Sometimes as fly fishermen, we just need a little extra shove to go and do something extraordinary. Most of us have an inherent thirst for adventure, and maybe a touch of craziness, so it doesn’t take much to send us exploring. Recently that motivation came from a former high school coach who had just returned from Yellowstone National Park. He could barely control himself telling stories of big cutthroat trout smacking bushy dry flies and the incredible wildlife that flooded the park at dusk. I had heard enough.
I reached out to my fishing buddy Aaron, another OHSU med student, who agreed without hesitation (he may have actually said, “Yellowstone? Why Knot?”) to come along during our upcoming fall break. I reserved a campsite and made a packing list but struggled to find reliable, accurate fishing intel from Google; go figure.
That’s where Why Knot came in. A quick post to the Team Why Knot Facebook page fixed everything. Before I knew it, I was corresponding with three awesome guys who had worked in, lived in, or fished in Yellowstone for years. I was provided more info than I could ever digest, to be honest. I quickly realized the battle would not be finding great fishing opportunities, but triaging where to fish on the limited days we would have in the park.
Our last Friday came and after crushing a final exam and presentations; fall break had begun. We were so eager to get to the park that we left Portland Friday afternoon and drove through the night (and the Colubmia Gorge smoke) to make it for the Saturday morning bite.
After a pit stop at Arrick’s Fly Shop and a diner in West Yellowstone, we bundled up and set out on the famous Madison River just inside the park’s boundaries.
I was initially skeptical given the big name and heavy fishing pressure, but there were clearly reasons for the Madison’s fame. The river was perhaps the most picturesque I had ever seen – clear, cold riffles meandered through vastly open meadows with a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Plus, the first run of the day yielded a thick 16-inch rainbow that hammered a drifted sculpin pattern. I have to admit it was slower over the next few hours, with a lot of casts producing a few whitefish and small brown trout, but it was still a great start.
For the afternoon and evening, we worked our way up the Gibbon River on the way to camp, picking up a handful of smaller browns in a variety of water types, such weedy slack water in a canyon, shallow gravel beds in open meadows. As we drove, we saw numerous herds of elk, antelope, and a few scattered bison. We were definitely in Yellowstone.
That night the temperature dropped into the teens and prompted us to keep a closer eye on the weather – turns out a legitimate snowstorm was on its way to the park and we’d only get two days of fair weather fishing. Thus, we made the decision to hike up Slough Creek the following day while we had the chance.
Slough Creek was apparently one of the best-kept secrets in the park until recent years, when it gained popularity (partly because of blogs like mine?). It is a hike-in cutthroat trout stream that meadners slowly through large open grasslands, with a reputation for large trout plucking grasshoppers off the surface.
Our Why Knot contacts all said the farther we hike, the better the fishing will be. Once we reached the trailhead after some roadside bison-caused traffic jams, we opted to hike in about five miles, which was lengthened since we had to make a wide approach to the creek around another couple herds of bison. Once fishing, we spent the first few hours struggling to generate strikes and getting bullied away from classic trout runs by said bison.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we found our way to a section of slow, froggy-looking water complete with weed beds, buffalo pies on the banks, and virtually no current. It had clearly been passed over by the groups of fishermen downstream from us, probably since it looked more likely to produce a largemouth bass. Sure enough, we hooked up to 15-16 inch cutthroat on consecutive casts, prompting us to focus our efforts on other sh*tholes (literally) like that one. We ended our day on another large, slow pool that was stacked with mayfly-sipping trout who weren’t afraid to suck down our hopper imitations on the side. We proceeded to hook another dozen or so, a few of which were big (20+ inches), although we only managed to land one of those. Aaron was especially pleased when I picked up his rod, made one cast, and caught one more big cutty while I waited for him to finish getting the waders off…
Our hike out proved to be more eventful than the hike in. With a mile to go, we came across a lone bull bison on the trail who had no intentions of moving for us. He ended up running us off the trail and staring us down as we “hid” behind a five-inch tree trunk. The look in his eye suggested that he knew he could plow through that tree, and my torso, like a couple of matchsticks.
Sure enough, we weren’t done pissing off the locals for the day. As we unpacked at the car, two fellow fishermen came down the trail and stopped to chat. They had a much slower outing than us, struggling to hook a fish or two all day. It was after we made statements like, “strikes every cast” and “they were hitting anything!” that we realized these two were a guide and his client. Whoops. We offered them beers, which the client gratefully accepted and the guide declined as he stormed off to his truck.
Day three was when the weather began to set in. We got out of the tent early to head for Soda Butte Creek, a long, small tributary of the Lamar, and it was already feeling like winter steelheading. Our breath seemed to freeze midair, the stream had a chalky stain to it, and the fish were only moved by traditional nymphing techniques. By midday, the creek was crawling with other fishermen and a number of guide-client duos, prompting us to move on.
At that point, the weather was going rogue on us. Although we were squared away to camp in Yellowstone for five nights, a large snow storm was rolling in that was forecasted to dump about six inches that night alone, and then continue to spray snow, rain and ice the next couple of days. Rather than trying to tough it out fishing in winter conditions all day only to freeze our asses off in the tent each night, we decided to head north to Bozeman, Montana and escape the system. I called up an old fishing friend, Rich, who was stoked to offer us an extra room, and that was that. We were quite reassured when we hit pounding, windshield-blurring rain on our drive out of the park. It held off just long enough for us to hang on the Mammoth quad with “Touchdown” and the rest of his elk herd.
Tuesday morning we woke up after a warm, dry night of sleep and headed for a new stretch of the Madison River, far outside the park and its grueling weather. Rich told us of the Bear Trap stretch, a productive area well-known by anglers but avoided by drift boats because of some gnarly rapids up the canyon. This section of the river looked far different than the one in the park – much more like the lower Deschutes River in our neck of the woods. Though fishing was slower than our park efforts, we picked up a few nice rainbows by nymphing and swinging streamers through its wide boulder fields.
Our last day of fishing was complicated by shaky hands and incurable headaches after a wild bingo night at the Rockin R Bar in downtown Bozeman. Nonetheless, we got out early and headed southwest to Hyalite Creek, where Rich and I had fun catching small trout years ago. I drove us up to the reservoir at the top for some quick sightseeing when Aaron asked what we’d find in the reservoir itself. I had no idea. This time, the Google guide shop came through for me – noting various trout species and arctic grayling (allegedly) so we decided we had to stop.
Though we didn’t touch a grayling, we were hooking decent Yellowstone cutts and brookies all morning by stripping buggers in the snow. At one point while Aaron explored a far side of the lake, I was working the edge of a weed bed when the line came tight to a fish, and a big one at that. Before I knew what was happening, line was peeling off towards the deep center of the lake – pounding, pounding, POP. Gone forever. Not sure what I had hooked into but it felt many pounds larger than the others and brought back nightmares of a big Boston Harbor striper I’d lost on the fly with WKF’s Joey G a few months prior.
Once we were thoroughly frozen on the barren reservoir, we warmed up in the car and headed down the creek, working a mile or so of small pocket water with our three weights. We ended our day on a beautiful pool full of fish smacking caddis dries on the surface. However, our imitations were drawing no interest and we were beginning to lose hope, and light.
As Aaron started to head up the bank towards the road, I made one last cast underneath a log that was holding fish. A streak of orange flew up from the depths and finally took my EZ caddis – it was on. He tore around the pool and showed us some acrobatics before landing, and it turned out to be a colored-up brookie that had to be bigger around than he was long. Though he wasn’t the largest, he was probably the prettiest of the trip and an excellent last fish.
Our drive back to Oregon in the morning allowed us some time to think about the amazing places we had fished and knowledge we had gained. There was clearly enough water in Yellowstone to keep an angler busy for years – and we had not even scratched the surface. There were numerous other lakes and rivers that our new Why Knot buddies had recommended and we sadly never got to fish, partly because the weather had pushed us out even sooner than planned.
In Bozeman alone, we had to contemplate which famous river out of a handful of options to approach each day. The scenery of Montana and Wyoming was enough to warrant a visit even if the fishing sucked. But, as you hopefully have learned, the fishing was also awesome.
Because of Why Knot Fishing’s network and the great people who are involved, we were able to walk in and to stick a ton of beautiful trout on waters that were entirely new to us, without spending more than a few bucks on a nightly campsite. For that I owe Joe and Matt, Ethan, Taylor, and Kevin a round of beers. Cheers guys.
Why Knot is tight, like our fly lines should be.