2016 marked the 10th anniversary of my first trip to Yellowstone as part of the Firehole Rangers brigade. Back in 2006 it wasn’t the same core group as it is today: Marck was, and still is, our ring leader; Goose was there and always has been and Nash was there and mostly always has been. Jimmy wouldn’t come along for a few more years, and Morris, still the Rookie Ranger despite having completed his 6th deployment this year, would come along even later. And ten years ago the Firehole Ranger moniker hadn’t yet been established—that’s a term that was coined sometime in the past 6 years.
Despite that a lot has changed since my first trip, much remains the same, albeit with some slight modifications. One positive change over the years has been our departure time: Back in the early days we would leave Marck’s house in North Bend, WA at 4 a.m. and drive straight through to West Yellowstone. We’ve grown smarter since then and have been stopping, and fishing, along the way. Not only does this provide an opportunity to ply some fine waters, it also reduces the saddle sores. It doesn’t matter how comfortable a vehicle is; 11 hours in the seat hurts and the thought of doing the entire drive in one day is unthinkable. We ain’t as good as we once was (queue Toby Keith).
Jimmy and I departed Wednesday afternoon and drove about 4.5 hours to Post Falls, ID, where we spent the night. Marck, Goose, Nash and Morris would leave the next morning at 3 a.m. (which means that at least two of us were smart). The Rangers met in St. Regis, MT, at about 9A.M. where we gassed up, cleaned bugs from the windshield, and had some bacon. From there we proceeded onward to Twin Bridges, MT; the plan being to repeat the first leg of our trip from last year and fish the Big Hole River. We checked in with Seth McLean, one of two owners at 4 Rivers Fishing Company, got the keys to our lodging for the evening and received instructions to report to the shop at 8 a.m. the next morning. We also got some intel on what flies might catch some fish on a nearby river. With that, Seth rode off into the mid-afternoon on his 4 wheeler, but not before drinking a couple of our beers.
It was decided that the Rangers would kill some time that afternoon with a bit of angling on the upper Beaverhead, so we hit the road to do just that, making a quick stop at Anderson and Platt Outfitters in Dillon so that a couple of the fellas could pick up their licenses. The guy working at the shop suggested a certain couple of size 20 bugs, and when one or several of us groaned at the suggestion, the employee pulled out a little devise and showed how it quickly and easily it threads tippet through a diminutive hook eye. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own failing eyes, and several of the Rangers walked out of the shop with one of these 20//20 Magnetic Tippet Threaders (the guy in the shop definitely saw us coming). I didn’t use mine the entire trip, but it’s reassuring to know that I now have yet another tool—somewhere in my pack—designed to enhance my fishing enjoyment.
Once we arrived at the upper Beaverhead near the Clark Canyon dam, we spread out; half the group staying near the dam while the other group ventured off down the road a ways. One problem with a group of 6 guys is that it’s not often feasible to squeeze everyone in on the same stretch of water. So, if you were Marck, Morris or Nash, you would catch a few sizeable fish just below the dam. If you were the UA, Goose, or Jimmy, you would find yourself frustrated in the quest to find wadable water elsewhere that wasn’t chock full of other anglers. The latter group caught nothing and declared the upper Beaverhead to be a lousy fishery.
Note: We floated the upper Beaverhead back in 2010 and caught scads of big fish. But in 2010 we were floating, in rainstorm that would have made western Washington proud. To be on foot, without good water into which to cast our flies, with the sun overhead, was another matter. It was a forgettable afternoon that, if you ask me about it in a year, I will have no recollection of. I couldn’t help but reflect on how remarkably (and painfully) similar it was to last year when we fished the Ruby (Note to self: if there is a dam, fish right below it. Do not proceed downstream in quest of better water).
afternoon wasted time on the Beaverhead we drove to Dillon for some grub before returning to Twin Bridges for the evening. Along the way we stopped to enjoy the view of Beaverhead Rock, a landmark that proved critical to the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition back in 1805. I’m not sure that the others enjoyed the significance of the location as much as I did, what with me being a Lewis and Clark history geek and all, but since I was driving the Ranger Carrier, I was in charge. Historical significance or not, it is a view worth taking in, which we did just as the sun was set behind clouds that would not be present the next day.
The next morning, promptly at slightly before 8, we showed up at the 4 Rivers shop, eager to repeat the successes of the previous year. In 2015 the UA personally had one of his better days on any river and expectations were high that the successes would be equalled or even exceeded this year (if so inclined the blog entry from last year can be found HERE). Seth and his business partner, Chris Knott (a particularly fine last name for a fishing guide) greeted us, as did Joe Willauer. Joe is a buddy of mine who used to be a fishing guide before tapping out and getting a real job a couple years ago. He is a self-professed ‘hobby guide’ who now leaves his cubicle occasionally to row a few sports down rivers.
In an attempt to hold onto his fishing guide past, Joe’s truck still resembles something a real fishing guide would drive, although now it smells less like a wet dog ass and more like baby diapers. And there’s now a child’s carseat in the back seat as well as Cheerios and Goldfish scattered about the floor, errant snacks from his 3 year-old daughter. The carseat afforded me a view I’d not otherwise have had as we headed off toward our launch point at Maiden Rock. Along the way we encountered a Montana traffic jam, not unexpectedly. When we arrived at the river there was a traffic jam of other sorts, again not altogether unexpected although we’d had the river nearly to ourselves the previous year. Apparently the sun had brought out every anglerman in the vicinity. We rigged up our 6 weight rods and waited our turn to launch. The sun shone bright overhead, promise of a rather pleasant day.
Marck and I fished with Joe while Nash and Goose were in Chris’s boat; Jimmy and Morris with Seth. As noted, Joe guides only occasionally so his boat is now less a tool of the trade and more of a fashion accessory. Accordingly, his shirt matched his boat. And the color of the sky. There would be no clouds to speak of all day.
Due to the fact that very few folks have the attention spans necessary to read blogs any more, by now I have undoubtedly lost most of you readers. I’ll to cut to some highlights and leave all remaining 11 of you with a few photos:
• Marck quickly saw his backing when the spool of his reel flew off and the boat continued downstream at quick pace. Fortunately the spool was retrieved. Most of the backing was not salvageable.
• Joe’s soft hands and cubicle-induced shoulder atrophy caused him to struggle throughout the day. Whenever we anchored up to replace lost flies, Joe could be heard cooing softly as he enjoyed the reprieve from the arduous task of rowing. To encourage him I pointed out that there were two $25 Sears Gift Cards as a tip if he could just muster up the gumption to soldier on. He perked up at the thought of being able to purchase a couple more pairs of Dockers.
• We caught some nice fish but came nowhere near equaling the catch of the previous year. We did catch more whitefish however, including some rather nice ones, so there’s that. We didn’t catch the number of big browns that we had the previous year and Joe told us that a fungus has taken its toll on the brown trout during their fall spawn the past couple years. The largest browns we caught were maybe 18″. In a couple years there should be lots of bigger fish in the river again, assuming the fungus doesn’t continue to cause a decline in the population.
• We had a great time on a great river. The hired hands worked hard and put us on fish. Seth and Chris, the actual working guides, put the other Rangers on more fish than our boat caught, but that’s to be expected. Joe is still a great
guide hobby guide to fish with and I recommend him highly. If you do seek out his services, just be realistic about your expectations. Contact him at Evolution Anglers, but don’t believe the outdated “About” page. He’s now Executive Director at Headwaters RC & D in Butte. Congrats on the recent promotion, big fella.
We departed Twin Bridges and passed through Virginia City, wishing we had a few hours to stop and check out the place (we say that every year). But we pushed on, wanting to arrive in West Yellowstone before dusk—before the large, cloven-hoofed critters come out to cross the road right in front of us. We made one stop in Ennis to clean more bugs from the windshield, then sped along the Madison Valley, past Three Dollar Bridge, the Slide Inn, Quake and Hebgen lakes, before arriving at our ultimate annual destination: The Ho Hum Motel.
To be continued in Part 2…