Return to Henry's Fork

Return to Henry's Fork

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas

In the past five years, I’ve probably driven through Island Park, Idaho, 15 times and not once felt compelled to throw a line on the revered Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork. I did stop, once, but that was only to say hello to friends and goodbye to the A-Bar, that riverside roadhouse institution, before its demise.

That I didn’t feel an urge to throw a loop is odd because back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Fork’s Railroad Ranch section was flat out on fire with big rainbows found in droves and broken tippets were a rule. I fished the river often and loved the whole match-the-hatch, hunt-your-trout scene. Basically, the Henry’s Fork was considered one of the top western trout streams and when I planted boots there I didn’t worry about what I might miss elsewhere.

By the early 2000s, low water during winters hammered the trout population and anglers found targets, meaning rising trout, difficult to locate, especially trout of desirable dimensions, meaning 16 inches and bigger. I remember spending a treasured day with local angling icon René Harrop, searching for snouts from Harriman Park all the way downstream to Wood Road 16. In the good old days you could stand in one place, wait for a hatch and then spend hours casting to good trout, without wading farther than a hundred yards in any direction.

On that day, Harrop and I spent a lot of time on the bank, puffing roll-your-owns, watching, waiting, hoping that a fish might appear. And they did, eventually, but they weren’t very big and rises were infrequent at best.

Harrop is a trout hunter. He doesn’t need many targets. He likes to pick a fish and work it hard, until he either puts it down or, in most cases, fools it to the net. It’s not about numbers; not for Harrop or anyone else who treasures the Henry’s Fork’s unique match-the-hatch options. I sensed Harrop’s frustration; there weren’t many trout and several of his observations were prefaced or followed with, “Well, you know, like it was a few years ago.”

When any fishery fails it’s a bitter pill to swallow and this must have been a choker for Harrop, who’s called the Henry’s Fork country home his entire life. Soon after my visit with Harrop, there would be cries from vocal anglers demanding that Idaho Department of Fish and Game stock rainbow trout into the upper Henry’s Fork, meaning the Box Canyon, Harriman Park, Osborne Bridge and Wood Road sections. For anyone who fished the river in the 1980s and 1990s—and for Harrop, I have no doubt—that demand seemed preposterous. But then, standing on the banks of a wounded river, with little to cast at, no suggestion seemed too outlandish.

Fortunately, rivers change. They ebb and flow, literally and metaphorically. So you can’t write them off forever. Each demands revisiting, just to make sure you aren’t missing something based on past information and experience. Take southwest Montana’s Madison River, which got brutalized by whirling disease in the early 1990s; it recovered and provided outstanding browns and rainbows a few years prior to the masses finding out. And eastern Montana’s Bighorn River shared equal anonymity a few years ago when overall trout numbers plunged. Anglers weren’t catching 17-inchers all day so they considered the river beat; in lieu, local anglers and informed visiting fly-fishers hammered away on what was left, which consisted of decent numbers of fast-growing, oversize rainbows and browns that commonly stretched past 22 inches and those anglers did so in relative solitude.

Lakes function the same way: Montana’s Georgetown Lake, for instance, was one of my favorites in the 1990s when I could plug away at brook trout that ranged to five pounds. Then, whirling disease slammed those fish and I wrote off that beautiful high-mountain lake. Haven’t fished it since. This summer a friend phoned and said, “Just hammered 20-inch brookies at Georgetown, all…weekend…long.” Say what! Where was I?

Actually, I was standing in the parking lot at the top end of Railroad Ranch this July, looking over the Henry’s Fork from a handicapped fishing access. I saw a trout boil on the far side of the river upstream from a massive logjam.

A modest-size fish rose in the middle of the river. A few more rings appeared upstream. Then another boil on the bank. I was thinking, The rumors I’ve heard are true when someone said, “It looks like they’re going to eat today.”

I turned to get blinded by the light or, more accurately, to get blinded by Whitefish Ed’s bright-pink shirt. Whitefish is a Henry’s Fork institution, a guy who wears bright clothing on the water, and he’s been doing so on the Fork for 20-some years. I shook his hand and said, “Well, what’s going on out here?”

“There are green drakes on the water, but the fish won’t touch them. They’re eating these PMDs and flavs right now. Looks like it’s time to get out there.”

It was time to get out there, but Ed is such a unique guy I decided to ask the obvious question. He replied, “Everyone says fish are scared by bright colors and I wanted to prove that’s bullshit so I started wearing this stuff. And once I did,” he continued, “I found that the Henry’s Fork isn’t crowded—nobody gets anywhere close to me. So I’ve worn it ever since.”

A short time later I was on the water, searching the top end of the ranch for rises while watching massive green-drake duns float past on surface. I followed each with my eyes until I could no longer see them and, amazingly, none drew the attention of trout. A few gulls picked them off the surface, but the trout seemed more interested in size 18 PMD spinners. Go figure.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, I saw lots of fish, including a few good heads, while walking a couple miles downstream. I was more interested in what I might see, trout- numbers-wise, than actually catching fish. But a rise is a rise and I marvel that after all these years, and after netting thousands of trout, I still get super-psyched-up and even a little shaky when I see a good fish feeding. It’s akin to staring at a fire, which never gets old to me until the wind and smoke decide I’m a target.

I spotted a good head, waded in and found the Henry’s Fork to be just as maddening as it’s ever been: I’d get a cast or two at a good fish before putting it down. Anything less than an accurate throw made trout disappear and accuracy was difficult because that famous east-Idaho wind kept blowing up in my face. And then there were those big green drakes; why wouldn’t the fish just eat those? How could they allow such a big, nutritious, easy meal to pass by? Why didn’t these fish make things easy?

There are questions on the Henry’s Fork, year in and year out, that you’ll never answer, which is part of the appeal.

Over a couple hours I rose several smallish fish to PMDs and then found a good head in shallow water, feeding on spinners at the current edge of a backeddy. It was a classic situation with a head-on wind and varying currents between the fish and me.

To make things more difficult, the fish wasn’t feeding in one place. Instead, it was wandering in a five- or six-yard-long area and I couldn’t predict accurately where it might rise again. Many of my casts landed in what seemed like a good place and then the trout would rise somewhere else, outside my drift, and I would swear and then simply hope that a dragging line, leader and fly wouldn’t put down the fish for good.

In the end, I couldn’t get that fish to eat a size 18 PMD spinner, so in a bout of helplessness, I peered into a fly box, found no adequate answers and selected a fly that I’ve never used and, certainly, a fly that wasn’t appropriate for the Ranch—a size 16 Renegade. I tied it on, cast and easily followed the fly’s white hackle as it drifted on the surface. A peacock-herl body made me think that this bruiser trout might mistake the fly, even with that white hackle, for a beetle. And that, I figure, is what happened.

On that first cast the rainbow boiled, grabbed the fly on the downturn and shook its head back and forth in shallow water. Three head shakes and a short run later I saw the Renegade flying back at me; I’d fished a fast-action rod with light tippet on the Fork and I got what I deserved.

After that debacle, I had to sit on the bank and take stock of my mistakes, and while doing so I also had to make comparisons between the Fork of the 1980s versus the Fork of the 1990s and now the rejuvenated Fork of the 2000s. Biologists say trout numbers are at or above the historic average right now and water supply in the river is adequate if not good. That means a ready supply of 12- to 15-inch trout will be larger by the end of this fall and even bigger next year. And the following year? It’s easy to get excited and think about the possibilities, those being the Box Canyon, Railroad Ranch and Wood Road 16 sections plugged with tippet-wrecking trout again.

Kneeling on the bank, waiting for another good fish to appear, I decided that the new Henry’s Fork isn’t that much different than the old Henry’s Fork and that the big, flat-surfaced Railroad Ranch section still offers what sage anglers desire: a place to get your angling ass handed to you by some big, savvy trout.

As I spotted another good fish feeding near a grassy bank, and as I tied on a (what else?) size 16 Renegade, I thought, Maybe these are the years that I get in on a recovery before the masses, hammer on some big trout before they get too educated and start eating green drakes again and refusing Renegades.

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s managing editor. He lives in Ennis, Montana, and publishes