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’m four years into the current one. How did 2018 turn out?
As a statistician and compulsive record-keeper, I carefully record numbers from each outing. While my stats are laughable compared to those racked up by serious anglers who devote most of their free time to the activity, my stats usually surprise me after the fact, given that I work way too much and devote most of the remaining time to bicycle road racing, driving back and forth to California to visit family, and growing a big vegetable garden. I may not qualify as a serious angler right now, but I have been in the past, fishing well over 100 days per year 35 years ago. And, my fishing records date back to 1974, which provide both historical context and a source of amusement as time marches forward. So, stats first.
- Water bodies fished: 14, across all three states
- Hours fished: 90
- Fish caught: 255
- 125 Brown Trout
- 102 Rainbow Trout
- 11 Cutthroat Trout
- 10 Mountain Whitefish
- 3 Brook Trout
- 2 Cutthroat-Rainbow Hybrid Trout (I know that most “rainbow trout” around here have some cutthroat ancestry, but these two were obvious first-generation hybrids.)
- 2 Utah Suckers (Fair caught in the mouth!)
- Smallest fish: 3 inch Brown Trout (No lie; it took a #14 beadhead prince nymph and may be the smallest fish I’ve ever caught on hook-and-line.)
- Largest fish: 20 inch Rainbow Trout, caught on a #4 wet fly my dad tied in the style of a classic Atlantic Salmon fly.
- Hours spent rowing other people down the river: 25
- Hours spent on the river monitoring water quality and aquatic invertebrates: 46
- Fishing-meeting-ratio: I gave up trying to tabulate meeting hours when I got well over 100. Safe to say that there was a lot more meeting than fishing. But then, I get paid for the meetings.
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 taking other people fishing, assessing the river’s ecological health and looking for ways to improve water management. During the winter and during spring runoff, optimal fishing windows don’t always coincide with my availability, and that was the case in 2018. Close calls came in April and December, which have provided close calls many times in the past.
You wouldn’t think of April as a close-call month, but it is bicycle road racing season in Idaho and Utah, which can take up three weekends of the month. On top of that, runoff in the main Henry’s Fork watershed in 2018 (upstream of Fall River) was the highest since 2011, and one of the big peaks came on the last weekend of the month, when I had time to get out on the river. My only chance was Sunday, April 28. Not only was streamflow 3,770 cfs at Ashton, but it was cold and rainy. My only option was Warm River, the “safety net.” Of course, that was the only option for everyone else who had hoped to get in some early-season action on the Henry’s Fork while all of the other rivers were too high and turbid to fish. With the prime water already taken, I was left with some marginal water along the bank. After an hour without a hit, I lucked into a 9-inch Brown Trout hunkered under a grassy bank in about 10 inches of water. Good enough!
The opposite of April, December isn’t actually as challenging as it may seem at first. As long as the river hasn’t frozen, there are some good spots to find fish rising to midges. And, if it hasn’t snowed too much, many of the usual spots that are good in the fall can be easily accessed and fished during the early winter. Unfortunately, we had neither of these in December of 2018. The month started out cold, and the river froze early. And, despite overall dry conditions in December, the Ashton area has received above-average precipitation so far this water year. All of that has fallen as snow since late November, and all of that is still on the ground. So, when a little window of favorable weather opened up during the third week of the month, much of the lower river was inaccessible either because of big ice blocks along the banks leftover from the previous freeze or because snow blocked parking places. I tried the midge strategy first but stood around for 45 minutes in rapidly dropping temperatures as evening fell and saw only a couple of fish rise at random locations and times. Nothing worth lowering myself through the ice jumble to get to the water. So, it was back to Warm River on the next available day. This time I shared the parking lot with only cross-country skiers and snowmobilers and had no trouble landing four trout in an hour of fishing.
Grand Slam Day
Around here, the Salmonid grand slam is Cutthroat Trout, Brook Trout, Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, and Mountain Whitefish. Throw in a hybrid as a bonus. It is possible to luck into a grand slam on Robinson Creek or Fall River, and Jack McLaren, one of our Ph.D. students, has done that on Fall River during early summer. But, to start out the day with full intent of catching the grand slam, the probability of getting the slam on one stream is too low to spend the time trying. So the safest thing to do is pursue the cutthroat in the Teton River watershed, stop by a small headwater stream to get the brookie, and get the rest on Fall River or the Henry’s Fork.
Always one to make things more difficult than they need be, I picked September 9 to try for the slam, accompanied by my bike-racing and sometimes-fishing buddy Chuck Collins. The difficulty came because the days are pretty short in September, and cool mornings usually keep the fish down until mid-day. So, this squeezes the actual “catching” window down to about eight hours. Allowing three hours to drive between streams on dirt roads, the task becomes to catch one of the different species in a one-hour slot allotted to each stream.
As expected, the day started out cool but turned warm, sunny and breezy in the afternoon. Despite a few minor missteps, the overall strategy worked, and we even got the bonus hybrid. We ended up with a hybrid in Bitch Creek, a brookie in Conant Creek, several cutthroat in the Teton River, a combined 20 whitefish and rainbows between the two of us in a 45-minute stop at Fall River, and a nice brown trout each as the sun set on the lower Henry’s Fork. We caught them on a variety of flies, including a Parachute Adams, a couple of hopper patterns, beadhead nymphs, the tried-and-true black rubberlegs, and small Wooly Buggers.
I often use the phrase “better to be lucky than good” in reference to work outcomes and bicycle racing. That phrase is certainly applicable to the grand slam outing, as there is always some luck involved in fishing, especially when you start out the day with a specific catch goal in mind. But, I’d like to think that in this case, local knowledge accumulated over 40+ years of fishing around here, a solid initial plan, and a strategic mid-afternoon adjustment to the original plan helped reduce dependence on the “luck” part.
2018 Photo Gallery
Late winter on Fall River.
Late winter sunrise from HFF Campus in Ashton.
March Brown on the storm door, early May.
A moose crosses the Henry’s Fork at 3,000 cfs in mid-May.
Solstice evening on Fall River.
HFF Board Member Bruce Elliston hooked up during the Green Drake Hatch.
August rainbow trout caught on a 1970s vintage Winston cane rod, matched with a 1970s Hardy Perfect reel.
September morning on Bitch Creek, grand slam day.
Chuck’s Bitch Creek hybrid, grand slam day.
Brook trout on Parachute Adams, grand slam day.
Teton River in the Canyon. Grand slam day.
Teton Canyon Cutthroat Trout, with characteristic black-spot parasite, grand slam day.
Fall River rainbow, grand slam day.
Nice whitefish on Fall River, grand slam day.
Sun sets over lower Henry’s Fork, grand slam day.
Fall colors #1: Robinson Creek.
Fall colors #2: lower Henry’s Fork.
Fall colors #3: lower Henry’s Fork brown trout.
Fall colors #4: harvest time.
Fall colors #5: Halloween.
Year ends on Warm River.