Fish of the Month: Year Two

Photo of Rainbow Trout.

Last year at this time, I reported on year one of my resurrection of “fish of the month,” a tradition that Henry’s Fork Anglers guide Tom Grimes and I started many years ago. The goal is to catch at least one wild trout every month of the year, on a fly, in our local Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming waters. My longest fish-of-the-month streak lasted 55 months, from July 2004 through January 2009. On Thursday December 15, 2016, I successfully added month 24 to the current streak.

First, the 2016 Statistics

  • Catch: 71 Rainbow Trout, 88 Brown Trout, 21 Mountain Whitefish, 1 Brook Trout, 1 Cutthroat Trout
  • Hours fished: 70.5
  • Catch rate: 2.58 fish/hr
  • Smallest fish: 5-inch Brown Trout on June 11
  • Largest fish: 22-inch Brown Trout on November 13
  • Additional time on the river: 23.5 hours of rowing the boat so others could enjoy our local fishing, plus 114 hours of research and restoration field work
  • Time spent on the Henry’s Fork and tributaries this year for work and fishing combined: 202 hours
  • Number of hours spent in meetings, helping to ensure that we all continue to have the opportunity to catch a fish every month in the upper Snake River basin: 234
  • Fishing-to-meeting ratio: 0.30

Challenges in 2016

The general challenge in catching a fish every month, of course, is hoping that the fish and the weather cooperate on days when I actually have time to go fishing. Because I am lucky enough to live in Ashton, five minutes from the Henry’s Fork and Fall River, I am often able to get out on the water for an hour or two on short notice when I think weather, hatches and lack of competition from other anglers will be favorable.

Photo of Fall River with autumn leaves.

October day on Fall River.

On the other hand, sometimes work, life and other hobbies (road bicycle racing, in my case) prevent me from choosing optimal places and times to fish, and I’m left hoping that I can eke out a fish on whatever random day I have available. That happened in March and again in December, thanks to a couple of those unplanned but inevitable “life” events. In fact, 2016 brought more than my usual share of those things, including the somewhat unexpected death of my mother to start the year (she passed away on December 31, 2015), a chronic medical condition that required four surgeries (to date, anyway), and the professional challenges I faced in what proved to be the driest water year in the upper Henry’s Fork watershed since 1937 (see graph below).

Graph of annual natural watershed inflow to the Henry’s Fork between Henry’s Lake and Ashton. The red line represents the three-year cumulative average, and the horizontal black line is the value of that three-year average in 2016. The graph shows that streamflow in 2016 was lower than in any year since 1937. At the end of water year 2016, our three-year cumulative drought was worse than any time since 1938.

These professional challenges were at times overwhelming, particularly as my colleagues and I faced the reality of what has been dubbed the “post-truth” era, in which facts—whether they be of law, history, or science—are things to be fabricated to fit one’s ideology rather than truths to be revealed through careful study, analysis, and integration. This reality is sobering and very troubling to me, as someone who has devoted the last 22 years of his career to pursuit of scientific and legal facts and application of those facts to management of water and fisheries resources in the upper Snake River basin. One example of such an application was a presentation I was invited to give at the annual Idaho Water Law Seminar, held in Boise in September. The topic was hydrologic consequences of replacing irrigated land with development, and the print version of that presentation is linked here.

Photo of Henry's Fork Hopper, still in the vise.

One advantage of the hot, dry summer in 2016 was fantastic hopper fishing! I still tie them old-school—same way I tied them for Mike Lawson back in the 1980s.

While I missed a lot of potential fishing time due to the life events of 2016, I was grateful for every hour I got to spend on the river. Those hours provided escape and therapy and reminded me of why I got into this business in the first place.

Photo of clouds and rainbow over Henry's Fork.

October 1, 2016: an atmospheric rainbow over the lower Henry’s Fork signals a wet start to water year 2017.

So, onto the fish stories! Unlike in 2015, when I fished a variety of waters in our three-state region, I stayed close to home in 2016, fishing only the Henry’s Fork and its tributaries, with the exception of one day on the South Fork.

Photo of large brown trout.

November brown trout from the South Fork.

Close calls

The close call in March occurred because I had only one day in the month when I could fish, in between work, early-season bicycle racing, and an extended trip to California to clean out my mother’s house. It took me nearly three hours of fishing in a steady, 40-degree rain on March 6 to land one 13-inch whitefish and an 11-inch rainbow trout. The close call in December occurred because I missed the warm days early in the month due to illness and medical procedures in Salt Lake City. December 15 turned out to be the only day I could get out for a few hours before the forecast arrival of the coldest air of the season the following day. The forecast was (and still is) for below-average temperatures for the rest of the month. As it turned out, the 15th wasn’t really a close call—fishing was great that day—but timing was everything.

Photo of Rainbow Trout in net.

December Rainbow.

Memorable days

Anyone who has fished the same waters over the course of decades knows that rivers and their aquatic inhabitants are dynamic. Short-term variability in streamflow magnitude and timing drives changes in the river channel and floodplain, shifting the location and type of habitat available to fish, insects, and wildlife. This is especially true in alluvial-floodplain rivers such as the South Fork and lower Henry’s Fork, where large changes in the location of channels, islands and in-stream structure can change dramatically from year to year. Long-term changes in climate and in human uses and management of water drive long-term shifts in ecological characteristics such as abundance of aquatic vegetation and composition of trout species. Because of these dynamic processes, any day of fishing has the opportunity to bring surprises and new experiences, which create those unique fishing days that stay in our memories for decades.

Photo of side channel on lower Henry's Fork.

Cottonwood logs in a lower-Henry’s Fork side channel.

On the other hand, many reaches of the Henry’s Fork, Fall River and the Teton River are fairly static because of stable, groundwater-dominated streamflow regimes and/or stable channel conditions created by volcanic activity and glacial floods that occurred tens of thousands to millions of years ago. As a result, habitat conditions change very little from year to year or decade to decade, providing consistent fishing conditions across time. Memorable experiences on these river reaches are often created by the people with whom we share them.

Photo of river, fall colors, and mountains in the background.

Henry’s Fork below Marysville Bridge.

I was fortunate to have several very memorable experiences this year—some made by the river and some by my fishing companions. Here are the top three.

Big-fish day

Some days it’s quality, not quantity that makes the trip. Such was the case on the single day I got out to float the South Fork this year. Because of the various life events described earlier, that trip didn’t happen until much later in the fall than I would have liked, but better late than never. Bryce Oldemeyer, the newest member of HFF’s science team, joined me for a lower South Fork float on a beautiful mid-November day, on which we saw only one other boat (well, one other boat of anglers; there were plenty of waterfowl hunters buzzing around). Catch rate was low—only five fish between the two of us over six hours of fishing—but two of those five were the biggest Cutthroat I’ve ever seen caught on the South Fork and the biggest Brown I’ve ever landed there. Bryce is more photogenic than I am, but I’m a better photographer, so the best photo of one of us with a fish is Bryce with his 20-inch Cutthroat!

Photo of angler holding large trout.

HFF Research Associate Bryce Oldemeyer with a big South Fork Cutthroat.

Rainy day

I grew up steelhead fishing in Northern California, where the fish start to move up the rivers when the hot, dry Mediterranean summer is broken by the first Pacific Northwest rains of the autumn. When I was in high school and college, I lived for that first rainy day of the season, when bright ocean-fresh fish hit swinging wet flies with reckless abandon. I still remember individual rainy days and even individual fish from the 1970s and 1980s. So, when that first rainy day of the fall hits eastern Idaho each year, my instincts lead me out to the lower Henry’s Fork to throw streamers. This year, the first fall rain arrived on September 4, breaking a period of over three months of hot weather in which we received a total of only three-quarters of an inch of rain.

Photo of river and sun breaking through clouds.

Clouds part following the first autumn rain after a long, hot, dry summer. September 4 on the lower Henry’s Fork.

I set out to fish for only an hour or two but ended up spending six hours wading through the channels of the lower Henry’s Fork, catching over a dozen nice Brown Trout and enjoying the cool weather. That day was a solo excursion, as are most of my fishing outings; the only other people I saw that day were bow-hunting for deer.

Photo of Brown Trout in net.

September Brown Trout, lower Henry’s Fork.

Christina’s day

OK, it wasn’t Christina’s day; I just think of it that way. It was HFF staff fishing day, an annual event that gets us all out on the river to appreciate it and each other. In 2016, it took place on a cloudy, rainy afternoon in late April. I had the privilege of guiding Melissa Muradian and Christina Morrisett for the afternoon. Both had spent some time fly-fishing on the Henry’s Fork since they arrived here in the summer of 2015, but neither had experienced the thrill and challenge of fishing dry flies to a pod of rising trout during a heavy hatch.

Earlier in the afternoon, we had seen a few small fish rising on blue-winged olives and the occasional caddis fly, and Melissa had landed a small Brown Trout on a parachute Adams. Christina had been diligently fishing nymphs, with nothing to show for it yet. As the afternoon storm clouds thickened and the sky darkened, I started to see more caddis and a few March Browns on the water. I pulled over where some rocks provided a little structure about 30 feet off the bank and took a break—buying some time for the bugs to get on the water. After about 15 minutes of waiting, the fish started working on of a four-critter smorgasbord consisting of blue-winged olives, caddis, midges, and March Browns. The March Browns were by far the largest insect on the water, and the fish eventually started taking them over the smaller stuff. I switched flies over to a #14 CDC March Brown pattern and waded Melissa out toward the rock. There were four good trout working in the lee of the rock, and Melissa worked intently on them for 20 minutes or so. After a couple of refusals to her fly, she graciously insisted that Christina take a turn.   

Whether or not you know Christina personally, the rest of the story makes more sense if you have some idea of how I know Christina. She came to HFF as an intern from Stanford University in June of 2015. She was my first choice out of three Stanford students I interviewed over the phone in the spring of 2015, and in retrospect, we were extremely lucky that she came. Her interest in fisheries comes from her upbringing in coastal Alaska, where fish provide the economic, physical, and cultural sustenance of the people who live there. After being here a few months she told me that she would not have come to HFF if she had known that recreational fisheries built around nonnative fish are the focus of our work. Christina did such a great job here during her internship that I offered her the chance to stay and work for a full year, and she agreed, recreational vs. commercial fisheries notwithstanding.

In the year she worked here before leaving to pursue a master’s degree in fisheries at the University of Washington, she served the organization in so many ways I can’t describe them all, but on paper, she was a research assistant assigned specifically to help me. In my 30-year career as a professional educator and scientist, I have never really had what I would consider an “assistant” in the sense of someone who was free to work on whatever I needed help with and to whom I was free to assign tasks as I needed assistance. And in that 30-year career, which included teaching and mentoring thousands of students and young professionals, I have never had the privilege of mentoring someone like Christina. I know Christina as an intensely focused, efficient, serious, quiet, task-oriented worker—and one who could literally read my mind. A typical interaction with her would involve me starting in on one of my trademark wordy and detailed 15-minute explanations of what I wanted her to work on for the next day or two or even week. Five minutes into the explanation, she was already working on it—writing computer code, researching background information, creating a data template, whatever it took… She was a quarter of the way done by the time I walked back down the hall to my office. The next morning, she was finished and ready for the next task. Things that would have taken me three days to do, she would do in three hours. I struggled to keep up with her.

That’s the Christina I know, which I now am beginning to understand is much different than the Christina her friends know. All of the time I spent with Christina in her year with us was in the workplace, or in work-oriented social events like the staff fishing day. The only glimpse I ever got of the bubbly, outgoing, pure-joy Christina was when she landed that fish.

Oh yes, the fish. It was the one rising on the lower left of the rock slick, as we looked upstream at it. It wasn’t huge but certainly had the rise-form and nose of one that had spent at least two full seasons watching imitation insects float by it—and this was in the Ashton-to-Vernon reach, which now gets an enormous amount of year-round angling effort. Big enough to be a wary angling opponent, anyway. While casting to the fish, she was the Christina I worked with every day—intently focused on the task, absorbing my instruction as needed but mostly learning on her own and adjusting to the situation in real time.

The take was deliberate and certain and the one single instant in the whole process when everything is completely out of the guide’s hands. I was a lousy fishing guide when I was young, but I did learn a few things. The guide can maneuver the boat or wading angler, select the right fly and technique, talk the client through the casting and presentation phases and tell the client when to set. After the set, the guide can also talk the client through the playing and landing process and net the fish. But, the set itself is all up to the client. Christina nailed it—the perfect balance of speed, touch, and line control. Her instincts from harvest-oriented spin fishing then kicked in, and instead of stripping or reeling in the line, she just kept tension on the fish and walked backwards toward the shore. I had to provide a little guidance to make sure she didn’t trip over any rocks while doing so, but she got to the boat safely, and I got the net. Last place for guide screw-up in this situation, of course, is in the netting, but I lucked my way through that and delivered the fish to her. Pure-joy Christina took over at that point—my first experience with that! Melissa was ready for the photo op and captured that joy for all to experience.

Photo of angler holding a Rainbow Trout.

Christina Morrisett with a nice Rainbow she caught on a March Brown, April 29.

After she released the fish, Christina looked at me with a combination of bewilderment and disbelief. I don’t know what she saw in my face, but she asked “what’s that look for?”

Fighting tears, I said “it’s a look of pride.”

I can say with high probability (I know, I’m a mathematician) that our little Henry’s Fork community—probably more the people outside of HFF than within—had a lasting and positive influence on Christina during the year she was here. But I can say with 100% certainty that Christina had a greater lasting and positive effect on us.

These are the experiences and relationships that are created, maintained, and intensified by the river we all love.

Photo of Teton Range at sunset.

First snow on Tetons. September 24.