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