For all these years the Marathon has taken place on the first Tuesday after the Summer Solstice because that’s been my day off for twenty-three years. On the very first one I was a young buck with young friends and we left the parking lot at 5 a.m. and fished until 11:15 p.m.! We never stopped for anything other than snacks and cigars. In fact, at that age I remember our snacks consisted of chips and warm beer. Such long hours went on for many of the early Marathons, but the last five or so years the hours have been more civilized with parking lot departures of 7 a.m. and returns of 10 p.m. – still plenty of fishing. Some years there have been as many as ten of us while others had a mere three or four. Regardless of who came over the years, the end result is one of my most enjoyable fishing days of the year.
I’ve also kept pretty good track of catch rates and river conditions. The best Marathon was about fifteen years ago. The Ranch was full of fish that were transplanted from Island Park Reservoir when it was drained to kill Utah Chubs. On that Marathon I landed a remarkable twenty-three truly big fish. A fish is not even noted during the Marathon unless it tops eighteen inches. Unfortunately like the steroid years in Major League Baseball, that year definitely has an asterisk. On a normal year, the average catch on the Marathon is three fish. Last year was my toughest in recent history with one twenty-incher of which I did not catch until 9:30 p.m.
By 10 a.m. I was two miles in and hadn’t made a cast. There were no fish rising and in the Ranch you don’t blind fish. Finally, I saw my first rise at 10:15, much later than normal for June 22 on the Ranch. I waited fifteen minutes or so but the fish never rose again. I hoofed it another twenty minutes to the center of the Ranch where you find Cattleman’s Bridge. Another thirty minutes walk downstream of Cattleman’s Bridge is the famous Millionaire’s Pool. Between Cattleman’s Bridge and Millionaire’s Pool is one of the least fished sections of the Ranch. I walked downstream for about ten minutes then got comfortable on a high bank that has held fish in years past. Sure enough, I barely dug my water bottle from my pack when out in front of me a nice rainbow sipped down one of the first insects of the day. I chomped down some chicken and observed. This was by no means a feeding frenzy, but about every five or so minutes the fish rose gently, barely breaking the surface of the slow moving river.
I had the same ant on that caught me a nice fish in the Ranch on Saturday morning. I figured if it worked on Saturday why not start with it today. I waded near the trout to make my presentation. On the Henry’s Fork, I prefer to cast down-and-across to the fish. What this means is I stand upstream and away from the fish. Then I land my fly upstream of him and past him. Then I slide my dry fly into his feeding lane by raising my rod. Once I think it’s just right, I lower my rod and feed my fly to the fish. I do this repeatedly until I’m sure the rainbow gets a few good looks. A couple good drifts without an eat and I change my fly.
It was trout one, Currier nothing. Not the way I wanted to start my Marathon, but that’s the Ranch. By now there was a full blown hatch of Pale Morning Duns, March Browns, Baetis and a spattering of caddis. Theoretically it should have been easy to stumble upon another rising fish but it took at least hour of walking downstream. This next fish had a body guard. Body guards are small trout feeding ridiculously close to the larger trout that you want to catch. The fear here is that when you present your fly to the big fish, the smaller fish will beat him to it and when you hook him he will scare away the fish you want to catch. The strategy is don’t set the hook on the smaller fish. Let him swat at it till he realizes it isn’t real and doesn’t eat it again. Then you have a chance at the big guy. Sure enough, despite knowing what to do, on my first cast the dink ate my fly and I stupidly set the hook and caught the ten inch rainbow. And sure enough while fighting the body guard I spooked the larger trout.
At 3 Granny met up with me just above the Millionaires Pool, just when I found my next sizable rising fish. I set her up with a PMD and had her cast to him. On her third cast the trout ate her fly and she set the hook and missed him. That was that. We had lunch and a beer then she headed back. The hatch was over and there weren’t even small trout to cast too. I continued my walk downstream to a favorite area just above the Osborne Bridge and miraculously found some small trout to cast to. They were feeding on left over cripples and spent mayflies that hatched earlier in the day. I landed several of them and at 6 began my long four mile hike back.
The Ranch on a summer night is one of the most incredible places on Earth. Remarkably, I walked most of it tonight without seeing another single angler. That made it even better than usual. The only problem was there were no feeding fish. Usually the famous Bonefish Flats section always has at least a few rising monsters even when there’s no hatch. But tonight there were none.
At 9 p.m. I was a mile from finished and I still hadn’t caught a big fish. In all the years of doing the Marathon I’ve always got at least one big fish. I had to get one. Last year I was in the very same position and one of my favorite little nooks in the Ranch saved me. So all business, I headed to my spot.
I think there was a mere two anglers in the entire Ranch tonight and sure enough, they were both staked out in my promising location. From the distance I could see both dudes were casting to actively rising fish. Darn! I was too late. You might think if the trout are rising here, they must be everywhere, but that’s not always a guarantee. My little honey hole is like a gigantic back eddy where insect debris accumulates throughout the day. Big lazy hawgs like to swim into the area late at night and clean up what insects are left.
At 9:45 I was starved. I was exhausted and my legs were shot. Walking in waders and straining your eyes for fifteen hours takes its toll. I knew Granny was patiently waiting at the parking lot. I was sure she was starved too and she’d kill me if we missed dinner at Trout Hunter that stops serving at 11. There was also a massive thunderstorm brewing and headed our way. A skunk on the Marathon was a tough thing to swallow. I had about a ten minute walk left. As I covered the ground I scanned every inch of the bank, every rock and every slick where I’ve caught big fish before. But it was over. The fish had gone to bed, the thunder was overhead and the rain started to fall.
When I hobbled into the lot, sure enough, Granny was waiting. It was nearly dark and the rain fell harder. As I handed her my rod to put away she asked me if I finally landed a pig. When I told her I hadn’t she replied, “You were out there for nearly fifteen hours you crazy ****. I’ll bet you’re about done with this “Marathon” thing.”
“Ha”, I responded, “not a chance. Today was the best day I’ve had in a year.” And I meant it. The Ranch of the Henry’s Fork is a serious sickness and although most fly fisherman don’t understand it, getting an ass-kicking on the Ranch is what I live for. I’ll admit, a blank on the Marathon is a disappointment, but I knew I wouldn’t make it through life without one. It’s time for a few days to catch up on my art and then be ready for a report from the Big Hole. It will be nice to sit in a boat for a few days, cast big dry flies to the bank and day dream about walking the Ranch.