Fish-of-the-Month Club Resurrected

My fishing during calendar year 2015 ended the same way it began: the sun had just dropped below the horizon, ice was beginning to form on my line, and in the last purple light of a short winter evening I could see a pod of trout in front of me, rising to midges.

Photo of Henry's Fork in winter evening light.

Photo: Early winter evening on lower Henry's Fork, December 2015.

The fishing situation was everything we expect from the Henry’s Fork: a dense hatch of insects so tiny it doesn’t matter whether they are size #20 or #32, so many bugs that it would be tough to see your fly even if it weren’t getting dark, and one big trout nose among dozens of small ones. This situation is challenging enough in the summer, but the additional constraints of sub-freezing weather and only 30 minutes of fishable light remaining reduce the probability of getting that big one hooked up. Heck, any more, I’m just happy if I can get a #20 fly tied on 6X tippet, especially with cold hands.

I deliberately aimed the first cast away from the big nose, to get my casting distance calibrated and make sure I knew roughly where my fly was. Of course, one of the small ones ate the fly, and I hauled in an 8-inch wild Rainbow Trout. At least I had the December fish in hand. A few casts later, the big nose rose for my fly and within a minute or two, I had it in the net. It wasn’t huge, but it was a fat, healthy 14-inch wild Rainbow. Many of you certainly wouldn’t write home about such a fish, but to me, that fish is why I live and work here. How lucky I am to be able to stand in the Henry’s Fork 5 minutes after leaving the house, hook up a fat, wild trout on a #20 dry fly 15 minutes later, and have the opportunity to do that 365 days a year?

Close-up photo of Rainbow Trout.

Photo: December fish.

Many years ago, Henry’s Fork Anglers guide and long-time fishing buddy Tom Grimes and I started a tradition of catching a trout every month of the year in our home waters, roughly defined as the streams of the Greater Yellowstone region of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. No southern-hemisphere or salt-water fishing counts, although we have been known to count steelhead caught in north Idaho, Oregon, or northern California during the fall and winter. My longest fish-of-the-month streak lasted 55 months, from July 2004 through January 2009. That streak started with an 11-inch Rainbow Trout caught on a dry fly in Fall River and ended with a 16-inch Rainbow Trout caught on a black rubberlegs nymph in the Henry’s Fork just downstream of Stone Bridge. Unfortunately, that streak was broken during my five-year stint on the faculty of Humboldt State University in northern California. The demands of a professor’s workload and the difficulties of catching trout on a fly during the rainy season there put an end to the streak.

Close-up photo of Brown Trout.

Photo: May fish.

My New Year’s resolution in 2015 was to resurrect the tradition, and once that December fish was in the net, I had the first 12 months of a new streak under my belt.

Photo of brown trout in net, with dry salmonfly pattern.

Photo: June fish, caught on dry salmonfly.

Of course, some months are harder than others—it can be pretty tough to catch fish in December, January, and February, given that average high temperatures are below freezing. April is a wild card. During dry years such as 2015, dry-fly fishing on the lower Henry’s Fork can be phenomenal in April, but during high-water years, catching a fish in April can be a real challenge. The previous streak was nearly broken in April 2006, when work (in Pocatello, at the time) and other hobbies (bicycle racing) prevented me from taking advantage of some better fishing conditions earlier in the month, and I found myself fishing in high, dirty water in pouring rain on the last day of the month. After trying a bunch of different flies and locations, I ended up fishing nymphs along the bank just downstream of the Stone Bridge access, with no luck. Finally, I saw a solitary fish rise under an overhanging tree. There were a few caddisflies flying around under the shelter of the tree. I switched to a #14 elk hair caddis and managed to hook and land that fish, a 10-inch Rainbow Trout. That was the only fish I saw that day.

Photo of river with cottonwood trees in fall color.

Photo: Autumn colors in lower Henry's Fork watershed, October 2015.

Someone asked me the other day how the fishing was, and I replied, “It’s always good, because I don’t go fishing unless it’s good!” This is because anyone who is serious about catching fish has a few go-to spots where they can almost always catch a fish or two in a short amount of time, no matter what the conditions. Without giving mine away, suffice it to say here that I relied on two of those go-to spots for the January, February, and December fish this year. I fished a total of 2 hours during those three months combined to catch 8 fish, 7 on dries. Total travel time to and from the river for the three months combined was 35 minutes. Those of you who know me well will not be surprised at my emphasis on efficiency when keeping fish-of-the-month alive during the winter.

Photo of Rainbow Trout in net.

Photo: November fish.

However, even those of you who do not know me personally will not be surprised that I, a statistician, keep careful records of pretty much everything I do. So here are my statistics from calendar-year 2015.

  • Fish caught: 119 Rainbow Trout, 62 Brown Trout, 7 Brook Trout, 5 Cutthroat Trout, 5 Mountain Whitefish, 1 Utah Sucker (okay, that one was foul-hooked on a streamer)
  • Hours fished: 66.5
  • Catch rate: 2.99 fish/hr
  • Smallest fish: 4-inch Rainbow Trout on July 3
  • Largest fish: 20-inch Rainbow Trout on August 27 (but I was rowing when Tom caught a 21-inch Brown Trout on September 6)

Photo of large Brown Trout in net.

Photo: Tom's 21-inch Brown Trout, caught on a hopper pattern on the South Fork, September 2015.

  • Additional time on the river: 24 hours of rowing the boat so others could enjoy our local fishing, plus 136 hours of research and restoration work
  • Time spent on the Henry’s Fork and tributaries this year for work and fishing combined: 210 hours
  • Additional fish species caught while working: Utah Chub, Speckled Dace, Mottled Sculpin, and Redside Shiner

Photo of fish survey crew measuring small trout.

Photo: Measuring fish captured during survey in a Henry's Fork tributary, April 2015.

  • Number of hours spent in meetings, helping to ensure that I and all of the rest of us continue to have the opportunity to catch a fish every month in the upper Snake River basin: 202
  • Fishing-to-meeting ratio: 0.33 (looks like a need to improve that!)

Photo: Late autumn on lower Henry's Fork, November 2015.