Blue Ribbon Flies
With bellies swollen from our recent burger encounter in Ennis, we rolled into West Yellowstone under the cloak of darkness for a reunion with an old familiar friend, the Ho Hum Motel. Oh, and Erique too. He had flown to Bozeman to conduct a bit of business earlier in the week, and his rental car was parked out front – he had arrived 6 hours earlier and was eagerly awaiting our arrival. I’ve known Erique for years, and exactly what he does for a job is still shrouded in mystery. It involves prosthetic devices and he has at least one client who makes, among other things, clown shoes (I wouldn’t joke about a thing like that). Jimmy and I moved our gear into room #8 while Marck and Stan settled into the Big Room (#7) with Erique. Turns out the arrangement worked nicely because Erique can saw logs with the best of them (although I’m sure Stan’s reign as “Goosemaster” is in no danger of ending anytime soon). The Ho Hum had undergone some upgrades since the previous year, and the new bathroom tile in both rooms was a welcome upgrade. With the addition of new carpet in The Big Room, the accommodations bordered on lavish (our room still had the same red carpet and slightly-curious-though-not-necessarily-unpleasant smell leftover from 1958). But this isn’t a motel review, and the Ho Hum is always perfectly suited to our needs. We spend just enough time in our rooms to get a little shut-eye each night, nothing more. The day the Ho Hum gets all fancy on us is the day we search for a new dive, and I don’t think we’ll have to ever worry about that.
Normally we’re up at the crack of dawn and enter the park by 6:30 AM. However, we’d arrived too late the night before to purchase our National Park fishing permits so we slept in the next morning. We ate breakfast out of habit more than hunger (again, reference the burgers consumed for dinner the previous evening), and when the doors at Aarick’s Fly Shop opened at 7 AM we were first in line to purchase our permits and a handful of Secret Weapon flies. Erique fancied himself a sweet Dora The Explorer rod, but showed impressive restraint by leaving the shop with only a handful of flies (this was the second time in 6 months that I’ve had to convince a fishing buddy to not give in to impulse buying). We were layered up for the worst weather possible, which is always a likely scenario as West Yellowstone sits at an elevation of 6667 feet. The skies threatened rain/snow as we drove through the gates to the Park, received our information packet and proceeded quickly into Wyoming. The information packet is essentially the same every year, but that doesn’t keep me from reading it front to back. I always heed the warnings about bison and make a mental note not to become a statistic. I figure as long as I’m quicker than at least one of my fishing buddies, I’ll be OK. I was shocked to learn this year that the Park was founded not in 1872 as I had always thought, but rather much more recently in 1972. Always the voice of reason, Marck quickly pointed out that it was simply a typographical error. He should know, afterall–he’s been fishing the Firehole since the Park first opened.
Because of our later-than-normal start we were fortunate not to get stuck in rush hour traffic as we drove the 20 or so miles to our favorite spot on the Firehole River. Apparently the herd of bison that usually take their sweet time sauntering down the middle of the road had already completed their morning commute, so we made excellent time. We dropped Erique’s car off at Fountain Flats, where we would finish out the day, and everyone piled into Mrs. Jimmy’s Suburban for the last leg of our drive. As we arrived at Midway Geyser Basin (elevation 7251 feet) we noted that the parking lot was nearly empty. Usually the place is filled with tourists and other fishermen, and it’s not unusual for there to be a waiting line at the restroom. Save for 4 or 5 other vehicles, we were the only ones there. Perhaps the colder/wetter than normal spring weather had discouraged all but the most desperate hardiest of folks. The rain increased in volume and the outdoor temperature was a balmy 35 degrees as we strung up our rods, posed for a quick team photo, and mounted our assault on the ignorant trout of the Firehole. The river was running at ideal flows – almost 200 CFS lower than the previous year, and even then it fished pretty well. Anyone who knows the Firehole knows that it gives up trout willingly, and that’s exactly what draws us there each year. Sometimes an angler just wants some easy catching- good for the self esteem. Opening day of fishing in the Park was underway.
Another result of our later-than-normal start to the day was that more anglers were already stretched out along the water where we usually start fishing. While there weren’t many cars in the parking lot, apparently every one of them belonged to fishermen and there must have been 6 or 7 other fishing folks plying the waters of the Firehole. Our posse of 5 pressed onward a bit farther. The good thing about the brisk walk is that it warms the body. The bad thing about the brisk walk is that it gets the previous night’s supper moving. The dampness ensured that it felt much colder than it actually was and any bare skin not protected by a layer of fleece and Gore-tex felt the chill. I hate fishing with gloves, but I hate fishing with cold hands even more so out came the Pro Angler Glacier Gloves.
In typical Firehole fashion, the first cast yielded a first fish, followed by several more casts and several more fish. These fish hadn’t been harassed in probably 9-10 months, and they were as gullible as they come (though they do wise up quickly). In the first 20 minutes I managed to hook up with 10 or so fish (but who’s counting, right?). All were rainbows save for one brown, and most were in the 8-11 inch range. Scrappy fighters, too – thrashing, jumping and head-shaking right up to the point of release and sometimes before then. Because of the geyser activity along many stretches of the river, the water temperature was almost 60 degrees. This speeds up the metabolism of the fish and gets them feeding actively and fighting like champs.
A cookie-cutter Firehole fish on a 4 wt can be a lot of fun, and if you’re fishing a 3 wt trout stick like Marck’s brand new Sage ZXL 376-4, every fish is a dandy. I made the mistake of trying out the ZXL and instantly fell in love with it. It was smooth and soft casting without being a noodle, and paired with a Sage Click III reel the outfit weighed exactly nothing. By comparison my Sage Z-Axis 490-4 felt like a club, and I never thought I’d say that. To be very clear, my Z-Axis is anything but a club and it’s my favorite rod to fish with. Still, just sayin’ – the ZXL was like holding a feather. Damn you, Marck. The next time I ask to try out your new rod, deny me the privilege. You’ll be doing me a favor. (Note to Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler: I have not ordered another new rod. Yet)
While we’re on the subject of gear, I am inclined to mention my Sage Typhoon Waist Pack again. Prior to this day I’d only used it once, and then it only sat in the bottom of Joe Willauer’s boat, getting rained on and fending off standing water. Well, on this day I finally got to strap it on for 8 hours. It was comfortable to the point where I forgot it was even there, except obviously for when I needed something from inside one of its many compartments and pockets. The bag is a great design and very comfortable. Cinching it tight around my waist also provided the lower back support that a middle aged guy like me appreciates during a long day of wading. The cargo straps on the bottom of the bag are nice for when you want to roll up and stow a wading jacket or another bulky article of clothing. I didn’t do that on this day, as the weather dictated that every article of clothing was readily employed- it got neither warm nor dry enough to remove any layers. Two cold thumbs up for the Typhoon pack.
Back to the fishing. The five of us were spread out along the river as another group of 4 anglers passed behind us, hiking in search of some unoccupied water. I overheard one of them mutter something along the lines of, “I’ve never seen it this crowded on opening day before.” I was thinking the same thing myself. Just then another trout tightened my line.
Lest one should think that catching a Firehole fish on every cast is the rule rather than the exception, it doesn’t happen quite so easily all the time. Yes, catching can be almost silly, particularly on the first day, but even then the angler is not immune to the occasional lull in the action. At around 1pm, just when the guys at Blue Ribbon Flies said it would happen, a small hatch of PMDs started popping. However, the fish didn’t really turn on, and in a half hour I only managed one fish on an emerger pattern before switching back to a subsurface game. Same for Jimmy. The others had moved on and decided not to waste their time with this sorry excuse for a hatch. As we worked our way downstream I hit a big void in the catching game. To make matters worse, Jimmy kept himself rather busy with hookups. I grew weary of witnessing his good fortune so I decided to pout retrace my steps and work the last stretch of water a second time. I was sure I’d missed a few fish on the last run, and my tattered fly was replaced with a brand new one in hopes of enticing a few holdouts.
As I walked upstream I noticed a lone bison walking slowly toward me about 50 yards away. I didn’t want to force the huge bull to back down out of intimidation so I decided this would be a good place to jump back in the river, wade to mid-channel, and give him a wide berth (for his own peace of mind). Then the wind kicked up suddenly, which is always a sign of another high country squall moving in. The temperature dropped noticeably and the rain turned to snow. Where I was fishing the river is flanked by stands of timber on both sides, which kept me mostly protected from the gale force winds that I would later learn were blowing my compadres off the river just a ½ mile downstream. In my state of heightened focus and determination to dig myself out of the trout deficit into which I’d fallen, I’d completely lost sight of the others. I turned my back to the driving snow and dug in. The big bull decided to wait out the storm and had bedded down in the trees a ways upstream. Every few minutes I glanced over my shoulder to make sure he was still afraid of me.
The storm lasted about a half hour before the wind suddenly – and almost strangely – just stopped. It grew very quiet as remnants of the snowstorm drifted down softly at this point. It was then that I heard the unmistakable sound of rising fish. I saw nothing and figured they must be sipping emergers, again. Then the snow stopped completely, the temperature warmed up, and I began to see adult baetis drifting like tiny sailboats in the current, drying their wings as they went. They didn’t stand a chance against the hungry trout. A glance at my watch indicated it was just past 3pm. I was about to wage battle, so off came the gloves both literally and figuratively. For the next two and a half hours I forgot about the bison and feverishly tossed a #18 parachute PMD to rising trout. While I wouldn’t call it an “epic” hatch, it was significant and the fish were eager to take my fly as long as the drift was drag free (which it was not always). I was completely self-absorbed in the good times and lost all track of the time. Call it a serious case of P.M.D. A.D.D. When my arm finally got tired I checked my watch again: 5:30pm – time flies when you’re having a freakin’ blast. The others were probably worried sick about me ready to head to the car by now so I decided I’d better reel up and beat a fast track downstream.
As I rounded the downstream bend in the river I saw a couple of anglers, but no sign of those familiar to me. I was puzzled by their absence – surely they’d encountered at least a residual hint of the hatch I’d been selfishly wallowing in, and I figured I’d see them tossing dries in the riffles. When I finally caught up with them after another 1/4 mile I learned that the snow storm had been much more ferocious where they’d been fishing, and the hatch was something only I’d encountered. I did my best not to gloat because truth be told, I still caught fewer fish overall than anyone else. I’ve determined that it’s my lot in life to bring up the rear when it comes to catch quotas. So be it – I proudly and ocurageously embrace my privileged role as the least accomplished of anglers.
By the time we got back to the car it was 6:30. Day One on the Firehole had drawn to a close, and it had been another good one. We celebrated by enjoying West Yellowstone’s best pizza at Wild West Pizzeria. A few pitchers of beer went down easily as we listened to a great live band (Tessie Lou and The Shotgun Stars) while watching UFC 114 on Pay-Per-View (cage fighting and Bluegrass – a match made in Heaven West Yellowstone). The food was delicious and there’s something about a young lady with a Copenhagen can in her back pocket that made the Bluegrass sound all the more authentic. All fights on the UFC card, including the title bout between Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson, were rather lackluster, but nobody forced us to watch and it was free. So were a couple pitchers of beer (an oversight on the part of our waitress). We tipped well and headed back to The Ho Hum by 11 pm. Call us old and boring, but we had another date with the Firehole River in the morning, so we opted not to paint the town, just as we opted not to paint the town two nights earlier in Twin Bridges. And like Twin Bridges, West Yellowstone also has a statue of a painted trout in the heart of town. At first I thought it must just be a random Montana thing, but I poked around on the internet and found out that these “Fish Out of Water” sculptures were done as part of a fund raising project. During the summer of 2009, 12 of these painted trouts were sold at a live auction and raised over $60,000 for area charities and the Madison County Economic Development Council.
I want one.
(One may have gathered from the title that this is the second in a two-part series. In order to fully enjoy Part II, one must first read Part I. That being said, even then one may not enjoy Part II)
Over the course of two days the Firehole produced for us in typical fashion: solid numbers of willing browns and rainbows, most in the 10” – 12” range, but a couple slightly larger. At one point I saw Marck headed upstream from where we’d just come and asked where he was going. He’d apparently seen but not landed a big brown in a nice hole the previous year, and was going back to see about sealing the deal. Right, whatever. An hour or so later he returned, smiling. When he announced that he had caught the brown and it was BIG, I called Bison shit. He maintains that he caught the fish. I suggest the altitude was getting to him. Nearly all the fish were enticed by dead drifting a magical nymph pattern that I would tell you about, except for the fact that I would not be invited again on this trip if I did. I will tell you that this secret weapon can be found at either Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop or Blue Ribbon Flies or Arricks’s Fly Shop or Jacklin’s Fly Shop or West Yellowstone Fly Shop or Madison River Outfitters in West Yellowstone, but only at one of them. 99% of the fishing was subsurface without an indicator, which makes it a little easier to tolerate nymphing. We encountered one impressive BWO hatch during which only a couple fish were caught. Too much of a good thing proved to be the case, and with literally a gazillion real bugs hatching, our imitations were largely overlooked (mighta been due to less-than-perfect presentation, too). Still, it was amazing to see browns rising every few feet in a stretch of water that had hardly yielded a fish just a few hours earlier in the day. But considering the Firehole was running higher than average for this time of year, I had nothing to complain about, other than a couple of nearly sleepless nights as Stan’s roommate. Mother Nature threw everything at us, from driving snow to sunbreaks and everything in between. It’s always unpredictable fishing at 8000 feet in the Rockies during late Spring.
Ready for the next leg of our journey, which hopefully would involve some bigger fish, we departed the comforts of the Ho Hum motel in West Yellowstone at 5:30 AM in order to be at the Rock Creek Mercantile by 10 o’clock – the time designated for meeting up with our guides for the day. Two full days of wade fishing and perhaps 4 total hours of sound sleep had left me a bit loopy, but it was nothing that a cup of Joe and the promise of fishing the infamous Rock Creek wouldn’t cure. A stop at the golden arches in West Yellowstone for a quick hit of caffeine turned into a skunk, as the coffee machine was broken. This was not the way to begin a day that required a 4 hour drive, and the lack of java did little to lift the spirits and puffy eyelids on board the Soccer Mom Express. I volunteered to take the wheel for this first leg, knowing that at this early hour of the morning there would be few cars on the road and I could drive in a relative state of shame-free anonymity. Aside from a bull moose galloping alongside the road, I don’t recall seeing another living creature until we pulled into Big Sky for coffee. That’s not to say that there weren’t other vehicles on the road, but the lack of caffeine insured that the senses remained dull and I don’t recall seeing anything other than the moose, who glanced sideways at us in a manner that bespoke his thoughts: “Nice mini van.”
Properly revived by the ample supply of coffee acquired in Big Sky, we made excellent time heading westbound on I-90. We pulled into the Rock Creek Mercantile with 15 minutes to spare and were greeted by proprietor Doug Perisco, who was hard at work in his chair on the porch with a good cigar. The first order of business was to check into the cabins that we’d be staying in that night. In our excitement to arrive at Rock Creek, we had failed to draw the straws which would assign sleeping arrangements for that night. I watched as Stan carried his duffel bag toward the entrance to The Small Cabin. I quickly grabbed my stuff and sprinted toward The Big Cabin. After having bunked with Stan for the previous two nights I was looking forward to getting at least one night of decent sleep while on this trip. Survival of the fleetest of foot – my decisive action would have made Darwin proud. Marck was right on my heels, and as soon as we’d secured our lodging or the night, we shared a moment of silence in honor of our friend Nash, who would be bunking with The Goosemaster.
We geared up quickly and drove with our guides some 15+ miles up Rock Creek. The river was running high, as we knew it would be, and nobody to speak of had really been fishing the Creek recently. Everyone else was waiting for the salmonfly hatch to start, which could happen at any time (though it would not happen for another few days). Still, our guides assured us the fish were ready to eat, and we strung up our rods with white and yellow bead-headed variations of the woolly bugger. We boarded two rafts that would carry us downstream at a very quick pace and began pounding the banks with our flies.
I was sharing the raft with Stan (he doesn’t snore while fishing), and we got into fish shortly after the put-in. As soon as the heavily weighted flies hit the bank, we were instructed to give a quick tug and a good mend to allow them to settle into the water. We were drifting fast, which didn’t allow the fish more than a split second to see the flies and make a decision to strike. It took a few attempts and a couple of lost flies before I got the hang of this “Runnin & Gunnin” style of fishing. To describe the day as a combination of whitewater rafting and fishing would be inaccurate only because the water was less white and more the same color as the coffee with creme I’d enjoyed so much a few hours earlier. But it was a thrill to bounce through large waves while chucking flies. Soon we were hooking up at a regular rate with 12-15 inch browns , and an occasional rainbow. Stan hooked a small bull trout, and shortly thereafter I caught a bigger one – not very big by most standards, but being my first bull trout I was thrilled. And yes, I’m sure it was a bull trout.
It was halfway through our float when our guide proclaimed that a Rock Creek grand slam wasn’t out of the relm of possibilities. The grand slam of trout fishing is when an accomplished angler has a banner day on the water, and successfully catches, in a 24 hour period, each of the trout species known to reside in those particular waters. In this case that entails rainbow, cutthroat, brown, bull and brook trout (even though a bull and Brookie are, as we all know, technically chars). Rock Creek is one of the better rivers that afford the chance of hitting a grand slam, and while I never even pondered such a milestone, I was just happy to have caught a few fish. Even though we had yet to catch a cutthroat, we knew the river had a good supply of them. The likelihood of catching a Brookie seemed unlikely until Stan caught a Brookie. Now the reality of the Grand Slam seemed well within our reaches. I knew I wasn’t going to be honored with the achievement, but simply witnessing the act was good enough for me. Stan was standing at bat with the bases loaded, and all he needed was to connect with the right pitch. I became a Stan fan, and cheered him on with every cast. For a while I even kept my line off the water so as to give him room to work his magic. The problem was that by now we were in the lower stretches of the river, and the cutthroat tended to be higher up. Still, each cast carried with it tremendous hope, and you could feel the tension in the air. We were still having fun, mind you, but the mood aboard our raft had taken on an intense focus. Fish continued to hit Stan’s fly, but the fish were not the coveted cutthroats we sought. I managed to land a cuttbow, but that didn’t count (and besides, it was not I who was in the running for the grand slam). The catching slowed significantly during the last hour of the day, and unfortunately as we reached our take-out, the game winning cutthroat trout evaded us. There would be no Grand Slam for Stan the Man, but we raised a beer and toasted a great day on a great river that provided us with great angling excitement. Between the two of us we had probably landed 30 fish, and we’d each hooked up with a couple species which we had not previously caught. Our day on Rock Creek topped off another great Montana fishing adventure.
The report from Nash and Marck’s raft was that they had brought over 50 trout to the net: Browns, rainbows and a whole bunch of cutthroat which they’d caught in the first 2 hours of the day.
And in case you’re wondering, yes – I did enjoy my last night by sleeping peacefully. At dawn I awoke to the sound of a large bird, and immediately assumed it was just geese in the cabin next door. Poking my head out the door I realized that what I’d heard was not a gaggle, but rather a gobble. I’d already filled my turkey tag back in Washington that year, so I went back to bed for another hour.