Fly Fishing Wyoming's Ham's Fork River

Updated on June 28, 2019
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CS is an lifelong, obsessive fly fisherman who is forced to work as a fish biologist and conservationist in Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!).

A solid Ham's Fork rainbow who couldn't resist a tiny brown leech.
A solid Ham's Fork rainbow who couldn't resist a tiny brown leech.

The Blank Spot on the Angler's Map

Fly fishing has a bizarre blind spot in the central Rocky Mountains of North America.

It's no secret that there is fantastic trout fishing all along the eastern flank of the Rockies. It seems like there couldn't possibly be anything left to explore. The names of so many legendary rivers flowing in the region are burned into the collective culture of angling. Names like Elk, Yellowstone, Bighorn, Missouri, Frying Pan, Platte, Colorado, San Juan.

But a strange void appears, somewhere between Yellowstone and Yampa. It's as though there is a Black Hole of angling in western Wyoming, and outside of the Green, the region might as well not exist to fly fishing's lore. As if the Rockies don't continue in an unbroken chain, as if ideal trout conditions just vanish for a hundred or so miles.

Why this happens is unclear. Perhaps because there are plenty of distractions that are closer to the major population centers. No need to explore the wastelands of Wyoming, or trek into the high country for a shot at a scraggly golden trout or two.

To those that think this way: Good.

Keep thinking like that. Go shoulder into a run on the Frying Pan with 100 of your closest friends, or join the endless boat parade on the Bighorn. Let me know how much you like that "blue ribbon" experience.

I'll be in the void, and fishing a river that has an average size in the 18"-22" range, is stuffed with wildlife, and I can work all day without seeing a soul (in spite of flowing directly through the town of Kemerer).

I'll be on the Ham's Fork River, and if you are a little fatigued of self-proclaimed "Blue Ribbon" fisheries, you will be too.

Taking in the landscape during a lunch break above the Ham's Fork valley, in late May. Yes, that is snow in the hills. Welcome to the Rockies.
Taking in the landscape during a lunch break above the Ham's Fork valley, in late May. Yes, that is snow in the hills. Welcome to the Rockies.

Lost, Then Found, Then Lost Again

The most interesting thing about this river is that it's been "discovered" before.

A news article in the Denver Post in 2001 proclaimed this river to be an unbelievable small stream, loaded with giant trout and devoid of fisherman. As a result, fly fisherman from Denver and Salt Lake City abruptly flooded the area in a tidal wave of pressure on the fishery. The fishing quality inevitably dropped, the herd moved on to the next Discovery, and the Ham's Faded back into obscurity.

If you fly fish a river for more than a couple years, you already know that rivers change from year to year. Rivers go through good years, bad years, booms and slumps. The spike in pressure drove the river into a decades-long slump, and everyone knew it, or forgot the Ham's existed.

But all slumps end, and I'm happy to announce that the Ham's Fork's Slump is officially over.

The river now may not be Heyday-Quality, but it's an excellent river nonetheless. The average trout size in some sections pushes towards 20" (in fact, it's surprisingly difficult to catch a fish below 15" here), and there are plenty of fish around. The river is neither difficult to access nor generally crowded, and each of the sections offers the angler something slightly different. There's a few locals and guides who fish it, and they all know each other on a first name basis. It's a bit like a lot of now-famous rivers in the west used to be, at least in my imagination.

Sure, there are a few out-of-towners, mostly from the vicinity of Salt Lake, who come confidently strolling in with all the shiniest, newest gear. But more often than not, they leave with their tails between their legs, after watching a local from Kemerer catch a dozen 20" trout in a hole they had been fishing all afternoon with nothing to show for it.

The word is slowly getting out*, but the Ham's seems to remember what the last bunch of Fly Jockeys did to her, and is slow to give up her secrets to those that don't put in the time to pay their dues. If you come here, plan to fish a couple of different stretches, take your time, and do your homework before you go.

You'll be glad you did when it all comes together, and one of the Ham's 23" rainbows decides to put you through the paces.

*Yes, I realize I'm part of the reason word is spreading about the Ham's. I'm okay with spilling the beans though, as the economy of the area could really use a boost (as long is it comes from respectful visitors & tourists). So if I were you, I'd get down there to fish it before the masses arrive, because no river this good stays a secret forever...

Wyoming rainbow trout, ready to head home.
Wyoming rainbow trout, ready to head home.

River Profile: Ham's Fork

The River

The Ham's Fork River tumbles out of the mountains northwest of Kemmerer, WY, eventually wandering through two reservoirs and through the heart of town, before meandering southeast to meet the Green River at Flaming Gorge. Being in the southwest corner of Wyoming, the nearest population center is Salt Lake City, UT, and most anglers fishing the area are from the region.

In spite of flowing through high desert for most of its length, the Ham's hosts a shocking number of large rainbow trout, thanks to the two reservoirs upstream of Kemmerer. The first, Lake Viva Naughton, is the larger and deeper of the two, and is a bottom-release dam, ensuring that the tailwater section is consistently cool throughout the long Wyoming summer, and not frozen solid during the brutal Wyoming winters.

The landscape itself reflects the wildly-variable weather, dominated by tough, gnarled sage, thick willows along the river, and a broad, shrubby canyon holding the rivers curving banks. It's not exactly a pristine-feeling environment, but nevertheless houses a surprising abundance and variety of wildlife, from pronghorn and moose to beavers, grouse, ducks, cranes, and falcons.

Above Viva Naughton, the river is a typical rocky mountain stream, and hosts a typical size range for the region, with a smaller average size of around 12", with some big surprises lurking in its waters (particularly in spring and early summer). This is also easily the least-fished section of the river, so for anglers after true solitude, this one's for you.

Below the first dam, however, is easily the best fish quality in the river. The river winds a relatively short distance before emptying into the smaller second reservoir, Kemmerer Reservoir, and lake-fattened rainbows from Kemmerer run up into the tailwater section to spawn, feed, and seek refuge from warm water. As a result, the average fish size blows the upper river away, with around 18" being the norm. Being so short, the expectation is that you would have to shoulder into the river for a few feet of river to fish, but even at its busiest, it can't come close to the crowds at places like the Frying Pan or Henry's Fork. That said, don't expect to have it to yourself, but the meandering character of the river means you aren't likely to see too many people on the river even if they're there.

The Ham's Fork leaves Kemmerer Reservoir from a small top-release dam, from which it winds all the way to the Green. This section is best fished before the heat of the summer, and generally not a whole lot lower than Kemmerer, as increased water temperatures take their toll on rainbow trout that wander too far downstream. Browns can hold out a bit longer, and there are some absolute alligators lurking in this section. There are some great fish, the access is easy, and there are a lot of river miles to fish, so don't be shy of devoting a couple days to this stretch too.

Access

Most of the Ham's Fork flows through private land, but is still shockingly easy to access in spite of this. This is mostly due to the generosity of ranchers and landowners that agree to allow public access points on their land, and upstream of Kemmerer there are many well-signed access points. There are allowances in most cases that anglers can work upstream and downstream in the river, as long as they don't wander away from the river. If you go, respect the fact that this is a privilege, and careless use could easily change a landowner's mind.

Access to the section between the two reservoirs is a bit more complex, but doable. There is a public access pullout and ladder over the fence just above where the river flows into Kemmerer Reservoir, and this doesn't take any particular preparation to use. Closer to the Viva Naughton dam, access can be granted for a quick $5 payment to the landowner, which opens up the upper half of this section, and almost all the way up to the base of the dam.

Flies & Hatches

Just as in all cold, rich tailwaters in the west, aquatic life in the Ham's Fork is varied and abundant. The rainbows and browns that call this area feast on the same general assortment of mayflies and caddisflies found in most streams in the Rockies, with Baetis and PMD's being some of the most abundant and important.

Generally, though, this is not an overly technical river. Larger stoneflies, streamers, and a variety of attractor nymphs will generally do well here. During the spring and early summer, egg flies can also be dynamite, as well as the spring creek standbys of scuds, sowbugs, and leeches. While dry fly action is definitely possible at any time, come mentally prepared for a day of subsurface fishing.

Particularly downstream of Kemmerer Reservoir where the largest browns live, streamer fishing is a great tactic, both stripped and dead-drifted under an indicator. If you manage to move one of these alpha predators out of their lair, be prepared for a nasty brawl, as they don't turn in without throwing themselves under log snarls, weeds, and through the Ham's ever-present overhanging willows. You won't catch as many fish with streamers, but the ones you do hook will be solid fish, and possibly just a little scary.

When in doubt on the Ham's Fork, experiment. These fish see enough pressure to not be pushovers, but not so much that they're totally unwilling to sample a decently-presented fly. No obsessing over that perfect color of Size 24 midge pupae; if you're prepared for any "Blue Ribbon" stream in the west, you're likely ready for the Ham's too.

Of course, landing these fish once you hook them is a completely different story...

Fly Fishing the Southern Rockies: Small Streams and Wild Places
Fly Fishing the Southern Rockies: Small Streams and Wild Places

For anyone heading into The Angler's Wyoming Blindspot, this book seems to get it right more than the rest. Lots of fun places and ideas to explore are detailed out in this book.

 
The Ham's Fork may not be winning any beauty pageants anytime soon, but the abundant, large trout that call it home just might.
The Ham's Fork may not be winning any beauty pageants anytime soon, but the abundant, large trout that call it home just might.

Worthy Distraction: Fossil Fishing

The town of Kemmerer has a couple of other claims to fame. Besides being the official birthplace of JC Penny, Kemmerer is also the base camp for fossil junkies from all over the world, thanks to its placement near a prehistoric lakeshore loaded with 52-50 million year-old fossils. In fact, this is the same formation on which Fossil Butte National Monument now sits.

While digging fossils in the Monument is strictly forbidden, there are several landowners in the area that run fossil quarries open to the general public. These areas allow visitors to pay an hourly fee to split shale removed from the hillside in search of fish, stingray, turtle, crocodile, and even bird and mammal fossils (though these are extremely rare).

Even a small complete fossil of the most common fish, Knightia, is worth about $30-50 in a rock shop, and few hours of fossil hunting will definitely yield more than a few of these. You're allowed to keep anything you find (unless it's an extremely rare or valuable fossil, in which case you have to pay a fee to the quarry to keep it), and are sure to find enough fossils to make up for the steep hourly digging fees.

If you decide to fish the Ham's Fork, a morning at one of the quarries is well worth your time. And besides, it also means you can take home some fish from the region to put on your wall without hurting the fishing for the next wave of anglers to "discover" this well-hidden gem.

If you can tear yourself away from the river for a day, searching for 50 million-year-old fossil fish is a great way to get a memorable trophy from your trip.
If you can tear yourself away from the river for a day, searching for 50 million-year-old fossil fish is a great way to get a memorable trophy from your trip.
And here's the prize: a Knightia fossil in good condition, found while "fishing" through the prehistoric lakebed with a chisel and hammer...
And here's the prize: a Knightia fossil in good condition, found while "fishing" through the prehistoric lakebed with a chisel and hammer...

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