The road to and from Yellowstone, Part III (and Part IV, sort of)


The Madison River: Beauty and the Skunk?

We left off Part 2 with our final night in West Yellowstone, where some of the Rangers may have had a bit too much fun, if there is such a thing. Actually, there is such a thing, and if you’re feeling not very good in the morning, even fishing can leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately I happened to feel just dandy the next day as we headed off to meet my personal nemesis, The Cornhole River (also known as the Madison at Three Dollar Bridge). This river in this location has never welcomed me with open arms, with the exception of last year’s personal best day on the Madison (6 fish landed). Most years I tend to scratch out one or two fish if I’m lucky, often one or two fewer than that. The only good thing about the Madison, in my opinion, is the setting: it’s absolutely beautiful. With the Madison Range of the Rockies right in your face it can take one’s mind off the angling misery.

The weather continued to be delightful as it had been on the previous two days of fishing. And that delightful weather had also responsible for slower catching than had the weather been less delightful. In other words, things didn’t look good for a day on a river that typically kicks my ass even when the weather sucks.


The Firehole Rangers, showing some leg(s) on the Madison.

We geared up for a day of wet wading (a first here), took the requisite team photo, and dispersed to various sections of the river to waste a perfectly nice day do some angling. Jimmy and I headed downstream while Marck (with Morris on his heels) paid the toll to cross the bridge and headed upstream. Nash headed upstream on the near bank, as did Goose.

I crossed paths with one other angler who was headed back to his truck after having a tough morning on the river. He said the weather had been crappy until just recently, and the fishing had been great, until just recently. I hadn’t had a bump yet, so I agreed with him that the weather was beautiful and the fishing was slow.

The river was running a bit lower, and quite a bit clearer, than what we normally encounter this time of year. Still, there was a lot of water moving downhill so wading very far from the bank wasn’t an option. I was about to step off the bank into a shallow channel when I saw a nice fish dart from beneath bank. If I didn’t catch anything all day at least I’d seen a fish.

Downstream a short ways my indicator dipped and despite that I assumed I’d merely bumped a stick, I set the hook. The stick didn’t fight particularly hard, but it was a heavy stick and took some finesse to land it. Turns out it wasn’t a stick at all, but a nice brown in the 20″ range that took the small dropper in the upper lip. Without a net (left unintentionally, again, back at the truck), it was tough to land the fish. I did manage to bring it into shallow water for a hook extraction without snapping my 5x. Off the fish swam to eat more and hopefully gain a bit more enthusiasm—the fish was healthy, just semi-catatonic in the cold runoff. I couldn’t really blame the fish, after all, when I’m cold I don’t feel much like fighting either. I would like to have hooked up with him later in the year when the water temp was a bit warmer and he wasn’t feeling quite so lethargic. However, I probably wouldn’t have landed it had if that were the case.


A not very hard fighting Madison brown.

Over the next few hours I scratched out 5 more fish, including one 16 inch rainbow that seemed hell bent on making it downstream to Ennis (the fish was a grand scrapper that showed no signs of brown trout lethargy). Every fish I hooked fought harder than the big brown; even a couple small browns in the 10-12 inch range showed more gumption than their 20 inch brethren.

I gradually fished back upstream and made my way back to the truck for lunch, feeling pretty damn good about the success of the morning, and less confident that I would fair as well in the afternoon. I was right about that. After a cold piece of pizza from the night before I headed upstream on the near bank and fished for another hour and a half without so much as a wiggle in my indicator.

I did have the pleasure of being low-holed by some yahoo carrying two rods who decided to set up 100 feet below me and thrash some nice water. I patiently waited for him to move along but he had apparently snagged his hook and was standing on a rock flailing in vain to get unstuck. I shook my fist in his general direction, whispered under my breath, “Get off my damn lawn you punk kid!” and proceeded to walk around, and below him. As I fished down I glanced over my shoulder and he was still standing on that rock, shaking his stick. I didn’t catch another fish the rest of the afternoon and headed back to the truck, still pleased with my morning catch which equalled my personal best day on this river.

Some of the Rangers were already assembled at the vehicles while the others meandered in shortly thereafter. The consensus was that fishing had been slower than normal for everyone except me, which made no sense—if everyone else had a slower day than normal, I should have been skunked. Marck only caught around 15 fish. Morris recalled catching, “NFC. Maybe 5 or 6″ while Nash had 4 fish (the real victory being that he felt much better than he had earlier in the day). Jimmy caught,”Less than UA, so what does that make me?” Goose caught goose eggs. He hates that damn river more than anyone else, even me.


Goose: Portrait of a Broken Man.

Down the road we headed, ultimately toward Rock Creek some 4 hours away, where we would spend the night before fishing one more river the next day. But first we stopped for some grub at the Grizzly Bar & Grill (located in Cameron MT, although I didn’t see much to suggest anything other than a wide spot in the road, save for a cell tower (or maybe a ham radio antenna?) cleverly disguised as a tall pine tree.

Cell Tower Tree

Look very closely—that’s not a tree.

And fine grub it was—as good as it gets. Our waitress was a comely youngish fly angling person who works at the Grizzly Bar seasonably so she can fish. The chef was also a youngish fly fisherman who cooks food so he can fish. A brief conversation with him revealed that he fishes a LOT, and has his own small business selling hand-tied streamers. I can’t imagine anyone living in that area that doesn’t fish, and if you’re in that area to fish I recommend you make a stop at the Grizzly Bar & Grill to eat. And I recommend the ribeye. Just remember to chew each bite 30 times before swallowing.


Getting our grub on.

The final part in this 4 part series isn’t really worth a post all its own: we fished Rock Creek. It was sunny and even hotter than any of the previous 4 days on the waters of Montana and Yellowstone. The creek was running typically high, though not terribly off color. We started low on the creek and despite seeing a few golden stones, no fish were interested.


The big bugs: golden stone on Rock Creek

We figured our best chances were to chase the salmonflies so we drove 20+ miles up Rock Creek Road, collecting dust and hoping to encounter the really big bugs, which we did: there were salmonflies everywhere, like flocks of smallish birds. Never seen them thicker.


The bigger bugs: salmonflies on Rock Creek

What we did not see was a single fish rise to a salmonfly all day, neither an imitation nor the real deal. We experimented by tossing live bugs into the water and watching them drift downstream through likely current seams. Nothing. I managed one 10 inch cutthroat on a Purple Haze (despite that there was no Purple Haze hatch coming off) and Jimmy threw everything in his fly box at a 15″ cuttie before finally enticing the fish to take his offering (which was not a salmonfly pattern). Goose hooked one small fish that may well have been the same 10 incher I’d caught. There aren’t many places where access to wadable water can be found, and the one spot we found is where all the action (if you can call it that) was to be found.


Jimmy and Goose, desperately hoping to get a fish to rise.

I don’t know why we even bothered to stop and fish that damn creek.  It may be better later in the year when you can actually wade into the water to fish, but this time of year it’s not worth your time unless you’re in a raft. But I’m not bitter. It is a pretty place, I’ll give it that.


Rock Creek, where the beauty doesn’t suck, but the fishing does.


  1. Howard Levett

    Since I haven’t been and probably won’t in this lifetime, one of my favorites times is your report on the Rangers yearly trip. Nice job guys.

    • Kirk Werner

      Fishing vicariously through the UA is a tragic thing, Howard. You can do better. Much better.

  2. The Fading Angler

    Kirk – I waved as I left Seattle not more than an hour ago… Another airport layover. (I even used all my fingers!). Like Howard, I now look forward to the annual Ballad of the Firehole Rangers, and Their Other Misadventures. So I was happy to see that the concluding chapter of June’s hijinx had finally squirmed from your brain into the cybercloudnet. Momentarily, I felt gypped at the uncharactistically abbreviated conclusion. But then I realized that y’all probably felt gypped by the fishing on Rock Creek. Sadly, I learned earlier this year that when the salmonflies hatch on the Blackfoot, Rock Creek, and other area free stones, the local denizens gorge, and then stop. Like, within 36 hours.

    I’m planning to spend a day on Rock Creek in August, probably with a paid expert. Somehow, this sounds much more enjoyable that buying buckets of dirt and “panning” for sapphires up near the headwaters of Rock Creek with my wife and offspring. I’d rather get skunked AND pay the guide (plus tip) than endure THAT again.

    BTW, were you able to successfully relocate any baby bison to the warmer climes of the Puget Sound? the Soccer Mom van seems the ideal rescue vehicle…

    • Kirk Werner

      Chris— An unwritten reason for the abrupt conclusion is actually due thanks to Morris, who made an offhand comment recently about my tendency to drone on and on. Valid point, and I listen to all feedback. The Rangers are planning a fall trip to BC, fishing in griz country. He won’t know it at the time, but Morris will be carrying bacon inside his pack.

      I’ll be curious to hear how the Shithole Rock Creek Shithole fishes in August once the flows are down and access to good water is possible. You made a sound decision to avoid mining for jewels in favor of a good skunking on the River of Few Willing Fish. Despite the rich history in Montana, the extraction industry is now frowned upon.

      As for bison rescues, we did manage to load one mature bull into the Mom Van. He was all alone and appeared rather hot as he slogged along the asphalt. So naturally we took him to a bison cooling facility in the Park. Hope you’re well—thanks for stopping by.

      • The Fading Angler

        Bah!!! Pay no attention to those naysaying philistines! Clearly they’re just uncultured swine who are jealous of your ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. And perhaps afraid for their own ears? Be bold! Cast your pearls before them swine, and laugh as they scratch their heads wondering why you’re throwing pearls at them.

        I think Robert A. Heinlein said it best: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

      • The Fading Angler

        Well, Kirk, my designated day on Rock Creek was Friday.

        We’re camped out in Ennis tonight, taking shelter from high winds and thunderstorms. Tomorrow we head for West Yellowstone. I might have a chance to wet a line before we pack up and leave town. No idea yet where I’m going to spend my designated angling day in/around Yellowstone…

        • Kirk Werner

          You did well on Shit Rock Creek and I will openly admit that I jealous. I shouldn’t be, however—instead I should just stop visiting that place early in the season when the flows are too high for good wading. We did have a great day on the Creek about 8 years ago when we were one of the first groups of boaters to fish it at the tail end of runoff. But I enjoy wade fishing, and I should give Rock Creek a chance to dedeem itself by fishing it in the fall sometime. Good on ye for getting out and overdoing it. You’re having a trip of a lifetime (minus the Ford woes, no doubt). Stay the course!

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