By Norvise ambassador Brittany Davenport.
Are your favorite trout rivers blown out due to runoff or spring rains? Here in Idaho, we have a nice window of trout fishing pre-runoff. But once the snow pack starts to melt, well, it just makes more sense to look for other options until the flows subside a bit. (Not that trout can’t be caught during run off… but that’s a topic for another day and another blog post!
In past few years, I was introduced to lake fishing, and specifically, fishing for panfish. When I started fly fishing, I jumped straight to trout fishing—and somewhat overlooked fishing for panfish, the typical gateway drug for many folks.
I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of spring temps, and the local lakes and reservoirs to ice out and start warming up a bit. We’ve had a couple nice warm spring days to tempt us, and it is finally time! Spring fishing for panfish can also be a great cabin fever reliever if you have been stuck inside all winter.
Spring fishing for panfish is also a great opportunity to bring a child or new fly fisher along. Panfish have a way of bringing out the kid in any angler, even the seasoned ones! They are a willing target, and a blast to catch, for anglers of any age!
Now let's talk gear. First, be sure to have a good pair of polarized sunglasses. This will help cut the glare on the water and make it easier to see fish in the shallow waters. I like to use a 4 wt rod. Mine are 9’, but a shorter one is adequate. Some folks drop down to a 3 or 2 wt rod. The catching is more fun, that is for sure! But if you encounter wind, you are at more of a disadvantage with those lighter setups. Any time you are lake fishing, it is beneficial to have a variety of fly lines—a weight forward, and various sinking lines. However, when targeting panfish in the spring, a WF will do just fine. I like to use a 7 1/2’ 4x or 5x leader. You can also purchase some poly sinking leaders, if you want to get just a little deeper. The nice thing about spring fishing is that the fish are generally in the shallower, warmer areas of the lake. Also be sure to bring along some indicators (ie. Bobbers) to suspend flies from.
As for flies, general lake fishing patters are adequate. Thankfully, panfish usually aren’t extremely picky. And during the spring, the bull panfish are more aggressive. Flies with movement are a safe bet. You can use some high floating flies, like a small popper, as an indicator as well. I like to use wet flies, small streamers, and small bead head nymphs. A chartreuse copper john will likely always be one of my favorites for panfish. They just can’t resist.
Editors note: the Norvise Fine Point Conversion is perfect for tying the type of flies Brittany is talking about here.
As for access, we really love to fish our lakes and reservoirs from our Maxxon XPW-239s. They allow for great fishing, maneuverability, comfort, and I can pack both of them down and fit them in the back of my Subaru. You can use a pontoon or belly boat (float tube). However, the water is still on the colder end of things, so be sure to wear your waders, and appropriate layers underneath. If the bottom of lake is firm, you can wade along the shoreline-and fish parallel to it. If the bottom is soft however, your best bet is to stay on shore. Be sure to watch your back cast! The other options would be a boat, kayak or canoe. Use what you have. Simple as that. And if you don’t have any watercraft, stick to the docks, shore, etc. You can still find plenty of fish.
Now for tactics—so at this point in the year, panfish will be moving into the shallower, warmer water. Fishing is usually best once the sun has warmed up the surface water. So it does afford some sleeping in, and enjoying your coffee in the morning, before you have to get out. Often times, bays and coves will be a bit warmer than the rest of the lake. These warmer areas often have the newer weed growth, which draws plankton and aquatic insects, which are food sources for the panfish. Crappie typically spawn in 5 to 6 feet of water or more, while bluegills are shallower, in 1 to 5 feet of water. Keep in mind though, that often, the bigger blue gills will hang out in the 4 to 6 foot range, with the smaller fish being in the shallower water. One effective way to target them in the spring (and any time really) is to float a fly under an indicator, or buoyant dry fly. Set the depth accordingly. If you find a weed bed, set the depth so you are fishing just over top of it. Use flies that have plenty of movement, to elicit a strike from the bull fish. As to presentation, you can let it sit and twitch it occasionally, or use a slow retrieve with a number of pauses in it. If you find you are catching smaller fish, try using a bigger presentation, or a heavier one, that will drop quicker. Often times the bigger panfish hang out below the smaller ones.
There is a great amount of information available on the web, about fishing for panfish in the Spring. If it peaks your curiosity and cabin fever, a quick google search can keep you busy for hours. If you do the Facebook thing, there is a great group called Panfish on the Fly, that is also a source of great information. As we look forward to warmer summer days, while our rivers are blown out, panfish can offer us a much needed excursion to wet a line. I truly believe, that no matter an anglers experience, we can all have a dang good time fishing for panfish. There is just something about it that brings us back to simpler times and makes us feel like a kid again.
And on that note… bring a kid or new angler along with you. They will forever remember their time spent with you chasing the eager little fish at your local pond. Till next time...
By Britt Davenport
I have been fly fishing for 8 years now, and early on in my adventure, my husband told me of storied waters called the Henry’s Fork, and more specifically, the Railroad Ranch. He relayed stories of PhD educated trout sipping dry flies in the slow flowing waters of the Railroad Ranch, from Outdoor Life magazines he read as a child. It had always been a dream of his to fish it one day. At the time, it really was not on my list of must-go-to places. That is different, now that I have experienced its beauty, its frustrations, and its plethora of aquatic life and finicky rainbows. It truly tests your patience, skills, and sanity most days.
We made the decision to go. And so, we started doing our research. Now, there is nothing quite as good as boots on the ground research, but a well-planned trip, utilizing resources available from a distance, can get you started on the right foot. That is what I hope to share with you -those resources, that will make your first trip to The Ranch, more enjoyable and hopefully, more productive.
A quick history: The Railroad Ranch, or Harriman State Park, is located in Island Park Idaho. Island Park is known for having the longest main street in America! The town itself is quite tiny, with a few amenities, but high on the fishiness scale! A quick internet search will turn up countless articles about the long history of the area. In a rather quick nutshell, the area known as the Railroad Ranch (now Harriman State Park) was once owned by the railroad and served as a cattle ranch and retreat for the Harriman and Guggenheim families. It was then deeded to the State of Idaho by the Harriman’s, who insisted on it being managed as a state park.
How to get there: Island Park is located in the northern corner of eastern Idaho. It is a quick 20-minute drive from the West entrance to Yellowstone National Park (YNP). This makes it a great spot to stay if you want to venture into YNP as well. From West Yellowstone MT, take Highway 20 west. To the south, the largest town is Idaho Falls. Drive north on Highway 20. If you are coming from Ennis MT, drive south on Highway 287 and turn right on State Route 87, and then right onto Highway 20.
The water and regulations: From the lower Harriman State Park Boundary upstream to the upper Harriman State Park Boundary, the waters are closed to fishing from December 1 through June 14. Fishing opens on June 15 and goes through November 30. The trout limit is zero. It is catch and release, fly fishing only, and barbless hooks are required. The Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork is a spring creek that has prolific bug hatches throughout the year.
Two must have resources that we have found:
From the very beginning of our research into the Island Park area, we have used the book Fly-Fishing Guide to the Henry’s Fork by Mike Lawson and published by Stackpole Books. This book goes into great detail the various sections of the river, to include the famous waters of the Harriman. Mike covers the aquatic life, and the flies to represent them. He also dives into the different seasons of the area. A must read both for the Ranch and if you plan to explore the other sections of the Henry’s Fork and its tributaries.
The second must have resource is a map by John McDaniel. It is titled “Fly Fishing Map of The Harriman Ranch Water of the Henry’s Fork with Aquatic & Terrestrial Insect Chart.” Now, to be honest, we almost didn’t purchase it. I balked a bit at the $19.95 price tag when we saw it at a shop in West Yellowstone. But we needed a map—and am I so very glad we invested the money on it. This is by far the best map I have seen of the area. The details in it are amazing. It shows you the names of the various pools, where the deep silt is, where there are prominent rocks, potholes, marsh areas, and so much more. It really takes the guess work out of things. Now, you still need to put the boot leather to the ground, but this helps you get your bearings. The map itself includes hatch charts and descriptions on the back of it, including suggested hook sizes, colors, estimated dates, and times of day. It also includes notes from the author on the map, insects, and a list of critical skills and mental attitude relevant to fishing the Ranch (it really is a mind game!).
On the back of the map, is a QR code that you can scan with your phone. I know often times we see those, and just pass over them. Do not do that on this one! When you scan it, you are taken to a PDF Map Supplement. This supplement is 39 pages of firsthand information from John McDaniel, who has spent thousands of hours on the Ranch over the years. When someone with that much experience talks, you better listen!
The bugs: Where to even start on this---there are so many bugs here! There are numerous species of caddis, pale morning duns, green drakes, brown drakes, grey drakes, callibaetis, tricos and mahoganies just to name a few. There are numerous hatch charts to be found on the internet, and in the materials referenced above. A quick call to the fly shops in Island Park can also help. Our favorites are Henry’s Fork Anglers and Trouthunter.
The fish: The Ranch section holds rainbow trout-some smaller ones, and some exceptionally large ones. These rainbow trout are extremely selective, often times keying in on one specific life stage of one specific insect. The real treat is that one fish can be keyed in on one super specific life stage of an insect, and the fish 20 feet away from it, can be keyed in on a different type of insect in a different life stage. It can be maddening! This is part of the allure of the Ranch though. It is very technical water. Your fly selection and drift have a huge impact on if you are successful or not. And even when things are perfect, you still may be rejected by the fishing gods. But when it all comes together, it is magical.
We have fished the Ranch for 3 years now. Already, in three years’ time, I have so many wonderful memories and stories. The one that really hits home though, was last August. We fished a spot one morning, and noticed a certain mayfly spinner floating down, that we just did not have a good match for. That night, we went back to the camper, and busted out our Norvises and travel tying materials. I tied a fly that I thought represented what I had seen earlier in the day. The next day, we went out to the same location about the same time of day. The fish were rising, and the very same spinners were floating down once again. The fish were out towards the middle today, so it was going to take a decently long cast. I let out a Hail Mary cast and let the fly drift gently down to the risers. Then it was fish on! One of them rose and inhaled my fly. The weeds were deep during the August season, so of course, the fish went right for them. I was able to play him and eventually get him to net. It was a smaller fish—but at that moment, size was irrelevant. It felt like I had come full circle-from observing a bug, tying a fly I thought represented it well, presenting it to a feeding trout, the trout taking it and then getting the trout to net, all while on the Ranch. This is what fly fishing dreams are made of!
I encourage everyone to try the Ranch at least once in their life. The beauty of the area is unsurpassed, and the fishing is pretty good too. It is certainly not a numbers game, and not for the faint of heart. Hopefully, the resources listed above, can help you get started planning your adventure. We have found over the years, that often times, the planning stages can be almost as exciting as the actual adventure. Do your homework from a distance, and then get to putting some miles on the ground. You might just be rewarded with a beautiful PhD trout.
Great post Britt, I am coming out to fish the park with you some time soon. Till next time...
Tight lines - Tim
In this video Norvise ambassador Brittany Davenport of Hackles and Hurl shows us a cool hair wing Steelhead pattern. I really like this video for many reasons. First Britt does a fantastic job of explaining what she is doing during each step. This is something I believe is lost in a lot of today's videos. It seems, instead of teaching, many of today's video posters have adopted a "look at me" mentality and they forget the instructional part of tying videos. There are also several instances here where the Norvise and it's rotary function is used perfectly. Great video Brittany, thank you for sharing it with us.