sage dxl Typhoon waist pack

Yellowstone Trout Trippin’ Part I.

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.

Big Sky. Big trout. Small world.

Note:  Last week’s blog entry referenced Carly Simon’s song, ‘Anticipation’.  Let me make it painfully clear that the song was chosen for the title alone, and not because I actually sit around listening to Carly Simon. If you must know, I fancy the Allman Brothers Band, although Carly is much easier on the eyes than Brother Gregg.

Our annual trip to The Promised Land began when Jimmy arrived at 4:15 AM at my house. We loaded up my gear into the back of Mrs. Jimmy’s Suburban, which had fortunately been commandeered for the road trip.  This was a welcome development because the enjoyment of the 1617 mile round trip journey is directly related to the comfort level of the vehicle in which we ride.  The comfort range spans 1-10, with 10 being the highest. Over the years the comfort level has been as low as 1 (the year 4 of us were packed into my old Jeep Cherokee).  A couple of years ago we ratcheted things up several notches when we took the Soccer Mom Express.  I’d give the comfort level a rating of that trip a 7 overall.  The vehicle itself was physically very comfortable, but the emotional uneasiness of passing through Montana in a mini van kept the rating artificially low.  There was no shame associated with the Suburban, and with ample legroom for everyone including even Marck, leather seats and  a DVD player, it was like flying first class. Jimmy has 4 kids so food remnants were readily found tucked between the seat cushions, providing us ample opportunity to keep hunger at bay during the trip.  I would give the comfort rating a 9, and the only reason I withhold the highest rating is because I have to leave room for a perfect 10, which would require a limo, complete with it’s own driver and a wet bar.

Once Marck and Stan (The Goosemaster) were safely aboard, we pointed the nose of the Suburban east and made short work crossing the state of Washington. It rained nearly the entire way, which was an indication of the really lousy “Spring” weather the state of Washington had been having. According to my daughter, we’ve had exactly 27 minutes of sunshine since March. While that may be somewhat of a frustration-based exaggeration it’s not far from the truth, and rain would be a sign of things to come. We had breakfast in Coeur d’Alene per standard operating procedure, topped off the gas tank, and resumed our journey.  Next stop: Rock Creek Lodge, MT for a quick inspection of the facilities, which did not disappoint.  We also poked around the gift shop briefly, but opted not to spend any of our money. The Wood Peckers were admittedly very tempting.

Rock Creek Lodge offerings.

As we drove through the town of Whitehall, MT, I detected the unmistakable smell of skunk, and then saw the roadside carcass. I convinced myself that this was not an omen. We were in Montana, and skunkings don’t happen here. Right?  Under big, gray skies and Seattle-esque rain, we rolled into Twin Bridges at 4pm. Due to my ability to navigate (Lewis & Clark would be impressed) we had no trouble finding The Stonefly Inn & Outfitters. Actually Twin Bridges is a one horse town (if that), so finding anything would be easy for even the most unaccomplished of explorers. The season was not yet in full swing, and the Stonefly was abuzz with construction projects. The Roost was being enlarged to what appeared to be double the previous capacity. The shop/office was in a bit of disarray and smelled of newly painted shelves, but we were greeted and quickly checked into rooms 5 and 6 of “The Jefferson” where we made ourselves right at home. The rooms are small and quaint; very clean and comfortable. An impressive selection of fishing and hunting magazines dating back to the early 1990’s provided interesting reading material. Marck and Stan would be bunking together, and coincidentally (or not), the wall of their room was adorned with waterfowl artwork. Luckily the walls were also thick so I wouldn’t hear the geese that night.

The first order of business was to reconnoiter downtown Twin Bridges. Since the distance from one end of town to the other isn’t much longer than the Suburban, we set off on foot. It wasn’t raining hard at the moment, and the walk would do us good since we’d been cooped up for 9 hours. We stopped in at 4 Rivers Fly Fishing Company to purchase our Montana fishing licenses and look around the impressive shop and converse with the proprietor, Robin, and her shop assistant, Spook (the black lab). After our licenses were secured, we moved on to our next order of business: Finding a cold beverage.  As we exited the shop, a young couple of anglers were just entering. As we passed, I did a neck-wrenching double take. I was pretty sure I recognized one of them – the chick.  I could swear it was the Fly Fish Chick, but I didn’t want to impose like a member of the paparazzi so I followed my compadres outside.  Standing on the sidewalk I couldn’t curb my curiosity so I headed back inside the shop and imposed myself like a member of the paparazzi. Approaching the lady angler I stuttered with all the confidence of a nervous schoolboy, “Ummm, errr…excuse me…Fly Fish Chick?”  She turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “Yes?” she replied with a southern drawl and a hint of hesitance.  I introduced myself and she instantly displayed the grace that someone from The South is reputed to possess. I’d spoken with her on the phone before and shared email correspondence in the past. I’d even sent her daughter, Little Chick, a set of the Olive books a couple years earlier, so it wasn’t like I was a complete stranger hounding her for her autograph (although I did request a photo with her and The Professor). They were in Dillon on one of several pilgrimages they make to fish the MT rivers each year. The chances of running into them were astronomically slim, and it was a thrill to finally meet the voice behind Flyfishchick.com. They would be fishing the Big Hole the next day, so there was a chance that we’d run into them on the river as we also hoped to fish there in the morning with Superguide, whom the Chick and the Professor had met the previous summer. Checking another item off my bucket list, I bid them good fishing and rejoined Marck, Stan and Jimmy, who were undoubtedly rolling their eyes at me for having chased her down like some sort of groupie.  I was OK with that.

The Professor & The Fly Fish Chick, and the one who is Unaccomplished

The Blue Anchor was our next stop, for a couple cold beers to wash down the dust from our long trail ride.  There were perhaps 4 other folks, clearly locals, in the bar. No doubt this place would be packed in another month or so, but for now it was a quiet watering hole and suited us just fine. After quenching our thirst we ate a good bacon cheeseburger at the Wagon Wheel before retiring for the evening.  We’d be meeting our guides at 8:15 the next morning, so we opted for a good night’s rest rather than staying out late and painting the town.  Besides, at least one part of the town had already been painted – a trout statue right in the heart of downtown Twin.  Fly fishing dominates this area, and for good reason: There’s no shortage of great water to fish, what with the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Jefferson, the Madison and the Ruby all within easy distance. Business may have been a little dead when we were there, but with summer fast approaching soon the town of Twin Bridges would be hopping.

After breakfast at the Wagon Wheel the next morning we hooked up with our guides back at the Stonefly.  Brett Seng would be taking Stan and Marck in his Clackacraft LP, while Jimmy and I would be aboard the blue Clackacraft skiff owned by Joe Willauer. The weather reports I’d been watching all week had apparently been completely fabricated and inaccurate, and instead of temps in the 60’s and scattered showers, we faced temps in the low 40’s and steady rain with little snow mixed in for good measure. The Big Hole had spiked overnight, so our quarterbacks called an audible and we’d be running a different route: the upper Beaverhead. Joe informed us that it wasn’t as scenic as the Big Hole, but the Beav had some hogs in it.  And lots of them: 3500-4000 fish per mile. That got us excited, and as we drove to our launch point the steady rain didn’t dampen our spirits.  I was glad, however, to be wearing my Simms jacket as I sat in the back seat of Joe’s truck.  The rear window was leaking and if not for Gore-tex I’d have been wet before we ever reached the put-in.  Along the way Joe pointed out Beaverhead Rock, which held great significance to Lewis and Clark on their journey.  As an armchair Lewis & Clark historian, I found great interest in this.  However, big trout were my main focus at the moment. Discovering a waterway through the Rockies to the west could wait for another day.

Beaverhead Rock

The Beaverhead is tailwater and the flows are controlled by the Clark Canyon Dam, which is where we launched. As we strung up our 6 wt rods with double nymphs, bobbers and as many as 5 split shots, we saw large fish rolling at the base of the spillway.  The size of these fish indicated that this was clearly no Yakima River, though Joe knows that water as well.  He’s a Washingtonian who has done time on a lot of rivers out west. I’d “known” him for a couple years in the way that the internet makes people familiar, and had met him in person on the Methow River during fall steelhead season the year before. Fishing with Joe was another item on my bucket list that I was checking off on this trip.  The good fortune of fishing under the guidance of Joe, and the presence of the Lucky Fishing Hat would ensure that this would be a good day. And it was.

Clark Canyon Dam

As we prepared to begin our float, Brett pointed out the obvious : ”Remember, boys – you are the weak link between the fish and Joe and I.”  While that was certainly the case, and a few fish were broken off before they could be landed, everyone got into fish.  Stan drew first blood by taking at least two nice fish before Marck started working his magic. Jimmy’s first fish was a nice 16 inch brown that was small for the Beaverhead, but a sweet fish by any other standards.

Being true to form, I was last to get into the action, but my first fish put an ear-to-ear grin on my face. At a solid 19 inches with plenty of girth, it was the biggest rainbow I’d caught to date. There would be others like it throughout the day, and while I wouldn’t land as many fish as the others, it mattered little because I am not competitive and don’t keep track of such things.  My logbook records indicate that Jimmy landed about 10 fish and Stan and Marck each caught 12-13 fish apiece.  Stan managed one 6 incher which was by far the most undersized trout of the day, and one 12 incher.  The rest were all big fish, with Marck imposing his dominance by catching one that he claims to have been 24 inches. I’ll take his word for it, and hope to see photographic proof someday. I didn’t personally see him with any fish over 23″.

The number of fish in the Beaverhead was staggering.  At one point while standing in less than a foot of water dead drifting my “amberlamps” pattern through an inside seam, Joe calmly said, “Look at all those fish right there,” as he pointed a few feet from us. Joe’s vantage point is about 4 feet higher than mine, and his Osprey view of the water allowed him to spy 8 to 10 fish (all big) stacked up in the calm shallows not 6 feet below us.  I couldn’t see them, and noted as much.  His reply was the sort of thing one would expect a fishing guide to say to a paying client who would determine the amount of the tip at the end of the day: “I almost brought along a milk crate for you to stand on today.”  That’s some good stuff right there.  I laughed politely and made a mental note to deduct a portion of the tip accordingly.  There would be other comments throughout the day that would slowly erode my self esteem, such as the couple times I was slow with my hookset: “Did you want that fish?” By the time we finished I think Joe actually owed me money. I thought a little sucking up to the client might be in order, however such would not be the case.

The Beaverhead was, not surprisingly, busy with other anglers.  One stretch had us running a slalom course to avoid wade-fishermen, but we were the only boats on the water.  We were able to fish a two mile section before reaching the point where Clark Canyon Creek spewed chocolate bile into the river.  Just below that point proved to be a convenient place to take our lunch break because the highway overpass was essentially a roof over our heads. We were able to dine in relative dryness.

Lunch featured Torpedoed BBQ Venison Hand Pies which were delicious and consumed quickly so we could resume our fishing. Luckily we were able to take out here and drive upstream to float the 2 miles of clean water a second time.  Normally one would think fishing through the same water would yield less than productive results, but such was not the case on the Beaverhead.  We slayed ‘em again in the afternoon, and the clouds actually lightened such that something resembling filtered sunshine greeted us in the afternoon.

My best fish of the day came around 4 pm when a thick 19-20 inch rainbow hammered my fly and went instantly airborne three times. One never grows tired of that sort of thing, especially when it hardly ever happens to that person. Unfortunately Joe’s camera opted to malfunction as he snapped photos of my fish, and the digital memories were washed out images that couldn’t be helped with even the best software. Even Photoshop has its limitations.  I’ll have to go back and catch that fish again, and have Joe use MY camera next time. If there is a silver lining to the washed-out photos, all the photos look like I’m holding a dime bright steelhead.

The rain was kept at by for the remainder of the float, and fishing continued to be good until we took out at 6:30 pm.  In impressive fashion, I made one final cast hoping to hook just one more good fish for the day.  A gust of wind, combined with the unsightly assembly of end tackle and flawed casting skills created an epic tangle and provided a photo finish to the day.

Once back at the Stonefly, we paid the balance due on our lodging bill and thanked Joe and Brett for a great day on the water.  I slipped Joe a $5 bill and told him to keep the change – you can’t put a price on a great day like the one we’d just had.  We hated to leave Twin Bridges, but we had a two hour drive to West Yellowstone where we would meet up with Erique for two days of fishing the Firehole.  As we headed south through Twin Bridges, rain fell from the dark sky as we collectively agreed that fishing the Beaverhead was something we wanted to do again. We also acknowledged that the small fish the Firehole were going to take some time getting used to.  We headed toward Ennis for dinner, which would provide more amusement for Day One of our trip.

Gear review:  My recently acquired Sage Typhoon Waist Pack impressed.  Although I didn’t have it around my waist during this first day, it proved its worth laying in the bottom of Joe’s skiff getting soaked by rain and standing water.  Everything inside the bag was bone dry. Thumbs up.