Dear John and Others

By Steve Schmidt
Past owner of Western Rivers Flyfisher, and long time Ranch Regular. Writer, photographer and a flyfisher in progress.

Dear John & others…Thoughts and Considerations:

John McDaniel 2023 Season Summary that is posted here created a bit of a buzz. As it also did in 2022. For all of us who have a connection to the Henry’s Fork, his perceptions evoke an emotional response. Like many of you, this river means a great deal to me and I hope to fish it for as long as I possibly can, yet with a growing sense of responsibility and practice that is good for the river and in the end my soul.
First off, I want to acknowledge the respect I have for John McDaniel. Back when I started fishing the Ranch in the late seventies, it was unusual to see a guide floating their clients through this section of the Henry’s Fork. Forty years ago, guides predominantly did walk and wade trips with their clients on these hallowed waters; a tradition you carry forward to this day. As you are well aware, that practice has slowly eroded over time and now it’s a rare day when you’ll see guides on the Ranch with wading clients. While wading a river in general makes it more difficult to have success, it’s those fundamental challenges that produce a more rewarding experience on many levels. It doesn’t take near the skill or patience to catch the Ranch’s selective rainbows from a drift boat, which makes it possible for anglers to get endless drifts and cover water much more efficiently. Much like fly-fishing in general these days, it would appear that we are willing to limit its inherent confrontations for the sake of unearned success and a post on Instagram without considering the impact we are having on our fragile resources.
As I read through the array of opinions that followed John’s recent annual declaration, one thing becomes apparent, everyone who has expressed themselves cares deeply about the Henry’s Fork. We all share this in common, each with our own sense of entitlement and somewhat selfish perspective. I know that John’s intentions are meant to bring to light the challenges these waters face, however, in my opinion, it’s festered a divisiveness that will ultimately do little to benefit these fabled waters. The anger that has been demonstrated here by some is an example of how deep and strong feelings truly are. As Mike Lawson alluded to, we all need to look in the mirror since everyone of us who fish these waters creates a rippling impact. We have all played a role in it’s decline and can do better.
Before continuing, I want to recognize everyone who has served on the HFF Board, or volunteered both past and present. They all care for this river, and do their best to preserve its waters and maintain an experience many of us have unrealistically come to expect. There are a number of you who have contributed to this diatribe who have done your part through the Foundation and I am grateful for the role you’ve played in being a voice for the Henry’s Fork. It’s made a difference.
As has been demonstrated eloquently in numerous comments, it’s a thankless job trying to address everyone’s concerns and opinions. Having served in many different conservation capacities, I know first hand the challenges that conservation non-profits face, especially their staffs. Although I don’t always agree with the decisions the Foundation makes, I’m truly grateful for their dedicated efforts and I wonder what the Henry’s Fork would be like today without their vigilance?
There is no trout water I respect or care for more than those of the Henry’s Fork, the Ranch section in particular. Many of you who have said your piece share this in common. Over the decades I’ve had the privilege of fishing its waters I’ve seen it endure tough times on multiple occasions, both past and present as many who fish this river have. I agree with current opinion, and recognize the concerning observations as noteworthy, especially understanding that much of what we’re witnessing is a result of climate change and a dam that was not designed or operates in the best interest of the fishery. Above them all, our changing climate will and is having the most significant impact. Again, as Mike alluded to in his latest comment, yet another look in the mirror moment.
Several decades ago seated on the banks of this river before Climate Change became a buzzword, I was struggling to justify fishing this river any more. I had just released a good rainbow that was pretty roughed up from numerous poor choices, realizing that I had just added to its battle torn state. It wasn’t the first time such an encounter left me pondering my role in the health of a fishery, but on that day, that particular moment changed my world fishing view significantly. So much so that I quit fishing, broke camp, and headed home a day early from a river I live to fish. On the way home, it occurred to me that if I wanted to lessen my impact from an angling perspective, which I certainly did and felt I needed to, I could do one of two things: fish less or catch fewer fish. Both were tough choices given what fishing means to me. I even briefly considered not fishing anymore, but that thought faded before I hit Suicide Hill.
Like everyone here who cares for this fishery, fishing is a part of who we are. This river, the Ranch section in particular, in many respects plays a role in defining us. It has for me in many respect. As Huey Lewis said recently in an interview I was part of, “Rivers…. are the veins of the earth, they connect us to the natural world and ground us in perspectives that are vital to our existence.” In my mind, there is great truth to this statement. Given the alternatives I was contemplating, fishing less, selfishly, also quickly fell by the wayside. Catching fewer fish became the logical approach to my dilemma. That said, this direction created some significant personal challenges, but this choice seemed one that I could respectfully manage.
The choices fly-fishing offers to each of us is what I love about this moldable game. In retrospect, we are drawn to fishing with flies because it is challenging and it’s more rewarding and consuming because of that. The allure of Henry’s Fork is a prime example of this. That is why anglers from around the world, us included, are drawn to its banks, even though we could fish many other waters and consistently catch more fish.
I don’t always have success on the Ranch. In fact I get my head handed to me quite often on the Henry’s Fork. On those fortunate days when I land a fish or two, if I choose to continue fishing, my solution is to tie on a fly where I have cut the hook point off. This recent technique permits me to fish endlessly. I now do the same when swinging flies for steelhead. This limitation significantly changes the potential outcome of the game however, in the end I’ve discovered that my experiences are as rewarding and memorable as ever. I still get that addictive adrenaline rush when a trout rises to take my fly, that moment of connection, some reel music, and a bonus somersault or two from the fish I’ve fooled before the fly and fish soon part company. It’s also an opportunity to still learn the many nuances of this changing river and its selective fish. And, selfishly I get to continue to pursue what I love with minimal impact.
I recently had a conversation with Dave Hall, artist in residence, good friend, longtime Ranch Regular, and ardent supporter of the Foundation. He’s going to add a few hookless flies to his box this season after a recent conversation about the Henry’s Fork and my approach that we had discussed. As he put it, he doesn’t need to land every fish he hooks anymore, just a few now and then. I look forward to fooling a few rising trout with him this year, and to our satisfaction and delight not landing a single one.
I share this because I believe the path we are on collectively as flyfishers is not sustainable. Here in the west, consider that we have a migrating transient population. These people are driven by a changing climate, which has and will lead to even more traffic on our favorite rivers and streams. Add this to an angling mentality driven by an industry that focuses on maximizing what we catch with little or no regard for the impact that it is having on the very resources we depend on for livelihoods and a way of life we’ve come to enjoy. What sacrifices are each of us willing to make to preserve this unique experience not only for future anglers, but for each of us who are fortunate to have days to still cast a fly on the Henry’s Fork and waters we care about?
Mike Lawson, and others in their response to John’s seasonal 2023 summary references the “Ranch Regulars”. There are many accomplished, knowledgable, and respectful anglers among you. I have watched and learned from some of you for decades, often performing your honed skills quite successfully and at times excessively. Whether you know it or not, you are influencers. Many have the opportunity to fish this river with frequency and when its good, daily for weeks, even months on end. Although this group is passionate about this river, their collective impact is fairly substantial given they’re better anglers than most. Over the years, I’ve witnessed some of you maximize your catches day after day and at times encroach on others to do so. Although I’m somewhat pointing fingers here, I hope to urge you to take responsibility for your own impact, the influence you have, and moderate what you catch and mentor those who fish this river in more responsible ways. If nothing more, these efforts will help preserve your own selfish endeavors.
Jane Goodall made a point in an impressionable lecture I was fortunate to attend that has helped mold my thinking and life practices. At the end of her talk, she addressed the collective affect we would have on the worlds critical resources if every person did one simple act a day in response to dealing with the health of our environment. She asked us to imagine in total how powerful those individual acts would amount to. I ask each of us to ponder a similar scenario in your approach to fishing the Henry’s Fork and other waters. Imagine the impact we could have on the future of the waters we cast upon if we simply caught a few less fish, guided trips in particular, when there is the opportunity to do so. From a guiding perspective, such a shared directive lends a sense of stewardship, and hopefully a vested interest in the experience and fishery connecting your clients more deeply to the rivers you rely on for your livelihood. Again, at the very minimum serving your own best interests.
I’m very content with the limited success that I now enjoy and the on going process I’m continuing to navigate. As part of this direction, I find myself simply watching fish rise undisturbed more and more. Mike Lawson shared with us in his response to John’s recent report about an encounter on the Ranch with Dave Schultz who was giving a fish a much needed reprieve by simply watching it rise. In the end, they engaged in an experience that was rewarding and did so without making a single cast or hooking a fish. It even changed Mike’s fishing practices. Moments like these can offer a humbling gratification and a connection to a fishery at an even more meaningful level as they demonstrated.
Regarding the comments directed to the Foundation and their failure in their content to mention Global Warming or Climate Change. These terms are so ubiquitous that most gloss over them when they are highlighted and do little when it comes to a call to action. Every cold water fishery is being impacted by Climate Change. Hatches in particular are the most obvious. As John and others have noted, PMD’s seem to really be struggling. Inconsistent and less prolific aquatic and terrestrial insect hatches aren’t unique to this river. There isn’t a trout stream I fish in the west that I haven’t witnessed a decline in PMDs, and other noteworthy hatches. I don’t need the Foundation to tell me that a significant part of this river’s struggles are due to Climate Change. I also don’t feel there is much they can do about the current trend regarding the river’s iconic hatches due to our warming planet. That said, unlike many of the storied rivers in the west that don’t have a dedicated organization monitoring their river, the Foundation is and has been doing what it can to mitigate all the forces this river faces. Much of what we’re experiencing on our waters today is due to the way we live our lives and the choices we continue to make.

I had to crack a bit of a smile when I read John’s comments regarding his lack of production when fishing with hoppers. You helped educate many Ranch anglers on the success you can have fishing hopper patterns. You are not alone anymore. You and others have mobilized an army and foam flotilla to the opportunities and potential success, as it was once yours, that hopper fishing can produce. Talk about Instagram moments. The number of boats and wading anglers on the Ranch I observe now in late summer pounding the banks with hoppers is evidence of your influence. I wouldn’t be surprised if this increased pressure has led to your poor results. Earlier I referenced the fact that you and other Ranch Regulars are influencers. This I believes demonstrates the extent of this and one effect that respected anglers have on others.
I appreciate John bringing the touchy subject of boats on the Ranch to light. I don’t feel boats are any noisier than other stake holders on the river. Especially those who lend an annoying, running commentary on your efforts, or the angler walking up your backside while talking on their cell phone hoping to beat you to “their” spot, or that guy letting the world know he caught a fish. Some boat anglers are just as inconsiderate and at times obnoxious as those on foot. My issues with boats stems more from the added pressure they place on this particular section of the river. They are easily more efficient, as I alluded to earlier, and given the concerns we all have for the health of this fishery, limiting boat traffic might be worth considering.

I would like to see drift boats limited to those anglers who are handicapped or of an age they no longer can walk these fabled waters. That said, having once run several guide services, and having been a guide, I understand such a change would increase pressure on the Box and the lower Henry’s Fork; two additional portions of this river that are already under siege. It would also financially impact the shops and guides who make a living from these waters. But, at the end of the day, what’s a river and its fish worth, and to what extent are we willing to do what is necessary to protect what we love and, for some, where we butter our bread?
I know a number of you met with the Foundation to express your concerns with the organization. I have great respect for many of you. John’s report gave the HFF credit for some of the changes they made after that meeting, which was a benefit to us all. Many of you in your thoughtful comments have recognized the Foundation’s positive work and their efforts. I personally believe there is more common ground here than there is basis for disagreement. I look at all this energy and the emotional turmoil that John’s annual state of affairs generates and I believe we could do better. That said, John’s rants have led to a dialogue that on one level is and has been constructive and has generated positive change. Especially knowing that it comes from a viewpoint of legitimate concern for the health of the Henry’s Fork, and knowledgable anglers who are if anything vigilant.
John, your stats are impressive, but I’d rather you simply let those fish you catch go without all the additional stresses you impose on them to fill up your impressive stat sheet. Considering the time you’ve had on the water, if you were to tell me that the Ranch is struggling or that you are not catching as many big fish, I’d listen. That goes for many of you who have contributed to this rant. Like you, I’ve fished the Ranch long enough to recognize overall fish health without measuring a single fish and at times, not landing one. Big picture wise, I only hope that we all have this opportunity in the years, and decades ahead and continue to enjoy what this incredibly diverse and unique resources has to offer, but there is work to be done to make that happen.

Finally, if you’ve read all of this, thank you. It was a lot. I also want to extend a thank you to Rich, Millie, Jon and the TroutHunter crew for making all these voices heard. This river has brought me great joy, peace, and at times sadness over the decades I’ve had the privilege of the experiencing this unique river. I urge each of us to realize the impact we have on this and other rivers by our habitualized practices and the way we live our lives.