 percent of normal...yet it is snowing as I write this article.
The best approach for the upcoming season is to look closely at the constants. The reservoirs are mostly full. This means that even if the current below normal trend continues, there is still not enough capacity to capture all of the snow runoff that there will be. With that being said, we can be assured there will be plenty of water this summer.
The fisheries are in good shape and the population of trout per mile is high in all of our local fisheries. While these two factors alone do not guarantee excellence, the upcoming season is very promising. What will happen and when is largely dependent upon weather conditions looking forward. Last year we had cold, nasty, wet weather throughout the spring and well into June. If we have an unseasonably warm and dry spring, the fishing conditions will be vastly different from those of 2011. If the professional prognosticators are on track, there is still plenty of snow yet to fall and as always, the weather is anybody’s guess.
The Henry’s Fork
The outflow from the Island Park Dam has remained at or above 500 CFS since the first of November. This makes the fourth year in a row that the flow through the Box Canyon and the Harriman Ranch has been far above the historical average. Research has proven that young-of-the-year trout need at least 300 CFS to survive the harsh Idaho winters. Another benefit is that older large trout have much higher survival rates with higher stream flows. This means there are plenty of trout of all age classes distributed throughout the Box Canyon downstream through the Harriman Park. In fact, there have been plenty of trout of all sizes feeding on the surface at Last Chance throughout this past winter. There is no reason not to expect the fishing will equal or exceed the superb fishing of 2011.
Last year some of the most productive fishing was on the lower Henry’s Fork below Ashton, but things happened much later than normal. The water content from the snow pack eventually reached near record levels. This combined with a cold wet spring almost knocked out the early spring caddis and mayfly hatches and limited the Salmonflies. Yet the Gray Drakes and Golden Stones brought up the largest trout in the river. Early July was dry fly nirvana and the fishing held up throughout the early summer. Repair work on the Ashton Dam shut down the normally productive autumn fishing. The nine days calculated to completely drain the reservoir turned out to be six weeks! This work is scheduled to be completed later this year but another drawdown is scheduled sometime in mid May. We’re all crossing our fingers that everything will go as planned.
The South Fork
What a crazy year in 2011! I take my hat off to the water managers. There was enough water from the near record snow pack to fill Palisades Reservoir three times over...a sure bet for substantial flooding! There was some minor flooding but the stream flow remained substantially above normal throughout most of June and July. Things could have definitely been much worse. Eventually things got back to normal but the power surge of water moved gravel and changed the river. The hatches were sporadic and unreliable. Trout were redistributed. Yet there were some great days on the river, especially later in the fall.
It is unlikely this will happen again this season. In fact, we expect the water conditions to be closer to normal. The summer stoneflies, Pale Morning Duns, and other aquatic insects should stay comfortably in their riffles rather than being swept away by a prolonged raging torrent. The trout on the South Fork have wintered well. We know they are fat and healthy because the fishing has been great this winter. With a full reservoir, it might take some time before the dry fly fishing gets rolling, but we expect the Salmonflies to kick things off by the first of July, and the dry fly fishing should be good from then on.
The river has definitely had some ups and downs since 2008 when a problem was encountered with the Hebgen Dam and repair work was initiated. Last year things were back to normal and the fishing was relatively good throughout the season. We expect the same for 2012. The Salmonflies should start moving up the river from Ennis by the 20th of June. They normally hit the Three Dollar Bridge area by the first of July. These big stoneflies are followed by Golden Stones, caddisflies, and several species of mayflies. The most important are the Pale Morning Duns, Flavs, and Pink Alberts.
The Madison is also a hot terrestrial river. Everybody fishes hoppers, but when the river is getting a lot of pressure smaller terrestrials like ants and beetles will usually out produce hoppers. Late season, when the browns start moving, streamer fishing can be outstanding. Remember, the fishing season on the Upper Madison below Quake Lake is closed to fishing from March 1st until the third Saturday in May. The stretch between Hebgen and Quake Lake is open year round.
The fishing in the park was very good on the Firehole, Madison, and Gibbon Rivers from the season opener on Memorial Day weekend until early July. There was some very high water due to the above normal snow pack but these rivers are much like the Upper Henry’s Fork and are not impacted by runoff as much as some of the other waters in the park like the Lamar and Lower Yellowstone Rivers.
By mid summer the best dry fly fishing occurs on the rivers to the north and east including Slough Creek, the Lamar, and the Yellowstone Rivers. In the fall you never know what the weather is going to do. I spent a couple of days in mid October fishing the Madison and Gibbon Rivers below the falls. I got caught in a good blizzard that chased a lot of anglers back to their vehicles. I gutted it out and caught some nice browns and rainbows with streamers.
Last summer I don’t know what we would have done early in the season without Henry’s Lake. There were good fish moving all along the shoreline, and at the mouths of the springs and creeks. Later in the summer the big fish moved back in to the stream mouths and the fishing got better as summer changed to autumn. The trout have wintered well. We expect another great year on Henry’s Lake Island Park Reservoir fishes best later in the summer but we didn’t give it much attention in 2011 because the fishing was so good on Henry’s and Hebgen Lake. The reservoir has remained almost to capacity throughout the winter which is great for the fish. We expect to see some very large rainbows this season.
Many anglers believe that the only "gulper" fishing on Hebgen Lake occurs in late summer when Callibaetis spinners are on the water. Last season midge fishing was fantastic from ice out until late June. The gulper fishing was strong throughout July, August, and early September. Expect the same this year except the trout should be in even better condition than they were last year. Make sure to have plenty of backing if you plan to fish gulpers.
In big water years, like 2011, large trout get flushed through the dam into the Henry’s Lake Outlet. The fishing can be simply spectacular. The fishing on the outlet literally saved us last year when the lower river was blown out for a good part of June. It’s still early to predict whether the same thing will happen but odds are that the outlet will produce good early fishing again this year.
Warm River and the Buffalo River are always very reliable no matter what the weather brings because they are both true spring creeks. While the prospects for big trout are highly unlikely, these small streams offer a great fly fishing experience, whether you are a seasoned veteran or a new comer to the sport.
Fall River is always very high and dirty early in the season because it is a freestone stream. Last June the water blew through Chester to meet the Henry’s Fork where it doubled the volume of the main river. It is always amazing how trout not only survive but excel in freestone streams that are clogged with ice in the winter, flood in the spring, and end with not more than a trickle by late summer. Yet the trout in Fall River are very much alive and healthy. Our assistant manager, Jake Wells, and I can attest to that from a great day on the river in mid February. The trout we caught were fat as footballs. Fall River is a good bet later in the summer after the lower Henry’s Fork slows down.
To sum things up, the best time to fish this season is whenever you have the time. While it is impossible to predict what the weather and fishing conditions will be like at any given time, there are so many great fishing resources within a short drive from Henry’s Fork Anglers that you should be able to find some good fishing whether you schedule some days with one of our guides, or you do it on your own. Make sure to keep a close eye on our web site for the latest information.