Lake or river -- take your pick. The world-renowned Henry's Fork country of eastern Idaho boasts some of the finest trout fishing in the nation.
By Jack Ballard
That's the question that kept buzzing through my head the first time I motored through a mesmerizing mountain valley just southwest of Yellowstone National Park. The name seems to be ubiquitous in eastern Idaho, with landmarks such as Henry's Lake and the Henry's Fork of the Snake River.
Andrew Henry, I soon learned, was an early 19th-century fur trapper. What's important today is that the clear mountain waters bearing his name boast some of the finest trout fishing in the nation.
Take Henry's Lake, for example. Perched near the head of an expansive montane valley, the lake has it all: soul-stretching scenery, fertile water, an abundance of adjacent camping and lodging facilities, and trout. Really big trout.
Looking for a king-sized cutthroat? Henry's has 'em. Want something bigger? Then cross your cutthroat with a rainbow and mark the girth gained by hybrid vigor. Hybrids of the cutthroat/rainbow variety regularly push the scales beyond 10 pounds in Henry's Lake.
This outsized cutt was just one prize that the author, in an inflatable pontoon, took at Henry's Lake. Photo courtesy of Jack Ballard
But there's another trophy finning these waters that garners even more attention from certain segments of the angling society. What could match a 10-pound hybrid? Try about 80 ounces of brook trout. Little brookies in backcountry headwaters get little respect, even from the preschoolers that yank them gleefully from the water, but big brook trout are to the fishing world what Big Billy Goat Gruff was to the troll under the bridge - something worth messing with, and something that just might kick your tail in the process.
Optimists predict that a state-record brook trout will one day be coaxed from the rippled surface of Henry's Lake. And there's reason behind the enthusiasm. Notable specimens are taken from the lake each year, and there's more than a few stories circulating of the really big ones that got away.
To understand the fishery and the fishing at Henry's, a little history and geography are worth perusing. The lake lies less than an hour's drive west of Yellowstone National Park. More exactly, it's 18 miles southwest of West Yellowstone, Mont., on Highway 20. A handful of creeks feed this jewel of trout haunts, little streams with names that match the tenor of the surroundings: Timber, Hope, Duck and Targhee creeks, to name a few. After mixing in the lake, the waters depart from a single outlet.
|Falling For The Falls|
Because the Henry's Fork dominates as a trout destination in eastern Idaho, many anglers remain oblivious to the fine fishing on other area waters. One such gem is the Falls River, which joins Henry's Fork south of Ashton.
The Falls' headwaters lie deep in the south end of Yellowstone National Park. True to its name, the river plunges over a number of waterfalls on its headlong rush through the pines and canyons of the park. Anglers looking for a trule wilderness experience can fish the river below Terraced Falls, which is reached from a trailhead on the road that connects Ashton with Highway 89 in Grand Teton National Park.
No one seems to know what to call this idyllic ribbon of gravel. On some maps it appears as the Reclamation Road or the Grassy Lake Road, others label it as the Ashton-Flagg Road.
Terraced Falls is just over 1.5 miles from the trailhead. I've scrambled down the hillside below the falls to fish the river and followed it about a mile downstream, beyond Rainbow Falls. Not far below Rainbow the river bends into a couple of deep pools, holes from which I've pulled literally dozens of eager cutthroats and rainbows. It's bear country and a tough hike out, but heartwarming to the adventurous.
Looking for a more civilized experience? Target the Falls River on its lower reaches near Ashton, where rainbows prevail, some reaching notable size and beautiful coloration. Access is obtained from private landowners or at bridge crossings on the Cave Falls Road. Farther upstream, the river enters the Targhee National Forest, eliminating access issues.
Run-off muddies the river early in the year, but by mid-summer it begins to shine, fishing well into the fall. Streamers and Buggers often take the largest fish, but the trout also hit nymphs and dry flies, depending on the conditions. Spin casters find action with assorted spinners and other hardware, but my top pick for the Falls are medium-sized gold and silver Thomas Cyclone spoons. -- Jack Ballard
BEATING THE VEGETATION Before 1923, the big puddle contained less than 10 feet of water. That year, the construction of a dam was completed with the expressed purpose of increasing irrigation capacity. Nonetheless, Henry's remains a shallow lake, at least by Western standards. The average depth runs less than 20 feet, a factor that has significant bearing on the fishing. Because of its shallow character, Henry's gets hot in midsummer. Water temperatures can reach 70 degrees, leaving trout lethargic and spawning a cankerous weed growth that confounds both spin and fly anglers alike. In typical years, weeds clot most of the lake by mid-July and persist until some time in September. Fishermen converge on the lake's cold water springs in the hot months of summer where weed growth is kept at bay.
Prior to the big vegetation bloom, anglers find success with a variety of tackle and techniques. The season on Henry's opens Memorial Day weekend. Trout teasers hit the water from the banks, float tubes and pontoon boats, but the favored method is probably trolling. Black Panther Martins are popular with spin fishers. Other lures find excellent action as well. Spoons of red coloration often trigger strikes, as do Flatfish (start with green and brown) when trolled very slowly.
The "where" is as
important as the "how," and like other lakes, Henry's has its hotspots. Early season trolling is great along the north shore in the vicinity of the hatchery. Other productive areas include the eastern section of the lake near the mouth of Targhee Creek, and the water below the "cliffs" west of Henry's Lake State Park.
Flycasters target these areas, as well, along with other favorite hangouts. Henry's is a superb lake to fish from a float tube or pontoon boat, as fishing is commonly best near the shorelines. Topwater activity, while occurring sporadically, is very limited. Fly-flingers typically utilize sinking lines and a variety of patterns to match. Woolly Buggers, leech patterns, minnow imitations, Olive Scuds and a variety of nymphs are the go-to fare on the lake.
There's a flat-water fly-fishing cult on Henry's - and I do mean cult, but not of the religious type. You'll find fly patterns available at local shops that you've probably never seen elsewhere. You'll also see those flies on the tippet ends of hardcore anglers who fish the lake, some over 50 days per year. I've yet to decide if these folks should be pitied or revered, but if you can gain an audience with one of the old-timers, ask intelligent questions and pay close attention to the answers. They will help you.
HENRY'S LAKE IN FALL I'd be irresponsible to overlook the superb fall fishing that heats up the cool autumn days on the lake of Henry.
Last year in early October, I struck up an acquaintance with Jack Larimer, a physician from Jackson, Wyo., who favors the lake when the aspens yellow and a coverlet of snow rests lightly on the peaks. Nursing a cold and braving a chilly breeze that brought with it an occasional hiccup of sleet, Jack fished the Staley Springs area in conditions that would send most of us scuttling for the fireplace in the Staley Springs Lodge. As I watched and shot photos, he engaged a number of the lake's heavyweights. Evidently the action made the climate more than bearable.
A couple of days later, when the weather had taken a mild turn for the better, I hit Henry's myself. Launching a new pontoon boat that arrived in a cardboard Cabela's box just in time for this fishing trip, I was soon enjoying the craft's maneuverability and comfort. Most of the Saturday morning crowd zoomed for yonder parts of the lake, but I decided to stick close to the Staley Springs dock until I got more acquainted with the two inflatable cigars I was rowing.
As it turned out, the dock area had more in store than paddling practice. Stripping a Bugger with a sparkling green body and black tail, I soon surprised myself with a strike. I missed the first fish, and then another. The hook took on the third. Five minutes into the fight, I sincerely believed I was winning. Although the big trout had previously stripped yards of line from the reel at will, it seemed to be tiring. A couple of times I saw it on the surface - 2 feet of salmonid if an inch, enough to set my hands trembling with more than mere fatigue.
But somehow the hook slipped. My pulse returned to normal. Another hour's fishing garnered two nice cutthroats, fish in the 3- to 4-pound range. I was happy to net both. Nonetheless, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the catch would have been more satisfying without the nagging memory of the great escape.
THE BOX CANYON OF HENRY'S FORK So where was I hiding while Jack Larimer took the weather out on the lake? In a sheltered canyon, of course, casting for trout of a different color. The water that tumbles from Henry's Lake forms the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, a stream that not too many years ago was voted number one in the nation in a survey of Trout Unlimited members.
At the lake's outlet, the Henry's Fork looks like nice trout water, but smallish for a nationally acclaimed river. A huge downstream spring and feeder streams boost the width of the Fork by the time it dumps into Island Park Reservoir (itself a fine trout fishery, though sadly dewatered in recent years), a bit less than 20 miles from its head.
Ten miles below the spillway of the reservoir, the Henry's Fork eases under the Osborne Bridge on Highway 191. It's this stretch of water that receives the bulk of the fishing pressure on the river, much of it concentrated on the Box Canyon just below Island Park Reservoir. The canyon can be accessed a number of places, but my favorite jumping off point is the trail at the end of Riverside Drive, on the west side of Highway 20 just south of the bridge over the Buffalo River. (If you're driving south on 20 and you pass the Ranger Station on the east side of the highway, you've gone too far.)
Eroded in the volcanic strata of the valley, itself the caldera of an ancient volcano, the canyon would be worth a look even if the river was fishless. But it isn't. And what's more, most anglers in the Box are so busy casting that they seldom pause long enough to enjoy the scenery. However, their failure to appreciate the aesthetics is easily excused. Rainbows inhabit this robust, quick-striding pocket water - trout that the experts claim can run up to 20 pounds.
Hooking a bruiser of this caliber is one thing. Landing it's quite another. Given the current, rocks and other streambed perils, coaxing a 5-pound fish to net is an accomplishment worthy of note. Taming one of the canyon's true heavyweights is a feat that might take a lifetime to top.
Fishing in the Box Canyon can be excellent from the season opener on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through its closure on Nov. 30. Catch-and-release regulations account for the hefty numbers and size of the rainbows despite the sustained fishing pressure, which peaks in the summer months.
Big nymphs are standard fare for flyfishers in the Box: stones, Bitch Creeks, Rubber Legs and the like. Salmonflies are present in the early season and strikes to topwater hopper imitations can be absolutely unnerving in late summer and early fall.
There's also a healthy minnow population. Late last season I took a number of Box trout on a No. 8 Muddler Minnow. A couple of small split shot crimped about 6 inches above the fly provided the necessary sink. I cast the Muddler across or slightly downstream, let it drift, twitched it with my rod tip or stripped it as you would a streamer. Most fish hit on the downstream swing, although one tough 18-incher immediately engulfed the fly as it dropped behind a current-breaking boulder.
Request general Idaho visitor information from the Idaho Tra
vel Council, Box 83720, Boise, ID 83720; 1-800-VISIT-ID; or go online: www.visitid.org. Ask for the Official State Travel Guide.
Also check with local contacts:
Staley Springs Resort -- Rustic cabins, located right on top of some of the best fishing on Henry's Lake. The resort has a boat dock and rentals, or you can launch a float tube and catch fish within 100 yards of the dock. Breakfast and dinner are served in the lodge. Fishing license vendor. Call (208) 558-7471 or online: www.staleysprings.com. E-mail -- firstname.lastname@example.org.
Island Park Chamber of Commerce -- Call for lodging options near the Box Canyon and Harriman State Park: (208) 558-7755.
Bill Shiess -- Developed many of the fly patterns widely used on Henry's Lake and author of Fishing Henry's Lake, 777 N. 3441 W., Rexburg, ID 83440; (208) 356-7275, e-mail email@example.com. -- Jack Ballard
SPIN-CASTING THE BOX Although fly casters dominate the angling population in the Box Canyon, the river is open to spin-fishing, unlike some stretches of the Henry's Fork downstream.
I once took my two sons, ages 6 and 7, into the canyon for a hike and some fishing. Being something of a thrifty character (my wife would tell you I'm a cheapskate), I tied 50-cent spoons onto the end of the kids' lines and turned them loose. "The boys will just lose a lot of hardware in the river and won't have the skill to really catch any fish," I reasoned. "So why sacrifice good lures when they fancy the gaudy cheapos anyway?"
In one way my theory was correct. The kids lost a heap of tackle. And they didn't land a single fish. But not because the trout wouldn't hit hardware. Micah hooked, played and lost two rainbows with a gold and fluorescent pink spoon, both enviably larger than the handful of fish I took with my fly rod. We were just pulling Dom's spoon from the water at the end of an errant cast when a cavernous mouth grabbed it not 2 feet from the bank. That one - an olive-backed hunk of freshwater side pork that would probably tip the scales at 4 pounds - got away as well.
The point is this: A competent spin fisherman can outperform the average fly guy in the Box throughout most of the season. Toss Panther Martin or Mepps spinners (small is sometimes better than big) or cast weighty spoons. Target current seams, bank cover and the holding areas behind boulders and you won't leave disappointed.
When you fish the river below the Box Canyon, watch the regulations. A portion of the river in the Harriman State Park area is restricted to fly- fishing only, a misguided regulation that I've yet to understand. Does it really matter whether a trout is hooked with a dry fly or a leadhead jig as long as it's released quickly to the water? Judging by the dead fish floating past my position, it's a practice that seems to elude the ability of a significant segment of the fly-fishing population.
Despite my quibbles with the regulations, the Harriman Park area has a unique appeal. Here the river slows to an unhurried crawl, seeming more like a bloated spring creek. It fishes like a spring creek, too.
Big trout laze around, one eye on the surface, waiting for the prolific hatches (caddis and mayflies blossom from spring to fall) that keep master casters coming back season after season. Technique is painfully important in the Harriman vicinity. Light tippets, small flies and plopless presentations are the recipe for success.
OTHER HOTSPOTS TO TRY Although the Harriman area and the Box Canyon concentrate the most anglers, it's not because the river fishes poorly in other areas. In fact, many anglers are beginning to discover the prime but overlooked waters in the St. Anthony area. Brown trout jostle for river position with the 'bows below Mesa Falls.
Public access is more difficult here as the river exits the national forest. However, private landowners are surprisingly accommodating of fishermen, a condition that will persist only if Henry's Fork anglers remain courteous and appreciative of trespass privileges.
By the way - who's Henry? I'll bet by now you've forgotten. But though recollections of the fur trapper may fade into the dim recesses of an angler's memory, those who wet a line in its waters never forget the river named for him.
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