Every self-confessed fly fishing "expert" would
do well to visit Idaho's legendary Henry's Lake
every now and then. The Big H can dish up buckets
of humility whenever the fly fisherman becomes
overconfident I can't count the times I've thought
I was in complete control on the lake, only to
discover it still had my number.
I've fly fished scores of western trout lakes, and
while Henry's Lake has not been the most difficult
for me to figure out (I would rate Montana's McDonald
Pond in Centennial Valley with that distinction), it
can be really technical at times. While having the
correct type of fly on your tippet is certainly important,
the key to catching at the Big H is presentation...
So...what else is new?
My introduction to deep-sinking lines took place at
Henry's during the late 60s. I had float-tubed the
Glory Hole at Staley Springs for two days without
hooking a single fish. I got acquainted with a
couple of more successful fly fishermen who were
fishing from a boat. They had watched me for two
days, as I became more and more frustrated. One of
them asked me which line I was using. I told him
it was the Intermediate (my only sinking line at the time).
You many fish here the rest of your life with that
super slow sinker, he told me, and still not be
catching fish when they plant you.
Go to town, the other angler advised me, as he landed
yet another trout, and buy a deeper sinking line.
I had promised my wife a dinner in West Yellowstone,
so while we were there that evening, I visited Bud
Lilly's Trout Shop. The next day, I was back in the
Glory Hole at daybreak. My two new friends were
also there. When I told them I had bought a deep
sinking line, they applauded.
Now what the hell do I do with it?
For the balance of the week, these two old-timers - who
were to become very close friends over the next two
decades - fine-tuned my count-down technique, my
retrieves, and gave me a fist full of flies. By the
end of the week, I was (almost) matching them fish
The key to catching fish at Henry's Lake has not
changed during the four decades I've fly fished
the lake. Most of the time you must put your fly
right on top of the weed beds that coat the bottom.
Use the count down technique until you pick up weeds,
then subtract a couple of seconds. Many of the
old-timers use a watch and keep meticulous count
of where their fly is. If this sounds too routine,
the angler should probably fish someplace else.
Count your fly to the bottom, and fish it just above
the weeds for ten or 15 feet. Then retrieve it at a
fairly steep angle of emergence. Henry's Lake guru
Bill Scheiss (author of the book, Fishing Henry's
Lake), once told me that 6 or 8 inches can make
all the difference in the world. He believes that
ninety-nine percent of the fish in Henry's Lake, at
any given moment, are within 2 feet of the bottom.
Even when there are dozens of big trout rolling on the
surface, keep your flies deep. The legendary Ted
Trueblood wrote a FIELD AND STREAM column about a
lake in the west that confused him for several days,
the first time he fished it. He said fish were working
the top like crazy. He tried dry flies, he tried midge
and caddis emergers, he tried damsel nymphs just under
the surface. The fish kept rolling and he continued
Out of desperation , he finally put on the deepest
sinking line he had and sank his fly to the bottom.
He caught fish steadily for the balance of his trip.
Although Ted rarely named a body of water he wrote
about, he confirmed in a private conversation it
had been Henry's Lake.
Many Big H anglers believe the old pro catching all
the fish has a "secret" pattern. While most of them
do have proper fly patterns, most of the time they
have simply mastered the presentation. Trade flies
with one of them some day and you'll find he outfishes
you with the pattern you couldn't catch a fish with.
I once read an article published in a now-defunct California
outdoors magazine, entitled "The Secret Of Fly Fishing Henry's
Lake With Dry Flies. I'd never heard of the author, nor
had anyone I queried. I've never taken a fish from the
lake with a dry fly, nor am I acquainted with anyone who
has. Henry's Lake is such a fertile body of water, fish
don't seem interested in expending energy chasing emerging
or adult chironomids or caddis, when they can cruise
leisurely subsurface, with their mouths open and inhale
huge volumes of aquatic organisms.
I'm sure there will be a few dry fly purists who will
snicker at the above paragraph. They just need to spend
a week on the lake with only a floating line and a fly
box filled with floating flies. If they don't have a
good supply of split shot with them...they too will
I first fished the Big H on my honeymoon, fifty-odd
years ago. I'll acknowledge that as honeymooners,
Vina and I didn't spend an awfully lot of time
attempting to learn the lake's secrets and
consequently didn't catch many fish.
Our next trip to the lake was three years later and
considerably more successful. My brother-in-law and
I managed to land limits of rainbow/cutthroat hybrids,
with a few really nice brook trout thrown in, and began
to feel more comfortable with our skills at this big
eastern Idaho trout lake. While I did catch a couple
of fish on flies, we were mostly trolling spoons.
The following year we added my father to our fishing
safari and had a very successful trip. But we had to
rely on a little luck, and a wild Henry's Lake wind
storm, to learn the secret that made the trip so memorable.
We had launched our 7-man rubber raft in an area now
occupied by the Henry's Lake State Park, and trolled
north to Henry's Lake Lodge (the old Pittsburgh Club),
where we stopped for lunch. About that time a south
wind blew up and we spent most of the afternoon waiting
for it to die down so we could motor back across the
lake to our vehicle.
While we were at the lodge, my father struck up a
conversation with a grizzled old fisherman, who described
a center lake "glory hole" that he said never failed to
provide his daily limit. He gave my father the landmarks
to triangulate his hotspot. He described how an imaginary
line between Sawtell Peak and Henry's Lake Lodge intersects
with a line between Staley Springs and the spot where we
had parked our vehicle. That was the spot to fish. I
was later to learn that Bill Scheiss calls our glory hole
of 1955, his hybrid hole #2.
On the following day, we used the old timer's directions
and proceeded to have one of those days you dream about.
We took three limits of hybrids, including several in
the 6-pound range (while I think we did release a few
of the smaller fish, readers should keep in mind this
event occurred long before any of us had ever heard the
A lot has happened at Henry's Lake since those first two
mid-50s fishing trips. The decade of the '60s produced
trophy rainbow/cutthroat hybrid fishing that attracted
fly fishermen from all over the world. Along with the
lake's (smaller growing) cutthroat and brook trout
populations, the Big H was considered hallowed water
by knowledgeable fly fishermen.
Then in 1969, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game
elected to eliminate the hybrids from Henry's Lake in
favor of increased populations of cutthroat and brook
trout. They said they wanted to let the lake revert
to its native species (they somehow failed, in their
arguments, to acknowledge that the brook trout was
also an "introduced" species, not native to the lake).
Many sportsmen were convinced Fish and Game was primarily
interested in the revenues generated by sales of cutthroat
eggs produced by the lake-side hatchery. They accused
Fish and Game of not placing a high enough priority on
the quality potential of the lake. Incensed sportsmen
attending public meetings, eventually pressured the
department to continue stocking the popular hybrid.
(Western Idaho fly fishermen helped solve the "hybrid"
problem by getting one of their own, Will Godfrey (owner
at the time of Will's Fly Shop, near Island Park Reservoir),
appointed to the Fish and Game Commission. Will formed
a coalition on the commission and got Henry's Lake back
on track as a trophy fishery).
While the Department got some really bad press on the
mid-70s hybrid issue, they were less guilty of
mis-management than many critics believed. Fish
and Game had primarily been concerned about hybrids
diluting the cutthroat strain at the Big H hatchery.
Although once believed to be sterile, Fish and Game
discovered that up to 15-percent of the hybrids retained
the ability to cross with the cutthroat. Without pure
cutthroats and rainbows, the strain of hybrid would be
weakened. Recent heat sterilization procedures has
solved that problem, so Fish and Game is not so hesitant
about stocking hybrids where there are native cutthroat
Since the mid-70s, quality fishing at Henry's Lake has
had its peaks and valleys. During the late '70s and
early '80s, there were some very large hybrids and
brook trout in the lake; but the numbers were down...
way down. Fish and Game lost some hybrids to disease
in one of their hatcheries, during that time frame,
and, unfortunately, had chosen to reduce the cutthroat
program. Was the reduced potential at the lake their
way of paying sportsmen back for questioning their
policies? I don't know. I do remember some very
good Henry's Lake fly fishermen going for days without
touching fish. I spent three weeks at the lake in
1979 and you could count the fish I caught on the
fingers of both hands.
When fish and Game flooded the lake with increased
numbers of cutthroat fingerlings in the early '80s,
the catch rates increased, but the average size went
down. Simply too many fish. Fifty fish days were
common, but instead of being trophy sized, they mostly
ran from 14- to 18-inches. While this would be acceptable
fishing in many trout lakes, it was a major disappointment
to anglers who traveled to Idaho to fish for the "lunkers"
of Henry's Lake.
When Fish and Game finally got their program stabilized,
we began to see top quality fishing return. In 1995 I
spent August and September camped at the lake and the
fishing was superb. My fishing logs reveal many 20- to
30-fish days, with good numbers of 3- to 6-pound fish,
both hybrids and cutthroats.
But there was a fly in the ointment. A prolonged drought
had cut down the brook trout winter spawning runs and
very few specks were showing up. With heavier brook
trout plants in recent years, trophy brookies should
once again begin to show up in the lake.
The fishing these past two seasons has been spotty at
best. The continued drought has lowered the lake by
50-percent each year and the mid-summer fishing has
been poor. Bill Scheiss, arguably the most knowledgeable
guide on the lake, cancelled many of his July and August
clients in both 2001 and 2002. I have several friends
with cabins on the Big H and to a person they described
the fishing last summer as a total disaster.
With improved snow packs this past winter, Henry's Lake
anglers are holding their collective breaths. The lake
level in April was listed at 79-percent. Bill Scheiss
believes it will be 95-percent by mid-June. If I were
planning a trip to Henry's Lake this summer, I would
call several of the local fly shops and get up-to-date
information on water conditions and the fishing. This
column will pass on a monthly report on what my contacts
are telling me.
Next week: WHEN AND WHERE TO FISH HENRY'S LAKE
MARV'S FLY OF THE WEEK
HENRY'S LAKE RENEGADE
If there is a fishing destination mentioned more
often in my books than Henry's Lake, it could only
be Horsethief Reservoir. I learned most of my
entomology, and a great deal of my fly tying, at
those two marvelous Idaho trout fisheries.
Hook: Mustad 9671, (or equivalent), sizes 8 - 16.
Thread: Red, prewaxed 6/0 or 8/0.
Tag: Red thread.
Tail: Brown neck hackle, 2 wraps, tied dry-fly style.
Body: Peacock herls, 2 or 3, extra thin body. Wrap
herls around the thread, then wrap body.
Ribbing: Red thread, doubled, 4 or 5 wraps.
Hackle: Brown neck hackle, 2 wraps, tied dry fly style.
HEAD: Red thread.
Henry's Lake has heavy populations of some of the
most important aquatic insects found in stillwaters.
It's early June chironomid hatch (called "snow flies"
by locals) is legendary as to volume. The first time
I encountered the hatch, we were right in the middle
of the lake when it started. Our craft was a WW2 Navy
7-man rubber raft, with a 7 ½ hp motor. The little
chironomids were so thick we could hardly breathe.
We ended up wrapping bandanas around our faces, and
still ended up swallowing dozens of the little beasties,
before we were able to reach shore and escape to our
vehicle (which had so many midges roosting on it, you
couldn't tell its color).
The second time we fished the lake, our party consisted
of my wife Vina and I, my sister and her husband, and
my mother and father. We pulled into Staley springs,
intending to camp in their campground. We got there
about noon and the snow fly hatch was in full swing.
The six of us walked down to the campground, swatting
chironomids as we walked. The three ladies in the party
huddled, then informed we three males, that should we
insist on camping on Henry's Lake, there would be three
divorces in the family. We found a nice campground far
enough away from the lake not to be bothered by the
I've tried ever since to schedule my Henry's Lake trips
after the snow fly hatch is over.
Besides midges, Henry's Lake has shiner minnows,
sculpins, crayfish, mayflies, caddisflies, damsels
and scuds. In a word, the lake is fertile. And it
has trout...big trout. Where else do we need to go
to study entomology and how it applies to our fly
tying and fishing?
I first saw the Henry's Lake Renegade at the Big H
during the mid-70s. It is one of the most productive
flies during late June and through the month of July,
probably imitating caddis and midge larvae and pupae.
It's effectiveness is certainly not limited to Henry's
Lake. The fly has caught fish everywhere I've fished
it. I've had other fly fishermen tell me the fly has
saved the day for them more than once at other lakes
and reservoirs across the intermountain area, and
throughout the Pacific Northwest. ~ Marv
Marv Taylor's books, Float-Tubing The West,
The Successful Angler's Journal,
More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More
Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from
Marv. You can reach Marv by email at
email@example.com or by phone: 208-322-5760.