Faces of Fly Fishing: René Harrop

"I was created professionally by the river, and my identity continues to be defined by its influence."

René Harrop is a name synonymous with the Henry’s Fork and Idaho fly fishing as a whole. René has spent decades on his home waters, first as a child infatuated with the trout that swam it, and then as a true stakeholder in the fishery via various fly fishing businesses he has been involved with ranging from fly shops to a commercial fly tying business. In addition to that, René has had an immeasurable impact on fly fishing culture at large via his many published articles and books focusing on fly fishing. Earlier this year we had the incredible opportunity to sit down with René while filming for Airflo Fly Lines and decided we needed to dig a little deeper into this living legend of Western fly fishing.

Check out our interview with René, below!

Flylords: You and your wife Bonnie have been designing and tying flies commercially your whole fly fishing career. What was it like starting that business prior to the internet age?

René: Finding a market for our flies was the biggest challenge in the late nineteen sixties when we started our business.

It began as a part-time venture and our customers were the poolhalls and filling stations along the route to Yellowstone. Will Godfrey’s operation was the first specialty shop and guide service on the Henry’s Fork and we began supplying him with flies shortly after that business was established.

In the early nineteen-seventies, our attention shifted from traditional patterns to original designs directed specifically to the Henry’s Fork and its hatches. Eventually, our tying began to gain attention from outside the Yellowstone area, and soon we found ourselves working full time in that trade.

For seventeen years, the Orvis Company purchased all the flies we were willing to provide, although we also maintained other dealers in Idaho and Montana.

By the late nineteen eighties, mass-produced flies from other countries gained dominance in the wholesale picture, and the domestic cottage industry that had occupied that role for decades essentially vanished.

Following the lead of tyers like Al Troth, Jay, and Cathy Buchner, my family found survival in the mail-order business that relied on a printed catalog for retail distribution. However, we also maintained several wholesale accounts as well. Today, we still supply TroutHunter, Silver Creek Outfitters, and Yellowstone Angler with relatively small quantities of original designs at wholesale.

Naturally, the internet brought great advancement in accessing a worldwide market where talented individual craftsmen can distribute their product at prices that allow the professional fly tyer to exist in the twenty-first century.

Photo from René Harrop

Flylords: You’ve been involved in fly fishing writing for decades. How have you seen fly fishing media change during your life?

René: Over the five-plus decades in which I have written for publication, the first three were most comfortable for one who continues to create material with a ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad. During that period the attention of both the sport and industry was owned by specialty printed publications that began to proliferate in the early 1970s.

As the primary source of information and entertainment, magazines like Fly Fisherman were exerting tremendous influence over attitudes within the fly-fishing community that was not equaled by any other medium.

Sadly, the prime market for writers has not held up under the pressure of high production cost and the diversion of advertising dollars to online publishing.

With nearly eight decades of living now behind, I remain computer resistant in a fast-paced world where attention span is short and patience a somewhat rare commodity.

From the beginning, Bonnie has converted my hand-written text into a suitable form for submission for publication, and her fingerprints are on every story I have ever written. Today, most of my writing is directed toward an audience quite different than in the early years when the flame of professional ambition burned much brighter. Appearing online as regular blogs for several commercial websites, the stories are shorter and more dependent upon photos than in the past. When combined with my own sponsored blog that appears weekly on my Facebook page, I am actually producing more written material than at any other time. And, of course, Bonnie handles all computer duties related to this business.

It is only occasionally that I produce a feature-length article for publication in print. And these are as likely to appear in one of several solid magazines in Japan or Europe as in an American publication.

While magazine opportunity has been substantially pared down in recent years, I believe that a capable writer with a good story can still find a landing place in the glossy pages that still have a place in the society of fly fishing.

“Trout Hunter” is just one of René’s many works in the world of fly fishing print media.

Flylords: Do you prefer writing books, print articles, or blogs more? What do you like about each medium?

René: I have always enjoyed the ability to craft a detailed story that leans toward the natural end of things. I am mostly helpless in the world of technology with respect to its role in the modern picture of fly fishing. My writing almost invariably will reveal a connection to tradition, and that has created a degree of resistance from those who follow a different playbook.

Print articles continue to provide the best format for a deliberately created project that may require 15 to 20 hours to complete. To some extent, they are more permanent than a computer-generated product, but this may be of importance only to the writer.

Books are perhaps most valuable in the role of preserving history. For me, writers of past generations are the wisdom keepers of our sport, and the loss of their contribution would be tragic.

Unfortunately, the words of some of the most talented and knowledgeable individuals I have ever known were not recorded in book form during their lifetime. Therefore, subsequent generations are deprived of sharing the abilities and accomplishments of such notable authorities as Andre’ Puyans, Al Troth, and a host of others that participated in laying the groundwork for the modern age of fly fishing.

I view writing a book as fulfilling an obligation to share with others that which may be too helpful to keep to one’s self. As the beneficiary of guidance and assistance of those who came before, I hope my own books can serve as a form of repayment for the generosity received from those masterful writers of the past.

An international spotlight shines on Yellowstone country, which has been my lifelong homeland. The blogs I provide to brands like Airflo in Europe, Maverick in Japan, and TroutHunter in the U.S. reach readers from around the world and are focused fully on fly fishing. Posted monthly, they provide a window of current happenings on legendary waters both moving and still.

My personal blog is a weekly post that reads more like a journal. Fishing, of course, is the most frequent subject but other aspects of life in this magical country are also included.

In large part, motivation to continue writing comes from the amazing number of individuals that are reached by those words and whom respond with encouraging comments of approval. Over time, I have concluded that we live by the grace of the people, and blogs provide a way of expressing gratitude to those we might not otherwise reach.

Flylords: What fly fishing authors have had lasting influences on your writing? Who inspires you?

René: Though the rate of growth has slowed considerably in recent years, the books in my personal library number in the hundreds. All authors have my respect but a handful have exerted a profound influence in my growth as both a fly fisherman and writer.

From the distant past are names like A.J. McClane and Joe Brooks whose words were delivered in the pages of Field and Stream and Outdoor Life on a monthly basis. Books from those great masters date back to the 1960s and are among the oldest in my collection.

It was near the end of that decade that Ernest Schwiebert entered the picture and like Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, we became acquainted while fishing on the Henry’s Fork before his books made their way into my library.

The words from these impressive men carried great weight due to their authentic knowledge and skill, and the path of learning they inspired is ongoing.

The most inspiring volume in my possession is “The Complete Fly Fisherman”, containing the notes and letters of Theodore Gordon. It was published by the Theodore Gordon Fly Fishers in 1970 and was edited by John McDonald.

Gordon’s connection to the natural world of trout was the most penetrating message to a young angler just beginning to appreciate the traditions established in the late 19th century.

Considered the patron saint of American fly fishing, Theodore Gordon’s legacy lives as a lasting influence in preserving our sport in its purest form. In my opinion, “The Complete Fly Fisherman” should be required reading for anyone holding more than a passive interest in the history of fly fishing.

Photo from René Harrop

Flylords: Where do you go when you need to find inspiration for a piece of writing?

René: Like anyone else living in these rather turbulent times, I can find clearing my head of distracting clutter the most vital aspect of creating a good piece. This problem becomes most prominent in winter when reduced time on the water permits accumulated mental distraction. Fortunately, I am never more than a few minutes from the Henry’s Fork where a few places are always accessible for meditative purposes regardless of the season.

My nearly seven decades of fly-fishing experience expands by at least one hundred days each year. With this resource, subject matter for fishing-related stories is not in short supply.

Additionally, an active, diverse, and largely unrestrained life allows expansion of topics that serve a useful purpose in the continual production of written material when a close-knit family is also included, inspiration for communicative writing is basically constant.

Flylords: Your name and fly patterns have become synonymous with the Henry’s Fork. How did you first become acquainted with the river? When did you know that it would become such a fixture in your life?

René: As home to my native ancestors, Henry’s Fork country has an instinctive connection to my existence. I was born into a fishing family in 1945 and began fly fishing on the Henry’s Fork at age nine. While other great waters nearby are attractive, the Henry’s Fork has held my deepest affection for as long as I can remember.

Our fly tying is largely an extension of our personal fishing and the concepts carry worldwide relevance. In that sense, I was created professionally by the river, and my identity continues to be defined by its influence.

Photo from René Harrop

Flylords: How has the Henry’s Fork changed in your lifetime? The culture of the river? The quality of fishing?

René: Like all other rivers, the Henry’s Fork has been pressured by factors mostly related to human activity. Development upstream from the famed Harriman Ranch has created water quality issues that probably exist as the greatest threat to the fishery.

While still remarkably prolific in terms of its aquatic hatches, the diversity has been noticeably reduced over the past decade or so.

Another concern is a troubling reduction of Rocky Mountain Whitefish and what that might mean to the trout population moving forward. It is puzzling to me that this native species does not receive the attention applied by fishery managers and conservation organizations to the Yellowstone Cutthroat. As an indicator species, the humble whitefish could be viewed as the canary in the mine with respect to the future of the Henry’s Fork and other water where their decline is being observed.

Over time, the unique resilience of the Henry’s Fork has been demonstrated in its ability to sustain a healthy trout population through periods of extreme hardship. As a result, the river has largely escaped the peaks and valleys experienced by other prominent fisheries that have not weathered modern difficulty to the same degree.

The Henry’s Fork culture remains intact and, in fact, has expanded to include a remarkable number of foreign members among its ranks. Many of these regular visitors have become treasured friends and one of the strongest personal impacts of Covid-19 has been the two-year separation from those residing outside the U.S. Among my greatest hopes for 2022 is a grand reunion with those missing faces and the resumption of relationships as important to me as any resident.

Flylords: You’ve seen the West shift dramatically in your lifetime, especially where fly fishing is concerned. What changes for the better have you seen? For the worse?

René: For most of my years of living in the Rocky Mountain west, nearly every visitor who came to fish would return to a home lying elsewhere, but that has changed within the new millennium. In recent times, a sizable percentage of those who visit do not leave. Once sleepy little towns have been converted to bustling population centers that no longer reflect the traditional western lifestyle.

In Bozeman, Montana, for example, growth has occurred at such a rapid pace as to be nearly unrecognizable to one who had not been there since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Elsewhere, farms and ranchland continue to shrink as housing developments consume more and more of the rural landscape.

With COVID-19 came a mass exodus to the western states where a relatively sparse population and outdoor activities provided a safer environment than in heavily congested states where transmission of the virus ran rampant.

Even those who do not stay bring disruption to the free movement once enjoyed by locals unaccustomed to restraint. For example, lines waiting to enter Yellowstone National Park can stretch for nearly a half-mile back into the town of West Yellowstone. With the road choked by heavy tourist traffic inclined to stop for any sighting of wildlife, a drive to fish the Fire Hole River can require as many as two hours despite lying only twenty miles or so inside the park gate.

Like the roads, traffic on our rivers and lakes has become busier to the point of being problematic in some locations and times. With float fishing gaining vast popularity, conflict on popular stretches of water is not unusual as river manners have not evolved at a rate required for overall harmony.

The upside of increased interest in fly fishing has been an enlargement in the fly-fishing industry. More jobs and business prosperity create a stronger economic argument for improved consideration of fish-friendly management of water.

Photo from René Harrop

Flylords: What is one hope you have for the future of fly fishing and American fly fishing culture?

René: Fly fishing and water quality are inextricably connected when the future of the sport is considered. The same applies to streamflow, which in recent years has been perilously impacted by drought.

Survival of living water is fully dependent upon measures applied to the moderation of climate change as well as pollution-related to human activity.

As fly fishers, we cannot stand idly on the sidelines as freshwater fisheries continue to deteriorate. My hope is that an active environmental conscience can be the universal bonding agent for the broad and diverse fly-fishing culture.

René’s signature No Hackle PMD

Flylords: If you could only throw one fly on the Henry’s, what pattern would it be?

René: As a man whose fishing vest typically bears the weight of more than a dozen fly boxes, it would be impossible to select one pattern as a favorite. I do, however, hold a special fondness for a single hatch. Pale Morning Duns are a factor on the Henry’s Fork nearly every day from late May through early September. No other insect event carries more intrigue or offers more intellectual challenge than these complex little mayflies that thrive in the Henry’s Fork and other streams where water purity meets their survival requirements. For a man who has never forsaken a deep connection to the original traditions of American fly fishing, nothing exceeds the stimulation of engaging a PMD hatch on the river that continues to shape me as an angler and a man.

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