Outside: Public Water, Private Experience

Living in southwest Montana, in what my gardening book describes as the most brutal of growing zones, I spend half the year dreading the onset of fall.

I have nothing against fall, but the autumn equinox brings a skiff of snow to the mountains, frost in the yard, and a sudden loss of heat from the sun. That change resonates like a dagger to the heart; we all know what’s next and it sticks around, unwelcome, for eight or nine months.

I may mope around for a few days until I consider that, activity-wise, fall is the best time of the year. There are birds to chase through the wheat, and elk and deer to pursue in the woods. The cottonwoods and aspens shimmer in diffused imperial light, like a king’s cloak. And, best of all, many of Yellowstone’s streams provide the most productive fishing all year. If my depression lasts for more than a couple days I think about people, from around the country, who wanted to stay for a Yellowstone fall, but had to return to jobs and families at the end of summer. When I consider that, I feel pretty spoiled.

One of my favorite places to fish during fall is the Lewis River Channel, a stream that connects Lewis and Shoshone lakes, which rest in the southern portion of the park. During fall, the channel draws brown trout from both lakes, as well as some large lake trout, which are also known as mackinaw. When I first heard of the channel it was supposed to be a secret spot — a fly shop employee in Jackson, Wyoming, told me about it with piercing eyes and sharply angled brows, giving the impression of ownership and repercussion. I regarded that information like I do all tips on secret waters: I decided to fish that stream soon and keep my mouth shut. After all, I felt indebted to my informant.

It was late September by the time I drove to the Dogshead trail and I was surprised to find a few other rigs tucked into the trees. They harbored stickers that touted Simms, Sage, and Winston, which quelled any hope that my fellow visitors might be there for reasons other than angling. Secret spot? I fumed. I could have found a less crowded lot somewhere on the Snake.

I wasn’t as mad about those fellow anglers as I was about the ownership issue; it’s one thing to tout an overlooked spring creek or a high mountain lake full of 20-inch goldens as your own, entirely another to threaten someone when the destination is already well known and infiltrated by anglers. There’s a difference, I always tell the proprietary types, between fly fishing in America and fly fishing in eastern Canada or Europe — our waters are public and everyone shares the opportunity. Yellowstone, delightfully, is the epicenter of America’s quality public fishing. I could have retreated that day and fished elsewhere, but the draw of large brown trout, all mad and ready to destroy streamer flies, was a big lure.

I followed a dusty, mostly flat trail through timbered terrain, stepping over several grizzly bear tracks on the way. By the time I reached the stream, five miles later, six guys were casting flies over the mouth of it, right where Shoshone Lake drains in. I geared up on the bank and waded in below the other anglers. Above the stream, in the lake, 3- to 5-pound brown trout flipped like herring. Occasionally one of the guys hooked a fish and the others reeled in and pulled out cameras.

One guy whipped out a video camera, pressed record and said, “The club will love seeing this.” Then, he proposed, “Maybe we should do a club outing here.”

Rather than lamenting those fellow anglers and what I might run into the following year, I embraced them. I took a group shot during a rain delay; they, in turn, doled out some productive patterns to try in the channel and on the Madison, which was next on my hit list. They’d fished the Madison two days prior with only fair success; they suggested I head to the northeast corner of the park to try my luck on the Lamar River and a couple of its tributaries, Soda Butte Creek and Slough Creek. If I was ever in northern California, they added, I had an open invitation to fish. Finally, I asked the question: “How did you guys find out about this place?”

“We were in a fly shop in Jackson and a guy told us about it. He said it was a secret spot, but when we got here there were already four guys fishing.”

“What did the guy at the shop look like?” I queried.

“Tall. Long hair. Big ‘stache.”

“Yep,” I replied. “Thought so.”

The channel was what I expected. It was fairly narrow and flowed through classic pine forest. Its grassy banks were undercut in places and most corners offered deep pools where brown trout and mackinaw could hide.

I was fishing between two groups, the California crew at the inlet and some unknown anglers below me, thoroughly covering a deep, corner pool. It had already been fished and I fought off an urge to say, “Forget it,” and head for the Madison or Lamar. But, over the years, biologists have told me that, as a group, fly fishers are not very adept at catching fish. Several relayed stories about encountering anglers who tell them to go ahead and electrofish a particular pool because they’ve fished it for an hour and “There’s nothing in there.” When the fish and game boys turn on their equipment and dozens of large trout float to the surface, all the anglers can say is, “No way.”

So I fished the corner pool for a while, switching flies often. First I threw a big streamer but figured the fish already had seen that. Then I tossed in a large mayfly nymph hoping that the trout remembered a summer green drake emergence and would take the nymph on instinct. Finally, I tied on a small egg imitation and drifted it through the pool. Moments later I yarded out a 17-inch brown. Two or three casts later, it was a 20-inch hen. Several more casts and I hooked and lost a good fish. Five more minutes and I was twisting that egg out of a 19-incher’s maw. I’ve had days on the channel when I couldn’t buy a fish; I never felt as satisfied on the channel as I did that day while fishing fished-over water with the perpetrators glancing upstream at the action.

Fly fishing shouldn’t be competitive in that way, but few would argue it isn’t. It probably feels good to catch fish in front of others because of all the times the roles are reversed. There are days, for every angler no matter how experienced they may be, when the fish turn lock-jawed for you while a buddy in the bow of the boat, throwing the same flies on the same tippet, just absolutely destroys them. You can reference all the technical books you want; you can blame your position at the back of the boat; you can say that your pal got to fish over the good water first, leaving only scraps behind. In the end, it’s probably best to chalk it up to the nuances of trout and that it just wasn’t your day. Otherwise fishing might seem like a chore and you may wonder why you flew to chilly Montana when you could have gone to Vegas or the Keys where a good time and prime weather is almost guaranteed. I guess that’s what the boys on the channel did that day because shortly after I caught and released those fish they wound their lines in unison and stomped off into the forest, never to be seen again.

Another great place to fish for brown trout in Yellowstone is the Gibbon River, which rests on the west side of the park and drains into the Madison River.

The Gibbon is one of the prettiest streams in Yellowstone but, unlike the Lewis River Channel, you expect to see anglers fishing there. Most of it is located just off the road — no dusty, five-mile, grizzly-laden tromps are required to reach it — and the river provides good fishing for 14- to 18-inch browns that rest in the corner pools and the deeper runs, especially those that carve along cut banks.

The entire lower river provides decent options but there’s no prettier place to fish than just below the 84-foot Gibbon Falls where anglers cast into a constant mist and all worldly sounds dissolve into that crashing water. There may be cars passing along the road above and tourists gawking and shouting from the observation towers, but none of that means anything to anglers fishing below.

A few years back I met Mike Bordenkircher, a friend from Ketchum, Idaho, on the west side of the Park. He’s not the type to travel much and he’s thrifty with his hard-earned money. But I’d teased him into a five-hour drive and the purchase of a Yellowstone fishing license by promising a brown trout extravaganza. It was the third week of September, late enough in the season to wake with frost covering our sleeping bags. That we slept on the ground in open air, instead of in a tent, didn’t improve our chances for a night of warm, comfy sleep.

I remember eating a hasty breakfast, then pumping the heat in our trucks before heading to the Gibbon. Once we neared the falls we pulled off and hiked down to the water. Then we worked our way up opposite banks, casting to likely looking pockets.

I’d read enough magazine articles and books to think that trout should have been hiding behind every rock. And that’s what I’d told Bordenkircher. About 10 minutes into our foray it became clear that the fish weren’t there — we were covering quality water with great casts and productive flies. The Gibbon, I concluded, wasn’t the motherlode we’d hoped for. By the time we reached the falls we’d landed a couple 10- or 12-inch browns, nothing that we couldn’t have found on any trickle in Montana, Idaho or Wyoming.

We worked the plunge pool for a while and Bordenkircher finally hooked a good fish. I only understood that because of the bend in his rod and the intense look on his face. After he worked that brown to the bank he held it high. It looked like a 17-incher and that may be what Bordenkircher was saying, but I couldn’t hear a thing. More likely, he was shouting, “Hey, Thomas. You’re a jackass! I could have caught this on Silver Creek without buying a park license!”

That’s the way it is with fall brown trout: Weather and water conditions drive brown trout migrations. Any given year the fish may arrive early. Other years they are late by two or three weeks. Anyone fishing the Lewis River Channel or the Madison or Gibbon could arrive on the wrong day and declare both streams a bust. That’s why it’s important to employ a backup plan when fishing fall browns and that’s exactly what Bordenkircher and I did: Mike headed back to Ketchum and those big browns on Silver Creek; I turned the truck east and headed for the Lamar where I might find eager cutthroats and rainbows.

Most fall fishing in Yellowstone, especially for brown trout, is conducted under the surface with streamers, large nymphs and softhackles. But Yellowstone provides some great fall dry-fly fishing, too, including hatches that rival what anglers see during summer. Of significant note is the stately green drake, which actually appears as brownish in coloration. Some people call that bug a green drake, others call it the fall drake, others claim it as a Hecuba. A lot of anglers get their noses in the air declaring their title as the correct name, which never makes sense to me; I’ve never been as intrigued by the proper identification of bugs as I am with what patterns might fool a fish wanting to eat one. Arguments including the Latin names of mayfly species are the kinds of gripes that drive spouses mad and give fly fishers their rightful title as one-upped snits. Suffice to say, the fall drakes found on the Lamar are big bugs matched accurately with a size-10 or 12 Parachute Adams or a Sparkle Dun. They come off in the morning and extend into early afternoon. When you find those bugs on the water, whether on the Lamar, Slough Creek or Soda Butte Creek, you’ll know it — because every one of those big-winged duns will get sucked off the surface by a nice rainbow or cutthroat.

That’s what I found one early afternoon on the Lamar. I fished through the morning hours, mostly without success, all the while chipping ice from my guides. Then, as the sun rose and a little warmth entered my body, I started seeing rises, and then the fall drakes. I camped on one pool and caught five fish on successive casts, mostly smallish cutthroats and rainbow/cutthroat hybrids in the 12-inch range. And then I caught a 16-incher before I heard a roar behind me.

That’s not a comforting sound on the Lamar. When fishing that stream, you’re a long ways from the road and there aren’t many trees to climb in case one of the toothy types — meaning wolves, big cats or grizzly bears — decide that it needs to fatten up before winter hits. Fortunately, that roar was a thunderhead rising to the west. As rain started falling hard, I packed up and headed fast for the highway.

Fall hatches on the Lamar and other Yellowstone streams continue through the park’s season closure the first Sunday in November. And the streamer fishing for brown trout only gets better as the season progresses. What really drives successful fall fishing in Yellowstone is the weather — by mid- to late October daytime temperatures could plummet to below zero. A typical day might begin at the 10-degree mark and move to just above freezing by 3 p.m. Or some crazy Chinook wind might surprise with 50- or 60-degree temperatures and short-sleeve weather like it did last year.

By the time that happens most anglers will have cased their rods for the season and dedicated anglers have the park to themselves. When I start thinking about all the possibilities a Yellowstone fall has to offer, and that I might enjoy that relaxed pace of fishing for a full two months, that first coat of snow on the mountains becomes less of a curse and more of a peace offering.

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