2014 Ranch Recap by John McDaniel
During 2014, I fished and guided on the Ranch from 15 June until 15 September. I invested 584 hours on the water and my clients and I landed 118 good rainbows. 2014 provided my best and worst ever stretches of personal fishing; in addition, I had my best all time guide trip—and my worst. I saw the best hatches I have ever seen of Flavs, Grey Drakes, and Mahoganies and we had superb fishing to honey ants and flying black ants; however, the year produced well below average fishing with Green Drakes, Tricos, Pale Morning Dun spinners, Callibaetis spinners, Blue Wing Olive spinners, all varieties of caddis, and black beetles.
There were very low water levels early in the year. The thin water made the fish very spooky. The exceedingly heavy aquatic vegetation in the river in August and in September made landing good fish very difficult.
Our rainbows were in excellent physical condition. The depth and weight of our 20 inch and over fish was as good as I have ever seen. In the 1980’s, I measured the "depth” of fish of twenty inches or longer—in a straight line, from the top of the back to the bottom of belly. They averaged 4.5 inches in depth. Our 2014 fish averaged just over 5 inches.
The numbers of fish were very high in some sections of the Ranch and poor in others. We generally had poor bank fishing. This was particularly obvious during our Flav dun fishing in late afternoons in the mid-summer, and when fishing hoppers in the late summer.
We had our typical broad variations in weather—including some days of very high winds. The weather was unusually cool and wet in August and the first half of September.
There is a problem on the Ranch that demands immediate attention. The eastern bank of the river below the Log Jam—in the section between the first and second irrigation outlets—becomes a quagmire during the summer because water is escaping from the irrigation canal. Not only does water, and silt, seep from the canal, but at times there are surges of water. (The worst case I have seen occurred on 29 June, 2006 when the second irrigation outlet was essentially washed out by a surge of water. The event discolored the river for over a mile downstream.) In addition, fish kills have been documented in the canal. The problems are caused by leaks in the canal, and inadequate monitoring.
Ranch regular, John Wilbrecht has documented the problem in a detailed report. John’s paper also provides practical suggestions for solutions. (His credentials include many years of working as Manager of five National Wildlife Refuges—all of which presented challenges in water management.) This summer, take a look at the area. If you are reading this report, you should be a member of the Henry’s Fork Foundation. I would hope that the Foundation and the Harriman State Park are poised to coordinate remedial action and / or mitigation efforts to address this problem. Please let them know this problem—which has been chronic for over a decade—needs their attention—now!
The Early Summer (15 June- 6 July)
For one of the few times in the last six years of generally excellent Ranch fishing, we had good fishing in the first week of the season. There was also good PMD fishing and the Green and Brown Drake spinner fishing was excellent at times; however, we did not find as many Green or Brown Drakes duns as in last few years, and when they were on the water, we had to face very heavy fishing pressure.
The Flavs were occasionally very good. In the late afternoon of 27 June we had the best hatch of Flavs on the upper Ranch that I have ever seen. One experienced guide called it a "one in one-hundred year hatch.” That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it was incredible. The fact it had been raining and cold all day had discouraged most anglers, so the few who had the toughness to stay on the river found many fish. My clients and the two hard-core regulars Frosty and Rusty had exclusive access to the entire Hopper Bank.
Despite the superb Flav dun fishing on 27 June, there were not as many good Flav evenings as there were in each of the proceeding six years. Some of the evenings that I took clients out, they did not hook a fish.
One of the difficult aspects of the early season was the low water levels. The thin water made it very easy to spook fish. I had several days in the Islands where we would try to wade cautiously and still have fish darting away from us in alarm.
Each year, I develop more respect for the importance of stealth when fishing. In the early season, I watched many clients spook fish without being aware of it. I made a list of the mistakes I saw that were most frequently made. Included among them were: trying to get too close to a target—particularly when casting across and down to the fish, allowing fish to see your line, or the shadow of your line, when casting, wading directly above a feeding fish, pushing waves as you wade, making too many false casts, casting over a fish as he moves while feeding, and walking too close to a bank feeder when you are on a trail on the bank. Trust me; nothing is more important than exercising stealth when pursuing the wary rainbows of the Harriman Ranch.
The early season produced remarkable numbers of Grey Drakes. Several anglers had great mornings fishing Grey Drakes spinners. I know a few guys who have had good Grey Drake fishing in previous years, but I had not been one of them. For me, they had been a mayfly that you would see only occasionally during the summer. In 2014, for the first time for me, they provided excellent fishing.
Toward the end of the period, my clients and I had several mornings of good Green Drake Spinner fishing. I think I missed opportunities to fish Grey Drakes during the same period. It is embarrassing to admit, but I am confident I failed to identify the Grey Drake spinners on several occasions.
Our terrestrial fishing in the early-summer was slow—what we had involved black flying ants and black beetles. I did not have good beetle fishing but a few Ranch regulars did; however, I hooked a number of fish on black flying ants. There were never significant numbers of the ants, but our rainbows were quick to key on them. The majority of the ants were sizes 16s and 18s and we found them in all sections of the Ranch.
One of the most sobering comments about the early summer fishing is that I had a couple of skilled clients who did not hook a good fish in a full day of fishing.
The Mid-Summer Season (7 July- 27 July)
The early mid-summer produced some of the slowest fishing of the summer. I had six consecutive days that were terrible. The usually dependable July spinners were tough to find and our evening Flav fishing was, generally, slow. I had my worse day when I took two good friends, Chip and Drew Westerman, out on 23 July. We could neither find bugs or rising fish. I kept thinking we would find some fish—we never did. Thankfully, it is very rare to not have bugs and at least a few rising fish in a full day of searching on the Ranch.
The hoppers did not begin as early in the mid-summer as they usually do; and the poor fishing persisted through the end of the period— a time when Ranch fishing is usually very good. Another disappointing aspect of the mid-summer fishing was the poor beetle fishing. Our beetle fishing in general has declined over the last couple of decades, but the summer of 2014 was of the worst of all. A size 14 deer-hair black beetle has been one of my most productive flies; however, my clients and I took only one good fish on the fly in 2014. Candidly, I would not have believed I could have had a season during which my clients and I landed 118 good fish but only one would be taken on a black beetle.
Superb flying black ant fishing offset the poor beetle fishing. We had several days when we took multiple fish on flying ants of size 16 and 18 without seeing any naturals on the water. There were other days when we did see the naturals. If you saw at least three of the ants, you could be assured of hooking a number of good fish simply casting blind to areas in which you had found fish before. The few really good days we had in the mid-summer season were a result of excellent black flying ant fishing.
I had a fascinating, and informative, day in the mid-summer season that resulted from my sharing information with another TroutHunter guide. (It is very common for guides to share information to the end of providing their clients with the best possible chance of having good fishing. I am frequently the recipient of important tips from superb guides who are young enough to be my grandsons.) In this case it was Pat Gaffney who was comparing notes with me on 12 July, 2014 the day after we had both taken clients out on the Ranch. We realized we had been less than two miles from each other on the top of the Ranch, and that we both fished the same hours of the day. Both our clients had great days; however, the two dry flies my clients took fish on represented different insects than the two Pat had his guys on. In the morning, we fished Flav spinners—Pat’s anglers used Grey Drake spinners. In the afternoon, I had my guys on Flav duns while Pat’s fished PMD duns. At the end of the day, Pat’s anglers had landed five good fish and mine took four.
The special day spoke to a couple of important facts that contribute to making Ranch fishing unique. First, in a very short distance on the river, you can see very different things "happening” with both bugs and fish. Usually, it will be a situation in which an angler will have good fishing and a friend—who is a mile away— will find no fish rising. Also, when two anglers both have great dry fly fishing in the same general stretch of the Ranch, and at the same time of the day, they typically will be fishing an imitation of the same insect.
The special day that Pat and I had with our clients challenges basic assumptions we make about Ranch fishing. For me, it was another great example of what drives some of us to fish the Ranch every day.
The Late-Summer Season (28 July- 25 August)
The great honey ants provided wonderful fishing during the late-summer season. It is difficult to predict precisely when the mysterious bugs will be seen, but it will typically be some time in the late-summer. In 2014, I had them on 8, 10, 12, 17, 18, 27August, and 7 September. It is possible that some anglers had them at other times, but I missed very few days during the period and was always fishing areas that produce honey ants.
What is frustrating about the honey ants is that they will cover the water on one day and the next day—when the weather is the same—you will have none. Often, there may be several days before you see the bugs again. The fish will continue to look for the bugs; however, the incredible fishing is only provided on a day when the honey ants cover the water. If you are lucky, you can hit great fishing to them two days in a row.
On the 8th of August 2014, a deserving client hooked eleven good fish on the honey ants and landed five. The client was my good friend Jason Morey. Jason came to the Ranch on two different occasions in 2014 and took good fish on both trips. He and the good friends he often brings with him became competent on the Ranch as quickly as any anglers I have guided. The reasons are they work hard, never makes excuses, and practice in the off season. On the 8th of August, Jason did not stop after hooking the eleven fish on the honey ants. He fished into the late evening when he hooked fish number twelve, and landed it, on a small olive spinner.
The Black Flying Ants—which we found in sizes as small as 24s in addition to the 16s and 18s—continued to provide good fishing throughout the late-summer period. I had many days when I took multiple fish on the black flying ants.
Grasshoppers were a disappointment in the late-summer. We had poor hopper fishing for the entire period. No doubt, the unseasonably cool, damp weather was a factor.
For the last six years, we have had wonderful spinner fishing in the mornings of the late-summer. In 2013, I took 25 percent of all my fish on spinners. In 2014, the percentage of all fish taken by spinners dropped to 13 percent. When you look specifically at Callibaetis spinners—that had been so productive in recent years—the differences are even more impressive. In 2013, I took 15 percent of all my fish on Calibaetis spinners. In 2014 the number dropped to 3 percent! That is a huge difference in fly productivity.
We had a dramatic decline in our Trico fishing during the late summer in 2014. In contrast, the season of 2013 had afforded the finest Trico dun and spinner fishing I have ever had on the Ranch. On a couple of occasions, we would see significant number of both duns and spinners in the early mornings of the late summer, but we hooked very few fish on Trico flies.
The Fall Season (26 August- 30 November)
We had great fishing in the early part of the fall season. The superb fishing began on 27 August, when a good friend, Dave Lombardi, and I fished the Top of the Ranch. At 10 AM, fish began to rise actively to flying black ants. When it stopped at 3 PM we had hooked 23 and landed 10. We both lost great fish in the heavy weeds. I lost the first five I hooked! We took our fish on black flying ants, in sizes 16 and 18, and a Harrop size 16 dark honey ant. If you got a decent drift, the big rainbows ate your ant.
30 August was an epic day. I was guiding two skilled anglers from New Zealand— one of whom guides on the South Island. We, too, were on the Top of the Ranch. Our day started in a cold, 45 degree, rain. The weather deteriorated when the wind came up and we got hail. Despite the horrific weather the two skilled anglers landed a pair of great rainbows. When our hands were no longer capable of tying flies on our tippets, and the hail made it impossible to see rises, we headed for TroutHunter to seek heat, warm food, and wool clothes. I said, "You are going to think I am nuts, but I think we could have good bugs later.” The guide said, "Good on you, mate.” (I think that means, "Good suggestion partner—lets go for it!) We left TroutHunter at 2PM, and headed into the storm. When the Kiwis said "enough” at 5:30, they had hooked 22 great fish and landed 12. The two anglers took about a third of their fish on black flying ants, including several on tiny size 24s, a third on size 22 blue wing olives duns, and another third on size 16 mahogany cripples. As soon as one of the anglers landed a fish or lost one, he would not have to move to find another target. A critical point: I am confident that each one of at least five of the twelve resident trout the Kiwis landed on our special day—all of which were 20.5 inches or longer, with the biggest being a thick, 22.5 inch hen— would have been "the fish of a lifetime” if taken on a dry fly for anglers fishing ninety-nine percent of the flowing trout water of the world.
A neat aspect of the day was how excited the Kiwis got. There are huge trout in New Zealand. After teasing from his mate, the Kiwi guide showed me a picture of a 22 pound rainbow he took from a "small” river, on a size 12 pheasant tail. The fish was 34 inches long and had a girth of 28 inches. I was shocked that the two fine Kiwi anglers were so impressed by our fish that they screamed, and occasionally cursed, with respect when playing them. They also enjoyed our insect hatches. They took as many pictures of the blanket hatch of Blue Wing Olives as they did the impressive rainbows. I loved it.
There were no other days that matched the two I have just described; however, we averaged over three fish a day landed for each of the 17 days I fished or guided from 27 August until 14 September. We invested a total of 137 hours and hooked 92 fish; hence, we hooked a good Ranch fish every 1.48 hours. (In calculating my "fishing hours,” the clock starts running when I leave my car. If I am fishing Bonefish, or a location of comparable distance from a parking lot, I will invest as much as an hour and a half in the round trip walk. That adds significant time when I am not casting to my "fishing hours.”)
My clients deserve credit for our. Dave Lombardi, Daryl Paskell, Mark Brown, Ted Nolan, and Chris Capozzi never complained about the poor weather, the long walks, or the tough wading in weeds. They consistently fished with determination and focus.
There was great hopper fishing during the seventeen day period. We landed fifteen great rainbows on hoppers and lost many others. I suspect that the poor fishing in the late summer resulted in less pressure being imposed on fish feeding on the banks and contributed to the wonderful early September hopper fishing.
During the seventeen days, we landed 55 of the 92 fish we hooked. Twenty-one of the fifty-five fish were 20 inches or longer in length. (To have 38 percent of your fish—all landed on dry flies—be at least twenty inches in length speaks to the special nature of the Harriman Ranch fishery.) The largest fish was a 23 inch male taken on a hopper by Dave Lombardi.
Five dry flies were used to take the 55 fish we landed during the 17 day period. They were size 16, 18, and 24 Harrop flying black ants, size 16 Harrop dark honey ants, size 22 Harrop blue wing olive cripples, size 16 Brad Smith mahogany cripples, and size 8 and 12 foam hoppers from the TroutHunter bins. All my guide trips were walk / wades.
We took fish in The Rapids Below the Log Jam, the Bay of Pigs, The Third Fence, The Hopper Bank, The Third Creek, The Small Grassy Island, The Meat Hole, Bonefish Flats, The Islands, Trico Bay, The Big Island, Lost Island Turn, The Avenue of the Giants, The Rapids Above the Stock Bridge, The Back Channels, The Flats Above the Channels, The First Channel, and The Flats Below Osborne Springs.
Our hooked to land ratio—55 of 92 fish hooked—was 59.7 percent. Last year, when we had comparable weeds in August and September, the percentage of fish we landed was well below 60 percent. While the differences in 2014 may have been due to the fact we were relaxed by having so many shots at fish, I think we learned some things that made us more effective. First, I tried to get directly downstream of the trout we hooked, when I did, fewer weeds would get on the line. Second, I took weeds off the line while fighting the fish. I don’t know how many times I took weeds off a client’s line, but I never had a fish break off when I was doing it. When I fished alone, I would put my rod down, with care in the water, and "walk up the line” to take weeds off. I did break one fish off, but I probably landed ten using the technique. If a fish drove into the weeds, I kept constant pressure on the rainbow. I had to be patient, but with time, the rainbow would often lose strength, and come to me. Third, I also tried to stay close to a hooked fish by following him. By aggressively moving after the rainbows I was able to keep more weeds off the line because less of my line was in the water. Finally, I was very careful about using the best possible terminal tackle and keep it in great condition. Use the leaders and tippet material you think will give you the best chance to hook and hold strong fish. I have great confidence in the TroutHunter fluorocarbon material. (That confidence was bolstered by the results of the tests published in Fly Fisherman.) Also, when you are facing heavy weeds, use the heaviest tippet material you feel you will be able to fool the fish with. I had been a 6X guy for all flies of size 16 or smaller. This year I went to the 5.5X. Make sure your knots are efficient. Check your line and leaders every evening. If you don’t, you will lose a great fish because of your lack of attention.
In Anticipation of the 2015 Season
If you decide to come to the Ranch, be ready to work hard if you want to have a chance to take our special fish on dry flies; however, do not be discouraged by the stories you will hear about our fishing being impossible. If you work hard, and practice the necessary techniques, you will be able to hook our fish.
In conclusion, I will offer one tip on equipment. Make sure you are fishing a fine fly line that is well matched to your rod and in good condition. Many clients who own expensive fly rods, fish with lines that are old and dirty. You do not have to buy a new line every two weeks. Clean and dress you lines daily and you will cast, feed line, and shoot line more effectively; moreover, the line will float much better. (I fish Rio lines because I like the tapers and I believe they float better than any others.) You will not believe how much more effectively you will fish with a fine line in good condition.
John McDaniel is the author of "Fly Fishing the Harriman Ranch of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River Lessons Learned and Friends Made Sight Fishing to Selective Trout" as well as a remarkably detailed fishing map of the Ranch.
He is a wade fishing guide specializing in the challenging Harriman Ranch. Please call the shop at 208.558.9900 to set up a day on the Ranch with John.