Resisting Despair

Posted by & filed under HARROP'S FORKED TONGUES.

Whether expressed vocally or in writing, John McDaniel’s words always carry weight with me. His report of the 2017 season on the Harriman Ranch (February 15, 2018 under Tangles-Guide’s Blog) continues the respect I hold for this thoughtful and passionate friend.

Like John, I have agonized over the declining condition of the Ranch fishery with respect to large trout and the organisms upon which they rely. Different, however, is the way I have dealt with the emotional pressure applied by comparing the memory of what once was a vibrant producer of big rainbows and diverse, reliable hatches of aquatic insects with something that is quite different today.

In the interest of preserving sanity and resisting despair, I do not limit my fishing time to water which, more than any part of the Henry’s Fork, displays the negative impact of human indifference.

With mostly slow and shallow currents, the Ranch water is least resistant to water quality problems associated with sediment from Island Park Reservoir and other polluting factors detrimental to the river’s ability to sustain life.

Those same characteristics make the Ranch fish particularly vulnerable to increasing attention from predators whose numbers have expanded far beyond the need for special protection established by Federal law. Of course, I am speaking of White Pelicans which have devastated the population of large trout in the Ranch and other portions of the Henry’s Fork that share similar vulnerability.

With a nine foot wing span and an appetite just as large, pelicans are known to consume as much as six pounds of fish per day, and those targeting the Henry’s Fork now are in the hundreds.

Although not piscivorous like the pelican, Trumpeter Swans migrating from the north are particularly fond of the Ranch as winter habitat where shallow water provides easy access to their preferred food source.

Aquatic vegetation historically responsible in providing habitat for trout, as well as mayflies and other aquatic invertebrates is consumed each winter in quantities not sustainable by great numbers of swans that are only here for that purpose before returning to Canada and Alaska in the spring.

Loss of key aquatic plants can translate to serious reduction of hatch producing insects, and sometimes that loss is permanent.

Resolving problems associated with these two species of giant birds becomes a people issue when concerns from state managers are met with indifference from Federal Administrators who control all regulations pertaining to protected species. This means that the Idaho Fish and Game Department is basically without authority to bring relief to fisheries being potentially destroyed by our population of White Pelicans and Trumpeter Swans.

Preventing the extinction of threatened and endangered species by way of Federal Law has my full support, and successes have been many. However, is the recovery of a species truly a success story when its numbers are allowed to expand to the point of destroying their source of survival?

Like McDaniel, I am discouraged by the absence of true scientific attention to the well-being of trout in the Henry’s Fork, and especially the portion that flows through the Harriman Ranch.It appears the days are now gone when the best and brightest of professional fishery experts were actually observed at work on the river. This applies to the State Agency and an NGO that was specifically formed to protect the Henry’s Fork and its trout.

Men like Jack Griffith, Jim Gregory, and Jim DeRito were infinitely qualified fisheries biologists who became familiar faces along the river during their time of service to the Henry’s Fork. A particular sense of hope and optimism for the future is lost when such dedicated expertise is replaced by only token appearance of individuals far less qualified and determined to make a difference.

In the interest of preserving personal health and relationships, I have reduced my exposure to the discouragement that McDaniel describes in his recent report. While I continue to fish some part of Harriman at least thirty days each year that number pales in comparison to the time when the Ranch was my first priority. And unlike some others, I cannot bring myself to camp on the same water day after day and pound on the same fish for weeks at a time. Trout pressured to the level described in the McDaniel report have the ability to protect themselves from a fraudulent fly by way of extreme selectivity, but they need a break from constant disruption to their feeding.

I agree with John that Sheridan Ranch cannot begin to compare with the special feeling of being in Harriman, but what other place can. However, I am spreading my fishing to other locations that do not prod my conscience to the point of feeling somewhat guilty when I catch a trout.

Succumbing to the emotion of trials faced by the Henry’s Fork has pushed me to the brink of madness in recent years, and while avoiding that terminal condition will always remain a challenge, I resist by focusing on whatever positive I can find.

To some extent, 2017 was a year of deliverance from the stress of previous years when exceptionally high and silt laden flows brought the Ranch to its knees in terms of its summer fishability and overall condition of hatches and trout.

While the population of large trout was distinctly down, I was encouraged by enough young adults and juveniles to tell me that the river still lives.

By itself, fishing throughout the summer in clear, moderate flows was a welcome gift to be appreciated. Hatches, especially caddis, seemed somewhat revived by the return of relatively silt free release from the dam, and the number and size of trout were comparatively impressive outside the boundaries of the Ranch.

Higher winter flows are generally considered to be the driving factor in trout survival, and this is what I am seeing in 2018. If this holds true, there is reasonable expectation that the number and size of adult trout will increase in the overall length of the river, and this could include Harriman Ranch.

In many respects, the river is on its own when it comes to resisting the factors that limit its health and productivity. Through my lifetime I have witnessed the resiliency and tenacity of the Henry’s Fork in fending off threats of outrageous proportion, and this has largely been without human assistance.

It is the generosity of nature that gives hope for the future, and this comes in the form of water.Although early, most credible sources are predicting a continuation of the stable flows from 2017 to continue throughout the current year.

At this time, Henry’s Lake and Island Park Reservoir are near capacity and the snowpack is above normal, while continuing to grow. At 500 cfs, the winter flows are the highest I can remember in the last two decades.

John McDaniel is not wrong in pointing out his concerns for the Ranch fishery, and I commend his courage and honesty. And I will not apologize for my own observations that may be perceived as critical to differing opinions. Problems cannot be solved unless they are identified and accepted for what they are. And like McDaniel, I can only hope for positive change in this regard. Help for the river can be found, but it takes action not just words to make it happen.

Surrender is not in my vocabulary and I will die loving the Henry’s Fork.

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