Ranch fishing during the year of COVID-19 was productive; however, that was balanced by significant declines in some species of aquatic and terrestrial insects which, as I shall address in detail in this piece, essentially deprived us of three of our most enjoyable types of dry fly fishing.
My fishing, and this report, were impacted by the fact that for the first time in 22 years I did not guide walk/wade trips on the Ranch. The reason was a trusted client, and physician, told me that he was confident the COVID-19 virus would get to Island Park, and I would be at significant risk at the age 78. He said I should not guide, and I followed his advice.
I fished for three straight months on the Ranch and made the decision to count the fish that friends took who fished with me, so my data would be comparable to that I collected in the years I guided when I recorded all the good rainbows that my clients took, and those I landed when fishing on my own.
The Status of our Aquatic and Terrestrial Insects
We had a stunning period of caddis emergence just before the season opened on 15 June. (I believe the word “stunning” is appropriate because we have seen a steady, and at times precipitous, decline in our caddis since the 1980s.) The fishing to rainbows feeding on adult caddis was excellent for a week after the Ranch opened. We have had dramatic declines and resurgences in a variety of insects since the water became public in 1982, but none of those alterations was as impressive as that we saw with the resurgence of adult caddis at the Top of the Ranch and upstream of the Ranch in the Last Chance from 10 to 22 June 2020.
The sudden return of good numbers of caddis resulted in our having fine fishing with caddis adult imitations for the first ten days of the season. The best fishing took place at the Top of the Ranch. Despite cold, windy weather on many days, I landed 11 rainbows on caddis flies. To put the dramatic return of the caddis in perspective, that is more rainbows than my clients and I landed on caddis flies in the proceeding five seasons of three months of fishing! (My clients and I landed a total of 10 rainbows on caddis imitations in the collective seasons of 2015 through 2019.) After the remarkable caddis fishing when the Ranch opened, we had excellent hatches of Green Drakes and Flavs until well into July. From 19 June until 24 June, we also had decent PMDs on several days.
The excellent Green Drake fishing began on 25 June, and we had good fishing with the big flies into the second week of July. The Green Drake duns were accompanied by spinners in the mornings. My friends and I took 15 rainbows on Green Drake duns and spinners.
The good early season fishing continued into July as we began to hit excellent hatches of Flavs that lasted, remarkably, until the last week of July. We took 24 fish on Flav duns and spinners during the period. Heavy flows from the Reservoir impacted the fishing in July, but we still had good spinner fishing, primarily to Flav spinner imitations, on a number of mornings. Our good fishing was negatively impacted by heavy flows from Island Park Reservoir during the last three weeks of July. I did not take a fish on a Brown Drake, but two good friends had what I would call average fishing to the big bugs on four different evenings in late June.
In August, we had very good fishing with hoppers, flying black ants, and a variety of spinners. The hopper and black ant fishing continued into the first half of September and on some days the fishing with the two terrestrials was excellent. The terrestrial fishing was complemented by good hatches of Mahogany duns in September.
The superb terrestrial fishing produced no less than 60 good rainbows on hoppers, and 32 on flying black ants for me and my friends from the 25 July until 15 September. We invested many hours casting hoppers blind during the period. If you want to hit a wild, resident trout of 20 inches or longer with a dry fly, you will have as good a chance of doing it by casting hopper imitations on the Harriman Ranch from 25 July through the 15 of September as you would on any other water in America.
If you want to derive the greatest satisfaction from hooking and landing the great fish, you will do your blind casting while walk/wading. My last statement is predicated on the reality that the challenges you will face when fishing on foot will be far greater than that if you cast from a boat. The reason is it is much tougher to make good casts, get good drifts, and play fish effectively while wading than it is when you are in a boat that is being maneuvered by a skilled guide. The walk/wading will also test your stamina. So, if you want to do something that is hard, but exceedingly gratifying, try casting hoppers blind for six hours under a western sun in August while walk/wading. After you invest a full six hours wading, and are fortunate enough to hook four or five strong rainbows you have to follow as you play them, let me know what your perspective is on the popular comment, “hopper fishing is too easy.”
The Disturbing Declines in some Aquatic and Terrestrial Insects
On the negative side concerning our bugs, despite having good PMDs on a few days in June, we took only nine fish on them during the entire season. To put that number in context, I took eight great rainbows on PMDs in four hours in an afternoon in 2002!
We also had poor fishing with honey ants and black beetles. My friends and I only had two good days of honey ant fishing and, despite the fact four of us were fishing on both days, we took only six fish between us. The very few days we had successful fishing with honey ants should be viewed from the perspective of the remarkable productivity of the ants during the 38 seasons I have fished the Ranch.
As the following two tables demonstrate, the honey ant has maintained the second highest level of productivity for the thirty-years among those flies that made the, “Top Six Flies” lists for both periods.
TABLE ONE: Top Six Flies for the Period of 1983 Through 2011
1- Pale Morning Duns = 186 or 12.2% of all 1,523 rainbows taken between 1983 and 2011, and 23.1% of the 805 rainbows on this list of the six most productive flies used during the period.
2- Flav Duns = 137 or 17.0% of all the 805 rainbows on this list.
3- Honey Ants = 129 or 16.0% of all 805 rainbows
4- Caddis Adults = 125 or 14.5% of all 805 rainbows
5- Black Beetles = 115 or 14.2% of all 805 rainbows
6- Rusty Spinners = 113 or 14.0% of all 805 rainbows
TABLE TWO: Top Six Flies for the Period of 2012 Through 2020:
1-Grasshoppers = 193 or 20.4% of all 943 rainbows taken since 2011, and 38.2% of all the rainbows on this list, 511, of the six most productive used during the period
2- Black Flying Ants = 91 or 18.0% of the 511 rainbows on this list
3- Flav Duns = 79 or 15.6% of all 511 rainbows
4- Honey Ants = 52 or 10.2% of all 511 rainbows
5- Green Drake Duns = 50 or 9.9% if all 511 rainbows
6- Callibaetis Spinners = 46 or 9.1% of all 511 rainbows
We took no rainbows on black beetles in 2020! From the perspective of my 13,863 hours on the Ranch, the fact we took no rainbows on black beetles seems incredible. Again, as Table One indicates, the black beetle was my fourth most productive fly in the period of 1983-2011.
In my early years on the Ranch, I would not have believed I could fish for three months without landing a rainbow on a beetle. There is no doubt the remarkable productivity of flying black ants in recent years has resulted in my not fishing black beetles as much as I did in my first decade on the Ranch; however, my dependence on the ants was done for the exclusive reason I was seeing many more of them then black beetles. The decline in the productivity of the beetle flies is a function of the fact the insects are not found in the quantities we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. The logical reason for their decline is that they were attracted to diseased conifers near the Ranch water in the earlier years.
Another fly that continued to decline dramatically in productivity was the Callibaetis spinner. We took no fish on the spinners in 2020; in contrast, it was the seventh most productive fly in the 1983-2011 period, producing 105 rainbows. What is fascinating is the Callibaetis spinner continued to be productive in the early stages of the current period of 2012 through 2020. Despite not taking a rainbow on Callibaetis spinner flies in 2020, the fly still ranks as number six in productivity for the period of 2012 through 2020 producing 46, or 9.1 percent, of the top six flies for the period. In each year other than 2020, the spinners produced at least 5 rainbows.
I would argue it is imperative that the HFF examine why the honey ants and Callibaetis spinners have declined so precipitously. There has to be a logical reason(s) why Callibaetis and honey ants have declined. I have heard of no logical explanation—such as exists for black beetles—for the declines in the two insects.
General Fishing Productivity in 2020
In 54 days of fishing on my own, I invested 439.5 hours and hooked 201 rainbows and landed 114 between 17 and 22 inches in length. Twenty-one of the 114 fish were at least 20 inches in length. In addition, my friends who fished with me landed 54 rainbows, and 12 of those fish were at least 20 inches in length. My friends and I collectively took 168 rainbows. Every fish my friends and I landed was taken on a dry fly.
A striking indication of the productivity of our fishing in 2020 is that I took at least one good fish on 47 of the 54 days I fished on my own. That record of landing at least one fish on 87 percent of my days on the water is the second highest for my 38 years on the Ranch. Significantly, the highest percentage of days of landing at least one fish was in 2019 when I landed at least one fish in 37 of the 42 days, or on 88 percent of the days I fished, when not guiding.
It is relevant to add that in many other years prior to 2019, my percentage of days when I took at least one rainbow was significantly lower. I only have to go back to 2016 and 2017 to find examples of significantly less productive fishing. In 2016, I only landed at least one rainbow on 64.2 percent of the days I fished. In the following year of 2017, the average dropped to 51.3 percent. So, the average percentage of days I took at least one fish for the days I fished in the two years of 2016 and 2017 was 57.7 percent. That number contrasts dramatically with the 87.5 percent average I had for days with at least one in fish in 2019 and 2020.
Another index of the productivity of my 2020 season was that I landed an average of 2.1 good rainbows for every day I fished. That includes a couple of days in June when I did not make a cast because of terrible weather. In addition, we had several days of sustained, strong winds out of the north in July and August; in addition, in September, there were five days when visibility in the river was dramatically reduced by discolored water that flowed out of the Reservoir. Finally, there were no less than three weeks in July when we had high water flows from the Reservoir which had negative implications for our fishing.
Perhaps the most positive comment about the productivity of our fishing in 2020 is that I took 6 good rainbows on one day, 5 on three days, 4 on six days, and 3 on ten days. The finding of having twenty days of landing at least 3 good fish was remarkably high from the perspective of all my years of Ranch fishing and guiding.
I shall add the relevant point that unlike my guiding days, there are many days when I fish on my own when I do not invest eight hours, or more, on the water. Some of those “short” days occur when I drive from my home west of Bozeman, Montana, and do not get on the water until late in the morning. On a few of those days, I only fished for four hours. Obviously, those shorter days make the data on multiple fish landed per day more impressive.
The high productivity of 2020 was not a function of my landing a higher percentage of the fish I hooked than I have over my thirty-eight years of fishing. I landed 114 of 201 fish hooked which produced a percentage of fish landed to fish hooked of 56.7. That percentage is lower, but comparable, to what my success rate was in 2019—when it was 58.2 percent. If those two percentages sound low, the percentage of fish landed to fish hooked for my clients in the last year I guided, 2019 was only 28.3, or 32 rainbows landed of 113 hooked.
Respectfully, I am sure most clients do not keep accurate records of the percentage of fish landed of those they hook. Each time I tell an experienced client what percentage of the fish they have hooked to those they subsequently land, it is rare they can believe the figure is as low as it is. (Please do not make the assumption that my clients were limited in skills. There were many highly competent anglers among those I guided.) A lesson all anglers, no matter how skilled, will learn on the Harriman Ranch is that it is very difficult to land a high percentage of our strong, fast rainbows.
The final comment on fishing productivity in 2020 is that my friends and I had 25 days when we collectively landed three or more good rainbows. That is the highest number for any year I have fished the Ranch either on my own or when guiding.
The Status of our Rainbow Population
The number of fish of at least 20 inches in length was significantly lower than I documented in all my other years of Ranch fishing. My friends and I combined total of 20 inch, or longer, fish was 33. That indicates that, collectively, 19.6 percent of our fish were 20 inches or longer in length. It is highly relevant to the nature of the rainbow population that the 19.6 percent figure is stunningly close to the 19.4 percent figure of fish over 20 inches or more in length my clients and I landed in 2019. What makes the two percentages important from the perspective of the status of our fishery is that they are both significantly lower than I documented in all my other years of Ranch fishing. In those earlier years, approximately 33 percent of our rainbows were at least 20 inches in length.
I am not suggesting the decline in the number of rainbows of 20 inches or more in length is indicative of an inferior rainbow population. I suspect most fishery biologists would argue that the 33 percent figure we had for the periods before 2019 and 2020 suggests we had a population that was “top heavy” in large, older, rainbows.
The good weather we enjoyed in the two winters and springs prior to our season also contributed to the fitness and strength of our rainbows. They were on the average, deeper— when measured from the top of their backs to the bottom of their bellies—than in any other year I have fished. I made measurements of the dimension of a number of 22-inch rainbows I took in the 1980s before having a skilled carver make replicas of the impressive fish. The average distance from the top of the back to the bottom of the belly of the 22-inch fish I took in the 1980s was 4.5 inches. In 2020, rainbows of 20 inches and longer, not just 22 inches in length, averaged 4.75 inches in depth.
Another critical finding supporting the special strength of the 2020 rainbows was the average number of them that took me into my backing. That number was 18 out of 100. In my other 37 years of fishing, my annual average of rainbows that took me into my backing was 5 out of 100. I believe the data on the fish that took me into my backing speak to, not simply the remarkable fighting qualities of our special rainbows, but the fact they were in superb physical condition in 2020.
In 2019 and 2020, we, collectively, landed only one fish of at least 23 inches in length. That contrasts dramatically with other years in which we landed many more than one rainbow of at least 23 inches in length. A significant contrast to the “low” number of our largest fish we took in 2019 and 2020 is provided by the two years 2010 and 2011 when my clients and I landed seven rainbows of 23 inches or longer. The lack of 23 inch or longer fish supports the idea we have lost a significant percentage of the older, largest fish that defined our population for many years.
The Movement of Fish as a Function of High-Water Temperatures
In 2019, I documented the exodus of rainbows from the Channels and Flats above the channels as a result of higher water temperatures caused by climate change. Candidly, I anticipated I would see comparable movement of fish in 2020.
In 2020, I did not see the exodus of fish from the Channels as I did from 2016 through 2019. My belief is that the cooler weather and significant precipitation in the winters and springs of both 2019 and 2020, combined with the cool, wet weather in June of 2020, and the high flows from the Reservoir in July, kept the water cool enough to allow the rainbows to stay in the Channels.
Problems in 2020
In 2020, we had an event in September that contributed to the concern many of us have for the implications of poor management of water flows from Island Park Reservoir. On 10 September, I commented to a friend that I had never remembered seeing the water as clear as it was, and we had wonderful Mahogany dun fishing in Bonefish Flats. I looked forward to a few more productive days of fishing which I annually terminate on 15 September.
On 11 September, when I pulled into the parking lot at the Top of the Ranch, another regular greeted me and said, “John, I have never seen the water as discolored as it is this morning.” Larry continued, “I can’t see the bottom from the overlook!” I walked out to the river and confirmed that the water was highly discolored. Shocked, I put my gear together and headed out to Bonefish. The water was as discolored as it had been at the Top of the Ranch. I was surprised that Mahoganies duns still hatched in good numbers, but unlike the day before, I did not see a single rainbow rise.
The HFF commendably provided prompt responses to the highly discolored water in two letters that received considerable circulation among anglers, guides, and outfitters. The letters argued that the discoloration was a function of a natural inversion in the Reservoir that was stimulated by a rapid decline in ambient daily temperatures. One of the HFF scientists predicted the water should clear in “two or three days.”
The water did not clear. When I left on 15 September, the water at the Top of the Ranch was still significantly discolored, and it was difficult to find rising rainbows. After leaving Island Park, I communicated with friends that were still fishing and they confirmed that the water remained discolored. My best sources indicated they did not see “significant improvement in the clarity of the water on the Top of the Ranch until the beginning of October.” That was essentially three weeks after we saw the first discoloration.
I am confident the dramatic discoloration of the water is not simply a function of natural inversion. The most probable causes for the problem include: first, a build up of huge amounts of silt at the base of the dam; second, significant draw-downs in the water in the Reservoir during July of 2020; and third, it is probable that there is deterioration in the equipment which provides for the releases of flows from the dam. Also, divorced from the many inherent problems associated with trying to get adequate flows for a fishery during a period of climate change, is that those in positions of power controlling the releases of water have consistently shown little concern for how the flows impact the fishery.
Will it be easy to address the problems and make the necessary changes that would result in solving the problems? Of course not; however, the first step should be a disciplined, detailed study of the situation. As a life member of the HFF, it is hard for me to believe the leadership of the group would see, at this juncture any other work is more important to protecting the river.
I heard the discolored water in the Middle and Top of the Ranch cleared in October. That is positive, but what are the long-term implications of what occurred during September of 2020? It has to have been detrimental to the health of our fish and insects. Is the HFF currently involved in an investigation to determine what caused the discolored water and what its implications will be for the fishery? More importantly, has the organization addressed how such a disaster can be avoided in the future? It seems imperative that the situation needs to be studied with discipline. If it is not, it is only a matter of time before the Ranch fishery—despite the fine fishing in 2020—will decline dramatically and rapidly.
Looking to the Future
As my data demonstrate, we enjoyed good fishing in 2020. It is also important to add that our mature rainbows were particularly fit. Implicit in what anglers enjoyed was the remarkable resilience of both our fish and our insects.
Accepting those positive facts, I will suggest that unless this nation addresses climate change in more aggressive and effective manners, and the HFF does not achieve adequate annual flows from the Reservoir, the Harriman Ranch fishery will be in serious trouble in a decade, or even less. No, the HFF is not capable of solving climate change, but they should study what climate change is doing to our river, and encourage their membership to support all those conservation groups and politicians who are fighting the threat. The HFF does have the capacity to fight aggressively to achieve adequate annual flows from Island Park Reservoir, and meet the many unique challenges that are presented within the domain of the 8.5 miles of the Ranch water—for example identifying other potential sources of silt flows, such as the irrigation canal was at the top of the Ranch, and the potential decline in the productivity of some of our springs, within the Ranch.
Despite the capacity the fishery has to recover when we get good weather, the cold, hard truth is that we will not have good weather every year; moreover, if nothing of substance is done to address climate change there is no doubt that we will see even hotter, dryer weather in the future. After a series of particularly bad weather years, there will be a catastrophic decline in the quality of the fishery.
It is sobering to say, but I will make the prediction that unless we see dramatic changes in what the HFF does in meeting the many future threats the Harriman Ranch fishery will face, we will not believe how good the 2020 fishing I have just described was when viewed from the perspective of 2030.