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.