Some things seem to always change, while others remain the same. It’s that way with our annual trip to Yellowstone to fish the Firehole River: With almost clockwork predictability, we know that certain elements of the trip are going to be very familiar, like an old pair of underwear. At the same time, other parts of the trip will prove to be dynamic and full of surprises. It was that way this year. It was that way last year. And it was that way the previous year and every other year that I’ve made the journey: the same, but different.
Every year, the same core group (more or less) makes the pilgrimage on Memorial Day Weekend. Fishing season in the Park opens on that Saturday. This is a constant. It is always a long drive. Try as we might, we cannot change that. We always meet at Marck’s house at an indecent hour, drive 5 hours where we gas up and have breakfast in Coeur d’alene, Idaho before pushing eastward across the Panhandle and into Montana. Along the way we always note that the Clark Fork River is the color of a chocolate milkshake. With a monstrous snowpack this year, the Clark Fork (and every other river along the way) was running even higher than normal.
Every year we stay at the Ho Hum Motel, and every year the office where we check-in and check-out smells like cat urine. It seemed a bit worse this year. You see, the owner keeps cats. Cats that are free to come and go through an open window. With the long, cold winters in West Yellowstone, it’s obvious that the cats prefer to go. Inside.
To say that it’s a stench would be inaccurate. It’s more than just a smell–it’s an assault on the olfactory system. It stings the eyes and gets on the back of your tongue, causing an involuntary gag reflex, and quite possibly paralysis. Only Stan is capable of standing in the face of the sensory attack because he can’t breath through his nose anyway. But in all fairness, the rooms are all clean, cat-free, and cheap. Cheap is good.
Every year the weather is unpredictable. We know that going in. Fishing at an elevation of 7200 feet in the Rockies guarantees sun, rain, driving snow, sleet, hail…we expect it all. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised. This year we expected the worst because the weather forecast was calling for 3 days of cold and snow.
On Saturday morning the streets of West Yellowstone bore a trace of slushy snow (“winter mix” as our local meterologists like to refer to it) that had fallen overnight. That didn’t surprise us. It was 31 degrees as we made our way to the Golden Arches for breakfast. No reputable restaurants were open at 6AM so we did what we had to do.
The weather looked daunting as we entered the Park and made our way to Midway Geyser Basin. We always fish this section the first day. Always. But as we geared up, the sun shone upon us and clouds parted. With blue skies immediately overhead and freshly fallen snow covering the ground, it was a good morning to be alive. A good day to be going fishing. The Firehole Rangers were ready to launch their assault on the gullible rainbows and browns that had not seen an artificial fly in at least 7 months. We were armed with the secret weapon fly that always gets it done. Always. There is no deviation. We were a tough band of angling warriors. We were soft-hackle tough.
Occasionally someone will show up with a new piece of gear, but one thing is for certain: Stan the Goosemeister will always have the same stuff as he had the previous year and every year before that dating back to the 1940s. He’s reliable. Jimmy is a man of many hats, literally, and has a different hat for every day. No two hats are the same, and that never changes. Not everything remains the same, however: Marck was sporting a new pair of Redington Sonic Pro Zip Front Waders, and Nash had a brand new pair of Redington boots and quickly discovered that snow sticks to felt. Especially new felt. I personally don’t mind the extra couple of inches that the snow adds to my height, but walking can be a little tricky as Nash soon found out.
There was a group of 4-5 other anglers who had walked in ahead of us, but as is the case with other fishermen every year, they always fish a section of the river that’s closest to the road. We like to hike in a ways and get away from the crowds. We always do, and without fail we have the entire river to ourselves for the better part of the day. Catching was a little slow to start, for me anyway, and it wasn’t until my 8th cast that I caught a fish. I wasn’t too bothered by that–I was distracted by the beauty of the morning. All around us were ominous clouds that threatened to descend upon us with a wrath. However, with the exception of a couple snow squalls that blew in and blew out relatively quickly, we enjoyed a strangely nice day on the water. We didn’t expect that, but it was a nice surprise for a change.
As I’ve suggested, fishing is always good on the Firehole. Some years the flows are lower than others (this was not one of those years), but the levels never seem to impact the
quality quantity of the fishing catching. For some (Marck), the catching is better than for others (everyone else). That’s a foregone conclusion. But even the most unaccomplished of us caught 25-30 fish during the course of the day. There are no great surprises when it comes to the fish of the Firehole. Most of the fish are 10 inchers: a mixed bag of rainbows and browns. Catch rainbows in the riffles and browns in the frog water. Browns hit the fly and put their heads down. Rainbows hit the fly and come uncorked. That is an assumption you can put money on, except for the one brown I caught that went airborne.
A few fish are 12 inchers. During a hatch of PMDs and Blue Winged Olives that came off, as expected, during and after one of the snow squalls, a couple of 14 inch rainbows were had. No matter the size, these are all hard-fighting fish. With water temps averaging in the mid to upper 50’s (due to geothermal activity in and around the river) these are not catatonic troutcicles – they’re hard-fighting leapers, movers and head shakers. On a 4 weight rod a 10 inch Firehole fish feels much larger. A 12 inch Firehole fish is a lot of fun, and a 14 inch Firehole fish will have you wearing a shit-eating grin from ear to ear.
After the morning troutfest we converged upon a spot for lunch. It was here, as he emptied his fanny pack of water, that it became apparent one of the Firehole Rangers had taken a spill earlier in the day. I don’t want to publicly embarrass him or make light of the situation by calling him out, but with brand new felt there is no excuse for losing one’s footing. And when one’s waders take on water and the remainder of the day is spent sloshing around cold and miserable, it’s no laughing matter.
After lunch we fished out the afternoon until we were tired of catching fish. With flies that were ravaged and tattered we made the long hike back to the rig and called it a day. Mother Nature had showed us a little bit of everything, but mostly she had taken pity on us. Overall the weather was way better than anticipated. That was nice for a change. The fishing was exceptional, as it always is. We had a great time–we always do.
But things were about to change.
In 48 hours I’ll be very close to being in Montana. We’ll probably be just about done with Idaho’s panhandle, headed East on I-90. The destination, as it is every year at this time: West Yellowstone, MT. The Ho Hum Motel, to be exact. The Firehole River, ultimately. Rather than waste your time writing about what to expect, let me just offer you a few recollections from previous years. It never varies a great deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring or redundant (except for the 14 hour drive).
The weather is always unpredictable when fishing at over 7200 feet in Yellowstone Park. Spring squalls will blow in one minute and we’ll be hunkered down to find a spot out of the driving snow. Then the sun will come out and we’ll be peeling layers. This year, however, it looks predictably bad. No matter- the fish will be gullible. It’s opening day of fishing in the park and the rainbows and browns haven’t seen an imitation bug since last fall. It’s stupid catching, and just what the doctor ordered. Then we’ll hit the Madison near Three Dollar Bridge and all that easy catching will come to an abrupt halt. I’ll get my arse handed to me. So will everyone else. Except Marck.
When I return, I’ll write up my recollections of this year’s trip. It’ll be remarkably similar to years past.
(Unlike yesterday’s April Fools fishtale, today’s offering is absolutely honest and truthful. Only names have been changed to protect the innocent)
Each Memorial Day weekend Marck leads the charge to fish the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park. The list of participants changes somewhat from year to year, but no matter who is in attendance the event always begins with the 4 A.M. departure from Marck’s house on Friday. This means that I have to get up at 3 AM in order to make coffee and drive the 25 miles upstream from my home. Not surprisingly there’s little traffic at that God-forsaken time of day, and I feel bad for anyone else on the road that’s not headed to Montana for some fishing. The annual jaunt from the North Bend, WA to West Yellowstone, MT (a distance of 575 miles or 925.18 Kilometers) is not something one typically looks forward to: it is simply a means to an end. The drive had been far less than enjoyable two years prior as four of us were shoe-horned uncomfortably into my Jeep Cherokee, which lacked both cruise control and ample leg room for anyone other than myself. The next year I missed out on the trip because my daughter’s 4×400 relay team was competing in the state track meet, so Marck made the drive alone and had one of his best fishing days ever. So on this year it felt good to be heading back to Yellowstone: the Jeep was left behind and The Soccer Mom Express pulled out of Marck’s driveway right on schedule with Nash behind the wheel, Marck riding shotgun, and myself and Stan (not his real name) in the second row of seats. While Nash’s wife’s mini van might not be the vehicle a fisherman prefers to be seen in passing through Idaho and Montana, I have to admit that it was like traveling in first class, complete with beverage and snack service and movies on DVD. We made our typical stops in Coeur d’Alene, ID for gas and breakfast (which resulted in more gas), and then at the Rock Creek Lodge in Clinton, MT for a bathroom break and a Testicle Festival t-shirt. During the course of the long road trip we took turns behind the wheel, which allowed us to kill two birds with one stone: First, it offered everyone an opportunity to grab a nap; secondly it ensured that no one would be denied the pleasure of being seen driving a mini van through Idaho and Montana. I’m being sarcastic of course – but truth be told after the first hour I stopped hiding my face whenever we were passed by a 4×4 diesel pickup.
Even though the drive was as pleasant as this drive can possibly be, one tends to be a bit road weary after 12 hours in a car (okay, a mini van). A good night’s sleep would still be important because the next day would be a long one, spent walking several miles of river and fishing hard. Opening day of the fishing season on the Firehole can be epic so one wants to bring their A game, knowing that the water will be worked hard and a lot of it will be covered in a vain attempt to keep up with Marck’s catch rate. As we pulled into the parking lot of the Ho-Hum Motel in West Yellowstone straws were drawn to determine who would bunk with Stan. You see, there’s the little matter of Stan’s reputation as “one who snores” which mandates the annual drawing. I had successfully dodged that bullet on a previous trip, so I had no firsthand experience in dealing with his reputed snoring. However, one cannot tempt fate forever, and I was left holding the short straw this time. Not to worry, I was also reassured that Stan’s snoring used to be a lot worse before the surgery to repair whatever it was that was causing the snoring to have been so notorious.
To insure that which follows does not appear as an attack on his character, let me make it clear that Stan is the type of guy you know you’re going to like the first time you meet him. He’s unpretentious, easy-going, speaks his mind and has a great sense of humor. However, if you happen to draw the short straw a good portion of that appeal goes quickly by the wayside once the lights go out.
It should be noted that I am not one to fall asleep right away. My brain is just wired such that when I assume the horizontal position I begin to process typically useless information. While I may not be sound asleep, as long as it’s dark and quiet I’m still relaxing and recharging. While this is my way, it is not Stan’s way. When Stan’s head hit the pillow that first night, his eyes immediately rolled back in his head, his jaw dropped open, and he was asleep. Not sort-of-asleep as in that magical happy place when you’re just slipping out of consciousness, but OUT as if having just been dropped to the canvas by a thundering blow to the chin and then placed into a rear naked choke. For a few glorious minutes all was quiet on the West Yellowstone Front. And then the storm began brewing.
Slow at first, and not snoring per se – just heavy breathing. After about 31 seconds of this the pace increased and simultaneous inhalation through both the nose and mouth commenced. With such a large volume of air being sucked through both orifices, things started to rattle inside Stan’s sinuses like the shutters on a house during a gale. As the force of the storm increased, it sounded like something was going to tear loose at any minute and I lay there in shear amazement at what was happening in the bed 4 feet away. At this point I wasn’t yet annoyed – afterall we were only a couple of minutes into it. I was, rather, quite simply impressed. Then it subsided and became quiet again. That wasn’t so bad, and I naively assumed I could probably fall asleep before another storm system rolled in. However, the next front blew in with unthinkable ferocity and apparently carried with it a flock of geese that landed on Stan’s bed and began a terrible ruckus; fighting, squawking and honking their honkers. It amazed me that Stan could sleep through the violence, so I did what any friend would do when their buddy is under attack: I threw a pillow at him. This didn’t wake him up, but it did seem to silence the geese. Temporarily.
Within 10 minutes they were at it again, and in an act of self preservation I put the remaining pillow over my face and attempted to suffocate myself. I tried not to struggle, but the survival instinct kicked in and I tossed and turned and became hopelessly twisted in the bedsheets. Exhausted, at some point very late that night I managed to lose consciousness and catch a couple hours’ of oxygen-deprived shut-eye. I was just entering that period of deep REM sleep when the alarm went off at 5 AM and rudely jolted me back to conscious reality. Stan was bright-eyed and ready for the day: “Mornin’ Sunshine– how’d ya sleep?” he asked. I was feeling a little less than chipper as I sat on the edge of the bed trying to pry my eyes open so I could survey the damage. I suffer from a mild allergy to goose down, which causes me to get all congested and puffy in the face, and so I squinted through bloodshot eyes, fully expecting to find feathers and goose droppings–maybe even a carcass or two. To my surprise there was no sign of the carnage I had witnessed just a few short hours before. We dressed in warm clothes (there was a fresh skiff of snow on the ground), loaded our fishing gear into the Soccer Mom Express and headed to breakfast. Marck, Nash, Stan and I sat down to a hearty meal at a cafe known as the Three Bears. It seemed a cruel bit of irony that this place would be named after the fairytale in which Goldilocks sleeps peacefully through the night, and I couldn’t help but think that the place should have been called The Mother Goose Cafe. Three of the four of us were apparently well-rested and eager to chat about the day ahead, and somehow I managed to keep my eyes open between visits from our waitress, who saw my desperate need for a steady supply of coffee. Marck noticed that I wasn’t my normal chipper self, and in a tone that suggested great concern for my well being he asked, “What the hell happened to you?” I couldn’t give him an accurate answer because I myself wasn’t sure what had taken place in our motel room during the night. All I knew was that we had two full days of fishing the Firehole ahead of us, and I had one more night of fending off geese. I was looking forward to the fishing.
Tune in next week for Part II: Will the Unaccomplished Angler catch some quality shut-eye, and maybe a fish…?