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.
By now you’d think I could not be fooled. You’d think that I’d know better after so many seasons fishing stillwaters. But I still fall into the trap nearly every time. And it happened again just the other day.
My fishing partner and I arrived at the lake around mid-morning and found the surface glass calm, save for the boils, swirls, and gulps of more than a few rising trout. Nothing like the sight of that to motivate you to rig and launch the boat in record time! A quick survey of the scene revealed plenty of adult chironomids flying over the bushes, and chironomid shucks on the water. There were also a very heathy number of Callibaetis mayfly emergers and adults all over the surface, drifting helplessly like speckled sailboats.
Now, the Callibaetis is the sexiest mayfly of all in my opinion. Its striking mottled wings, good (highly visible) size, bankers hatch hours, and ability to bring quality trout to the surface on stillwaters are what make it so appealing. In the western US, it is by far the most important stillwater mayfly.
And so, when I see a bunch of Callibaetis mayflies on the surface, and I see trout feeding aggressively near the surface, I tend to scramble for my flybox and start deciding which of the numerous Callibaetis imitations that I should tie on. Often, seeing what I have explained above does in fact mean the trout are eating Callibaetis. But not when there is an invisible, underwater blizzard of chironomid pupae.
The trap was set. And we fell for it. After 20 or 30 minutes of fishing among numerous (extremely numerous, actually) feeding fish, using multiple Callibaetis tactics (slow intermediate and nymph, floating line and nymphs, dry fly and emerger on top, dry fly with emerging nymph dropper, etc), we only had a couple of hookups to show for our effort. I knew we had been duped by the chironomids yet again. Small, a bit ugly, and decidedly un-sexy insects – their abundance was essentially overwhelming the beautiful Callibaetis in the eyes of the trout. And still, another 20 minutes went by before I switched to chironomid pupa tactics. Each cast that wasn’t intercepted by a trout was punctuated by a comment along the lines of, “they must be on the chironomids”. I didn’t want to believe that the trout would ignore all those beautiful mayflies.
But they did just that. The rest of this story is fairly boring. We finally switched to chironomid tactics, dialed in the pattern and depths, and caught fish after fish until we had to get back to town. Fooled, but not totally foiled, we still had a great time, shared some good laughs, and reminded ourselves of the Callibaetis and chironomid trap. Maybe we will actually remember it next time, or at least acknowledge it as we are tying on our Callibaetis imitations.
Take Care and Fish On,
PS – Today’s post is also appearing at Sexyloops.com
Yellowstone’s winter season in the Interior is now a month from shutting down. Where does all the time go? I have been guiding five days a week again this season for Yellowstone Alpen Guides, making this my 9th year and never have I enjoyed guiding as much as this winter. Luckily, this season, we have decent snow. Truth be told, after last years bleak winter, I was not looking forward to guiding in YNP. Mother Nature was providing us with almost weekly snow storms, but now that February has hit, she’s as dry as dirt. And it’s unseasonably warm to boot. The past few days have seen the snow melting from my roof and piling up as ice on the ground, then running into our garage as I frantically try to chip away the glacial mound in front of the door.
Is this the new norm? Currently, its 33 degrees at 11am…it’s not even noon yet! A week or so ago, the morning temp was -33 degrees. I took a break for a couple hours and tended to our roof and the melting snow, now the temps are reading almost 45 degrees. I should be fishing but adulting is getting in the way. The roads in West Yellowstone are showing signs of spring and spring in these parts is normally a couple months away.
Overall, there has been plenty of wildlife along way to Old Faithful and of course the scenery never gets old. The Canyon runs have been little void of life from time to time, but recently there have been bison on the move in the Gibbon Canyon, which means that coyotes and foxes are making an appearance as well. Wolves have not had much of a presence this season along the Madison, Gibbon and Firehole. There’s been a few sightings, but overall they have been non existent. I would say that has something do with the 94% snow pack and the fact that there are more elk around Big Sky, Gardiner and in the Madison Valley around Cameron, MT. Wolves chase elk and the elk population is down to just a couple dozen, if that, animals on the west side of the park along the Madison drainage. There are two small bull elk and one giant bull living along the Madison River around 7 Mile bridge. So far, they look very healthy. While winter is not over just yet, this break from the cold is nice for every single living thing in these parts.
I’m off to town for a while, with any luck it will be nice enough to drink a beer outside this evening. Pray for snow.
The Madison in YNP went big today after over night rain and high country snow pummeled Hebgen and Firehole Basins. The flows on the Firehole jumped up as did the Madison, by 2:30, I could hardly see my boots in thigh deep water. There were a few logs freed up as well and grass drifting through out the river.
It felt more like late May or early June…..fishing was just okay as the river went from around 370 cfs to 697 cfs in just s few hours. The best bite was in the morning, go figure, as the winds pounded us with rain. I heard the crack of one big lodge pole and looked downstream to see it tumble into the river. Five minutes later, the lodge pole directly behind us cracked as well, but failed to fall. We exited the run soon after.
Right now, at 10 pm, the clouds have cleared out and the temps are dropping. Tomorrow we are headed for Lyons Bridge…..and we could use a little sunshine.