Simply put, it is one of the most iconic pieces of trout water on Earth. The very mention of the storied Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork conjures images of expansive flats with large rainbow trout sipping away on the surface. Anglers who frequent this water tend to abide by a largely unwritten code of conduct, and generally hunt those heads patiently, often waiting on the banks or walking and hunting until a rise is spotted. A careful and well thought out approach greatly increases the chances of success on this very technical piece of water. Tackle is well thought out as well, leaders are prepared with great care, and the most trusty of flies are often fastened to a well tended tippet while in wait. This process is part of the joy of fishing The Ranch, and gives the angler plenty of time to admire the day’s tackle selection from his or her quiver of available arms. Both failure and success here often result in a thoughtful recapture of the day’s activities and careful consideration to the why’s and how’s of the day’s events.
Though it is the trout that most immediately draw anglers to The Ranch, anglers quickly learn that by timing their efforts with certain hatches or even certain phases of hatches, they are able to increase their opportunities. These hatches become part of the focus of Ranch anglers and exist throughout the summer and fall, usually starting with a bang when the drakes and heavy pmd hatches pop. Next, Ranch insect activity eases into flavs, then to flying ants and other terrestrials, and finally to the mahogany duns and baetis of Autumn. Caddis are present throughout the summer in a variety of species. There are even micro-habitats scattered throughout the 7-mile-long reach that can present fantastic and fascinating hatch matching opportunities when other sections are blank.
Everyone seems to have their favorite times of year here, and as a guide on the Ranch, I have my favorite times to take anglers. As an angler myself, my favorite time to fish The Ranch is whenever I can go. The magic of this piece of water is never lost on me and I consider it a privilege to spend a morning, afternoon, evening, or if I’m lucky, a full day walking its banks in search of a target to try and wrangle. This is usually when I reach for that special rod I’ve been waiting to cast, the one I keep in my truck for just this moment. There are, however, other times that I reach for my highest performing rod and this is determined by what it is that I expect to see.
Rod selection is one of the first things I consider for a day on the Ranch. Fly fishing advertisements often favor a moderate or slow-action rod for this sort of fishing. A rod that exemplifies the feel of a smooth fly cast. Sometimes that is reflected in my selection as well. Other times, the elements/weather or the bugs that I expect to throw push me to select a faster action rod. For example, when fishing a spinner fall, when I know that the water will be littered will millions of spent mayflies, and trout will be eating only 1 out of any possible 50 drifting over them at any point in time, I reach for my SAGE X 590-4 rod. This trustworthy, high performance rod is capable of picking up long amounts of line, 40 plus feet, and makes it easy for me to convert a single back cast into a tight-looped forward cast that delivers the fly right back into the lane it came from. It is this efficiency of many drifts in the same feeding lane that brings success to the spinner-fishing angler. This is harder to accomplish using a softer action rod as the angler may have to make more strips of line in after each drift in order to execute a proper back cast, resulting in more false casts and ultimately into more shooting of line and less accuracy. In this game of inches, I favor the stiffer SAGE X, and I appreciate the bit of touch the rod has in the softer tip (compared to some of SAGE’s other models), which helps get the cast started in just the right way.
When fishing larger flies, either the drakes in the early summer or terrestrials in the heat of summer, I know that fewer presentations will be required as the natural competition on the water will be less than during a thick emergence or spinner fall. In these circumstances, I still favor a rod that I enjoy casting, but one with a softer action that places more emphasis on the pace of the casting stroke. This same softer touch is more efficient at feeding line, a technique that goes hand in hand with larger flies on The Ranch. The trout feeding on them are often moving targets in search of fewer but larger morsels. Less rhythmic feeding is characteristic of these situations, so between presentations I’ll often be bringing my flies to hand to wait for the targeted trout to show himself again before I re-cast. In these situations, I’ll reach for one of my classier rods – a rod that I appreciate for its performance as well as its artistry. My Burkheimer 590-4 Classic, for instance. Burkheimers not only are finished with an artists touch, they also are built with a sense of feel and smoothness not equaled in other rods out there. They are capable of throwing a tight loop on short casts and perform very well up to 60 feet or so. Though there are many that prefer a 4 weight for some of this fishing, I always prefer my 5 weight, for its versatility in windy conditions.
During terrestrial season, an angler is likely to encounter spinner falls in the morning, ants in the late morning, and maybe even sight fishing with nymphs, and targeting grasshopper-searching trout in the afternoon. Often, the Ranch has plenty of aquatic vegetation (which most of us unceremoniously refer to as weeds) at this time of year. In August, large weed banks reach the surface and isolate trout in little channels that funnel bugs and change the river’s currents. In the afternoon, weeds will often cut loose and begin to drift down the river. Having a rod that can maintain lots of pressure on a hooked fish without breaking a fine tippet is a must. A Winston Pure in a 5 weight, nine foot is a great tool for the job. I find that this rod excels at short range casting. Many times the answer to getting a drift in these variable weed bed currents is to sneak up close to your target and make shots from 30 feet or less. On windy afternoons, “Hoppertunities” arise and being able sling a large fly in the wind and stack out lots of slack into a long drift can make the difference between catching nothing or hooking the largest trout of your year. Again, the deep bend in Winston’s Pure lineup does this well, and allows me to put maximum pressure on the line while minimizing the chance of breaking a fine tippet on a large, angry rainbow trout.
If you and I were to discuss historical advancements in fly tackle over beers some evening in Last Chance, we could start with the transition from bamboo to fiberglass and on to graphite, or Red Ball Flyweight waders to Gore Tex. But I would argue that the greatest advancements in the last decade have been made in the area of fly lines. The new breed of fly lines by companies such as Scientific Anglers, RIO, Airflo, and Cortland are leagues ahead of where they were 10 years ago. New finishes allow for easy shooting and feeding slack, as they move through the guides with less friction. Complex tapers offer unprecedented control over energy transfer and leader turnover. Modern lines are stiffer in the bodies of the heads in a wider range of temperatures and can be more supple in the tips, which both helps with casting in the wind and getting drifts in swirling currents. They also have less stretch than older generation lines which increases contact with fish during the fight and for a quicker, more responsive hook set. For fishing on the Ranch, I prefer the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth in an MPX taper for my SAGE X and Burkheimer, and a Scientific Anglers Trout taper for the Winston Pure. The RIO Gold is a great all around line as well and I find it fishes well with all of the rods mentioned.
In this game of stealth, hatch matching, and drag free presentations, a long, fine leader is a must. Tippet you can believe in is critical as well. There is no sense taking all this time to find a target and plan your approach if your tippet is going to break when you finally do hook your Ranch fish. This is a trophy hunt, and every fish is special. You’ll come across anglers that swear by 15+ foot leaders in 6 or 7X, and that seems to work for them. Usually, however, I’ll select a Trouthunter 10’ 3X leader as a base and then modify it with fluorocarbon tippet in a length that favors accuracy versus overall length. I like the Trouthunter mono leaders because they have a longer butt section than most, designed to turn over long leaders in windy situations. I have yet to find a stronger tippet than the Trouthunter Fluorocarbon. It is impressive stuff and is often stronger than the steel of the hook the fly is tied on.
Construction of my own Ranch leader goes as follows: Starting with Trouthunter 10’ 3X leader, I cut about 15 inches off of the fly end. I then attach a 15 to 20 inch long section of 4X Trouthunter Fluorocarbon to the end of the tapered leader using a double surgeon’s knot. This knot is important when joining mono to flouro. Lastly, I add a 2 foot long section of 5X Trouthunter Flurocarbon tippet to the end of the 4X, using a blood knot. The result is a leader with a total length of about 12 feet. If I need to step down further, I might trim the 5X section a little shorter and add another 2 feet of 5.5X or 6X for an overall length of 13 to 14 feet, that is typically my maximum leader length. Having the 3X leader as my base also gives me the flexibility to trim back to a 4X tippet in a pinch and throw a bigger beetle or hopper at an opportunistic target along the way.
The final component of Ranch tackle is the one that makes the magic happen, and probably the one that receives the most attention – the flies. On this subject, I could probably write an entire book, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet here. One should always start by familiarizing themselves with the bugs they might expect to encounter during your visit. A quick stop or phone call into Big Sky Anglers will give you a heads up to what’s happening out there. Generally speaking, you’ll want to be prepared to match mayfly spinners in a variety of colors and sizes, and the Harrop Paraspinner is a good start. JoJo’s Green Drake, conceived by BSA’s own Joe Moore, is, without fail, the first pattern I put over a trout feeding on these chunky green sailboats. As a bonus, it’s design allows for significant on-stream modification (bring tiny scissors) to adjust the way the fly rides on the water, giving this pattern unprecedented value. Emerger patterns are a must for any of the mayfly hatches you might encounter. These can vary from hair wings like the Challenged Emerger PMD or CDC versions like the Last Chance Cripple PMD. Comparaduns and Sparkle Duns in the appropriate color and size for the hatch are solid choices as well. High-riding duns in thorax ties are great for mahoganies and PMDs. Low profile and spent versions of both olive and tan caddis occupy permanent spots in my Ranch box and can be effective throughout the year. Most Ranch anglers are also never without a few black ants, hoppers, and beetles, and definitely not without a Harrop’s CDC honey ant.
I will conclude with a bit of philosophy. Fly fishing is filled with opinion. It has been my intent in this post to illustrate what has worked for me over the years, and offer some insight to the inquiring angler. I hope this information helps the reader make a decision that leads them to success, whether it be on the Ranch or on another piece of water. One of the joys of fly fishing in general, and certainly for the Ranch angler in particular, is the process of thoughtfully considering the scenarios you might encounter, preparing a selection of flies and your leader for the day’s fishing, and selecting tackle from your quiver that represents what you wish to use. There is no right and wrong here, or it could be said that any choice is both right and wrong, as adapting to changing conditions is usually the name of the game. I hope that every fly angler that comes across this article gets a chance to stand ankle deep in this most special of places and has an opportunity to tango with one of its residents.