Hell or High Water? Day Two: The Firehole

If you missed Part 1, you may want to read it first. Then again…

Typically we arrive in West Yellowstone with plenty of time left in the day to purchase our National Park fishing permits and a few flies. For some strange reason, Arrick’s Fly Shop wasn’t open when we arrived at 1 AM (WTH?) so we had to wait until 7 AM the next morning to take care of that business. Given that we hadn’t eaten a huge meal in more than 9 hours, we were absolutely famished by the time we stopped in at the Three Bears (not the Three Bears in Lincoln, FYI) for a hearty breakfast before entering the park. There was more tourist traffic than we typically encounter and, as one can imagine, the backup was long as vehicles waited patiently for the morning bison commute to thin out. Goose took his wingman role seriously and stayed awake the entire time during the perilous drive.

This cow wasn't much larger than her calf #babymama

This roadside cow wasn’t much larger than her calf #babymama

We finally arrived at Midway Geyser Basin and were lucky to find a couple of parking spots. Tourists buzzed all around the area as we geared up; some were curious foreigners who found what we were doing to be of great amusement. One fellow, who appeared to be a non-foreign tourist, walked past us with what was likely his wife and in-laws and a gaggle of small, raucous children who had recently consumed a breakfast of sugar. With shoulders slumped and an expression of defeat on his face, he glanced forlornly in our direction and muttered softly, “Man, I’m jealous of you guys…” I felt empathy for the guy, and nearly felt guilty for the good fortune of having to not concern myself with anything but catching a plethora of fish for the next several hours.

Guest Ranger Billy

Guest Ranger Billy, early enough in the day that he still had hope.

One thing that has become customary for the Firehole Rangers is the taking of an annual team photo before heading out to ply the waters of our namesake river. It was decided that we would skip that this year, for some reason that I believe was due to our late start and eagerness to get on the water. Whatever the case may have been, it was a break with tradition, and not something I’m sure we’ll ever do again. It should be noted that we were also joined by a guest on this day as Morris had invited his former boss, a man named Billy (not his real name, and not Busdriver Billy from the day before) to accompany us on the Firehole.  Billy lives in Bozeman and had never fished the Firehole. No doubt he had heard tales of how incredible the fishing can be—and usually is—on the Firehole. I’m sure he had a skip in his step as we hiked off across the plain toward the river, passing  swans and a lone bison bull.

A lone bull along the Firehole

A lone bull along the Firehole River.

When we got to the river’s edge it was immediately clear that the water was running as high as I’d ever seen it. The Firehole is never always dark and tea colored when we fish it, and this year it was even darker. And the fish would prove to be AWOL for a considerable while. On a good year, the first fish comes on the first or second cast of the day. On a slow year, like last year (read here), it may take 30 minutes before the first fish is enticed to the fly. This year it was at least an hour before I had so much as a bump, and even longer until I came tight to my first fish—a ten inch brown—something that didn’t happen until after I had added a piece of tungsten split shot.

I took a temperature reading of the river and it was only 44° F. Compare that to other years when the temperature is well into the 50’s and one begins to partially understand why the fishing was slow: the trouts were sluggish and disinclined to chase down a swung bug, only grabbing at one when it hit them on the nose. Adding the split shot helped somewhat, but the hookups continued to be few and far between. I tried different flies (something I rarely, if ever, have to do on the Firehole) and ended up being mildly surprised at the results: one rainbow and another brown, neither bigger than 10 inches.

Tundra Swans along the Firehole River.

When I shot this photo of a pair of Tundra Swans, they outnumbered the fish by two.

By mid day, having caught only 3 fish, I once again shoved my thermometer into the Firehole: 98.6° F 48° F. Later in the afternoon, after entering a section of the river where there’s a lot of thermal activity (which adds considerable hot water to the Firehole) the temperature topped out at 50° F. The catching never really picked up and by the time I called it a day, the tally was 6 fish: all browns save for one rainbow, and nothing over 10 inches.

Marck samples the waters of the Firehole.

Marck searches the Firehole for his next fish.

Nash, searching for a fish on the Firehole.

Nash, searches for a fish on the Firehole, as a lone bull cheers him on.

Jimmy looks into the Firehole and wonders where all the fish went...

Jimmy gazes out across the Firehole, wondering where all the fish went…

Even the thermal activity along the Firehole wasn't enough to heat up the catching.

Even the thermal activity along the Firehole wasn’t enough to heat up the catching.

Firehole Rangers 2017

Marck and his kids, taken at the end of the day instead of when it should have been taken. This may have jinxed us.

When the Rangers reassembled at the end of the day it wasn’t surprising that Marck had once again come out on top of the fish count, although he was well off his typical pace of 278 fish. The other Rangers also experienced very slow catch rates, with nearly everyone in the single digits (Goose may have topped out over 10 because he’d gotten more sleep than anyone else the night before). Unfortunately for our guest Ranger, the Firehole did not put out the welcome mat and he limped home with vastly different impression of the river than I did after my first time.

I’m always the first to admit that there’s more to fishing than just catching fish, an expression coined by someone who didn’t catch (m)any fish that day. But the last 3 years have seen the Firehole fishing much more poorly than all the years prior to that. Pulling UA blog data from the previous years, I was shocked at the results: in 2015 I caught 3 fish; in 2016, 12 fish. Add to that the 2017 count of 6 and it’s beginning to sound a lot like a Dr. Seuss book.


That evening we consumed way too much food, and ample drink, at Wild West Pizzeria in West Yellowstone. We talked of the day and what tomorrow would hold. In the morning we would depart for the Cornhole Madison River and we promised Guest Ranger Billy that the Madison would be high and off color; that fish would be caught, but it wouldn’t be as easy as it had been on the Firehole. We then spent our second, and final, night at the Ho Hum.


  1. Howard Levett

    Well, at least the scenery was nice! After all, that’s what’s really important.
    Signed, the Imaginary Firehole Ranger…hiyo Silver away!

    • Kirk Werner

      You sound like that guy who coined the phrase, “There’s more to fishing than…” Oh, never mind. You’d fit right in.

  2. Grant Carter

    I’m guessing the laughs always outnumber the fish, tenfold.

    • Kirk Werner

      You got that right. Thanks for stopping by in the Turnip Truck for a visit.

  3. Bob Triggs

    Masterfully understated.

    • Kirk Werner

      I believe your comment is an overstatement, sir.

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