"If you can catch a fish here, you can catch one anywhere." Those words, spoken an hour before by an old friend, probably the most skilled trout angler I have ever met, were bouncing around in my head as I crossed Idaho's Henry's Fork and headed down into the Harriman State Park portion of the river known to anglers as the Railroad Ranch. After years of being away, I was back in the river at one of my favorite places on earth. "I wonder if I can still do this," I thought to myself.
When I reached the far bank, I started looking for rising fish. There were a lot of small fish splashing as they ate from a smorgasbord spinner fall of dead and dying Pale Morning Duns and Flavs, but I was looking for the steady push of water that only a big fish makes. I scanned all over the river, which at this point is about 100 yards wide. In classic Ranch form, the fish I was looking for was right under my nose, rising steadily against the bank about 40 feet downstream of me.
Wading slowly out from the bank, moving deliberately so as to create no pulses of water that would alert the fish, I positioned myself just a bit upstream from the fish and about 25 feet out from the bank. The fish was rising steadily, eating a mayfly every few seconds. However, there was a problem. A rock stuck out of the water two feet from the bank and the trout was using the current just downstream and off the far side as a feeding lane. Between the trout and me there was a large slick where the rock stopped the current making a drag free drift very close to impossible. The fish was right there, but, in this position, uncatchable, at least by me.
The rainbows that make their home on The Ranch live in a trout paradise. The Henry's Fork is essentially a gigantic spring creek with clear water and a gravel bed that is home to some of the most prolific mayfly and caddis hatches in North America. There is plenty here for a trout to eat. However, there's a catch. The Ranch is also known as one of the hardest places to catch a trout in the world. As such, it attracts the people who see that as a feature rather than a bug. "If you can catch a fish here, you can catch one anywhere."
What makes them so hard to catch? A combination of factors: clear water, tricky currents, abundant food. The best explanation, though, is that Ranch trout play this game every day of the season. When a fish rises on The Ranch, it's likely to have an angler casting to it. And not just any angler, but often one of the most dedicated and talented fly anglers in the world. Because of their renowned difficulty, the fish on the Ranch have a cult following of anglers who plan their entire lives around fishing the Ranch a few weeks or months each year.
I grew up amongst these anglers. In 1981, my dad decided that we would spend our summers on the Henry's Fork. A Minnesota boy, I had never been to the mountains or fished a trout stream wider than I could jump across. In early June of that year, we packed our things and moved to a cabin just a few hundred yards from the Henry's Fork for the summer.
For the next 11 years, June, July and August were spent fishing the Henry's Fork, Madison and rivers in Yellowstone Park. But The Ranch was my favorite place to be. It didn't take me long to understand that one Ranch trout was worth 100 trout almost anywhere else, which is good because on the Ranch it is standard for a good angler to have no more than a one or two fish day. It's not uncommon for the best anglers to walk out having been completely blanked despite a good hatch and rising fish. It is just that difficult.
You can't bullshit your way to a fish on The Ranch. There is no room for slop in Ranch fishing. Either do it right or get your ass handed to you by a creature with a brain smaller than a pea. There is no more humbling place in the world of fly fishing. The challenge is far more an athletic one than cerebral. Fly choice matters to some extent, but the ability to cast is paramount. I once asked a talented Ranch angler and friend what they were eating and with a smile he replied, "Drag-free drifts."
There are two things that Ranch fish won't tolerate: leader overhead and drag. You generally can't fish them from behind or put your leader before your fly. And your fly can't drag over them. Any of the above will result in a spooked fish. In most cases, you need to fish them slightly quartering downstream and you need to have an accurate in-the-air reach mend. This combination results in your fly floating naturally and arriving before your leader. Between you and the fish, there will often be current of several different speeds that you will need to account for in your mend. Do this right and a fish might eat, but do it wrong and the fish spooks. Game over. If you are lucky, you can find another rising fish. If not, better luck tomorrow.
As a teen, I fished The Ranch almost every summer day. I got my ass handed to me more times than I can remember, but over time I got better. My casts began to hit their mark and my ability to do in-the-air mends improved. With many days on the water under my belt, I started to feel like I knew what I was doing. I started to catch fish on more days than not. The biggest reward for this was that the older, more experienced anglers started to treat me like I belonged. A friend compared the scene amongst Ranch locals to that at a popular surfing break. Showing up day after day and consistently catching waves or fish eventually results in acceptance by the locals. There was really no way to fake it. As a young man, I loved sitting on the bench outside of the Grubstake Market after the sun set and talking fishing with the other Ranch fanatics.
These days, I'm a smallmouth and musky guide in Wisconsin. Both fish have their own particular challenges. Musky in particular have a reputation for being difficult to catch. However, the difficulty in musky fishing has more to do with the fact that, due to size of their meals, they are often just not all that hungry than it does with some wariness on their part. Put a fly in front of a hungry musky and there is a very good chance it will get crushed. Success in musky fishing has a lot to do with pure persistence. Keep on casting. Of course, knowing how to cast large flies accurately and knowing where to put those casts helps an awful lot. A good enough cast on the right day to the right place can result in the fish of a lifetime.
Because musky fishing is difficult and the fish are big and mean, I often hear musky fly anglers disparage trout anglers. "They have no idea what it takes to do this." "Our flies are bigger than their fish." "Trout weenies." I suspect such comments are partly the result of musky anglers feeling a little neglected. In the fly fishing family, trout anglers are the first-born golden children and musky anglers the red-headed step children. These feelings ignore the fact that the red-headed stepchild is often having way more fun off by him or herself while the golden child is in the limelight. There are benefits to being ignored.
A good friend of mine who is an excellent downhill skier defines a great skier as being able to ski all mountains, all snow, and all conditions. Ice, powder, death-crust, a great skier can handle it. I think the same applies to fly fishing. There are a lot of anglers who are good at one facet of fly fishing. They might be a great trout angler or tarpon angler or steelheader, or musky angler. But there are only a few who can seamlessly go from one discipline to the next, who are as comfortable throwing size 18 dries with a 4 weight as they are 15" streamers with a 12. I sure discovered the limits of my skills in Mexico last winter trying to catch bonefish in a 40 MPH wind. Suffice it to say that my casting in those conditions needs some fine tuning.
I guess what I'm getting at is that it's fun to leave our niche and try something new. And we become better anglers for doing it. If you have never cast a big fly on a heavy rod, it's going to be difficult at first, but once you get the hang of it, there's a good chance you'll love it. And if you're a warm water angler and have never had to execute a perfect reach mend, putting a size 20 fly in front of a trout that plays this game daily, trust me, you are in for a really cool experience. This will probably be hard at first, but with practice it'll come. It's probably impossible to pull off, but I think it's a great goal to try to be a jack of all trades, master of all.
Back on The Ranch, I stood and pondered my situation. This fish was in a position that made a drag free drift impossible from any angle but straight downstream. I knew that option was out as it would put my leader straight above its head. I had two choices: give up and find another fish, or wait and hope this fish moved. This is where being a musky angler helped. I'm no stranger to pushing my stack into the pot and risking going home empty handed. If I couldn't get this fish to eat, oh well. So I stood and waited as the sun slowly sank behind the Centennial mountains.
And then it happened. For some reason only the fish could explain, it changed its lie to a spot about three feet downstream of where it had been feeding. This small difference was just enough to allow a shot. If I put a cast on line about two feet above the fish and did a combination reach cast and tip shake, I might just be able to get the fly drag free over the fish's head. With the light just about gone, I really had nothing to lose, so I made one false cast to make sure I had the distance and lay the fly down. As soon as the fly touched the water, I had that awesome feeling of knowing the cast was good. Even though I couldn't see my fly, I knew exactly where it was, and when the fish rose I lifted my rod and the line came tight.
An angler who only fished for muskies might not understand how a trout can be as special as a big musky. This fish was just that. I had the opportunity as an old guy to return to the place where I had really learned how to fly fish and have a shot at a truly difficult trout. Through a combination of luck, perseverance and long dormant muscle memory, I got to feel a big Ranch trout as it took line and jumped. When I landed it, my friend Jake apologized for not having his phone for a photo. I told him not to worry; the light was bad and it was better for the fish to keep it in the water, both of which were the case, but the truth is that while it was a big trout, It would never be as big in a photograph as it will be in my memory.