This is a little experiment to see if any of you read the first post about the route we took en route to our Idaho fishing destination, The Road Less Travelled in Search of Summer. I know of at least 2 people that did read that entry (thanks, Howard and Bob).
When I returned from the trip I noticed I had taken a photo from nearly the same vantage point on two consecutive days. It made for a nice comparison/contrast. Here’s a little eye candy teaser to hopefully entice you to stick around for the second part, which will be titled, “The Forecast Called for 100% Chance of Fishing”.
In the last installment of the Weekly Drivel® I pondered the likelihood that the weather predictors would be right, or wrong, with regard to the forecast for a trip to fish a particular river in the Idaho Panhandle. Well, I’ve been back now for two days and my gear has finally dried out. FYI, that’s a bit of
clever foreshadowing as pertaining to the weather we encountered.
I arrived at Marck’s home in North Bend at 7AM on Thursday, under cloudy skies. Summer hadn’t yet arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and despite that it was the second week in July it felt more like an early Fall morning. After loading all his
shit gear (and there was a lot of it) into the Man Van, and adding to the wood pile on the hitch carrier, we hit the road for an 8 hour drive east, during which it remained cloudy and 20 degrees cooler than what one might expect for this time of year. We could have made the drive in less time but the Man Van is much more road-friendly at speeds under the speed limit of 70mph, which is the posted limit most of the way.
Once we hit the dirt road from Wallace to Avery, ID, the van was right at home. I’d never taken this route before but wanted to see what Moon Pass (AKA Forest Service Road 456) was all about. It was worth the jaunt, despite that it’s much faster to stay on I-90 all the way to St. Regis, MT, and then double back into Idaho via Gold Pass.
A couple miles outside of Wallace, Moon Pass road gets down to business. It’s an often steep and more often winding route where our speed rarely exceeded 20 mph. Much of the time we drove considerably slower, which was necessary to negotiate some very tight hairpin turns. The road is in very good shape overall and wide enough in most places for vehicles to easily pass without kissing mirrors. Where it is a bit narrower there are generally pullouts to allow passage by another rig, but the road was never terribly skinny. It’s not a harrowing drive by any means, nor is it a road where one would want to venture off of the shoulder: it’s a long way down to the North Fork of the St. Joe River, which flows from deep within the western reach of the Bitterroot Mountains. The views are impressive from the top of the pass and the scenery is beautiful the entire way, standard fare in Idaho’s Panhandle.
The last several miles of the 28 mile route take travelers through a series of old rail tunnels. I believe there are six tunnels (maybe 7, but who’s counting?). The tunnels are wide enough for only one vehicle and it’s a very good idea to turn on the headlights prior to entering the tunnels; if one were to encounter an oncoming vehicle, one or the other would need to back up whence they came. Despite that none of the tunnels are more than a couple hundred yards long, I wasn’t looking forward to convincing another driver that it was they who would be yielding. Fortunately we didn’t meet any vehicles in the tunnels, and very few vehicles anywhere else along the way for that matter.
Being a lightly traveled route we saw only 3 other vehicles and a small handful of dual sport bikes on the upper stretches of the pass. And a couple of 4 wheelers, one of which piloted by a crotchety old redneck who apparently wasn’t pleased with our slow rate of travel. I pulled over to let him pass us by—which he did—in a big hurry. As he sped past he yelled something (an expression of gratitude for letting him pass, I assume). How I wish it had been hot and dusty so that he could’ve enjoyed our powdery wake, but surprisingly there was very little dust. In fact there were indications that precipitation had been a recent occurrence.
As we neared Avery, at the southern end of the route, we encountered a few more rigs headed up the road, loaded for camping and mountain biking. The Hiawatha Trail ends near the road over Moon Pass and is apparently a pretty popular trail for riding mountain bikes. That’s all fine and dandy, but where we were headed is way more fun.
Just about exactly 28 miles after leaving Wallace we entered the outskirts of Avery and turned east. The weather remained cooler than normal, but pleasant. There was a 0% chance of rain on this day and the sun even began trying to poke through the clouds as we followed the St. Joe River up the road. In another 40 miles we would arrive at our destination, where Jimmy and Morris had arrived several days earlier. We were eager to stretch our legs and wet our whistles after the long drive. And we were also jonesin’ to get our wet wade on for 3 days of fine, Idaho cutthroat catching.
Last year when we set out on an annual trip to fish Idaho’s St. Joe, the weather was typical for early July: sunny, and hot. There was a chance of thunderstorms one day, but nothing that even the rangers stationed at Red Ives seemed too concerned about when they stopped by our campsite. They only mentioned it as a “chance”. They were far more concerned about wildfires and issued a friendly warning to watch our campfire closely.
Well, we all now how THAT turned out. If you don’t know how that turned out, and you would like to find out, you might consider reading “Dust to mud: a fishing trip’s early demise“).
As I prepare to depart for the Joe this year, it looks nothing like last, when it had been hot and dry for quite some time prior to our arrival. Then it very surprisingly turned very wet. What was listed as a “chance” of thunderstorms turned out to be a violent storm that dropped more than 4 inches of rain, and much of that within an hour. Very, very, very wet.
This year it’s not going to be hot when we arrive, nor has it been particularly hot or dry up to this point. As a matter of fact, there has been a fair amount of rain in Idaho’s panhandle recently. This year it’s going to be wet; the powers-that-predict are pretty much offering a guarantee on that.
But I’m a glass half full kinda guy. I hate fishing in the rain. Particularly in the summer when it should be warm and sunny. I’ll admit that the cool, damp weather will be good for keeping fire danger low (or non-existent). And the cloud cover should bode well for fishing, with one fairly important caveat: thunderstorms, predicted with 100% certainty for Saturday, may not bode well for standing in a river waving a graphite stick, or standing huddled under tall trees.
But could the meteorologists be wrong? Might we actually not have rain and thunderstorms? Could the temps be comfortably in the upper 70’s instead of the mid to lower 60’s (and even cooler)? There’s always a chance that the weather predictors could be wrong.
After all, they were wrong last year.
We left off Part 2 with our final night in West Yellowstone, where some of the Rangers may have had a bit too much fun, if there is such a thing. Actually, there is such a thing, and if you’re feeling not very good in the morning, even fishing can leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately I happened to feel just dandy the next day as we headed off to meet my personal nemesis, The Cornhole River (also known as the Madison at Three Dollar Bridge). This river in this location has never welcomed me with open arms, with the exception of last year’s personal best day on the Madison (6 fish landed). Most years I tend to scratch out one or two fish if I’m lucky, often one or two fewer than that. The only good thing about the Madison, in my opinion, is the setting: it’s absolutely beautiful. With the Madison Range of the Rockies right in your face it can take one’s mind off the angling misery.
The weather continued to be delightful as it had been on the previous two days of fishing. And that delightful weather had also responsible for slower catching than had the weather been less delightful. In other words, things didn’t look good for a day on a river that typically kicks my ass even when the weather sucks.
We geared up for a day of wet wading (a first here), took the requisite team photo, and dispersed to various sections of the river to
waste a perfectly nice day do some angling. Jimmy and I headed downstream while Marck (with Morris on his heels) paid the toll to cross the bridge and headed upstream. Nash headed upstream on the near bank, as did Goose.
I crossed paths with one other angler who was headed back to his truck after having a tough morning on the river. He said the weather had been crappy until just recently, and the fishing had been great, until just recently. I hadn’t had a bump yet, so I agreed with him that the weather was beautiful and the fishing was slow.
The river was running a bit lower, and quite a bit clearer, than what we normally encounter this time of year. Still, there was a lot of water moving downhill so wading very far from the bank wasn’t an option. I was about to step off the bank into a shallow channel when I saw a nice fish dart from beneath bank. If I didn’t catch anything all day at least I’d seen a fish.
Downstream a short ways my indicator dipped and despite that I assumed I’d merely bumped a stick, I set the hook. The stick didn’t fight particularly hard, but it was a heavy stick and took some finesse to land it. Turns out it wasn’t a stick at all, but a nice brown in the 20″ range that took the small dropper in the upper lip. Without a net (left unintentionally, again, back at the truck), it was tough to land the fish. I did manage to bring it into shallow water for a hook extraction without snapping my 5x. Off the fish swam to eat more and hopefully gain a bit more enthusiasm—the fish was healthy, just semi-catatonic in the cold runoff. I couldn’t really blame the fish, after all, when I’m cold I don’t feel much like fighting either. I would like to have hooked up with him later in the year when the water temp was a bit warmer and he wasn’t feeling quite so lethargic. However, I probably wouldn’t have landed it had if that were the case.
Over the next few hours I scratched out 5 more fish, including one 16 inch rainbow that seemed hell bent on making it downstream to Ennis (the fish was a grand scrapper that showed no signs of brown trout lethargy). Every fish I hooked fought harder than the big brown; even a couple small browns in the 10-12 inch range showed more gumption than their 20 inch brethren.
I gradually fished back upstream and made my way back to the truck for lunch, feeling pretty damn good about the success of the morning, and less confident that I would fair as well in the afternoon. I was right about that. After a cold piece of pizza from the night before I headed upstream on the near bank and fished for another hour and a half without so much as a wiggle in my indicator.
I did have the pleasure of being low-holed by some yahoo carrying two rods who decided to set up 100 feet below me and thrash some nice water. I patiently waited for him to move along but he had apparently snagged his hook and was standing on a rock flailing in vain to get unstuck. I shook my fist in his general direction, whispered under my breath, “Get off my damn lawn you punk kid!” and proceeded to walk around, and below him. As I fished down I glanced over my shoulder and he was still standing on that rock, shaking his stick. I didn’t catch another fish the rest of the afternoon and headed back to the truck, still pleased with my morning catch which equalled my personal best day on this river.
Some of the Rangers were already assembled at the vehicles while the others meandered in shortly thereafter. The consensus was that fishing had been slower than normal for everyone except me, which made no sense—if everyone else had a slower day than normal, I should have been skunked. Marck only caught around 15 fish. Morris recalled catching, “NFC. Maybe 5 or 6″ while Nash had 4 fish (the real victory being that he felt much better than he had earlier in the day). Jimmy caught,”Less than UA, so what does that make me?” Goose caught goose eggs. He hates that damn river more than anyone else, even me.
Down the road we headed, ultimately toward Rock Creek some 4 hours away, where we would spend the night before fishing one more river the next day. But first we stopped for some grub at the Grizzly Bar & Grill (located in Cameron MT, although I didn’t see much to suggest anything other than a wide spot in the road, save for a cell tower (or maybe a ham radio antenna?) cleverly disguised as a tall pine tree.
And fine grub it was—as good as it gets. Our waitress was a comely youngish fly angling person who works at the Grizzly Bar seasonably so she can fish. The chef was also a youngish fly fisherman who cooks food so he can fish. A brief conversation with him revealed that he fishes a LOT, and has his own small business selling hand-tied streamers. I can’t imagine anyone living in that area that doesn’t fish, and if you’re in that area to fish I recommend you make a stop at the Grizzly Bar & Grill to eat. And I recommend the ribeye. Just remember to chew each bite 30 times before swallowing.
The final part in this 4 part series isn’t really worth a post all its own: we fished Rock Creek. It was sunny and even hotter than any of the previous 4 days on the waters of Montana and Yellowstone. The creek was running typically high, though not terribly off color. We started low on the creek and despite seeing a few golden stones, no fish were interested.
We figured our best chances were to chase the salmonflies so we drove 20+ miles up Rock Creek Road, collecting dust and hoping to encounter the really big bugs, which we did: there were salmonflies everywhere, like flocks of smallish birds. Never seen them thicker.
What we did not see was a single fish rise to a salmonfly all day, neither an imitation nor the real deal. We experimented by tossing live bugs into the water and watching them drift downstream through likely current seams. Nothing. I managed one 10 inch cutthroat on a Purple Haze (despite that there was no Purple Haze hatch coming off) and Jimmy threw everything in his fly box at a 15″ cuttie before finally enticing the fish to take his offering (which was not a salmonfly pattern). Goose hooked one small fish that may well have been the same 10 incher I’d caught. There aren’t many places where access to wadable water can be found, and the one spot we found is where all the action (if you can call it that) was to be found.
I don’t know why we even bothered to stop and fish that damn creek. It may be better later in the year when you can actually wade into the water to fish, but this time of year it’s not worth your time unless you’re in a raft.
But I’m not bitter. It is a pretty place, I’ll give it that.
Some things never change about our annual trip, and that is where we stay in West Yellowstone. And the Ho Hum was still there when Jimmy, Goose and myself pulled into town shortly before 9 P.M. The others had arrived several minutes sooner thanks to Marck’s heavy, deformed right foot that had the accelerator pressed firmly against the floorboards of the Soccer Mom Van. They had already checked in and dealt with the dreaded olfactory overload by the time we rolled in. With the weather being unseasonably sultry, the open windows of the office at the cat motel allowed the aroma to waft lazily across the parking lot, ensuring that we would still get to enjoy the fragrance from afar.
As we do every year, we made a couple quick stops to take care of business before eating dinner much too late. The first stop was at the grocery store for tomorrow’s lunch fixin’s and a can of air freshener (for our lavish room). After that it was off to Aarick’s Fly Shop for National Park fishing permits and a few trademark secret weapon flies that always get it done between hatches on the Firehole. Speaking of hatches, the nice weather had resulted in a Tourist Hatch and West Yellowstone was crawling with them. Now, one might argue that the Firehole Rangers are just as guilty as anyone of clogging the Park and West Yellowstone, but we’re not there as tourists: we’re there to fish. There’s a difference—right? And unlike the hoards of foreign tourists, the Rangers have a sense of awareness, personal space, and manners. But I digress. After consuming the too-late supper at the Three Bears restaurant, we retired to the comfort of our lavish rooms for a good night’s slumber. The air freshener would come in handy, repeatedly.
The next morning we rose early, intending to grab coffee and breakfast at McDonald’s (in previous years, the only place open at 6 A.M.). The problem was that the Golden Arches wasn’t open, and in fact, new hours posted on the door indicated that they wouldn’t open until 7:30. SEVEN THIRTY?! The only other joint open for early breakfast wouldn’t open their doors until 6:30. Apparently West Yellowstone doesn’t cater to the early rising angler, which further serves to distance us fishermen types from the
other tourists. We skipped breakfast altogether, settling instead for a cup of gas station coffee. Doing without breakfast was undoubtedly a good move since our bellies were still full from the dinner consumed just a few hours prior.
A half hour later we arrived at our starting point somewhere in the Midway Geyser Basin, geared up, and posed for the annual team photo. We were the first rig in the parking lot thanks, likely, to the fact that the tourists were all back in West Yellowstone waiting for breakfast to be served. There was a chill in the air, but the low fog was already giving way to blue skies and the promise of yet another beautiful day of fishing. We’ve had some interesting weather fluctuations in the past, and have fished in every kind of weather imaginable on the Firehole. Until 3 years ago we had always fished the Park on opening weekend (the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend). While a week can certainly make a big difference in the high country of Yellowstone, the weather is reliably schizophrenic and we never know what we’ll encounter until we get there. Even then it can change from hour to hour. The safe assumption is that the worse the weather, the better the catching. I’ll take sun and blue skies over the polar opposite, any day.
We strode off into the lifting fog toward the crown jewel of our annual trip: the Firehole River. Arriving at its banks we quickly noted that the flow was as low as we’d ever seen it. A quick temperature reading indicated that the water was still an acceptably cool 54°F (if you’re looking for celsius you’ll have to go to Canada). The flows had been low the previous year, but with the unseasonably warm Spring of 2015, the water temperature had also been also been 70°F. The result last year was the slowest day on the Firehole I had ever encountered. This year the spring weather had been much cooler (until our arrival) and things appeared to be on a better track this year as I hooked my first fish on the 2nd cast (by compasison it took an additional 30 casts before last year’s first fish was landed). The first fish of 2016 was a hard fighting 10 inch brown (same as last year). The next hour resulted in a couple more fish, but nothing like the glory years when double digits were caught in the first hour. Working our way downstream, the catch rate was well off the average pace for everyone, including the Firehole Master Ranger himself, Marck. I managed to land a few more 10 inch browns and a similar sized rainbow or two. Each fish put a smile on my face; pound for pound these Firehole fish fight as hard as any trout anywhere and they’re a lot of fun on a 3 weight rod.
When the pace of our downstream progress is slow it can be always attributed to really good catching. And there have been many years when posting up on a run for an hour and steadily catching fish was not uncommon. That said, we pushed downstream at a much quicker pace this year. Jimmy and I had talked of the need to slow down and remind ourselves to enjoy simply being there in such a beautiful place, and not get caught up in the rapid pace of fishing.
That wasn’t a problem this year—at least not the pace of the fishing. But slowing down didn’t do anything the speed up the catching: it remained slow throughout the day, though not as slow as last year when the fish total for the UA was 3 fish. I managed to quadruple that number this year, but the real telltale sign of the day’s slow catching was Marck: He normally catches an average of 173 fish on the Firehole; this year he caught around 20 (unthinkable!). But misery loves company, and everyone was well off their average. We won’t even talk about Nash’s day.
Another thing missing this year was the bison. We normally see at least a couple small groups of animals along the way; sometimes large herds. This year we saw one lone bull briefly along the river the entire day. Also missing were the typical crowds of angling folks that we typically encounter as we approach the lower part of the river. We saw perhaps a half dozen other angler folks all day, including a couple groups of beginners who were receiving guided lessons on how to not catch fish on the Firehole.
Most of us were back at the rigs drowning our sorrows well before the agreed-upon rendezvous time of 2:30. We shared our relatively meager catch rates and Nash nearly wept as Goose strutted in last, his chest puffed out as he announced that he had landed 8 out of 13 fish hooked.
On the drive back to West Yellowstone we saw another lone bison, along the side of the road. The bull appeared lost, and hot, so naturally we loaded him into the back seat of Morris’s Soccer Mom Van and took him a Bison-Cooling Facility.
Our good deed done, it was declared that the Rangers were also done with the Firehole and would not be fishing it the next day. We spent one more fragrant night at the Ho-Hum before departing the next morning for the next leg our our trip. Before doing so, however, we demolished a motherlode of food, and perhaps a few too many beers, at Wild West Pizza, where it’s not always clear to everyone which restroom to use.
Up next, Part 3: Would the Madison deliver a kick to the nuts again, this year?