Fish of the Month: Year Five

Photo of rainbow trout

In January of 2015, I started a new run of "fish of the month," a tradition I started years ago with long-time friend Tom Grimes, who is a guide at Henry's Fork Anglers. The idea is to catch a wild trout or whitefish every month of the year in our local waters, the streams and lakes of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho in the Yellowstone region. My previous record was 55 months, from July 2004 to January 2009. Five academic years spent in California broke that streak, but I set a new record at 56 months in August of this year and finished 2019 with four good outings in December.

Statistics

I don't need to remind everyone that I am a statistician. Compared with last year, I didn't fish as many different water bodies, didn't fish as many hours, and didn't catch quite as many fish,although catch rate beat last year's by quite a bit. There were many reasons I didn't fish as much locally as in 2018, including a trip to Spain in May to attend an international conference on managed aquifer recharge, four weeks on the injured list, and a trip in September to New Brunswick to fish for Atlantic Salmon. It's a good thing I don't include out-of-area fishing in the fish-of-the-month stats, because that trip would have greatly decreased my catch rate. We fished eight full days plus another evening--just short of 70 hours. In that time I landed one grisle (small male salmon--mine was about 20 inches long), one sea-run brook trout, and one 15-pound salmon. But, it was a fantastic trip with a great bunch of guys, and the northeast fall colors were amazing.

Photo of angler with fish on.

Eric hooked up on Restigouche River, New Brunswick/Quebec border.

Photo of sea-run brook trout.

Guide Mike with a nice sea-run brook trout from Restigouche River.

Okay, the local-water stats:

  • Hours fished: 61.5 (vs. 90 in 2018)
  • Fish caught: 217
  • Catch rate: 3.53 fish/hour (vs. 2.83 in 2018)
    • 154 Rainbow Trout
    • 51 Brown Trout
    • 2 Brook Trout
    • 3 Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout
    • 1 Cutthroat-Rainbow hybrid
    • 6 Mountain Whitefish
  • Smallest fish: 5 inch Brown Trout
  • Largest fish: 19 inch Brown Trout
  • Hours spent rowing other people down the river: 10
  • Hours spent on the river doing field work: 167 (vs. 46 in 2018)
  • Fishing-to-meeting ratio is no longer an official statistic.

Close Calls

The close calls are what make fish-of-the-month interesting and challenging to someone who has a full-time job that involves a lot of meetings and travel, and when it does involve being out on the river, that time is spent assessing the river's ecological health and looking for ways to improve water management. However, I completely avoided close calls in 2019 by being aggressive at the beginning of each month. I caught the month's first fish in the first week of the month eight times during the year, and the latest I caught the month's first fish was the 21st, that forced because it was the first day I was allowed to fish after the 4-week stint on the injured list. The best of the early-in-the-month catches occurred on February 1. You might recall that February brought record-setting snow that pulled us out of a very poor snowpack situation. On February 1, the weather forecast called for a long stretch of wet weather, so I headed out at 4:30 p.m. that afternoon and had 7 nice rainbows up to 17 inches long in the book by 6 p.m. Good thing, because that stretch of wet weather took up the other 27 days of the month!

One other noteworthy stretch of weather was several consecutive days of warm weather just before Christmas. I rarely fish three days in a row under any circumstances, so it was extremely rare for me to fish three days in late December. In 1.5 hours fished on each of December 21, 22 and 23, I landed 15 fish in four different spots. Christmas bonus!

photo of rainbow trout

Winter solstice rainbow, December 21, 2019.

Grand Slam Day

It looks as if I've added a new tradition to fish of the month, which is Grand Slam Day. For the second consecutive year, long-time bicycle racing and fishing buddy Chuck Collins and I caught all four trout species and Mountain Whitefish in the Henry's Fork watershed in a single day. This year, we did that on Sunday, September 1, which turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year--well into the upper 80s in Island Park and 89 here in Ashton. Without a doubt, the highlight of the day was catching some native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout in a tiny stream just a mile or so from the Continental Divide. HFF's field crew rediscovered this isolated population in 1996, while doing a comprehensive survey of all streams in the watershed. Twenty-three years later, I was delighted to see that these gorgeous little fish are still alive and well, having survived the biggest water year on record (1997) and the worst four-year drought (2013-2016) since the 1930s.

Photo of Chuck fishing a tiny headwater stream

Fishing a headwater stream for native cutthroat trout.

Photo of cutthroat trout

Native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout.

After the adventure of finding the headwater stream and catching a few cutthroat, the rest of the day was fairly routine: Box Canyon rainbow, Buffalo River brookies and rainbows, more rainbows and a nice brown at Stone Bridge, and some whitefish in Fall River.

Box Canyon Rainbow Trout.

Photo of Brook Trout

Brook trout from the Buffalo River.

Photo of Rob with Brown Trout

Stone Bridge.

Photo of Mountain Whitefish in the net

And last but not least, the native Mountain Whitefish.

Lower Henry's Fork

When I first came to the Henry's Fork in 1977, "upper Henry's Fork" referred to the reach upstream of Island Park Reservoir, as it still does, but I heard people back then refer to the reach between Island Park Dam and Riverside Campground as the "lower river." Of course, those with a broader perspective talked about the "lower Henry's Fork" as the river downstream of Warm River. Over the years, my definition of "lower Henry's Fork" has kept moving down the river. From a hydrologic perspective, the "upper Henry's Fork" is the watershed upstream of Ashton. If you subscribe to my daily water report, you know this. As defined by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Henry's Fork downstream of Ashton and Fall River make up the "lower Henry's" hydrologic unit. From a fishing perspective, the Henry's Fork between Warm River and St. Anthony is the "middle Henry's Fork," characterized by a mix of bedrock and gravel/cobble substrate, wide shallow riffles, and seasonally prolific hatches of Blue-Winged olives, March Browns, Salmonflies, caddisflies, Pale Morning Duns, Green Drakes, and Gray Drakes.

Photo of angler playing fish out of the boat

HFF Board member Bruce Elliston hooked up on "middle" Henry's Fork during June hatch in Tommy G's boat.

Photo of angler in boat

Smitty's client hooked up during Green Drake hatch.

That leaves what I call the "lower Henry's Fork" as the river downstream of St. Anthony. That reach is characterized by finer and more mobile substrate, meanders, side channels, oxbow ponds, wetlands, inflows from groundwater springs, and extensive and diverse riparian forests that are contiguous with those on the South Fork.

Photo of lower Henry's Fork

Lower Henry's Fork riparian forest.

The lower Henry's Fork has long been my favorite place to fish in the watershed, but I had the great fortune in 2019 to spend a lot of time on the lower Henry's Fork in the name of science. Granted, I was primarily the boat-rower and equipment hauler for Christina Morrisett, but it was very exciting for me to help launch the first in-depth study of hydrology and habitat ever done on the lower Henry's Fork. Year one of Christina's Ph.D. project at Utah State University was funded by the Federal Highway Administration and Fremont County as part of required mitigation for wetland disturbance associated with the Ora Bridge construction. You can find our year-one reports at:

Lower Henry's Fork Hydrology and Habitat Assessment

Lower Henry's Fork Wetland Mitigation Prioritization

Learn more about Christina's project at

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Photo of sunset on lower Henry's Fork

Sunset over lower Henry's Fork, December 22.