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.
I’m posting this because I have been receiving a lot of emails from people who offer basically the same thing. Occasionally I reply to their emails, telling them that I provide all content on my ad-free site, but most of the time I just hit the delete button. A week later I can always expect to receive a follow-up email inquiring as to whether or not I received their email.
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If these folks really do read my articles (and my hunch is that they do not), they’ll see this one. And if not, I can simply paste a link to this notice in a reply to their email.
As you were.
So as not to keep you in suspense, I’ll get right to the matter of our annual pilgrimage to the Firehole River: High Water.
We shouldn’t have been—and we weren’t—too surprised that we ran into plenty of high water this year. After all, it’s that time of year. Runoff, meltoff, whatever you want to call it, we encountered it. In some past years we’ve gotten lucky and found waters that were fishable despite the time of year, but this year was a big water year thanks to a big snow winter. Our first barometer for Montana river conditions is the Clark Fork, which we first encounter at St. Regis, MT. It’s as if the Clark Fork welcomes us back to Montana, and offers us a glimpse as to what we should expect everywhere. It’s nearly always big and brown, but this year the Clark Fork was bigger and browner.
Our first destination was the booming metropolis of Lincoln, Montana, where we spent the first night at the Three Bears Motel (not to be confused with the Three Bears Motel in West Yellowstone, where we often eat but do not stay). It’s worth mentioning that the rooms were small and quite tidy: perhaps the cleanest motel I’ve stayed in. So if you find yourself passing through Lincoln, Montana, and you need a place to crash for the night, instead of continuing down the road and risking a crash encounter with one of Montana’s many nocturnal big game animals, do not hesitate to stay at the Three Bears Motel.
The day had been pretty nice, but a storm was rolling in from the south. While we were enjoying the last of the nice weather, sitting on the porch outside our rooms, Jay Dixon (our outfitter for the next day), pulled into the parking lot with his drift boat in tow. He was en route to the Missouri and, knowing we were staying in Lincoln, happened to see a group of guys that he assumed were the Firehole Rangers. There aren’t many folks in Lincoln, and since we undoubtedly stuck out like sore thumbs, his assumption was a safe one. As the clouds won out over blue sky, Jay proceeded to tell us a bit about the next day’s planned float trip. He informed us that the Missouri below Holter Dam had been holding at around 8500 CFS, so it should fish well. He also mentioned that there was a w#nd warning for the next day. No matter, the w#nd is not an uncommon thing on the Missouri, so we all rested easy (except for Nash, who bunked with Goose) that night before getting up early the next morning to meet with our guides. As Jay drove off the rain arrived en force.
The Missouri hadn’t our first choice, but because of hellish high water everywhere, it was our only choice. We had originally wanted to fish the Blackfoot—a river none of us have ever been on—but it was milk chocolate in color, as expected. But the Missouri is certainly no consolation prize, as we discovered 3 years earlier (which I wrote about here: Missouri Loves Company). Anglers flock to the Missouri every year like flies to a rump roast. And for good reason: it’s like a ginormous spring creek chock full of trout. Mostly big, strong trout.
Despite that it had rained throughout the night before, when we pulled into the Prewitt Creek Fly Shop at 9 am the next morning the sky was blue, with a few broken clouds moving overhead at a rather brisk clip (when I say ‘brisk’ I’m being kind). The wind advisory had called for mild w#nds that would build throughout the day. If that had been the case, I would have hated to see what the w#nd would have been like later in the day because it was already ripping. That didn’t do much for our spirits because fishing in the w#nd isn’t much fun, and can in fact be dangerous on the big water of the Missouri.
But, like Lewis and Clark 211 years before us, our flotilla set off down the Missouri. Now, some of you may be saying, “Wait just a damn minute: Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri through this area in 1805, so that would be 212 years ago, not 211 as stated. UA sucks at math.” And if you said that you would be correct on all accounts. But read carefully what I wrote: “…our flotilla set off down the Missouri.” It was in 1806 that the Corps of Discovery floated down the Missouri on their return trip from the west coast. So, suck it, Trebek. I was write.
Marck and I first met Jay Dixon of Dixon Adventures in 2011 when we fished the Bitterroot with him (reported on here: Bittersweet Montana). We’d had a great time with Jay on the Bitterroot and Marck and I were looking forward to fishing with him again. Goose and Nash fished with “Antelope Pete*” while Jimmy and Morris took their seats with “Busdriver Billy*” (*Guide names altered to protect their identities). With a very strong w#nd at our backs, we pushed off, armed with double nymph rigs. Since I’ve already
probably undoubtedly lost most of my small list of readers already, lets jump to some highlights of the day, and photos:
- The fierce w#nd would actually lessen as the day wore on (counter to the forecast), and did not dash our hopes of a fine day on the water.
- While catching was on the slow side, we did get into some strong Missouri fish. Marck and I had probably 10-12 fish to our boat, which was probably about the same for the other boats.
- All but two of our fish were caught on nymphs. I managed one big brown on a PMD dry and Marck enticed one on a streamer.
- It was a long day covering many—approximately 12—miles of river. We were nearly the only three boats on this lower stretch of the Missouri; a nice change of scenery from the boat show upriver closer to the booming troutopolis of Craig, MT. It’s always nice to see some new country. The float took us through a rugged canyon where the Missouri actually resembled a rushing river in some places before unfolding into a vast expanse of open country where the river resumed its flat, broad nature.
- We would not need the rain jackets that we brought along just in case. In Montana, one never knows what to expect from Ma Nature.
When w got off the water at 8PM we still had a 4 hour drive to West Yellowstone (not including a 1 hour stop for dinner in Helena). Following a chance encounter with Applebees—that left us with full bellies and heavy eyelids—we would be driving for another 3 hours in the dark, through daunting game country. With Jimmy behind the wheel, and Goose appointed as his wingman, I worthlessly occupied the back seat. It should be noted that when driving through Montana at night, there is no more important role than that of the wingman, whose job it is to keep the driver engaged and alert; and to be a second set of eyes. Goose was perhaps not the best man for the job as he was asleep before we’d reached the outskirts of Helena. It should also be noted that we were the ‘mine sweeper’ vehicle, with the other Ranger transport following close behind. Fortunately both vehicles would arrive, front bumpers intact, at the Ho Hum Motel in West Yellowstone at 1AM. After a few brief hours of shut-eye, the Rangers would begin the next day on our namesake river, the Firehole.
I wasn’t going to write anything about this, but then decided I had to, thanks to a really nice piece written by Mike Sepelak over at Mike’s Gone Fishin’: Sometimes I Feel.
Duane Allman in 1971, and barely a year later, bassist Barry Oakley.
Two huge, crushing blows to a band that was just finding their sound. But the Allman Brothers Band found a way out and played on through the years, anchored the entire time by Gregg Allman’s iconic voice and Hammond B3. There were some highs and probably as many—if not more—lows during the years that followed the tragedies of 1971 and ’72, but they did produce some good albums after that—most notably perhaps, Brothers and Sisters.
Due to heavy drug and alcohol abuse, they also produced some albums that weren’t up to par, and in 1976 the band split up. They got back together briefly after that, but disbanded again in 1982. In 1989 the Allman Brothers regrouped, and despite more turbulent times that included original member Dickey Betts leaving the band, they soldiered on. It was during the 90’s that Gregg Allman finally got sober and clean, and it showed in the quality of the music, which only got better up until their final show in 2014.
I was too young to appreciate their music early on, but as I became a teenager in the late 70’s, with summers spent working in the woods with a bunch of older, stoner-hippies (terms of endearment), I was indoctrinated into the sound of the Allman Brothers Band. I would have to say that since then, if there was one band whose vinyl, cassettes, and CD’s I listened to most, it was the brothers from Jacksonville, Florida. Despite that referring to their music as “Southern Rock” is not really an accurate description, the Allman Brothers Band is often labeled as such. It’s best to save that label for Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, Molly Hatchett, 38 Special, and others—all bands that I also really like. Southern blues-rock is a better way to think of the Allman Brothers’ music—it’s on a different level from other bands that are all lumped into the Southern Rock category. Everything about the Allman Brothers’ sound is what I love most in music: heavy emphasis on guitars that scream, but not gratuitously so. Songs with less singing and more emphasis on the instrumental. Songs that build and go on for extended periods, allowing for plenty of time to get lost in air guitar solos.
I imagine that most people casually know who the Allman Brothers Band are thanks to Dickey Betts’ Ramblin’ Man, which became a chart hit and put them in the forefront of the mainstream audience. The problem with that is, Ramblin’ Man is perhaps the least Allman Brothers sounding song of all. It’s a fine song, but if that’s what you think of when you hear the band’s name, you’re missing out. Many would say that their earliest stuff was their best, and it’s hard to argue with that because their first few albums featured the original lineup. The band’s first live album, At Fillmore East, is absolutely iconic. The Brothers have always been at their finest when live, and this album is a must-have in order to fully appreciate that.
What many folks don’t realize is that the Allman Brothers Band put out a tremendous album in 2003—an album that, when I first heard it, really rekindled a flame for me. Hittin’ the Note is a must-have because it shows that the band was once again at their very best, after decades of turmoil and personal and professional lows. While certainly not the original lineup, one can imagine that the original Brothers would have been proud of where this latest album had taken the group. I was fortunate to see them in concert in 2009 with my old stoner-hippy boss. It was the only time I got to see the Brothers. How I wish I’d been able to make a trip to New York City to see them during one of their many sold-out runs at the Beacon Theater…
Fittingly, it was my old stoner-hippy boss who sent me a text last Saturday that said, “Damn. Brother Gregg Allman died.” That hit hard.
Drummer Butch Trucks in January, and now just 4 months later, Gregg Allman. 2017 has been a rough year.
He lived hard and that took a toll. But Gregg had gotten it together and was living right, continuing to make great music, both with his own band as well as with the Allman Brothers right up until their farewell concert in 2014. One can’t help but listen to The High Cost of Low Living and think that it was more than just words.
“It’s a high cost of low livin’
Ain’t it high time? You turn yourself around
Yeah, the high cost of low livin’
It’s bound to put you six feet in the ground.”
Rest in Peace, Brother Gregg. Thanks for the music.
I’ve written about the Firehole Rangers’ annual pilgrimage to our namesake river so many times that there’s really little left to say, especially given the nature of the trip. It’s a trip of traditions with very few changes year to year—just the way we like it. That having been said, there are a few known changes this year.
Here is what we know will be different about the trip:
- For the first time in 5 years, Morris’ Soccer Mom Van will not make the trip this year because it was finally put out to pasture. No longer will the Rangers be traveling in comfortable shame.
- We’re fishing the Missouri on Day 1, on our way to West Yellowstone.
- On Day 4 we’re fishing some as-of-yet-to-be-determined river around Twin Bridges.
- We are not stopping to fish
ShitRock Creek on our way home. Thank gawd.
Here’s what we know will be the same about the trip:
- We’re staying at the Ho Hum. We anticipate the presence of cats.
- We will encounter hoards of tourists in Yellowstone. We still don’t consider ourselves tourists because we’re there to fish.
- We’re fishing the Firehole on Day 2. Water looks to be a bit high this year which may or may not affect the catch rate.
- We’re fishing the Madison on Day 3. It will be higher this year than in the past 2-3 years. I’ve done better than usual the last 2-3 years.
- The trip will be be over before we know what happened. By the time we return home we’ll already have begun looking forward to next year.
A few unknown things to ponder as we prepare for our departure:
- Jimmy is a man of many hats. How many will he bring this year and how many will he purchase on the trip? Bonus question: what will his new shoes look like?
- How many fish will Marck catch on the Firehole? More than 40 but less than 273?
- How many fish will Goose catch on the Madison? More or less than one but fewer than two?
- Will the UA catch more, or fewer, fish than Goose on the Madison?
- After Nash’s post-trip surgery last year to sew his bleeding nose closed, will he be able to smell the cats of the Ho Hum? The only way to find out is to assign him the task of checking us in this year.
- This marks Morris’ 5th year as a Rookie Ranger. Will he finally finish an entire meal and be granted veteran, Big Boy Ranger status?
- How many tourists will be observed doing stupid things with regard to wildlife?
- Will it rain, snow and shine on us within the same day while in the Park?
If you care to take a stab at answering those 8 questions, there may or may not (probably the latter) be a prize for the commenter with the most correct answers. But you have to leave a comment on the blog—NOT in an email—prior to our return from the pilgrimage. If you subscribe via email to the UA, simply click on the headline (which is a link to the website). Read it there—on the website. Click to leave a comment. It’s that easy.
And so we ride…