Anything Goes

GIVEN A CHOICE, WOULD YOU RATHER A) occupy an office while daydreaming about fly-fishing in Montana; B) float one of Montana’s premiere rivers; or, C) plant your feet in a pair of hiking boots, strap rod and reel onto a backpack, and head for backcountry water in which you just might bushwhack your way to hungry, enthusiastic (read: innocent), cutthroat trout?

Last fall, in the company of two youthfully exuberant off-duty Colorado fishing guides and photographer Bob Knoebel, we chose the latter and headed for a seldom-seen stretch of the Yellowstone River in the nether regions of Yellowstone National Park.

On the rare occasion when I’m not on the oars guiding clients in Montana, or staring at a monitor, my inclination is to head for spots in which the odds of seeing a deer are greater than seeing another human. Naturally, I prefer those I can reach with a minimum of physical effort.

This adventure was touted as a four-day trip that would meet my demands for solitude beside a pristine stream, coupled with a view of bright stars, and the fragrance of a smoky campfire. I had no choice but to sign on.

There were considerations, however. The simple task of tossing gear into the back end of the pickup was replaced by the need to scrounge a long list of things to bring. First, a backpack, into which would be loaded 5-weight fly rods, reels, flies, and a heavy assortment of accessories. Leftover space was filled with a three-day supply of food, clothing, and cooking gear, plus a tent, sleeping bag, and sundries necessary to endure a lifestyle bereft of electricity or running water.

“You won’t have any problem carrying the weight,” I was promised (lied to, as it turned out) by one of the co-conspirators. “The 18-mile hike will be all downhill.” Riiiight.

The payoff: 15 minutes after making a zillion footsteps en route to a pool well upriver from Tower Junction, Cameron Cipponeri’s artificial imitation of an insect was attached to fish number 12, a healthy 14-inch cutthroat. At that point, he’d tossed the fly into the stream 14 times, so his batting average was Ruthian.

Something of a chatterbox, Cam (Youthful Exuberance #1), could only giggle, then say, “Here we go again. Another cutt. Ate an olive conehead bugger. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem catching fish, Mike.”

Only 50 feet downstream, Mike Calcaterra (Youthful Exuberance #2) struggled to attract a fish to a similarly organized concoction of thread and feathers. Though presenting a nymph in water that appeared as promising as Cam’s, he might as well have been caged in the aforementioned office. Therein lay a dose of reality: though this stretch of the river is well populated by wild trout aggressively feeding on an abundance of aquatic insects, there’s more to connecting than making a decent cast. As in, reading the water. The little nippers were consistently unpredictable in their choice of residence.

FOR THE UNINITIATED, Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres of land comprises the second largest park in the Lower 48. More than 3 million visitors annually attest to its ranking on the ‘List of Things to See in the USA’. Sadly, few see much of the territory more than 100 yards from the pavement.

In 1872, to protect the region, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation declaring the area a national park, the first in the world. His action probably brought tears to the eyes of real estate developers who may have been salivating at its potential. Shortly thereafter, when user-friendly roads were carved into the wilderness and guest quarters were constructed, the park began to attract hordes of visitors.

Today, beating a hasty path through the park is virtually impossible, inasmuch as herds of bison are so disdainful of traffic regulations they meander in traffic lanes with total disregard for a steady stream of sedans and RVs. It is in the backcountry, though, where you may enjoy the best views of wildlife in their natural setting.

Anglers from all continents target the long, winding, fish-filled Yellowstone River. The longest un-dammed river in the Lower 48, she holds an enormous population of rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout, and is accessible on land or by sea.

Like Eve, she presents three faces.

From headwaters near the park’s southern boundaries, she flows into Yellowstone Lake, which is inhabited by lunker-sized lake trout. Exiting the lake, the track to Yellowstone Falls is along a sometimes-riffled stretch occupied primarily by cutthroats.

Below the northern entrance to the park, the river winds through a narrow canyon to the ranchlands of Paradise Valley near Livingston, a 40-plus mile stretch populated by 1,000 trout per mile. From the middle of June — when the river typically clears following spring runoff — until the end of October, the surface is covered with flotillas of drift boats filled with fly casters banging the banks. They tempt fish with virtually every freshwater imitation imaginable, ranging from size-6 sculpins to size-22 mayflies. The Yellowstone completes its journey in northeast Montana when it disappears into the Missouri River.

For our part, we were only interested in a section known as the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, which lies between Yellowstone Falls and Gardiner. Though the canyon is accessible at many points, a small percentage of visitors enter its steep, narrow environs.

Park Fisheries Biologist Todd Koel says this stretch of river “is primarily a cutthroat fishery, because the browns are unable to go upstream beyond Knowles Falls. The cutts migrate downstream from Yellowstone Lake and swim over the falls.” This death-defying leap traps them between the two sections.

Our original plan was to approach the canyon from a trailhead near Hellroaring Creek. Then we’d travel 18 miles  downstream, mostly downhill, interrupting the fishing with three overnight stops en route to the park’s north entrance. Fishing, and downhill, were operative stimulants for me.

Naturally, whoever was in charge of the weather decided to throw a monkey wrench in our itinerary. Mudslides produced by a thunderstorm dirtied that stretch, a common occurrence during summer months. Despite a trout’s keen vision and olfactory attributes, it is a fact that fishing dirty water is typically as productive as looking for a Banyan tree in Montana. So, while researching alternatives, we sought guidance from a lithesome park ranger whose view of the world is through electric green eyes. Coincidentally, she is the featured attraction in the 20-minute video that is required viewing for campers headed into the backcountry. Her presentation greatly increases the entertainment value of an otherwise dry (read: informative, but boring,) instructional film.

Considering her input, we decided to hike upstream seven miles along Specimen Ridge, then downhill another mile to a campsite overlooking the river.

“The elevation increases from 6,270 feet at the trailhead to about 7,500 feet at the ridge, then there’s a drop of about 1,500 feet down to the campsite,” she said. My internal calculator estimated an increase in elevation of approximately one quarter of a mile, with a corresponding drop. At this point, I decided that preparation for the hike should have included running laps around a high school track with a refrigerator strapped to my shoulders.

“Nobody has been in there for two months,” Ms. Ranger added, as if that was a plus.

Nonetheless, my reservations were quickly negated by Cam’s and Mike’s enthusiasm and their ego-building rah-rah speech. Forms releasing the National Park Service from any liability resulting from our behavior or poor judgment were eventually executed, and we headed south.

Eight hours and eight long miles later, Cam, Mike, and the Bob occupied the 100-yard long run near the intersection of Agate Creek and the Yellowstone River. I retired to camp to test the firmness of an inflatable mattress.

For their opening gambit, the boys were casting an assortment of de-barbed hooks covered with various shades and textures of thread, peacock feathers, elk hair, and copper beads. In many spots the river is narrow enough that an average caster can place a fly in runs and pools on the opposite bank without scaring the residents.

The river was at its lowest level of the year and smoothly coursed the canyon, but dark indentations on the shoreline revealed that the depth of the water in May would have covered an angler’s Adam’s apple. Blueberry muffin-sized rocks smoothed over by centuries of onrushing current covered the beach. In nature’s way, they surrounded mini strawberry bushes that, months earlier, had been submerged like cranberries in a bog. In the midst of a covey of 100-foot tall trees stood the charred remains of a single snag torched by an errant lightning strike. Entertainment was provided by an American dipper dip-dip-dipping on a rock before leaping into one of the few remaining spots in the stream covered by sunlight.

The fishing was straightforward, in many ways akin to a spring creek experience. The Colorado boys teased fish lying on the edges of seams, and in the depths of holes where the surface current was slow enough to allow a good drift. Fish also lay undisturbed on the outside of bends, where deep buckets of oxygenated water delivered snacks. Size 10-ish gray drakes were spotted intermittently, but they saw nary a nose.

Soon after the sun dropped below the ridge, fleece-level temperatures invaded waders, so we relocated our tired bodies to the galley. Initially we’d agreed to feast on MREs and trail mix, but that plan was abandoned when Bob promised restaurant-quality meals if we shared the load in our packs.
On our first excursion through his menu we were treated to plates covered with pasta, layered with chunks of smoked salmon, slathered with olive oil and an artery-clogging white sauce. Parched throats were lubricated by Mike’s contribution, an undated bottle of Hess’ finest Cabernet Sauvignon. A testament to American ingenuity is that all meals were cooked on a one-burner stove smaller than a coffee can.

Despite the seemingly early hour, and with utter disdain for the stigma attached to my action, I was the first to surrender to fatigue and head for a tent.

First light brought the fingernails-on-the-blackboard sound of zippers freeing bodies from sleeping bags, followed by the similarly annoying sound of zippers opening tent flaps, followed by the sound of zippers opening tent doors. The final penetration of tranquility was the discordant unzipping of jeans, followed by morning sounds attributable only to men distanced sufficiently from mothers and other loved ones as to allow freedom of expression.

A voice wafting this cacophony of dissonance said, “Cameron, there’s a reason cutthroat are referred to as Gentlemen’s Trout. They never rise until well after the sun hits the water.” No matter. The boys were predisposed to bed late and rise early, regardless of their elders’ requirement for sack time.

Breakfast, always instant oatmeal and strong coffee, provided the first intellectual challenge of the day. Assuming the role of television quiz show host Bob Barker, the photog recited the day’s trivia question, which was prominently inked on the back of a Quaker Oats wrapper. “Who collected 31 Oscar awards between 1936 and 1949?”

Eventually reaching the stream, our daily excursions took us in both directions from the campsite. Traveling downstream required crossing the river twice, in waist high water, to reach deep runs between house-sized boulders.

“There are bear tracks, over here, but they’re not fresh,” Bob reported from the opposite bank one morning, a worrisome reminder that we were on the edge of a restricted region in grizzly country. Seemingly in unison, we double-checked wading belts for bear spray canisters.

    The fishing upstream was easier, since the canyon widened, presenting longer runs between the holes.

We fished hard and, by day’s end, had enticed large numbers of 12- to 14-inch fish to eat an encyclopedic selection of hair and synthetic materials. Mike’s observation was, “This is almost too easy.”

So, on day three, the boys decided to experiment with flies indigenous to the Frying Pan River in Colorado. Mike’s choice was “something big that looks like a hopper,” while Cam selected a Fat Albert, a big, gaudy piece of foam married to long black rubber legs. The photog, Bob, was unwavering in his commitment to the only bug he used on the trip, an olive bugger. Thankfully, the fish so willingly continued their delightfully indiscriminate eating, four bodies were gathered at the kitchen well before dusk.

This time, when we gathered around the campfire, the conclusion of our short hiatus from daily life became a bigger speck on the horizon. A rising moon painted the hillside across the river. As if to signal the end of the trail, perhaps taking a cue from Steven Spielberg, the sad, throaty howl of a lone wolf penetrated the silence.

Interestingly, the same campfire that scorched the bottom of the coffee pot also stimulated the vocal chords. Conversation became, at one end of the spectrum, lighthearted.

As in: “If you could be a fish, what kind would you be?” And, “Remember the time I tried to drink a beer through my nose?”

On a more serious note, it was surprisingly self-revealing. As in, “I was 22 years old before I realized how smart my parents were.”
As you might expect, the conversation eventually turned to plans for our next adventure. Fantasies extended to catching 50-pound Taimen in Mongolia; or monstrous Atlantic salmon in Russia; or, bonefish in the warmth of salt flats in Central America. However, returning to freshwater fishing for wild trout always seemed to top the agenda.

Why not? We could travel many miles before finding landscape as diverse, varied, or colorful as what’s available in the Northern Rockies. Rivers are filled to abundance with hungry, sometimes unsuspecting, trout. The water is Grey Goose clear and, between the sound of rushing water, wind blowing down the canyon, and our preoccupation with the task at hand, we were oblivious to sounds of the outside world that may have attempted to intrude on our space.

We eventually agreed to reconnect in the backcountry. But, and it’s a big but there is one caveat: the next trek to the fishies would be on a one-way path that only winds downhill.

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