Of Grizzly Bears and Cutthroat Trout

[In which Yellowstone National Park becomes a focus in the 4th part of my “Top of the Rockies” travelogue. I hope that you enjoy.]

Yellowstone cutthroat

The wide sagebrush spaces of western Wyoming finally narrowed in a series of canyons near the headwaters of the Snake River. In the mountain village of Alpine our motel was handily located adjacent to a fly shop and a rustic tavern. There I learned a little more about a subspecies of cutthroat trout, the Snake River fine-spotted, that I could cast for if I wanted to climb 18 miles of the neighboring Greys River (beyond the stocked fish and the dabblers) but, alas, time was running short.

near the geyser belt, Yellowstone

I was intrigued but we needed to push on to Yellowstone in the morning so I added a Snake River tributary or two to my bucket list of streams if I ever come this way again. Native trout help me to define the country that I’m in, and here the native is the Snake River fine-spotted, one of a dozen subspecies of cutthroat trout, all of which are struggling to survive in the face of local and planetary threats. Since I don’t enjoy being a stranger to beautiful creatures, I wanted to return.

wolf track, Soda Butte Creek

Along the Palisades Reservoir of the Snake, we saw the osprey (the fish hawk), lots of them. I counted at least seven active osprey nests along the shoreline of the massive waterway, each one constructed on cross bars of the powerlines we passed beneath. I had never seen such a congregation of this bird before. An adult bald eagle, too, flapped above the currents of the lovely South Fork Snake that looked good enough to stop and fly fish on. Then we passed the Henry’s Fork in Idaho, and the wheels of our machine just had to pause.

on the Henry’s Fork Snake

I bought a one-day fishing license at the anglers’ shop across from the Trout Hunter Lodge, remembering how, years ago, I had fished here at the Harriman Ranch in August and received a royal skunking. It was time to clear the slate. Intending to fish with dry Pale Morning Duns and Cinnamon Ants, I stepped into the famous “spring creek” river and went at it. If I was lucky I would catch a wild trout and then rejoin Leighanne inside the lodge for a great burger lunch with an IPA.

Well damn, I fished for two hours in the company of lazy white pelicans and caught not one but two fine rainbows in the tricky currents of the Henry’s Fork! I couldn’t have asked for more.

Edging our way past the tourists and the bison of Yellowstone’s Lamar River Valley, we stopped to watch a distant grizzly bear and cub. The Lamar River was flowing too high and muddy to fish, but Soda Butte Creek invited me for a late evening casting session. I finished a long day of travel with a leaping Yellowstone cutthroat that would measure 16 inches. It was getting dark and we had one more hurdle to accomplish.

All the camping sites inside the national park were occupied so we exited near Cooke City, Montana to find another place to crash. I had been here before, camping on a primitive mountain site a mile from the Soda Butte Campground where a fatal grizzly bear attack occurred in 2010, the night I was leaving the neighborhood.

On this occasion we didn’t have much choice. We paid for a woodsy, isolated campsite at Soda Butte where now the use of tents is not allowed. Only “hard-side” camping is permitted, in RVs and the like. We slept inside the car and locked our doors.

The next day, intending to fish a high meadow of Slough Creek, I got lazy and blew it off (unfortunately) but I sampled some alluring new locations on Soda Butte. The fishing was slow in the cold but clearing water of the bison fields and wolf escarpments but the trout I caught were nice ones.

At the last stretch that I sampled, I saw a fine trout make an unsuccessful pass at a drifting Stimulator (as well as other patterns). I decided to hike upriver, fishing along the way, and then return to this trout when I was done and ready to quit.

The afternoon sun had grown quite hot when I returned to the site of my initial failure. I was tired but determined to give it another shot. I fished the undercut bank and log jam for about 10 minutes with several flies and had no sighting of the fish. Then, deciding to give the Cinnamon Ant one last cast, I dragged it from the current and… yeah… the fish was on!

I beached the trout and quickly measured it at 19 inches along the length of “Chester” the fly rod. As it swam off to its cold-water lair, this Yellowstone beauty seemed to thank me for being persistent and then letting it return. In actuality, though, it was an angler who owed some thanks– to a trout and a very special place in the world and, lest I forget to mention, to a patient wife who almost understands this crazy passion….

[Next: Montana!]



About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Of Grizzly Bears and Cutthroat Trout

  1. Brent says:

    Boy, I’d sure love to revisit that entire area: America’s Serengeti. Was the Henry’s Fork the river that began in the Big Spring? I remember you liked the water but found it very hard to fish. On the bright side, I think that was one place we saw a moose.

    • Yeah the Henry’s Fork has a number of sources, I believe, and we were camped near one of them at Big Spring. The river can be difficult to fish in summer when the hatches are numerous and the fish very well fed. We saw moose there, and otter, I think. Also, great fun to visit (and fly fish) the American Serengeti.

  2. Just absolutely breathtaking. And a nice change of pace for someone use to brookies. Love those cutthroats. On to part 3!

  3. plaidcamper says:

    What a way to spend some high quality time in high elevation places! Well done on the fishing successes – patience rewarded. Seems like your planning paid off, and you avoided the crowds by going the extra mile. The fish are beautiful, and the wolf print dramatic. Nice for you to see a grizzly and young from a distance.
    Loving this western series, Walt – thanks!

    • Glad you like it, PC! Yeah the distant bears and the wolf track were a pleasant touch of wildness, sort of an antidote for the crush of tourists on the road, and the fact that you could avoid the latter by stepping a short ways into the slopes and fields was therapeutic. I agree that some planning here paid off nicely but it was loose enough to keep things interesting. I’m glad to be sharing this with you and the others!

  4. JZ says:

    What a wonderful experience for you and Leighanne to fully share together. Your greatest catch by your side and the memories of your journey out west. Your pictures Walt, make’s my mind wander when I was fishing those grand places. Keep them close to your heart and pray that your health and spirit are up for another adventure. Remember, those adventures not so far from home are also grand as well. Also, that track in the mud would have had me making louder noises, like me singing while fishing, LOL. For the record, my singing might be worse than seeing a bear. lol

  5. JZ, I’m pleased that I could exercise your wheel of memories with recollection of these places. I’ll keep it all close and hope for more of the same in years in come, along with the usual appreciation of places nearer to home. As for singing, we might each have voices guaranteed to keep a grizzly at bay, but I’d like to add a melodic “thank you” here for all the thoughtful responses.

  6. Bob Stanton says:

    Nice, Walt! And we’re not done yet – can’t wait to read about Montana!

  7. Very nice Walt! Those are some beautiful trout in equally stunning surroundings

  8. Les Kish says:

    Quite a trip so far Walt. You didn’t suffer near enough on the Henry’s Fork. Two fish in two hours? Outstanding. It must be all of that good clean living! I hope Montana treated you well too.

    • Ha! Les, Like you, I suffered and put in time on the Fork. Had to wait years for a time to clean the slate! But that makes it all the sweeter, I suppose. Clean living, all right. And as you know, you’re livin’ in a kind of paradise out there. So yes, more good stuff to come!

  9. loydtrussl says:

    Another great adventure, described in great detail making me think I was there with you. Quite a challenge for to land that 19” trout using Chester!! Looking forward to the next installment—thanks for sharing

    • It’s been fun, Bill, and I’m glad you like the details of the outing. This particular fish was a fighter, alright, but as limber and “slow” as Chester acts overall, he’s got backbone and takes it well. Thanks!

  10. Ross says:

    Wonderful post, those cutts are beautiful. How fortunare to come across the wolf print and see the sow & her cub .. it makes the experience out there more alive!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.