The 2022 Season on the Harriman Ranch
In 2022, Ranch fishing was the worst I have experienced over 40 consecutive years and more than 14,800 hours of angling and guiding. An index of how recently a major part of the decline has taken place is provided by the fact my clients and I were on the water for 497.5 hours in 2022 and landed 115 rainbows of at least 17 inches in length. (From here forward, every rainbow, or fish, I address will be at least 17 inches long.) In contrast, in 2020 we took 168 rainbows in 420.5 hours. The disparity in productivity of the respective years of fishing is dramatic. In 2020, we averaged taking a rainbow every 2.5 hours. In 2022, it took us 4.3 hours to land each fish.
While there are many reasons for the poor fishing, I deem the most important to be the catastrophic decline in many species of aquatic insects. If prior to 2010 someone had told me I would invest 497.5 hours fishing or guiding over the three months when PMDs traditionally are abundant and land only two rainbows on PMD flies, I would have laughed at them. If it had not been for our grasshoppers, 90 percent of my hours of fishing and guiding after 10 August would have been a disaster. The dramatic decline in PMDs has been relatively recent. As late as 2002, I landed eight rainbows in 5 hours of fishing Harrop no hackle PMDs.
The decline in Callibaetis, Mahoganies, and many species of caddis have been comparable to the PMDs. There remain decent populations of Green Drakes, Brown Drakes, Flavs, and Tricos; however, their much shorter hatching periods result in having more limited opportunities to take rainbows on flies imitating them.
In recent years, grasshopper imitations have been remarkably productive. From 1983 though 2011, my clients and I averaged landing 2.9 rainbows a summer on grasshopper imitations. In the last three years of 2020, 2021, and 2022, we averaged 58.6 fish annually on the big dry flies. The logical explanations for the increase in productivity of the hoppers is that hatches and spinner falls of aquatic insects have declined while grasshoppers have multiplied in our warming climate.
It is not just hoppers that have increased in numbers. The increases in flying black ants have been significant as well. In a comparable manner, PMDs are not the only aquatic insects that have declined. Data that support that general assertion are provided by the number of rainbows my clients and I have taken on flies imitating aquatic as compared to those representing terrestrial insects since I began my Ranch fishing in 1983. For the period of 1983 through 2011 we took 76 percent of our rainbows on imitations of aquatic insects and 24 percent on imitations of terrestrial insects. In the three years of 2020 though 2022, we took 32.2 percent of our rainbows on aquatic imitations and 67.8 percent on terrestrial flies. The data are particularly disturbing because the Harriman Ranch fishery had been celebrated by experienced anglers throughout the world for its immense and diverse populations of aquatic insects.
The decline in the productivity of aquatic insect imitations is also supported by looking at two eighteen-day periods during which I fished and guided in 2022. The first period ran from 21 June through 28 July. The second period extended from 19 August through 11 September when grasshoppers were abundant. I missed days during both periods but every day I fished or guided was recorded. In the first period, my clients and I landed 19 rainbows, or 1.05 per day. During the second period, we landed 49 rainbows or an average of 2.72 daily. During the first period we had nine days when we did not land a rainbow. In the second period we took at least one rainbow each day. If you have not fished the Ranch, you may not perceive 2.72 fish per day to be impressive. Averaging 2.72 wild rainbows of at least 17 inches in length per day when fishing only dry flies is an accomplishment on, arguably, the most challenging dry fly water in the world.
Another index of the significantly more productive fishing in the second, “hopper period” is we had eight days when we landed at least three rainbows. There were five days of three rainbows, one day of four, and two of five fish. In stunning contrast, in the first period we only had two days when we took at least three fish. For the first time ever, we had no days of landing either three or four rainbows.
The most significant factor influencing the disparity in success in the two periods is the success of hoppers imitations in the second period—44 of the 49 rainbows we landed were taken on hopper flies.
Another index of the decline in our fishing in the last four years is we landed only one rainbow of at least 23 inches in length. In the two years of 2010 and 2011 we landed seven rainbows that reached 23 inches. (Over my 40 years, we have taken 720 rainbows of at least 20 inches in length, but only 28 reached 23 inches.)
I was not the only Ranch regular or guide who reported significantly reduced fishing success in 2022. My good friend, Gary Franke, who has spent many days over multiple years fishing at Evansville, just upstream of the Top of the Ranch, said simply, “It is the first year we had many days without any rising fish.” When we look at the Harriman East, we also saw significant declines. The superb guide Zach Wheeler said to me, “John, I had my worst day ever on the Harriman East yesterday.”
Negative comments about the health of our fishery have been made earlier than 2022. On 12 July 2017, I attended a talk given by the HFF’s senior scientist, Rob Van Kirk at the Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch. The talk was entertaining and informative. After Rob concluded, I asked him for his perception of the future of the Harriman Ranch fishery. He said, “I think we may have 20 more years of trout fishing.” I was stunned. Would our grandchildren have no trout fishing on the Harriman Ranch? I sincerely believe Rob was not being overly pessimistic. My even more sobering prediction is we will no longer have quality trout fishing before the remaining fifteen years of Rob’s predicted period ends. The only hope to avoid that disaster is to make dramatic improvements in protecting the fishery.
I am confident the decline in the productivity of fishing in 2022 is a function of a cumulative decline in the Harriman Ranch habitat for both fish and aquatic insects. In the context of that decline, the myriad negative impacts of Island Park Reservoir have been critical. Of particular importance have been modest water releases in the cold temperatures of Island Park in the late fall and winter when anchor ice forms in the river. In addition, high, and variable, water releases during the summers, particularly in the month of July, have altered the feeding patterns of our rainbows, and disrupted insect hatches. Another problem is that in the summers, the shallow Reservoir produces both high water temperatures and immense quantities of silt, algae, and aquatic vegetation that flow into the river.
I don’t care if you deem the terms “climate change” or “global warming” less than precise in defining reasons for the increased temperatures we are experiencing, if you argue that Ranch water temperatures have not increased dramatically, you are wrong. What is disturbing to me is that the Henry’s Fork Foundation (HFF) rarely addresses climate change or global warming. To assess if my last comment might be inaccurate, I went through ten reports I had kept from the organization since I became a life member in the 1980s to see how often I found the words “climate change”. I did not find the words in any of the reports. (The ten reports I examined were published in the last twelve years after the term climate change became frequently used.) Assuming other small environment organizations might also avoid the use of the term “climate change” I examined reports from The Oregon Natural Desert Association—another group to which Washington and Lee University(W&L) has sent students. I consistently found the words, “climate change” in their publications. Is there a logical reason relevant to protecting the fishery, why the HFF has not addressed climate change or global warming? I do not expect the Foundation to solve the problem of climate change but that does not lift from them the responsibility of determining the impact it is having on the fishery.
I have recorded water temperatures on the upper Ranch. In the interest of brevity, suffice it to say that in August 2022 on the Ranch above Osborne Bridge water temperature averaged 63 degrees at 9 a.m., 68 at 12 noon, and 71 at 4:30 p.m. The highest temperature I recorded was 74.5 at the Log Jam at 4:30 on 17 August. In August, I never had a late afternoon temperature below 70 degrees above Osborne Bridge.
Do not accept the spurious theory that all flows entering the river will decrease water temperatures. Yes, spring creeks will reduce temperatures; however, other flows, such as those that come out of impoundments, such as Silver Lake and Golden Lake, can have higher temperatures than the river. I took the temperatures in the Flats above the Channels and got a reading of 68 degrees at 10 a.m. The temperature of the water flowing from Silver Lake at the same time was 73 degrees before it entered the river a short distance downstream of the Flats above the Channels.
Why are water temperatures from all sections of the Ranch not being regularly documented by the HFF? A client told me that a HFF employee responded to his question about the disturbingly high temperatures I had recorded above Osborne Bridge by saying, “Don’t worry about those temperatures McDaniel is taking, there are good temperatures on the Harriman East.” It is embarrassing that a HFF employee would cite those temperatures. The reason is they were taken downstream of Big Osborne Springs which reduces the temperatures in the river by an average of about ten degrees. To suggest those temperatures are indictive of temperatures on the majority of the Ranch water is either embarrassingly naïve or an attempt to suggest the health of the river is better than it is.
Another disturbing development is the catastrophic decline in our native whitefish. In the last four years my clients and I have landed 568 rainbows and not one whitefish. Anglers who fished in the 1980s, had trouble avoiding whitefish. In 1989, I hooked six large whitefish in a row when I was trying to get my Brown Drake imitation to a rainbow. The precipitous decline in whitefish began in the fall of 1992 as a function of a dramatic draw-drown of the Reservoir. Tons of silt were released into the river. Several experienced anglers thought the Ranch fishery had been destroyed.
Damaging flows from the Reservoir did not end in 1992. On 10 September 2020, during a period when I was fishing every day, I commented to a friend that I never remember seeing the water as clear as it was. On 11 September, at the top of the Ranch, I waded into water that was highly discolored. The HFF responded to the discolored water in two letters that said the discoloration was a function of a natural inversion in the Reservoir that was stimulated by a rapid decline in ambient daily temperatures and predicted the water should clear in “two or three days.” The water did not clear. When I left Last Chance on 15 September, the water was still discolored. After leaving Island Park, I communicated with friends who said they did not see “significant improvement in the clarity of the water until the beginning of October.” I am confident the dramatic discoloration of the water was not simply a function of natural inversion. The most probable causes include significant drawdowns of the Reservoir during July of 2020 which resulted in silt being deposited throughout the Reservoir and a build up of huge amounts of it at the base of the dam. Second, there is a probability there has been deterioration in the equipment used for the releases of flows from the dam. Finally, those controlling water releases are not concerned about the detrimental impacts on the fishery.
Will it be easy to address the problems and make the necessary changes that would result in solving these problems - of course not; however, the first steps are to accurately define the problems, never underestimate the potential the problem has to damage the fishery, and do not articulate reasons for the problem unless they are valid.
It is easy to be critical of the HFF. Each of us should acknowledge how difficult it would have been for any organization to address the profound problems implicit in trying to protect a river on which an impoundment had been constructed. Many impoundments, particularly those built in the first half of the 20th century and maintaining shallow water, have destroyed, and are destroying, great fisheries. To be fair, the HFF has worked to address the critical problems that the Reservoir has imposed on the fishery. Valuable research, implemented primarily by Jack Griffith and his associates in the early years of the HFF, demonstrated how damaging poor flows were to the fishery. Attempts were made to achieve better flows. There was even a consideration of “buying water” that would be released at times conducive to the health of the fishery. The attempts failed to alter the decline in aquatic insects and fish. (I will suggest that any argument made that, “some success was achieved with water releases” can be rejected by how dramatic the decline in the fishery has been.)
At one juncture in the HFF’s now almost half-century effort to protect the fishery, a Ranch regular approached me with the idea that a few of us should band together, “To see what we could do to get the water releases the HFF has failed to achieve.” My response was that I thought we would be no more effective than the Foundation had been. I added that the power of agriculturalists in Idaho is highly relevant to the profound difficulty implicit in any attempt to alter water releases from the Reservoir. All of us should have the integrity to admit the organization has faced immense challenges in trying to protect the fishery from the negative impacts of Island Park Reservoir.
Another avid Ranch angler made the bold suggestion that an effort should be made to try to address the major problem caused by the dam by dredging silt out of the Reservoir. Yes, it would be an immense undertaking and no doubt exceedingly expensive, but it may be the only realistic way to save one of the great fisheries of the world. The bright guy suggested you might be able to sell agriculturalists on the idea by making the honest argument that you would create more storage for their water needs.
My sympathy to the Foundation’s inability to effectively address the sobering challenges presented by the Reservoir is not mirrored by how they, and The Harriman State Park (HSP), have failed to address problems within the borders of the HSP. A significant problem that persisted for over a decade was the flow of high quantities of silt from the deteriorating irrigation canal near the northeastern border of the Harriman property. The worst flows from the canal were in 2006–well before the HFF made any effort to address the problem. Not only did huge quantities of silt enter the river at the First and Second Irrigation Outlets but there were annual escapes of water from the canal which turned the area between the canal and the river on the river-left bank in the most northernmost half-mile of the river on State Park property into a quagmire in the month of June. It is my sincere belief the only reason action on the canal was finally taken by the HFF was that a Ranch regular, John Wilbrecht—who had a career working with water challenges on public property though out the American West—produced a comprehensive paper on the problem, complete with photographs of dead rainbows in the canal. Before John’s paper was produced the HFF had articulated that the canal provided good habitat for juvenile trout. That sentiment was made public in a poster that was put up in the parking lot at the top of the Ranch.
It is only fair to suggest that leadership at the HSP should also have made efforts to repair those parts of the irrigation canal that were deteriorating on their property. They did nothing. The HSP was also responsible for allowing the Ranch bridge to deteriorate. That problem was not addressed by the HSP until it was too late to repair the beautiful, historic bridge. Finally, in all my hours on the Ranch I have seen only one HSP employee working on or near the river—and on that occasion the guy was looking for a lost child. I think it is inexcusable that the HSP has not mandated employees to regularly examine the 8.5 miles of the Henry’s Fork that flows through their property. That would have resulted in numerous threats to the river being defined.
Why hasn’t the HFF initiated a study to determine precisely why our whitefish have declined so precipitously? In the context of the whitefish, a client said to me that an HFF employee told him, recently: “There are still good populations of whitefish on the Ranch.” Why would that statement be made? Is it simply a profound lack of knowledge or is it be an attempt to suggest the health of the fishery is better than it is?
A very disturbing development in the fishery is the proliferation of aquatic vegetation, clumps of algae, and floating grass. Yes, the problem is initiated at the Reservoir, but there are circumstances on the Ranch that contribute to the situation. Vegetation flourishes in the river and grows in, and flows from, the canals, streams, and lakes on the State Park property that enter the river. The problem has not been addressed effectively by the HFF, or the HSP. In 2022, there was more vegetation in the river than I have seen before. Previously, I never encountered a section of the river in which I quit fishing because it was impossible to avoid getting vegetation on my fly. One day in August 2022, I quit hopper fishing in the Avenue of the Giants because I hooked vegetation on every cast.
Not only has there been a decline in our aquatic insects but we are also seeing the diminishing size of many species. For years, we could look forward to size 14 PMDs in June. In June 2022, it was difficult to find a PMD as large as a size 16 let alone 14. I saw more small Mayfly duns in 2022 than any previous year. There were tiny Callibaetis, and Tricos. One fishery biologist with whom I communicated said the smaller sizes of the aquatic insects is a response to higher water temperatures.
You do not have to be a fisheries biologist to quantify the decline in aquatic insects. Students who worked for the HFF could have provided data on aquatic insects if they had been mandated to collect samples of the insects. Relevant to my comment on what students could have done on the river, in the last decade, I have seen far fewer HHF administrators, scientists, or University students working under HHF guidance on the Ranch water than I did in the 1980s and 1990s. (I still see the HFF’s senior scientist, Rob Van Kirk often, but he is the only employee, or student, I have seen on the river in the last five years.) In the early years of the W&L Knight program, I saw HFF employees and students on the water weekly.
I hope the failure to see students working for the HFF on the river is not because the Foundation feels it is more valuable to have them produce questionaries that they hand to anglers in Ranch parking lots. It is a harsh comment to make but as one who has worked with the production of questionaries oriented to collecting data, any student of mine who produced a questionnaire of the quality of the one HFF employees handed to me would have received a “C-” for his, or her, effort. I am confident no findings of consequence were gleaned from the questionnaire.
Can anyone mandated specifically to protect the welfare of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake, honorably make the case that allocating resources and time to the South Fork of the Snake is more important than directing all your time, effort and money to the terrible threats that are impacting the Henry’s Fork fishery? Was the decision made because Foundation leaders believe all is ideal with the Henry’s Fork fishery? That is inconceivable. I am not suggesting the South Fork of the Snake is not worthy of being protected; however, the organization that implements that effort should be: The South Fork of the Snake Foundation. I will add that is seems reasonable to ask that if a family member made a gift to the HFF before their death, and before the decision was made by the HFF to allocate at time to the South Fork fishery, it would be eminently reasonable for the surviving family members to see that act as a betrayal of trust to their family member who, in good faith perceived the organization to whom the gift was made would see all their efforts would go to protecting the Henry’s Fork—as is the articulated mission of the organization. (My last statement is based on the assumption that the mission statement has not been changed to accommodate the effort directed to the South Fork.)
I feel compelled to suggest if it is not fair to ask if some HFF workers are not actually disputing what is, in fact, taking place in the fishery, or are in denial about what has transpired. How else can the response to the question about the disturbingly high-water temperatures some are taking regularly on all sections of the Ranch above Osborne Bridge be: “There are good water temperatures on the Harriman East.” How about another HFF employee having the audacity to say: “There are good populations of whitefish on the Ranch.”
My suspicion is that the leadership of the Foundation may understand they can not effectively address the problems the fishery faces and are trying to present the best picture they can so that cash flows to the organization remain strong.
Again, it is easy to be critical. I will take a shot at myself for not being more prompt, and candid, with my critiques of the HFF. It may be too late now. That is my fault for not speaking out early enough. The only hope we have is to demand that more be done quickly to have a chance of saving the fishery.
Reasons for Continued Efforts
What follows is not a contradiction of my statement that 2022 provided the worst Ranch fishing I have experienced. Nor does it suggest that any of the current problems addressed have been exaggerated; however, there remain rainbows that are fit and continue to provide thrills that still allows the Harriman Ranch to be as exciting a place to fish dry flies for large resident trout as any place in the world.
I have never taken resident trout anywhere else in the world on a dry fly that provided as challenging and thrilling experiences—as defined by the degree of difficulty of hooking them and the strength speed and jumping ability they displayed after being hooked—as a few I took on the Ranch in the terrible year of 2022. No, I have not fished as many great waters of the world as Lee Wulff, Al McClane, or Nelson Ishiyama, but in addition to the more than 14,800 hours I have invested on the Ranch, I fished daily in New Zealand for four months, the Isle of Skye and the islands of the Outer Hebrides for two months, and have fished, often for more than a couple of days, in Peru, Argentina, Chile, England, Norway, France, Scotland, twenty-six American states, and six Canadian provinces.
The purpose in documenting the following five experiences I had on the Harriman Ranch in 2022 is to make a case for what remains to be lost if we allow the fishery to continue its decline. It is not just the qualities of our rainbows that makes the Ranch experience special; on the contrary, the nature of our water is critical. The slow flow and clarity of our water gives our rainbows the opportunity to carefully inspect every fly they see. Unlike many spring creeks which may impose challenges in hooking fish, our rainbows are not trapped in small pools. In the context of my last statement, one of my heroes, and mentors, the late Tom Morgan, told me about the largest trout he ever took on a dry fly. Tom landed the great fish on a small Montana spring creek. When he hooked the trout, it had nowhere to run. Tom allowed it to exhaust itself swimming in small circles in the tiny pool in which it was trapped. Tom’s experience would not take place on the Ranch. On our water, a rainbow of comparable size to Tom’s will take you into your backing and thrill you with its long runs and spectacular jumps. The following stories demonstrate what will be lost if the Harriman Ranch fishery continues its decline.
Two Rainbows in One Net
On 26 June 2022 I had a full day to fish after several days of guiding. I was scanning the river right bank below Houdini, when I saw a large fish eating what I thought were Green Drakes near the mouth of the Second Creek. I got so close to the rainbow in the shallow water that I kneeled to cast. After he refused every one of my Green Drake imitations, I saw one Brown Drake spinner on the water. He ate the Doug Meikle Brown Drake Spinner on its first drift.
He raced downstream and I stood up to follow him. My legs cramped and I fell in the shallow water. Somehow, he stayed on as I struggled to get up. I am sure I looked crippled as I followed the fish on cramped legs. In seconds, the fast rainbow was into my backing and headed toward my friend Chad Saunders. By remarkable coincidence, Chad had just hooked a rainbow near the Small Grassy Island, which was about 300 feet downstream of me. As I played my fish, I moved toward Chad. After he netted his fish, Chad yelled, “Do you want me to try to net yours?” I said, “You bet!” After a couple of hectic minutes, two great rainbows were in the same net.
After landing the two rainbows with Chad, I moved into the Islands and found several rising fish. I was at the downstream end of Frosty’s Island when a big rainbow ate my Flav spinner and ran at me with shocking speed. I frantically stripped in line, but it went slack. I cursed, loudly. I would have loved to have seen the expression on my face when, suddenly, there was a violent jerk on my line and the still hooked rainbow headed for Bonefish Flats. A few exciting minutes later, I had the 19-inch fish.
Late in the afternoon, I was celebrating hooking five good fish and landing four. In addition to being pleased, I was exhausted. At 7 p. m., I pulled myself up the steep bank on the river left side of Trico Cove and began the 50-minute hike back to the parking lot. I was on the Hopper Bank when an impressive rise fifteen feet off the bank stopped me. As a function of my fatigue, I made the unusual decision to cast from the bank with a Brown Drake spinner. The big fish ate it confidently and tore upstream. I have never seen a resident trout move faster. I could not turn him until he got well into my backing. I stepped off the bank to follow him. He fought me all the way to the net. He was 21 inches long and a shade under 5 inches in depth.
After giving the fish time to recover, I headed back up the bank. After walking 200 yards, I encountered a young angler who said. “I can’t believe how long you played that fish.” I was too tired to respond to him with anything but a smile. On the thirty-minute walk back to the parking lot, I fell flat on the trail—twice!
The Acrobatic Rainbow
In August, I was fishing with my good friend, and former client, Paul Bente at the top of the largest island in The Islands. I was casting into the bank from a distance of about 50 feet when I saw a modest rise directly downstream of me—not more than 20 feet away. I wondered if it were worth a cast as I suspected the rainbow was aware of my presence. I made the short cast. A huge mouth broke the surface and engulphed my hopper. The rainbow raced upstream and then shattered the surface of the water with a spectacular leap, shaking his deep body from side to side. Paul exclaimed. It was the first of seven impressive jumps the athletic fish would make. Between the leaps, the powerful fish would dart up the river ripping line from my reel.
I have landed about a dozen Atlantic Salmon. I love the spectacular jumps you get from what many experienced anglers call the “king of freshwater gamefish.” This great rainbow’s leaps would have impressed an Atlantic Salmon angler. After I landed the rainbow, Paul and I were stunned by the bright colors of the fish. The attached picture is of the 21-inch Ranch rainbow. We wondered if he had earned the brilliant colors with his jumps.
A Rainbow that was Almost 23 Inches in Length
In late August, I was again fishing with Paul Bente. We were at the top of Bonefish Flats near the two smallest, and most southerly, of The Islands. I had seen a good fish rising tight to the bank of the western most small island a couple of day before. I was trying to put a hopper close to the island from a distance that made it unlikely a bank holding fish would detect me. When I reached the downstream end of the island, I prepared to lift my hopper off the water when a rainbow crushed it. He exploded and tore through the shallow water running as if he would not stop until he got to the Ranch buildings. Paul saw me playing the fish and came toward me rapidly with his net in his hand. Significant time would pass before we even thought about using the net.
I would love to know precisely how far we followed the strong fish through the impossibly shallow water of Bonefish Flats. Paul and I thought it had to have been more than 400 feet. When his defining endurance was finally spent, Paul got him with a desperate lunge of his net. The walk back to the island, holding the fish upright in the water in the big net seemed to take forever. The great fish was 22.75 inches in length and 5 inches deep.
I shall make a humbling statement about the 22.75-inch rainbow. As I have said, in my 40 years of fishing and guiding, my clients and I have taken only 28 rainbows that were at least 23 inches in length. In 2022, a client, good friend, and avid Ranch angler Jason Morey, fishing on his own, took a 22.75-inch fish on a Brown Drake at close to 10 p.m., in the Channels after I had guided him for a full day. When he told me about the big rainbow, I admitted, with humility, that I probably would have been able to “get” an extra .25 of an-inch to include fish in the very exclusive category of rainbows of at least 23 inches in length. The ethical lesson I learned from Jason convinced me not to work to get the extra fraction of an inch out of the big rainbow Paul and I took in Bonefish Flats. As I have said often, one of many things I love about guiding is what I learn from my clients.
The Top of Trico Bay Surprise
It was early in September at the end of a long afternoon of diligently casting hoppers blind to the river left bank from The First Irrigation Outlet through Blind Man’s Bay. It was 4 p.m. and I had not had a rainbow come to my fly. I gave myself a pep talk to continue to fish with focus. I was not optimistic I would get a take in the hour of hopper fishing that remained. It takes relentless determination to consistently take Ranch rainbows.
I was about 100 yards above the beginning of Trico Bay when I decided to cover some deep water about 100 feet off the bank. I stayed well back from what I thought would be the most likely spots a big rainbow would hold. I derived pride from making the long casts— particularly when it is with a superb 8.5 foot, 6 weight cane rod the great maker, Jack Coyle made for me, specifically for hopper fishing in May of 2022.
After an unproductive 20 minutes of casting, a big rainbow sucked my hopper under with a barely perceptible take. I lifted and he tore downstream, slashing through the surface of the flat water. I followed the fish for 300 feet until I was fighting her at the top of Trico Cove. I put as much pressure as I dared, periodically rotating the rod in my hand to even the pressure being placed on each of its sides. The hen was 21 inches long and 4.75 inches deep.
I checked the Coyle rod. It was perfectly straight. Some experienced Ranch anglers have suggested our wide river and strong rainbows impose too much stress on cane rods. I disagree. In 103.25 hours of fishing the Coyle rod in 2022, I hooked 47 fish and landed 29 with 10 of the fish at least 20 inches in length. After the season, I compared the percentage of fish landed to fish hooked with both the Coyle rod and a wonderful 5 weight, Loomis 9-foot GRX graphite rod. I landed 62% of the fish hooked with the Coyle rod. The number for the Loomis rod was 54%. I believe great contemporary cane rods will land a higher percentage of our fish because they are more sensitive than even the finest graphite rods.
A Great Day with Clients
I shall address the remarkable success two clients, Art Bartholomew and Joel Darras had with me in 2022. Both anglers are regulars on the Delaware River. During our day, they hooked 10 large rainbows and landed six. We were very lucky as we hit Flav spinners in the morning, Green Drake duns at mid-day, and Flav duns late in the afternoon. It was the only day of the summer I had productive fishing to three different types of dry flies imitating aquatic insects. Yes, Art and Joel were lucky, but it was their skill, and determination that made the day so productive.
After watching the two men make great casts and play our fish effectively for the entire day, I asked Art how often he practiced his casting. He responded, “I only fail to cast about five or six days a year.” Stunned, I responded, “Are you saying you cast about 360 days a year? He smiled and said, “Yes.” His comment is highly relevant to the great day the two anglers had on the Harriman Ranch.
Reflections on the 2022 Season and What Can be Done
Despite the decline in Ranch fishing, as the stories above indicate, the water still affords unique, world class angling experiences. If the fishery continues to decline it will not only be heart breaking for those who fish it for many days each year but for all dedicated fly anglers of the world.
That disaster will only be avoided if the HFF directs all its attention, exclusively to the threats the fishery faces, implements intelligent, aggressive strategies which should put more employees and students on the water for longer periods of time, and allocate all their resources, both in dollars and time, to the Henry’s Fork fishery.
As an example of what could be done, what would prevent guides and Ranch regulars from collecting data during their fishing days? An example of the type of important information guides could provide is afforded by the fact it was guides who discovered gill lice in our rainbows. The guys who did that were not fishery biologists with PhDs, but curious, attentive guides.
I have collected about 20 photographs of what I call “ulcers” on the gill plates of our rainbows. I have asked several experienced anglers about the ulcers and have not received what I deem to be a reasonable explanation for what causes the condition. I believe it is a pathology and suspect we could get a definition of it if we had more pictures of fish with the ulcers and then had them examined by experts on fish pathologies. Why has the HFF not done that?
My examinations of who has been responsible for the timely reporting of damages to the fishery, such as flows of silt into the river, demonstrates it has always been guides or Ranch regulars. We should encourage more anglers to be attentive and then demand that the HFF develop rapid methods of responding to the problems the anglers identify.
I would suggest the “data” I have collected in my fishing journals has effectively documented the dramatic decline in aquatic insects. Other Ranch regulars and guides could make similar, or better, efforts that provide insights on the status of the fishery.
Creative ideas could be generated that would allow guides and Ranch regulars to provide other types of insights. One great example of how important that could be has already been provided by Ranch regular John Wilbrecht’s investigation of the deteriorating irrigation canal.
It would be invaluable to have a scientist help the guides collect relevant data. Rob Van Kirkcould do a great job overseeing such “research.” I believe our clients would actually enjoy allocating a small fraction of their fishing time to collecting information that could help protect the river they love.
Would it be too much to ask some HSP employees to spend significant time on the river to report problems with the fishery? I am confident the generous Harriman family assumed HSP employees would work to protect the river that defined their incomparable property. It would be fantastic if the HSP employees spent half the time on the river as they do in parking lots inspecting stickers.
In the context of expectations of the HFF, I believe it is time that avid Ranch anglers demand that more be done to protect the fishery. That demand could be predicated on the expectation that if it is not done, it will result in a cessation in our contributions to the organization. I have asked members of the HFF and Ranch regulars for comments on this piece. The responses were shockingly detailed and thoughtful. Three subjects were consistently addressed. They were universal support for my statements documenting the dramatic decline in the fishery, universal support for the need to do more to protect the Henry’s Fork fishery, and, finally, universal questioning of why the HFF is allocating time to the South Fork of the Snake.
The Fire of 3 September 2022
I was in Trico Bay with a client when I heard Ranch regular Rusty scream, “There is a fire at the top of Hopper Bank.” I climbed out of the water and saw not only smoke, but flames. My client and I moved rapidly toward the fire. We were going at a good pace when my client began to breath deeply. I worried about the impact our pace would have on him and told him to stay at the Meat Hole. I hustled to the fire and found a small group of anglers fighting the fire with wading staffs and nets and carrying water to it in their hats. I joined in and badly burned a Brodin net that a generous client, and now good friend, Dr. Randy Shannon gave me. We were barely holding our own when help came in the form of fire trucks carrying water. The professionals got the fire under control.
I did not see how the fire was started. The professional fire fighters were confident it involved human carelessness. One suggested it was started by an angler’s cigarette. Another said it was started by an angler who defecated near the river and then ignited his toilet paper. If that sounds implausible, a fire was started by an angler in precisely that manner on the Beaverhead River.
The attached picture is of five of the anglers who “fought” the fire. When I called TroutHunter to tell them the fire was no longer a threat, I used Frosty’s great line, “We need some imitations of burnt hoppers down here.
I was not the clever angler who coined “The Harriman Ranch Smoke Jumpers” phrase used to define the not too impressive looking group of non-professional fire-fighters.Be careful out there! The incredible Harriman Ranch could be destroyed by a careless second with a match—and even you could do it if you are as exhausted as most of us can be during a long day on fishing the Harriman Ranch.
Note: John posted his report on February 5, 2023.
Since then, dozens have submitted comments which can be read below.
We would like to ensure that that the following two remain at the top.
February 13, 2023 Comment from John McDaniel
It was with some trepidation that I addressed the decline in the Harriman Ranch fishery in my annual report. I anticipated that many avid Ranch anglers would be critical of the argument I made that HFF has not been as effective as it could be in protecting our incomparable fishery. I have been shocked and humbled by the overwhelming support for my position as expressed in the “comments section” of the TH blog. I believe it is a function of many experienced anglers acknowledging similar trends. For those of us who have the good fortune to spend hundreds of hours on the water each season, we have been beaten down by the recent catastrophic declines in some aquatic insects, the alarming increases in water temperatures, the proliferation of silt, algae, aquatic vegetation, the precipitous decline of our native whitefish, and the increasing frequency that we see no rainbows rising.
Some have suggested that my purpose in writing the report was to try to destroy HFF. That is false as evidenced by the story in my report of a Ranch regular who suggested that “we” should try to address Ranch problems by creating a new organization. I rejected that idea at the time and would do so again if it were proposed today. Although I am quick to acknowledge the organization’s positive impacts in such areas as Winter water flows, I believe the HFF has the capacity to more effectively address the problems that I, and many others, have defined. I have praised the work of Rob Van Kirk in past years’ reports. Also, I appreciate the effort Rob made to attend a 2021 celebration of the contribution Al Knight made to protecting the Henry’s Fork. Al established the A. Paul Knight program at Washington and Lee University in 1985 to provide stipends that have allowed students to work for the HFF each summer since 1989. I do not know the precise number of dollars the Knight has program has provided for student research directed by the HFF, but the number is substantial.
I believe the Foundation has the capacity to address the significant challenges the fishery now faces, however, more has to be done and done quickly. I would like to see an entomologist study the decline in aquatic insects so that the situation may be addressed. I want to see researchers on the river, including students from W&L and the three Universities that emulated our program, collecting data every week. A fishery biologist should be contracted to determine what caused the near elimination of our native whitefish before it escalates and threatens our trout population as well. I want to see important insights made and acted upon swiftly. I suggested in the report to have Rob oversee and interpret data that could be collected by those who are on the water every day. Such anglers and guides would not need to be paid for their efforts. A program should be put in place to consistently monitor water temperatures in all sections of the Ranch, including places that are time consuming to get to. Harriman and HFF should provide staff to monitor the river frequently to allow for quicker response to problems such as unanticipated releases from the reservoir, issues with the irrigation canals, fires or other disasters.
There is a need to look at new ideas; big ideas that could save the fishery. For instance, could it be possible to dredge silt out of the Reservoir which would not only benefit the fishery but could afford additional storage for irrigators? I know that would be expensive but how would the costs compare to the sum of dollars that have flowed to the Foundation?
Although I have not heard from any decision makers at HFF, I am hopeful for an invitation to collaborate with them to address the many concerns we experienced anglers have raised. I would ask that a group of six, including myself be involved in any such meetings and request that the group include Mike Lawson, Mick Mickelson, Rich Paini, Rick “Frosty” Frost and another angler among those who believe that “more has to be done and done quickly”. Hopefully, John McDaniel
February 14, Comment submitted by Douglas Siddoway
Good morning. I don’t think we’ve met before—at least I don’t think we have—but I’m Douglas Siddoway and I have the pleasure (or burden) of serving on the Foundation’s board as its chairman. I’ve been a member of the Foundation for over 25 years and, like you, am a life member and consistent financial supporter. You should also know that I grew up in the St. Anthony area and have been fishing the Henry’s Fork and other area rivers, notably the Teton and my favorite Montana stream, the Big Hole, since the early 1970s. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also tell you that my grandfather was one of the local agricultural titans who formed the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District and built Island Park Dam in the 1930s. I don’t say this as a matter of pride so much as an acknowledgment of the original sin that has motivated my redemptive service to the Foundation over these many past years.
Your 2022 Ranch fishing report kicked up quite an ant hill. I’ve spent the better part of the last week fielding emails and phone calls from anxious board members, staff and donors, and working on a response that could be posted to the TroutHunter web site. At this point I’m on at least my eighth draft, still trying to articulate an effective response having the right balance of contrition, indignation, defensiveness and suggestions for constructive collaboration. It hasn’t been easy. I and a good many others have been working our asses off on behalf of the Foundation for a long time, and while we are big enough to understand that criticism comes with the job, it’s hard to take.
All of this being said, I was heartened by your most recent comments to the blog site, posted yesterday, and I want to take you up on your offer to sit down sometime soon, along with Mike, Mick, Rich and Mr. Frost (who I do not know) to talk about your concerns and how we might work together to address them, if we are not addressing them already. I had Mike, Mick, Layne Hepworth and Robert Dotson up to my place late last Fall for dinner—my wife and I have a dry farm just east of Ashton, in the Squirrel area—and we spent a solid four hours talking about many of the same things you mentioned in your report. I thought, as they did, that our dinner meeting was productive and went a long way toward mending some broken fences, but apparently there is more that needs to be done. All of us share the same common ground and, to my way of thinking, the recent consternation and hand-wringing might simply be the result of us not effectively communicating what we are doing to protect and enhance the resource and the fishery against the grim backdrop of epochal climatic change.
If you can see your way clear to call me later today or in the next several days to chat a little more about this and line up a dinner meeting at my place, I’d appreciate it. If not, just send me an email and I’ll promptly get back to you. In the meantime, I’m going to hold off posting anything to the website about your report and the comments that followed it. We’re all in this together and further divisiveness is only going to do damage to the Foundation and the river that is its namesake.
Douglas J. Siddoway