Some things never change about our annual trip, and that is where we stay in West Yellowstone. And the Ho Hum was still there when Jimmy, Goose and myself pulled into town shortly before 9 P.M. The others had arrived several minutes sooner thanks to Marck’s heavy, deformed right foot that had the accelerator pressed firmly against the floorboards of the Soccer Mom Van. They had already checked in and dealt with the dreaded olfactory overload by the time we rolled in. With the weather being unseasonably sultry, the open windows of the office at the cat motel allowed the aroma to waft lazily across the parking lot, ensuring that we would still get to enjoy the fragrance from afar.
As we do every year, we made a couple quick stops to take care of business before eating dinner much too late. The first stop was at the grocery store for tomorrow’s lunch fixin’s and a can of air freshener (for our lavish room). After that it was off to Aarick’s Fly Shop for National Park fishing permits and a few trademark secret weapon flies that always get it done between hatches on the Firehole. Speaking of hatches, the nice weather had resulted in a Tourist Hatch and West Yellowstone was crawling with them. Now, one might argue that the Firehole Rangers are just as guilty as anyone of clogging the Park and West Yellowstone, but we’re not there as tourists: we’re there to fish. There’s a difference—right? And unlike the hoards of foreign tourists, the Rangers have a sense of awareness, personal space, and manners. But I digress. After consuming the too-late supper at the Three Bears restaurant, we retired to the comfort of our lavish rooms for a good night’s slumber. The air freshener would come in handy, repeatedly.
The next morning we rose early, intending to grab coffee and breakfast at McDonald’s (in previous years, the only place open at 6 A.M.). The problem was that the Golden Arches wasn’t open, and in fact, new hours posted on the door indicated that they wouldn’t open until 7:30. SEVEN THIRTY?! The only other joint open for early breakfast wouldn’t open their doors until 6:30. Apparently West Yellowstone doesn’t cater to the early rising angler, which further serves to distance us fishermen types from the
other tourists. We skipped breakfast altogether, settling instead for a cup of gas station coffee. Doing without breakfast was undoubtedly a good move since our bellies were still full from the dinner consumed just a few hours prior.
A half hour later we arrived at our starting point somewhere in the Midway Geyser Basin, geared up, and posed for the annual team photo. We were the first rig in the parking lot thanks, likely, to the fact that the tourists were all back in West Yellowstone waiting for breakfast to be served. There was a chill in the air, but the low fog was already giving way to blue skies and the promise of yet another beautiful day of fishing. We’ve had some interesting weather fluctuations in the past, and have fished in every kind of weather imaginable on the Firehole. Until 3 years ago we had always fished the Park on opening weekend (the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend). While a week can certainly make a big difference in the high country of Yellowstone, the weather is reliably schizophrenic and we never know what we’ll encounter until we get there. Even then it can change from hour to hour. The safe assumption is that the worse the weather, the better the catching. I’ll take sun and blue skies over the polar opposite, any day.
We strode off into the lifting fog toward the crown jewel of our annual trip: the Firehole River. Arriving at its banks we quickly noted that the flow was as low as we’d ever seen it. A quick temperature reading indicated that the water was still an acceptably cool 54°F (if you’re looking for celsius you’ll have to go to Canada). The flows had been low the previous year, but with the unseasonably warm Spring of 2015, the water temperature had also been also been 70°F. The result last year was the slowest day on the Firehole I had ever encountered. This year the spring weather had been much cooler (until our arrival) and things appeared to be on a better track this year as I hooked my first fish on the 2nd cast (by compasison it took an additional 30 casts before last year’s first fish was landed). The first fish of 2016 was a hard fighting 10 inch brown (same as last year). The next hour resulted in a couple more fish, but nothing like the glory years when double digits were caught in the first hour. Working our way downstream, the catch rate was well off the average pace for everyone, including the Firehole Master Ranger himself, Marck. I managed to land a few more 10 inch browns and a similar sized rainbow or two. Each fish put a smile on my face; pound for pound these Firehole fish fight as hard as any trout anywhere and they’re a lot of fun on a 3 weight rod.
When the pace of our downstream progress is slow it can be always attributed to really good catching. And there have been many years when posting up on a run for an hour and steadily catching fish was not uncommon. That said, we pushed downstream at a much quicker pace this year. Jimmy and I had talked of the need to slow down and remind ourselves to enjoy simply being there in such a beautiful place, and not get caught up in the rapid pace of fishing.
That wasn’t a problem this year—at least not the pace of the fishing. But slowing down didn’t do anything the speed up the catching: it remained slow throughout the day, though not as slow as last year when the fish total for the UA was 3 fish. I managed to quadruple that number this year, but the real telltale sign of the day’s slow catching was Marck: He normally catches an average of 173 fish on the Firehole; this year he caught around 20 (unthinkable!). But misery loves company, and everyone was well off their average. We won’t even talk about Nash’s day.
Another thing missing this year was the bison. We normally see at least a couple small groups of animals along the way; sometimes large herds. This year we saw one lone bull briefly along the river the entire day. Also missing were the typical crowds of angling folks that we typically encounter as we approach the lower part of the river. We saw perhaps a half dozen other angler folks all day, including a couple groups of beginners who were receiving guided lessons on how to not catch fish on the Firehole.
Most of us were back at the rigs drowning our sorrows well before the agreed-upon rendezvous time of 2:30. We shared our relatively meager catch rates and Nash nearly wept as Goose strutted in last, his chest puffed out as he announced that he had landed 8 out of 13 fish hooked.
On the drive back to West Yellowstone we saw another lone bison, along the side of the road. The bull appeared lost, and hot, so naturally we loaded him into the back seat of Morris’s Soccer Mom Van and took him a Bison-Cooling Facility.
Our good deed done, it was declared that the Rangers were also done with the Firehole and would not be fishing it the next day. We spent one more fragrant night at the Ho-Hum before departing the next morning for the next leg our our trip. Before doing so, however, we demolished a motherlode of food, and perhaps a few too many beers, at Wild West Pizza, where it’s not always clear to everyone which restroom to use.
Up next, Part 3: Would the Madison deliver a kick to the nuts again, this year?