Island Park… The Harriman… the Railroad Ranch…Last Chance… Macks’ Inn… pick a name, and it will get you to the longest main street in America. For 33 miles, the city of Island Park beckons folks from all walk of life, for its recreational opportunities-ATVs, hiking, exploring, and well -fishing. With a main line to West Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park, its no wonder it is such a popular little berg.
This was our 3rd annual migration to the tiny town of Island Park. This year we decided to haul the camper down. Originally planning on staying on BLM land, until an unexpected spot opened at Henry’s Lake State Park. Electric hookups? Water hookups? Shower houses? Yes please! With the trailer, it takes us about 10 hours to get there—as we crested Raynold’s pass and the Lake came into view, a furry critter with a very low center of gravity, took off across the road in front of us. I looked at Brian and asked “was that what I think it was?”. Sure enough, the first wildlife we ran into this trip, was a badger. You just never know what you will run into down here. My hope was that the badger would be the worst of the wildlife we would see on this trip. I have no desire to run into any grizzly bears while fishing. No thank you.
We had the week somewhat planned out, with a day or two to explore some new waters, but would mostly be fishing the Railroad Ranch. To get the week started, we made our ritualistic stop into West Yellowstone to visit the shops and get some tying supplies for the coming winter season. Blue Ribbon Flies is our favorite in West. The amount of materials is just outstanding, and the company you get to visit with while there, is unmatched!
The first night of fishing found us in the same spot we left off last year. It’s a spot we have come to love. The caddis hatches in this particular spot are nothing short of amazing. This night was no different than what we have come to hope for. A year ago, we finished the trip up in this spot. Brian had ended the night, and the trip, by hooking a solid Ranch fish. After a long battle, the fish ended up straightening the hook—but not before it made some acrobatic jumps. I’ve no doubt that fish was the subject of dreams throughout the past year, as the one that “got away.” Fast forward to 2019 and our first night fishing the ranch. Once the winds finally died down, the caddis appeared. I had been catching a number of smaller fish on a fly pattern Bill Jollymore had shared with us the prior year. I hollered to Brian to let him know what I was having success on. He switched out flies, and headed for the rock on the far side that seems to hold the bigger fish. He caught sight of a riser that definitely had some more size to it than the others. A few casts in, and it was game on. This time, the hook did not straighten out. Brian was rewarded on night #1 with this beauty.
Each year, we try to explore some new waters, both on the Ranch section and beyond. One day, we headed down to a part on the lower area of the Fall River. It was a beautiful setting, and we hooked some small rainbows and brookies, but nothing much to write home about. Next time we get a Park pass, we want to head further upriver and explore the SE corner of the park a bit.
We did fish the Ranch most of the week, but we took one day and fished the Coffee Pot area downriver of Mack’s Inn. To get to the river, you walk maybe a half mile through some very bear-y woods… and then down a large wall, with a stairway built down into it. At rivers edge, you can head up—and fish the canyon water. Below the last drop of water, it slows a bit and provides a perfect area to swing wet flies.
We first went upriver and did a bit of euro nymphing in the deep pocket water. I hooked a good one here last year, that came unbuttoned. I hoped I would again. And I did—and I made a rookie mistake! I was fishing a new rod for the first time, and completely overlooked setting the drag in my haste to get to the river. I probably would have been fine carefully playing him in…but no—I adjusted my drag, even though I knew better! And poof! There he went. I have now hooked two nice fish in that spot and both have escaped my capture. I guess that just makes it a reason to go back again next year!
Brian has really taken to swinging wet flies the last year or two. I have just never given it an honest try. The water below the canyon area was perfect for swinging flies and was full of small rainbows that were especially eager. Brian walked me through single hand spey casting in this run, and as I worked through it, the small rainbows were a nice confidence booster to a new style of fishing for me. It was a blast! Towards the end of the run, was a massive boulder in the middle of the river, with what looked to be a bunch of lumber lodged up against it. Brian helped me position myself in a way that I could swing a fly just in front of the lumber—as we just knew there would be a nicer fish in the area. I saw the fish rise, and got into position. He took on the very first swing! As much as I love seeing a fish take a dry fly, there is definitely something to be said about the feel of one taking a swung wet fly.
One morning, we decided to walk into PMD Bay on the Ranch section. We got there and there were already some folks along the bank. We kept our distance so as to not disturb them, as they were targeting some bank sippers. We were hoping to catch the spinner fall. The conditions were perfect, according to the literature we had read. Shortly after we arrived, we noticed the bugs. There were at least 4 different types of mayflies, and a couple types of caddis! How on earth do you determine the type and stage of fly the fish are keying in on! You just keep trying! Most of the risers were far out in the river, and it has some really good depth here. One thing you learn very quickly on the Ranch, is you better practice your casting. It seemed in this spot, they were just out of reach. But not for a lack of trying. We made note of some of the spinner flies we saw, and decided we’d go back to camp and tie a few up to mimic them.
That evening, we setup the Norvise’s on the trailer dinette and busted out the supplies—there was fly tying material and tools everywhere! We grabbed the materials we thought would mimic the spinner we saw and created a couple to bring with us later in the week.
Fast forward to two mornings later-we headed back out to PMD bay. The bugs were all there again, as were the fish (and the other people upriver from us). This time we walked in from Wood Rd and it was a much nicer walk. The fish were rising again, out in the deep water just out of reach. I finally made one really decent cast to a rising fish. The drift was just perfect, and the fish must have thought so too! We both had fish take our flies we created to mimic the spinners observed just two days prior.
This was one of those moments I will never forget as a fly fisher and fly tyer. We went out and observed the bugs that were on the water. Went back to our cabin on wheels and created. And then went back to the same location and successfully fooled the fish. Everything came together and it was magical!
The second to last day, we found ourselves at the top of the Ranch for the afternoon. The weather back at camp was less than desirable, but we decided to take a chance and head down US 20 to the Ranch just to see what it was like down that way. As we pulled into the parking lot, the wind was getting worse, and there was most definitely a storm rolling in. We passed by a group of anglers walking out as we were walking in—they must have thought we were nuts. As we got to the river, it started lightning. I’ll fish in a lot of weather, but not that. We set the rods down a good distance away and took cover near the bush line. As the storm rolled over, it would lighten up, then start back up. Next thing we know, we are getting hit by balls of slush coming down from the sky. The whole river was one big splash puddle with balls of hail breaking the surface! It eventually calmed down a bit, and we were left with the most amazing site. A rainbow—but not just any rainbow. The rainbow came down onto the river, between us and the far shore. It is hard to tell in the picture, but it is there. This is the first time I’ve seen the end of a rainbow, and it couldn’t have been in a more perfect spot.
Our final night drew us back to our favorite section of the Ranch. We have made it a tradition to end our trip in this spot each year. The sunset is phenomenal, and the fishing is pretty damn good too. Typically a good number of risers (mostly smaller fish), but every now and then there is a slightly larger one mixed in, and sometimes a really nice one (as Brian found out on Night No. 1). This evening, there were a duo of men fishing on the far side of the bank from us for the first part of the evening. One was younger, and the other much older. As the older gentleman carefully moved from one spot to the next, it made me wonder if this spot was special to him, in the way that it was to us—as it seemed as though he fished it with a great reverence. I wondered how many days and evenings he had spent in this spot, long before we discovered it. As the sun was setting on our last night, I cast to a riser I saw on the far side of a rock. She graciously took my fly and took off. She wasn’t near as big as the one Brian hooked near there, but she was a beauty. She was taking drag and was just pure fun to play (and try to keep out of the weeds!). I landed her and all was right in the world for that moment. She was my nicest Ranch fish to date, and a fine way to end our annual trip.
We headed back to the rig, as we listened to our theme song… “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” Until next year…