Fly fishing Yellowstone Park
One of the best ways to enjoy a fishing trip is to start off with confidence, knowing you’ve not forgotten something important. On the eve of my departure for Yellowstone, I can’t help but obsess about this. One would think that after years of fishing, and specifically of going on this trip, that I’d have it all down to a confident science–a system, as it were. A checklist would seem a sound practice, but I’m not a list kind of guy. Lists make me nervous, and stubborn. Mostly because the typical lists I deal with are “To-Do” lists presented to me by others (I am not singling out Mrs. UA). When I see those kinds of lists, I often put up a wall of self defense and block them out; a tactic developed over many years of living under the same roof with women who are/were list makers. My mom was a list maker. If there was any perceived free time, check the list to find out otherwise. So, no–I don’t do lists very well. Nor do I lay things all out in an organized fashion so I can take careful, visual inventory. I mean, who does that, really? If you do, I’m sorry for insulting you. I’m just jealous of your patience and organization.
And so I go through a fairly random mental checklist: flies, reels, tippet, strike indicators…check. Last I checked that was all in my gear bag so it should still be there, right? Rods, check. They’re large and awkward so hard to forget (stop laughing, Joe). Sunglasses- good catch, check. Suncreen? Won’t need it, but, check. Flask, check (never forget that). Waders, boots, insulating layers, check. Long johns, warm socks, earplugs (in case I get stuck with the Goosemeister as a roommate). Check. Lucky fishing hat, check! Clean skivvies, extra t-shirts, check. Phone charger, check. What am I missing…?
The next thing I have to ponder is sleep. Jimmy is meeting me at my house at 3:30 AM so we can be to Marck’s house at 4 AM where we will all pile into the “plush mini van” belonging to the new guy (I don’t have a name for him yet). I’m a night owl by nature, usually not retiring until well after midnight. If I go to bed at a decent hour, like 11 PM, I will lie awake until at least 1 o’clock, tossing and turning and sighing loudly out of frustration. That will not earn me any favors with Mrs. UA, and even if I do fall asleep two hours’ shuteye hardly seems worth it. Maybe I’ll just stay up and obsess over what I’m forgetting. I’ll think of it, hopefully. Besides, there’s quality programming on during the wee hours.
The good thing is that if I do forget something important, there are 157 fly shops within spitting distance of each other in West Yellowstone. The bad news is that if I forget something important, an otherwise cheap trip just got more expensive.
Any bets on what I’ll forget?
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.
We departed West Yellowstone at a very reasonable hour and drove toward the last leg of our Montana Trout Trip: The Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge. It was a beautiful, calm morning as we skirted the shores of Hebgen Lake: the water’s surface was like a giant millpond, and reflected a mostly blue sky. It was a welcome relief to see the sun for the first time on our trip (and for the first time in about 2 months overall). We stopped at the Quake Lake Visitor’s Center for a little tourist activity. It was Memorial Day and the flag flew at half staff. I never knew this before, but prior to 1971 Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. I must not have paid much attention to this for the first 8 years of my life, because I always remember it as Memorial Day. But one can learn something new every day if they’re willing, and I’m always interested in acquiring new knowledge. I have a thirst for anything new and different – you might say that I embrace change (Mrs. UA just spewed coffee on her keyboard after reading this).
While we were taking in the views of Quake Lake and the slide area, we saw a herd of elk, Bighorn sheep and mountain goats on the ridge above the visitor’s center. After having just spent two days in Yellowstone where wildlife sightings are commonplace, it was still pretty cool to see all these critters.
We arrived at Three Dollar Bridge around 9 AM, geared up under mostly sunny skies and dressed according to the balmy weather. It was 57 degrees, which meant the fleece would not be needed for a change (which was a good thing, because over the last few days it had taken on a certain man-musk odor). The wind was light, the river wasn’t horribly high and the water had some clarity (whereas the year before it was much higher and had a visibility of exactly zero). There were 4 other rigs in the parking lot which seemed a bit surprising given the Holiday and all. We expected it to be much busier than that. With our 6 weight rods rigged with Pat’s Stones and San Juan Worm droppers and indicators, we made our way upstream to fish the mighty Madison.
For you history buffs, the Madison was named in July 1805 by Meriwether Lewis (who suffered from manic depression) at Three Forks, where the Madison joins two other rivers to form the Missouri. The Madison was named for then-U.S. Secretary of State James Madison, the 4th President of the United States who is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the nation. The other two forks are, of course, the Jefferson and the Gallatin (named after two other famous dudes from that era). Based on images of Madison, I’m going to suggest that he was a stern, humorless man who rarely, if ever, enjoyed a good laugh. Assuming that to be the case, it was fitting that the Madison River was named after him. After my first visit to fish the river at this location, I had found very little to laugh about. I was fully intending to change that this time around.
Jimmy and Stan had never fished the Madison before, and requested a quick lesson on how to get it done. Given that I had caught 2 fish last year at this location while Marck caught upwards of 15, I deferred to him. While we watched, Marck chucked his tackle into the seam below an upstream rock, and threw in a quick mend. “You want to let it drift right through the seam. Fish will be sitting in the calm water inside the current,” he declared with all the confidence of a Fishy Dude. “The takes will be subtle”, he added, “So every time your indicator dips, set the hoo—“ The take was not subtle, and Marck’s reel sang as the fish took off at warp speed for the fast current. Marck ran down the bank, holding his rod high and tightening the drag on his reel to prevent it from spooling as the fish put distance very quickly between itself and Marck. I’d never seen a trout run that hard and fast, and Marck was close to his backing before he turned the brown and brought it to hand. It was no hog but it was a very respectable fish and a textbook demonstration on how to fish the Madison. It looked easy enough, so we spread out and each began to attempt similar feats of fishing. The river temperature was 44 degrees – plenty warm enough for the trout to be feeding. I was looking forward redeeming myself after a rather lackluster experience the year before.
I fairly quickly got into a smallish rainbow that measured only 12-13 inches (small for this area), but it gave me sense of confidence. A false sense of confidence to be very clear. Jimmy also got into a decent fish quickly, and lost another. I don’t know what fate Stan encountered as he was a good distance below, but I think he wasn’t having much luck. After a couple more hours of fruitless fishing, Jimmy and I decided to make our way downstream to see how Stan and Marck were fairing, and suggest we break for lunch. As we hoarked down sandwiches, we collectively agreed that it felt great to have the sun baking off the moss and mold we’d accumulated over the past three days of fishing. Three out of the four of us also agreed that the Madison was dishing out some punishment, and we wore the despair on our faces. Stan had caught one 8 inch fish in the morning, so between Stan, Jimmy and me, we’d caught less than one third the number of fish Marck had caught. And while we had been out fishing, the parking lot had filled with a dozen vehicles. Anglers were spread out in all directions as far as the eye could see and it was clear that we would have to walk a long way to find unoccupied water. After finishing our lunch we crossed the bridge and headed upriver on the opposite bank.
I had no action on the end of my line for the next hour. I decided that my flies weren’t getting down to where the fish were hiding, so I changed things up a bit by going with a tungsten head Golden Stone up top with a larger San Juan Worm underneath. I was immediately getting down deeper, and consequently hanging up on every rock/branch possible. Being one who openly embraces change, I adapted to the conditions by adjusting the depth of my indicator. I proceeded to hang up much less. I didn’t catch any fish, either, and after another half hour I switched to a rubber-legged woolly bugger and began stripping through some deeper pools. I still wasn’t catching any fish, but at least I was actively engaged in working my fly rather than watching a bobber.
As I hiked upriver to a new spot I passed Stan, who finally had a bend in his rod. “Sweet!” I yelled as I dashed toward him, “I’ll help you land it!” You could see on his face that Stan was a man with rejuvenated hope and faith as he turned the fish toward shore. I was truly happy for Stan as I reached toward the fish. He was going to get a photo op afterall – something to commemorate his day on the great Madison River! As I reached to tail the fish and remove the fly, I proceeded instead to knock the fish loose. Accidentally, mind you. We watched as the pretty brown of about 15 inches sprinted into the current. There was really nothing I could say other than “Sorry, man, I…” I couldn’t even finish the sentence. I thought about punching myself in the gut to save Stan the trouble of having to do so, but realized self abuse was not the way. I dipped my head in shame and walked off to be alone. Words cannot describe the misery I felt. Stan had worked hard for that fish. He wouldn’t get another fish the rest of the day, nor would I. But Marck would. We’d lost track of Jimmy, but we played leap-frog with Marck throughout the rest of the afternoon. At one point Stan stood on the bank taunting watching Marck, who proceeded to catch not one but two more fish in rapid succession. The only bright spot in the day came when Marck stepped into a mud bog and sank up to his knees. Stan and I enjoyed seeing him struggle, but eventually helped him out. It’s not Marck’s fault that we didn’t catch fish.
The sky had begun to cloud up and the wind was bringing in a new supply of rain as we arrived back at the parking lot. Jimmy was already there, and had been for some time. As with Stan and me, the Madison had kicked Jimmy’s ass. Butt rather than stand on the banks of the river and continually absorb the savage beating, he did the smart thing by tapping out early and reducing the damage. We stowed our gear in the back of the Suburban, hoisted a beer to celebrate Marck’s good fortune and drove across Three Dollar Bridge. As we put distance between ourselves and the river named by a depressed explorer for the humorless 4th president of the United States, I could have sworn I heard the ghost of James Madison laughing. Turns out it was just Marck.
Sunday morning we got a 6:30 AM start to the day by grabbing some breakfast at The Three Bears. The food is always reliably good, although it’s hard to go wrong with eggs, hashbrowns and of course bacon. Again, eating was more a habitual thing than a necessary means of survival since the pizza from the night before was still in the process of being digested. But bacon goes good with anything, anytime, regardless of the need. Bacon good. Let there be bacon.
After overloading our bodies with more food we set out through the gates of Yellowstone once again, destined this time for the Firehole River as it flows through Biscuit Basin (mmm…biscuits and gravy. And bacon). This second day was a balmy 33 degrees and windy to start, so while the ambient temperature was only a couple degrees colder than the previous day, the wind did made sure it felt even colder. At least it stayed mostly dry throughout the day.
We dropped in below the foot bridge and staggered ourselves along both sides of the river. Stan always likes to fish right under the bridge. Come to think of it he does resemble a troll, but it’s hard to fault him for it because he always catches fish there. And this year was no exception. I worked a series of riffles below him, and after witnessing fish after fish on the end of his line, I moved a ways downstream. I caught a few fish, and the wind was in my favor so my casting actually felt pretty good for a change. Mark had his sights set on a stretch of water 1/2 mile away and declared his intentions to catch the big brown that he’d caught last year in that same location. It was a monsterous fish (according to Marck) for the Firehole: a 20+ incher that he accurately (allegedly) marked on his rod (or so he says). Jimmy and Erique fished in the same vicinity as me, and as the day wore on the consensus was that everyone was catching fish. Maybe not quite as many as we’d caught the previous day, but fishing was still very good. We ran into another angler who mentioned that the Biscuit Basin area had been closed for a portion of the previous day due to “bear activity”, so it hadn’t likely seen as much fishing pressure as had there been bear inactivity. We saw no bears, though Marck did notice a fresh track in the mud.
I tend to be more concerned with Bison than bears, because a bear isn’t likely going to waste it’s time trying to eat me (not enough meat on my bones to be worth the trouble). Whenever we’re fishing the Firehole there’s always bison activity, and a bison would likely find great sport in tossing my skinny arse into the air and kicking me around in the dirt. At one point we were all working a run near the road when I noticed a bunch of cars had pulled over and tourists were out of their vehicles with cameras pointed toward the river. I assumed they were photographing Marck as he stood in one spot and caught fish after fish (though he never did manage to reunite with the “20+ inch Firehole brown”). Just then a lone bull materialized in the distance. He sauntered along the riverbank past Marck and the others, and made his way slowly upstream. Toward me. I was standing mid channel in a stretch of fairly fast moving water, and my footing was secure as long as I didn’t try to move. I glanced about and formulated a plan of escape in the event that the bull decided to walk across the river right where I was standing. I really had no good options – retreat would be slow in the fast water, and I had no doubt that I’d be swept off my feet if I tried to move quickly. Getting soaked wouldn’t have enhanced the quality of the day at all. Fortunately for me the bull he kept moving along the riverbank, taking his time as he moved upstream.
After the Biscuit Basin Bison was out of sight, the photographers climbed back in their cars and moved on to the next point of interest, of which there is no shortage in this country. However, one photographer decided that of all the unusal things in the park, the Unaccomplished Angler was worth some space on his memory card. I tried to pretend I didn’t see him, but this individual was fairly obvious as he stood in the open with his 800mm zoom lens trained directly on me. Fortunately a rainbow tightened my line and I was able to show my audience how a real live fly angling man sets the hook, plays the fish deftly to hand and releases the fish quickly and efficiently. I puffed up my chest, cocked my lucky fishing hat just a bit to the side and did my best Clint Eastwood squint (from behind polarized sunglasses). Then I quickly proceeded to put a wind-aided tangle in my line. I waded carefully to the bank and sat down to work my way through the bird’s nest. Knowing that my every move was being documented I made short work of the mess, tied on a new section of tippet and a fly, and strode to my previous location to continue my work. However, the paparazzi had fled the scene. Apparently he hadn’t been interested in the “other” side of fly fishing. Just as well.
Late in the day Jimmy and I approached a flat section of river that would be perfect for when the 3 pm hatch of PMD’s started coming off. We sat and waited and watched another fisherman make 200 casts in some nearby water. He was there for the same reason: to fish dries to rising fish. But instead of taking the calm, calculated approach and waiting for bugs to hatch and the fish to turn on, he flogged the water incessantly. He made some friendly conversation about how yesterday he had absolutely slayed the fish on dries, announcing that “I musta caught 6 fish in an hour…say, while you guys are sitting there, do you mind if I fish through this riffle real quickly?” After a while he gave up and hiked back to his car to ice his casting arm. The hatch never really materialized, though we did manage a couple fish on dries. Marck and Erique converged upon the spot where Jimmy and I had been waiting patiently for two hours. While they sat and watched, I tried unsuccessfully to entice a particularly stubborn fish that had been rising in a foam line several feet below us. It was a tough drift that proved too much for me. Fortunately Marck just happened to be shooting some video, so while a fish was not captured, some excellent footage was. Remember: presentation is everything, especially when fishing a size 18 dry on 5x.
With our hopes of an epic hatch dashed, we retreated to the parking lot, broke down our rods and stowed our gear, bidding a fond farewell to the Firehole. Back at the Ho Hum, we showered quickly and went in search of a good steak. We were on the verge of starvation at this point, and were given some good intel that a new restaurant in town served up some fine steaks. I was hankering for ribs, but was advised to go with steak instead. That was a tough sacrifice I was willing to make, and as we entered the Montana Cattle Company, the smell of grilled flesh set the salivary glands into motion. We were seated promptly, and then began The Long Wait. It was 15 minutes before our waitress stopped by our table with 5 glasses of water. Then she vanished again. Over the next 20 minutes a couple of other restaurant employees, in a hurry to get elsewhere, reassured us that “we’ll be right with you!” When nothing happened, the manager showed up at our table and offered some consolation in the form of a couple plates of complimentary buffalo wings (I’m still not sure that they were actually buffalo wings as they tasted remarkably like chicken). Admittedly it was a nice PR gesture and we inhaled the wings, which were good. In another 15 minutes our waitress, wearing the expression of a deer caught in the headlights, apologized profusely and finally took our orders. The Montana Cattle Company may have been established in 1879, but the restaurant in West Yellowstone had only been open for 3 days at the time of our visit. They clearly were not ready for business and were terribly understaffed. Amazingly, while it took forever to get our orders taken, the food arrived in nearly record time. That proved to be not such a good thing because two of the orders were mixed up, and all of the steaks were either under or over-cooked. I’m anything but a restaurant snob, and I will always give the waitstaff the benefit of the doubt. But a chef in a restaurant specializing in cooked cattle should know the difference between medium rare and overcooked boot leather. Oh well. As the manager pointed, it’s really hard to get good help in a town like West Yellowstone, especially on short notice. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give the Montana Cattle Company a chance to prove that they’re worthy of your patronage, but next year I’ll stick to bacon and pizza. And if you’re looking for work in West Yellowstone, they’re hiring multiple positions.
Fortunately the evening didn’t end on that sour note. As we walking back to the Ho Hum I stopped in at the Book Peddler to see if they carried a particular series of titles featuring Olive the Woolly Bugger. The year before I had paid the owner a visit and told her about the books, and she indicated that she would order them. I never know if shop owners actually plan to follow through with their intentions or just offer lip service to get rid of me. I was delighted that they had the first two titles in stock, though they do need to order more copies of Olive Goes for a Wild Ride. Jimmy did a little bit of rearranging to improve their shelf presence.
What with this being our last night in West Yellowstone, a normal younger group of guys would have opted to hit the town and whoop it up: drinkin’, fightin’ and getting tattoos. We opted instead to turn in at a reasonable hour because we had a date with The Madison in the morning. All except Erique, that is – he had to get up at 4 AM to make a 6:30 flight out of Bozeman. He would be home before we even arrived at Three Dollar Bridge.
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.