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Reflections of 2013

Jan 8, 2014 | Mike Lawson

It’s that time again to reflect on the past year and look forward to the upcoming season. As usual I didn’t fish as much as I would have liked. Hopefully I can change that in 2014. The following is a review of the 2013 fishing season from a personal perspective.

December - January - February
I’m not as tough as I used to be. There was a time that I didn’t check the air temperature before I went because breaking ice out of my guides was part of the deal. Today if the air temperature isn’t above freezing I usually stay home. However, there are a lot of anglers who aren’t wimps like me. Tom Doxey from Ogden, Utah has a cabin in Island Park. He goes fishing whenever he gets the chance. This week he fished with another die-hard, Kelly Glissmeyer near the Vernon Bridge access. One reason we have lots of great winter fishing photos to publish is because not only is Kelly a hard core angler but he is also an exceptional photographer. Tom also reported great midge fishing on the Madison near the $3 Bridge.

One reason I rarely go fishing in December and January is because, out of habit, there is too much ice on the river near my home in St Anthony. The winter fishing game has changed. Up until a couple of years ago the entire Henry’s Fork was closed to fishing upstream from Riverside Campground. Now all of the river is open upstream from the upper ranch boundary. This provides great dry fly fishing at Last Chance and excellent nymph and streamer fishing in the Box Canyon. Fishing is also good above Mack’s Inn even though access is very tough. Last February I ventured out of my comfort zone and hit the river just below the Box Canyon boat access at Last Chance. It was well worth the effort as I landed a number of good rainbows on midges.

I also ventured south a couple of times to fish the South Fork. In the winter the stream flow is low. You can wade to water you would never dream of fishing without a boat during the summer months. I also like to fish the Great Feeder Canal, locally referred to as the Dry Bed. This large diversion flushes up to 4000 cubic feet per second during the summer irrigation season. Thousands of trout and whitefish also get sucked into the canal. In the winter months the flow is cut to an average of about 250 cfs, a perfect level for fly fishing.
After the weather moderated I had great fishing below Ashton. Most of the time I used nymphs but there were good days when the sky was overcast and trout were rising to midges at the Fun Farm. I also had some good days upstream below the confluence with Warm River. In the near future we anticipate even more winter fishing opportunities. Currently the section from the Ashton Dam downstream to the Vernon Bridge is closed to fishing. Now that repairs have been completed at the dam we anticipate this water will also be opened to year round fishing.

Looking ahead I plan to spend more time fishing in Island Park during the winter. The water temperature holds steady for trout in the Box Canyon because it is a tailwater. I may even venture out if the air temperature is below freezing. Floating the Box in the winter can really be a kick. Access is tough. Even though it isn’t that hard to slide a boat down through the snow at the dam, getting it out at Last Chance might require a snow machine. I also plan to fish the Upper Madison. Keep in mind that this stretch closes to fishing on February 28. I used to spend a lot of time fishing near Reynolds Pass. Hopefully I can change that this year.

By March everything is hopping. Last March I spent most of my time fishing between Ashton and St Anthony. Midge fishing was good, especially on overcast calm days. March is always a windy month so you need to be prepared. If the wind is howling there are still plenty of great options. The river was usually crowded near the Vernon Bridge access but fishing was very good with nymphs. We also had great action below the Chester Dam.

Streamers provided great action for larger trout. Check out the video with Chris Lawson, Devan Ence and Braide Sessions fishing streamers below St Anthony last March. March is like October, always good. If I could I’d fish every day in March.

I fully realize that the South Fork, Island Park and other distant waters fish great in March but it’s hard to drive away when the fishing is so good in my own back yard near St Anthony. Toward the end of the month the rise forms got a little more deliberate as the first Baetis of the season started to cover the water, a preview of better things to come in April.

April - May
April might be the best month of the entire year for dry fly fishing and this April was no exception. Midges and Baetis clustered the surface during the first part of the month. This brought larger trout to the surface. I hit the river as often as I could and focused mostly on the Chester Backwater and the Fun Farm. Even though I had a good day at Last Chance I stayed closer to home. I rarely have an entire day to devote to fishing so I try to get up early and get my work done so I could be on the water by noon. That’s one of the great things about early season Baetis; you usually don’t need to be early.

Late April and early May brought some intense hatches of caddisflies, commonly called Grannon and locally known as Mother’s Day Caddis. The fish can get finicky but a size 16 Olive EZ Caddis as a dry fly with a size 16 Olive Partridge Caddis Emerger as a dropper takes care of the problem.

Good caddis fishing continued up and down the Henry’s Fork until mid-May. Some of the best fishing occurred on the Warm River to Ashton section. Western March Brown mayflies also brought large trout to the surface. These size 14 dark mayflies break free from their nymphal shucks on the bottom of the river before they ascend to the surface making them the ideal candidate for subsurface emergers. I like to use a dry fly like a Parachute Adams with an emerger dropper fished dead drift.

Our snow pack was below normal last year so runoff didn’t knock out dry fly fishing with these early season caddis and mayfly hatches. Large stonefly nymphs started moving in mid-May. By May 20th they were crawling out to emerge into adult Salmonflies on the lower Henry’s Fork. The river was quite crowded with boat traffic but our guide clients landed some great fish on dry flies. Rather than float I worked my way along the bank below the Vernon Bridge and hooked up with some big browns.


June - July
By early June the Salmonfly hatch moved all the way up into the Box Canyon. It shut down due to cool wet weather a time or two but there were also some great warm days. One of our top guides, Hootie Mauldin, invited me to join him on a training trip down Cardiac Canyon with Matt Murphy. They took turns on the oars while I occupied the back seat in the raft. The dry fly action was hot and heavy and we each hooked up with some big browns and rainbows with dry Salmonfly patterns. I landed one of the largest fish of the trip at the Stone Bridge take-out.

By all accounts the opening week on the Ranch (June 15 opening) produced good hatches of PMDs, Western March Browns, and caddisflies. Green Drakes started showing in good numbers by June 20th. Some of the best June fishing in the Ranch occurred during the evening hours when the Brown Drakes came off.

I have a self-imposed policy not to fish the Ranch until mid-July or later. This started back in the late 1990s when the trout population declined significantly. Even though the Ranch water is my favorite place on earth I have personal reasons for staying away during the busy season in June and early July. There are plenty of other great places to focus during that time. I enjoyed great hatches of PMDs, caddisflies, Green Drakes and Flavs close to home in St Anthony.

While fishing continued good early in June and July on the Henry’s Fork, I ventured farther out to fish the Madison and the South Fork. Even though I can’t do it every day, I still like to run a few guide trips if for no other reason to let our guides know that the old man can still hold his own. The Salmonfly hatch on the South Fork was as good as I’ve seen in a long time. On June 22 I floated Bob Johnson, a client I first guided in 1977, and his friend Ron McCord from Byingtyon to Twin Bridges. We had big trout up to the Chubby Chernobyl all day. Three days later Tom Brown joined me to float from Cottonwood to Wolf’s. Again Tom had big trout to his Salmonfly patterns all day long. I floated another long time customer, Adm. James Greene, on a section of the Madison I hadn’t floated since my days working as a guide for Jim Danskin in 1973. We floated from Ruby Creek to Storey. There were lots of Salmonflies, big browns, and best of all; we had the river to ourselves until later in the afternoon when all the boat traffic started showing up from Palisades. 

Other July highlights included several great afternoons fishing the Flav hatch at Last Chance, below the Ashton Dam and Reynolds Pass on the Madison. I also poked around some of my favorite small water on Fall River and Warm River. Sheralee and I also slipped out of Island Park to spend a couple of days fishing the Missouri near Craig, Montana with our good friend Mick, Mickelson.

I had surgery to relieve Carpal Tunnel Syndrome on both of my wrists on July 16th. The related instructions included no casting, rowing, or most of the other activities that accompany fishing. I was shut down for a little over a month. Everything went as it should and in the end, the numbness, tingling and pain that had continued to intensify over the past few years is over.

August – September
August is my favorite time to fish the Ranch. It was hard to refrain from fishing while I recuperated from my surgery. I like to ride my bike in to the middle bridge but bike riding is one of the worst things to do when recuperating from Carpal Tunnel surgery. By mid-August the water was quite high due to drought related irrigation demand. The high flow resulted lots of troublesome drifting aquatic vegetation. Mayfly and caddis hatches were as good as ever as well as spectacular spinner activity in the morning hours. Late morning Honey Ants brought raucous feeding activity from big slab sided Rainbows.

During the time I was grounded from bike riding one of our great Ranch guides, Tyler Treece, invited me to join him and Devan Ence, to float the Ranch. The day started quiet with very few fish feeding but when we got down to my favorite water near Bonefish Flats we found lots of feeding fish. Earlier we had limited success blind fishing hopper patterns. There was a wide assortment of mayfly duns, spinners and small terrestrials on the water. With Tyler’s advice, I continued to use my hopper pattern even though it was evident that the fish were feeding on other insects. It was very surprising that most of the trout took the hopper with confidence. The same rules of the Ranch were in force including accuracy, minimal false casting, drag-free drift, etc. Late in the day after my wrist gave out, I spotted a large trout rising below the Millionaire’s Pool. Tyler made a good shot and to my astonishment, the big trout jumped on the hopper like it was a wine bottle tossed in to the drunk tank. One of the advantages of fishing hoppers is you can get by with 4X thereby allowing you to put enough heat on a big trout to keep him out of the weeds and land him quickly.

Late in August I fulfilled a very enjoyable obligation to the Henry’s Fork Foundation. For the past several years board member Tom Brown has donated a package trip at the HFF annual auction on his private ranch in Wyoming. The primary attraction is a superb spring creek loaded with large trout. My part of the deal is to guide the winner. This year the trip was purchased by Robert Dotson and Bob Rosenberg. Robert and Bob are each very accomplished anglers and they each landed lots of major league trout. Tom and I are teaming up again this year with this same donation for the Henry's Fork Foundation auction.

My biggest regret about September is I didn’t fish nearly as much as I should have. I took a small group of anglers to British Columbia during the first week of September. Unfortunately, there weren’t many steelhead in and we didn’t catch many fish. The food and accommodations were great, the guides were great teachers, and the scenery was spectacular. We learned how to spey cast. On a scale of one to ten we started out at or below a 2 and ended the week at least 8. I hope to go back now that I know how to handle a two-handed rod.

After I returned from Canada I spent most of my free time chasing elk with my bow in Island Park. My son Chris killed a good 6 X 6 early in the month and he spent the rest of his hunting time trying to call one in for me. In the end I saw a lot of nice bulls and missed one at less than 20 yards.

I spent a number of afternoons fishing the water near my home in St Anthony on my own or guiding other anglers. The great thing about September is that you don’t normally need to get on the water early in the day. I had plenty of time to hunt in the morning and get back in time to fish. I didn’t fish the Ranch because most of the regulars said it was really tough with low water and lots of weeds.

October – November
If I could extend October out to about 90 days I would. Fishing is so good but the time fleets away so quickly. In summary I fished everywhere from the upper river Mack’s Inn downstream to the Parker Bridge below St Anthony. I spent some of the most enjoyable days with my brother Rick near St. Anthony. Normally I split for a few days to chase upland birds either in Western Idaho for quail or east to Montana or South Dakota chasing pheasants. This year the upland bird reports weren’t very good so we decided to stay close to home and I’m glad we did. It helped make up for a lot of missed fishing time earlier in the season.

While streamer and nymph fishing was productive almost everywhere, the best dry fly fishing was in the backwaters like Chester, Fun Farm, above the Del Rio Bridge and below St. Anthony. Baetis, commonly called Blue Winged Olives, usually emerge best on cool overcast days. Yet this year we had superb dry fly fishing in the middle of warm sunny days. One of our clients, Barry Austin, from Chatfield, Texas landed a 23 inch Brown while fishing with Smitty on a small dry fly on such a day.

The weather held throughout the month of November. Midge fishing was fantastic with good rises in all of the quiet backwaters and slower sections of the river. I had plenty of options on the lower Henry’s Fork and the South Fork. Opportunities missed were the Ranch and the Madison. Both provided great midge activity throughout the month. This November I hope to remedy this.

Early January is also a good time to start looking ahead to 2014. As of this writing we need more snow. Currently there is just over 2 feet in Island Park. We should have close to 4 feet. If this trend continues we’ll have an early start to our season with most April, May and June hatches bumped up a week or so earlier than normal. We’ll put a detailed outlook in March when we have a better idea of what our winter brings. In the mean time we want to express our appreciation for all of the support we had from our valued customers and friends. It was a great year because of you.