The Firehole Rangers: Day One

Some things seem to always change, while others remain the same. It’s that way with our annual trip to Yellowstone to fish the Firehole River: With almost clockwork predictability, we know that certain elements of the trip are going to be very familiar, like an old pair of underwear. At the same time, other parts of the trip will prove to be dynamic and full of surprises. It was that way this year. It was that way last year. And it was that way the previous year and every other year that I’ve made the journey: the same, but different.

Every year, the same core group (more or less) makes the pilgrimage on Memorial Day Weekend. Fishing season in the Park opens on that Saturday. This is a constant. It is always a long drive. Try as we might, we cannot change that. We always meet at Marck’s house at an indecent hour, drive 5 hours where we gas up and have breakfast in Coeur d’alene, Idaho before pushing eastward across the Panhandle and into Montana. Along the way we always note that the Clark Fork River is the color of a chocolate milkshake. With a monstrous snowpack this year, the Clark Fork (and every other river along the way) was running even higher than normal.

Every year we stay at the Ho Hum Motel, and every year the office where we check-in and check-out smells like cat urine. It seemed a bit worse this year. You see, the owner keeps cats. Cats that are free to come and go through an open window. With the long, cold winters in West Yellowstone, it’s obvious that the cats prefer to go. Inside.

Why go outside, when I can go inside?

To say that it’s a stench would be inaccurate. It’s more than just a smell–it’s an assault on the olfactory system. It stings the eyes and gets on the back of your tongue, causing an involuntary gag reflex, and quite possibly paralysis. Only Stan is capable of standing in the face of the sensory attack because he can’t breath through his nose anyway. But in all fairness, the rooms are all clean, cat-free, and cheap. Cheap is good.

What up, Stan – cat got your tongue?

Every year the weather is unpredictable. We know that going in. Fishing at an elevation of 7200 feet in the Rockies guarantees sun, rain, driving snow, sleet, hail…we expect it all. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised. This year we expected the worst because the weather forecast was calling for 3 days of cold and snow.

The streets of West Yellowstone: May 28, 2011

On Saturday morning the streets of West Yellowstone bore a trace of slushy snow (“winter mix” as our local meterologists like to refer to it) that had fallen overnight. That didn’t surprise us. It was 31 degrees as we made our way to the Golden Arches for breakfast. No reputable restaurants were open at 6AM so we did what we had to do.

The weather looked daunting as we entered the Park and made our way to Midway Geyser Basin. We always fish this section the first day. Always. But as we geared up, the sun shone upon us and clouds parted. With blue skies immediately overhead and freshly fallen snow covering the ground, it was a good morning to be alive. A good day to be going fishing. The Firehole Rangers were ready to launch their assault on the gullible rainbows and browns that had not seen an artificial fly in at least 7 months. We were armed with the secret weapon fly that always gets it done. Always. There is no deviation. We were a tough band of angling warriors. We were soft-hackle tough.

The Firehole Rangers

Occasionally someone will show up with a new piece of gear, but one thing is for certain: Stan the Goosemeister will always have the same stuff as he had the previous year and every year before that dating back to the 1940s. He’s reliable. Jimmy is a man of many hats, literally, and has a different hat for every day. No two hats are the same, and that never changes. Not everything remains the same, however: Marck was sporting a new pair of Redington Sonic Pro Zip Front Waders, and Nash had a brand new pair of Redington boots and quickly discovered that snow sticks to felt. Especially new felt. I personally don’t mind the extra couple of inches that the snow adds to my height, but walking can be a little tricky as Nash soon found out.

There was a group of 4-5 other anglers who had walked in ahead of us, but as is the case with other fishermen every year, they always fish a section of the river that’s closest to the road. We like to hike in a ways and get away from the crowds. We always do, and without fail we have the entire river to ourselves for the better part of the day. Catching was a little slow to start, for me anyway, and it wasn’t until my 8th cast that I caught a fish. I wasn’t too bothered by that–I was distracted by the beauty of the morning. All around us were ominous clouds that threatened to descend upon us with a wrath. However, with the exception of a couple snow squalls that blew in and blew out relatively quickly, we enjoyed a strangely nice day on the water. We didn’t expect that, but it was a nice surprise for a change.

As I’ve suggested, fishing is always good on the Firehole. Some years the flows are lower than others (this was not one of those years), but the levels never seem to impact the quality quantity of the fishing catching. For some (Marck), the catching is better than for others (everyone else). That’s a foregone conclusion. But even the most unaccomplished of us caught 25-30 fish during the course of the day. There are no great surprises when it comes to the fish of the Firehole. Most of the fish are 10 inchers: a mixed bag of rainbows and browns. Catch rainbows in the riffles and browns in the frog water. Browns hit the fly and put their heads down. Rainbows hit the fly and come uncorked. That is an assumption you can put money on, except for the one brown I caught that went airborne.

A few fish are 12 inchers. During a hatch of PMDs and Blue Winged Olives that came off, as expected, during and after one of the snow squalls, a couple of 14 inch rainbows were had. No matter the size, these are all hard-fighting fish. With water temps averaging in the mid to upper 50’s (due to geothermal activity in and around the river) these are not catatonic troutcicles – they’re hard-fighting leapers, movers and head shakers. On a 4 weight rod a 10 inch Firehole fish feels much larger. A 12 inch Firehole fish is a lot of fun, and a 14 inch Firehole fish will have you wearing a shit-eating grin from ear to ear.

After the morning troutfest we converged upon a spot for lunch. It was here, as he emptied his fanny pack of water, that it became apparent one of the Firehole Rangers had taken a spill earlier in the day. I don’t want to publicly embarrass him or make light of the situation by calling him out, but with brand new felt there is no excuse for losing one’s footing.  And when one’s waders take on water and the remainder of the day is spent sloshing around cold and miserable, it’s no laughing matter.

After lunch we fished out the afternoon until we were tired of catching fish. With flies that were ravaged and tattered we made the long hike back to the rig and called it a day. Mother Nature had showed us a little bit of everything, but mostly she had taken pity on us. Overall the weather was way better than anticipated. That was nice for a change. The fishing was exceptional, as it always is. We had a great time–we always do.

But things were about to change.

Tree Dollar Bridge

This week’s Drivel® is intentionally out of sequence. By that I mean that what I’m writing about here, now, happened after what I will write about next week. It’s a trick I learned from George Lucas, who created the Star Wars series and released movies that were not in a chronological order. It worked for George, why not for the Unaccomplished Angler?


We departed West Yellowstone on Monday around 7 AM under cloudy, cold skies that were still spitting snow that had begun 24 hours earlier and hadn’t really let up much. Suffice it to say Sunday had been a bit miserable, and we hoped that down lower in the Madison Valley things would be warmer and drier. We didn’t hold out much hope for the latter, but it was certain to be warmer. After stopping in at Blue Ribbon Flies for our Montana fishing licenses and some intel, we bade fairwell to the Ho Hum and Yellowstone for another year. A few miles down the road we passed by a heard of Tatonkas and their calves, who had to be thinking that recent life in the womb was way better than this.

The westbound drive along Hebgen Lake was made all the more beautiful by the strange phenomenon of parting clouds that revealed blue sky. We rejoiced in the splendor and began to get our hopes up.

Further west, as we dropped into the Quake Lake basin, our hopes were dashed as it began to snow again.

The skies continued to darken as we passed by the Earthquake Slide area, which looked a lot different the previous year.

But as we descended further and the valley began to unfold before us, the skies cleared once again, and the rejoicing resumed.

We turned left and headed down the dirt road toward Three Dollar Bridge. As we rounded a bend what should we see but an empty parking lot!  Being that it was Memorial Day, we expected at least a few other rigs. We chalked up the solitude to the bad weather from the day before that was forecast to persist on this day. Insert continued rejoicement here.

The wind saw to it that there was bite in the air, but the weather was much better than anticipated as we geared up. It was dry. It’s always a nice thing when you can gear up without getting rained or snowed upon. After a team photo, we set off upstream to watch Marck catch fish.

UA, Marck, Nash, Jimmy and Stan the Goosemeister


And it didn’t take long before he’d hooked his first. Per standard operating procedure I set down my rod and sprinted to his aid to help him land a nice 17 inch rainbow and snap a photo. History has a way of repeating itself, but I vowed to stop there.

Hooray, Hooray- it's Marck's first fish of the day!


I quickly moved farther upstream away from him. Out of sight and out of earshot. I was not here to photograph Marck’s fish. I was here to catch my own. But not before I had the privilege of photographing Nash’s first Madison fish. Nice fish. Congrats! Damn you, Nash. I retreated further.

Nash pops his Madison River cherry. Note the jacket properly worn on outside of waders.


There can be no greater beauty than fishing within spitting distance of majestic mountains on a day when the sun is temporarily winning it’s battle against the clouds. I reminded myself that there is more to fishing than catching fish as I basked in the glory of Montana.

Very quickly, however, it became clear that things were not going my way as I had not had a bump all morning. The only time my indicator went down was when my fly snagged on something in some fairly deep, fairly fast water. There seemed no sane way to retrieve the snagged fly, so I gave a gentle tug. Then another not so gentle tug. Finally the leader snapped, leaving my indicator and both flies to rest in a watery grave. Great. Salt in the wound. I sat down to sulk splice my tippet and added a new Thingamabobber and two flies. I drifted my new setup through the same seam three times. There had to be a fish there. It looked too good. And then it happened- the indicator went down! I set the hook and was immediately met with total, unyielding resistance. It was either Roderick Hawg Brown, or…the same snag I’d just lost my tackle to 5 minutes earlier. It was no brown trout. The emotional wound was gaping at this point, and copious amounts of salt poured in. However, I refused to lose it all this time around so I set my rod down on the bank and gingerly waded a few feet toward the source of the snagged tackle. I was willing to risk a dunking as a matter of saving what little pride I had left, and as I firmly but gently pulled on the leader, something began to give under the force of the river’s current. Gradually the end of a heavy, water-logged stick began to show itself. I pulled ever so steadily until the stick emerged and I was able to grab it. To my delight I was able to retrieve two Thingamabobbers, two Pat’s Stones and two San Juan Worms.

It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless and I celebrated by heading downstream toward the parking lot for lunch. Along the way I ran into Jimmy, Nash, and Marck. They had all caught at least a couple fish already. A short distance down the trail we encountered Stan The Goosemeister, who wore the unmistakable look of Madison River frustroution. He vowed to remain where he was to finish working some nice water while the rest of us returned to the car for lunch, where we ate under sunny skies and moderate temps. It felt good to be dry and warm.  A few minutes later we were joined by Stan who wore a fish eating grin. His dedication had paid off as  he’d just landed a nice brown. That left only yours truly without the smell of trout on his hands.

After lunch Marck and I crossed the bridge and headed upstream. We leap-frogged each other along the way, which means that I fished below Marck, who would catch a fish. Then I would pass him en route to the next hole and not catch a fish. Then he would pass me and catch a fish. And repeat.

Oh, hey look- Marck has another fish on!


Meanwhile, Nash, Jimmy and Stan fished elsewhere and caught some fish.

One of Jimmy's fish.

Stan's 20 inch fish.


After 2.5 more hours of fishing, the unmistakable smell of skunk began to permeate my Gore-tex® outer barrier. The pressure was too much. I decided to withdraw from the one-sided competition and told Marck I was going to start fishing my way back downstream. His plan was to continue moving upstream, catching several more fish for another hour before heading to the rig. As I worked my way back through water that had just been covered effectively by Marck, I acknowledged that it was all in vain—it was astronomically unlikely that I’d catch a fish. The Madison had not been kind to me the previous two years, but I had at least managed one fish on each visit.  My chances of equaling that modest goal this year were slim. And then came the first of the two trees.

Exhibit A: The First Tree


If one had a dollar for every tree that lines the banks of the Madison River in this area, one would have about three dollars. In other words the banks of the Madison near Three Dollar Bridge are not heavily laden with trees. While there is considerable brushy cover for snagging flies on a bad back cast, the number of actual trees can be counted on one hand.  When I came to one of those trees I drifted my fly on the outside edge of a partially submerged log (Exhibit A). Instantly my indicator went down, and instantly I thought the worst. However, this time whatever had snagged my fly actually moved when I set the hook. The result was a 16 inch brown that took the worm. I relieved some pressure breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that I had upheld my fishing honor by equaling my previous catch rate. The Unaccomplished Angler was BACK, baby!

Exhibit B: The First Fish


There was a bit of a skip in my step as I moved downstream another 30 yards to the next tree.

Exhibit C: The Second Tree


Within 5 minutes, and in view of the tree than had just produced the respectable brown, I was granted a second opportunity to land a fish. With water temps hovering around 44 degrees, neither of these fish were what I would call game fighters. The fish on the Firehole (coming next week), though considerably smaller, put up a much better fight pound for pound. But a thick fish with a muscular tail in heavy water can put up considerable resistance when they don’t want to be caught, and my 6 wt was in no way too much rod for these fish in these waters. After playing the fish carefully, I succeeded in landing the 17 inch rainbow. And there followed considerable rejoicing, even though I was alone.

Exhibit D: The Second Fish

Forty minutes later I was back at the rig, removing boots and waders and trying not to be too impressed with my angling accomplishments. After all, 2 fish in 7 hours of fishing isn’t exactly impressive. My ego was also kept in check as we compared notes.  The tally for the day was:

  • Jimmy – 6 hooked, 5 landed: 2 rainbows and one brown in the 14-16” range, one brown in the 16-18” range and one brown approximately 20-13/16”.
  • Nash – 5 fish landed: 2 in the 16-18″ range, 1 fish 9-10″, another fish 12-13″ and one 19-20 inch hawg.
  • Stan the Goosemeister – 4 hooked, 2 landed: The biggest was 20″ and the second 16″ (which really means they were 16″ and 12″).
  • Marck alleges to have landed around 25 fish. I believe most were over 25 inches, and at least two were steelhead.

It rained on us a few times during the day, but nothing that had persisted. The wind had blown off and on, but was nothing to complain about. We reflected on the fact that it had been a good day as we stowed gear for the next leg of our journey which took us to Ennis. We were looking forward to a repeat burger performance at the Roadmaster Grill, however, the Roadmaster had been replaced by the Gravel Bar Grill. While the food was good, we were disappointed because we were jonesin’ for a Kong Burger and to find out how much more weight the owner of the Roadmaster had lost since last year. Guess we’ll never know.

After enjoying our meal we pushed on toward Missoula for lodging – nothing to get too excited about there. It was just a necessary part of the drive home.

On each of the previous two years I came away from Three Dollar Bridge with feelings of self pity for having caught only one fish all day, and deep resentment toward Marck for his uncanny ability to yard fish at nearly every spot.  This year my self pity was cut in half, which helped to ease the resentment I harbor toward Marck. And when you’re in Montana, just look around you. Life is good.

And life is too short to carry around ill will toward others, especially when the price of gas demands so much of our negative energy.


Potscrubber soles by Korkers

On a recent trip to Yellowstone, one of my fishing compadres (the Goosemeister, truth be told) picked up a copy of a free magazine in one of the fly shops. While we were back at the Ho Hum planning our assault on the Firehole the next day and discussing felt vs. rubber soled boots, The Gooseman buried his nose in the magazine. Before he could nod off into one of his sudden cat naps, he blurted out something about a new pair of boots that caught my attention: Korkers Svelte Sole.

He had me at Svelte.

According to an article in Fly Fish America Annual 2011 Gear Guide, Korkers and 3M have teamed up to offer a new boot sole material that is allegedly superior to felt in grip-ability but without the fear of harboring invasive organisms. The soles are part of Korker’s OmniTrax interchangeable sole system. The material in the sole is made by 3M, and the article says, among other things:

In fact, the stuff looks and feels just like the heavy-duty version of the 3M Scotch-Brite abrasive pads you can buy at Wal-Mart.

It’s good to see that someone is exploring superior alternatives to rubber soles, which seem to be very slippery–or at least more slippery than felt– without studs. Studs obviously present a problem when fishing out of a boat (particularly inflatables).

The one thing that made me curious about this news was that 3M, which is a huge conglomerate company, owns Scientific Anglers and Ross Reels.  Why didn’t they keep this new Svelte Sole in house and offer it on a pair of boots branded by Scientific Anglers or Ross?  It would have seemed a better business proposition to me, but then again I am a horrible business person, so what do I know?

I wonder if Korkers boots will be available at Wal-Mart anytime soon, and if so will they be in the sporting good section or the kitchenware isle?



The Photographer’s job is not to catch fish.

It’s a little unnerving to have a professional photographer constantly lurking about, snapping photos from all and strange angles. Knowing that one may be under the constant scrutiny of a camera’s lens makes stealing a quiet moment to pick one’s nose a delicate proposition (not that it happened–I’m just illustrating a point). But a photographer’s job is to tell the story that otherwise may not be told. It has been said that a picture paints a thousand words, and it’s true: photos tell a story in ways that words simply cannot, even if you’re a gifted writer, which I am not (and that is exactly why I always carry a camera). But I am not a real photographer–I simply carry a point-and-shoot to capture some images from the day which also help me recall moments worth writing about. And frankly, people like to look at pictures much more than they like reading words. Pictures are always more interesting, and I have no doubt you will look at the photos posted here. That being said I shall throw out some words for you to read if you wish.

It was a day that was all about photos. It was a day intended to be an opportunity for Jason “Orad” Small to photographically document a trip to be used as part of a presentation to be given by 2011 Orvis Endorsed Guide of the Year, Derek Young (Emerging Rivers Guide Services) the following day. Everyone’s role for the day was clearly defined except mine. I’m still not sure why I was brought along for the trip, except to take photos of the photographer taking photos and catching fish.

The water was hovering around the 45 degree mark as we mixed some tasty Bloody Marys on the tailgate. Pickled asparagus purchased that morning at Owen’s Meats in Cle Elum were nothing shy of awesome. If you’ve never been to Owen’s Meats, you really owe it to yourself to stop in for some of their products. Seriously. We did not have a particularly long float ahead of us so we were in no great hurry.

Photo by Jason Small Photography

Photo of the Photographer taking photos of bloody marys


We hit the water around noon and  started out the day nymphing the typical setup: a Pat’s Stones with a Copper John or Pheasant Tail dropper. Pink Thingamabobbers all around.  The hope was that around 1:17 in the afternoon, the March Browns would start coming off and we’d switch to dries.

As the Photographer, Orad wasted no time in getting the skunk off the boat by landing a nice, thick, post-spawn rainbow that looked as healthy as a fish can get. Likely an 18 inch fish, she was what they call a “Yakima Twenty” (always round up). This fish put a taco bend in the Orad rod as she ran upstream, downstream, under the boat and every which way but loose. A short while later Orad caught another rainbow in the 12 inch range. Apparently he forgot that he was fishing out of the back of the boat (second seat) and was supposed to be the designated photographer and not the the primary catcher of trouts.

Photo of the Photographer catching the first fish.

Photo of The Photographer and The Guide.

Photo of The Photographer's first, fine fish of the day.

Later, Derek landed one of the more spotted trouts I’ve ever seen on any water. Seriously, this thing looked like a Leopard variety rainbow from Alaska.

Photo by Jason Small Photography

Photo of the Photographer taking photos of The Guide's fish.


Photo of Mr. Spotty, The Guide's fish.

Shortly thereafter I set the hook on a fish that I’m pretty sure was a Yakima River steelhead, although Derek maintains it was a cutthroat, but I’ll never know. Let’s just say that Orad is better with a camera than he is with a net.

The Guide's Photo of the Photographer and his net.


That was the last fish touched on the day. Yet we did not see any fish rising, nor did I see any bugs popping. This provided ample opportunity for Orad to capture the other side of fly fishing: the side of fly fishing that doesn’t involve catching fish. You know- behind the scenes sort of drama that looks cooler than it really was because of good photography.

For example, this photo makes me look like I’m a decent caster…

Photo by Jason Small Photography


And this photo makes Derek’s hair look shorter than it really is…

Photo by Jason Small Photography


And this photo makes the act of pinching a barb look  interesting…

Photo by Jason Small Photography


And this photo has a certain action feel to it, when in reality there was nothing going on…

Photo by Jason Small Photography


And in this photo the Lucky Fishing Hat was not flattered by Orad’s wide angle lens, and I am left questioning whether to ever wear it again.

Photo by Jason Small Photography


At the end of great day on the water we paid a visit to The Brick in Roslyn for some excellent food. I can honestly say that the French Dip Sandwich was the best I’ve ever had, and would have been better only if I’d have been able to get a Budweiser to wash it down.

Photo of my food.


The next day I was late for Derek’s presentation at Orvis. Apparently it started at 1PM and not 1:30 as I was told. But all was not lost because while I was at the shop I picked up a few Pat’s Rubberlegs to replace the ones I’d sacrificed the day before. I’ll be needing them in a week, and if they don’t produce I’ll simply take them back to Orvis. Leland Miyawaki, the fly fishing manager, is very good at handling returns.

I hope you enjoyed the photos more than the words. I know I did. Enjoy more of Orad’s work at Jason Small Photography.