From 2012 through 2015, it was fun to write my annual report on Ranch fishing. This year it is difficult. My clients and I invested more than 400 hours on the water between 15 June and 11 September. We had a few days of good fishing, but there were many terrible days. I am not one of those anglers suggesting the Ranch is dead. We have learned—from the silt release of 1992 and other historical events—that the river is resilient, but we are facing huge challenges. I have arrived at the grim conclusion that if we do not address the inadequate water flows in the winter, the purges of high, discolored water in the summer, complex water quality issues, our rainbows’ gill-lice parasites, and the declines in age classes of our rainbows, and in aquatic insects, the fishery, as we have known it, will not survive.
The Early Season (15 June- 6 July)
In my first six days of guiding after opening day, my clients and I invested 52 hours and landed one good rainbow. It was not that we did not work at it—on one day, a client’s pedometer documented we walked, and waded, 8.3 miles. You might, ask, reasonably, if our failure was a function of poor guiding. During the period, I asked the superb guide John Hudgens about his trips on the Ranch. He said, "We had no chance.”
You can distort reality and say: "We had a few bad days in the early season.” Or, you can honestly admit that the early season fishing was essentially non-existent. If you are not on the Ranch daily, it may be easier to rationalize the terrible fishing. If you guided anglers who had great days in other years, the days without rising fish were brutal.
The Mid-Summer Season (7 July – 25 July)
The mid-summer season provided fine Flav fishing—for those who were in the right place at the right time. My clients and I landed 26 good fish on Flav duns. Unfortunately, at the time we hit the Flavs, we began to get high water flows from Island Park Reservoir. The discolored water made it impossible to see your feet when wading in knee deep water.
We had some decent spinner fishing in the mornings of the mid-summer season, but it was not as productive as any of the years from 2009 through 2015. Hopper fishing started at the end of the period and remained decent into September; however my clients and I landed less than one half the fish on hoppers than we did in 2015—we landed eleven good fish on hoppers in 2016 and twenty-three in 2015.
The Late Summer Season (26 July- 27 August)
The late summer saw some fine honey ant fishing. I found adequate numbers of honey ants on seven days in 2016; however, I had eleven good days of honey ant fishing in 2015.
The great spinner fishing we have had each late summer season since 2008 was not seen. We had some good mornings, but landed far fewer fish on the usually reliable Callibaetis spinners. We also missed the fine late season PMD fishing we typically have.
The Fall Season (28 August- 30 November)
I had good hopper fishing in the early fall; however, as is always the case, my fall fishing is limited to the first half of September. I heard that the Fall fishing picked up after I left Island Park.
I salute my 2016 clients. Without exception, they accepted the poor fishing with grace and good spirit. The Ranch selects for impressive clients. They have heard how difficult the fishing is but they are bold enough to give it a try. Many enjoy their first day, even if they don’t land a good fish. Most are captivated by the beauty and tranquility of the Harriman, and until 2016 it was rare they would not see big rainbows sipping flies from the surface of the flat water. Clients often articulate the idea that one good Ranch rainbow taken on a dry fly is more satisfying than 40 Madison fish taken with nymphs and a bobber. It is gratifying to watch clients become competent. On our water, competence is achieved the hard way— by learning to cast accurately, while putting slack in your long leaders to achieve good drifts. Even after acquiring a measure of skill, clients learn that to be consistently successful they must pursue our selective rainbows with relentless determination.
The pictures show the level of joy a Ranch fish can
generate for clients; however, it is naïve to suggest that a picture of a big fish documents a healthy fishery. What the photographs do document is what will be lost if we fail to effectively address the threats the fishery currently faces.
Data Relevant to the Current Status of the Fishery
I asked Ranch regulars for an estimate on what they perceived the percentages of increases or decreases in adult Ranch rainbow populations were in 2016 as compared to recent years. Eight anglers responded with estimates of declines of from 25 to 60 percent. The average for the estimates was a 35 percent decline.
Many Ranch regulars commented on how few fish they were spooking from the banks. One, "Coach” Gary Franke, documents the number of fish he flushes from the banks. His annual numbers have varied from between 40 and 60 fish. In 2016, he spooked 13 good rainbows off the banks.
Perhaps the most sobering data is that my clients invested 11.7 hours for each good fish they landed. The figure can not be explained by suggesting that the anglers did not have the skills that are demanded on the Ranch. Many of the clients had excellent Ranch fishing in other seasons.
Another defining negative of the 2016 season is that none of my clients landed more than three good fish in a day—and only one client landed three. In contrast, as recently as 2014, I had six days when a client landed four to eight good rainbows.
For my first thirty-three seasons of Ranch fishing and guiding approximately 33 percent of the fish we landed were 20 inches or longer in length. This year, the percentage of fish 20 inches or more in length jumped to 46 percent. The logical reason for the increase in fish of 20 inches or larger, is a decline in the age classes of rainbows that are represented by fish of less than 20 inches in length. It is axiomatic that there soon will be a dramatic decline in large fish when the old rainbows die.
There has been a significant reduction in Ranch whitefish. In the1980s, it was often difficult to keep whitefish from taking your flies. During the years of 2012 through 2016, my clients and I invested 2,150 hours fishing and did not land a whitefish. Is it possible the whitefish could be acting as "canaries in the mine” for the Ranch? Another viable explanation is a species specific disease has decimated the population.
We saw significantly fewer aquatic insects in 2016. My clients and I landed 26 fish on Flav duns; however, virtually all other aquatic insects were dramatically down. Here are some stunning historical numbers: PMD duns were my most successful fly type in my first twenty-nine years of Ranch fishing—we used them to take12 percent of the 1,523 fish we landed. In 2016, we took one rainbow on a PMD dun. The decline is not a one year event, in the last five years, the productivity of PMDs has been one-half of what it was, declining from the12 percent figure to 6 percent of all fish taken. In contrast, the Flavs have declined by only two percent—from 9 to 7 percent. Why have the PMDs declined so dramatically while the Flavs have held up? (I look forward to seeing how Rob Van Kirk interprets the variations between the PMD and Flav data.)
In my first twenty-nine years of Ranch fishing, I took 125 rainbows on caddis dry flies. (Over 100 were taken on Mike Lawson’s spent partridge caddis.) From 2014 through 2016, we took 286 good rainbows. Only two of those fish were taken on caddis imitations. My data support the belief held by many experienced anglers that our caddis populations have declined precipitously.
I have compared the percentages of fish I took this year on aquatic and terrestrial insects to those for the period from 1983 through 2011. There are striking disparities—in the early period, 76 percent of the total of 1,523 fish took some form of aquatic insect. In 2016, the percentage of rainbows landed on aquatic insect imitations fell to 58 percent.
Twenty-four percent of my rainbows in the 1983 through 2011 period were taken on terrestrials. In 2016, the figure rose to a shocking 42 percent. I am eager to provide my insect data to Rob Van Kirk to get his professional input. My sense is that the significant variations in the productivity of aquatic insects is a function of the negative effects that climate change, poor winter water flows, alterations in summer flows, and related water quality, are having on our aquatic insects.
The vast majority of my insect data is taken from the assessment of the productivity of the flies my clients and I have fished. I also have anecdotal data that provide support for my findings. In the 1980s, I took photographs of our vehicles after we made evening trips from our Pinehaven cabin to Last Chance. We could not read the front license plates because they were completely covered with caddis flies.
Another anecdotal example was provided by a Ranch regular I trust, Ellen Kirch. Ellen told me that she looked for rock-clinging mayfly nymphs in the river near her Pinehaven cabin. Her searches for nymphs last summer were "dramatically less productive” than they had been in previous years.
Gill-lice parasites were discovered in Ranch rainbows in July. Rob Van Kirk responded rapidly to the news and asked guides to quantify the number of infected fish. I have not seen Rob’s data; but, I found a significant number of infected rainbows.
Anglers did have good days on the Ranch in 2016. On 14 July, I hooked 10 good rainbows and landed 7. Six of the fish were landed on Harrop Flav no-hackles, and one on a Harrop black flying ant; however, one good day, or a few good days, does not speak to the general health of the fishery any more than a picture of a big fish does.
Short-Term Steps We Can Take
If you accept that our rainbow population is at some measure of risk, there are tactics we can employ to reduce the impact of our fishing. When fishing alone, I avoid casting to a fish I think a client or I have previously hooked. I suspect we would all be shocked at how many times some of our rainbows were landed during 2016—particularly during hopper time. The reason fewer fish take us into our backing as in the 1980s, is because many more are being hooked multiple times. Approximately twenty-percent of the 1980s fish took me into my backing. In 2016, with the exception of one day, only one fish took my clients or me into our backings. On the special day, I went to a location that receives modest fishing pressure. My assumption was I might find a fish that had not previously been hooked. I hooked four rainbows, and three took me into my backing. All the fish were stronger and faster than those my clients and I had been hooking.
There are two reasons many rainbows were hooked multiple times in 2016: first, our adult rainbow population is reduced and, second, there are more skilled anglers—who, like guides, share information about where good fish are—investing many more hours on the water after the first week of July than was the case in the 1980s.
Releasing fish quickly after landing them will reduce mortality. To that end, it is critical to limit the number of pictures you take of your rainbows. Two photographs are enough—no matter how impressive the fish. The best strategy is to never take a rainbow out of the water. Recently, I have done that with each special fish I take. (I will concede my thrilled clients often lift a great fish out of the water for a photograph.)
You will reduce mortality by avoiding hooking immature fish. They are more vulnerable to serious injury and stress than the larger rainbows. Since we primarily sight fish, a skilled Ranch angler should be able to determine if his target is an adult fish. In 2016, my clients and I reached 40 good fish landed before hooking our second small fish. Our record in avoiding small fish declined during the second half of the season and we ended up with 79 good fish and an additional 8 small fish—most of the immature rainbows were taken when we were blind fishing hoppers. (If 79 rainbows seems a reasonable for a summer on the Ranch—we landed 118 as recently as 2014.)
Another way to protect fish is to use small hopper patterns. I was aware of the threat imposed by large hooks, but believed if a hopper were a size 8 or smaller the fish were not at risk. I was wrong. A client mortally wounded a twenty inch fish when his size 8 hopper hook punctured a blood vessel in the beautiful rainbow’s throat. I went to size 12 and 14 hoppers exclusively. We have not injured a fish with the smaller flies.
Do not play fish for too long. In the last three years, many exhausted rainbows, including very large fish, have been preyed upon by our expanding pelican population.
By not targeting the same fish too often, not playing fish for too long, avoiding small fish, releasing fish rapidly after you land them, and by not using large hooks, we can make a modest, but meaningful, contribution to protecting our rainbows.
Where We Are and Strategies for the Future
It is easy to be critical of the Henry’s Fork Foundation. I was a board member of the organization and will admit there may have been actions we could have taken decades ago that would have helped us today; however, it is easy to be a Monday morning quarter-back. In the 1980s, it was impossible to anticipate the impact of climate change and the interrelated problem of inadequate winter water flows.
Many of those critical of the Foundation have invested no effort to protect, or monitor the river, and contributed nothing economically to support the river. I do not listen to their critical rants. There are other critics who love the river, have worked most of their adult lives to protect it, and made economic contributions to the Foundation. Their concerns should be listened to—even when they are offered in harsh tones.
Many anglers, including this one, have underestimated the speed with which our rainbows can recover from damage to their habitat. We have learned that reestablishing adequate water flows can result in remarkably rapid recovery of both habitat and fish populations.
Let us not forget, as many do, that the Foundation conducted, or sponsored, the critical research that documented the importance of winter flows to the fishery. In addition, it was the "gentleman’s agreement” achieved by the Foundation that allowed us to get the flows that unquestionably provided for the fine fishing we enjoyed from 2009 through 2015. Anglers who are consistently hypercritical of the Foundation never address either fact. As I said in my 2012 book, "The Foundation is our best hope for preserving a national treasure and, arguably, the world’s greatest dry fly fishery.”
In January 2017, I continue to endorse my last statement but, it does not contradict the disturbing 2016 data. I believe we need to be doing more; moreover, I perceive the worst thing we can do is to provide overly optimistic appraisals of the status of the fishery
I have no sympathy for those who argue that our predicament is a result of a "perfect storm.” Implicit in the comment is that it was impossible to predict any of the threats we now face. Climate change did not begin in 2015 and poor winter flows have been a fact for years. Any well informed person should have been aware of the potentially catastrophic implications of the threats for at least a decade.
Attempts made to suggest that 2016 was a good year on the Ranch are either based on flawed data, or are made with the goal of providing a positive perspective on the fishery. Either reason for the optimistic reports is a disservice to the river. The positive comments are akin to the statement that the Foundation is "on top” of all the problems we face. I see little empirical evidence to support the assertion. For example, I find it disturbing that we have heard so little about the gill-lice pathology in Foundation publications. Another example is how long it took the Foundation to address the hydrological problems caused by the deteriorating irrigation canal at the top of the Ranch.
It is my conviction that we can not afford to allocate resources to activities that do not directly address the health of the river. In the 1980s, I was one of the board-members who endorsed a policy of supporting our Trumpeter Swan population. Helping the swans did nothing for the fishery. While we were attentive to the swans, Rene Harrop asked the tough, but relevant, question of what our work with the swans was doing for the river. (He also made the valid point that the swans were destroying aquatic vegetation.)
As an educator, it is difficult to be critical of programs designed to inform children in the Ashton schools about the fishery. However, in the context of where we are today, I do not believe we have time to allocate resources to projects that are not specifically addressing threats to the river.
As I have said, I celebrated the "gentlemen’s agreement” that allowed us to get better winter flows. Unfortunately, when the agreement was betrayed, what was the response? I have heard the argument that if we had indicated we were outraged, we may have been treated even worse. But where are we now?
The Foundation must do more to monitor the river. It was not the Foundation, but John Wilbrecht who documented the deterioration of the irrigation canal at the top of the Ranch. Why was the Foundation not "on top of” that? You did not need training in hydrology to see the poor state of repair of the canal, the quagmire on the banks caused by leaks, the flows of silt into the river—the worst discharge of silt, which I witnessed, took place as long ago as 2006—and dead rainbows in the canal.
Monitoring is critical because no attention has been directed to the fishery by the staff of the Harriman State Park. I am confident the Harriman family assumed that the State Park staff would be attentive to the river. Could a member of the Foundation’s board, trained as an attorney, look at the documents of property transfer to see if demands for attentiveness to the river by the staff of the State Park were not articulated?
I appreciate the Foundation staff is limited but, why were college students recently told that the Foundation did not need them as free interns? Could they not have monitored the river? (As a function of having taught students who have served as interns for the Foundation, I know they are eminently capable of helping us.)
There is only so much Rob Van Kirk can do but, I would hope we could support his addressing how the recent proliferation of aquatic vegetation in the river in the months of July, and August, is impacting our fish, aquatic insects, and water quality.
Is there an animal, bird, fish, or insect species that no longer is a resident in, or near, the river as a result of a decline in the habitat? We do not have snail-darters but, have we been searching aggressively for some creature that could generate protection? I am not a biologist, but I am confident I saw a fisher at the Second Creek last summer—my understanding is the species is threatened. Are any bird species, such as the long billed curlew, threatened? Could an aquatic insect species be threatened?
The economic implications of a declining fishery for Island Park are disturbing. Unfortunately, why would Idaho politicians argue that agriculturalists should reduce water consumption to help the recreational fishing industry? The Idaho water laws, and the dramatic comparisons of the dollars contributed by agro-business as opposed to recreational fishing to the state economy, provide challenging circumstances for arguing for protection of the river for exclusively economic reasons.
Respected friends say we must hope for good luck and pray for precipitation. I recently read the book, "The Battle of Britain.” How would Churchill and his cast of heroic warriors and workers have faired if their only strategy had been to hope for good luck and divine intervention? Instead, they came up with countless imaginative ideas, and worked around the clock, to address the sobering threats they faced. Most importantly, they never painted a more positive picture than the grim data mandated.
We should not get too excited about a stretch of good weather. Having adequate precipitation in any year should not deter us from relentlessly searching for effective ways to address the hot, dry years that we now know will come.
Could the Foundation reach out to prominent anglers and conservationists of the world for their advice and support? Some might have ideas, and others might raise significant monies, internationally, for the purpose of supplementing the current flows.
Idaho water laws are an immense challenge to achieving adequate flows. In the future, the laws may be deemed a reasonable excuse to use to explain why we were unable to protect the Ranch. I can not imagine anyone deriving solace from the excuse. If the fishery continues to decline, the Foundation will have failed—period.
I have friends who have made extraordinary gifts to the Foundation—how comfortable can we be if we fail to justify the confidence they invested in us. Our failure will essentially be a betrayal of the trust of those who were most generous.
Finally, good fishing on the lower river, the Box Canyon, the South Fork, or the Madison is not Ranch fishing. The loss of quality fishing on the Ranch will be a tragedy. Many Americans would laugh at my last statement; however, members of the international cultures of fly fishing will not. If we fail, it will be eminently reasonable for the most prominent anglers and conservationists of the world to ask, "How could the Foundation have allowed this to happen?”