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.