Firehole River fly fishing
As the annual pilgrimage of the “Firehole Rangers” (as I refer to us) nears and anticipation builds, I find myself easily distracted from daily tasks. This happens every year, without fail. Consistency–that’s what the trip represents. Every year on the Friday before Memorial Day, a rag-tag assembly of mostly the same group of guys departs the wet side of Washington for the 12+ hour drive to West Yellowstone, MT. We always stop at the same place for breakfast, for gas, for pit stops along the way. We always stay at the lavish accommodations of the Ho Hum Motel in West Yellowstone, purchase our National Park fishing permits at the same shop, and we always (always) purchase the same secret weapon soft hackle flies. There’s very little deviation. Creatures of habit the Rangers are.
On Saturday morning we’re always up early and one of the first cars through the gate. Fishing inside the park opens on this Saturday, and we drive as quickly as legally possible (and circumstantially feasible) to our destination: Midway Geyser Basin. Usually a herd of bison cows with their recently-birthed calves impedes our progress, but that’s just part of the ritual and one of the benefits of being in Yellowstone, where the wildlife rule. They’re never in a hurry, nor should we be. As hard as it is to control our enthusiasm to get on the water, the meandering Tatonka are a good reminder to slow down and take it all in. If you don’t you’ll miss all that Yellowstone has to offer.
In addition to more bison than you can shake a stick at, we also see herds of elk along the drive. One year a grizzly was seen loping along a ridge that runs parallel to the road. But it’s not a race to get to the river. Some years we’re the first anglers on the water; other years that’s not the case. It matters little because everything about this trip is an experience to be savored. I can imagine no other place on Earth quite like this, where two-and four-legged animals can peacefully coexist in such close proximity. However, the annual tragic encounter between a tourist and a native park inhabitant serves as a good reminder that these animals are very much wild and should be respected as such. Each year we see tourists ignoring the warning signs and getting way too close to the animals. I’m led to believe that the occasional culling of the human herd is a undoubtedly a good thing.
Yellowstone is big country. There’s room for everyone (animals and anglers). There are sizable crowds of tourists on Memorial Day weekend, although much less so than later in the tourist season. Relatively few people are in the park to fish while we’re there, so while I’ve heard that Firehole can become crowded with anglers, we’re fortunate that we see far more animals than fishermen when we visit. We always fish the same stretch of the Firehole river the first day and we always catch a lot of fish. Even on years when the river is higher than average, the Firehole produces enough cookie cutter-sized browns and rainbows in the 7-12 inch range to keep a bend in the 4 weight and a smile on the face all day long. There’s always that chance of a bigger fish that keeps an angler working a deep hole persistently. Stare at the river too long and you’re likely to find yourself flanked by bison when you finally look up.
If ever a river represented the essence that ‘there’s more to fishing than catching fish’, the Firehole would be it. As the river winds through the Midway Geyser Basin it changes personality with regularity: long, slow stretches filled with thick weed beds yield brown trout. These fish hit the fly hard and put their heads down. It’s not often they show themselves above the surface, though I did have a brown go airborn last year. Where the slow water turns to riffles, the trout become hard-fighting rainbows that will put on an aerobatic show once hooked. In many areas you can catch a brown on one cast and a rainbow on another. The Firehole is teeming with wild trout, but what you won’t catch are cutthroat trout native to the park.
Above Firehole Falls, where we fish each year, the river was originally devoid of trout. In 1889 the government began stocking fish as part of a park-wide effort to draw more anglers to Yellowstone. The stocking program was a simple economic-based decision that had a detrimental impact on the native fish in many of the park’s waters. Stocking programs ceased in 1955 and now there is great emphasis on controlling non-native species and protecting the populations of native fish. Although the browns and rainbows in the Firehole aren’t native, they are wild and I’m glad they’re there. Maybe that’s selfish of me.
The Firehole Rangers are creatures of habit, seldom (if ever) deviating from our long-established protocol. Truth be told, there’s little reason to change things up because we’re always rewarded with that which we seek. I must admit, though, I’ve always been curious about the fishing opportunities inside the Park beyond the Firehole. There are countless creeks, lakes and rivers that hold abundant fishing opportunities, so one may ask, “Hey, Firehole Rangers–why don’t you branch out and explore other areas?” That’s a valid question. After all, Yellowstone is a vast expanse with a long list of rivers that beckon the angler: the Bechler, Firehole, Gallatin, Gardner, Gibbon, Lamar, Lewis, Madison, and Snake Rivers. The answer is simple: seasonal timing. Late May falls smack dab in the middle of the Spring runoff, and the other rivers in the park are all running high and off-color when we’re there to visit. The Firehole is unique in many aspects, not the least of which is that even when it’s running high, it’s fishable. It may turn a darker shade of tea, but it doesn’t muddy-up. And it’s a reasonably small river which can be crossed on foot in most sections, even when the river is high.
Another reason for fishing the Firehole early in the season is that with all the thermal activity along its banks, the water temperature in river far exceeds that of other rivers in the park at this time of year. Through much of the area we fish, the temperature of the river is near 60 degrees and the trout activity is correspondingly elevated. As the season progresses and weather heats up, the Firehole can become too warm and unhealthy for the fish. Not while we’re there. Late Spring at 7200 ft does not necessarily equate to blue skies and fishing in shirtsleeves. Although it certainly can be nice, on most years we’ll find ourselves fishing in sporadically winter-like conditions. Last year it snowed hard all day on our second day, accumulating 5 inches of the white stuff. The weather is unpredictable, you can count on that.
Very little changes about this trip from year-to-year, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. However I would like to see the park during the summer, when other waters are fishable. I wouldn’t mind being able to fish without having to bundle up in fleece and goretex. I’d like to catch a native cutthroat from the Yellowstone River, hook my first-ever Grayling and pierce the air bladder on a non-native lake trout. I’m also curious about lodging alternatives to the Ho Hum. There’s one way to make sure this happens…
Two fly angling blogger types will be chosen to participate in his year’s Blogger Tour 2012. Those lucky two will spend three days in Yellowstone, learning about the impact of Yellowstone Lake’s invasive lake trout population and the Park’s native fish recovery plan. It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn about America’s first National Park (founded in 1872), and one of the most unique places on Earth. This is my submission for the Trout Unlimited, Simms, the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Outdoor Blogger Network – Blogger Tour 2012 contest.
As was hinted at in last week’s Drivel®, day two on the Firehole River brought with it some change. The locals had been looking nervously over their shoulders and whispering under their breath about a weather system due to arrive overnight and bring with it 6-10 inches of snow. Our biggest concern was that the Park would be closed and we wouldn’t be able to fish. Fortunately there wasn’t even a trace of snow on the ground Sunday morning and we entered the gates without so much as a verbal warning about winter driving conditions. Well, come to think of it I guess there was a small sandwich board sign that cautioned drivers of potentially slippery roads, but there was no grand warning of any kind. Yes, snow was forecasted, and the sky had a grim demeanor about it, but how bad could it really be? Afterall, it was late Spring. May 29th to be certain.
We’ve witnessed many a wintery squall while fishing the Firehole over the years but they’ve always blown in and blown out, never sticking around for more than an hour or so. The weather changes quickly in Yellowstone, and that’s something that never changes. But as we pulled into the parking lot at Fountain Flat, the snow began to fall. By the time we had geared up, my fingers were numb. They hadn’t been this cold since I’d gone steelhead fishing 8 months earlier during a snowstorm in Catatonia.
After a quick team photo in which The Goosemeister appears particularly uncomfortable, Jimmy appears particularly happy, Marck appears much shorter than he really is, Nash can be seen with his jacket tucked inside his waders, and I appear much taller than I really am thanks to my Lucky Fishing Hat, we hiked upstream in the blowing snow. There was nobody else fishing on this particular morning, and with the snow driving into our faces or piling up on our backside (depending upon which side of the river we were on), it was easy to understand why we were alone.
But once you got past the blowing snow and focused on the fishing, there was cause for celebration: the fishing was good. It always slows down a bit on the second day, but this year that didn’t seem to be the case. At one point while standing mid-river and catching my 7th trout in 9 casts, I literally laughed out loud. The fish seemed a little bigger on average, or maybe they just looked bigger through sunglass lenses obscured by droplets of melting snow.
We fished our way downstream, past the falls toward the bridge. The snow continued. It was more like winter than late Spring. The Bison seemed unimpressed with us for having braved the weather. What do they know? They’re just stupid animals.
After 4 hours of this, we did something we’d ever done before on previous years: we changed plans–called an audible. It was decided that we would take a mid-day break from the weather and go have lunch at the Old Faithful
Lodge Inn (thanks to RJ Berens for catching my error). This radical suggestion was met with enthusiastic response from all members, so we hiked back to the rig, in the still-driving snow, stowed our wet gear in the back of the snow-covered suburban, and drove the short distance to the Lodge Inn. I’d never been there before and was impressed by the number of cars filling the parking lot and the shear size of the structure.
While we enjoyed the respite from the weather and feasted on a fine, warm lunch, it continued to snow outside. We were fairly comfortable with our bellies full of grub and our fingers finally thawed. Lesser men would have opted to skip the afternoon fishing session, but we are not lesser men. We were here to fish, and weather be damned, fishing was what we were going to to.
Parking at Biscuit Basin, we
enthusiastically geared up once again. This time it seemed more painful than ever and before my boots were laced my fingers had once again lost all feeling. The good thing about the Firehole River is that if your fingers do get cold, it’s not hard to find a thermal with a nice temperature of, say 80 degrees, in which to warm up. Just be careful not to pick a thermal that’s considerably closer to the boiling point. I didn’t, but mind you that can be an easy miscalculation.
On average, fishing was slower this afternoon than it had been earlier that morning, but the Firehole continued to give up plenty of fish, including some nice risers during a brief hatch.
Anyone who spends any amount of time recreating outdoors knows the importance of being comfortable, and you’re all probably wondering about Nash, whose waders had taken on water the previous day. Did he get everything dried out properly? Was he suffering miserably on this second, cold and dreadfully wet day? Well, thanks to an extra pair of waders that Jimmy had brought along, Nash was dry and comfortable on day two. At least he was until late in the afternoon when he noticed that his legs felt damp. It was at this point he acknowledged that wearing one’s jacket on the outside of one’s waders is the preferred method of layering in precipitous weather. Lessons learned, we hiked back to the parking lot and bade farewell to the Firehole River for another year. It felt good to be inside the rig with the heater on. As we drove off, a miserable herd of Bison passed by in close proximity. How do ya like us now, huh? Stupid animals.
That evening from our lavish suite at the Ho Hum, a beacon of comfort and Southern goodness shined in the distance and beckoned us to feast in celebration.
As we did, we rejoiced in the splendor of the two days we’d spent on the Firehole River. We had caught many fish, as we always do. Sometimes the weather is as expected. Other times it is not. That was definitely the case this year.
To read about the next day of our trip, which was written about previously, go HERE.
(One may have gathered from the title that this is the second in a two-part series. In order to fully enjoy Part II, one must first read Part I. That being said, even then one may not enjoy Part II)
Over the course of two days the Firehole produced for us in typical fashion: solid numbers of willing browns and rainbows, most in the 10” – 12” range, but a couple slightly larger. At one point I saw Marck headed upstream from where we’d just come and asked where he was going. He’d apparently seen but not landed a big brown in a nice hole the previous year, and was going back to see about sealing the deal. Right, whatever. An hour or so later he returned, smiling. When he announced that he had caught the brown and it was BIG, I called Bison shit. He maintains that he caught the fish. I suggest the altitude was getting to him. Nearly all the fish were enticed by dead drifting a magical nymph pattern that I would tell you about, except for the fact that I would not be invited again on this trip if I did. I will tell you that this secret weapon can be found at either Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop or Blue Ribbon Flies or Arricks’s Fly Shop or Jacklin’s Fly Shop or West Yellowstone Fly Shop or Madison River Outfitters in West Yellowstone, but only at one of them. 99% of the fishing was subsurface without an indicator, which makes it a little easier to tolerate nymphing. We encountered one impressive BWO hatch during which only a couple fish were caught. Too much of a good thing proved to be the case, and with literally a gazillion real bugs hatching, our imitations were largely overlooked (mighta been due to less-than-perfect presentation, too). Still, it was amazing to see browns rising every few feet in a stretch of water that had hardly yielded a fish just a few hours earlier in the day. But considering the Firehole was running higher than average for this time of year, I had nothing to complain about, other than a couple of nearly sleepless nights as Stan’s roommate. Mother Nature threw everything at us, from driving snow to sunbreaks and everything in between. It’s always unpredictable fishing at 8000 feet in the Rockies during late Spring.
Ready for the next leg of our journey, which hopefully would involve some bigger fish, we departed the comforts of the Ho Hum motel in West Yellowstone at 5:30 AM in order to be at the Rock Creek Mercantile by 10 o’clock – the time designated for meeting up with our guides for the day. Two full days of wade fishing and perhaps 4 total hours of sound sleep had left me a bit loopy, but it was nothing that a cup of Joe and the promise of fishing the infamous Rock Creek wouldn’t cure. A stop at the golden arches in West Yellowstone for a quick hit of caffeine turned into a skunk, as the coffee machine was broken. This was not the way to begin a day that required a 4 hour drive, and the lack of java did little to lift the spirits and puffy eyelids on board the Soccer Mom Express. I volunteered to take the wheel for this first leg, knowing that at this early hour of the morning there would be few cars on the road and I could drive in a relative state of shame-free anonymity. Aside from a bull moose galloping alongside the road, I don’t recall seeing another living creature until we pulled into Big Sky for coffee. That’s not to say that there weren’t other vehicles on the road, but the lack of caffeine insured that the senses remained dull and I don’t recall seeing anything other than the moose, who glanced sideways at us in a manner that bespoke his thoughts: “Nice mini van.”
Properly revived by the ample supply of coffee acquired in Big Sky, we made excellent time heading westbound on I-90. We pulled into the Rock Creek Mercantile with 15 minutes to spare and were greeted by proprietor Doug Perisco, who was hard at work in his chair on the porch with a good cigar. The first order of business was to check into the cabins that we’d be staying in that night. In our excitement to arrive at Rock Creek, we had failed to draw the straws which would assign sleeping arrangements for that night. I watched as Stan carried his duffel bag toward the entrance to The Small Cabin. I quickly grabbed my stuff and sprinted toward The Big Cabin. After having bunked with Stan for the previous two nights I was looking forward to getting at least one night of decent sleep while on this trip. Survival of the fleetest of foot – my decisive action would have made Darwin proud. Marck was right on my heels, and as soon as we’d secured our lodging or the night, we shared a moment of silence in honor of our friend Nash, who would be bunking with The Goosemaster.
We geared up quickly and drove with our guides some 15+ miles up Rock Creek. The river was running high, as we knew it would be, and nobody to speak of had really been fishing the Creek recently. Everyone else was waiting for the salmonfly hatch to start, which could happen at any time (though it would not happen for another few days). Still, our guides assured us the fish were ready to eat, and we strung up our rods with white and yellow bead-headed variations of the woolly bugger. We boarded two rafts that would carry us downstream at a very quick pace and began pounding the banks with our flies.
I was sharing the raft with Stan (he doesn’t snore while fishing), and we got into fish shortly after the put-in. As soon as the heavily weighted flies hit the bank, we were instructed to give a quick tug and a good mend to allow them to settle into the water. We were drifting fast, which didn’t allow the fish more than a split second to see the flies and make a decision to strike. It took a few attempts and a couple of lost flies before I got the hang of this “Runnin & Gunnin” style of fishing. To describe the day as a combination of whitewater rafting and fishing would be inaccurate only because the water was less white and more the same color as the coffee with creme I’d enjoyed so much a few hours earlier. But it was a thrill to bounce through large waves while chucking flies. Soon we were hooking up at a regular rate with 12-15 inch browns , and an occasional rainbow. Stan hooked a small bull trout, and shortly thereafter I caught a bigger one – not very big by most standards, but being my first bull trout I was thrilled. And yes, I’m sure it was a bull trout.
It was halfway through our float when our guide proclaimed that a Rock Creek grand slam wasn’t out of the relm of possibilities. The grand slam of trout fishing is when an accomplished angler has a banner day on the water, and successfully catches, in a 24 hour period, each of the trout species known to reside in those particular waters. In this case that entails rainbow, cutthroat, brown, bull and brook trout (even though a bull and Brookie are, as we all know, technically chars). Rock Creek is one of the better rivers that afford the chance of hitting a grand slam, and while I never even pondered such a milestone, I was just happy to have caught a few fish. Even though we had yet to catch a cutthroat, we knew the river had a good supply of them. The likelihood of catching a Brookie seemed unlikely until Stan caught a Brookie. Now the reality of the Grand Slam seemed well within our reaches. I knew I wasn’t going to be honored with the achievement, but simply witnessing the act was good enough for me. Stan was standing at bat with the bases loaded, and all he needed was to connect with the right pitch. I became a Stan fan, and cheered him on with every cast. For a while I even kept my line off the water so as to give him room to work his magic. The problem was that by now we were in the lower stretches of the river, and the cutthroat tended to be higher up. Still, each cast carried with it tremendous hope, and you could feel the tension in the air. We were still having fun, mind you, but the mood aboard our raft had taken on an intense focus. Fish continued to hit Stan’s fly, but the fish were not the coveted cutthroats we sought. I managed to land a cuttbow, but that didn’t count (and besides, it was not I who was in the running for the grand slam). The catching slowed significantly during the last hour of the day, and unfortunately as we reached our take-out, the game winning cutthroat trout evaded us. There would be no Grand Slam for Stan the Man, but we raised a beer and toasted a great day on a great river that provided us with great angling excitement. Between the two of us we had probably landed 30 fish, and we’d each hooked up with a couple species which we had not previously caught. Our day on Rock Creek topped off another great Montana fishing adventure.
The report from Nash and Marck’s raft was that they had brought over 50 trout to the net: Browns, rainbows and a whole bunch of cutthroat which they’d caught in the first 2 hours of the day.
And in case you’re wondering, yes – I did enjoy my last night by sleeping peacefully. At dawn I awoke to the sound of a large bird, and immediately assumed it was just geese in the cabin next door. Poking my head out the door I realized that what I’d heard was not a gaggle, but rather a gobble. I’d already filled my turkey tag back in Washington that year, so I went back to bed for another hour.