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
Nobody likes to be criticized, but everyone needs to be open to hearing constructive criticism. Anyone else have records to support the condition of the ranch other than John? It is time for the HFF to get engaged in Boise before it is too late. The heat last summer was abysmal, yet no section of any river in Eastern Idaho was closed. Our neighbor to the north have had Hoot Owl restrictions for years - that should a simple change that could be worked out with Fish and Game. And yes, it will impact many who rely on the river to make a living during short periods, but not in the long-run. The biggest issue is the silt coming out of the Reservoir; sad that the wind/rain event in September '21 wasn't more of a catalyst to get some major changes going. Does HFF have any figures on the cost to dredge the reservoir, have they looked into the feasibility of dredging Henrys Lake? Is there any other suitable land that could be acquired to build additional water storage? I'm sure there are many of us that would make extra contributions for a designated fund for these type of projects, most of which will take years of planning. The HFF needs to build a war chest. Hate to say it, but they also need to hire a lobbyist to start stirring up support at both the State and Federal level. If handled properly, we'd likely be get the support of the Ag folks behind us.
I sadly agree with everything John has pointed out here. I have been fishing the ranch for the last 38 years, and I have see a dramatic decline in the fishery, in the loss of aquatic insects, and the lack of the native whitefish in the river. I recall in the 90's when I was fishing there, I was at the tail of Millionaire's and I was casting to a rising fish right when it was getting dark. when I hooked the fish I said to myself "god please don't let this be a whitefish", since I had been catching about 3:1 whitefish to rainbows that day. The fish turned out to be a beautiful 23.5" rainbow. I fished the park several days the last several summers, and I have not seen or hooked a single whitefish. The size and quantity of the aquatic insects are both significantly down. The PMD's were basically non-existent this year, as was the decline in Mahoganies, Caddis, Callibaetis, severe. I recall in the early 2000's having so many bugs on the water that it was nearly impossible to get a fish interested in your fly, and you needed to be creative to get a fish to take your fly over the abundance of naturals on the water. The increase in aquatic vegetation is also alarming. While the vegetation provides a needed habitat for aquatic insects, the lack of insects to go along with the increased vegetation is alarming. While the HF in the Ranch is still a very special place, the decline is frightening, and I fear that it will eventually become basically devoid of rainbows worthy of pursuing. Even outside of the park, in Evansville, the number and size of fish and the lack of insects is alarming. 2022 was by far the worst year I have see on the Ranch, as well as the lower section of the HF. I am hopeful that 2023 will be a better year, and that things may improve, but I am not too optimistic.
I guided the Henry's Fork in the early 80's for Will Godfrey's Fly Fishing Center and we were lucky enough to catch many nice trout up to 28 inches during it's heyday. One thing few people realize now is that many of these bigger fish were lake fish recruited from Island Park Reservoir, where they got big, then came through the dam into the river before modifications were made to the dam that prevented most of the escapement. Since then, numbers of big fish have dwindled as the river fish don't grow as fast. There are many other factors involved in the decline, but it was a major factor that affected fishing success.
I would like to add my name to the list of long time ranch regulars who have written in support of John McDaniel's excellent and troubling 2023 Report. In recent years I have dialed it way back on the time I spend actively fishing the Ranch. I still go because I love the river and the rainbows as much as ever. I mostly walk the banks and on those increasingly infrequent occasions that I come upon a rising fish, as often as not, I sit down and just watch. I know that sounds crazy. It would have been unthinkable for me to do that not so many years ago. Times change the river but times also change the fisherman. I am in complete agreement with what John has written and kudos to him for saying what needed to be said. It is what many of us believe. The Ranch is ailing big time and I want to be part of any and all sincere efforts to preserve Henry's Fork fishing for future generations. Yet the consequences of the continuing drought and the lack of water throughout the west, (whether or not you attribute it to climate change or to something else), are vast. Indeed, it can seem overwhelming. The choice is quite clear. Either accept the inevitability of the Ranch's demise, or try to do something about it. That something starts with becoming informed, engaged and having hope. I will pay attention to what happens next and how I can best engage in preserving the fishery. John's annual reports are essential reading but the 2023 is particularly so. It is a clarion call to action.
I agree with John McDaniel's conclusions about the Fork. I first fished it in 1972 while on vacation. I moved to Idaho in 1974 and fished the fork at least a couple weeks each year until 1985 when I moved to Ashton. It's the main reason I moved here. If you agree that the Upper Henry's Fork fishery is in decline and you're concerned about the lack action by the Henry's Fork Foundation and Idaho Fish & Game, voice your concerns to them both. The current Director of Idaho Fish & Game is Jim Fredericks. He was the Regional Fisheries Manager for the Upper Snake Region several years ago. Jim cared about the Fork back then and even received awards from the Foundation for his work. I'm pretty sure he still cares. Idaho Fish & Game Mailing Address: P.O. Box 25, Boise, ID 83707 Street Address: 600 S. Walnut, Boise, ID 83712 Phone: (208) 334-3700 Fax: (208) 334-2114 Relay: 1-800-377-2529 (TDD) Upper Snake Region Phone: (208) 525-7290 Henry's Fork Foundation Telephone: 208.652.3567 Fax: 208.652.3568
As a flyfisher that covets the Henrys Fork, how can I help to begin the work of restoration? As members who honor this River, lets rise up like heathy fish and boldly take the initiative to restore this place.
Folks, here are a few thoughts to ponder. 1. John has brought data and a well-organized position to this issue. Lets all use that as the benchmark for opening our mouths about something. Get a data set, analyze it closely, then draw conclusions based on data not bias. Well done John. 2. I find it interesting that the article and the comments are all looking for someone else to solve this issue. You all are saying the HHF should do this or that, and that Johns well presented argument should spur folks to action, and you hope, want and expect action. My question is what the hell are you doing? Are you going to keep your boots out of the river? Are you going to stop posting Grip and Grins on your face-chat, and snap-book accounts? Are you going to fund research? Will you leave you rods at home and bring your 5 buddies form Ney York to Idaho to do some service work for the habitat restoration work on the place that has provided you so many great memories over the years? I doubt it. I have learned one thing from flyfishing and that is we are all very selfish and are quick to judge and ever more quick to rush to a different place and love it to death. Own your part. Do your part. 3. The HHF is deeply invested in the watershed. Are they perfect, no. Do you have a better plan? You give them money and it is going to doing good/great things in that watershed. This year and next consider redirecting your $3400.00 fishing trip funds to them and go somewhere else. Let’s allow this system rest as it desperately tries to adjust to a myriad of bad vectors. Or will you just expect that of someone else and continue to come every year as you have for the last 40, and tromp the river bed? 4. Let’s agree that you and me have a part in this. Lets talk about. Closing the ranch for 5 years for the benefit of the fishery. Lets talk about no guiding. Lets talk about no wading. Lets talk about strict and enforced Hoot Owl. Or would you rather just talk about what “others” are going to do to keep you entitled to you annual trip to the ranch. 5. Spur yourself not others.
Once again John has taken an inordinate amount of time to provide us more than we deserve. John began the process of teaching me how to fish the Ranch some 9 years ago. His love and respect for this amazing fishery was evident the first day we walked out to Bonefish to chase some fish, and remains to this day as evidenced by this passionate plea. The question is what will be done in response? As an HFF member for many years now, I am alarmed at two things that were brought out in John's piece. First, the tax returns submitted to the IRS and provided on the HFF indicates the purpose of the HFF is for the protection and enhancement of the Henrys Fork of the Snake River. There clearly is a pivot in the organization with the "South Fork Initiative" in which various study work is being done. This is indicated on the website. I was unaware of this initiative. I always thought the HFF was all about the Henrys Fork. Certainly there should be a call to question as to whether or not the efforts of HFF to focus on the Henrys Fork is being diluted by this initiative. This is contrary to what I bought into as a member and contrary to the filings with the IRS. Taking on too much could dilute effectiveness and lend itself to doing just an OK job... rather than exceptionalism which we would hope for on the beloved Henrys Fork by the namesake organization formed to do just that. Second, the fact the chair of the HFF has not had significant conversation and/or met with John McDaniel is frankly concerning. I realize there are a couple HFF board members that talk to John on a regular basis. However the Chairman needs to meet with John McDaniel. Frankly there should be a regular meeting with John, Trouthunter owners, Henrys Fork Anglers owners, and other stakeholders that "live" the river. Their voices and perspectives need to be heard and respected. Perhaps a bi-annual meeting should be held at an Island Park spot so these voices can be heard by HFF folks directly... and perhaps...more likely than not... the consternation and disconnect can be repaired. It appears to me this has a lot to do with lack of open communication by and between HFF and the constituents it serves. A lot of money.. in excess of $2 million per year, is being spent by the HFF. How much is being allocated to the South Fork? Should there be a new organization formed just for the Henrys Fork if there is a pivot away from HFF from being laser focused on the Henrys Fork? Should the local TU Chapter get involved with shepherding the science that is needed? Getting people at a table to talk through these issues on a regular basis seems to me to be where this needs to go. Just meet and talk. Why not?
Ethan M. Ram
John’s annual report raises many concerns about HSP and HFF, two important stewards of this precious resource. It is not surprising that the head of HFF was barraged with requests for a response. I believe all of us, including past and future donors, staff, and board members of HSP and HFF, would like to hear from them. The "right response" need only address the issues raised with honesty and, hopefully, science. We need strong institutions to help protect the river, and those institutions need us. No one, not even our best institutions, get everything right. John’s concerns are well founded and to learn here that Mike Lawson has disassociated himself from HFF should alarm everyone. HFF would do well to respond in detail and share its response with the public, not only those dining at Douglas Siddoway’s home.
The Idaho legislature, which adopts laws and approves regulations for riparian rights has always been agriculturally controlled. Even now, when economic activity in the area is recreationally oriented. There is no reason that HHF should not be demanding that the state participate, financially, in improving this great resource and the state tax revenue it generates for the state.
Aloha! I love the Ranch and the entire Henry’s Fork! I have been coming to Last Chance for at least 40 years. I remember “the good old days” when the fishing was great and you could have an evening drink with Bing Lempke! I’m pretty sure that most of us have witnessed a decline in the fishery, but our love for the river brings us back each year. I am sure the reasons for the decline are complicated and varied. However, I am convinced that the primary driver is climate change/global warming. It seems most are afraid to even use those terms, let alone take actions to mitigate the effects on our river. It seems that ignorant politics have gotten in the way?
Aloha! I love the Ranch and the entire Henry’s Fork! I have been coming to Last Chance for at least 40 years. I remember “the good old days” when the fishing was great and you could have an evening drink with Bing Lempke! I’m pretty sure that most of us have witnessed a decline in the fishery, but our love for the river brings us back each year. I am sure the reasons for the decline are complicated and varied. However, I am convinced that the primary driver is climate change/global warming. It seems most are afraid to even use those terms, let alone take actions to mitigate the effects on our river. It seems that ignorant politics have gotten in the way?
To read your post is really saddening, to say the least. I love the HF and I have fished it since the early 1980s when my dear friend, Eric Peper, dragged me out there from Wisconsin. What your observations tell me is the HF river may be suffering from organic pollution, caused by the sediment released from the reservoir. On a Wisconsin trout stream, I have recently studied the WDNR biomonitoring reports show a similar issue. In the 1990s the WDNR aquatic macroinvertebrate samplings on this stream listed numerous Ephemerella subvaria (Hendrickson mayfly) and E. invaria nymphs, which are in the same taxa family (Ephemerellidae) as your PMDs and Western Green Drakes. Now the biomonitoring data in recent years done in the same location and at the same time of year shows none. The mayfly larvae are gone, most likely due to all the sediment from farmland entering upstream. Recently, talking with local TU fly fishermen they told me they cannot remember seeing a mayfly hatch. Their observations match what the scientific biomonitoring data is showing. Ironically, the wild brown trout population is doing well. This proves to me that brown trout are more tolerant to organic pollution than mayfly larvae. Talking with some WI scientists the stream’s health is declining even though the trout population appears to be good right now. The brown trout have adapted and found other types of macroinvertebrates to feed on. What I would suggest is to research Hilsenhoff’s biotic Index. It is used all over the World today to monitor stream health by sampling the macroinvertebrates in the benthic zone on an annual basis. Each aquatic macroinvertebrate species has been assigned a tolerance value from 0 to 10. With 0 being extremely intolerant to organic pollution and 10 being extremely tolerant to organic pollution. Most Ephemerellidae mayfly species are in the 1 or 2 value range. I hope that helps.
It has to be apparent that the commercial development which has enhanced a few people's net worth ( i.e. realtors, builders and BnB investors are rapidly destroying the ecosystem which we all have enjoyed these many years. Sewage discharge, fertilizer usage, leaching septic systems and overgrazing of stream banks have greatly contributed to the deterioration of the water quality. Phosphorus and nitrate levels obviously have contributed to the algae and plant growth. The reduction in ephemerally species (crawlers) can be attributed to the silt that is covering the gravel which used to be exposed. These issues must be addressed and rectified if we hope to maintain a viable fishery. I'm hope it isn't too late although rectifying these conditions will be prohibitively expensive and must require federal and state contributions which we abhor!!
I came to the US from Ireland 7 years ago and have always admired the way that state authorities police and mange the beautiful waters in the USA. I watched several waters back home decline and it always came down to water quality and habitat degradation, largely due to the impact of human and farm animal practices. I fell in love with the Henry's Fork upon my first visit and hold it in the same regard as the beautiful waters of Lough Corrib back home. The HF is indeed a very very special fishery, it is unique in every way, and is one of the few places on earth that an angler can consistently catch large wild trout on dry fly. What struck me on my visits to the HF, is that the wonderful anglers and characters I've met all share the same passion about the water. It is indeed a pilgrimage of sorts for many to fish there every year, and long may it last. My last visit was in August '22 and whilst I had good fishing, it was tough (the way I like it), but tough for all the wrong reasons. Within minutes of starting to fish, the first noticeable thing was the amount of vegetation floating down the river and what really concerned me was where this vegetation gathered on rocks or the bank, you could clearly see the bright algal blooms. I'm not a biologist but back in Ireland these types of blooms occurred when there were too many nitrates and phosphates in the water, in other words pollution. Another glaringly obvious concern was the water temperature by mid afternoon, I recorded a 72 by log jam...I got off the water early after that. Basically I had the same observations as Dr John McDaniels within that period. I can't really comment on Whitefish, but I feel comfortable stating that in waters under threat, a telling sign is the decline (and indeed change) in insect life. The beautiful upwing Mayflies are very sensitive and are often an indication that anglers, authorities and foundations alike need to act quickly. Silting has been proven time and again to be detrimental to the health of water systems and if IP Reservoir is the root cause (which it very much seems to be) then dredge the outlet, I'm sure there are ways this can be done w/o causing further damage. (raising the outlet could effect the water temperature and we have enough to deal with on that front). I believe all angling organizations have good, if not great intentions at heart, but sometimes they lose their way, (I don't know if this is the case with HFF) but the good news is that like any organization issues like that are easily fixed. What is important here is that anglers, the HFF and indeed the city of IP pull together and put a plan in place to make progress. You should know and be proud of the fact, that anglers all around the world hold this special place in very high regard, it is a flagship fishery that the world looks up to. Hopefully sense will prevail, and that the water will be better preserved and protected, that anglers will be heard and that the authorities will do what's needed.
Fantastic Read. As a former guide the do-diligence of accurately recording, fish caught, hours spent and the interpretation of how that relates is important. HOWEVER, the fact of the matter is simple. Planet EARTH has always been a playground for the lucky individuals, animals and plants that get to call this delicate paradise “HOME”… unfortunately, overpopulation and increased levels of recreation such as fly fishing and the industry in itself is the problem. With more clients wanting to fish and more people moving to rural mountain towns the natural playground is significantly taking a hit! The ONLY solution is permanent river closures in my opinion. This is of no benefit for the Industry (economic impact) and individuals that have grown to love, appreciate and respect these watersheds affected. ALL water is eventually affected. LONG STORY SHORT… this just my opinion. WILD IS MEANT TO BE LEFT WILD!!! Some places are just to perfect and delicate to tamper with! Human impact is impossible to reverse, even the process and study of sustainability leaves trace of Human impact.
Brown trout may be the answer to some problems,the lower henrys fork has a high number of fish per mile mostly browns.Close coal fired plants and build nuclear plants,i think the mercury and toxins kill insects which lead to less wildlife weather quail in arizona,pheasants in idaho,rainbows in idaho.Wyoming FG and Idaho are trying to manage for cutthroats,browns are better at marginal waters i believe.the ogden and weber rivers in utah have lost their midge and mayfly hatches,i think its pollution not temperature.I fished big pmd hatches across from lawsons shop 1990 era,awesome fishing i pray those days can return,i had 2 pointers for pheasants in idaho and utah now i have 2 yorkies.WFG wastes a bunch of money on cutthroats projects and wont plant browns and idaho FG kills rainbows on south fork for no good reason.The best Trout is one that can survive on its own utah still has these rivers,the green,provo,blacksmith all brown trout.I hope things get better but not confident.
Thank you Dr McDaniel for your candidate reports which are documented by such large amounts of scientific data. Your passion for this great place keeps us all inspired. Living in Tennessee and being such a lover of this great resource, it is difficult to see the deterioration and lack of focus by HFF, a “boots on the ground” entity entrusted with resources from those of us too far away to be able to help on a daily or weekly or monthly basis. I will agree I was a frustrated and disheartened by the amount of previous emphasis placed on South Fork of the Snake, my dollars were meant to stay “at home”, on the HF. Hopefully this will be the tip of the iceberg for HFF to refocus their time and resources to help the resource for which they were created. Bret Benjamin couldn’t have said it better in his whole post but I echo his thoughts “ I am compelled to do whatever I can to help save this magnificent place”.
Thank you John for your dismal yet insightful & well-supported fishing report of 2022. Thank you even more for the courage to speak of taboo topics such as reform & refocus of the HFF & HSP. I, too, have concerns of the quality of the Henry's Fork water & fishery being greatly diminished in the river's upper stretches above, below, & within the iconic RR ranch water. And I, too, have reservations about the current state of priorities within the Henry's Fork Foundation, the main entity we have contributed to & depend on to oversee protection & conservation of this beloved resource. Well into my 2nd term last spring, I resigned in protest as a board member from the HFF after having observed & experienced an increasingly different, off-mission direction & focus than what was "sold" during my recruitment. I simply couldn't justify my service or financial contributions any longer. In my opinion, mission creep became more intentional and expansive (such as the South Fork Initiative) for the sake of chasing new revenue streams. And, unfortunately, it felt like the core mission took a backseat and instead the organization morphed into a non-stop fund-raising machine to support increased expenses. None of this is to say there aren't effectual & beneficial efforts of scientific data gathering and assessment still occurring at HFF because there are. And there are still fabulous people at the HFF like Rob Van Kirk and other dedicated staff who exceptionally & diligently perform their duties for the good of the Henry's Fork. With all that said, I am glad the community is seeing more clearly the resource is once again in jeopardy and now is the time to act. And, I agree substantial change within the Foundation is necessary for a return to focus on the projects, initiatives, and activities that prioritize the backbone of Henry's Fork upper river. I wish the best for the HFF and hope its leadership will make swift & bold adjustments back to mission. Moreover, let's all contribute in whatever way we can to correct the current plight of the river. Thank you again John. ------- Mac McGee, former HFF board member, former Idaho fishing guide, and avid angler
Thanks for the detailed data and insights John. You've nailed it, sadly for all of us. We've seen it coming, and happening, for decades now. The Foundation is so disappointing. I hope we can enjoy what's left, and the time the fishery has left.
John McDaniel had fished this river for 40 yrs he keeps immaculate records of everything he does on that river. His work is composed of 14 thousand hours of work on that river. If John McDaniel speaks you better listen to what he says. His total objective is to help this river. My name is Bill Nease I've known this man for 50 years he is a gifted author and world-class sportsman. This effort with the Harriman Ranch is his life's work at this point. To not listen to this great man Dr. John McDaniel is pure folly. I would also like to state that I have fished the river with Dr. McDaniel on the Harriman Ranch several times and my family has also. I am an accomplished trout fisherman who has caught the two largest trout ever recorded in Virginia. I've fished all over the West, Canada, and Alaska. William W. Nease
John, Thank you for taking the time over the decades to observe and document all that is so critical to the health and future of the Henry’s Fork. So many “Ranch Regulars” and regular visitors have followed your report and learned from it for years. It is apparent that the community of well-respected guides, shops, anglers and supporters are willing to change the future of the river -regardless of what it might take. Your leadership and voice, supported by facts you have provided through years of detailed work, is a much-appreciated call to action.
Thanks, John, for this sobering report, and more important, for your tireless and sustained advocacy for the Henry’s Fork fishery. I rarely write comments on internet posts, but feel compelled to do so here. If people won’t listen to John McDaniel when he raises the alarm about urgent and catastrophic threats to the Henry’s Fork, to whom will they listen?? In this report, as in everything that John has written over the years, what comes across most powerfully is an angler whose love and dedication to the fishery is unmatched, and who likewise demonstrates a profound commitment to documentation, data, evidence, objective inquiry and observation based on thousands of hours on the water. Anglers everywhere are prone to say, “the hatches aren’t what they used to be” or “you should have been here twenty years ago when fishing was really good.” I don’t entirely doubt those claims, which I’ve heard all my life. But they can have the ring of “fishing stories,” like that 26” brown, or the fish every third cast for 6 hours, which, despite a kernel of truth, morph over time by hope, memory, and retelling. When John tells me that he caught a 22.75” rainbow, and didn’t ethically believe that he could round it up into his hallowed circle of 23” fish, I believe him, because of his body of documented evidence collected over decades. Likewise, when he raises alarms about the disastrous decline of aquatic insects, and the shocking rise of terrestrials, I believe him without hesitation. The comparison he makes about the dramatic shift in the number of fish that he catches on mayflies and aquatic insects relative to hoppers and terrestrials is devastating. There is frankly nobody else who has the ethical standing, and the body of consistent, longitudinal, comparative evidence to sustain these claims. So when John calls for urgent action, by the HFF, the state of Idaho, anglers, and others, we would be foolish not to listen. His elementary argument that the relevant policy organizations need to begin to discuss human-instigated climate change is a necessary first step. How can allegedly scientific organizations continue to dodge this? Tackling climate change is, of course, beyond the scope of any single organization. However John’s concrete policy recommendations on maintaining flows and cooler water temps, reducing silt, utilizing guides to participate in studies, making infrastructural changes and orienting resources to maintaining the fishery are all fully within the reach of local organizations. All of these recommendations would help to mitigate the effects of climate change, even if they cannot reverse climate change on their own. What I love most about reading John’s accounts of the Henry’s Fork is his unique mix of comprehensive data, and his loving stories about the place, the fish, and the people who make the Henry’s Fork so special. This 2022 season recap is an urgent call for action to help save the Henry’s Fork. John persuasively documents the river’s shocking transformation and potentially catastrophic decline, and calls pointedly on the HFF and others to enact changes that will help reverse the changes he chronicles. Alongside that, however, in his admiration for the leaping ability of a particular rainbow, the beauty of place and its wildlife, the smoothness of a Jack Coyle bamboo rod, the admiration for John Wilbrecht’s advocacy, and dozens of other examples, John shows us what we are fighting for in protecting this unique fishery—arguably the greatest trout fishery in the world. I, for one, am entirely persuaded. My admiration for John only grows, and after reading his account, I am compelled to do whatever I can to help save this magnificent place. Thank you John.
John’s observations on the long-term decline of aquatic insects and white fish on the ranch are compelling, backed by data, years of hard won experience, and above all a love for the place. John’s ranch report motivated me to spend time reading through the HFF website. I found quite a bit of content but what I did not find was a substantive discussion of whether the river was in crisis or not. There is a lot of data on year-to-year variance, mostly since 2015. There is agreement that 2022 was a bad year. But there is virtually nothing on the long-term negative trends that John documents. John’s observations and data would suggest that this information gap be addressed urgently.
Thanks for your outstanding and honest report regarding the status of the upper Henry’s Fork River. Hopefully, HF constituents will finally recognize that acting the part of an ostrich with it’s head in the sand about this issue can no longer be tolerated. The HFF needs to focus their efforts and resources exclusively on the original mission statement, stop doing “busy work” research, and divest the organization of the distraction caused from the South Fork Initiative agenda. HFF definitely needs to change their course and direction going forward. That said, we all need to collaborate together on this topic; we all want what is best for the watershed, as well as what is best for the continued strength and leadership of HFF in their mission to protect and preserve this unique resource. Hopefully John, your report will be a wake up call for positive change and action .
Brian A. Goodwin
John, Good day, my friend. As a 20+ year veteran of the HF, I share many of your same conclusions. I believe your data supports many possible directions the HFF and many anglers should consider. That said, when in leadership you must be willing to step out on that ledge and you’ve done that with your report – it will certainly rub on folks either way. Your candor is clear, refreshing, and supported with impeccable data points – NO ONE can simply dismiss your data or the arguments you’ve made! The Ranch temps are concerning, and my numbers mirrored yours. Not to mention the amount of slit, vegetation, and other issues you expertly outlined in your report i.e., along with canal issues, irrigation, lack of focus on infrastructure, mismanagement of water coming out of the dam, etc. I hate to say it, but the HFF may have become a foundation concerned only with its place at the table rather than demanding more study, more dialog, and more communication. The HFF is the “foundation” to protect this very special waterway! The HFF is the “organization” that is the steward of this water, along with every single angler that fishes it! With great candor, I believe your "harshness" is warranted; if nothing, it should drive discussion even for those that may disagree with your facts or your arguments. As a 30-year veteran fly-tyer, and an amateur aquatic entomologist; the bugs are trout fishing, without the bugs, the fish do not exist. The bugs tell a fine and disturbing story across all our western waters. I hope this report is not simply dismissed – it’s my hope that it drives discussion no matter what side of that aisle you are on. Let’s keep the lines of communication open; rich dialogue is warranted so that this waterway is here for generations to come!
John, you're spot on with your assessment of the Ranch in 2022. I have several observations. Over the years I have seen some very high flows due to high irrigation demand in the summer when the river became a bit murky. Sometimes in the fall when the reservoir was drafted to 10,000cfs or less which also produced murky water. Otherwise the river ran clear. Not anymore. Now we're getting murky, sediment laden water from the Island Park Dam on a regular basis throughout the season. I don't remember being unable to fish later in the season due to intense vegetation until recent years. For me 2022 was the worst season I've ever had on the ranch. I didn't fish it much due to the fact that the fishing was not good. Yet the ranch is a place that I have loved throughout my life. I am a founding member, former vice president and former board member of the Henry's Fork Foundation. I didn't fulfill my last term on the board due to the fact that I was going a different direction. I thought I could make a difference but I couldn't. It saddens me to see that this great organization has lost its way. It is terrible and heart-felt to see what has happened. I do not anticipate it will be any better in 2023.
Thanks John for having the wisdom and courage to tell the truth. I’m a relative newcomer to the Ranch, having fished it for the first time in 2009 or 2010. In this short period of time, I’ve also witnessed the serious decline of the overall health of the river. I've supported the Henry’s Fork Foundation hoping that they would be leading the effort to protect such a one of a kind river ecosystem. I haven’t felt any sort of real urgency from them to address the most critical and specific issues that John brings up. I urge anyone reading this to also share John’s article with the Foundation and ask them to respond directly in their next report. firstname.lastname@example.org
Great report, John! Your point that while climate issues can't be solved by local groups, they do need to be acknowledged is an important one. It certainly has been hard to miss the changes over the years. Thinking about it now, I can't remember seeing a whitefish on the Ranch in at least a decade. I don't have many good answers and I fear nobody else does either, but we absolutely do need to be honest about what's going on and look for solutions to the very real, obvious problems facing the fishery. Denial is never the answer; thank you for forcing the conversation.
While I’m horrified by his observations and conclusions, as an avid reader of John’s published writings, I am unsurprised by the quality and thoroughness of this report. I also find it less than surprising that John has stepped up with a courageous alarm on behalf of this place he loves and lives for. His words are going to make some people uncomfortable because he speaks with the kind of adamantine authority that must be earned. He hasn’t just fished these waters for more than forty years; he has paid close attention all along, he has written down his data, and he has bent his will and considerable intellect on interpreting his experience. I challenge anyone to match this man’s unique combination of energy, incisive intelligence, honesty, and obsessive commitment to evidence-based analysis. Henry’s Fork is lucky to have Dr. McDaniel as its voice. Heed him.
Richard G Spackman
I have reviewed John McDaniel's report for the 2022 Harriman Ranch season. His findings correlate closely with my own experience. As a scientist who has compiled fishing records on the Ranch for many seasons, John is our "senior witness" to what is happening, for better or for worse. We need to listen closely to his message and begin having dialogue about specific problems and action plans.
I concur with you, John. There needs to be a reckoning and a renewed focus on the critical issues facing the Henry’s Fork. The Henry’s Fork has been an important part of my life since 1985. It’s one of the world’s most special places and certainly a unique fishery. To see your 2022 data is heartbreaking as it’s indisputable. I’ve personally seen a decline in the quality of fishing and to ignore the obvious issues at hand is a travesty. Although all watersheds are important, this one needs immediate attention! Thank you for sharing your incredible data which should prove as a call to action before it’s too late.
Very good and informative article. In addition to items that you brought up, I wonderwhether there are concerns with the chemistry of the waters. As more people move into the area, are they using fertilizers for nicer lawns, ice melt in the winter, pesticides and similar products which end up in the river drainages? These can. have significant impacts on water, plant life, insects, etc. My thoughts are this is something that should be looked at although I doubt there is much, if any, historical data available.
Mick Mickelson , MD
My compliments to John on his carefully researched and written analysis of the sad state of affairs of our beloved river and the Henry's Fork Foundation . There are many of us , former HFF Board members and Ranch regulars who have the same troubled thoughts . Time will tell who has the fortitude to stand up for the river . Signed , Mick Mickelson MD , co founder and former President Henry's Fork Foundation
What an insightful look into the decline of the Harriman Ranch fishery. As always, John backs up his bold assertions with the mountains of data he’s collected over his years on the water. It’s terrible to think that Ranch fishing may be gone entirely in 20 years. Hopefully it’s not too late to reverse course. Thanks John for bringing attention to these issues and making suggestions about what can be done to fix them.
Thank you John for this bold and honest assessment of the state of our beloved Ranch water. Your careful observations and detailed records, which are remarkable for covering full seasons on the Ranch for 4 decades, allow you to address these issues with authority. I have fished the Ranch in August for the last 10 years and my observations of the decline in abundance of PMDs, the heavy weed growth, and the high afternoon water temperatures are consistent with what you have reported. I frequently measured temperatures above 70 in the late afternoon and in 24 full days of fishing the upper Ranch I saw only one brief hatch of small (~#20) PMDs. The weeds and especially the heavy, long strands of filamentous algae were more abundant the ever before. An additional concern is that the heavy weed growth may be causing a decrease in dissolved oxygen from the continued respiration that occurs at night. It is clear that the river, especially the upper Ranch is is under stress and is crying for help. Global warming is affecting coldwater fisheries throughout the west, as evidenced by more frequent “Hoot Owl” regulations and smallmouth bass showing up in theYellowstone. It appears the Henry’s Fork, especially in the Ranch, is particularly vulnerable. I hope the Henry’s Fork Foundation will take take this report in the constructive way in which it is intended and understand is motivated by a deep love for this river. I hope they will make a serious effort to focus on understanding the changes in the river, to initiate a program to mitigate the current damage, and to protect it for the future. A good start would be to continuously monitor temperature, dissolved oxygen and turbidity at the Osborne Bridge or near the ranch buildings and to engage an aquatic entomologist to understand what has happened to the mayflies and caddis. There are lots of tailwaters, of which the South Fork is one, but the Railroad Ranch is unique in the world for its (once) prolific insect hatches, magnificent freely rising rainbows, rich fly fishing history, and its international reputation. I believe that if the HFF takes the initiative, those of us who also love the river will join in to help.
John J. Bogacz
When I was a little boy I would eagerly await the annual arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog. Many years later, as an adult, I wait for John’s annual report with the same childlike anticipation. At a level far greater than the catalog, John’s report never disappoints. From Guides and Ranch “Regulars” that fish the Ranch hundreds of hours each season to visiting anglers that only fish a fraction of that amount, John’s astute observations should act as a wake-up call to all of us. Most major insect hatches are on a significant decline. Summer water temperatures are increasing, and when is the last time someone was “bothered” by a Whitefish taking their fly? I have no doubt that some very prominent people will look to find fault with John’s comments that question what is being done to preserve the Ranch for future generations. Sometimes, the truth hurts. Instead of providing an inflated Chamber of Commerce report, John provides an exceptionally accurate report from someone who has logged hundreds of hours on The Ranch each year for forty consecutive years. The questions that John poses need to be addressed by the Henry’s Fork Foundation, and all anglers,before it’s too late! Committees and focus groups need to be formed in order to thoroughly examine John’s questions and construct a course of action. I encourage all anglers to write to the Henry’s Fork Foundation as well as the elected officials in Idaho. If any business does not adapt and change to meet its customers’ needs, it fails to last. The Foundation will need to adapt-all of us will need to adapt our thinking and our collective efforts if future generations will be granted the opportunity of fishing The Ranch. John reported that a highly respected, Henry's Fork Foundation senior scientist has stated that the Ranch only has about twenty years of fishing left. The enormity of this statement should chill each of us to the core. The canary in the mine is lying on its side, but hopefully it’s not too late! Thank you, Dr. McDaniel, for your candor, your observations and being brave enough to pose some tough questions. John J. Bogacz
Joe Howry Sr
John McDaniel’s blog on the state of the river in 2022 is not only welcome but absolutely necessary for the preservation of our beautiful Henry’s Fork. John’s 40 years of detailed record keeping and observations as well as his personal fact finding present a compelling if not comfortable picture for the future. Since my retirement in 2011, I have fished the Henry’s Fork almost daily from mid May to mid October. Given that experience, modest as it may be, I found nothing to dispute in what John had to say. I was particular taken with John’s observations about the Henry’s Fork Foundation. They were full of passion and courage, and I hope they will not be dismissed by the overly defensive. They merit serious consideration. My owns observations as a one-time member is that the Foundation has grown and evolved but not in a good way. Like more than a few foundations the primary mission has morphed from protecting the river to raising more money. The ambitious South Fork initiative, while perhaps admirable and surely a big boost to the donor base, is yet another distraction from what must be done for the Henry’s Fork. John McDaniel has raised the alarm. It will be interesting to see who is willing to stand up for the Henry’s Fork, who is willing to demand accountability from the Foundation, and who will be willing to donate labor and sweat to protect and save our beloved river.
As always, John proves to be the conscience of this wonderful fishery. No one knows it better and no one has invested more time and energy to document, in objective terms, the health of the Ranch. John's analysis mirrors my own fishing experiences in 2022. Although I had good hopper fishing late in the season, the pmd fishing was non existent. Green and brown drake fishing can good but those hatches are sporadic. Pmd's were always reliable over a long period. Mike Lawson and Gary La Fontaine's book on fishing the Henry's Fork described pmd's as "the crank that turns the wheel" on hatches. Not anymore. My Men's group which has fished the Ranch in late June and early July every year since the the early 90's had it's worst year ever. Several members did not land a fish in 5 days. 2021 was not much better. Later in the summer, the growth of aquatic vegetation made the fishing much less enjoyable. Not only were you picking salad off your fly but just wading was exhausting. Clearly, the fishery is facing major challenges! John has made pointed comments about the HFF and HSP which is likely to produce some discomfort and defensiveness. This is understandable. Nevertheless, the health of this wonderful fishery is more important. John is to be commended for having the courage to make us all aware of the uncomfortable reality! Hopefully, his comments will spur a needed reaction.
Bryant (Bob) Edens
Extremely well done John it sounds like the Ranch has needed help for a long time now which is very sad. It seems to be a sign of the times one by one we are losing vibrant strong healthy watersheds, hatches, and trout. The world's leaders, organizations, fly shops, and guides are simply bystanders watching the decline. Thanks so much for having the experience, knowledge, and courage to speak up. I really hope it drives a reaction and an effort to reverse what you speak of.