IT ISN’T OFTEN IN LIFE one finds oneself unencumbered enough to agree to a two-week
road trip. I know that. Soon enough children, full time jobs, and advancing
age will limit my ability and willingness to be on the road for that length
of time. For many of the same reasons that have caused me to study casting so
intensely as a young man, I decided now was a good time to seize some experiences
before those experiences pass me by. When my editor called and offered an assignment
that would take me and Lauren, as my tandem photographer, into the West, I jumped
at the chance.
Travelogues can be a surprisingly difficult thing to write. No one wants
to read the nitty-gritty details of each stop along the road, but when you
are in a far strange country for the first time, you want to do justice to
the things locals may take for granted. For instance, I got a kick out of
all the ‘World’s Biggest’ displays, like the World’s Biggest Pink Concrete
Prairie Dog, outside Badlands National Park.
Keeping that in mind, I will try to lead you through the wonder I felt at
the West’s immensity and laid-back atmosphere without boring you with the
details of crappy hotels (Dayton, Wyoming), bad food (Dillon, Montana), or
broken-down vehicles (Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming) that mark and mar
so many trips. Those things happened, but the grandeur of the West made them
irrelevant. This was the most exhausting and grueling trip I have ever taken
– psychologically hard, and hard on the pocketbook in the sense of being much
more expensive than I anticipated – but none of that mattered. I was going
West, farther out and for longer than ever before.
We began our journey in Knoxville, Tennessee, with a wearing sixteen and a half
hour day ending in the corn fields of central Iowa. An audiobook of Patrick
O’Brian’s excellent Master and Commander helped us pass the time, but the really
interesting stuff didn’t happen until our second day on the road. Rising at
dawn, we set out across the South Dakota plains. There seemed to be a surprising
number of motorcycles around…
After a few hours and our first encounter with ethanol-laced gasoline, we
made a brief stopover in Badlands National Park. The Badlands were formed
when sedimentary deposits proved harder than the ground around them, which
washed away. Dinosaur skeletons are relatively common and paleontologists
journey from around the world to search here. Without judging or glamorizing
in any way, it is a historical fact that the Badlands were dangerous territory
for whites crossing the plains in the latter part of the 19th century, when
the Sioux had been thoroughly aroused by white depredation. You can see how
the territory would make an easy spot for ambush.
Thumbing their noses at the arid environment, the locals have made creative
use of irrigation and much of the world’s supply of hay now comes from these
parts. In a bad year, South Dakotan hay might be shipped as far as Kentucky.
Then of course there is the ubiquity of Wall Drug. Wall Drug has signs everywhere!
You may even have seen ads for Wall Drug, in Wall, South Dakota (named for
the sudden cliff face rising out of the prairie on which the town was founded,
no doubt) in the background of pictures taken in Vietnam. Wall Drug boasts
the widest dispersion of billboards for any mom-and-pop shop on the planet.
I, however, resisted the strong urge to take pictures of any of these signs,
seeing none that I could really call clever. The Badlands, however stark, are
a welcome relief after that much prairie, and I highly recommend the detour
off the interstate. The local highway will loop you through the Park, and you
won’t lose much time. There is a $10 entry fee per vehicle and the crowds might
become heavy in July, but by August, the Park was worth the detour.
Almost immediately after leaving the Badlands, the bikers became thick as
locusts. At our next stop for gas the answer to this anomaly presented itself:
we were just in time for the infamous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Bikers were
everywhere in this tiny town, just a blip on the interstate close to the old
city of Deadwood, South Dakota. The local culture hasn’t changed much, apparently,
and most officially-sponsored Sturgis memorabilia proudly pointed out the
similarities between the riders of yore and the riders of today.
Hunter Thompson was once nearly beaten to death at a motorcycle rally (I believe
the one that would become Sturgis), and he had to finish his Hell’s Angels from
a hospital bed. We were luckier, and although we were treated to a few sites
that made me glad there were no children along, the day passed uneventfully.
Near Sheridan, Wyoming, we began to pick up herds of pronghorn antelope, which
are remarkably abundant.
After overnighting in an air conditioner-less cabin in Dayton, Wyoming (my
first encounter with a hotel in which air conditioning was not absolutely
required to prevent the certain death of patrons), we headed out over the
Bighorn National Forest at dawn – a remarkable place if ever there was one.
The Bighorn National Forest is an abrupt range spiking at 10,000 feet where
Wyoming in its wisdom allows cattle ranchers to free range their stock. Consequently
one must be careful when driving – especially careful in the false light of
dawn when so many animals move about.
The difference between the Bighorn National Forest and Yellowstone is Bighorn’s
wild nature – the animals here are less accustomed to human presence and indeed
may be hunted from time to time, but nonetheless the area teems with wildlife.
I count sightings in territory such as this as far more worthy than in Yellowstone
or the Smokies – indeed, in Yellowstone, I refused to photograph two majestic
elk due to the ring of people snapshooting in a circle all around.
The Bighorns rise over central Wyoming like a set of hands breaking the surface
of water – jagged and sharp, they provide beautiful views and an abundance of
wildlife. Everything in the area is wild, and we saw herds of elk, whitetailed
and mule deer, moose, and antelope.
After a layover in the Shoshone National Forest to remove a wheel and check
a grinding noise (we had worn out our brake pads descending the Bighorns and
later had to get them changed in Gardiner, Montana), we entered Yellowstone.
The pictures here must speak for themselves – for the greater part I lack
the words. We camped two nights, once near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
and once in Mammoth Hot Springs Campground.
I caught my first wild cutthroat trout in the Yellowstone River itself. Temperatures
were in the 30s at night and I was glad of my 20 degree sleeping bag. After
a hot day hopper fishing for h4 brookies in the myriad highland prairie streams,
we bedded down for the night within spitting distance of the 45th Parallel and
Montana. Wolves came and circled around our tent, sending up howls to chill
the blood. Mother nature provided hailstorms and rain and a glorious sunset.
On the whole, it was the most dramatic night out of doors I have ever spent.
Yellowstone is a magnificent place. Nowhere else have I fished next to wolves,
waited out a hailstorm in the midst of a bison stampede, beheld a volcanic
lake hundreds of feet deep, or caught large, native, wild trout. I will always
value my time there among the most moving travel experiences I have enjoyed.
The Parks Service is to be given credit, great credit, for its great wisdom
in reworking the management strategy to favor natural competition of natural
species. They have taken innumerable criticisms for the reintroduction of
wolves, the return of wild hunting techniques in bears, but they have done
the nation a great service.
As moved as I was by Yellowstone, I must say that Montana’s Ruby Valley, our
ultimate destination, was no less magnificent in its own way. Here working
ranches take the place of wild prairie, but the trout are big and strong in
the Madison, Beaverhead, and Bighole Rivers. Farms and ranches stretch to
the foothills of the unmanageable Ruby, Pioneer, and Gravelly ranges. Ranchers
in this area preserve a way of life that has its own noble place in history,
reaping the benefits of their ancestor’s unimaginably hard work in carving
out workable solutions to nature’s extreme measures. Some areas of this valley,
on the Big Hole, see only 4″ of rain per year – yet the locals manage to grow
healthy herds and hay and even grain on it.
The major rivers of the area, the Ruby, Beaverhead, Big Hole, and, one
valley over, the Madison watersheds, are all served by local water associations
made up of sportsmen and ranchers alike. Thanks to the intervention and
lobbying of these cooperative groups, the trout in these rivers are big
and strong and have water to swim in despite Montana’s six hard years of
drought – all without bankrupting the local economy. However, perhaps sensing
that this way of life may, like the Plains Indians cultures before it, give
way to rising commercial pressures, some local ranchers have turned to lodge-owning
and recreation as a means to keep land in the next generation’s hands. We
stayed at one such lodge, the Big Hole C 4, where Dave Ashcraft and his
wife Cindy were very kind to us despite our irregular status.
The Ruby Valley boasts many interesting landmarks, from Virginia City,
once a mining town of 10,000 and more and now in a state of “arrested decay,”
to the strange polygonal barn a local mining baron built to serve his national
champion racinghorses in Montana’s harsh winters. The top level kept the
horses’ water wet through a series of moving drops and falls, constantly
circulating, while the center story contained enough hay to last through
This was Sacagawea’s home country, and the area is pervaded with Lewis
and Clark landmarks. The Beaverhead Rock, which really does resemble a swimming
beaver if viewed from the proper angle (about 10 miles due west, not right
in front!) was the first landmark Sacagawea recognized and it came as a
godsend for the Corps of Discovery, dragging their dugouts naked through
what is today the confluence of the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers – a nasty,
mosquito infested slough. Those mosquitoes haven’t moved, and anglers coming
to the area should remember to bring a strong repellent (even 40% DEET didn’t
have much effect.)
This is also the valley where Twin Bridges, Montana, home of the R.L.
Winston Rod Company, is located. Twin Bridges is an attractive little blip
of a town, and the citizenry was for the most part friendly. A string of
little towns dot the road through the valley, and you never know who you
might bump into. In Sheridan, the next blip down, Lauren and I ran into
David Letterman in a coffeeshop – he has apparently purchased land at the
head of the Ruby Valley (which incidentally we later accidentally fished.)
During our time at the Big Hole C4 Lodge we were treated to days fishing
the Madison (known locally as the 20 Mile Riffle, but good fishing), the
headwaters of the Ruby, brook trout streams in Beaverhead National Forest,
the Big Hole (where we killed a rattlesnake), and the Beaverhead. I fished
the Madison the first day without Lauren, which was a shame as it was the
best fishing of the trip. Two great browns, about three and a half pounds
and two and a quarter, respectively, fell victim to a ridiculous experiment
of a stonefly pattern I cooked up on my vise in a fit of creativity long
This stonefly pattern was cooked up back in my days on the Little Red
River in Arkansas, when we would get very sporadic hatches of what I thought
at the time were Little Yellow Sallies (now, having seen a Yellow Sally,
I think they might have been h4 golden stones). Hatch-matching is really
far from my forte; most of the waters I have fished are tailwaters and the
usual patterns are aquatic crustaceans, like scuds, and sculpins or baitfish.
This pattern was a standard Hare’s Ear, tied with a turkey-flat wing case,
but with the addition of goose biot horns and tails, stone-fly style, the
whole tied and segmented with neon green floss, and beadheaded. By all rights
it shouldn’t have worked but I caught two of the nicest fish of my life
on the fly, tandem dropped below a streamer.
One of the most interesting things I learned on this assignment was how often
Western guides will go to a two or three-fly rig in order to get a better
feel for what is working. Most of the time I fished either two streamers (to
simulate competition for food sources), a streamer deaddrifted with a nymph
behind, or two or three nymphs like ducks in a row. To rig these monstrosities,
try this little trick:
Tie your fly on normally. I use a clinch knot. Don’t improve the clinch
knot – the improved clinch is weaker anyway. You could leave a long tag
end and drop from there, but that tends to tangle. Instead, cut a piece
of tippet about 24″ long and double the last six inches over so you can
pinch the tag end between thumb and forefinger along with the running end,
making a simple loop. Now roll your fingers together with a tight pressure,
and the tippet will spring into a pig’s tail. Hook the loop of the pig’s
tail over the back of your first fly and pinch it there with your other
hand. Now carefully unclasp your first thumb and forefinger and grab the
tag end before it unravels (it isn’t that hard, just don’t let go all the
way but shift your grip forwards a bit). Run the tag end through the loop
over the hook gape, pinch, wet, and tighten, and bingo – 20 second dropper
rig, a standard clinch knot over the back of the hook! I am proud to say
I came up with this by myself and it worked like a champ.
The other truly interesting discovery I made was how Western guides fish
the water. In the East, we become accustomed to fishing tailouts and deep
holes at a slow pace, making mend after mend to correct microdrag and hoping
the fish will accept our pitiful offerings after long deliberation. Western
fish don’t have the luxury of as much time as a lowwater tailwater trout.
They must make a snap decision. As a result (and possibly partly because
of the inexperience of my oarsmen), we sailed right through holding lie
after holding lie, making snap casts left and right like six-gun slingers
and hoping against hope the trout had time to see the pattern. Lies behind
pockets, under cut banks, and in tailouts were all explored and as expected
many of them had fish in them.
However, where the Western guides began to really differ was in water like
the Madison. Rather than casting to slow water on either side of a deep, wave-crested
riffle, our guides instructed us to cast directly into the riffle on the principle
that fish will hold wherever there is enough water and aerial cover – in this
case provided by the broken, choppy ceiling. Sure enough, we caught several
fish out of these pockets.
By raft or drift boat, the winds on the Madison can be brutal. Indeed,
we had one windless day at the start of the guided fishing, then paid for
our luck in blood sacrifice for the rest of the week. Our second day on
the Madison, Lauren’s first alas, the winds blew so hard we could have scudded
under a close-reefed topsail for hundreds of miles. Our inexperienced oarsmen
picked up some heavy salting and handled us well and I am very thankful
to them – thanks Flint and Dave! I only managed one little brown and a couple
whitefish, but that was a victory given the conditions. Lauren had a nice
brown on for a moment – long enough to run her well into the back of her
line, but the wind was so strong the fish had the advantage of simply holding
in place and screaming the reel like a bonefish. It snapped her 4x like
To fight these winds and keep our dead drifted nymph and streamer rigs
afloat, I used the balloon indicator method that is currently leaking out
of the southern Rockies. Neither of my guides had ever seen children’s party
balloons used as indicators, but they work like champs – especially in heavy
seas and winds. To make a balloon indicator, half-hitch a loop in your line
at the desired place. Inflate a child’s water balloon only as far as needed
to fill it out – don’t stretch the latex at all. Tie it off well up the
stem to make a h4 indicator, then snip off the valve with scissors to
keep it from spinning. Place the knot on the other side of the half hitch
loop and wet and cinch down. If you want to move it, simply tease out the
half hitch. For a placid tailwater this indicator might be too large – but
on a high-flow western river it is perfect.
Our next destinations were the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers. Although I
saw a very fine brown holding in an irrigation channel in the Big Hole, the
sight of no less than 4 snakes in 200 yards, including at least one and possible
two rattlesnakes (I am informed bull snakes resemble rattlers but I wasn’t
hanging around to find out), we gave up on the Big Hole.
The Beaverhead wasn’t much kinder. The winds were still blowing pretty
stiffly by Day 4, but worse than that our cloud cover had evaporated and
none of the big fish wanted to move. The Beaverhead resembles an eastern
spring creek, meandering at low gradient through tall grass and muck that
is excellent habitat for mosquitoes. However, it contains the largest fish
on balance in Montana and can be a place for spectacular fishing. The recent
drought has hit it hard, however, and although it has plenty of water now,
the last few years of poor recruitment means there is a generation gap in
the trout that will cause the large fish to vanish for a few years when
the current generation dies off.
Fortunately, Dave Ashcraft’s Big Hole C 4 Lodge sits smack-dab on Owsley
Slough, where I moved but failed to hook the largest fish of the trip. This
is a true spring creek and not for the faint of heart. Still, I know of
nowhere else where one can jump no less than four fawns in an hour’s fishing,
sometimes almost beneath your feet. The mosquitoes and muddy, soft banks
mean this is a young man’s fishery, and it may well have been the most dangerous
place I encountered on the trip. I fell in the river more than once as a
bank gave way, but I still managed some nice browns.
The browns in Owsley Slough were highly unwilling to come up for hoppers despite
their abundance on the banks. Really, although we were in the height of hopper
season, we never saw much action on the big patterns throughout the trip.
I believe I caught one brown on a hopper and handful of brook trout.
The trick at Owsley was to float dry peacock caddis over the trout, then
dunk the fly and strip it back at the end of the drift. Casting was tricky,
but the fish were rewarding, with some brought to hand as big as 14 inches
and a couple seen or lost as big as 22″!
We concluded our trip at the Big Hole C 4 Lodge, and so I will conclude
this rambling account there. We had a great time – truly the trip of my
lifetime – and I will spare you the grueling hours on the road (32 of them)
to return to Knoxville, Tennessee.
If ever you have the chance, this is one far, strange country, you must