At a mile or so above sea level in the northern hemisphere, winter’s journey to the season of renewal is marked by pitiful increments of advancement in temperature and daylight hours. It is not until February when the average high inches above the freezing mark and sunset moves past 6 P.M. that minor thoughts of a coming spring begin to emerge. And while it can never be forgotten that February is a distinct month of winter along the Henry’s Fork, the signs of change bring deliverance from the darkest months of our longest season. 

In the life of trout fishermen, nothing holds more value than productive time on the water. And in the high country you learn rather quickly that factors beyond numbers on a calendar will determine the best time to head for the river. This particularly applies to an unpredictable end of weather conditions that inhibit such things as the arrival of hatches. 

Fortunately, nature provides the most reliable indicators for events that are of interest to expectant anglers seeking to maximize their chances of being on the water at just the right time. For instance, a 35? day with overcast in February is far more likely to present a good midge hatch than a bright day that is 10? warmer. And the same applies later in March when Baetis typically begin to show up.  

Perhaps because their size represents relief from several months of squinting at dry flies size 18 and smaller, caddis are among the most anticipated of spring hatches. However, I have never fished a caddis hatch on the Fork before streamside willows begin to bud, and this can vary from mid-April to early May. And because they begin almost simultaneously with early caddis, I have never fished a March Brown hatch in the month of March.

In terms of unpredictability of timing, the salmon fly is another hatch that can associate itself with the development of vegetation along the river. I recall few years of fishing dry salmon fly patterns prior to the blooming of Choke Cherries, and this has varied from mid-May through early June. 

Although the variables associated with seasonal transition have been reduced substantially, summer carries distinct natural indicators of opportunity. Blooming Mule’s Ear are wildflowers that tell me that a box of Flav patterns needs to be in my vest, and Brown Drakes are close at hand. And if heavy snowmelt keeps water levels high, a stronger presence of Gray Drakes is usually expected. 

Birds can tell their own stories of happenings on the water, and none are fictitious. Though a pesky nuisance at times, the presence of gulls over the river provides notice that a Green Drake hatch is underway.  Mayflies of lesser magnitude such as Baetis are announced by flocks of Swallows swooping low over the water to collect a meal.

Predatory birds that feed on fish rather than insects can reveal information pertaining to a prey of equal interest to human competitors. 

An Osprey nest built near a river assures the presence of enough trout to support their existence. A Bald Eagle perched high above the water’s edge will be scanning for larger fish feeding at or near the surface, and they are never found in areas of low food availability. Perceived as less regal but no less a reliable messenger, the Pelican is particularly helpful in identifying good fishing potential on still water. The active presence of these large birds on the surface gives witness to something worthwhile underneath, and the wise angler can use this information to his own benefit when trout are not found everywhere in a lake. 

As summer begins a transition into fall and vegetation begins to wither and die, terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and hoppers migrate to the water’s edge where plant life remains lush and green for a longer period of time. The arrival of this condition is dependent upon precipitation, which can vary during what is typically the driest period of the year. This is important information because a high concentration of land based insects can produce some of the season’s best fishing. The peak can occur as early as mid-July or be delayed until well into August when greenery away from the water is preserved by unusual rainfall. And the activity can end rather abruptly when temperatures begin to consistently drop below the freezing mark. 

As fall temperatures begin to mirror those of late winter and early spring, Baetis and midges again begin to dominate dry fly opportunity, and the same natural factors apply when contemplating either end of the fishing season. 

While February leaves much to be desired in terms of comfortable and productive time on the water, the minor signs of a changing season are enough to bring excited anticipation for all that lies directly ahead in a new year. And while nature’s indicators are always considered, my fishing will be largely based on a need to be close to the water, where healing calm can be of value equal to an impressive catch. If the weather is reasonable and I have the time, I usually just go fishing.  

Words by René Harrop.  Photos by Bonnie Harrop.


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