A trio of holes, and 2 other miserable rivers: Part III

This is, as noted in the title, Part 3. So if you haven’t already, please consider reading Part 1 and Part 2 before subjecting yourself to this.


Why go outside, when you can go inside?

While the Ruby had welcomed 4 of the Firehole Rangers to Montana it was rather rude to Jimmy and me. No worries; as I said earlier the Ruby was just a quick sideshow and not one of our keynote rivers. The Big Hole was the highlighted river of the trip and it was on that storied water that we all enjoyed a rather splendid day and good fishing. The next stop took us 2-1/2 hours to West Yellowstone and our lodging for the next three nights: the Ho Hum Motel (known for cheap rates and cats). Not surprisingly the office still took our breath away—or at least Marck’s breath; the rest of us declined to accompany him to check in. He returned with the room keys looking as if he’d just seen a ghost tasted cat piss. Some things never change.

Firehole Rangers 2015

Jumping ahead to the next morning, we arrived at our favorite stretch of the Firehole. As we do every year, we posed for a team photo before embarking on a long day filled with abundant catching within safe proximity to bison. Sometimes we see entire herds of cows with their young calves, other times we see small bachelor groups. Occasionally the lone bull can be seen lounging alone in a thicket of pines, enjoying the solitude away from the young bulls and the cows and their offspring. Peaceful and quiet—sort of like when a man goes fishing alone. As expected the bison were there again this year: we encountered a small group of bulls that seemed agitated, snorting and grunting as we passed by.

One had a hump on its back; the other a hump on its backside.

Whenever I see a bison I always try to have a contingency plan at the ready should one decide to come too close and get ornery. My plan, if it should ever have to be executed, never ends well for the angler. Thankfully the big woolly beasts tend to be fairly tolerant this time of year. Wide berth, avoid eye contact, no red capes. It’s all good.

Marck fishes close to the original woolly bugger of Yellowstone country.

With the bison as a sideshow, the Firehole is all about trout and each year the river offers up many trouts to the Ranger brigade: strong, healthy browns and rainbows, mostly 10-12 inchers with the occasional bigger fish that Marck alleges to have caught. There have been high water years when the fishing was a little tougher than most years, but yea in and year out I catch 25-30 fish on the Firehole while everyone else does a bit better and Marck does a lot better. Swinging soft hackles gets it done, and rarely do we deviate from that methodology because there is no need. If a hatch comes off (usually BWOs and PMDs) obviously we change our tactics. But 99% of the time it’s the soft hackle game and we catch lots of fish, so it was with that confidence that the Rangers faced our namesake river.

At least the weather was good on the Firehole.

The weather is always unpredictable at 7200 feet and while there was no rain nor snow predicted that doesn’t mean much in Yellowstone country: you go out for a full day prepared for everything. Knowing that, I left my rain jacket in the truck, which was either a risky decision to run with scissors or just the result of an unintentional bad lapse in judgment. Or perhaps I simply forgot. Whatever the case may be it didn’t prove to be an issue because the gray morning soon gave way to mostly sunny skies and amazing clouds. We immediately noted the river was low. And warm. I took a temperature reading as soon as I dropped into the first run: 70 degrees F. We could have, and perhaps should have been wet-wading, save for the fact that the Firehole is laced with naturally-occurring arsenic. It’s always warmer than other rivers in the park due to the thermal activity all around, but it’s usually several degrees cooler than it was this year. Fret not, I reminded myself, these fish are used to the warm water.

Things started slower than normal and it wasn’t until my 31st cast that I had a grab on the soft hackle. Small brown, maybe ten inches. OK, I could relax now that the first fish was to hand—sometimes it takes a while to get into the rhythm of the river. Two hours later that rhythm still evaded me and I had still only caught one fish. I’d had a couple grabs but no deals were sealed and I began to question my decision to not wear my lucky fishing hat again—what was I thinking to mess with tradition, again? It hadn’t seemed to matter what hat I was wearing on the Big Hole a day earlier—anyone can catch fish when I guide holds your hand and tells you exactly what to do, right?

It didn’t take a heightened level of deductive reasoning to realize that the low flows and increased water temps were to blame. There were thousands of caddis skittering about the Firehole; something we don’t typically see this time of year. Things were different. The season was advanced over what it might normally be. What has worked every year in the past wasn’t working, particularly for me. I did manage to catch one fish on a PMD dry, and a black woolly bugger yielded one fish from a deep pool, but that was it for me. 3 fish on the Firehole—are you serious? I suppose I could say that I caught fish using a variety of tactics but somehow that didn’t make me feel any better about my angling prowess, and by the time I broke for lunch I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I had a warm beverage in my pack that wasn’t intended to be consumed warm. I placed it in the water to cool off before I realized it would never cool to more than 70 degrees and the arsenic might eat through the aluminum can. It was probably cooler than that in my pack, so I drank it warm. It tasted strangely like cat piss.

There’s nothing like a fine Vitamin R at river temperature

When I caught up with the other Rangers later in the afternoon they had apparently read my mind: the Firehole was not worth fishing the next day as we always do. Everyone else caught a lot more fish than I did but the catching was much slower this year.

That night over supper we decided to cut our Firehole session short and visit the Madison Cornhole the next day. It had been a strange day on the Firehole. Too warm. Almost tropical. Pretty typical of the strangely warm winter and spring the entire west had experienced. Goose decided to toast the day with a drink fitting the climate.

Nothing says fishing in Yellowstone like a piña colada.

So long, Ho Hum. See ya next time, West Yellowstone. Good riddance, Firehole. We’ll be back in less than 365 days, and as much as I hate to say it I hope the weather next year is more like it was in 2012. OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme; how about 2011?





  1. mark

    Since God had created our lovely Earth, nothing is wonder strange or weird when is comming about the weather.
    My late father used to say “Do you remember the winter of 1927 when the deers were freezing standig ?” I don’t – what I should have said.
    Best Regards & keep the line tide

  2. mark

    “original woolly bugger of Yellowstone country” seems to be too big for a bait, even when the use of live bait is not forbiden.
    May be somewhere in Texas.
    By the way, nothing to be thank you about Sir, I simply love the art of your pen and it would be a big disaster for me if I couldn’t follow…
    Best Regards & keep the line tide

  3. Owl

    I enjoyed every word.

    • Kirk Werner

      And don’t think that I don’t appreciate you taking the time to comment accordingly!

  4. cory

    Ya’lls rods seem shorter in 2012.

    • Kirk Werner

      Astute observation there, Cory. It happens to men our age.

      • cory

        So it isn’t a cold weather tactic?

        • Kirk Werner

          Nope. And while is seems counter intuitive, in the cold weather our rods seem to be stiffer.

  5. Carol

    I always enjoy reading your blogs. Your experience on $h1t Creek resonated with me. Makes me nuts when I fish a run, change flies, try different presentations and come up empty handed. Then my husband comes along, with a rig I’ve tried and catches multiple fish in the same run. Do fish smell frustration?

    • Kirk Werner

      I’m not sure if fish smell frustration or if we Unaccomplished Anglers simply emit some sort of signal that is detected by the fish’s lateral line. But misery loves company so thanks for your readership!

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