Henry's Fork, Idaho

The Henry's Fork rainbow gradually began to tire and its runs shortened. Side pressure with the rod turned the fish toward shore, into an eddy behind a rock where the fighter finally threw in the towel. It measured 22 inches and probably weighed 4 pounds. A beautiful wild trout lay in the shallows with its side gleaming iridescent silver and crimson. The required barbless fly slipped out easily and a few seconds of reviving the trout showed it was not as tired as it seemed as it showered me with river water in a powerful surge back into the main river.

Wide variety of insects

Memorable? Yes. Unusual? Not really. The Henry's Fork is one of the true Meccas of the fishing world and countless stories are told of its challenging trout, gorgeous waters and amazing countryside. Its waters are considered the epitome of trout streams. It has something for fly fishermen of all skill levels. Henry's Fork fishing can include solitude, social fishing, super-challenging trout, easy trout, float fishing, wade fishing, bank fishing, stillwater fishing, great guides and much more. The area has an interesting history, abundant wildlife, great lodging, camping, sightseeing and family activities. [For a MAP of the Henry's Fork, click here.]

Wildlife lovers are likely to see elk, deer, moose, antelope, swans, geese, sandhill cranes, eagles, osprey, kingfishers, otters, marmot and a variety of other critters. The meadows, streams and highlands are covered with flowers of many types and berries abound, when in season.

Upper end of Island Park Reservoir

Whatever type of trout water you like to fish, the Henry's Fork is likely to have it, in abundance. Henry's Lake and Island Park Reservoir both have trophy trout possibilities for fish over 10 pounds. The river has gentle meadow waters, swift, weedy flats, riffles, rapids, run, pools and pocket water that has produced trout to over 20 pounds. Dry fly fishing here is world famous but there are also many almost overlooked nymphing and streamer fishing opportunities. [For the FLIES for the Henry's Fork, click here.]

The Henry's Fork has also gained fame from being on the forefront of fly fishing techniques and conservation. It was one of the first trout streams in the West to adopt special regulations aimed at preserving the wild trout the river harbors. Controversy over proper management and conservation of the river is ongoing and organizations like the Henry's Fork Foundation are watching, studying, improving and preserving the river for the future.

In case you heard the river is too crowded, forget it, its not a major concern now. The river is crowded only at brief places and times. You can almost always find solitude if that appeals to you. In fact, much of the Henry's Fork is lightly fished or even under fished. Even the popular stretches are almost devoid of pressure if your trip is timed right.

Henry's Lake

No discussion of the Henry's Fork River would be complete without mentioning Henry's Lake. Besides being part of the headwaters, few lakes have such a renowned reputation among fly fishermen. This lake is legendary because of its large trout and fine stillwater fishing opportunities. Seldom are these waters devoid of anglers seeking a trophy trout with fly, spin or trolling tackle. The trout average 13 to 24 inches and occasionally top 30 inches.

Henry's Lake

The cutthroat trout often top 20 inches and are the most plentiful trout due to a large stocking program located right on the lake, as much as 50 percent of the lake's trout are natural spawners. The largest trout are usually the hard fighting, rainbow/cutthroat hybrids [called cutbows locally], they are fewer in number but are highly sought after. Every year there are a few fish over 10 pounds taken and sometimes much bigger. Brook trout also occasionally reach trophy proportions (close to the 8 pound state record) and 2 to 4 pounders are regularly caught. Very few brown trout exist here.

The lake is easily accessed from a number of points around its perimeter. Since it does not often lend itself to very good bank or wade fishing (except in early summer), most anglers opt for float tubes, kick boats or small boats and bass style boats. Most any craft is usable when conditions are calm but Henry's Lake is infamous for its fast moving storms that pack heavy winds. Float tubers have been known to get blown across the lake, sometimes suffering hypothermia. It is generally a safe place as long as you don't go where bad weather could get you in trouble.

Some of the best stillwater fishing I have ever seen has come from this great lake. I can recall having 80+ fish days when trout populations were at their highest. Trout numbers are not as high now but their size and growth rates are excellent. If you do anything right, you are likely to have some fine fishing. It's not uncommon to catch a dozen or more fish in a day, with several being 20 inches or better.

Headwater to Island Park Reservoir

Author with typical cutthroat from Henry's Lake
The stream between Henry's Lake and the Big Spring confluence is a beautiful stretch of water that is heavily willow lined but flows through a large meadow known as Henry's Lake Flat. The meadow and stream is a favorite haunt for moose, sandhill cranes and pronghorn as well as many birds of prey.

It has been lightly fished in the past because much of it was a private cattle ranch and access was difficult except the section from the highway to Henry's Lake Dam. Much of the stream is shallow and the trout concentrate in the deeper holes. It has the potential to become a first class trout stream if river flows are moderated, simulating the spring fed flows that once existed here (before the dam). I was recently told that the Nature Conservancy as acquired much of Henry's Lake Flat, so management of this fragile ecosystem should improve. It is a piece of water to keep an eye on.

Henry's Lake Outlet meets Big Spring and then becomes Henry's Fork at that point. The Henry's Fork was name after Andrew Henry, a trapper who came to this area in 1810. Other trappers came and they took an estimated 75,000 beaver pelts from this region between 1818 and 1840. Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith were among them. The first white settler was Gilman Sawtell who came in 1868. Sawtell Peak was name after him. Naturally, the area was often used by the many American Indian tribes that frequented this part of the Rockies. The Shoshone, Bannock, Lemhis and Tukarikas (Sheepeaters) all spent time in the area and other tribes such as the Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead and Nez Perce' traveled through. The Henry's Fork is also known as the North Fork of the Snake River because it is one of the main tributaries of the Snake River.

Coffee Pot Rapids near Mack's Inn Big Springs gushes from some rock formations at Johnny Sacks's Cabin, east of Mack's Inn. It is a popular tourist attraction but no fishing is allowed in the entire stretch, down to the confluence. Some tame trout can be fed from the bridge.

The confluence is known as the bathtub and is locally known for its population of trout that reside there but are hard to catch. Evening hatches always bring many fish to the surface, but try small nymphs during the day.

From the confluence downstream the Henry's Fork flows through mostly private property where bank access is limited but it is a very popular stretch of water for family float trips. The float starts at Big Springs Water Trail boat launch and goes 3 or 4 miles to the Highway 20 bridge at Mack's Inn. Make sure you don't fish until you reach the confluence with Henry's Lake Outlet. Almost any watercraft is good for this stretch. Canoes, rafts, kick boats, inner tubes and flat bottom boats are all acceptable.

Bank fisherman, note wet pants

Weed beds and gentle, shallow water typifies this beautiful piece of river lined with rustic cabins, many dating to the early 1900s. Most of the trout are small but some surprisingly large fish are caught here regularly, especially in the deeper water that exists in a few spots. The historical North Fork Club is located on this stretch.

In September and October, kokanee (landlocked sockeye) salmon can sometimes be seen on their spawning run out of the Island Park Reservoir. Large trout often follow them up and feed on the eggs, just like Alaskan rainbows. Fall fishing is worth a try.

Island Park Reservoir

This large reservoir is created by a dam on the river at the top of Box Canyon. The river channel it flooded is only a few miles long but it has backed up into a long meadow valley between Thurman Ridge and Shotgun Valley and created a great fishery. It has the potential to be one of the best stillwater fisheries in the West.

stonefly hatch

Depending on the water level, the West End can be one of the best trout waters you've ever seen or it could be completely dry. This huge shallow flat is a fish factory similar to Henry's Lake. It boasts some excellent dry fly fishing in June and early July when the mayflies are hatching. It is much like the famous "gulper" hatch on Hebgen Lake in Montana. It is one place where 10 pounders have been hooked on dry flies.

The West End is spring fed and rich in aquatic life. It is often excellent leech, streamer and nymph water. You never know if the next fish is going to be 10 inches or 10 pounds. I've had large trout straighten size 6 hooks or break 1X tippet on the strike. Their strength can be compared to the famous Henry's Lake hybrids (for naturalized holdover). It was drained dry in 1992 but is coming back very well as of the 1994 season. The next few years should see some excellent fishing as long as water levels can be moderated.

An access point for the reservoir is located at Island Park Dam. The bays and fingers near the dam are best in June. The trout are also sometimes concentrated in the main lake body when the water is low.

Box Canyon

A section of Box Canyon

If I had to choose one section of river that has been my best and most consistent produced, it would have to be Box Canyon. When I guided on the river, it was my specialty and I always have to hit it regardless of the other river sections I fish. It has a deserved reputation for eating anglers. Few anglers that fish it regularly have not been properly baptized. It is a shallow box-like canyon about 4 miles long that is full of rapids, pocket water, swift, rocky flats and fast, boulder-filled runs. The canyon rim is heavily wooded and harbors many osprey, marmot, occasional bald eagles and moose.

A beautiful 28 in. rainbow from Box Canyon

Unless you consider yourself an aggressive and skilled wader, you'd best not attempt this stretch without a drift boat and preferably a guide. Any skilled oarsman can run the Box Canyon in a raft, drift boat or larger kick boat but you must keep on your toes to avoid the many rocks and occasional sweepers.

Harriman State Park: The Ranch

Mike Lawson scanning the Ranch for risers No piece of Henry's Fork water captures the imagination of the a large number of anglers more than "the ranch." Once commonly called "the Railroad Ranch," it was given to the state by the Harrimans in 1977 and is now called Harriman State Park. The gift had conditions attached. It was to be managed so there was harmony between man and wildlife. Fishing would be allowed but only after the birds had completed nesting, which is why the ranch is closed until mid-June.

It has been written about by many outdoor writers and it is legendary. Its hatches can be so prolific that one wonders how the fish could ever find your fly in the continuous raft of living and spent aquatic and terrestrial insects. Perhaps its challenging fishing has also created a lure for experienced anglers wanting to test their mettle against some of the most selective trout anywhere. Some of the fly fishing techniques and fly patterns used all over the world were originally perfected here. Inexperienced anglers figure that if they can learn to catch trout here, they can fish anywhere but it can even frustrate experts at times.

Mike Lawson on the Harriman Ranch section

At first glance, the river looks sluggish and flat but a million currents, from fast to still, tear at attempts to get a drag-free drift. The weed beds, rocks and substrate variances all enter into the factoring. The trout has many food choices and even when you are able to imitate their foods exactly, they often frustrate you by feeding in a rhythm all their own or by cruising as they feed, not coming up at the same place twice. This piece of water has many subtle clues to trout feeding activity and is a game of finesse, not the masculine tromping that Box Canyon anglers endure.

Cardiac Canyon

As the river begins to cut its way through the plateau toward lower elevations, it picks up considerable speed and roughness. Access is limited to a few old logging roads and sometimes requires a hike. It can be floated but the oarsman must be competent at maneuvering through numerous rocks in fast water. This is a scenic and wild section of water that sees few anglers in a year. If you want to get away from it all, this might be your place.

Depending on who you talk to, Cardiac Canyon refers to the whole canyon from Pinehaven to the mouth of the Warm River or it refers just to the river between Upper and Lower Mesa Falls. Since the canyon is full of fast, difficult to wade, stressful water, I refer to the whole canyon as Cardiac Canyon.

The river is full of rocks and rapids and there is also one small (6 foot) falls that must be navigated not too far below the put in (use the chute toward the right bank). Dry fly fishing is often fast and furious for smaller trout. Try streamers and stonefly nymphs for larger trout. Fish over 10 pounds have come from here but the average fish is 6 - 14 inches. It is not a piece of river for floating every day but makes a memorable adventure, if that is what you're after. You may see moose or a bear. As the river canyon opens up, the Warm River enters from the left. The take out is at the bridge across the Henry's Fork just below the confluence.

Frank Amato fishing near Warm River Spring

Warm River to Ashton

The river can be waded in a number of access spots but floating is the most popular way to fish. The Warm River to Ashton Reservoir float is popular for guide services and a few locals, but few others fish here. Most anglers are headed to the more famous parts upstream. Their loss.

Mid-summer fishing can be good for rainbow trout, brown trout and whitefish. From here down, browns are doing fairly well. They have been in the river a long time but are now making a gradual comeback. The biggest Henry's Fork trout I have heard of was a 26 pound brown that came from the river above Ashton Reservoir a number of years ago. From Riverside to St. Anthony, special regulations (slot limits) have begun to help trout populations recover from years of drought and over-harvesting of the bigger trout.

Nice rainbow took a stonefly nymph

The river here has gentle and fast flows, riffles, deep holes and long runs. A couple of rapids require caution but most of the float is easily accomplished in a drift boat, raft or larger kick boat. There are interesting rock formations in the canyon and occasional log jams to watch for. Many of the trout are in the deeper, swifter runs and shelves and along the banks. Casting to the banks with dry flies can be productive but nymphing with Prince Nymphs, G.R. Hare's Ears, Golden Stone, etc. often outproduces dries for larger fish. The biggest trout are caught on big, dark Leeches, Sculpins and Wiggle Bugs. Evening caddis hatches are often worth waiting for and wading above the Highway 20 bridge is popular.

The Henry's Fork is a remarkable river and truly one of this nation's treasures. I believe the conditions of the waters we rely on are an indication of the overall health of our ecosystem and our world. There are physical, mental, economical and spiritual considerations for which rivers play a part in each of our lives. Negative things do occur but if good people do nothing but stand idly by, just lamenting, they are part of the problem, not the solution. Which is why I'd like to see you visit the Henry's Fork. It's difficult to calculate a treasure you have not experienced. ~ Larry Tullis

For a MAP of the Henry's Fork, click here.
For the FLIES for the Henry's Fork, click here.
To ORDER Henry's Fork direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From theHenry's Fork, part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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