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Reflections on the Ranch

Sep 7, 2015 | Mike Lawson Millionares_Pool.jpg

Owners of the Oregon Short Line Railroad purchased the original Thurmon ranch/homestead in 1898. The official title of the property became the Island Park Land and Cattle Company. Because of the affiliation with the railroad, the ranch was nicknamed the Railroad Ranch. It was originally conceived as a sporting retreat and attracted other wealthy easterners including three Guggenheim brothers, Solomon, Murry and Daniel. Later, in 1908, E. H. Harriman bought Murry Guggenheim’s shares. Unfortunately Mr. Harriman never visited his new holdings in Idaho. The first member of the Harriman family to visit the Ranch was his son Averell who visited the ranch in 1909 while working on a survey crew for the railroad.

Thanks to the Harrimans the public can enjoy this exquisite place

Over time the Harrimans purchased all of the other shares and by 1955 a partnership was formed which included Averell, his brother Roland, and Charles Jones, a wealthy oilman of the Atlantic Richfield Company. The Railroad Ranch Cattle Company replaced the original Island Park Land and Cattle Company. Roland owned 50% with Averell and Jones having 25% each. In 1961 Charles Jones sold his interest in the partnership to the Harrimans. This opened the way for the Harrimans to begin negotiations to deed the property over to the State of Idaho. By 1977 the gift agreement was finalized and on April 1, 1977 the Harriman family holdings were gifted to the state of Idaho. It was officially opened to the public as the Harriman State Park in 1982.

My own history is intertwined with the rich legacy of this 11,000 acre park, refuge and preserve. I came from a railroad family. I grew up in the living quarters of a Union Pacific Depot just 7 miles south of my home in St. Anthony. My father was the depot agent in Sugar City until his death in 1968. My grandfather spent his entire career as a depot agent with the UPRR in Roberts, Idaho. My father was friends with Ben Meese who was Superintendent of the Ranch from 1966 until 1977. Dad had worked with Ben on the railroad. One of my fondest memories was visiting Mr. Meese with my father shortly before his death. My mother, who grew up in Ashton, cleaned cabins on the Ranch for the Harriman family during the summer months while she attended high school.

Every large rainbow landed in the Ranch is a major angling accomplishment


The Harrimans always allowed public walk-in access to the Ranch to fish and hunt waterfowl from designated access areas. Those accesses were essentially the upper boundary at the log jam, the mailbox and the Osborne Bridge. It was also possible to park on the Green Canyon Road. The section from the middle bridge upstream to Last Chance was open for waterfowl hunting. I spent many cold days laying in the snow with dad hoping to get a shot at a goose. I never got one as I was under gunned with a Model 12 Winchester 16 gauge with an improved cylinder.

The fishing always opened on June 15th and closed on September 30th. Since my birthday also falls on September 30th it became a tradition to spend my birthday in the Ranch. Even though the season was later extended to November 30th I try to keep the tradition alive by fishing the Ranch on September 30th.

In the early days I didn’t fish the Ranch like I do today. The traditional way was to use wet flies or large, gaudy dry flies. We caught fish but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that angling entomologists and writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, Dave Whitlock, Al Caucci, Gary LaFontaine and others began to unravel the mysteries and the connection with the incredible diversity of aquatic insects with the large rainbows of the Ranch. Rather than flogging the water the name of the game became matching the hatch.

Guiding journalist Charles Kuralt in the mid-1980s is one of my fondest memories


We incorporated Henry’s Fork Anglers in 1976 and opened the store the same year the Railroad Ranch became Harriman State Park. In those days virtually all of the great names in angling frequented our shop. I also enjoyed their company on the water where I not only gleaned as much knowledge and understanding as possible but these men also piqued my own interest to better understand this complex, world renowned fishery. I’ve also shared time on the Ranch water with celebrities and other individuals of notoriety. Whether a famous angling personality, a movie star, or a sports superstar, the rainbows of the Ranch always treat everybody the same. They don’t care who you are, how many books you’ve written or what your title is. We all put our waders on the same way in the parking lot and we all get our butts handed to us on the water. In the end every big rainbow landed seems like a miraculous accomplishment.

Ernest Schwiebert, one of our greatest fly fishing authors, with a big Ranch Rainbow in the early 1980s


I don’t fish the Ranch water as much as I’d like. A few years ago I heard my name brought up in a distant conversation. The gist was that I don’t fish the Ranch anymore with the connotation that I am too wrapped up in business to fish the Ranch. Certainly my feelings were hurt but I can somewhat understand. In the early 1990s the fishery had declined to the point that I was not comfortable fishing the Ranch during the busy time from opening day on June 15th until the middle of July. I actually felt bad for the fish. There were virtually no small fish and when a larger fish poked his nose out he was immediately pounced on.

One day as I walked down the river I found Dave Schultz sitting on the bank. He was watching a big rainbow feed on Pale Morning Dun mayflies. I slipped next to Dave and asked if he was planning to cast to the fish. He said he was only resting the fish so it could feed in peace. He told me that he had watched the fish quit feeding on previous days after it was seized upon on by the first angler who spotted it feeding. Sitting on the bank that day with Schultz guarding that fish is one of my fondest memories of the Ranch I will always treasure.

A party at the gravel pit for the opening of fishing in the Ranch in the late 1970s


Eventually I developed a personal ethic not to fish the Ranch water from the season opener until the middle of July. I have held myself to this standard for the past couple of decades. I have two reasons for this. First off, the Ranch is very crowded for the first few weeks after it opens. Not only does it get some of the most famous hatches like the Green Drake, but anglers gather from virtually all over the world. It’s a colossal social event that has gone on for at least four decades. I live here. I have plenty of other great spots to fish in June and early July. I can fish the Ranch for months after the crowds dissipate and move on. They are also our customers. They don’t need me competing with them for space on the water. Secondly, the fish get hit so hard in the first few weeks that I don’t feel comfortable adding to it. I don’t particularly want to land a fish that might have already be caught and released the previous day.

Mick Mickelson battles a big rainbow this past August in the Avenue of the Giants


My favorite months are August and September. During those months I can slip into the Ranch with minor interference upon other anglers and find trout that have been feeding relatively unmolested for some time. While they might not be as easy to catch due to the fact that they have been highly educated from weeks of angling pressure and I have to use smaller flies and lighter tippets, each trout is special. One thing I can say for sure, the rush of adrenaline is the same as it always was. It will never change.

I once met Roland Harriman. While I never met Averell I spent several hours visiting with his wife, Pamela, in Washington, DC, talking about the Ranch. Whenever I venture into the Ranch or drive past, I always think of the Harrimans. They will always be ranked with my greatest heroes.