With year around fishing on some stretches and others opening on Memorial Day weekend, the Henry’s Fork in Island Park has been far from deserted since early May. In the minds of most, however, the season does not truly begin until fishing is allowed in the Harriman Ranch.
As much a social exercise as a gathering of expectant anglers, June 15 has come to symbolize a reunion of old friends and longtime acquaintances, who will not come together as a group at any other time during the year. Since many are of the fair weather variety the number of vehicles at Last Chance Access has varied in accordance with the general opinion of how well the Ranch water will produce in any given year. From 2003 through 2007, for example, opening day would commonly find fewer than two dozen spaces filled in a parking area capable of accommodating many times that amount. As at times in the past, the river was enduring a period of low precipitation and winter flows that did not completely meet the needs of a healthy fishery.
With average or better snowfall beginning in 2008, a more hospitable environment for trout and insect life began to materialize. Gradually, aquatic life began to rebuild in the sensitive reaches of the Ranch where the impact of drought is most profound, and the fishing started to improve.
A stressed fishery cannot fully heal in one year, and there was no instant increase in the anglers who visited the Ranch as the drought phase ran its course. By 2010, however, word began to circulate that the trout and insect populations were rebuilding to a level that had not been seen since shortly after the beginning of this century. The late departure of winter, and its lingering effects, probably explains why the Ranch opening in 2011 was not as largely attended as might have been expected. But angler numbers from July on provided a solid clue of what could be expected in the coming year.
9 A.M. on June 15, 2012 found Last Chance Access at the north boundary of Harriman Ranch filled to near capacity, and that number would increase as late arriving casualties from TroutHunter’s annual Ranch opener party began to stir. Pleasant temperatures and a light overcast combined with an ideal stream flow of 900 cfs to create conditions ideal for hatches and rising trout, and few who waded the river that day found reason to complain.
Those first on the water were greeted by an assortment of caddis in varying sizes, and trout not tempted by this appetizer were soon fully engaged with a PMD spinner fall that lasted more than an hour. Victims of over indulgence the night before, like Brooks Montgomery, found themselves unprepared for a brief mid-day shower that sent them fleeing back to their vehicles for raingear. This costly error came at the expense of missing nearly an hour of some of the day’s best action as the big rainbows feasted on an intense hatch of PMDs.
One learns to expect quiet periods on this water when insect activity can wane and rising fish become tough to find. But this was one of those unusual times when trout remained receptive to a random mix of aquatic remnants and terrestrials that held their attention until late afternoon.
Re-gathering in the parking area at around 5 P.M., dozens of happy anglers mixed copious amounts of cold beer with heroic stories of trout battles won and lost, and one of the best opening days in recent memory faded into history.
As one who holds memory of more than 50 opening days in this incomparable place, I am reluctant to agree with some who claim that the Harriman water is fishing as well or better than any time in history. What is obvious, however, is that trout are now well distributed throughout the 16,000 acre ranch and that many previously empty stretches are again occupied by multiple age classes. Equally notable is a resurgence of key hatches that, like trout, have suffered lean times during periods of inadequate water conditions. An example of this recovery process is a rebuilding of the famed Green Drake hatch that became virtually non-existent in some of the more difficult times. Good numbers of these big mayflies are currently present and the even larger Brown Drakes cannot be far behind.
A final note is that the charitable treatment we received on opening day had dissipated by the second day of the season. Big trout quickly adjust to the disruption of comfort enjoyed during the time when the Ranch water is closed to fishing and have now reverted to the defiant attitude we have come to expect. And we should be somewhat grateful for this elusive behavior because this prevents the crowd of opening day from becoming a routine feature of fishing the Ranch. Certainly we should expect increased angler competition throughout the new season but, in its current condition, the Ranch is quite capable of accommodating the extra numbers while providing a quality experience for all. We are lucky people.