I’m not sure when June 15 was selected for the opening day of fishing on the Railroad Ranch. I know that it was a long time ago. I’m also not sure why Roland and Averell Harriman had so much sway with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. They also had enough influence to prohibit hunting on the sanctuary section of the river, defined from the middle bridge downstream to the Osborne Bridge. I’ve also been told that the main reason for the June 15th opener was to protect nesting waterfowl, especially Canada Geese. Just what the world needs is more geese.
I can remember when bait fishing was allowed. Fly fishing only regulations likely were executed sometime in the late 1960s from the North Boundary downstream to the Osborne Bridge. In the early 1970s the IDF&G tried to extend the fly fishing only regulation downstream to include the Harriman East water from the Osborne Bridge downstream to Pinehaven. That’s where the Harriman influence came to a halt. The local public almost ran the few of us who were in favor of the regulation out of a public meeting held in the St. Anthony. It wasn’t until the Ranch officially became the Harriman State Park that the current regulation was extended to include Harriman East.
Over time June 15th has become sort of a world reintegration where, for many, the fishing takes a secondary position to connecting with fishing buddies. While almost all who fly fish don’t like crowds, they are willing to make an exception this one time when anglers gather from all over the country to meet for what might be the single most important event in the trout fishing world.
The anticipation begins to take shape about the tenth of June and keeps building until the big day. Many members of the ranch crowd like to camp near the old gravel pit downstream from the Osborne Bridge. It starts out with a few trailers and becomes a small camper metropolis by opening day. Most of the attention focuses on the parking lot at the North Boundary. There are parties, food and lots of fun times the night before the opener and on through the week that follows.
For those who aren’t into the all of the comradery and fanfare, the focus is solely on fishing. Usually it is good. Pale Morning Duns, several caddisflies, and the leading edge of the Green Drake hatch typically greet opening day dry fly addicts. If there is ever a time when the PhDs of the trout world let down their guard, it is on opening day. The second day is often a different story. One reason I’m not a fan of fishing “opening days” is because trout that withstand the all-out assault wise up very quick.
I’d like to offer a few thoughts about the opening day onslaught. One option is to do what I do and stay out of the Ranch. There are plenty of other great places to fish on June 15th including the Lower Henry’s Fork below Ashton, the Madison River below Quake Lake, the Upper Teton River near Driggs, and several great streams in Yellowstone National Park including the Madison, Firehole and Gibbon Rivers.
Sometimes I like to make a swing down to the Upper Parking Lot to connect with the opening day clan but I eventually see them in the shop. A number of years ago I made a personal pact to wait until after the middle of July for 2 reasons. I think the Ranch is crowded enough without me taking it on in June. With reverence and respect for the trout I can wait until later in the summer.
I have seen some dreadful behavior by anglers during the 60+ years I have fished the Ranch. I have a few thoughts about what you can do to make sure you don’t create a bad experience for yourself, other anglers, and most importantly, the trout that brings all of us together.
There are trails down both sides of the river. Stay on them. In the old days the Ranch was known for its bank feeders. They aren’t common today. One reason might be because they aren’t comfortable feeding near the banks because they kept getting spooked away. It’s also a good way to make somebody mad when they are fishing to a fish on or near the bank and you walk too close.
One of the reasons I fish is because I like the quietude of the river. As Robert Traver said in his Testament of a Fisherman, fishing is “solitude without loneliness.” Yelling, hollering, and loud talking has no place on a trout stream, especially the Ranch.
Give your angling comrades plenty of space. You can wade almost anywhere in the Ranch. You won’t make many friends from reckless wading and it puts the fish down.
I’m not a fan of ultra-fine leaders and tippet. In most cases on opening day you won’t need to go lighter than 5X. If you want to use 6X come back in August. In most cases you can use the rule of 3 to determine the size of the tippet you should use. Divide the size of the hook by 3. For example you should use a 4X tippet for a size 12 Green Drake. Round up with odd numbers. Use 5X for a size 16 PMD.
The main reason I don’t like light tippet is because most anglers do not put enough pressure on a trout to land it in a reasonable amount of time. A large Ranch Rainbow is more than capable of running you into your backing. That’s not a good thing in a crowded field. Tighten up your drag and put pressure on the fish. Whenever it stops put the heat on it. Just because you have the fish of a lifetime hooked doesn’t give you the right to chase it downstream past other wading anglers. If you like Tankara, leave it home. They are technically illegal in the Ranch. In Idaho, by rule, the definition of fly fishing is a fly rod, fly line and fly reel.
Remember to use barbless hooks. By rule they are required in the Ranch. It is easier to remove the hook from your trout and more importantly, your earlobe. I also like to use a net. It is a lot easier to control a trout for release if you can net it. Don’t use nets with hard nylon netting. Most of the nets today are fish friendly.
Photos of a rod in the grass with a big trout next to it should be a thing of the past. It’s hard to resist getting a photo of a giant trout. If you decide to take a photo I urge you to keep the fish in the water. My favorite photos are close-ups of trout while being held in the water. If you want a “grip and grin” hero picture, make sure to keep the fish under the water until your photographer gets all of the camera settings in order. Then quickly lift the fish from the water, snap one shot, and put the fish back under the water. It’s OK to repeat the procedure once just to make sure. After that forget it.
Respect the tradition and the legacy of the Ranch. It is truly an institution. From all of us at Henry’s Fork Anglers, we wish you the best. I can assure you we wouldn’t be here in business if not for the Harriman State Park.