Actually, the headline is a bit misleading. The whole point of the trip was to go fly fishing; the road to the river simply a means to an end. But then plans were altered such that I would embark on a route that became a road trip worthy of note. Thus I’m posting this entry not so much as an interest to the 3 regular followers of my blog, but rather as a resource to those random internet travellers who may stumble upon this while researching the route from Montana to Idaho over Hoodoo Pass.
My destination was the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. Originally I was going to take the most direct, quickest route and drive to Lewiston, Idaho, up the Clearwater River via Greer and beyond. However, as I researched the matter, it became clear that I should take an extra day and travel a route that had long intrigued me, though I never before had cause to venture that way. This was my first trip to the NF Clearwater, and I decided to take a course that would entail more or less a big loop, without repeating as much of my route as as possible.
The path I chose took me on I-90, eastbound, to Superior, MT. This portion of the journey I’d done dozens of times, though never before actually stopping at Superior. Exit I-90 at Superior, turn right at the off ramp, then follow the frontage road to the left. Stay on this for a couple miles or so and the road makes a right hand bend and becomes Forest Road 250/Diamond Rd/Trout Creek Rd. It’s paved for a couple of miles before transitioning abruptly to a graded forest service road. From Superior to Hoodoo Pass is approximately 25 miles. The road, which was in good shape with only a few sections of teeth-rattling washboards, is wide enough for two vehicles to easily pass in most places. On this Thursday afternoon in mid July I only encountered perhaps a half dozen travelers coming in the opposite direction. Once you reach the summit, you’ll cross into Idaho and begin your descent into the NF Clearwater drainage. From the summit onward the road is not wide enough for two vehicles to pass, but there are occasional pullouts if needed. Rd 250 takes you down Black Canyon, approximately another 29 miles to Kelly Forks. From there, it’s another 44 miles downstream to Aquarius Campground, which is the last campground on the NF Clearwater before exiting the Clearwater National Forest (a few miles before you reach Aquarius, the road turns back to pavement, as you leave the dust in the rear view mirror). Onward down 247 though logging country to Headquarters (a place, not a town), turning right onto Hwy 11 through more logging and wheat farming country toward the towns of Pierce and Wieppe, ID respectively (cool little towns steeped in rich Idaho history). From there, down the steep and winding Greer Grade. This is worth the trip alone and seems to be a popular ride for motorcycles, as there are several Youtube videos of two wheelers riding the grade. At the bottom of the grade, I passed quickly through Greer and past Orofino, ID. From here on it was a familiar drive down Hwy 12 along the Clearwater to Lewiston, up the Lewiston Grade on Hwy 195, past Pullman, WA (Go Cougs!) to Colfax (Taco Time!). From there, westward on Hwy 26 to Vantage, then west on I-90 until returning home to the wet side of WA. It was 969 miles round trip with three stops to let the Man Van drink fuel. Once leaving Superior, I found the entire drive, all the way to Greer, to be very enjoyable. Everything else was familiar territory simply to be gotten through.
There are no photos of the road from Kelly Forks to Aquarius. Imagine, if you will, a dusty, graveled forest service road with ample room for two vehicles to pass; with no harrowing sections or hairpin turns. It’s a well-travelled road suitable for RVs of any size.
I should have—but did not—stop to take photos in Pierce and Wieppe. I had several hours of driving ahead of me and wasn’t thinking about much other than putting miles behind me.
Once at the bottom of Greer Grade, there were no more photos taken for the remainder of the trip, until several hours later when I was in the middle of eastern Washington on Hwy 26…
After bidding rood riddance to Three Dollar Bridge, we made our way toward Twin Bridges, via Ennis. As we pulled into Twin Bridges it became readily apparent that there was less happening on a Sunday night than there had been in the ghost town of Virginia City, which we’d passed through a half hour before. Actually, the weather was a bit lively, as our arrival was just ahead of a storm system that was rolling through the area. Dark clouds brought thunder and rain, adding to the rivers that were already running high. The Big Hole, which we had hoped to fish the next day, had already been approaching flood stage. This didn’t bode well for our hopes of being able to fish that river the next day.
Suffice it to say our hunch was correct: we would not be fishing the Big Hole. We’d fished it the past two years with the guys from 4 Rivers Fishing Company, and rather enjoyed ourselves. We had a sneaking suspicion that the only option would be the Beaverhead, which we had fished back in 2010; a year when it was also the only option. On that day 7 years prior, we fished in an all-day deluge that would have made Forks, WA proud. We caught many large fish and tested the effectiveness of our Gore-Tex jackets. The weather forecast this year didn’t call for rain, but when fishing in Montana one can never be too sure: ‘Plan for the worst, hope for the best’ is the mantra.
The next morning we met up with Chris Knott and Seth McLean, who, as proprietors of 4 Rivers Fishing Company, made up two of our 3 guides for the day. The 3rd “guide” was Joe Willauer, who isn’t a real guide. He used to be, before
selling out and starting a family, which necessitated the financial stability of a real job. Joe is a self-professed ‘hobby guide’ these days, leaving his cubicle and trading in his Dockers for waders on occasion when Seth and Chris are short on actual working guides. Joe and I have been friends for many years and I feel like somewhat of a father figure to him; our resemblance so uncanny that we’re often confused as father and son when we’re together.
The Beaverhead felt like somewhat of a consolation prize, but it was the only game in town. My memory from the first time we’d fished the Beav was limited to the tossing of cumbersome double dropper rigs with split shot (a nightmare to cast). We hadn’t gotten to see much of the river that year due to the rain, which caused a Clark Canyon Creek to puke it’s chocolate bile into the river. We ended up fishing the upper 2 miles twice that day in a desperate attempt to fill our time quotas. At least on this day we should be able to fish much further downstream without repeating water. We hoped it wouldn’t rain, but just in case we all stowed our rain jackets on board our respective boats. Well, most of us did. I was unable to locate my jacket, which was, as it turns out, tucked away safely in Jay Dixon’s boat from 3 days earlier on the Missouri.
It was a foregone conclusion that Marck and Morris would join Chris in his boat: those three have become a wolf pack of sorts, what with Marck and Morris making early Spring trips to fish with Chris the past two years. Jimmy and Goose subjected themselves to the tough love that comes from fishing with Seth, leaving Nash and myself to fight over who would get the back seat of Joe’s boat (I won). It didn’t take long before we all started getting into fish.
Throughout the day the momentum would swing back and forth, with Nash getting hot and landing a few fish while I
sulked cheered him on. Then it would be my turn. But it wasn’t a competition (not officially, anyway) and we had a few instances where we were doubled up. Joe did a remarkably decent job of putting us on fish, despite the fact that he spends more time working a spreadsheet than the oars. The action was pretty consistent, with few fish smaller than 15 inches, mostly browns. Nash took honors in the whitefish category with an impressive specimen.
Apparently Goose had been having a particularly rough time of keeping flies in the water and out of the streamside vegetation. At one point we passed their boat as Seth was re-rigging Goose’s flies. Within a few minutes the profanities echoed off the hills on either side. We glanced upriver to see a rather discontented Goose with his line tight to an overhanging bit of shrubbery. While he may have lost no fewer than 138 flies throughout the day (which Seth patiently and graciously remedied), Goose also caught some nice fish. As did Jimmy.
I’m not sure how well Marck and Morris were doing, but I assumed they were catching fish as well, given that Chris is a working guide, like Seth.
At one point the guides decided to make short work of a fishy-looking stretch of water, powering through it with rods stowed. We raced and played a friendly game of three-way bumper boats; our boat coming out on the short end of the stick (with hands soft and shoulders weak from his day job, Joe just couldn’t keep up with the working guides).
The competitive tomfoolery was fun and all, but why the rush to get past the fishy looking water? Apparently, despite appearances, this section hadn’t been fishing well at all, and our guides were in a hurry to get to “the mud”. I wasn’t sure what they meant by that until we came upon Grasshopper Creek, which was puking reddish-brown mud into the Beaverhead. My first thought was, “Why the hell are we targeting the brown water?” It wasn’t too long before the fish started hammering our flies in the muddy water and the reason became clear. Go figure.
At the end of the day we’d had us a grand old time and caught a bunch of fish. We got to see a lot more of the Beaverhead, and casting the awkward weighted rigs didn’t prove to be as challenging as I remember it to be from years before (though Goose may disagree). It was, by far, the most productive day of our trip; a trip otherwise fraught with high water and largely tight-lipped fish. We managed to dodge any weather bullets and had very pleasant conditions in which to do our thing. Because Montana can throw some curve balls at you any time of the year, I, in particular, was lucky that it didn’t rain on us. Remind me to get my jacket out of Jay’s boat.
Until next year…
Before departing West Yellowstone, the Rangers each handed our cash to Marck as it had been decided that he would be the one to settle up our lodging bill. He took a series of big, deep breaths and, choking back the tears, he bravely entered the office. After a minute—but what undoubtedly felt like eternity to him—Marck emerged, disoriented and gasping for air; his clothes smelling of ammonia. And thus we bade farewell for another year.
Next up: M
y favorite river, the Madison.
Picture this: Standing on the river bank. High-sticking a Pat’s Stone with some version of a San Juan Worm dropper. Watching the three foam indicators intently; waiting, hoping for a twitch that might be a fish but is more than likely a snag that will snap off your dropper. That’s the game on the
Cornhole Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge this time of year.
Runoff was in full swing and the river was, not unexpectedly, as high and dirty as ever. Some would consider these conditions to be unfishable. And yet, I had a confident swagger—or perhaps a false sense of confidence—as we geared up in the parking lot. We were not alone. Far from it on this first Sunday in June, with no fewer than 10 other rigs already there; some would leave and others were arrive during the day. One guy was returning from a morning of apparently catching fish, and as he walked past us he declared with a wide grin on his face, “There’s lots of fish to be caught, boys!”
“Good to hear!” I said, politely, holding back the urge to target his Adam’s Apple with an arc-hand strike.
Our customary team photo was not taken this year, just as it was not taken the previous day on the Firehole. Hadn’t we learned from our mistake by breaking with tradition? Oh, well.
The skies were mostly blue and the forecast called for temperatures near 80F—not a day for waders—so sunscreen (and bug spray) were in order. Last year the weather had been similarly nice, and I’d had my best day on the Madison ever, landing 7 fish. Of course the river was much lower last year, but after several years of catching just a couple, or no fish at all, I felt like I had finally cracked the Madison nut. I didn’t expect to light it up this year, but I had a strong feeling that I’d come tight to at least a couple fish.
I would be wrong.
On lean years I can expect to at least have some company in my misery: Goose. But even he caught a fish this year. Marck and Morris got into a lot of fish by crossing the bridge and going for a long hike upriver.
They’re assholes They certainly can’t be faulted for putting in the effort, but even on years when I’ve made the same, long jaunt, it hasn’t paid off. One year I did manage a couple fish by taking the long journey over the river and upstream, but this style of fishing isn’t even close to my favorite way of spending a day and I wasn’t keen on putting in the great effort for a couple fish. Jimmy and I instead moved on downstream, covering mostly the same water. He caught a couple. Nash had opted to stay on the near side of the river and hike upstream a ways. He also got into a few fish.
I did not.
I loath the
Madison Cornhole Madison and the feeling is, apparently, mutual. I wanted nothing more than to wash my hands of the vile place and move on to the next, and final, river of our trip. I also wanted to wash my boots in the new cleaning station provided. The instructions were simple:
- Wet Your Boots
- Brush Your Boots
- Rinse Your Boots
There is a brush supplied for second step of the task, but one key, missing ingredient was water needed for steps one and three. Granted the river is only a short distance away, but carting river water up the hill to the boot cleaning station, one empty beer can at a time, would take all day. And using the river water to wash one’s boots probably isn’t what the powers-that-be had in mind when they installed the cleaning station. I suppose one could supply a gallon or two of their own fresh, clean water…if they knew in advance that it was required. Apparently nobody did, as I saw not a single person use the cleaning station all day. It is a noble, but flawed, concept.
The day had become quite hot, and as clouds moved in the humidity increased. The combination of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray made for a not-so-fresh feeling. I longed a shower to wash away the smell of the skunking, which stank worse than the office at the Ho Hum.
Good riddance, Three Dollar Bridge. Onward, to Twin Bridges for the last leg of our journey. It couldn’t get much worse, or could it?
If you missed Part 1, you may want to read it first. Then again…
Typically we arrive in West Yellowstone with plenty of time left in the day to purchase our National Park fishing permits and a few flies. For some strange reason, Arrick’s Fly Shop wasn’t open when we arrived at 1 AM (WTH?) so we had to wait until 7 AM the next morning to take care of that business. Given that we hadn’t eaten a huge meal in more than 9 hours, we were absolutely famished by the time we stopped in at the Three Bears (not the Three Bears in Lincoln, FYI) for a hearty breakfast before entering the park. There was more tourist traffic than we typically encounter and, as one can imagine, the backup was long as vehicles waited
patiently for the morning bison commute to thin out. Goose took his wingman role seriously and stayed awake the entire time during the perilous drive.
We finally arrived at Midway Geyser Basin and were lucky to find a couple of parking spots. Tourists buzzed all around the area as we geared up; some were curious foreigners who found what we were doing to be of great amusement. One fellow, who appeared to be a non-foreign tourist, walked past us with what was likely his wife and in-laws and a gaggle of small, raucous children who had recently consumed a breakfast of sugar. With shoulders slumped and an expression of defeat on his face, he glanced forlornly in our direction and muttered softly, “Man, I’m jealous of you guys…” I felt empathy for the guy, and nearly felt guilty for the good fortune of having to not concern myself with anything but catching a plethora of fish for the next several hours.
One thing that has become customary for the Firehole Rangers is the taking of an annual team photo before heading out to ply the waters of our namesake river. It was decided that we would skip that this year, for some reason that I believe was due to our late start and eagerness to get on the water. Whatever the case may have been, it was a break with tradition, and not something I’m sure we’ll ever do again. It should be noted that we were also joined by a guest on this day as Morris had invited his former boss, a man named Billy (not his real name, and not Busdriver Billy from the day before) to accompany us on the Firehole. Billy lives in Bozeman and had never fished the Firehole. No doubt he had heard tales of how incredible the fishing can be—and usually is—on the Firehole. I’m sure he had a skip in his step as we hiked off across the plain toward the river, passing swans and a lone bison bull.
When we got to the river’s edge it was immediately clear that the water was running as high as I’d ever seen it. The Firehole is never always dark and tea colored when we fish it, and this year it was even darker. And the fish would prove to be AWOL for a considerable while. On a good year, the first fish comes on the first or second cast of the day. On a slow year, like last year (read here), it may take 30 minutes before the first fish is enticed to the fly. This year it was at least an hour before I had so much as a bump, and even longer until I came tight to my first fish—a ten inch brown—something that didn’t happen until after I had added a piece of tungsten split shot.
I took a temperature reading of the river and it was only 44° F. Compare that to other years when the temperature is well into the 50’s and one begins to partially understand why the fishing was slow: the trouts were sluggish and disinclined to chase down a swung bug, only grabbing at one when it hit them on the nose. Adding the split shot helped somewhat, but the hookups continued to be few and far between. I tried different flies (something I rarely, if ever, have to do on the Firehole) and ended up being mildly surprised at the results: one rainbow and another brown, neither bigger than 10 inches.
By mid day, having caught only 3 fish, I once again shoved my thermometer into the Firehole:
98.6° F 48° F. Later in the afternoon, after entering a section of the river where there’s a lot of thermal activity (which adds considerable hot water to the Firehole) the temperature topped out at 50° F. The catching never really picked up and by the time I called it a day, the tally was 6 fish: all browns save for one rainbow, and nothing over 10 inches.
When the Rangers reassembled at the end of the day it wasn’t surprising that Marck had once again come out on top of the fish count, although he was well off his typical pace of 278 fish. The other Rangers also experienced very slow catch rates, with nearly everyone in the single digits (Goose may have topped out over 10 because he’d gotten more sleep than anyone else the night before). Unfortunately for our guest Ranger, the Firehole did not put out the welcome mat and he limped home with vastly different impression of the river than I did after my first time.
I’m always the first to admit that there’s more to fishing than just catching fish, an expression coined by someone who didn’t catch (m)any fish that day. But the last 3 years have seen the Firehole fishing much more poorly than all the years prior to that. Pulling UA blog data from the previous years, I was shocked at the results: in 2015 I caught 3 fish; in 2016, 12 fish. Add to that the 2017 count of 6 and it’s beginning to sound a lot like a Dr. Seuss book.
That evening we consumed way too much food, and ample drink, at Wild West Pizzeria in West Yellowstone. We talked of the day and what tomorrow would hold. In the morning we would depart for the
Cornhole Madison River and we promised Guest Ranger Billy that the Madison would be high and off color; that fish would be caught, but it wouldn’t be as easy as it had been on the Firehole. We then spent our second, and final, night at the Ho Hum.
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As you were.