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Welcome to the final (thank god) installment of a five part series—it’s almost over. Did you even read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 yet?

After the beat down on the Cornhole Madison, we drove 4 hours to Rock Creek, with a quick stop along the way in Deer Lodge for a bite to eat. Deer Lodge is actually a pretty interesting place because right in the middle of town is the Old Montana Prison (known as the Montana’s Territorial Prison when the first inmate was incarcerated in 1871). The facility hasn’t provided three squares a day for inmates since the late 1970′s, nor was there much to choose from as far as eating establishments elsewhere in town. We did manage to find a joint that was open and horked down a meal that was barely a notch above prison food before continuing on our way.

Buy some balls.

Twenty miles east of Missoula lies Rock Creek. It’s a place, not a town, despite having a Clinton, MT designation (Clinton is actually a few miles west). Interesting to note is that in this small settlement you have a couple of very well known establishments: Rock Creek Lodge, home of the famous Testicle Festival; and the Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile. Inside the bar at Rock Creek Lodge you’ll find a handful of what appear to be locals, playing pool and pinball and drinking (this is not your Columbia PFG crowd). The wall behind the bar is adorned with a wide variety of interesting signs and stickers, my favorite of which being the one that says, “I don’t care that you fly fish”.  A quarter mile up the road you find the renowned “Merc” which does indeed care that you fly fish and exists because you do. Flowing just behind both establishments is Rock Creek—the legendary Rock Creek—another of Montana’s storied blue ribbon trout streams. Upon arriving at our destination we stopped for a beer at the Rock Creek Lodge before checking into our cabins at the Merc (shop was closed; keys were under the mats).

Buy some flies.

The first time the Rangers fished Rock Creek was in 2008 when we weren’t even known as the Firehole Rangers and our current assembly of corps hadn’t yet been fully assembled. That first visit was during peak runoff, on a year when there had been plenty of snow (unlike this year). We probably shouldn’t have been catching fish that year because we probably shouldn’t have been on the water. But alas we were and we did: lots of big water, lots of medium-sized fish, despite that we were too early for the salmonfly hatch that year. The second time we fished Rock Creek was in June 2014. We’d only been home for couple of weeks after returning from the annual pilgrimage to the Firehole when Marck, Morris and I went for a long weekend. It would appear, in going thru my records, that I didn’t write about that trip. I reckon there wasn’t much to write about. We were there during the peak of the golden stone hatch but fish were only wanting a Purple Haze. I didn’t discover this until the last day when it was all but too late to change the outcome of the weekend.

Morris, Nash, Goose and Jimmy proudly(?) displaying their Ranger shirts

The good news, this year, was that we had timed our arrival perfectly. We talked with a guide who had just gotten off the river and he told us the salmonflies were working their way upstream and we could expect to encounter the giant stoneflies at about mile 30 up Rock Creek Road. The salmonflies begin popping on the lower river and work their way upstream as the days/weeks progress. It was decided that we would drive to the big bugs in the morning.

High octane fuel to start a long day on Rock Creek.

There’s not a lot at Rock Creek other than the Merc, the Testicle Lodge and Ekstrom’s Stage Station. But there is, of all things, a coffee stand right outside the cabins where we stayed: good coffee, too. After breakfast we piled into the Soccer Mom Express and proceeded up Rock Creek Road. The first 8 or so miles are paved; after that the road turns to dirt and potholes, although being early in the season the road was still in pretty good shape. Good thing, too, because with the weight of 6 guys in an already-low-slung mini van, it could have gone badly had the road been in worse condition. After what seemed like an hour (because it was) we arrived at the river access near the Morgan-Case Homestead (interesting story behind that—stop by and read the signboard next time you’re up that way). We geared up and packed our Gore-tex jackets—rain was forecasted. I had intentionally left my lucky fishing hat back at the cabin because it doesn’t accommodate the hood of a rain jacket as well as a ball cap, and frankly it hadn’t proven to be lucky the day before (stupid hat, anyway). We hiked a short ways to the river and spread out; Marck and I heading upstream while the others moved down. Before we had even gotten to our first run I heard Goose yell, “I got one!”  That didn’t take long and it gave me hope that it would be a good day.

Up Shit Rock Creek without a paddle.

The river looked nothing like it had in 2008, when it was a raging torrent of chocolate milk, and while it was still flowing plenty fast, good visibility was in ample supply and we didn’t have to stand far back in the bushes to fish. That said, at these flows wading was not much of an option so reaching good water was a challenge. Fishing was a bit slow to get started: I was using a salmonfly dry pattern with a SJW dropper. After an hour I had one 10″ brown to hand that ate the dropper. Marck hooked his first ever bull trout about the same time, making Rock Creek the first river on which we’d each caught a bull trout (mine came in 2008, and was a lot bigger).

We hadn’t been at it for more than a half hour before the weather took a rapid turn for the worse: the wind came from downstream with little warning and we could see a squall blowing rapidly in our direction. In the time it took to remove our jackets from our packs and put them on, the rain was upon us; blowing sideways. Fortunately it didn’t persist for more than 20 minutes before the clouds parted. Despite that the we had dry conditions for the remainder of the day, a dark cloud continued to follow me around.

A load of bull for Marck.

No fish were rising and no bugs were out and about. In fact we didn’t see many of the big bugs until much later in the day, and even then they weren’t prolific. The fish weren’t keying in on them either, which field research confirmed: we tossed a few live bugs into the river and watched them flutter as they floated downstream without a single fish rising to take them.

Protein a’plenty.

I tried several different dry varitions of a salmonfly but I had zero takes. Big ones and slightly less big ones; bright orange ones and less brightly orange ones. Not even a tasty looking Cat Puke could rise a fish. All I could surmise was that the fish had seen and eaten so many of the big stoneflies recently that they were absolutely stuffed and they couldn’t eat another bite (reference Mr. Creosote, Month Python’s Meaning of Life). That, and/or we were simply in the wrong place. A few rafts drifted past during the day, casting to the opposite bank, and we observed several of the boat anglers catching fish as they cast their bugs under overhanging branches. So apparently there were fish in the river willing to eat, but most of the good water appeared to be on the opposite bank, far out of our reach: there was no wading across at these flows so we made do with what we could. I tried different ant patterns, a golden stone dry, different droppers…all to no avail. In retrospect I probably should have tried pulling a streamer through some deeper holes.

As the day droned on and the fishing remained painfully slow (for me anyway), I had plenty of time to appreciate the surrounding beauty. Rock Creek flows through a narrow canyon carved into the Sapphire Mountains and if the fishing had been good I may not have taken the time to appreciate where I was. However, I was there to catch fish and because I wasn’t catching fish, some of the natural luster wore off by afternoon.

Another beautiful place in Montana.

I slowly moved downstream, all the while trying to convince myself that my luck would change, until I came to a spot where I saw 3 moose on the opposite shore. They were most likely a safe distance away and fortunately none were cows with calves. But I don’t really like seeing moose when I’m alone in the wilderness and I’m not afraid to admit that their presence put me on edge. Had I been distracted by catching fish I may not have even noticed the moose; but since I wasn’t, I did. I glanced around to find the nearest climbable tree but when nothing promising could be found I moved away from the spot and headed back upstream toward the main trail from the road. Shortly thereafter I ran into Nash, Jimmy and Morris: all had been catching fish and none had noticed the moose. Morris barely slowed down to exchange words: he seemed to be on a mission as he aggressively worked through water that I had just fished. I tried to warn him that there were no fish there, just as he hooked up with and broke off a nice fish before continuing upstream at a frantic pace, changing flies in mid stride as he focued intently on the next piece of promising water. Nash drifted a fly through some water I had just passed through a half hour earlier. Before I could tell him he was wasting him time he landed a fish. Screw this—it was 3 pm when I finally walked back to the truck mini van, climbed out of my waders and broke down my rod. And reached for a cold Vitamin R from the cooler.

The sign offers false hope that anglers can expect to catch a Rock Creek Grand Slam.

After an hour the others began to trickle in. The fishing had been tough for almost everyone but nobody had caught just a single fish, other than me. Goose managed to land 6 fish and, due to having been distracted by soggy feet, missed the hook set on about 20 more. Morris caught “more than anybody else!” by landing about 20 fish, including 4 out of 5 of the Grand Slam species. Jimmy only remembers catching a brookie and some others. Nash recalls catching 6 or so, but “had a hard time seeing the size 4 salmonfly dries” he was throwing (I think he was being sarcastic). Marck declined to weigh in with his fish total, but I know he caught at least a bull trout (undoubtedly many more other trouts as well). If you count all the fish caught by everyone, collectively we got the Slam: bull trout, rainbow, brown, brookie, and westslope cutthroat. And a bonus whitey.

I stood idly by while the others talked of their fishing prowess and geared down for the last time on the trip. For Goose, this was a welcome end to having spent the past 5 days wearing leaky waders. As he removed his foot from the custom garbage bag liner I snapped a quick photo and made what may have been some sort of wise-ass comment. “F#ck you!” he said, offering a familiar hand gesture, “You’re not going to make fun of me on your damn blog.”

I would never do that.

His waders may have leaked, but he caught more fish than me.

 

And so the annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers is in the books and, other than a single day on the Big Hole, it’s one I’d just as rather forget. If I wanted to get my ass handed to me I could stay much closer to home, wear my lucky fishing hat, and spend a day on the Yakima.

But at least my waders didn’t leak.

 

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Please note: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 precede this drivel. It’s your option, but I recommend reading those parts first.

 

The Madison at Three Dollar Bridge is a deceptively welcoming place.

The Big Hole. The Firehole. And now my nemesis: The Cornhole Madison.  With one of the prettiest backdrops imaginable, the Madison lures me in each year with its beauty, then kicks me where it counts. That river never treats me with much respect excepting perhaps last year when I caught 6 fish, which exceeded my total catch rate from the previous 5 years by 2 fish. That’s right—in the years from 2009 to 2013 I caught a grand total of 4 fish on the Madison (on some of those years not a single fish, while on other years as many as 2). Last year was an exception rather than the norm, and while I thought perhaps 2014′s outing might be the great slumpbuster, it turns out to have been merely a freak occurrence. If you’re really bored you can read about my first encounter with the Madison in 2009. That was a foreshadowing of my jaded relationship with that river.

The road to the Cornhole River

Bidding farewell Saying good riddance to the Firehole, we departed West Yellowstone after a stop at Blue Ribbon Flies for some bugs and intel. Jimmy may have also bought a new hat, bringing his total to no fewer than 5. As we drove along the shores of Hebgen Lake toward Three Dollar Bridge, the weather looked iffy. Rain was forecasted for later in the afternoon but it appeared we might get an early dousing. Thusfar on the trip we’d had favorable weather for avoiding rain jackets despite that it did rain every night of our trip. As we exited the mountains and descended into the Madison Valley the skies cleared and it was evident we were in for another fair day. We arrived in the parking lot where a couple of other cars were already parked. Sometimes we have the river to ourselves, but given the lower than normal flows the Madison had allegedly been fishing quite well and it was no surprise to find other anglers with the same idea as us. We geared up before taking our traditional team photo.

Team Photo, Take One.

As the designated photographer I carefully placed my camera on the hood of Jimmy’s truck, set the self timer, and promptly tripped while hurriedly attempting to get into the photo within the allotted 10 seconds. That blunder should have been a foreshadowing of the day to come, but I got up, dusted myself off and managed to get it right the second time around. Note to self: never stand next to the giant of the group.

Team Photo, Take Two.

After the ass kicking on the Firehole, during which my lucky fishing hat was intentionally left behind in the truck, I did not want to tempt fate again and so began the day by confronting the Madison head-on with the old stand-by lid atop my noggin. Marck, followed closely by Morris, headed across the bridge to the south side of the river while Nash and Goose fished upstream on the near side. Jimmy and I set off in the opposite direction to see about finding some decent water and willing fish downstream. Usually I fish above the bridge, but we’d received reliable intel that there was good water in that direction—we just had to walk quite a ways to find it. We bypassed a fair amount of water that doesn’t look particularly enticing before dropping off the trail to the river’s edge. Angling as we went, we plied the water at a few likely spots near the bank and deliberately worked our way downstream.

Jimmy confronts the Madison temptress

Putting the double rigged Turd/SJW dropper in front of, behind, and on both sides of the large rocks yielded nada, for me anyway: Jimmy had a fish or two in the first hour. As we continued our downstream jaunt we encountered another angler, also moving in the same direction as the river’s current. Rather than following in his footsteps I decided to hold back and work through some of the water we’d already fished. The plan was to be more thorough and cover some of the water further out from the bank. The main current was ripping fast, but there were some seams that likedly held fish, if I could wade out to them (I was able to wade out and reach some of that water but no fish were found to be there). Jimmy continued downstream. Another half hour had passed when the downstream gentleman came walking past me, headed back to his truck, his head held low. A brief greeting and inquiry revealed that he’d been unable to entice any trout but had caught a couple whitefish. He seemed like a friendly sort and looked like he knew what he was doing. I’d have felt bad for him except that by this time I’d have been happy with a couple whitefish. Even just one.

Having grown weary of watching an indicator, I decided to try a streamer since I enjoy that style of fishing. I tied on an olive Conehead Zuddler and on my first swing had a grab but didn’t get a hookup. I could blame the fish for being non-committal but in all reality I was rusty from not having had much practice of setting the hook for a couple days. Knowing that the fish, having tasted the hook, wouldn’t fall for the same antics a second time, I switched to a black version of the same streamer and repeated. Nada. Despite the rather cold reception the day was beginning to heat up. My head, under the not-breathable canvas of my lucky fishing hat, was caked in sweat. Jimmy was by now well downstream out of sight—in my estimation too far to walk in my breathable waders that weren’t doing a very effective job of breathing. I wasn’t enjoying my current situation very much so I opted to head back to the parking lot for lunch and a change of hats.

Lunch befitting an unaccomplished angler.

When I arrived there were a couple of more cars parked in the lot that hadn’t been there earlier in the morning: I pitied the poor fools that had showed up late with the hope of catching fish. None of the other Rangers were back for lunch, which likely meant that they were all productively preoccupied. I traded my sweaty lucky fishing hat for a cool cotton alternative, peeled off my equally sweaty waders and enjoyed a respite from not catching fish: the pre-made sandwich was good, the Bugles exceptional, and the Vitamin R was cold on this day, unlike the day before on the Firehole. A steady w#nd had kicked up and for once I welcomed the breeze, at least for the next 30 minutes.

As I was gearing up to face the opposite bank, Goose and Nash returned for lunch. Graham was in good spirits, having caught some fish. Despite having caught a couple fish, Goose was less enthusiastic: “I hate this f#cking river.” Marck returned shortly thereafter, and like always he downplayed his success. Morris could be seen frantically working the opposite bank as though he were on a mission. He didn’t appear willing to stop and break for lunch. Jimmy was nowhere to be seen.

Trying to catch fish on the Madison is like swimming against the current.

I crossed the bridge and walked a half mile or so upstream along the opposite bank. There are a couple spots where I had caught fish in the past, but I didn’t hold out much hope for the afternoon session. I was already a defeated man before even wetting my line. My ‘can’t do’ attitude was either justified throughout the remainder of the day or it determined the remainder of the day. I tried streamers again, unsuccessfully. I went back to the Turd and SJW dropper. Zilch. I reminded myself that I was on a beautiful river, in Montana; the Rocky Mountains within spitting distance. Once things were in their proper perspective, I found myself still loathing the Cornhole Madison and sat down on a log to ponder my fate. Opposite from me were a couple of the poor fools who had arrived late in hopes of catching fish. As I gazed from across the river one of them proceeded to land a very nice fish.

Open wound, pour salt.

At the pre-arranged time of 4pm the Rangers met up at the parking lot again and compared notes. Marck caught “about 20″ (whatever). Graham caught 8 and noted, “I’m damn proud of it” (I’d have been even more damn prouder). Jimmy isn’t good at recalling his fish totals and guessed that he caught about 7, though Marck maintains that Jimmy had caught more than that before lunch. In predictable fashion Goose caught his standard 2 fish, which included a whitefish. The big surprise was that Morris caught only two this year—he generally does much better. But it had nothing to do with Morris—the Madison just sucks.  I took it in the brought up the rear with 2 fewer fish than Goose and Morris.

We piled into the truck and headed off toward our next destination. My arse was so sore from rogering I endured on the Madison I could hardly stand to sit for the duration of the 4 hour drive.

Would Rock Creek play nicely or earn a new nickname?

Stay tuned.

 

 

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This is, as noted in the title, Part 3. So if you haven’t already, please consider reading Part 1 and Part 2 before subjecting yourself to this.

 

Why go outside, when you can go inside?

While the Ruby had welcomed 4 of the Firehole Rangers to Montana it was rather rude to Jimmy and me. No worries; as I said earlier the Ruby was just a quick sideshow and not one of our keynote rivers. The Big Hole was the highlighted river of the trip and it was on that storied water that we all enjoyed a rather splendid day and good fishing. The next stop took us 2-1/2 hours to West Yellowstone and our lodging for the next three nights: the Ho Hum Motel (known for cheap rates and cats). Not surprisingly the office still took our breath away—or at least Marck’s breath; the rest of us declined to accompany him to check in. He returned with the room keys looking as if he’d just seen a ghost tasted cat piss. Some things never change.

Firehole Rangers 2015

Jumping ahead to the next morning, we arrived at our favorite stretch of the Firehole. As we do every year, we posed for a team photo before embarking on a long day filled with abundant catching within safe proximity to bison. Sometimes we see entire herds of cows with their young calves, other times we see small bachelor groups. Occasionally the lone bull can be seen lounging alone in a thicket of pines, enjoying the solitude away from the young bulls and the cows and their offspring. Peaceful and quiet—sort of like when a man goes fishing alone. As expected the bison were there again this year: we encountered a small group of bulls that seemed agitated, snorting and grunting as we passed by.

One had a hump on its back; the other a hump on its backside.

Whenever I see a bison I always try to have a contingency plan at the ready should one decide to come too close and get ornery. My plan, if it should ever have to be executed, never ends well for the angler. Thankfully the big woolly beasts tend to be fairly tolerant this time of year. Wide berth, avoid eye contact, no red capes. It’s all good.

Marck fishes close to the original woolly bugger of Yellowstone country.

With the bison as a sideshow, the Firehole is all about trout and each year the river offers up many trouts to the Ranger brigade: strong, healthy browns and rainbows, mostly 10-12 inchers with the occasional bigger fish that Marck alleges to have caught. There have been high water years when the fishing was a little tougher than most years, but yea in and year out I catch 25-30 fish on the Firehole while everyone else does a bit better and Marck does a lot better. Swinging soft hackles gets it done, and rarely do we deviate from that methodology because there is no need. If a hatch comes off (usually BWOs and PMDs) obviously we change our tactics. But 99% of the time it’s the soft hackle game and we catch lots of fish, so it was with that confidence that the Rangers faced our namesake river.

At least the weather was good on the Firehole.

The weather is always unpredictable at 7200 feet and while there was no rain nor snow predicted that doesn’t mean much in Yellowstone country: you go out for a full day prepared for everything. Knowing that, I left my rain jacket in the truck, which was either a risky decision to run with scissors or just the result of an unintentional bad lapse in judgment. Or perhaps I simply forgot. Whatever the case may be it didn’t prove to be an issue because the gray morning soon gave way to mostly sunny skies and amazing clouds. We immediately noted the river was low. And warm. I took a temperature reading as soon as I dropped into the first run: 70 degrees F. We could have, and perhaps should have been wet-wading, save for the fact that the Firehole is laced with naturally-occurring arsenic. It’s always warmer than other rivers in the park due to the thermal activity all around, but it’s usually several degrees cooler than it was this year. Fret not, I reminded myself, these fish are used to the warm water.

Things started slower than normal and it wasn’t until my 31st cast that I had a grab on the soft hackle. Small brown, maybe ten inches. OK, I could relax now that the first fish was to hand—sometimes it takes a while to get into the rhythm of the river. Two hours later that rhythm still evaded me and I had still only caught one fish. I’d had a couple grabs but no deals were sealed and I began to question my decision to not wear my lucky fishing hat again—what was I thinking to mess with tradition, again? It hadn’t seemed to matter what hat I was wearing on the Big Hole a day earlier—anyone can catch fish when I guide holds your hand and tells you exactly what to do, right?

It didn’t take a heightened level of deductive reasoning to realize that the low flows and increased water temps were to blame. There were thousands of caddis skittering about the Firehole; something we don’t typically see this time of year. Things were different. The season was advanced over what it might normally be. What has worked every year in the past wasn’t working, particularly for me. I did manage to catch one fish on a PMD dry, and a black woolly bugger yielded one fish from a deep pool, but that was it for me. 3 fish on the Firehole—are you serious? I suppose I could say that I caught fish using a variety of tactics but somehow that didn’t make me feel any better about my angling prowess, and by the time I broke for lunch I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I had a warm beverage in my pack that wasn’t intended to be consumed warm. I placed it in the water to cool off before I realized it would never cool to more than 70 degrees and the arsenic might eat through the aluminum can. It was probably cooler than that in my pack, so I drank it warm. It tasted strangely like cat piss.

There’s nothing like a fine Vitamin R at river temperature

When I caught up with the other Rangers later in the afternoon they had apparently read my mind: the Firehole was not worth fishing the next day as we always do. Everyone else caught a lot more fish than I did but the catching was much slower this year.

That night over supper we decided to cut our Firehole session short and visit the Madison Cornhole the next day. It had been a strange day on the Firehole. Too warm. Almost tropical. Pretty typical of the strangely warm winter and spring the entire west had experienced. Goose decided to toast the day with a drink fitting the climate.

Nothing says fishing in Yellowstone like a piña colada.

So long, Ho Hum. See ya next time, West Yellowstone. Good riddance, Firehole. We’ll be back in less than 365 days, and as much as I hate to say it I hope the weather next year is more like it was in 2012. OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme; how about 2011?

2012.

2011.

 

 

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A trio of holes, and 2 other miserable rivers: Part II

June 10, 2015

Like the title says, this is Part 2. Go read Part 1 before you read this. Thanks. We awakened to a cloudy morning in Twin Bridges, the ground wet from the previous night’s storm. Thankfully no moisture fell from the sky as we consumed a greasy breakfast at the Wagon Wheel Cafe before meeting up [...]

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A trio of holes, and 2 other miserable rivers: Part I

June 8, 2015

This year’s annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers was not your typical annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers. Many things, which are the same from year to year, were different this year. Like every year for the past several, we did in fact fish the Firehole and the Madison (the Cornhole, in my estimation, due [...]

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