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Looking Back and Thinking Ahead

Jan 25, 2013 | Mike Lawson

For me it started in early February when Jake Wells talked me into chasing some cold weather trout. We hoped for dry fly fishing with midges but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate so we stuck with nymphs. We caught nice fish on Fall River and nicer fish near the Vernon Bridge on the Henry’s Fork. It was invigorating to get out on the water and starting early in the year made it easier to go again.

Jake Wells working a run on Fall River last February

The water at Last Chance, Box Canyon, and the Upper Henry’s Fork near Mack’s Inn had been closed to fishing in the winter for most of my life. Now all of this great water is open year round and a number of hard core anglers were quick to take advantage. Tom Doxey, a Henry’s Fork regular from Ogden, had great dry fly fishing at Last Chance. He had better fishing this year even when the air temperature was only 11°.

Dry fly fishing with midges was good throughout the winter until Blue Winged Olives started showing up in mid-March. It is always exciting to see the first mayflies of the season. Dry fly fishing was good on all sections of the Henry’s Fork. The Fun Farm, Chester Backwater, and Last Chance provided some great opportunities for big trout. Blue Winged Olives were in full swing by the middle of April on the South Fork.

The lower river started getting dirty about the time the Mother’s Day Caddis started showing up in mid-April. This happened because spring came a little earlier than usual, especially when compared to the previous year. There was decent caddis and March Brown fishing above the confluence of Fall River and in the Last Chance area. Losing our snow early also provided a great opportunity to take advantage of the upper Henry’s Fork above Island Park Reservoir. Like Last Chance and Box Canyon, this water had not been open to fishing in the past. Large trout hold over the winter here and the few anglers who took advantage were rewarded with some high quality angling.

Michael Keaton admires a brown he caught on a Golden Stone fishing with Shaun Lawson

By mid-May the runoff was on the downswing and the big Salmonflies started to pop. Unfortunately, there weren’t many visiting anglers around leaving the best fishing to the locals. By Memorial Day the hatch had moved through the Warm River to Ashton section up to Lower Mesa Falls. Several of our guides had spectacular days floating from the Grandview Slide down to Warm River. The float from Riverside to Hatchery Ford also provided great dry fly fishing with big bugs during the first week of June. The Salmonfly hatch was also good in the Box Canyon until cold weather shut things down. Later, as is frequently the case, Golden Stones produced impressive fishing for large trout. While the Golden Stone hatch is not as intense, these big stoneflies emerge over a much longer period of time than their larger cousins making the fishing much more reliable.

Apple Rockefeller nets a nice trout for her father Mark on the Lower Henry's Fork

We’ve had some water clarity issues during the past two seasons resulting from replacing the Ashton Dam. Thankfully the work was completed in December. The water was off-color enough to shut down the normally great dry fly fishing in June and early June. There were great hatches of PMDs, caddis, Flavs, and Green Drakes but it was hard to find trout feeding on the surface. There were some great days fishing with nymphs and good sized fish landed. 

The Ranch water was okay for the first week or so after the opener. There were complaints about low water, too many people, poor hatches and roving seagulls but there were good hatches of PMDs, caddis and a few Green Drakes. Later on the Green Drake hatch got better and Brown Drakes brought out some very large trout in the evening hours during the last week in June.

Rainbows like this have been common on the Ranch in recent years

By the first of July we always start licking our chops to get after the Salmonfly hatch on the South Fork. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much to write home about. The big stoneflies have been pretty erratic the past two seasons. It is likely a result of extremely high water for a prolonged period in 2011. New side channels were created while others vanished. Gravel bars and riffles moved. In short, the river completely changed. We had very solid nymph fishing throughout the summer but the dry fly fishing was tough. We anticipate a good turn around this year as the river has had two years to settle down.

Great fishing on the Madison River quickly alleviated our disappointment with the South Fork. That’s the great thing about our location and the diversity of the outfitting and guiding licenses and permits we manage. If one place doesn’t measure up, there is always productive water somewhere else. The Salmonfly hatch on the Madison was spot on. To say it was incredible wouldn’t be much of a stretch. The fishing on the Madison held strong for most of the season. It had been a little tough the past couple of years so it was refreshing to see the Madison back in top form.

July and August are always great months to fish the lakes in our region. Gulper fishing on Hebgen Lake produced some very nice browns and rainbows. Several of our guides also found some hot spots on Henry’s Lake and Island Park Reservoir. Not all fly anglers are fond of lake fishing but if you want to catch the biggest trout of your life, our regional lakes might be your best shot.

Dan Kappes holds a 29" hybrid caught by Don Romaniuk on Henry's Lake

My personal focus from mid-July through September is always on the Ranch. By my own definition the Ranch now fishes as good as I’ve ever seen. Many anglers agree as the parking lots were full in June and early July. I rarely fish there early in the season as the water is often quite crowded. I don’t think visiting anglers need competition from those of us who can fish this water whenever we want. Almost overnight, the parking lots clear out when the word spreads of great dry fly fishing on the Missouri and other waters. It isn’t as good for business but it is always refreshing to ride my bike into Bonefish Flats without many other anglers in sight.

Great hatches of Flavs, Pale Morning Duns, Callibaetis, Tricos, and caddis brought big rainbows to the surface throughout the summer. You need to get on the water early because everything shuts off by early afternoon. By mid-August terrestrials came


into play, especially ants. Large Honey Ants fell on the water every day or so. Big trout really get revved up when the Honey Ants are on.  If you have the right pattern you can really clean house.

Hopper fishing also picked up later in the summer. It was a dry year which forced these terrestrial insects close to the river where more forage was available. Some of the best trout we’ve seen were caught by guide clients floating through the Ranch or even on down to Wood Road #16.

September is one of my favorite times to fish the Ranch

Once September rolls around the fishing gets good everywhere and this year was no exception. It’s one of the best times of the year to fish the Ranch. PMDs, Callibaetis, and Tricos gradually transition into Mahogany Duns and Blue Winged Olives and the trout don’t miss a beat. The fishing became difficult due to low water and heavy aquatic vegetation but there were plenty of big fish focusing their attention on the surface well into October.

The Lower Henry’s Fork near my home in St Anthony produces very good dry fly fishing in September and October. This year it was a little tough because the water was unsettled due to the final repairs at the Ashton Dam. We found enough good fish rising in the backwaters at the Fun Farm and above the Chester Dam to keep our attention. I also caught some beautiful trout using streamers and nymphs.

An angler blows in his hand to keep warm in the Barnes Pool on the Madison in October

Normally I don’t fish Yellowstone Park in the fall even though it is one of the best times to fish there. This year I joined Bob Jacklin and Richard Parks in donating a couple of days of guiding for the Yellowstone Association. We headquartered in Gardner. The first day I took my guys to Slough Creek where we fished downstream from the parking lot. Even though these fish receive a lot of fishing pressure, everyone caught some nice fish with hoppers. The second day we walked through the meadow in the Lamar Valley. The river was quiet until Green Drakes started emerging about noon. Suddenly there were cutthroats rising all over the place. On my way home I detoured to the Yellowstone near the Sulfur Caldron. It was hard to find fish but when I did, they were big including a cutthroat that went at least 22 inches. I couldn’t resist fishing the Madison on the way out where I hooked two very nice fish. As I drove back home I chastised myself for not spending more time in the Park. What a magnificent resource!

I wish October lasted about 75 days instead of 31

Up to now one of the biggest snow storms of the year happened about the 25th of October. By then the browns were spawning. I don’t like the idea of fishing over spawning redds but you can still catch some very nice fish in the deeper holding water where trout stage. Rainbows also become very aggressive during the fall spawning season as they compete for caviar from spawning browns and whitefish. Sometimes the best way to match the hatch is to use an egg pattern.

There were plenty of other hotspots in October and November. I had a great day with streamers on the South Fork of the Snake. Henry’s Lake fished very well like it usually does in October. There were big trout in the Upper Henry’s Fork above Mack’s Inn. The Lower Henry’s Fork below St Anthony also produced some big browns on streamers.

As I sit at my desk looking out over the snow in my pasture I reminisce about days gone by and vow to get more days on the water this coming season. Let’s hope it comes true.