Yellowstone Country

The canyon walls had

closed in by the time I stumbled over the kill site.

It looked like a circle of fur, and dried blood, almost perfectly symmetrical. The carcass itself was gone—dragged off, or consumed, by whatever had ended this elk’s life. I was alone, and ankle deep in the Gardner River, its weirdly milk-white waters lapping at my boot tops, nearly opaque with the minerals running off of Mammoth Hot Springs in northern Yellowstone National Park. Technically, I was only a few hundred yards from the road. Realistically, I would have needed climbing gear to scale the walls on either side of me. A bear could have used the leftover ropes to floss his teeth.

A native Westslope Cutthroat trout from Trout Lake in Northeast Yellowstone

Thirty yards downriver I had lured a surprisingly large cutthroat from beneath a boulder as I worked my way upstream. In fact, it was surprising enough that I had completely missed the strike, and so I spent the next half hour resting the pool and trying a variety of patterns to see if I could get the trout to show himself again. That entire time I had stared into the pool, my back to the canyon wall, oblivious to the predator bait just around the corner.

A bear could have used the leftover ropes to floss his teeth.

For a city dweller from back East, Yellowstone presents challenges you just don’t have to think about in, say, the Appalachians. I’ll admit the kill site spooked me, and so I slipped a loop of line over my rod butt and backtracked to meet my fishing partner, Jake. In our camp the night before, I had dozed comfortably in my tent as the moon rose and the night deepened. Around three o’clock in the morning I was jolted bolt upright from sleep. Somewhere deep down in my genetic cellar, my body recognized the sound that had awoken me before I could process it: wolves. Two packs had come together on opposite sides of the valley we were camped in, and were howling it out in a territorial display to demonstrate which group had the greater numbers. Wolf howls sound cool on TV. At night, in a paper-thin tent, the hair on your arms stands up and your adrenal gland hits the accelerator. I didn’t go back to sleep, and in the morning I found prints as big as my hand less than 50 yards from my tent door.

IT’S NOT that Yellowstone is especially dangerous—not really, at least when compared to any other backcountry site in the national parks. It’s just that Yellowstone is where most out-of-staters go to encounter the West for the first time. A half century of Yogi Bear stealing picnic baskets in “Jellystone Park” have inured the general American public to what Yellowstone actually is: real. Thanks to the wolf reintroduction in 1997, not to mention the discontinuation of the dump-feeding of bears in 1975, Yellowstone is once again a fully functioning Western ecosystem—one of the last we have. John Colter, the veteran of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who in 1807 first explored the Yellowstone basin (all by himself), would recognize most everything he saw today, except for the line of automobiles stopped to photograph bison in Hayden Valley. And yet the roads in the park are mere threads laid lightly over the landscape. Two hundred yards from any parking lot, you can still step back two hundred years.

That’s why Jake and I had come to the park—not because it offered the best fishing in the region (it doesn’t), but because the fishing it does offer is true. Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout are native there, and its rivers and creeks have never been dammed or pellet-fed or, in many cases, even stocked.

Slough Creek is rightly famous as a fly fisherman’s paradise. The next day we scaled the short, steep trail from the parking lot into its first meadow, near the northern border of Yellowstone. It was mid-September, after most of the summer-vacation fly fishermen had gone home, and with the renowned hopper hatches dying back. Consequently, even though Slough Creek is arguably the most famous piece of water in the park, we had it to ourselves. This stretch of water might have been laid out by a golf course designer moonlighting for a billionaire who was trying to make the perfect fly fishing spot. The creek perambulates back and forth across the meadow, barely flowing in most places. It has a rocky bottom, only a good cast across, and the fisherman’s trail is set back just far enough for the tall native grasses to screen the angler from the water. Most of the banks are elevated, so you can stare straight down at the cutthroats (most about fourteen to sixteen inches long), as they prowl back and forth looking for food.

In winter, Slough Creek becomes an elk abattoir.

Slough Creek is notorious for finicky trout. On previous trips, I had realized my store-bought Eastern dries were no match for these well-educated fish. And so I cheated by tying on a white Zuddler Minnow streamer (a favorite in Tennessee), and had managed to entice several cutties into eating what for them must have been a novelty. I came prepared to cheat again, but as I rounded the first bend, I nearly stepped on an incredibly peculiar bug. Orange and black, bigger than a bumblebee, clumsy and helpless in the weeds—I was looking at my first cicada. I knew what they were from pictures, and had seen their shells clinging to an old elm as a child, but I’d never encountered a live specimen.

Matching the hatch is not one of my skill sets; on the Southern tailwaters I am used to, we mostly nymph. However, a child of three could have matched this hatch by picking out the only large, orange- and-black fly in my box. It was a kind of salmonfly pattern, which I had picked up for novelty’s sake in Oregon, and its wings were crushed down from the intervening years it spent riding around in my bag. I tied it on, lazily leaving my 5X tippet in place despite the size of the fly, and then slapped it on the water.

Slough Creek cutthroat do not like to be lined. They can sense inability, and clumsiness, and poor casting. They do not reward the undeserving. I was all of those things, and yet the siren call of the cicada was more than the fish could resist. The first trout to see my fly scooted over ten yards of silt bottom to slurp down the “cicada.” Six casts later I had landed six fish. Literally every fish which saw the cicada ate it. And then the seventh fish got too excited, leaping out of the water and landing on my tippet—now frayed from too many landings—as he took. The fly stayed pinned to his jaw as he slunk back beneath the weedy bank, and my cicada day was over.

Grizz prints in the mud of Slough Creek

Jake and I reached the headwaters of the first meadow, where the creek reenters some rocky slopes, stretching thirty feet and higher above the trail. Maintaining the high ground is not something you typically have to think about while fishing, but remembering the kill site in the canyon on the Gardner, I suggested we cross back to the main trail out in the wide-open meadow. We backtracked and forged through the armpit-high grass, cutting a visible green wake. Jake made a comment about looking for rattlesnakes, when I saw a glint of white. “Snakes aren’t what I’m worried about,” I said, lifting out of the tall grass a bleached six-by-six elk rack still attached to its skull.

Yellowstone is like that. You spend a day fishing what amounts to a fly fisherman’s golf course, and then you stumble over a reminder that this is a very different place, especially in wintertime (when Slough Creek in particular becomes an elk abattoir).

Making our way back down the Slough Creek trail as night fell, we debated what to do next. I suggested hiking about three miles across the central valley from Canyon Village to fish Cascade Lake, an out-of-the-way area but one of the few places in Yellowstone to catch grayling. We learned he trail had been closed due to increased bear activity the day before, however, so we opted to fish the Yellowstone itself.

If You Go

The best time to fish Yellowstone is in late summer, when the schoolchildren and vacationers have mostly left the park but the winter winds are not yet crashing down from the peaks. Parks Service officials recommend that anyone going into the backcountry be prepared for an unexpected snowstorm, and indeed it has snowed in the park even on the Fourth of July.

Air travel is available through Bozeman, Jackson Hole, or Idaho Falls for reasonable rates, while local services also rent RVs for multi-day travelers. For those driving from the east, try passing through the Bighorns from Sheridan, Wyoming and making for the East Gate. This is one of the most spectacular ways to approach America’s greatest park. Park admission is $25 per vehicle for a week. A fishing license is also $25 for a week, or $40 for a season. For those traveling with families, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the Old Faithful Inn are the park’s two nicest destinations, but they can be expensive at over $125 a night for a small room.

First-come first-serve camping is available throughout the park, typically for $12 per night. Mammoth Hot Springs also has a set of private cabins, with communal showers, for around $60 per night, but it is best to book these well in advance. While in the area, try to visit West Yellowstone, home to four fly shops, as well as Gardiner, Montana, which boasts excellent beer and pizza in the K-Bar.

Surprisingly few anglers attempt to fish the big water of the eponymous river. This may be due to the hazard posed by the Great Falls of the Yellowstone, which plunge over 400 feet in two stages. The section immediately upstream of the falls flows down through Hayden Valley, which is a prime bison breeding ground. Between the risk of being washed over the unsurvivable falls and the chance of confronting a stubborn bison, the Parks Service in its wisdom has closed all of Hayden Valley (including tributaries) to fishing. Meanwhile, the headwaters of the Yellowstone above Hayden Valley, where Yellowstone Lake spills over into the river at Fishing Bridge, are also closed to protect the large cutties which spawn there. As a result of the patchwork closures, most anglers don’t realize that the few miles in between Fishing Bridge and Hayden Valley are legal water.

The best way to fish the Yellowstone River, which is well over one hundred yards across, would be with a Spey rod. Unfortunately, all we had were nine-foot five weights. Making do, I looped a fifteen-foot sink tip to the end of my floating line and tied on one of my backup-plan Zuddler Minnows. Picking a spot not far upstream of the Hayden Valley red line, Jake and I spread out, each wading into the current on a low submerged shelf, which in ancient times had hardened from mud belched out by one of the many thermal springs in the area. The river itself steams in these spots, giving the landscape an eerie effect.

The wading there was dicey. Eons of flow had rounded off the top of the shelf like a slick countertop. We chose this spot because the river had churned a deep hole behind the fossilized ledge—one of the few places in the park where actual trophy cutthroat still live. When Lewis and Clark’s expedition made their way up the Missouri drainage (of which the Yellowstone is a tributary), they reported catching cutthroat literally as long as their arms. Few fish like that remain, and the park is not known as a trophy fishery today.

A considerable distance downriver, I could see large dollops of water periodically dimpling the surface, and I realized that something was nosing around just under the film. These risers were well out of reach of any cast. Asking Jake to keep an eye out while I tried something stupid, I stripped all the line from my reel and stretched it, then made my longest cast, straight downstream. It fell well short, of course, but I simply fed line while my fly was taken toward the dimpled water. I was soon feeding backing, until my fly was maybe one hundred and thirty feet away. I glanced at Jake, who shrugged. So I clamped down and let the current pull my streamer, now sunk deep into the hole, back to the surface like a rising baitfish.

The strike was almost immediate, and hard. My five weight bowed over, whether due to the size of the fish or the amount of line I had out; I could not tell. Jake scrambled back to the bank for our net while I crab-walked sideways behind him. In my excitement to make a long cast, I had miscalculated: stepping too close to the middle of the river, I was no longer in the slack current, and my center of gravity was now below the surface. I was sliding, downstream on the countertop-slick shelf, toward a nearly bottomless hole. Even though the falls were miles away, I knew they were down there, pulling me inexorably toward them.

As I reeled, the fish flopped closer to the surface, thrashing and fighting. This time I was using heavy tippet, and I knew he would stay attached to the line. His best chance was simply to pull me into the hole with him, and right then his odds looked pretty good. Within inches of the rim, my boot soles found purchase on an irregular outcropping. Balancing one-footed, I leaned upriver, taking water into my waders thanks to my crouch. Jake splashed back in a hurry, net in hand. With a final twist of my body I swung the fish around to him while simultaneously grabbing his wader straps as a brace. The net swept down, and the fight was won.

We backed out to admire our catch. Legitimately twenty inches long, the cutthroat was almost olive-colored, and sinewy from its never-ending struggle against the pull of the current, the gravity of the Great Falls. It was a native, a survivor, the descendant of fish caught and eaten by mountain man John Colter when he discovered this beautiful spot. It was also a legacy. Even though the tourists in their line of cars just over the ridgetop would never know it, this trout was a testament to the forbearance and wisdom of the men and women who set this special place aside. They made it possible for anyone to step out of the parking lots and go back two hundred years, and see the West for what it was… and still is.

This article originally ran in the July/August 2012 issue of American Angler magazine.

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