Brown Drakes on the Henry’s Fork

I’ve had to look back into my archives to figure out how many times I’ve visited the Henry’s Fork river in Idaho since I started traveling in 2015.

I’ve learned quite a lot about flyfishing since the first time I visited this river. One of those things is that famous hatches rarely live up to the hype! Last year, I hit the Ranch section of the river in Harriman State Park on opening day, which was just in time for the green drake hatch. I never got into a really thick emergence, but I was able to get a few nice fish that were eating them. It was pretty good, but I caught more fish on little size 16 and 18 PMDs.

A 2021 green drake hatching on the Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork.

This year, I’ve run into the brown drake hatch, the only western mayfly that is bigger than a green drake. These bugs start emerging just as the sun sets, and the freshly hatched duns float downstream for quite a long time, drying their large wings before lifting off. Around the same time, the molted, egg-laying spinners are returning to the water, so there is a period of time where the fish could be eating the nymphs on their way to the surface to hatch, the newly winged duns floating lazily along, or the spent-wing spinners that are dying after completing their part in the circle of life.

The first brown drake dun that I spotted floating down towards me.
The first brown drake dun that I spotted floating down towards me.

On the first night here, I managed to hook one really nice rainbow on a cripple pattern, which imitates a drake that is emerging from its nymphal shuck but gets trapped. I tied some more and bought a few different patterns for the next night, but despite a decent amount of bugs floating downstream and fair amount of fish eagerly slurping them down, I got skunked.

The next night was shaping up to be epic, as a thunderstorm on the horizon provided cooler temps and cloud cover that generally encourages a hatch. Well, there were huge clouds of spinners hovering at stream-side, doing their mating dance, and a few fish here and there were starting to eat the ones that fell to the water. I rigged up a spinner pattern and started searching for a willing fish, but the storm made its appearance and gusty winds blew all the spinners into the trees… then the rain came and all fishy activity ended.

I went back to the house to dry off and make dinner, feeling cheated. Then the storm blew over and the sun came out with maybe a half hour remaining to sunset, but the action didn’t pick back up to the same level, presumably because the spinners were all soaked and couldn’t fly.

I did manage to fool this one fine fish after the rain passed.

The last couple of nights have had lots of drakes in the air and on the water, but pretty sparse fish activity. Very few fish that would rise repeatedly, which gives the angler a target and a sense of timing. When a fish only eats once every ten minutes or so, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate when and were to present the fly, unless you have sight of the fish. Still, I had several shots where I placed my fly in the right lane at the right moment, only to have the fish eat a bug inches away, or to even take a swipe at my fly without eating it.

Twice in two nights I had a fish eat my fly but blew the hook-set and missed the chance.

After the storm…

So the brown drake event has been a bit disappointing so far. Its hard to imagine how the fish could ignore so many giant meals floating over their heads, but they just didn’t seem very interested, apart from the 30 minute or so window where some fish were smashing them… just not regularly. I can’t feel too bad about my results, given that only one or two other fisherman on the water hooked up, out of a dozen or so in sight.

Last year I chased the salmonfly hatch up the Madison river and really only hit it right once in three weeks. Those bugs are so big that the fish eat their fill and get stuffed, to the point where I think they just sit on the bottom in a coma, like people on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner. You really have to hit it just right, as the bugs are just starting to move and the fish just start seeking them. Maybe the brown drakes also spur over-eating and comatose fish.

I’m going to move on soon to try out my new pontoon boat on Henry’s Lake, which is an altogether different style of fishing. I’ll have to break out the sinking lines and tie some leeches for that effort.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s