By Tim O'Neill
Any one who knows me knows that Smallmouth Bass are my favorite fish to chase with fly gear. Oh yeah, if it is Steelhead season I will say Steelhead are my favorite, when we are Pike fishing I will say Pike are my favorite, when the Shad are running I will say...well, you get the picture.
I have been quoted many times saying "Pound for pound a Smallmouth is the hardest fighting freshwater fish" I believe that to be true. I have also been quotes ad saying "Once you catch a truly big Smallmouth you will kick a stone at all of your Trout gear". I believe that to be true, hence the title of this article.
For us, typically the end of March into April has always been the Trout time of year. It is just what we did year after year for as long as I can remember, this would take us to the Smallmouth spawn, usually around the first week or two in June. We would start our Smallmouth Fishing after the spawn and fish them through the summer. Well, a few years ago our friend Brian Shumaker of Susquehanna River Guides (the premiere smallmouth guide service on the Susky) introduced us to pre-spawn Smallmouth bass fishing, and he ruined us forever!!!!
For us the pre-spawn typically starts around the last week in March and can carry deep into May with the month of April being the prime time. This is all temperature driven so you need to watch your waterways closely and when that water hits around 45 degrees you need to hit the water. We are typically looking for "river run" fish meaning fish that come out of the river into one of the smaller tributaries to spawn. Resident fish can grow to a large size in this area, this time of year we are looking for the migrators fresh in from the big river, hungry, hormonal, and MAD. Man, I love these fish!
Some of the smaller tributaries can be hard too access and tough to navigate once you get on the water. Our favorite pre-spawn river is no exception. Our Smith Fly Big Shoals was tailor maid for this type of fishing. Light to carry and easy in and out of the water, you can bounce this thing off every rock in the river and it keeps on trucking.
Low and slow if the key during this time of year, intermediate and heavy sinking lines are the norm and you can leave your floating line and popper box at home. Don't get me wrong, I love coaxing bass to the surface and I love the visual of the popper bite. There will be plenty of time for that in a few months, just not now. Short leaders of 12 to 15#, sinking lines and big baitfish patterns are your go to for early season Bassin, favorite patterns include Feather Game Changers, Deceivers, Clouser's and Half and Half's are all great choices. I have long believed white to be the most productive Smallmouth color and the early season choice remains the same. To throw all that payload you need a serious stick. We have been relying on the Axiom II X and the LK Legacy from Temple Fork Outfitters. These rods have the juice to launch a heavy sink tip and the backbone to land an angry 20" Bronzeback. We have been very happy with everything TFO since joining their team.
On this particular day we spent about 6 hours floating a productive section of the river. Cast, upstream mend, count the fly down, strip, strip, pause. We spend as much time on the anchor as we did on the sticks setting up on the likely fish holding water and drifting over the other. Cast, upstream mend, count the fly down, strip, strip, pause. Most of the time that pause id the most important aspect of the cast, a truly bid Smallmouth will usually hit on the drop, probably the reason the Clouser minnow and it hundreds of variations are so effective.
When we were driving home, tired, gear stowed and boat in tow I was thinking; "This was the single beast day I have had on a Smallmouth river. Never before had we landed three 20" fish, 5 18" fish and I don't know how many 14, 15 & 16" fish. Truly an epic day on the water (and I really do not like the word epic) but that is the only way to describe it.
So, like the title says Smallmouth...in April??? Absolutely! Man, I LOVE these fish! Till next time...
Tight Lines - Tim
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...
This month I was honored to have been asked to do an interview for "On the Fly South" online magazine. This was a fun interview, Usually people want to talk about the vise or how Norm and I started to work together. That is fine as I always like to talk about Norvise. This interview was a little different as you will see. To check out "Getting a Grip on the Fly Tying Business" Click the image below.
I am always humbled when I am asked to do these types of things. Never in a million years did I think I would be in this position. Thank you for reading, thank you for your support, and thank you for tying on a Norvise! Till Next time...
Tight Lines - Tim
By Braden Miller
Thursday, after 8 days in Emerald Isle Albie fishing, spending time on the beach with my family, wearing board shorts and flip flops we made the four hour drive home to meet Tim at my house. Mom and I were home for a hour and a half, just enough time to unpack the trucks, switch some clothes into another bag and we got back in the truck to head to Sylva, NC for the Tuckaseegee Fly Shop’s Norvise Demo Day at their Sylva location. Our 6 hour drive ended up being close to 8 hours due to accidents and all lanes closed for a bit. Friday morning we woke up to temps in the 40’s so we traded our board shorts and flip flops for jeans, sweatshirts and shoes! Mom, Tim and I got some breakfast before we headed to the shop to set up our vises for Demo Day on Saturday before we heading to the river with Shannon “Big Mess” Messer (I loved how he answered the phone Tuck Fly Shop, Big Mess speaking can I help you?). We all got our waders on (even Mom) and headed out to do some Euro Nymphing, which I had not done before.
Tim and I both were using the Temple Fork Outfitters Drift Rod. After a quick Euro Nymphing lesson and some tips from our amazing guide, Big Mess, Tim quickly caught his first wild rainbow of the day and I wasn’t far behind him. After fighting Albies in the Atlantic Ocean for a week, I set the hook rather strongly and launched two poor little rainbows right out of the water. Luckily for both the fish and myself they stayed on the hook and landed back in the water. We fished several sections of the river and probably caught 25 or so wild rainbows and Tim landed one wild brown.
We caught a bunch of beautiful small rainbows, a handful of decent sized rainbows and I caught a rather chunky fellow. Shannon recommended we have dinner at really good BBQ restaurant called Haystack Smokehouse. Man was that some good food; from the Brunswick Stew, to the pulled pork, brisket, andouille sausage and especially the Banana Pudding. I can personally say we will never go to Sylva and not eat at the Haystack Smokehouse (man now, I wish I could eat dinner there tonight). It was an early night for the three of us so we could be ready for Demo Day Saturday.
Brr, Saturday morning was even colder than Friday! This was the first morning this year I have seen frost on our truck. We arrived at the shop around 7:45 to make sure we were ready when the store opened and so Tim could record his episode for the shop’s *podcast called, Tuck Cast, With A Splash of Bourbon, with Shannon “Big Mess” Messer, Bobby the Bearded Wonder and Coach Dale Diesel Collins. Tim and the guys talked about the story/history of Norvise and what makes it so unique. They dove into Tim's relationship with the late Norm Norlander and what it takes to produce the Norvise Fly Tying System. Saturday was Big Mess’s 50th birthday and Tim’s 49th birthday.
Once the shop opened there was a steady flow of customers throughout the day. We meet some current Norvise owners that came to visit for Demo Day. Some upgraded their vise or added a new Auto Bobbin or two to their collection. There were some who came to the shop to check out exactly what the Norvise was capable of and some came with intentions of joining the many other Norvise tiers. Tim gave his normal show demo for a group of people, he challenged several to take his bet could he tie a wooly bugger in under 60 seconds? If you have never seen him in person at a show, Tim bets someone that if he can tie a wooly bugger in under 60 seconds then they have to purchase a full set up and if he fails, he will give them a full set up. I have been going to shows with Tim for two and a half years now and I have never seen him lose… not too many people ever take the bet. I spent my day tying game changers and a baitfish or two. Every time I finished tying a new game changer, someone would buy it from me. I know selling flies is what a tier strives for, but for those of you who know me, whenever I tie a new fly, especially a game changer, I form this sort of attachment to each one of them. I am very thankful to those who loved the flies I tied Saturday so much, they wanted to fish with them. I look forward to seeing what they catch.
Mom, Tim and I all had a wonderful day at Tuckaseegee Fly Shop for their Norvise Demo Day. We look forward to returning to Sylva soon to visit the shop again, see all they guys and Norvise fans, and of course to do some more fishing in the trout capital of North Carolina. Thank you to everyone who came out to the Norvise Demo Day to see Mr. Tim and I, and for checking out what makes the Norvise the most innovative fly tying system on the market today. If you are ever in Sylva or Bryson City, North Carolina you have to remember to stop in one of Tuckaseegee Fly Shop and say hello. Till next time...
Tight lines - Tim
Here is installment #2 if the beginner fly tying series we are doing for The Riversage Journal. In this video we talk about some of the knots we use to tie on and finish the flu as well as tying a staple Trout Fly that should be in every Trout fishers fly box. Click the logo below to see the video.
We hope you are enjoying watching this series as much as we are enjoying bringing it to you. while you are there check out the Riversage Journal, there is a ton of good information there for the beginner and advanced outdoors men alike. Till next time...
Tight Lines - Tim
This week's blog post comes to us from Norvise ambassador Mike Corrigan. Mike spent some time chasing the fish of 10,000 casts during the pandemic and he shares his experience here. This is a timely post as we just put up his video "Mike Corrigan ties the Comet Minnow" on our YouTube page. You can see the video by clicking HERE If you have not already you may want to subscribe to the new Norvise YouTube channel. we are posting 2 videos per week, this is a great resource for learning new techniques on the Norvise.
Since landing my first Musky a few years ago, I have been addicted to the maddening follows and the mayhem that ensues if the fish do commit. When able to spend a day on the water pursuing Muskies, I generally define success simply by the number of “follows”. Fish or no fish it is a day well spent just to be able to entice these predators. Interestingly, the smaller lakes that do have Musky here locally are generally devoid of other fly rod species; there are Musky and there is bait!
A year ago I decided to hire a guide and get serious about chasing Musky. Where I am living in central Canada there are a lot of Musky, but no guides that cater to fly anglers. As a former guide, all I was looking for was someone with the knowledge of the water and the habits of the fish. The lake the guide selected was absolutely perfect for fly fishing, it is a long narrow lake with lots of bays and as it turned out an abundance of fish; both Musky and Tiger Musky. Much to the guides surprise, we did very well that day, well enough for me to plan a trip back in 2020.
Over this past winter, with last years trip in mind, I contacted some buddies in at my local fly fishing club (Manitoba Fly Fishers Association) and it was very easy to fill the 5 other spots. The plan was to stay at a drive to lodge a few hours away, in the heart of Musky country, and give it a go. Four of the 5 others had never cast a fly to a Musky let alone seen one in person. With expectations tempered for the “fish of ten thousand casts”, and warnings from the lodge owners that Musky on a fly was a tough go, we hatched a plan. Fly fishers, it seems, are certainly the eternal optimists.
Between that December 2019 fishing pact with the group and the whole world being turned upside down with the COVID issue things were touch and go. The trip was on then off then back on, then delayed. Our assigned week was moved 3 weeks past the season opener, but we did have the plan finally come together with the original 6. The 4 newbies hired the guide I had used the previous year for a day; splitting the morning and afternoon session so all had a chance to learn the way of the Musky.
The fly patterns we used were small compared to the ones that are touted as a requirement to catch Musky. The fly I refer to as my “Goldfish” accounted for my 40” and 41” fish plus numerous other smaller ones. We didn’t throw flies any longer than about 5”. The Musky were also keyed into top water and large 1” square poppers did the trick. As an aside, I do fish Musky from a pontoon boat on some of the smaller local lakes. I have observed, on several occasions, that during the Hexigenia hatch the Musky will slurp these easy prey like a Trout. So, it is not all about the top predator only eating baitfish. Apparently, Musky like to change up their food source as well.
For the duration of the trip we all fished barbless hooks. It is not a local requirement but it is just the way we fish. Most of the Musky we landed did not require any hook removal whatsoever. With their nasty sets of teeth we reasoned that they bite down on the fly and their teeth get tangled in the material that we dressed the fly with. Once they feel the net they seemed to open their mouths and the fly “self-released”.
One morning we had a rain delay and I went through leader building with the Knot2Kinky wire. It is amazing stuff to use once you get comfortable with the knots. As most anglers know a normal store bought leader would be good for one toothy fish and then it is finished.
During the week we noticed some rather odd Musky behavior. We had several fish put their noses literally on the gas motor as we were using the electric to maneuver the boat along the shoreline. We also had a 40” plus fish follow us along the side of the boat (within a rod length) for several hundred feet of shoreline; we literally cast over its head into the likely holding water. It seemed they may be programmed that a release of a tired Walleye might happen? For most of the week we would follow up a cast with a large oval pattern with the rod tip, often seeing Musky appear from the depths. We would drop the rod tip well within the water column, so the fly would have a downward movement followed by raising the rod tip and subsequent ascent of the fly. This technique would end up producing several fish including my largest. Figure 8’s aren’t impossible with a fly, but they are more difficult.
The week really was one for the memory banks and it was a trip of a lifetime for most. We have plans for 2021 already in place and we may do some exploring to some neighbouring lakes as well. Like I say this part of Canada is Musky Central and there are lakes available with the 50” plus brutes, but I am still “baby stepping” my way up to them after landing some of the hawgs on this trip.
Tyler and I spent the afternoon this past Saturday on the river testing out some new TFO two handed rods. Steelhead season is right around the corner as is our O'Neill's Fly Fishing / Norvise Hosted Steelhead fishing trip. (BTW, we still have 3 spots open if you are interested contact me at email@example.com). We thought the dog days of Summer are a good time to get out, knock the rust off our 2 handed casts and get these new rods figured out.
We hit the water with 2 new rods on Saturday, the Axiom 2 Switch in an 11' 7 weight (350 to 550 gr) and the brand new (not even released yet) LK Legacy 11'6" 7 weight (450 to 550 gr). The A2 Switch won basically every award a switch rod can since it's introduction close to a year ago and the LK Legacy is a brand new stick, only a select few people have had the chance to cast this rod at this point. Needless to say, we were excited to hit the water.
While this was not a "fishing" outing it didn't seem right to be on the water without the opportunity to at least catch a fish. I believe it was John Geriach that said "in fly fishing there is a fine line between knowing what you are doing and standing in the river looking like a fool". Not wanting to look like fools, we put a small box of buggers and swimming nymphs together and headed to out favorite Smallmouth river.
We had a conversation with Nick at TFO prior to this and got some guidelines from him on head weights for each rod. With this info we headed to the river armed with several Skagit heads (thanks Ed) the 2 rods and a pack of MOW tips. Simple leaders were tied at the truck and after rigging, we were ready to go.
We started with the Axiom 2 Switch. Nick recommended a 450 Skagit head for this rod. That is what we started off with and I can tell you he was spot on. Shortly after a few practice casts I stripped off a bit of running line, loaded up a Snap T and let fly. The D loop and anchor jumped off the water like a Labrador in one of those Dock Dog competitions and at the end of the cast the running slapped the but section of the rod with the tell tale sign of the rod saying "oh yeah' there is more". The first thing I noticed about this rod is how light it is. It is feather light and balanced, tip positive, with the relatively light TFO BVK 3+ reel. The second thing I noticed about this rod is how thin the top grip is. The area where your top hand / thumb goes is REALLY hollowed out. The grip, in conjunction with the overall light weight of the package will make for a very comfortable set up that can be cast all day long. We tried several MOW tips from floating to 7.5' sink tip (where we Steelhead it is RARE we need to go past 7.5' of T11). and this rod handled them all. I am really looking forward to getting this rod out on the river this Fall and Winter.
The second rod we put through it's paces is the new series form TFO called the LK Legacy. We have a couple of single handers in this series. We have been impressed with all of the LK rods so far, especially when you consider the price point. This was the 11' 6" rod rated for a 450 to 550 grain head. Nick had recommended a 500 or 525 grain head for this rod. We already had the 450 rigged up so we decided to give that a go. While it does say 450 gr on the butt section of the rod, I could not get the rod to do what I wanted it to do. We quickly switched to the 500 grain head, it was like night and day. This rod has a nice deep, progressive bend. It almost feels like the head is too heavy and I found myself needing to slow my stroke down a bit. Once we got the head weight and the stroke speed dialed in man, can this thing launch some line. It is funny, with the single hand and the 2 hand LK rods we have we had to search a bit for the right line combo. Both series I was a little hesitant at first as to weather I would like this rod series or not. Be it the single or two handed rods, I find myself liking this new series, liking them a lot! I guess this is why we take time to test rods and match lines so we can get the performance out of them that we need. I really think this new LK series of rods will be a force to be reckoned with.
Remember that part about standing in the river looking like a fool???
Some of the action shots...
This was a fun time on the water testing and matching some new gear. If you have any questions about these or any of the other great TFO products please feel free to contact us. Till next time,
Tight lines - Tim
When Norm Norlander designed the NorVise it quickly became a classic tool to tie better quality, more consistent, and quicker flies. I think what we are all learning is that as we use the vise the versatility seems to be endless. I have had mine since the early years of its existence, and I am still finding new things it can do, with a few adaptations.
Years ago I wanted to come up with an extended body for a Mayfly and a Stonefly pattern. I took a piece of yarn, put one end in the vise and began spinning. What I ended up with was a section of yarn that would, when folded back on itself produce a stiff tightly wound body. The upside for production tiers was you could create the bodies assembly line fashion for later use. This technique morphed into using two or three strands of 30 gauge coloured wire and using the same spinning technique (without folding the wire back) to produce a very finely banded segmentation on the shank of small nymphs; it almost appears woven.
Flash forward to recent times and a new issue to deal with. With the advent of newer fly lines, there are a seemingly endless variety and an apparent specific application for every species! Saltwater lines are stiffer than Trout lines for example. Manufacturers are now offering Bass and Musky/Pike taper “warmer water” lines; lines that are stiffer than Trout lines, but softer than Saltwater lines. These lines are exceptional for throwing big flies, but the issue in more northern climes, with cold mornings or cold Fall days there is a lot of line memory when cold. As the day warms the issue does diminish.
So, back to the NorVise......I have always used a stripping basket in my boat to keep the fly line under control and away from the “line grabbers” which seem to be present even on a clean casting deck. Recently, I added a foam insert in the bottom of the basket with “pegs” made of old 60lb monofilament I had laying around (30 years at least). So, cue the NorVise to create the "pegs".
Step #1 as with the Mayfly/Stonefly bodies and the wire, I put one end of a 10-12” piece of mono in the jaws of the vise and spin the vise; holding the other end with forceps.
Step #2 once the mono becomes difficult to spin, place scissors at the midpoint of the mono and fold the forceps end of the mono back to the vise. Once the scissors are removed you will notice that the mono wraps back on itself to form the stiff “peg”.
Step #3 carefully remove the mono from the vise (so it doesn't unravel) and put both ends in the forceps and burn the tips together (not the loop end).
Step #4 move the forceps to the desired length (3-4”) and re-cut and burn the end as in step #3. I use "pegs" 3" long. You can use other things for pegs such as golf tees, etc. but the flexibility of the mono gives less resistance on the line as it exits the stripping basket.
TOP: The finished foam insert with the 9, 3" high "pegs". After poking holes in the foam base, I used a glue gun to hold the "pegs" in place.
BOTTOM: The foam insert in the bottom of the stripping basket.
The basket That I use is a leaf bucket or laundry hamper that is about 24" high and 17" in diameter. I decided to use 9 "pegs" in my basket and it does prevent the line coiling and line memory issues to get me through the cool part of the day and prevent the inevitable tangles. I use a multitude of lines from the big 3 manufacturers and they all, to some degree, have the same line memory issue.
Here is yet another great use of the vise in a non fly tying application. There are many, many more. This post is yet another example of why the Norvise is "The Most Innovative Fly Tying System On The Market" . Till next time.
Tight Lines - Tim
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
By Brian Davenport
I helped with a new fly fisher clinic a few years back. The clinic taught students how to tie knots and get the casting basics down. It also went over flies and where trout live. At the end of the clinic they took the students out fishing. Most mentors had their students fishing dry flies because that is what they like to fish. I know that some folks absolutely love one method over another, and that wet flies are probably not near the top of their list, but bear with me on this.
You have a significant other, a friend or a youngster that is interested in fly fishing, one of the easiest methods of taking trout is to swing a wet fly. My reasoning is this---first you do not have to be a great fly caster. If they can get the fly out a reasonable distance, down and across or across that’s good enough. Second- fishing a wet fly is really effective in one and a half foot to three or four foot of water, so wading is easier. Also, it does not require the new fishers undivided attention like watching an indicator or dry fly does. They may have to mend the line a little. The strikes are known- the fish pretty much hook themselves. That’s not to say down and across is the only way to fish a wet fly, but for a beginner it is a great way to get them hooked on fly fishing (pun intended).
Now for the fly tying aspect of Wet flies-
A tail, maybe a rib, some dubbing and a hen hackle or some other soft hackle like a Hungarian partridge feather. No expensive dry fly hackle or any really hard to obtain materials, and if its not a perfect tie the fish don’t mind. So it is something reasonably inexpensive to tie and you can work on the fundamentals of tying a fly while still giving the beginning fly tier/ fisher something that they can take from vise to stream and have success. Thereby furthering their enthusiasm for a new sport and basic skills you can help them build on.
Think about it and maybe try it with the next new person you help get into this sport that we love.
Some great wisdom here for the beginning angler and the seasoned veteran. I think wet flies work so well because people dont really fish wet flies much anymore, all the more reason to fish them! Thanks for sharing this with us Brian. Till Next time...
Tight lines - Tim