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All About the Henry’s Fork, with Brandon Hoffner

Description: My guest this week is Brandon Hoffner [35:55], executive director of the Henry’s Fork Foundation, and the topic is the diverse habitat and trout-fishing opportunities of this world-famous river that has influenced so many anglers, techniques, and fly patterns over the years. Like all trout rivers today, the Henry’s Fork also has its share of environmental issues and we’ll explore how the Henry’s Fork Foundation works to maintain this magical fishery.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi, and welcome to the "Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast." This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer, and my guest today is Brandon Hoffner. Brandon is and has been for a long time, the head of the Henry's Fork Foundation in Idaho, and we're gonna talk about the Henry's Fork. No one better than Brandon to talk about [00:00:30.578] this river because he understands it's both from a fishing standpoint and from an environmental standpoint. And the Henry's Fork is just an amazing river that is so very famous in American fly fishing. A lot of great fly patterns, and fly tires and anglers have frequented this river, and it has a lot of different characters. You might just think of the Henry's Fork as the [00:01:00.449] railroad ranch portion of it where it's slow-moving and sipping trout all day long. But there are other areas at Henry's fork that are just as interesting in different ways.
So, Brandon's gonna talk about the river and its various characters, its history. And also, you know, like all trout streams today, it has its issues, mainly due to water quantity and quality. And we're gonna talk about [00:01:30.419] that as well. So, hope you enjoy it. And speaking of the Henry's Fork, if you would like to join me and fish the Henry's Fork region, I am hosting a trip at the wonderful Three Rivers Ranch, one of my favorite places in the world September 28th to October 5th, 2024. The trip's still not full yet. My trips usually fill up fairly quickly. This one isn't full [00:02:00.198] yet. And there's also an option if you wanna fish longer, to fish a couple extra days if you want. So, anyway, it's a great ranch, amazing guides, fantastic food, wonderful accommodations, and it's a very family-oriented feeling when you go there because it's been owned by the same family for well over 100 years. So, it's a cool place. I love it. And hope to have you join me there.
[00:02:30.669] And, you know, before we do the podcast and before we do the fly box, I wanted to talk about a few products. And these are, usually, I talk about fishing tackle, but, you know, the clothing you wear on a fishing expedition is sometimes almost as important as the gear you have. Because you wanna be comfortable, you wanna be protected from the sun, and you wanna look good too, I guess. [00:03:00.353] Some people wanna look good, anyway. There has been an evolution in the sun defense shirts that Orvis sells. And there are three that kinda look similar if you look at them on the website. And I've worn all three of these, and they're all knits. They're not button-down shirts.
[00:03:30.235] I'm not one that wears button-down shirts very often when I'm fishing, I prefer just, you know, a straight front knit type shirt instead of a button-down shirt. For fishing, these three shirts look pretty similar. You can get most of them in either a hoodie or just a crew-neck style. But they're like sort of like a light sweatshirt. And it's really tough to tell the difference between them. So, I wanted to, from an [00:04:00.617] angler, from a wearer's perspective, just tell you my impression of these. So, the lightest shirt in the bunch and the three shirts are called the Sun Defense, the PRO Sun, and the DriCast shirt. And the lightest is the Sun Defense shirt. This is the kind of sort of sheer fabric that you see on a lot of Sun shirts these days.
[00:04:30.196] And it's extremely light. This is the shirt I guess I would wear in the Amazon or on the flats of The Bahamas or Belize during the summer in the warmer parts of the year. You know, I think it's probably best for very, very warm conditions. It's super light, it's super stretchy, really, really comfortable. In fact, I'm wearing one right now. I'm wearing it under a sweater because it's cold here in Vermont today. But it [00:05:00.073] makes a great base layer as well. So, that's the lightest one. Next in weight is the PRO Sun shirt, and it's slightly heavier than the Sun Defense. And it's like a lightly textured fabric. So, it doesn't look quite as sheer as the Sun Defense. And it's very breathable. It's very quick-dry.
And I see this as a kind of an all-round, [00:05:30.280] warm-weather fishing shirt. I think you could wear it in Wyoming in the middle of the summer. You could wear it in the Florida Keys or in Mexico. And I think it's a great all-round sun shirt. And being textured, it's just a little bit different of a look, a little less shiny look. And then finally the heaviest of the three, the DriCast is still lightweight [00:06:00.478] but it's softer. It's synthetic, but it has a real soft cottony feel to it. And this, in my opinion, would be the summer fishing shirt you'd wear in, you know, Montana, Colorado, Vermont, New York, the Midwest, where it's just a slight bit heavier, but still cool.
And part of the new redevelopment of these shirts is [00:06:30.138] all 3 of them are SPF 50 plus. So, they're all going to protect your body from the sun, and especially if you have the hood up, the hoodie will protect you. So, they're all SPS 50 plus and they have all other kinds of stuff like odor repellent and, you know, various other treatments that modern synthetic shirts have. But I think it's important for you to know just how each one of them looks and feels [00:07:00.122] because you can't always tell looking at a website or even sometimes looking in a store, you can't tell. So, anyway, I thought I would sort those out for you and hopefully, they'll help if you're in the market for a new Sun shirt this year.
All right, let's get onto the fly box. So, the fly box is where you ask me questions or you might wanna share a tip or you might just wanna comment on something we've said in the past podcast. And I sometimes read them on the [00:07:30.409] air and you can either just send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or you can attach a voice file and if I can hear it well enough if you didn't record it in a moving car and the connection is good then I can read your question on the air or play your question on the air. I'll read the emails and I'll play the audio files. Anyway, the first [00:08:00.298] question this week is from Ryan.
"I know you've said there are a lot better sources than the Orvis Podcast to answer questions about rods, but this isn't specific to a particular rod. I have a 9-foot rod and a 10-foot. They both have a place in my arsenal. My question is, what is the advantage of a 9-foot 6-inch fly rod? Is this a compromise between a 9-foot and 10-foot, or does it serve a specific purpose? Also are there any disadvantages besides the obvious being fishing it in [00:08:30.434] tight spaces? Also, I have a tip to share for saltwater fishing. A few years ago I started carrying an old half-gallon milk jug filled with fresh water and a few drops of salt neutralizers such as Salt-Away. When I change flies, I've used in the saltwater, I drop these in the jug to prevent rusting or getting salt water mixed in with my other flies. Thanks so much. You've taught me so much over the years from the podcast, your books, and you've always been a pleasure to chat with [00:09:00.162] when I run into you at shows. Thanks very much for passing on your knowledge."
Well, Ryan, thank you for that tip. That's a great one. And I haven't tried something like that, but it is a problem. And I appreciate you sharing the tip with us. And just to clarify, I don't mind answering rod questions on the podcast. It's just that if you're in the mind to buy a new rod and you need an answer in a hurry, the podcast probably isn't the best way because might be weeks before I get to your question. [00:09:30.578] So, the difference between, you know, a 9 and a 9-and-1/2, or a 9-and-1/2 and a 10, I mean, it's 6 inches. It's not that much different, and it's really a personal decision. But, you know, maybe some people don't quite want a 10-foot rod because it just feels a little bit too long and other people like something a little bit longer than 9-foot because it helps them mend the line and you might get a little bit longer cast with it, but, you know, [00:10:00.696] it's really splitting hairs.
And if you already have a 9-foot rod and a 10-foot rod, I honestly don't think you need a 9-and-1/2-foot rod because I think you could just choose one or the other. You know, a person that maybe doesn't have the resources or the spare change to buy a 9-foot and a 10-foot rod because both of them do have their advantages in different places. A 9-footer [00:10:30.215] is gonna give you slightly more accuracy and a little bit faster line speed and, you know, a little bit less headroom if you're fishing tight spots. And a 10-footer is gonna give you a little bit longer cast and a little bit better mending ability with a long line. But, you know, 9-and-1/2 is a pretty good compromise. So, that's the main difference.
Steve: Hey Tom, it's Steve from California. [00:11:00.715] I know you're tired of talking about wading staffs but I think the new Orvis staff is a real game-changer, and here's why. I do a lot of fishing on high-gradient streams, lots of boulders, lots of scrambling, a hiking stick is a must just to get there. You know, to push aside vines, to suss out rattlesnakes on the rocks, that kind of thing. And so I think it's pretty important to have a really good wading staff [00:11:30.148] for the kind of fishing I do. But here's the deal. I hate having that staff dangling down by my feet while I'm casting. But then sometimes I get into a fish and it wants to take me upstream or downstream. And that staff needs to be able to, number one, immediately deploy and number two, lock into place so it doesn't fall apart while you're fighting the fish and moving up and down. And you want it to self-deploy so you're not trying to [00:12:00.367] hold the rod with one hand while assembling the staff on the other hand. So, I think the new Orvis Wading Staff checks off all the boxes in terms of what it needs to be to get me out there into new fishing opportunities, in a way that other wading staffs just simply don't cut it. So, if you're thinking that a wading staff is just for old guys who can't navigate soft river bottoms anymore, that's not really what it's about. At least not in my scenario. So, anyway, thank you guys for bringing that to [00:12:30.373] market. I think it's gonna be a game changer for me.
Tom: Well, Steve, thank you very much for your tip. I also love that new wading staff and, you know, I haven't thought about using it as a hiking staff, but I may deploy it a little bit earlier on some of my walks. So, thanks for the tip. Here's an email from Brian from the Oregon Coast. "I've been fly fishing for some time, but I've wanted to get into tenkara fishing. So, I have a few questions about tenkara fishing. One, do you have a favorite [00:13:00.420] tenkara rod? There are many out there for many different companies. Which one do you use? Two, when to use a tenkara rod rather than a western rod? Thank you for taking the time to read my email and will be excited to hear from you. The fly fishing community looks up to you greatly, and I'm always extremely impressed with your knowledge of the sport."
Well, thank you, Ryan. Yeah, [00:13:30.397] I've only used maybe three or four different tenkara rods. The one I use most often is the Tenkara USA SATO. It's a good compromise. You can use it in three different lengths. And so I think, you know, it is just a great all-around tenkara rod. There's one called the RHODO that looks very interesting. It's smaller and [00:14:00.314] I'm interested in trying that, but I haven't tried it yet. So, anyway, that's a rod I use. When do I use a tenkara rod rather than a western rod? I basically use a tenkara rod when I feel like using a tenkara rod instead of a traditional rod.
It's just something different to go out and, you know, some days you feel like trying something a little different and moving outside of your comfort zone. And a tenkara rod for me is [00:14:30.356] different. But I like fishing in, but I'm not an expert with them. But, you know, I like to take it out sometime. I think that, you know, if I were gonna do a lot of long walk into a mountain stream, I think that I'd take a tenkara rod. Because they're so simple, you don't have to carry a reel and, you know, they pack down to such a small space that they're great for backpacking. And they're also really good for drag reduction because you're holding so much [00:15:00.323] line off the water with that long rod and no fly line to pull down against the rod.
So, they're great for drag reduction. And I think they're best in more open mountain streams, you know, than in a really tight stream. I know their bow and arrow cast pretty well, but still it's a long rod. You know, it's 10, 11, 12-feet long and in tight streams, they're a little difficult. So, I like them in kind of wide open mountain streams. And actually, I also [00:15:30.450] like them fishing for Bluegills. They're a lot of fun fishing for Panfish with a tenkara rod. So, that's when I use them. Here's an email from, the name was not supplied. "I saw you guys were running 20% off on all flies. So, I picked some up. My question is about the Tom Rosenbauer collection. Do you tie those flies for Orvis or do they have factories tying up your collection?"
[00:16:00.427] Yeah, no, I don't tie those up. Delivery would be pretty inconsistent if I tied them up. They are tied by Fulling Mill at their factory in Kenya. And actually, you're better off getting those flies than if I were tying them because they actually do a better job on my flies than I do on my own flies. I look at the samples and those flies [00:16:30.510] are just superb. So, they're my patterns, but I don't tie them. Here's an email from Ben in Winchester, Virginia. "This past fall I had the good fortune of being gifted an older Orvis Far and Fine Clearwater Series Graphite Rod. It's a 7-foot 9-inch, 5-weight rod and is a joy to cast. This was followed by an especially good Christmas with Santa, leaving a battenkill disc reel under the tree. I'd like to pair the [00:17:00.556] rod and reel to use on small mountain streams in Shenandoah National Park. I've searched online for information on the foreign fine rod, but finding detailed information is difficult. Can you talk about the history and construction of the foreign fine rods? If I pair the rod with the battenkill disc reel, what fly line would you recommend for fishing in small streams of Shenandoah National Park? Thanks for answering a previous question I had last year about planning a DIY trip to Montana. I was able to land my first Westslope Cutthroat on a [00:17:30.355] high mountain stream using some of the advice you provided. Much appreciation for all that you do, this podcast included."
Well, Ben, I'm so glad that something you heard on the podcast helped. And, you know, if you're fishing small streams in the Shenandoah National Park, really any floating line, either wait for a double taper because when you're [00:18:00.103] fishing in small streams, you're almost never casting over 30 feet. And those lines are the same for the first 30 feet. I personally for that kind of fishing, like either the super fine line or the pro trout, neither of those lines are... You can get less expensive lines, but those are just superb lines. They float really, really well and they shoot really well. So, those are the lines that you just [00:18:30.334] stand a floating line but get a good one. It's interesting that you ask about the Far and Fine Rod. I'll tell you a little story. This was one of the first Orvis graphite rods that we made in our own factory. I think originally, I think for the first year or so we bought blanks from J. Kennedy Fisher. I believe [00:19:00.424] this was a year or two before I started at Orvis.
But anyway, then we revamped the rod chop from only bamboo to make fiberglass and graphite rods. And there was originally an 8-foot, 6-weight and there was a 7-foot, I think it was a 4-weight, [00:19:30.741] no, it was a 7-and-1/2-foot, 5-weight. So, there was an 8-foot, 6-weight, and a 7-and-1/2-foot, 5-weight rod in the line. And Howard Steere was running the fly shop thought, "I wonder what would happen if we took an 8-foot 6-inch butt section and put, or no, yeah, 8-foot 6-inch butt section and put that 7-and-1/2-foot 5-weight tip on it." [00:20:00.832] And it turned out to be 7-foot 9-inches.
And total serendipity, the rod turned out to be one of the best fly rods that Orvis made in those days. It really sang and it was a favorite rod of many, many people for a long time. Now, that is not the way fly rods are developed today. It's not. [00:20:30.516] Not so much an element of chance or serendipity in signing a rod, but that was how that rod came about. And, you know, it's a story that I don't know has been told very often, but I think it's kind of amusing and shows you how far fly rod development has come since the early days of graphite rods. Here's an email from Walton. What a great name [00:21:00.266] for an angler. "I'm looking for a lighter-weight rod I can get to take creaking and get away from the crowds this summer. I live in Colorado and wanna get a rod that will allow me to explore more off-the-beaten-path areas. With that being said, I'm having an internal debate between a 3-weight and a 2-weight, 7-foot rod. I found what appears to be a quality used 2-weight, 7-foot rod for a really good deal, but is dropping down from a 3 to a 2 sacrificing anything drastic, I'm not thinking [00:21:30.282] of?"
Well, while 2-way rods are fun in small streams. However, it's not a rod that I often pick for small streams. I prefer a 3 or a 4. The reason is that you are often fishing bigger flies in small streams than you are in large rivers. You know, when you're fishing in these small creeks and mountain streams, you know, you might be fishing a size [00:22:00.159] 10 or 12 dry fly all day long and maybe a bigger nymph. You won't be fishing a big streamer but you'd be fishing big dry flies. And to push, you know, a size 10 stimulator or Chubby Chernobyl out there with the 2-weight line is a little more difficult. So, if I were you, if you're looking for a good small stream rod, I would go with a 3-weight or even a 4-weight. If you wanna fish at 2, that's fine. It's gonna be fun with some of those smaller fish, but I think you're gonna have trouble [00:22:30.315] pushing those big air-resistant dry flies if you have to.
Here's an email from Ty. "Needed to tie some stonefly nymphon short notice, but ran out of goose buyouts. Do you have any alternatives you could use for tail material? Also enjoyed your video on spey fly tying. Lady Amherst feathers are at a premium. Could one use long fibers from Grizzly Hackle as a reasonable substitute?" Well, Ty you know, one of the things that I often do on [00:23:00.510] stonefly nymphs or Copper Johns and things like that, that have buyout tails, because I'm really not crazy about buyout tails or prince nymphs is I use a couple of pieces of really fine rubber legs. The material called spanflex or flexi-floss in fine diameter is what I use. And I find them to be more durable and actually, you know, have better action in the water than [00:23:30.267] buyouts. So, I do that a lot.
So, you know, just fine rubber legs. You could actually use any feather, you know, a couple of pieces of pheasant tail as well. But try that rubber leg material for your tails and actually for your legs on some of those stonefly nymphs. Regarding the substitute for Lady Amherst feathers, I think probably the best substitute might be [00:24:00.262] a wide Grizzly Hen-Hackle that's fairly well marked. That would probably give you about the same look as a Lady Amherst feather. The other thing you could do is just take a white breast feather from a duck or a goose and put some black lines on it with a permanent marker. Not quite as natural, but it would look like Lady Amherst.
Ryan: Hey Tom, I've got one [00:24:30.172] question and one comment. I am out here tonight at a local lake in Upstate New York. And my comment is listeners should get out when they can. I had to work today and it was a busy day but heading over to my girlfriend's, and I left an hour early. And I was just heading down to this local lake, it's dark out, it's about 7:00 p.m. and just figured [00:25:00.048] I'd throw a line, not expecting much, and I ended up finding a nice little 18-inch trout swimming around on a boat ramp hunting, caught it on a streamer. It was great. It's not what I planned on today when I woke up, but I think that you know, getting out when you can is really important for a lot of people who are busy. My question is I've got an Orvis raincoat and I plan on going fishing tomorrow, and I loaded up my car for it and I forgot [00:25:30.087] it. And I've been thinking for a while to just keep it in my car. And I'm wondering as we start heading into summer soon, or the warmer months, is there any chance that that Orvis coat could have troubles being in, you know, a 150-degree car if I leave it in there? Is it something I should just take with me when I go out? Or is it something that could stay in my car for a week or two? Thanks for all you do.
Tom: [00:26:00.547] Well, Ryan, that's a great story and I'm glad you on the spur of the moment caught such a nice trout. That's a great thing to have happened to you when you don't expect much. Regarding your raincoat, you know, as with nearly all fly fishing gear, you can keep fly rods, reels, fly lines, raincoats, waders, and all that stuff in a hot car. And it's not gonna hurt them. Well, there's a couple of things that a hot car will hurt, [00:26:30.523] chocolate bars. And you need to be careful of gel fly floating if the top isn't screwed on. And those of you who have done this know what happens, but if you don't have your gel floating tightly capped, it will run all over your fishing vest or pack or your car and is almost impossible to remove. Other than those two things, or a tuna sandwich, I can't think of much [00:27:00.334] that a hot car is gonna hurt that we are gonna take with us fly fishing.
Here is an email from Toby from the Black Forest of Germany. "I have a question regarding the advantages and disadvantages of poly leaders versus sink tip lines. Most of my fishing is for trout on relatively shallow streams, 1.5 to 5 feet max. Sometimes I wanna fish at larger rivers with deeper pools [00:27:30.434] or lakes. What would you recommend, buying an extra spool and a sink tip line or buying a set of poly leaders? In my imagination, poly leaders do give me a lot more flexibility to adapt to different current speeds, pool depths, and water depths in general. Also, they're the cheaper option. Sink tip lines do get the fly down faster and more even. And I guess casting is easier with my 4 to 6 weight. Can I cast any poly leader with these rods or do [00:28:00.151] I have to take rod leader weight into account? My conclusion would be pro, poly leader, price, and versatility. Con, poly leader, sinking unweighted flies, casting is more difficult. Another loop connection. Pro, sink tip line, casting is easier, steady line without another connection point can be matched to rod weight. Con, price, less versatility. I would be really interested in your two [00:28:30.078] cents and probably a lot more people would be as well. Thanks for all you do for people like me who are still scratching the surface of this art."
Well, Toby, thank you because you pretty much nailed it on your pros and cons. You are exactly right. The only additional thing I would say is with a poly leader, you can use it with any rod, you don't have to worry about the rod and [00:29:00.052] the line. You can just attach them to any fly line at all. And any rod will work with them. But your pros and cons are spot on and I don't think I could add anything to that. You got it. Here's an email from Josh from Pennsylvania. "In your podcast with Shawn Combs about the Helios, you mentioned the 7-and-1/2-foot, 3-weight F and the 8-foot 5-inch, [00:29:30.153] 7-weight D as special models that really stood out to you. What fly lines do you recommend pairing up with these rods that really make them come alive?" So, I use a 7-and-1/2-foot, 3-weight more than Shawn. I use a lot on small stream fishing. It's become my go-to small stream rod. And I like pairing it with the super fine 3-weight line. You don't need to overline this rod. It will work just fine even at short distances with the standard 3-weight. [00:30:00.270] And Shawn uses the 8-foot 5-inch, 7 a lot more than I do.
So, I asked him what he thinks really sings with this rod and he uses a 250-grain depth charge line for that rod. So, you know, he's mainly throwing streamers with that rod and that's the line he prefers. So, anyways, I hope that's helpful. And finally, [00:30:30.374] our last fly box phone call is a very special one. It's from Will from Captains for Clean Water. Captains for Clean Water is a very, very great partner in conservation with Orvis. We really admire the work that these people do. Specifically for the Everglades in Florida Bay. They're effective, they get stuff done and they make a lot of noise [00:31:00.331] and they make a difference down there. So, they're a very valuable conservation partner. And we'll send in this voice call about some good news from the Florida, Everglades. So, I'll play that and then we'll go on to our interview about the Henry's Fork.
Will: Hey guys, this is Will Buehn, education awareness manager at Captains for Clean Water, with a couple of updates from Florida's world of water policy. At Captains for Clean Water, [00:31:30.163] we're super passionate about fighting to protect Florida's waters and advance Everglades' restoration. And with the 2024 Florida State legislative session now officially concluded, we're super excited to report a couple of pieces of really good news. The first victory to share with you guys is that a proposed bad water bill that threatened really every person in every waterway in Florida is now officially dead. Senate Bill 738/ [00:32:00.436] House Bill 789, or the toxic spill bill, as we were calling it, contained really egregious provisions that would've protected big-time polluters and punished hardworking citizens, ultimately limiting the liability of polluters in the event of a toxic spill. And about midway through the legislative session, the bill appeared to be dead.
All signs indicating it wouldn't move any further in the process. But [00:32:30.463] one week before the end of the session, as we've seen happen before, political power grabs brought it back to life and it started to grow legs again. Then on the Thursday before the session closed, the Senate version of this bad bill, Senate Bill 738, passed a full floor vote. That's when we sounded the alarm, warning the public of the ramifications of the bill and rallying action to stop the House version HB-789 [00:33:00.160] from moving any further to ensure this bad proposal wouldn't turn into law. You know, the bill was really a threat to every single citizen of Florida. Under current law, if a citizen, including an angler or a fishing guide, is affected by a toxic spill, like say, from large mining operations or toxic chemical spraying or handling, or a toxic spill into our waterways, they have the ability to remedy that situation [00:33:30.336] by seeking damages from the polluter for recovery of bodily or economic harm.
But this bill would've prohibited citizens from taking that legal action against those polluters if a spill event occurred while a polluter was operating under a permit. So, basically, this bill would've removed citizen protections that already exist and expanded protections for big-dollar polluters. Thankfully, our supporters weren't gonna let that bill slide through. And [00:34:00.259] thousands of Clean Water advocates and brands like Orvis made a huge splash on social media. People made phone calls to legislators, and ultimately when the session closed on March 8th, the House version had not even been heard on the floor. So, the bill was dead. So, thank you to everyone who shared our content about the bill and to everyone who called your representatives, it really made a difference. And the second good news we have to share with you all [00:34:30.154] to come out of the legislative session is another strong budget for Everglades restoration.
The Florida State budget for FY '24, which passed on the last day of the session, allocates $1.1 billion for Everglades restoration and water quality improvements. So, that's super exciting. And breaking that down a little bit more, that budget includes $740 million for Everglades restoration, $75 million for the Indian River Lagoon, $50 million [00:35:00.104] for the [inaudible 00:35:00.626] in St. Lucie River estuaries, and $25 million for Biscayne Bay. And coincidentally, the federal budget for FY '24 also passed around the same time as the state budget, which earmarked another $425 million for Everglades restoration. And being that the comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan is funded through a 50-50 cost share between the federal government and the State of Florida, its success and progress really hinges on continued [00:35:30.469] funding every single year at very high levels. So, it's motivating to see that support at both levels secured for yet another year. So, that's all we've got for you guys for now. Thanks for your time and tight lines, everyone.
Tom: All right, that's the fly box for this week. Let's go talk to Brandon about the Henry's Fork. Well, my guest today is Brandon Hoffner, and Brandon has been the [00:36:00.423] executive director of the Henry's Fork Foundation since 2011, which is a pretty good tenure in a nonprofit. Brandon, you must know a lot about the Henry's Fork.
Brandon: Well, there are still plenty of people out there, Tom, that know much more than I do, but I'm accumulating some knowledge, at this point.
Tom: Well, welcome to the podcast. And, you know, the Henry's Fork is one of the most I hate the word iconic, [00:36:30.616] but it's one of the most notable famous trout streams in the world and happens to be one of my very favorites. And I just find it a fascinating river because it has such a diversity of habitat and fishing opportunities. And, you know, I'm always fascinated by springs and it has lots of springs in it. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about maybe the history of the Henry's [00:37:00.265] Fork a bit and then the current ecology and threats that you see that the Henry's Fork Foundation has been addressing over the years. How does that sound?
Brandon: That sounds fantastic.
Tom: All right.
Brandon: Yeah. And you mentioned, you know, one notable iconic, and I'll admit, I've been fortunate enough in my role here to travel around the world and fish, you know, in Argentina and Alaska, of course, much of the [00:37:30.072] West. And I often ask myself, why do I ever leave? It's not as good as it gets right here in Eastern Idaho and especially the Henry's Fork.
Tom: Yeah, it is.
Brandon: But, you know, I guess when you asked about the history of it. And I think it's just really, really interesting, you know, to start at the top at Henry's Lake and 1868, Gilman Sawtelle, you know, the homesteading there. And by the time you reached the 1880s, they were [00:38:00.417] shipping Gilman and other people, shipping 100,000 pounds of Yellowstone cutthroat trout to Butte, Montana, and Salt Lake City via, you know, mule pack train, and then trains. And it was an extremely productive area with the combination of lakes, and spring rivers, and tributaries, and so forth. So, yeah, and then of course, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout being the native species here in Eastern Idaho and on the Henry's [00:38:30.523] Fork. I guess here recently, they're now grouping them a little bit more together calling it the rocky mountain cutthroat and the ocean cutthroat trout is now a subspecies, but that's all, you know, influx and changing a bit here.
Tom: So, the rainbows, which the Henry's Fork or the Upper Henry's Fork is most famous for are not native there?
Brandon: No, they're not and just to kind of wrap up the Yellowstone cutthroat trout story, [00:39:00.402] in 1958, in 1966, Idaho Fish and Game had decided that Utah Chubs and some other, what they consider trash fish, you know, were a real threat to the system and, you know, to trout. And they [inaudible 00:39:16.331] and they used another [inaudible 00:39:18.638]. But just, you know, essentially they chemically treated the Henry's Fork Island Park Reservoir in the Henry's Fork. And that was kind of the death-nail of Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the Henry's Fork. [00:39:30.719] Above Island Park Reservoir in Henry's Lake, we still have Yellowstone cutthroat trout in some of those tributary streams in the Henry's Fork, then it became that rainbow-dominated system that you referenced. And that goes back, you know, almost to the earliest settlement of the area as well. There's, you know, 1891 is the first kind of documented rainbows in the Henry's Fork for trout in 1893. [00:40:00.454] But there were rainbow trout hatcheries in Shotgun Valley out to the west of the Henry's Fork, you know, probably earlier than 1891. And so, yeah, a long history. And I know there's been some talk about what the genetics of the rainbow trout are on the Henry's Fork based on Dr. Rob Van Kirk's research and that I've read through his papers historically on that. You know, it's probably it's a wide variety of genetics, is the likely answer. [00:40:30.578] A lot of different genetics contribute to the current stock on the Henry's Fork.
Tom: So, I've never caught or heard of Yellowstone cutthroat in the main stem of the Henry's Fork. Are there still some there or are they just totally gone?
Brandon: You know, every once in a while you'll get they're probably coming from Henry's Lake [inaudible 00:40:54.060] upper watershed. You'll get something, a cutthroat that'll show up down below [00:41:00.257] Island Park Dam. But that is extremely rare. And then we'll also get some in the lower Henry's Fork every once in a while that might have come down from the Teton and then come up once again. Very, very rare. And then of course, on the lower river, brown trout below Mesa Falls, you know, it is the dominant species now of trout on the lower river. And the first stalking records seem to be about 1969 in Robinson [00:41:30.096] Creek at the confluence of the warm river and the Henry's Fork below Mesa Falls. But there was probably also, probably browns coming from other tributaries. And, you know, some bucket biology, back in the '60s, and '70s, people liked, you know, what they called that at that time, German browns, and now they're prolific in the Henry's Fork in South Fork.
Tom: And obviously they can't get above Mesa Falls. That would be pretty tough for a trout to [00:42:00.259] jump. Has there ever been any thought of introducing browns above Mesa Falls since the rainbows? The rainbows aren't native either. Has anybody suggested or thought of putting brown trout above Mesa Falls?
Brandon: It's definitely been suggested by a few people but nothing serious, nothing of any serious nature. I think, there's a love and [00:42:30.387] history around the wild rainbow trout of the Henry's Fork below Island Park Dam and I think that's what people will continue to have, but into the future, once again, you never know what could happen, right? Whether it's someone deciding they should be there on their own or, you know, some change in thought processes. I guess, you know, history will tell us, you know, we look back later on whether that changes or not, but right now it just seems to be kind of a point of discussion [00:43:00.415] and nobody's serious about that. There seems to be a large group and much desire to just keep it a rainbow trout fisher for now.
Tom: So, what I'm a little unclear is what happened to those Yellowstone cutthroats? Was it the rot mounting that did it? Or was it competition from rainbows or a combination of that? Or was it a temperature issue?
Brandon: No, I think [00:43:30.320] you hit the other piece, definitely the chemical treatment kind of finished it off, and then Idaho Fish and Game restocked the rainbow trout into the system. But definitely, prior, to even the chemical treatment, their population was down, just like you see in many watersheds, you know, across the West where rainbows just outcompete, you know, cutthroat trout. And so, they were probably already in plenty of decline, at that point. But they still [00:44:00.322] existed. In fact, I looked through the Coffee Pot Club above Island Park Reservoir, these little clubs, you know, above Island Park Reservoir, the Northport Club, and Flat Rock Club and Coffee Pot Club. And I was looking through the Coffee Pot Club, they had like an artist's book where people would draw in their fish going back to the late 1800s. People would take the train and go up to these fishing clubs. And so, they have a long [00:44:30.413] history in membership but you could find plenty of pictures still of cutthroat trout, you know, through the '40s, '50s, and '60s, along with lots of rainbows that, you know, people caught and they would make an artistic rendering of those. It was kind of a cool little book to look at.
Tom: Yeah. You know, it's unfortunate probably, if it had been today instead of the '60s, they might have tried to reestablish cutthroats instead of putting rainbows in there, [00:45:00.105] right? Because of the emphasis on native species.
Brandon: Yeah. Right. A different time, a different era, different objectives and maybe understanding. And so, yes. And we see that in other places where now there are, you know, concentrated efforts to maintain cutthroat trout in those native or other native species versus these introduced species. But, yeah, given the time and now we [00:45:30.387] have, you know, kind of these naturalized, Wild trout that we're fortunate to be able to go out and spend a little time angling for.
Tom: Yeah. Mostly angling for not catching. They're tough fish. So, Brandon could you take us through a tour of the Henry's Fork, because the river changes so much [00:46:00.640] between Henry's Lake and where it joins the South Fork and there's a lot of different opportunities, a lot of different ecosystems. Can you kind of take us on a tour through the system?
Brandon: Yeah, sure, Tom, I can definitely do that. You know, and you're right, that's what makes the Henry's Fork so unique is, you know, the change in topography and the fact that it is spring-fed. And then it starts to get a little bit of, you know, input [00:46:30.064] from more of the snow melt dominated, you know, systems. And that's actually one kind of cool thing, like if you look from the Henry's Fork, the Fall River down to Teton, you see this continuum, right? To something that's kind of spring [inaudible 00:46:45.172] snowmelt to the very flashy hydrology of the Teton. It's almost, you know, all snow melt dominated down there. But starting at the top, the Henry's Fork [inaudible 00:46:57.139] and you're looking at [00:47:00.209] 120 million gallons of water coming out the aquifer on the Yellowstone massive plateaus. And you have this, you know, it's 52 degrees and extremely clear, and you can't fish there at the springs or down far away. But once it meets up with, it's called the Henry's Lake outlet which is the flow of water coming out of Henry's Lake, then you can start to start to fish, at that point. [00:47:30.033] And just a really cool stretch of slow-moving, cold, clear water. You know, it's actually fairly productive, especially once you get below the outlet juncture.
And, of course, then it gets some supplementation from the reservoir. So, it's actually a really fun place to go in, you know, late winter, early spring as those fish come up and go to spawn at the springs, [00:48:00.283] and you kinda catch them on their way and, you know, drag a boat through the snow or hike through the snow and then and do a little fishing there. But it's, you know, slow meandering. There's some deep runs. There's actually quite a bit of, you know, woody material that's fallen in the Henry's Fork, at that point. And lots of rainbows, brook trout, you can find some cutthroat up there still coming out of Henry's Lake. And then some just monster [00:48:30.246] white fish in some of those deeper holes. So, that worked its way down to max in and to Coffee Pot Rapids and then into Island Park Reservoir, which, you know, we'll probably say this a couple of times as we talk through here.
Island Park Reservoir for the Henry's Fork is kind of the center of the universe. What happens at Island Park Reservoir drives everything for the Henry's Fork. [00:49:00.340] The upper stretch that we just talked about. If you get the right kind of water conditions and carry over in Island Park Reservoir, you can have, you know, multiple, you know, dynamic growth in the fish population. And so it's pretty amazing how much better the fishery can be above the reservoir if Henry's Fork or Island Park reservoir is in the right condition. Below, now we're down into the Box Canyon and The [00:49:30.652] Ranch, or Harriman State Park, or Railroad Ranch, or however you wanna refer to it, you know, that's what everybody shows up for. That's the world-renowned stretch of the Henry's Fork, is the ranch. And so, the Box Canyon is connecting to the the reservoir.
But that top piece of the ranch is extremely dependent on what's happening in Island Park Reservoir, whether it's, you know, temperatures, turbidity. It's just what happens in Island Park Reservoir drives what's happening [00:50:00.459] in especially the upper half of the ranch. But what you have is the, you know, kind of a tailwater combined with a large spring creek. And, you know, wide-open vistas and grassy banks. And that goes on for about 12 miles. Yeah, now you host a school there, right, in Island Park? Is that correct?
Tom: Yeah. I teach at the School of Trout every year and then I host a week at [00:50:30.090] Three Rivers Ranch out of Warm River. So, I get a lot of time in the area.
Brandon: So, yeah. And so you're very well versed and every bank and little run has its own name there, and there's maps dedicated to Harriman State Park or the ranch. However, you wanna refer to it. You know, people are very dedicated to that piece of water. And just you can see the Tetons off in the distance, and it's just [00:51:00.393] phenomenal. But I will say that the upper portion of that from about the boat ramp above Trout Hunter there at Last Chance, down to what they call Bonefish Flats, you know, for a river channel, there's just not much in the way of structure and habitat there, to be honest with you. It's highly dependent on having enough water in it to provide trout habitat or [00:51:30.197] enough, you know, aquatic vegetation growth that habitats created. If you don't have those two things going on, just don't really like to hang out there that much, to be honest with you. If you don't have the right conditions, it can be a little sparse until you get down to Bonefish Flats, you know, diverse stream structure, and holes and so forth.
Tom: More channels down there, and yeah.
Brandon: Yep. Just a little more [00:52:00.150] variability in habitats. And once you get to Pinehaven which is kind of the end of the ranch section now. Now, you're into, you know, it's not a freestone screen by any stretch, but you have more structure, right? This whole thing is built on a volcano Caldera. So, you have all this volcanic material, and now you have some larger volcanic rock and structure and fissures, and you start to get a little more drop in the waterway. [00:52:30.617] And, you know, you're dropping towards Mesa Falls and you have to go through Sheep Falls first, but, you know, it's a really neat piece of water in there, where you're kind of in a canyon. It doesn't rely on Island Park Reservoir as much because there's more shading these deeper runs, that habitat structure. And so it can be a lot of fun to put in at the Riverside campground and float what can be kind of a bumpy ride but a fun [00:53:00.375] ride.
Tom: Doesn't get as much fishing pressure either.
Brandon: No, you can be alone in there, that's for sure.
Tom: Yeah. It's nice.
Brandon: And you gotta take out before the Falls, but yeah, it's up until that point, it can be a really fun, unique piece of water. And so, up to that point, right? We discussed it. That's all a rainbow fishery by and large from Island Park Dam down to the falls. And every once [00:53:30.301] in a while, we find a rare brook trout or hybrid or cutthroat in there, but it's pretty rare. From the Falls down, then, you know, there's a boat slide, and maybe you've done that before. Where you slide your boat down the canyon wall below Mesa Falls, and, you know, you're in this... By the time it gets to October, right? It gets kinda dark in there. It's kind of a deep, nice canyon and deep, long runs and it's always fun to watch [00:54:00.053] a really big brown come up out of the depth there and eat a salmon fly in May. And that continues on to kind of that canyon. You know, a lot of diverse habitats is not as dependent on flow, because do have these deep runs, but even if the flows are lower, there's still plenty of water for fish to do what they need to do.
And that runs all the way down to Ashton Reservoir, and probably the most consistent piece of water on the entire Henry's Fork, [00:54:30.232] because you have a lot of ground flow coming in, of course, then you have Robinson Creek and Warm River coming in and so the above Ashton Reservoir, it's just very, very consistent. You can count on it day in, day out to provide some fantastic fishing. And that kind of, the nature of the water then changes when you get to Ashton Reservoir again. Now, you're still in kind of [00:55:00.049] the volcanic rock, but it's moving a little slower. There's not as many riffles and rungs, still a few around, but you get more big flats where on a summer evening you can get a nice hatch and a lot of rising fish on some of those flats from, you know, Ashton to Vernon.
So, just, you know, but it's starting to spread out, right? It's starting to open up into the farmland of Eastern Idaho. And you're getting glimpses [00:55:30.286] of that every so often. And just also one of the best, you know, the largest fish by average size reside from Ashton down to the Chester diversion. And that's just below the Vernon boat ramp. So, once the Fall River comes in at the Chester diversion, it kinda changes again. Now, you get braided, you're starting to get the braided river, you're starting to see a few more cottonwoods. You can actually see the farm ground. [00:56:00.273] And as, you know, the West has developed some of that's now houses, you know, along the banks there. But once you get to Chester, right? That's your first big diversion, and that's where you start to see some change.
But really, by the time you get to St. Anthony, now you're seeing irrigation diversion. So, these structures that are taking water out of the river and moving them out to the irrigated farm ground, are part of the Fremont Madison Irrigation [00:56:30.415] District. And while those canals will provide return flow, they leak, they will provide cold water returns and help supplement, you know, aquifer there. You do lose at certain times of the year, especially, you know, from June, July on, you're losing quite a bit of water out of the river. But you also get some more diversity in habitat. You start getting some undercut banks, you get more braiding, you [00:57:00.060] start getting those larger cottonwood gap galleries. And so, it's just, you know, pretty phenomenal down there when the fishing's good. The fish numbers aren't as high, but it's just a beautiful place to be, especially, like, on a fall day with those golden cottonwoods and, you know, beautiful water.
And then it gets really, you know, interesting again because once you get below the Fork with the Teton River, it's just not [00:57:30.363] the same. It's been highly altered. The 1976 Teton flood, which was caused by the failure of the Teton Dam. A flood that killed was 11 people and like 16,000 head of livestock and literally took feet of topsoil off of huge swaths of ground and then dumped it in the Henry's Fork, honestly. So, you know, there's still some fish to be had down there. There's a lot of like, slews and [00:58:00.348] a lot of it is irrigation return that will show up in slews down there and actually hold some really large fish in some small areas. But it's not the fishery, it could be, you know, not so good before it dumps into the South Fork there. So, you know, maybe someday we'll able to address that and that's a big elephant. You can take a lot of bites to get that one. But, yeah, you know, just as you said, a lot of [00:58:30.383] diversity and by the time you're down there at the bottom, you're kind of in that freestone stream, cottonwood gallery, kind of what you think of when you're, you know, on the Lower Yellowstone or the Lower South Fork and these places, you know, around the West, just kind of that prototypical Western River down there.
Tom: So, let's talk about some of the issues on the Henry's Fork because they're like all trout streams these days. There are many. And the Henry's Fork Foundation has done some great [00:59:00.365] work. Let's talk about some things that you guys have worked on or are currently working on, or would like to address on the Henry's Fork.
Brandon: Yeah, sure. I think it's, you know, going back to that idea that Island Park Reservoir is the center of the universe. You know, if you go back to the '70s and '80s, you know, that was kind of considered the heyday, the golden era of the Henry's [00:59:30.325] Fork. There's, you know, some publications out there that would suggest that maybe it was just because of a confluence of events. Maybe it was unnaturally good, at that point. Maybe due to, you know, stocking of fish and then some drawdowns of Island Park Reservoir that allowed Island Park Reservoir fish to end up in the Henry's Fork. And one of the big things being, and something we see and monitor, and we've [01:00:00.320] done some scientific workaround, is that in the '70s and '80s, we had more water in the system.
We don't have the same watershed yield now that we did then. And you can see that kind of, you know, it's probably impacting whitefish. And it, yeah, does impact the wild trout fishery. And so one of the things that we started to work on as the Henry's Fork Foundation, in the '80s was winter flow. And that came out of some [01:00:30.268] research at Idaho State University, and there's just a very direct relationship between the amount of winter flow out of Island Park Dam, and then the number of trout to get recruited into the population. And so we spend a lot of time and have spent a lot of our organizational time working on that. And definitely worth doing. And we continue to this day, but we've changed the way [01:01:00.340] we think about and work on that topic.
Now, instead of just sitting down, you know, before December 1st, before the winter starts, and trying to come to an agreement on winter flow, we're actively working with water managers throughout the year to kind of shape what the water year will look like. I guess, the key here is that water and Island Park [01:01:30.315] Reservoir, 80% to 85% of it belongs to Fremont Madison Irrigation District, which is, you know, 30 to 60 miles downstream. You know, so you have to send that water through. The other remaining percentage of, you know, 15% to 20% might belong at American Falls Reservoir. You know, you clear down to Twin Falls or maybe part of a program to assist anadromous fish, you know, further down into Columbia. So, we have to, you know, [01:02:00.430] work at many levels.
We have to work away from the Henry's Fork to impact the Henry's Fork. And so, we work with Fremont Madison Irrigation District. We work with individual farmers and canal companies and figure out a kind of two-pronged approach where our science staff here have figured out how to precisely manage water in the system when it comes to delivery of that irrigation at those diversion points that I [01:02:30.297] mentioned earlier. So, if they need water at diversion A and B and C, and the Irrigation District knows this, well we have a plan devised based on the timing of the delivery of how best to do that so that we don't kind of waste a drop during that irrigation delivery system? And by the time you do that day in and day out through the season, you're at 26,000 acre-feet of water conserved in Island Park [01:03:00.190] Reservoir out of 135,000 acre-feet of water. And so, that translates into more winter flow.
The other part of that story is we work with those individual farmers and actually part of the total 26,000-acre feet is that we'll work with them on their individual fields. How can we come up with projects and processes on their farm so that they can contribute as well to that conservation of carryover water in [01:03:30.472] September and make sure that we've got the most water available on the Island Park Reservoir for winter flow? So, that's something that we've worked on for a long time, the winter flow on the Henry's Fork, and it's just kind of, it's evolved into, you know, a more precise program, I guess is how I would say it.
Tom: And do you get pretty good buy-in from the water district and the agricultural people [01:04:00.301] to help with that? I'm sure, it varies with the individual.
Brandon: Yeah. I mean, but here's one of the take-home messages there is, it's good and it's continually getting better. And that's because we go to the collaborative table and we're trying to solve not only our own issues but everybody's issues. You know, there's just, [01:04:30.194] frankly, a water shortage in Southern Idaho. For the first time ever, they've been talking about the curtailment of groundwater pumping because the water in Southern Idaho is managed conjunctively, the surface water and groundwater. And so people are scared they're going to lose their farms. That's just kind of where we're at right now. And so, we're helping them solve some of their problems. And so, for example, we're working with a local canal that, it is part of Fremont Madison Irrigation District, [01:05:00.363] but the Conant Creek Canal Company, we're helping them, in this case, it makes sense for them to line their canal. And it's like 6 miles of canal that it's not helping farms, it's not helping fish, to lose water out that canal, have it seep out.
Yeah, it's not beneficial to any of our resources, and it kinda just attenuates into the system. So, we're going to help them with some technology and a canal lining project. We've written grants and we're co-managing a project to [01:05:30.117] line 6 miles of canal that will eventually save up to 13 CFFs in Conant Creek. And by just through the process of water, [inaudible 01:05:42.232], it'll actually save up almost 2000 acre-feet of water annually in Island Park Reservoir. So, when you're out there working with people and you're bringing science to the table, and you're being, you know, a forthright partner and you're helping them with their problems too. We're seeing a lot [01:06:00.349] of productive relationships continue and new ones being built. In fact, just recently we had a canal company, that it's actually the last kind of diversion on the lower Henry's Fork. So, they kind of take the last bit of water, and for many years they wouldn't talk to the Henry's Fork Foundation. And after they've seen kind of the body of work with Fremont Madison Irrigation District and some of their, you know, sister canal companies, now they wanna work with us. You know, and they're talking about, "Here's some things we could do to conserve some water [01:06:30.343] and keep it in the river and still meet our goals." And so I think that's pretty powerful.
Tom: Yeah. When the canals leak but, you know, when an older canal is not lined, it leaks, that water gets into the water table, right? And if you line the canal, is there gonna be a draw-down of the water table in that area?
Brandon: I'm glad you asked that question. That's a perfect question. So, there are many canals on [01:07:00.190] the Henry's Fork that we would not want to line, you know, in this space in here. For just that reason, they provide, you know, that incidental recharge back to the aquifer. It's an important part of the system. But that being said, right? Because we talked about this varied ecosystem, there are a few where we've done the work like Conant Creek Canal, where it doesn't benefit the aquifer actually. It seems kinda strange, but the numbers, [01:07:30.619] because of the way the water attenuates through the groundwater system, it just doesn't really add in any appreciable way to the groundwater situation. The farmers are losing. In fact, some of the folks on the bottom of that system can't irrigate at times because they don't have enough water to fill their water rights and Conant Creek is being dewatered. So, by putting, you know, the liner on that canal, we get to keep 13 CFFs in Conant [01:08:00.405] Creek. And then it's also going to provide enough water so those farmers can irrigate on a more reliable basis. So, yeah, it's very site-specific. So, like, generally, you're right. We don't want to go out and line all the canals in the Henry's Fork Basin, that's for sure.
Tom: You touched quite a bit on winter flows, and can you explain to people exactly why you need a minimum flow during the [01:08:30.076] winter? How that helps drought?
Brandon: Yeah. So, it's just about habitat availability. Making sure those young of the year trout have the habitat they need to survive through the winter. And so, as I mentioned, the research has been done on that, time and time again, we've looked at the monitoring of Idaho Fish and Game and our own work and that relationship continues to be there. It has not gone away. And so, it's [01:09:00.156] just really about habitat availability. And I would say you mentioned minimum flows and we hardly ever say the word minimum flow around here. And we don't actually set a minimum flow target because of our work, and with the irrigators, it's really about we're looking, how do we maximize winter flows? And that's really what we focus on.
And so because we've seen it in some other places, you can set it up. If a minimum flow is [01:09:30.165] set, that seems to be everybody's target. You know, of course, irrigators. Okay, that's our target. You know, that's what we're gonna work towards. And it's really hard to get off that mindset but because we kind of focus on how do we maximize winter flow and what's the best overall optimization of what we're doing? We seem to always get more than we would under, you know, some possible minimum flow setting. We're doing pretty well on... You know, this last year, the water conservation efforts [01:10:00.359] provided another 110 CFFs of winter flow, over what would've been expected prior to the work we've done based on, if you look at the past year and now these years. So, I think, you know, and that's 550 trout. There's a real impact there around that process.
And we got talking about irrigation districts and why they wanna work with us. And there was one point I should probably circle back to on that. [01:10:30.400] Not only do we conserve 26,000 acre-feet of physical water at the end of the irrigation season in Island Park Reservoir, but if you look at the administrative system, which is how, you know, the irrigation system works there. When they're using water out of the reservoir, they're having to pay for that water. And they're actually conserving about 22,000, 23,000 acre-feet of administrative water a year. So, it's actually benefiting their bottom line [01:11:00.296] as well to figure out how to optimize the system and precisely deliver that water.
Tom: And nobody's using the water during the winter, right? They're just more concerned about keeping the reservoir full so they have it the following growing season.
Brandon: That's correct. There's a few, you know, stock water rights and things like that in the winter, and of course, the cities and hydropower need water. So, that's all considered, you know, kind of in those discussions through our drought management planning [01:11:30.317] committee, which is what we call our group that works on winter flow. And so, whether we're in drought or not, it's still called the drought management planning committee. But, yeah, there are some needs for that water, but generally, yeah, the main consideration is how do we get from the fall to fill in the reservoir around ice off in the spring? And, you know, that's what we're modeling and working on based on base flows and a whole host of other, [01:12:00.355] you know, pieces of data coming in. And of course, some of it's forecasting. You know, we don't know in mid-November what the winter will look like.
And honestly, based on our analysis, you know, in this country it used to be pretty predictable. You get your snow and starting in mid to late November, and to the end of December, January, early February, and then a lot of times it would kind of dry out. But you already had all the snow packed you needed to run the whole irrigation system and, you know, provide ecological [01:12:30.456] function. And, you know, we've seen recently these years where, you know, like this year, nothing in November, nothing in December, very little in January, and then all of a sudden February is, you know, way above average. And in October as it turned out, you know, it wasn't snow, but it was a lot of rain. So, just a snow drought where you have plenty of moisture in the system but you don't have enough snow packed to get through the summer. And things have changed [01:13:00.355] as you've probably talked with other guests or, you know, talked about or just the nature of the climate seems to be changing quite a bit. And that's another place where working with our agricultural producers, they may not say certain words around climate but they all recognize that their operations are changing. That they're having to do things differently because it's not like it was 20, 30, 40 years ago.
Tom: Right. Yeah. What's your snowpack at now for [01:13:30.474] 2024?
Brandon: Yeah, I think we're about 81% of average which is pretty poor for snowpack, right? If 100% is just average, 81% of that is not fantastic. That being said, the precipitation levels, the total water in the system is, it's in the up mid-90s, and that comes from some of that October rain. [01:14:00.410] And so, unlike maybe like 2016 where we were in a similar situation with the snowpack, at least now our reservoirs are filling. They're fairly full and they're filling. We had the August-September rain, we had the October rain. Our valley location is downstream towards Rexburg, is actually like 214% of normal precipitation.
Tom: Oh, that's good.
Brandon: So, yeah, it didn't happen in the mountains. At least on farm [01:14:30.401] ground, we got some saturated soil which will help with irrigation demand. It actually should be a pretty good fishing spring, to be honest with you. And it should be good all the way up through July and we'll just have to, you know, see what happens after that if it turns hot and dry. Without the snowpack with only 81% of the normal average, that's a difficult situation to be in. And we may see a draft of the reservoir [01:15:00.333] that's pretty substantial. And so we expect this summer to start out well and then maybe see some water quality issues. And that's something, you know, going back to Island Park Reservoir being the center of the universe. You know, it can introduce some temperature and turbidity issues into the Henry's Fork. And that's, it's...
Tom: Just...
Brandon: Go ahead.
Tom: Sorry. This is, as the reservoir gets lower, you see more temperature and turbidity issues.
Brandon: [01:15:30.593] Yeah. Definitely, a full reservoir is better. Having a good base flow into the reservoir is good for water quality. Having a more full reservoir is good for water quality. And then actually the March through May temperatures is really critical to water quality based on our research. And that's what we're a little worried about right now. That [01:16:00.269] we do have warm temperatures, it's not been a cold winter. It was really nice last year that while the winter was a bit tough to get throughout here, it was a long, long winter. We had really good water quality through most of the summer because we kept ice on the reservoir till May 12th and it was a nice cold spring. This year, that's not in the cards, it doesn't look like, and so, you know, whether it's... Yeah, we are actually embarking and hope to receive [01:16:30.327] a grant from the U.S. Jury Reclamation to fund a project, our dirt project, which will help us design infrastructure related to temperature and turbidity. And just look at ways to kind of solve water quality issues that can't be solved just by keeping the reservoir full by itself. That does help but we can't get all of it done that way.
Tom: How would you do that? What kind of infrastructure are you looking at [01:17:00.108] to help that?
Brandon: Yeah, so we'll have to get through the process to know for sure, but, of course, you go into it with some ideas. And they're, you know, between work we do ourselves and maybe bringing in some consultants and contractors. We'll be looking at things like the variable withdrawal tower on Island Park Reservoir, which would allow us to fine-tune exactly where we're taking water from and then moving it into the river, which could help us optimize [01:17:30.306] turbidity and temparaterure. You might be looking at, you know, trying to oxygenate the reservoir itself, just like we do with the hydropower plant, trying to, you know, bump up those O2 levels and help with some water quality. But Island Park Reservoir, I guess maybe, you think of it as like a prototypical Western Reservoir, kind of it's a deep V mountain valley and then you [01:18:00.215] have a tailwater, that's not Island Park Reservoir. You have 6,000 acres on the West end, that's pretty shallow overall. It's a huge solar collector and the reservoir was built on top of the Henry's Fork. It was also built on top of the Shotgun River Valley.
And for anyone that spent any time bet you already know about the St. Anthony Sand Dunes. You know, the work of wind on the Snake [01:18:30.211] River plane brought a lot of fine material into the Upper Snake Basin. And so, you find that in Shotgun Valley, in fact one of our recent work by a grad student showed up to 10 feet of preexisting, you know, pretty fine sediment sitting out on the West end of Island Park Reservoir. We just built a reservoir on top of it, and now you have to deal with that. And then, because... You know, it's we're also seeing some [01:19:00.264] increased phosphorus levels. So, when you're getting in that kind of productivity out of phosphorus, then of course you have algae and cyanobacteria blooms.
And just like many impoundments across the West and lakes, we're dealing with those summertime temperature-related water quality issues. And so, looking at ways, it could be something, you know, right? There could be some far-out ideas like do you put bentonite or some other kind of coagulant on the West end to hold that [01:19:30.440] sediment down during a critical time? We'll be investigating a whole range of different possibilities and trying to parse through those and figure out what makes the most sense going forward for implementation. But we seem to have a lot of support from our members and from our partners on working on that topic.
Tom: There's been a lot of press from the dangling community recently about insect populations on the Henry's [01:20:00.071] Fork and the decline, even though that Henry's Fork is still a bug factory. I mean, I don't know if I've ever seen a river with hatches that profuse but they're saying that especially some of the bigger mayflies, not seeing as many. Are you seeing the same situation scientifically of a decline in invertebrates in the river?
Brandon: Yeah. That is an interesting topic. [01:20:30.613] Our 2023 invertebrate work on the Henrys Fork at Last Chance and Osborne Bridge there on the east side of Harriman State Park, showed a percent in mayflies, dumpflies, and caddisflies. You know, it was over 70%. And that's the highest we've seen at those locations. So, we're not seeing it in the data, but that doesn't mean that anglers aren't seeing something different when it comes to [01:21:00.858] hatches. You know, you could have hatches at different times now. The insect population seems to be changing and adjusting to a changing climate and to changing, you know, water attributes. And we're not sure about every driver there and how that all works. But we are not as, you know, some watersheds across the West. They know they're in trouble when it comes to their, you know, [01:21:30.082] aquatic insect population.
We don't feel like we're in trouble. It's just changing a bit. And we still have good diversity, all of the indexes and indicators and we bring in one of the, you know, best bug guys in the West, Brett Marshall out of river continuum concepts, and it's one place we do bring outside expertise to help us. And, you know, he's just always floored by the assemblage on the Henry's Fork and how [01:22:00.300] fantastic this is. But it doesn't mean we're not seeing some kind of impact. Things are changing. They definitely are. Yeah, we're probably seeing, you know, changes across the board in size and timing and other things, but there was also just, as you said, some fantastic hatches still even this year. But you gotta be at the right place at the right time sometimes too, so...
Tom: What are some of the threats to the invertebrates that you see? Is it water levels, is it [01:22:30.301] the pesticides, herbicides?
Brandon: You know, we're pretty fortunate on the Henry's Fork from top to bottom really, that, you know, the pesticide herbicide issue does not seem to be a huge issue.
Tom: That's good.
Brandon: The top and the watershed, they're just not used, you know, maybe in some household applications, but there's just not this widespread cultural use of those types of products. [01:23:00.008] When you get lower down in the watershed, just because of the geology and geography, there seems to be always enough of a buffer to keep that from being a problem. And we have a monitor for that and we actually stopped monitoring for it on a consistent basis because we were spending money to monitor nothing. Nothing was showing up.
Tom: That's good.
Brandon: And so that told us what we knew. And every so often we'll check in on it, but it's not a consistent monitoring program because it was not a good [01:23:30.080] use of money. But yeah, it's hard to say, I think, right? When you look at sediment and you look at nutrients and you look at water temperatures, but there's a case to be made that, you know, having... You know, we did a water temperature project at Harriman State Park this summer, and you see a wide range of temperatures. You know, everything from springs that are, you know, down in the 40-degree Fahrenheit range. We saw some [01:24:00.232] backwater areas that were 75 degrees at times, maybe even a little warmer. But fish move around in those and find what they like and the insects need to use, you know, different temperature and different flow. And that's why we get a multitude of species, right? That's why we have the diversity we have. It's because we have, even within a short stretch of the river, quite a bit of habitat diversity.
And so we're gonna continue to work on that to figure out, you know, why you may not [01:24:30.031] see the same hatches you saw in, you know, the '70s and '80s and maybe '90s. And even though the indexes and indices are still good and solid and in some cases great. So, we'll continue to work on that relationship and try and figure out all the factors in play. But I would go back to, you know, just the amount of water in the system. I think we keep as a [01:25:00.167] staff, and, you know, going back to that, when you look at watershed yield and just water available, that is one of the big differences between those glory years and what we see now. And, of course, you do have stocking and fish coming out of Island Park Reservoir and these other things, but when it comes to something like insects, that may be a driver too.
Tom: Now, where is the river? The river itself isn't stocked, right? The Island [01:25:30.512] Park Reservoir is stocked. I think Ashton Reservoir is stocked as well.
Brandon: Well, yeah. So, yeah, there's stocking at Max Inn where the Henry's Fork crosses Highway 20. And so, there's some there, although that because we kept the water in the Island Park Reservoir and that fishery, when we... One of the cool kind of success stories, and it's not related necessarily to rainbow trout, but kokanee salmon. [01:26:00.385] And for 20-some years, Fish and Game had continued to stalk kokanee salmon in Island Park Reservoir, and they just would not get any of those fish, you know, through to a point where they would run up to the Henry's Fork and try to spawn. And after three years of keeping more water in the reservoir through precision management, through the farms and fish program, we now see kokanee running up out of [01:26:30.448] the reservoir and into the headwaters.
And that's just kind of a cool, very, right? You can see those redfish down there and it's just, you know, a very visual result of the work we're doing. And then it's also kind of cool that, well now grizzly bears get to utilize, you know, this resource. That's just all something I think is really neat about some of the work that we've done. But, yeah, it's... Go ahead and circle back to your question [01:27:00.101] because I think I've lost where I was going at that Tom, I apologize.
Tom: We were just talking about stocking and I was just wondering what parts of the river is stocked?
Brandon: Yeah, still in the reservoir and you just get the one there Ashton Reservoir. So, there's very little stocking overall now on the Henry's Fork. It is, you know, a wild trout in the water.
Tom: So, the rainbows in the Railroad Ranch area where do they [01:27:30.114] spawn?
Brandon: Yeah. So, those fish spawn, there's some in Box Canyon, the lower end of Box Canyon. and then all the way up to the dam itself, there's spawning fish up in Island Park Dam. And then some of them actually do spawn. They'll run up the fish ladder into the Buffalo River and Tom's Creek and will spawn up there. Even though they do run up there to spawn, the [01:28:00.060] bulk of the fish that we find that remain in the population in the Henry's Fork, spawned in the Henry's Fork.
Tom: So, they spawned in the main stem itself.
Brandon: Yeah, spawned in the main stem. And then you do find below that Pinehaven's stretch down, there's spawning that occurs in there as well. I mean, if you have fish, not a lot of fish stay in the ranch year-round. And partly because during certain times it's just not that good of a habitat for them as we discussed. There's just not enough water in there, enough cover, and so forth. But then they move in from [01:28:30.236] these other spawning spots throughout the year. Spawning is not limited on the Henry's Fork. We spawn way more, you know, young of the year than we can recruit into the population by far. Like, we're talking, you know, sometimes up to as many as 300,000 fish and you're only able to fit 5,000 to maybe 10,000 of them into their first year, right? It's just, there's not room [01:29:00.127] and habitat for them. And then each year, those age classes reduce because of [inaudible 01:29:06.856] and other factors but, yeah, we are not spawning limited on the Henry's Fork Railroad Ranch. That's for sure. Specifically on the Railroad Ranch, there might be some other places on the river. I don't know about downstream, but it doesn't seem to be spawning limited anywhere except for maybe the very bottom of the watershed.
Tom: So, it's basically [01:29:30.355] adult habitat limited.
Brandon: Or, you know, well let's say very quickly after spawning the constriction is that those up to 2-year fish, those 1-year fish, the 1-year-old is where the first bottleneck is. And so having enough habitat to get them through that first year is really, really critical.
Tom: Okay. All right.
Brandon: But getting eggs that actually [01:30:00.273] turn into [inaudible 01:30:00.717] and do all that, we can do all that. It's just getting them, having the space and habitat for them to get further down the road and then we start counting them in the Idaho Fish and Game population survey as age 2. Because honestly as they try to electrofish and do those surveys, they really can't sample younger than age 2.
Tom: Okay. All right, Brandon, well that is a great overview of the Henry's Fork, one of our most famous trout [01:30:30.004] streams and one of my favorites. I learned a lot today and really appreciate you coming on and sharing your knowledge with us.
Brandon: Sorry about that. Tom, I really appreciate you having me on here today and the chance to just, you know, talk about The Henry's Fork, which is a place I love. You know, it gets me out of bed every morning so I can get out and do this work. And maybe go fishing too. And so just love this landscape and all the diversity that's [01:31:00.041] here and I appreciate you having me on today.
Tom: And there's a lot of interesting stuff on your website. Will you tell people where they can go to either join the Henry's Fork Foundation, donate, or to learn more about the river?
Brandon: Yeah, so they can join and donate and find all the information at And there's always new information being added and once you get on there, you could also get on some email lists and get [01:31:30.239] a lot of very detailed information almost daily into your inbox.
Tom: Yeah, there's a lot of good scientific geeky stuff there, which I always enjoy reading. So, I know...
Brandon: Yeah. The full report, right? From, last year was 80 pages long. So, yeah, there's plenty there.
Tom: Yeah, and it's good stuff. It's really good stuff. All right, Brandon, well thanks very much. Really appreciate it and hope to talk to you soon.
Brandon: Yeah. When do you make it out this way, [01:32:00.286] Tom?
Tom: Next October would probably be the first time or the next late September.
Brandon: Okay. Is that when you have the School of Trout then, or is that your...
Tom: The School of Trout and my hosted trip are like concurrent weeks, so starting late September and I think my hosted trip starts the last few days in September. Yep.
Brandon: Okay. Well, you know, if there's an opportunity, I'd love to be able to shake your hand and meet you and talk about this, you know, for a few minutes further, but I understand that's probably a busy time [01:32:30.366] as well, so...
Tom: No, that would be great. Let's do that.
Brandon: Okay. Thank you for your time again. I appreciate it.
Tom: Thank you, Brandon.Thanks for listening to the "Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast" with Tom Rosenberg. You can be a part of the show. Have a question or a comment, send it to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in the body of an email or as a voice attachment. You can find more free fishing tips on