High water on the lower Henry's Fork in mid-May.
For those of you who haven't been following fish of the month, it is a tradition I started years ago with my long-time fishing buddy Tom Grimes, who guides for Henry's Fork Anglers. The idea is to catch a fish each month of the year in our home waters. For me, that is anything within a three-hour drive of Ashton, although most of the time, I stay within 30 minutes. The extremes of that radius are the Ranch, the Henry's Fork in the Parker area, and some locations on the Teton River. In 2023, I ventured beyond that only once, to float the South Fork from Lorenzo to Menan.
Winter brown trout on Warm River.
In theory, catching a fish every month of the year around here isn't that difficult, given spring- and reservoir-moderated water temperatures on many reaches of the Henry's Fork and its tributaries. However, I always find it more challenging than it should be due to work, family, fishing trips out of the area (those southern hemisphere fish don't count!), and non-fishing hobbies.
Winter rainbow trout on Warm River.
The cold, wet, winter and spring of 2023 made this year especially challenging, as many reaches of the river were covered with ice most of the winter, and a healthy snowpack produced the highest spring runoff since 2011. Most of the period April-June was tough because of cold conditions, high water, and late hatches.
Nice rainbow at the beginning of the salmonfly hatch on Fall River.
However, once late June arrived, fishing was consistently good at least somewhere in the watershed on any given day. I caught fish in each of June through October on dry flies fished to rising fish.
Vernon Bridge three days before summer solstice.
I've always been a record-keeper, and have written down in my fishing journals nearly every fish I have caught and every day I have fished since I was about 10 years old. This year, for reasons I'll explain below, I fished more hours but caught far fewer fish than in recent years.
Fishing trips: 36 (up from 31 in 2022)
Hours fished: 89 (up from 61 in 2022 and near my long-term average)
Hours spent showing other people the river: 31 (about like last year)
Hours spent doing field research on the river: 78 (about like last year)
This represents an average of 3 hours and 48 minutes per week spent on the river in 2023. Fish-of-the-month ensures that some of this time is spent on the river during the winter, although the time spent taking other people fishing is biased toward the middle of the summer and field research is biased toward late summer and fall, when regular streamflow measurements are critical to our precision water management program.
HFF technician Amber Roseberry enjoys Vernon to Chester on an early-summer afternoon.
47 Rainbow Trout
29 Brown Trout
2 Mountain Whitefish
That's a catch rate of only 0.88 fish/hour, far lower even than last year's 1.41 fish/hour, which was the lowest in the streak up to that point. As for size, I caught numerous 6-inch Rainbow Trout in various locations at different times of the year, and I caught several honest 19-inch fish, a couple of which were pushing 20 inches. One of these was a whitefish caught at Del Rio Bridge and the others were Rainbow Trout from Vernon Bridge and the Ranch, all caught fair-and-square on dry flies fished specifically to those fish.
My brother Joe nets a fish in Box Canyon.
Strictly as an angler, words that best described my fishing on the Ranch in 2023 were "unpredictable" and "inconsistent." I had several outings on the Ranch when I expected to find good hatches and rising fish and never made a single cast. I had two other outings when I expected mediocre conditions and hooked eight or nine fish in four hours of fishing. The rest were somewhere in between: decent hatch, a few fish rising, one or two good ones hooked. But certainly, one reason for this year's low catch rate was inconsistent fishing on the Ranch.
Early autumn evening on the Ranch.
One of the most surprising trips to the Ranch was on October 1, a late afternoon that was interrupted by a quick retreat to the truck during an unexpectedly heavy thunderstorm. Just before the storm, small mayflies of three different species blanketed the water, and I lucked into a few fish that were picking the Mahogany Duns from among the smaller species.
Blanket hatch on the Ranch.
Just when the fish were really getting going, the storm hit, immediately putting down all of the rising fish and clearing the water of all of the emerging duns. By the time I got back onto the river, there were less than two hours of daylight left, and I thought the good fishing was over for the day. Had that been the case, I would have been happy with the two modest fish brought to the net before the storm. As it turned out, when the bugs got going again, there were fewer of them but more species diversity. For a while, the fish were on trico duns, which I have never seen during the month of October. By dark, I had hooked nine fish and landed four, most on #18 an #20 Parachute Adams.
Ranch fish taken on a #18 Parachute Adams during a trico dun hatch.
A few years ago, after many years away from steelhead fishing, Tom got me back into it, with trips to the Clearwater River and British Columbia. I had fished for steelhead for decades (successfully, at that) with single-handed rods and only grudgingly renewed my steelhead career with spey equipment. I'm still a beginner at spey casting, but the only way to get better is to do it often, not just for a week a year on a steelhead trip. So, I got a trout spey rod in October and started regularly fishing the beautiful swinging water we have on the Henry's Fork.
Fat rainbow on the trout spey.
My first outings with the trout spey were not very productive, due to a combination of poor casting and poor fly selection. However, after improving both, I got my spey catch rate up to a fish per hour, in part by using sea-trout flies and techniques from South America. Smaller, thin-profile flies seemed to work better, at least during the low, clear water conditions of fall and early winter.
Collection of effective flies fished on the spey rod--on the Henry's Fork and in Argentina!
Alternating swinging, twitching, and stripping as is done for sea trout in South America has proven effective here at home, too. At least under autumn conditions, I've caught equal numbers of fish on each technique, and while I haven't caught the same numbers of fish I would have caught with indicator nymphing, fish caught on the spey rod so far have been larger. So, reason number two for the higher number of hours fished and lower numbers of fish caught is because I have exclusively fished the trout spey setup since mid-October.
Biggest fish of the fall on the trout spey. That's an Opti Speedrunner reel!
After successfully catching fish on the spey rod during winter conditions in December (chipping ice out of the guides every 20 minutes or so), I decided to make Fish of the Month even more challenging next year--no nymphs allowed. I'm going to try to catch a fish every month in 2024 on either dry flies or the spey rod. I managed to do this in June through December of 2023, so it's achievable.
Perfect swinging water on the Henry's Fork.
Although we got some good rain early in the fall, most of October, November, and December were dry and relatively warm. While not good for water supply, the nice weather gave us a full three months of fall fishing here instead of the usual 6 weeks or so.
Brother Joe fishes Ora to Vernon on a nice October day.
While I took advantage of the nice fall weather to work on my spey technique, I was also able to take others out on the river late in the year to enjoy the weather. We even had some good dry-fly fishing during evening midge hatches.
Vernon Bridge, four days before the winter solstice. And yes, there were fish rising to midges out there.
A nice 15-inch rainbow on the swing on December 15 officially made it 108 consecutive months of catching a wild trout or whitefish in my home waters. I am extremely lucky to call the Henry's Fork home, to be able to share it with others, and to still find new ways to enjoy time on the river after 46 years of fishing it.
Winter sunset at Vernon Bridge.