Early Season on the Henry’s Fork

Early Season on the Henry’s Fork

The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River is one of the most diverse fisheries in the western US.  With over 70 miles of fishable water, each section has such a unique character that it is like having eight rivers rolled into one.  Water types on the Fork range from tailwater canyons to flat, technical spring creek water, with freestone canyons and low gradient riffle-run sections as a nice bonus.  The Fork also has great diversity in elevation above sea level, with its headwaters at Henry’s Lake located 6472 feet, and the lower reaches of the river down around 5000 feet.  In times of extreme weather here in the high country surrounding West Yellowstone (elevation 6666 ft), it is possible to head down to the lower elevation “banana belt” where you can find nicer weather and water conditions that make the fish and fly fisher both a bit happier.  Nearly the entire river is sourced from natural groundwater springs, the largest of which forms the river’s headwaters and is aptly named Big Springs.  Due to the strong influence of groundwater, the Fork experiences a very minimal runoff by local standards, and almost always has several fishable sections in the early season (April through the month of June).

All of us here at Big Sky Anglers are excited to have an outfitting license for the Henry’s Fork.  We are now the only fly shop in West Yellowstone with this license, and we are among only eight outfitters total that are license holders for the river.  Guiding on the Henry’s Fork allows us to treat our customers to great fishing opportunities at times when many other local waters are blown out, closed to fishing, still frozen or otherwise unfishable. And, all of this exists within a 35 minute to 1 hour drive from the shop here in West Yellowstone.

The lower elevation reaches of the Henry’s Fork in particular exhibit great diversity of geology, gradient, scenery, and fishing. Each section has its own unique character, ranging from sections with large average sizes of trout that offer chances at true bruisers on dry flies, to other sections that are home to larger populations of smaller fish that offer the an angler the chance to relax a bit, learn a lot, and bring a few fish to hand.  The beauty of the Fork is that there is something for every angler regardless of skill levels.  We feel that it has been a misconception for years that the Fork is an experts-only river, and while there are sections where even the most experienced can test their skills and wits, there are other areas where newer anglers can still have a good time.

Though it is legal to fish year round on many of the sections of the Henry’s Fork, the fishing really begins to shape up in April, with good baetis hatches and some March brown activity occurring in several sections.  Stable water conditions, a rarity in the mountain west in April, make for reliable angling conditions, even if the weather is still a bit unpredictable.  Nymph fishing usually dominates during April.  While hatches can be prolific, they are typically short lived.  There is also some good streamer fishing when water temps are warm enough.

The fishing during the beginning of May can be considered an extension of April conditions… until the salmonflies begin to hatch.  This usually happens around the middle of the month.  Because the Fork has numerous tributaries and springs that change water temperature between river sections, the big bugs begin hatching and reach their peak in each section at different times.  Often the hatch will appear in a section upstream on the river and a few days later will begin to happen in a downstream stretch.  Fishing with a guide who has been on the water every day affords visiting anglers a HUGE advantage for this very reason.   While targeting the salmonflies can be a bit tricky because of  unstable weather in May, there are typically 5-7 great dry fly days with salmonflies .  And when the dry fly action isn’t perfect, the nymphing with big stonefly imitations can be outstanding.

Nymph fishing and dry/dropper fishing gets us through the end of May and into the beginning of June when the most exciting hatches of the year begin.  Usually we start with golden stones, PMDs, and caddis, which overlap with small olive stones and yellow sallies.  Next come the flavs and green drakes, followed by gray drakes, which create some of the most exceptional match-the-hatch dry fly fishing of the year.  This is often a mix of blind fishing with dries while looking for targets.  For the angler who prefers to target and cast to rising fish, the combination of a reliable spinner fall in the morning, blending into a PMD hatch in the afternoon, followed by a flav emergence in the early evening, this is absolute paradise.  These hatches offer a real chance at some very large trout in some sections of the Henry’s Fork, and for those who are willing to trade quantity of smaller fish for overall size of fish taken using extrememly visual methods early June is tough to beat.

And remember, all of this happens before the Madison is even done clearing up from runoff for the year.  Once the fishing begins to wane at the end of June on the lower Henry’s Fork due to rising water temps, the salmonflies will have just begun to establish themselves on Montana’s Madison and the upper Henry’s Fork gets into full swing with a repeat of many of the same hatches described above.  We’ll be there and hope you’ll be there with us!


Jonathan Heames, Co- Owner and Head Guide

Big Sky Anglers Co-Owner and Senior Guide Jonathan Heames looks forward to early season on the Fork all winter long.


We’re Trout Fishing…..what are you doing?

p1010031.JPG     G. Falls and Kevin with a 21 inch Mo River Bow

The past three weeks have been filled with countless hours of fly fishing.  The Madison, the Missouri and the Henry’s Fork are all fishing very well with nymphs, streamers and dry flies.  The dry fly fishing on the Madison is not quite there yet, but the other named rivers are fishing well on top.  This is THE time of the year to come out west and fly fish.  The trout are not yet educated, the crowds aren’t here….yet, and the fishing really doesn’t get any better.

missouri_june_2009_027a.jpg  Martin & Joe with a chunky 19 incher…..Mo River

The Missouri is the hottest spot in the state right now.  Sure, you could go to the Horn, but why?  The Mo’s scenery is superior, there are 35 miles of trout filled bliss to fish and the average trout is 16 inches…….oh ya, I almost forgot to mention the wonderful grub at Izzaks.  John and Melanie, the owners of Izzaks, really have their shit together and offer what I believe to be the best food in any trout-town in MT.

missouri_june_2009_007a.jpg   PB & Kevin with a fat Mo River Brown.

p1010063.JPG   JC with a Fork fatty….

Yesterday I floated the Henry’s Fork with the new head soccer coach of West Lake Highschool, Austin, TX – Johnny Campbell.  JC and I go way back and he just arrived for his 15th summer on the Fork.  If he is not slinking around Harriman Ranch with his custom Birkhiemer in hand, you’ll find him working behind the counter at the Trouthunter……or at the bar with a Shiner.  Since I was off work, we floated from Ora to Chester and saw every type of weather imaginable.  The river was a little off,  and since we didn’t want to stare at a bobber, we only hooked a few trout.  The first emergence of Green Drakes arrived and the bugs didn’t come off in force.  The trout were rising, but not consistently.  It was like a bad day on Hebgen Lake…one here, one there and very random, but it is ofcourse better than grading papers.

PMDs, Flavs, Grey Drakes, Golden Stones….need I say more?

Even though Big Sky Anglers is not permitted to guide the Henry’s Fork, we love to take full advantage of the dry fly fishing on the Fork this time of the year.  The Madison is a little off color and ripping through the valley and since I am tired of looking at bobbers, 2 boat loads of us took a drive down to Ashton, ID yesterday and floated from Ora down to Chester Backwater.  The lower Henry’s Fork is in prime shape and the hatches are prolific.  Mid day we threw on a bobber for Kielly’s wife, Paige, and daughter, Bridgette (11yrs).  Neither of them had ever fly fished before so we got them going with nymphs.  Nothing makes an 11 yr. old  smile like a trout on a fly rod. There was a #18 Caddis emerging and swinging an olive soft hackle proved to be winner for the new anglers.  Around 6 pm fish started rising mid river and busting the Grey Drake spinners as they floated helplessly in the surface film. We did not hit Chester until 10:30 pm. What fun we had.  Tonight a few of us are headed down the Harriman Ranch for a evening with the Brown Drakes.  My Mom and Dad have arrived for the summer and I believe my dad, Tom, will be joining us for the evening. 

 Stay tuned for more reports on the Fork and Madison as it comes in to shape ove the next 10 days.