THE 2013 SEASON ON THE HARRIMAN RANCH by John McDaniel
It was an interesting year. In summary, we had our fifth consecutive year of excellent Ranch fishing. My detailed journal notes on each day I fish or guide on the Ranch indicate that the years of 2007 and 2008 provided the worst fishing since 1983. There is a consensus among Ranch regulars that the period from 2000 through 2008 was one of significant decline. My journals support that perception. A dramatic positive change occurred in 2009 and has been maintained since. My records suggest that the number of fish hooked annually by clients has improved by almost 40% since 2008. (That is not to suggest that each year since 2008 has seen a 40% improvement over the preceding year, but that each of the 2009- 2013 years has averaged about 40% better than any of the years between 2003 and 2008.)
Despite the good fishing, there were significant negatives during 2013. First, we had very high water flows for almost a full month from the second week of July until the first week of August. From the Mid Summer on, we had more aquatic vegetation in the river than I have ever seen. The amount of vegetation made landing fish very difficult.
The Early Summer (15 June- 6 July)
There was good Ranch-like fishing before the 15th of June in the water contiguous to the Ranch proper. In most years, the pre-Ranch opening period is one of cold water temperatures and poor weather. This year there was wonderful fishing in the water of Last Chance, The Wood Road, and Pinehaven. Not only were the Blue Wing Olives, PMDs, and Midges good, but there were several regulars who had great days with black beetles.
Unlike many years, the Ranch fishing was good as soon as it opened. I generally discouraged clients to come before 21 June because it has been my experience that since 1995, good PMD, Brown Drake, and Green Drake fishing will only begin before that date in about two out of ten years. This year the PMD fishing was good on 15 June and we had Green and Brown Drakes in the first week.
In the first two weeks, we had good numbers of Green Drake duns on the water, but not many big fish were up to them. I saw more Green Drake spinners and had more good fishing to Green Drake spinner imitations than I have ever had. I saw good Green Drake spinners from 26 July until 7 July. (My best day was 27 June.)
I only had one good evening of Brown Drake fishing so I would rate it as below average as I typically have three good evenings with the big bugs. One element that negatively impacted the fishing was that the best Brown Drake water was very crowded.
PMDs provided good fishing for most of the Early Summer; however, I did not have a great PMD day, either with clients or while fishing on my own, during the Early period. The first time I saw good numbers of Flavs was on 25 June. That is early for the great mayfly; however, I did not have good Flav fishing until the first week of July. Black beetles continued to be effective flies during the entire Early Summer. I saw very few of the Yellow Sally stoneflies that often provide fishing during the Early Summer.
The final interesting fact about the Early Summer was that we did not yet have the explosion of growth in aquatic vegetation which would make landing fish so difficult later in the summer.
The Mid Summer (7 July – 27 July)
We began to have very high water releases from Island Park Reservoir on 9 July almost precisely when the Mid Summer period began. Those releases provided flows of from 1400 to 2100 and lasted for a period of over three weeks (My count was 25 days before it came down to below 1400 on 3 August.). The high water had a significant negative impact on Ranch fishing. Not only were bug hatches poor, but I am confident many of our large fish moved significant distances during the high water.
As is typical during the first three weeks of the Mid-Summer Period, there was good Flav dun fishing during many evenings; however, it was not up to the standards of the superb fishing of the four preceding years.
We had good, and at times excellent, spinner falls in the mornings but often we would find very few good fish up to the PMD, Callibaetis, Flav, and Blue Wing Olive that were on the water in great numbers. When large fish were found on the spinners, many were as tough as Ranch fish can be. Clients had a few good days hooking fish on a variety of spinners; however, the heavy weeds began to have a dramatically negative effect on landing fish. On the 13th of July, three clients hooked seven great fish and landed one. (I will address the impact of the vegetation in my conclusions later, but from this point forward I would ague it became, on average, about twice as difficult to land big fish on the Ranch.)
The high-water did not keep us from having fine hopper fishing. For me, it started on15 July and lasted into the Fall. The 15 July start is a bit early in the context of the averages I have kept for the thirty-one years I have fished the Ranch.
Despite the high water, during the period of 15 July to 27 July, I began to have a few good days, both fishing alone and with clients, hooking a good fish or two on spinners in the morning, a couple on hoppers in the afternoon, and one or two on Flavs in the evening.
At the end of the Mid-Summer Period, from 19 July to 27 July, I began to find more and more Callibaetis spinners. It was the beginning of the best Callibaetis spinner fishing as I have ever had. The fish were very tough and demanded very cautious stalks, and often long casts—making it very difficult fishing for most clients.
I saw my first Honey Ants on 23 July— which is the earliest I have ever seen them. The first day was not great, but it was an exciting start to what proved to be a very good year for the thrilling fishing they afford.
The Late Summer (28 July-25 August)
The first week of the Late Summer—from 28 July until 3 August July provided the poorest fishing of the year. I suspect it was the cumulative effect of the high water flows. Also, our fine hopper fishing began to be impacted by the pressure imposed by many anglers fishing from boats.
The first week of the Late Summer was so difficult I asked the managers of TroutHunter permission to suggest to a client that he should cancel his two days of Ranch fishing with me because I was sure we would have very poor days. It was the first time in my fifteen years of guiding that I ever felt compelled to do that. (I was pleased that the TroutHunter owners supported my telling the client that I thought he should cancel his trip.)
My first day of fishing with water under1400 cfs occurred on 4 August. I had one of my best days of the summer. We had good Honey Ants and the big fish were all but suicidal on the special insects. In three hours, from 10:15 to 1:15, I hooked six great fish and landed four of them. The day was the start of great Honey Ant fishing that lasted into September. We certainly did not have great Honey Ants every day—there never has been a year when we do—but I had superb fishing with many of the bugs on the water on 4 Aug, 5 Aug, 10, Aug, 12 Aug, and 15 Aug. (I missed very few days between 4 Aug and 23 August.) Any client who fortuitously hit one of the six great days had many shots at our largest fish. I reviewed the hours I fished with Honey Ants on the five great days. We averaged two and one half hours of Honney Ant fishing each day. The best fishing was generally between 10:15 and 12:45 - during the two and one half hours we averaged six large fish hooked. (I should add that I did not have two anglers fishing on each of the five days. Three times there was only one angler and once, when I was not guiding, I fished with two friends. That turned out to be the best Honey Ant day of all as Per Brandin, Greg Wilson, and I hooked 12 big fish during the two and one half hours.)
The lottery like situation with the Honey Ants during the Late Summer was complemented by the best Callibaetis spinner fishing I have ever seen. You could count on having good Callibaetis spinners any morning when there was not a strong wind. The fishing was always difficult but an angler capable of making accurate casts and getting a good drift would have a chance to hook multiple good fish. A typical "good” Callibaetis morning would provide an experienced angler with three to six hook ups.
The Late Summer provided exciting PMD dun fishing in the afternoons; however, it was very difficult. Most of the rainbows were taking nymphs and my clients hooked very few of the many targets that we had. Often we would have rising fish for a period of about three hours.
The Fall (26 August- 30 November)
The Fall was marked by the best, if not exceedingly difficult, Trico fishing I have ever had on the Ranch. The fine Trico fishing started at the beginning of the Fall period and continued until I stopped fishing on 15 September. On most mornings, there would be clouds of Tricos on the banks. The Trico fishing typically began with dun fishing and evolved into spinners until it dissipated by 10:30 or 11:00. One interesting aspect of the Trico fishing was you would see pods of big fish eating the tiny mayflies. Some of those groups would maintain as many as six to eight large fish. (I cite the pods of large fish because unlike the situation on other western waters like Silver Creek and the Missouri, we do not frequently see pods of large fish on the Ranch.) One fascinating aspect of the Trico fishing was that the fish were remarkably selective. On many mornings, the only Trico imitations that I was able to get fish to take were duns with a green abdomen and spinners with white abdomens. My experience was that if the tiny, size 24, fly had an all black body they would not be taken.
Two other flies provided special opportunities for me and my clients during the Fall. They were small, black flying ants and Mahogany duns. I fish the Harrops’ flying ant pattern and my clients and I had many good mornings with the flies. Unlike the situation with the Honey Ants, you did not need to see many black ants on the water to have good fishing. On several mornings, I only saw a couple of ants, but would get two to five big fish to eat them. One advantage of the ants is that they were taken more aggressively than the various spinners that would often be on the water at the same time. I had my best ant fishing between 10:00 and 2:00.
The final bug that provided fine fall fishing was the Mahogany dun. The fish were often very tough on the Mahoganies but my clients and I had multiple hook ups on Harrop no-hackle Mahoganies in sizes 14 and 16. I will be quick to add that there were days when we found multiple Mahoganies on the water and fish feeding on them and did not hook a rainbow. If the day was bright and calm, it was always tough. My best fishing with the Mahoganies was always on either overcast or windy days when the fish were easier to fool.
The good PMD spinner fishing in the mornings and the fine dun fishing in the afternoons that we had in the Late Summer continued into the Fall. Both types of fishing were still productive when I stopped fishing on 15 September.
General Comments on the 2013 Season
I. The challenge of landing fish in the heavy aquatic vegetation defined the season. My data on the number of fish my clients landed, as compared to those they hooked, was dramatically different than in any other year. Over my fifteen years of guiding on the Ranch, my clients have landed 32% of the large fish they hooked. This year their average was 18 %. My own average for good fish landed to those hooked over my 31 years of fishing the Ranch is right at 57%. In 2013, my average dropped to 38%. (It is uncanny how consistent the averages for landing fish had been until this year. The percentages, for both clients and me, never varied by more than a few percentages points over any of the proceeding fourteen years.) While my clients and I hooked approximately as many fish per hour as we had in the proceeding four very good years of Ranch fishing, we landed significantly fewer because it was so much more difficult to land them in the heavy aquatic vegetation. The difficultly in landing fish resulted in my altering the size of my standard leader tippets. I have traditionally used 6X tippet for flies of size 14 through 18 because of the selectivity of Ranch fish. In the late summer, when the impact of the weeds on landing fish was at its worse, I began to use 5X exclusively for size 14 through 18 flies.
II. In 2013, I had the best Green Drake spinner, Calliebatis spinner, and Trico dun and spinners, fishing I have ever had. I would rate the Honey Ant, PMD dun and spinners, Mahogany Duns and spinners, and black flying ant fishing as very good. The Green Drake dun, Rusty Spinners, Hoppers, Flav duns and spinners, and black beetles were average. I would rate the fishing with Brown Drake duns and spinners, and Blue Wing Olive duns and spinners as poor.
I had the worst caddis fishing I have ever had on the Ranch. A piece of fascinating data, which puts the caddis fishing in perspective, is that the Spent Partridge Caddis is one of only eight dry flies that I have used to land over one-hundred large fish. No client, nor I, landed a fish on the great fly in 2013. That is the first time one of my eight most productive flies has failed to land a fish in an entire season.
III. I believe the structure of the fish population on the Ranch changed in 2013. I have no hard scientific data, but I do have 438 hours on the water— and notes I keep on each of those hours. I found a higher percentage of healthy fish in the 15 to 17 inch range than ever before; moreover, I landed significantly fewer fish of 20 inches or longer than in our proceeding four seasons. My average for myself and clients before 2013 was 34 percent of all our good fish ("good” is as defined as over 17 inches) were over 20 inches in length. In 2013, that number of fish over 20 inches dropped to 14 percent. Another example of the reduction in largest fish size in 2013 was that my largest fish was only 21 inches in length. In the four proceeding years (2009 – 2012) my largest fish were: 22.5, 23.5, 24.5, and 23.25 inches in length. I also saw, or had reliable reports of, a few exceptionally large fish. My thirty-one year record for large fish, which is now approaching 1,750 landed, does not maintain a fish of over 24.5 inches in length; moreover, I have never thought a client, or I, ever lost a rainbow of over 24.5 inches. This summer, Rene Harrop landed a fish of over 26 inches and two clients of mine lost rainbows I believe were in the 25 to 26 inch class.
IV. I am confident that our large fish moved significant distances during the very high water during July. Good fish that were being found in large numbers in several areas of the Ranch in the first three weeks of the season were not in those locations during the high water of the Mid-Summer period. Also, during the high water, I began to find fish in areas where I have never found them before. In general, I also took fewer fish on the banks than I did in any other summer. There were typical numbers of good fish waiting for hoppers on the banks, but my other "bank fishing” was not nearly as productive as in other seasons. I certainly found fish on the banks, but on the Top of the Ranch in particular there were not nearly as many as there were in other years. This was particularly noticeable when fishing Flavs. Usually a significant number of the good fish eating Flavs will be on the banks. This year, the majority of the rainbows eating Flavs were off the banks.
V. Some Ranch anglers and guides believe our fish are being subjected to too much pressure when they are pounded on the banks with hoppers from drift-boats being operated by highly skilled guides. The mobile drift boats, the guides’ skills in handling the boats—which allows them to approach the fish with stealth and helps control the drifts of their client’s hopper imitations—produce many big fish.
While I have no scientific data proving our rainbows are being abused by the aggressive hopper fishing, clients of mine landed fish with multiple hook scars on the Hopper Bank—one had eight scars. By late August, I was sure many of the fish being caught on the banks receiving the most pressure were not fighting with the energy of typical Ranch fish. In an attempt to see if I was being fair about the variation in fighting qualities of the fish, I invested several days, when I was not guiding, to a few areas of the Ranch that get modest fishing pressure. A high percentage of the rainbows in those areas fought with greater energy than the majority of the fish on the banks being pounded.
As a guy who guides only on the Ranch, I firmly believe hopper fishing from boats is an inappropriate way to introduce clients to our water. If you are healthy, you should walk, wade, and learn to stalk the selective rainbows of the Harriman Ranch.
This is not an argument against fishing hoppers on the Ranch. There are regulars who oppose hopper fishing because they believe that the large hopper hooks are capable of injuring fish, and that hopper fishing in general—not just from a boat—is a distortion of "what Ranch fishing is.” I disagree with the anti-hopper sentiment. I like to hopper fish as I walk and wade, and I enjoy doing it with a client. A good day for us will be three to five good fish hooked and one or two landed. A good day for the guys in the guide’s drift boat—darting from one good bank to another and moving down the river with speed between the best banks—can be double digit big fish.
One afternoon, a tired client and I listened to the loud cheers coming from a drift-boat on the opposite bank. My guy asked, "Do you consider that Ranch fishing?” The question was difficult because the guide in the boat was a good friend who works for TroutHunter, as I do. I responded, "No, I don’t consider that to be Ranch fishing; however, it is legal and some clients love it.”
When I got back to the shop, I told one of the owners I thought what our guides were doing fishing hoppers from boats was inappropriate. He said he had heard similar comments and thought "we” —TroutHunter employees— should discuss it. (Candidly, I was shocked I did not get a rationalization for why the hopper fishing from boats was an appropriate way to fish the Ranch. If an outfitter eliminates the practice, or reduces its frequency, he will lower his income and make fewer clients happy.) The consensus at our subsequent meeting was the pounding of the banks with hoppers from boats was wrong.
The most compelling evidence suggesting that the tactic is a bad idea is
that some of the most experienced guides either refuse to pound the
banks with hoppers from a boat, or police themselves by limiting the
number of days they do it. I think it is time for those of us who love
the Ranch to speak out to the end of stopping the practice before it has
more detrimental implications for the fishery and—I believe of
significant importance—alters the international reputation the Ranch has
earned for providing uniquely challenging and elegant forms of fly
VI. Predictions for the Summer of 2014: I have no crystal ball, but I am optimistic about the coming season on the Ranch. In general, we should benefit from the better winter flows and increased aquatic vegetation growth that have been such important factors in the significant improvements we have seen in the fishery, and the fishing, in the last five years. Also, our small section of the nation has not yet faced the catastrophic reductions in precipitation that have been seen to our south and west.
I suspect we shall see more evidence of a changing fish population. I would predict we will have more fish in the 15 to 17 inch range and fewer of 20 to 22 inches. We should continue to have a very few of the largest fish that we typically take on dry flies. Those will be in the 22.5 to 24.5 range. It is my bet we will have fewer of those than we did in the seasons of 2009-2012. I would not be shocked if one or two highly unusual fish—of over 24.5 inches—were taken on dry flies as was the case last summer.
I hope we will avoid the high water flows we faced for most of the month of July in 2013. At this juncture (May 2014) there is optimism that we avoid the very high flows for as long a period of time.
There is hope our aquatic vegetation will continue to flourish. There is some concern—and I am among those concerned—that we will reach a point where the growth of some plant types may begin to have negative impacts on the fishing—if not the fishery.
I suspect we will get more pressure on the Ranch as a function of the good fishing we have had over the last six years. Last summer, we had some challenges with crowding for particularly popular types of fishing; for example, during Brown Drake time. I do not think more people on the Ranch should be deemed a negative. Yes, that will produce more competition, but more importantly it will increase the numbers of people that we—and specifically the Henry’s Fork Foundation—will have to help us protect the resource. There will never be a point in time when we have too many people celebrating the Ranch and willing to make contributions to helping protect it.
John McDaniel is the author of "Fly Fishing the Harriman Ranch of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River Lessons Learned and Friends Made Sight Fishing to Selective Trout" as well as a remarkably detailed fishing map of the Ranch.
He is a wade fishing guide specializing in the challenging
Harriman Ranch. Please call the shop at 208.558.9900 to set up a day on
the Ranch with John.