Fishing in 2018 was better than in 2017. Between 15 June and 14 September, my clients and I landed 106 rainbows of seventeen inches or longer. The figure is almost twice the number we landed in 2017. (I shall not repeat the “seventeen inches or longer” comment as each fish I address met that standard.) Another index of the poor fishing in 2017 is that it was the only year no client took three rainbows in a day. In 2018, clients had six days when they took at least three fish. I, too, had six days of three of more rainbows. My best day produced eleven fish hooked and seven landed. In contrast, my best day in 2017 produced only four rainbows. I am not suggesting that Ranch fishing in 2018 was the equal of our best years. My clients and invested 488 hours on the water, or four and one-half hours for each rainbow landed. (It is important to add that some Ranch regulars had terrible fishing in 2018. I believe the reason is that they did not fish terrestrial dry flies as much as I did. I shall address why I relied on terrestrials later in this piece.)
Our age distribution of fish has changed. In 2018, twenty-six percent of out fish were twenty inches or longer in length. For the thirty-five proceeding years, thirty-four percent achieved the standard. We saw many fish in the fifteen to nineteen-inch category. We still have a small population of extraordinary fish of twenty-three inches or more in length. I took two in 2018. My clients and I have landed only twenty-seven rainbows of twenty-three inches or longer in thirty-six seasons.
Our large fish appeared to be in good health. I found no gill lice. We landed a few thin fish that did not fight well early in the season, but from 1 August on, the majority of the rainbows were in excellent condition. Two fish had gill ulcers. I have encountered the ulcers on at least two fish each year.
For the first time in a decade, a client landed a whitefish. Whitefish declined dramatically after 1992. In the 1980s, we would have trouble keeping whitefish off our flies when we fished Brown Drake imitations. In the seven years since 2011, my clients and I have landed 578 rainbows and one whitefish. Anyone who says that our whitefish have not declined is either poorly informed or a liar.
While most our aquatic insects were down, our Trico duns and spinners were excellent. We had decent PMD duns and spinners, Flav duns and spinners, Blue Wing Olive duns and spinners, and Callibaetis spinners; however, we saw few Green and Brown Drakes and we did not hook a fish on a Mahogany Dun. We had fine populations of terrestrial insects with remarkable numbers of grasshoppers and black flying ants. The one terrestrial species that was down was the honey ant. I saw them in good numbers on only two days. In 2014, 2015, and 2016, I saw honey ants on an average of eight days each year.
Some sections of the Ranch continue to provide evidence of a decline in large rainbows. One is The Flats above the Channels. The only productive fishing we had in the area in the first two and one-half months of the season was to Brown Drakes in late June. In July, I recorded an afternoon water temperature of 74 degrees. As I reflected on the temperature, I wondered if the few days of good Brown Drake fishing may have been a result of lower ambient temperatures in late June.
Another clue to what might be happening was provided by an informative article concerning the implications of climate change on steelhead in The Middle Columbia River as a result of the warming of creeks that feed the Upper John Day River. In the words of Ben Gordon, the Stewardship Director for The Oregon Natural Desert Association, “The cold water that Middle Columbia River steelhead need to survive have been hard to come by in the creeks that feed into the Upper John Day River for decades, and as a result, fish populations have seen a precipitous decline. With a warming, drying climate adding to pressures that include grazing and invasive plants, marshaling the resources to save the steelhead is an urgent conservation priority.”
The Oregon data are supported by reports by fishery biologists in Montana who indicate smallmouth bass are moving well up the Yellowstone River as a function of warming water temperatures. The invasion of the smallmouth into trout habitat has the potential to be catastrophic. The warming water also appears to be having impacts on aquatic insects. The preliminary data suggest that PMDs and Caddis — two types of aquatic insect that have declined dramatically on the Ranch in the last two decades — are declining in Montana.
I wondered if the large fish that vacated The Flats above the Channels after the Brown Drake fishing might return with cooler temperatures in September. They did. My clients and I had several wonderful days fishing Trico duns and spinners. I believe we have to be more attentive to the implications of increased water temperatures on the Ranch. It is axiomatic that the HFF is not going to solve climate change; however, we should diligently study its implications and support organizations and politicians working to address the threat.
We continued to encounter the heavy aquatic vegetation that we have had each summer since 2013; in addition, in 2018, we saw much more floating vegetation. The size of the vegetation varied from large clumps to single strands. On many days, our flies would pick up vegetation on every drift. Invariably, the floating vegetation would increase as the day progressed.
There was a continued decline in fishing pressure on the Ranch above Osborne Bridge. I did not see one walk/wade guide trip on the Top of the Ranch. The argument that there have never been many made in the area is spurious. Less than a decade ago, I had a walk/wade trip above Osborne Bridge Ranch when it was one of four being run that day by TroutHunter.
This report can still provide photographs of beautiful Ranch fish; however, the defining evidence of a dramatic decline in Ranch fishing is the fact that walk/wade guide trips have become rare.
What Anglers Can Do
In these years of fewer large fish, we must protect the rainbows we land. I suspect there is no angler who could not do more to assure every fish he lands is in the best possible condition before being released. Included among the mistakes many of us make are taking too many pictures of fish and releasing them prematurely.
Ranch regular, Coach Gary Franke told me a compelling story about what Mel Sadecki — a well informed angler with a degree in fishery biology — said about the time you needed to allow fish to recover before releasing them. Mel made the comment after he and Gary watched a guy release a rainbow. Gary said, “I didn’t think the fish had been released too soon, but Mel said, ‘That rainbow will not survive; you have to let each fish recover for at least the amount of time you have spent playing it.’” The comment impacted me because of an experience I had when a client used his phone to video his partner playing a fish — the fight lasted fourteen minutes. We spent time with the rainbow, but we did not allocate fourteen minutes.
In August, a client landed a fish that could not stay upright. After holding the fish in the current for ten minutes, it was still weak. I said to my client, “Paul, would you mind fishing down this bank, while I stay with this fish?” He said, “Of course not.” Paul had covered a considerable portion of the bank before the fish became stable and its respiration more regular. I made more of an effort that I would have before hearing Gary’s story.
For those who want to continue to enjoy the Ranch, I believe it is imperative to aggressively fish terrestrial dry flies. If you restrict yourself to fishing dry flies that imitate aquatic insects, your chances of great, long days are modest. I, too, miss the days when you could fish PMDs virtually all day. I am not talking about in 1983, but as recently as 1998. On opening day in 1998, I fished next to Victor Colvard from 9:30 A.M. until 4:30 P.M. exclusively casting PMDs. I hooked nine rainbows and landed seven. Victor had success comparable to mine. Unless we address climate change, and we get decent flows from Island Park Reservoir, we will no longer have days like Victor and I did in 1998.
A Case for Hopper Fishing in 2019
My 2012 Ranch book documents the dry flies which contributed to days when my clients or I landed at least three fish. There were 104 of those days. On 81 percent of the successful days, we used flies that imitated aquatic insects; terrestrial dry flies produced only 19 percent of the “best” days. In glaring contrast, for the seven years since 2011, when my new data collection began after the publication of my book, the percentage of days when aquatic insect imitations were used to take at least three rainbows declined to 38 percent and the productivity of terrestrial flies increased to 62 percent. The stunning variations in the productivity of the respective types of dry flies is not a function of my changing fishing strategies. I cast to rainbows rising to aquatic insects whenever I can. I am confident the primary reasons for the documented variations are a significant decline in some species of aquatic insects, and a remarkable increase in some terrestrial insects.
My adjustment to the decline of aquatic insect has not been to take clients to other water or to fish nymphs with indicators below the Ranch Bridge, drop bead heads off big dries, throw streamers, or strip leeches; rather, it is to aggressively fish terrestrial dry flies. As a result of my focus, I have been captured by our hopper fishing. A primary reason is I love to cast. Effective hopper fishing demands making many casts. This year, a client asked how many casts I make in an afternoon of hopper fishing. I had no idea. To provide an estimate, I counted the casts I made in a typical ten minutes, and then calculated what the total would be if I had maintained that average for the afternoon. The sum was 900 casts. Contrast that with the day when you return to the parking lot after not being able to find any fish rising to aquatic insects and say, honestly, “I didn’t make a cast.”
Hopper fishing has improved my casting. The farther you can stay off a bank, the more likely you will get takes; hence, you are compelled to make long casts. You must also learn how to get adequate drifts. Many anglers have not mastered the techniques of putting slack in their casts, using reach-casts, and feeding line to extend their drifts. I have fed line until I was almost into my backing before a rainbow ate my hopper. You must also develop line speed to cope with our winds.
When the big rainbows ignore my hopper, I derive gratification from simply casting. To enjoy the casting, you must diligently study and practice the skill. As a function of my investment, I annually see improvements such as slightly tighter loops or better reach-casts. In contrast, while I am a passionate bird hunter, I feel no need to practice wing shooting. The reason is the demands of effectively shooting a shotgun are simplistic when compared to the complexity of making an efficient fly cast. Swinging a shotgun is a natural athletic act, like throwing a rock, you “follow through” after generating speed with your arm. The effective fly cast demands you must stop your stroke, and then allow your rod to drift. It is not easy. You will see multiple anglers land great fish on the Ranch; however, you will see very few great back-casts.
The term “blind casting” is deceptive. You need to make accurate casts to likely holding spots. Some trout will move a distance to take a hopper, others will not. Often, you have to run the hopper inches from where a trout is holding.
An invaluable skill to master is casting with your off-hand. If you are right-handed, it is a nightmare to blind cast down the river-left bank when a strong wind is blowing upstream because the line will be blown into your body and even if you avoid the line, the fly will be deposited upstream of your line and jeopardize your drift. The left-handed cast eliminates the line being blown into you and allows for a better reach cast by placing more of the line upstream of your fly. Some argue that only anglers with special athletic aptitude can learn to cast with their off-hand. I disagree. Anyone willing to work hard can master the skill. No, it is not easy. It took me many hours of practice to achieve competence. (One type of practice that was helpful to me was to examine my off-hand casting stroke in front of a full-length mirror. My prediction is the first time you do it, the image will humiliate you; however, if you work hard, your off-hand stroke will improve.)
I love to hook large trout on dry flies. You will hook more of our biggest rainbows with a hopper for a more extended period of time than you will with any other dry fly. Our Brown Drake fishing provides exceptional fish; however, we have an average of two weeks with the big mayflies as compared to ten weeks of hopper fishing.
I have lived a privileged life that has allowed me to fish for trout and salmon around the world. On none of my angling adventures did I take a trout or salmon on a dry fly that was larger than my best Ranch rainbow landed on a hopper. Many of my clients, who have had angling experiences that make mine look modest by comparison, love our hopper fishing. One is a skilled Permit angler who engages in only two types of fly fishing — for Permit in various venues and for trout only on the Harriman Ranch. He loved a hopper afternoon we had in September 2018.
Some friends do not fish hopper imitations because they fear the large hooks will injure our fish. This year, my clients and I cast size 12 and 14 hoppers. It is illogical to argue that size 12 and 14 hoppers are more likely to injure trout than size 8 brown drakes or size 10 green drakes.
To consistently land our rainbows you have to invest the effort to define areas where hopper eating fish hold, identify subtle takes, fish with stealth, learn how to hook fish when you have significant slack line on the water, and develop skills in playing large fish.
Rising rainbows can be vulnerable to a hopper. When guiding, I try to watch my client’s hopper because subtle takes can easily be missed; however, I also search for rises. Not every rising fish will take a hopper, but many will. In addition, you can locate sub-surface, non-rising fish holding near banks or feeding on nymphs. Many will take your hopper.
My hopper success increased when I began to use nylon tippets rather than fluorocarbon, because they will sink less rapidly and not be as likely to pick up vegetation that will jeopardize your drifts. Choose your hopper patterns with care. Many traditional patterns will be refused by our selective rainbows.
Our fish are more likely to take a dead drifted hopper than one that is twitched. Ranch rainbows can differentiate between the natural movements of live hoppers and motion imparted to imitations by most anglers. I do try to “smack” my hoppers down on the water as I believe it will attract fish that may miss a softly landing fly.
You have to develop good timing for your strikes. It is easy to pull your fly out of the mouth of the rainbow that makes a slow, confident rise. You can also be late to the quick strike of another fish.
Working hard is the key the key to consistent success. On three days in 2018, clients used pedometers to calculate the distances we walked and waded. The average, the number of miles we covered each day was 12.25. I shall add that my average guiding day involved 8.8 hours on the water. No, we do not get back to my vehicle at 3:30 P.M.; often, we arrive after 5:00 P.M.
It is essential to maintain focus as you fish. It is not difficult to fish with focus for thirty minutes. To have consistent success, you must maintain discipline for hours. Some of my most gratifying days have come after long periods without fish contact. On 2 August 2018, I fished sections of the east and west banks from the Log Jam to the Hopper Bank. Two hours and forty-five minutes later, I had not had a take nor seen a rise. What sustained me was the confidence that a special rainbow could take my hopper at any instant. I saw the subtle take because of my focus. The fish was a heavy, twenty-three-inch hen that was the best of the 106 rainbows we landed in 2018.
In summary, effective hopper fishing when walk/wading on the Harriman Ranch is not easy. Careful study, diligent preparation, constant focus, and relentless determination are essential.
We have seen a dramatic increase in the use of cane rods. None of the anglers who owned cabins in Pinehaven in the 1980s used a cane rod as their primary fishing tool. Today, several Pinehaven anglers fish bamboo rods daily. I began my serious exposure to cane during the 1990s when I made the decision to allocate all my fishing time to the Ranch. Another stimulus to my being captured by cane was having the opportunity to cast bamboo rods produced by superb makers from around the world at Nelson Ishiyama’s annual cane rod event at the Harriman State Park.
The best of contemporary cane rods are perfect tools for the Ranch. I fished two in 2018, investing over 100 hours with each rod. One was an 8-foot, 6-inch, 5 weight made by Chris Vance of Bozeman, Montana. The other was an 8-foot, 5 weight made by Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, also of Bozeman. They are the seventh and eighth contemporary bamboo rods I have invested significant time with on the Ranch since 1997. Six of the rods were made by great American rod makers — three by Per Brandin, and one each by Tim Anderson, Chris Vance, and Tom Morgan Rodsmiths. Two were made by Japanese makers — one by the elite maker Aki Akimaru.
I enjoyed a 2015 book on casting entitled Fly Casting Finesse. While he fishes graphite rods, the author, John L. Field, examined modern cane rods and visited Per Brandin. He subsequently read my Ranch book. In his chapter on “Tackle” he wrote: “I believe bamboo rod lovers appreciate the craftsmanship and nostalgia, their natural and artistic beauty, and the feedback of the rod’s action. I don’t think John McDaniel catches more big bows because Per’s rods are superior in performance to the best graphite rods; I think he uses them because they give him confidence. I believe using them makes him get closer to those spooky trout and enjoy the presentation casts more intensely.” I get no closer to Ranch rainbows with my cane rods than I did when I was fishing a superb Loomis GLX -5 weight graphite rod in the 1990s. After reading Mr. Field’s comments, I decided to see how far I could cast the cane rod I was fishing at the time — the Chris Vance 8-foot, 6-inch 5 weight rod that weighs only 3.49 ounces. I cast a Rio 5 weight, weight forward, “LT” line. The Rio company says the line is built for “subtle presentation” rather than distance. I have never cast in a tournament, nor fished saltwater flats. My longest cast measured 105 feet.
The two cane rods I used in 2018 established special records for me. Of all the rods I have fished on the Ranch since 1983, the Vance rod produced the lowest number of hours invested for each fish hooked, 1.63. That figure should be viewed from the perspective of the many hours I invest walking to and from the areas I fish. The rod is remarkable and a testimony to a young man who is rapidly becoming known as one of the superstars of cane rod making. If you are interested in a great cane rod, I would look at a Vance rod before you have to wait years to get one. (For information about Vance rods, go to: www.vancecanerods.com)
With the Tom Morgan Rodsmith’s rod, I established my higher percentage of fish landed to fish hooked, 68 percent. If that does not sound high to you, try landing our strong rainbows on light, 6X and 6.5X tippets — particularly when the aquatic vegetation is heavy. (To put the 68 percent figure in perspective, one year my clients landed only 18 percent of the fish they hooked.) The rod handled our strong rainbows perfectly—no sets, no breaks, no ferrule problems in 126 hours of Ranch fishing. The two owners of Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, Matt Barber and Joel Doub, and their talented co-workers, are doing all in their considerable power to produce rods that are a testimony to Tom Morgan’s genius. As a guy who saw Tom as a mentor, I perceive their elegant small shop to be a functional shrine to his memory. I encourage you to look at the great rods being made by Tom Morgan Rodsmiths. (For information about Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, go to: www.tommorganrodsmiths.com or take a tour of their shop in Bozeman.)
A few passionate female anglers have fished the Ranch since the property became public. Two I saw frequently in the 1980s were Bonnie Harrop and Lisa Kikieson. In recent years, I regularly see Millie Paini, Nancy Slatosky, Steph Albano, Trish Rust, Ellen Kirsch, and Sandy Colvard.
I celebrate the guiding trips I have with women. Dr. Anne Colston Wentz took multiple rainbows and a twenty-three-inch fish in each of the single days she fished with me in two different years. Her accomplishment is put in perspective by the fact that of all the other clients I have guided, only three others have taken a single rainbow of twenty-three inches in length; moreover, many have invested multiple days in many different years.
The vast majority of Ranch regulars welcome women. Last year, I saw that support extended to a friend. She and her fiancé were planning to marry in August 2018. They sent Nell and me a wedding invitation that had a picture of them fly fishing the Yellowstone River. We made them a wedding gift of a day of Ranch fishing with me, copies of my book and map, and an evening meal with us at The Henry’s Fork Lodge. I looked forward to our fishing on 22 June with some trepidation as my first week of guiding had resulted in twelve clients landing only six fish. I was thrilled when Ali landed a twenty-inch rainbow. The Ranch regulars who saw her land the great fish effusively celebrated her accomplishment. The end of the improbably perfect day took place at Nelson’s Lodge where we met other Ranch anglers and friends, all of whom could not have been more gracious to, or complimentary of, Ali.
One of my Ranch heroines is Steph Albano. All regulars enjoy interacting with her and celebrate her frequent success with our tough rainbows. She often walks into the Ranch with men, some of whom say things that might be deemed modestly inappropriate in a non-fraternity setting. Steph accepts the comments with poise and grace. She is a skilled angler. Steph is also sensitive to other anglers. One day we both were in Bonefish where Steph was fishing with her father. After we returned to our vehicles, she walked over to me and said, “Did we get too close to you?” I said, “Of course not,” and asked if her Dad had a good day. She said he hooked one fish, and added, “He is a great fisherman.”
No relationship has stimulated more good-natured teasing than that I have with Trish Rust. Trish and her husband, John annually travel all the way from Virginia to spend the summer on our water. I smile when I see them in the parking lot because I know we will have fun talking before we fish. Trish is all business when she begins to fish.
My interest in the role of women on the Ranch received a stimulus this summer when I was introduced to a new worker at TroutHunter. It only took one conversation with Karlie Roland to convince me she was very bright. I told one of the owners of TroutHunter I was thrilled she had been employed. Rich said, “She will also guide for us. She may help break the glass ceiling in Island Park!” (From a historical perspective, we should remember that Lisa Kikiasen was a highly respected guide on the Ranch, and elsewhere, for North Fork Outfitters in the 1980s.) The hiring of Karlie is a great step for TroutHunter. The hire should bring more women to the Ranch. If you are female, I encourage you to try our water. If you are male, I hope you will encourage a female angler to fish the Ranch; or better yet, introduce her to our water. If we are going to protect the Ranch fishery against the sobering threats it faces, we need more women to help us.
John McDaniel, a retired professor of anthropology, began fishing The Ranch in 1983. His academic calendar allowed him to fish daily for at least three months each year. The implementation of that schedule for thirty-six consecutive years has resulted in his investing 13,223 hours on the eight plus miles of water. He has guided exclusively on The Ranch for TroutHunter since 1999. Detailed data on the fishery and the special techniques, tackle, and flies that have evolved to meet its sobering angling challenges are discussed in his 2012 book: Fly Fishing the Harriman Ranch of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River: Lessons Learned and Friends Made Sight Fishing to Selective Trout
John's updated second edition Harriman Ranch Fishing Map is available now. Unlike the first map, it provides free internet access to a 30,000 word “Map Supplement” document which answers many questions raised by the first map, including: The Critical Topographical and Hydrological Features of the Ranch, The Map as a Tool for Navigation, Information on Place Names, Short-Cuts on the Water, The Map as a Fishing Tool, Threats on the Water, The Map and Weather, Interacting with other Anglers, Using the Map to Define Changes in the River, and Using the Map to Define Changes in the Fishery.
The map would make a great gift to a friend you hope to introduce to our water. It is available in two forms: an unfolded version for mounting on a wall, and a folded version for carrying on the river. The map still has the detailed bug chart on its back.