Before leaving Yellowstone, Leighanne and I stopped for a walk through the incredible Norris Geyser Basin featuring the massive and unpredictable Steamboat Geyser. Luckily for us, the geyser had erupted recently, shooting off steam and water to heights several times that of Old Faithful, thus staying active with a vented morning afterglow. It was a great reminder that the whole of America’s first national park is an active volcano of sobering dimensions.
Having learned that the salmonfly hatch, the huge western stonefly, was occurring on the Yellowstone, Madison, and other rivers of the region, I was reminded also that I’d never been able to fish these northern rivers quite this early in the season. July 8th might be kind of late for this oversized stonefly in some areas, but on the Madison River in Montana it was coming off by the mountain-load. It was hatching so strongly, in fact, that the three-inch fly didn’t seem to really interest the well-fed browns and rainbows of the river.
In my two days of fishing the wind-swept Madison with its backdrop of the sunlit Gravelly Range, I raised only one fish to the #6 dry fly, but that one was a monster. The fish rose from the evening depths, and it almost took. Fast water has a way of insuring that an angler’s strike be made precisely at the critical juncture if the fish is to connect and come to hand.
That said, I did fight a 17-inch Madison rainbow to the net (and caught a few smaller fish on the West Fork) that took the relatively modest #12 Adams. Go figure. Then, after a mosquito-plagued camp-out near Ennis, Montana, we proceeded through historic Virginia City for a quick stop at Twin Bridges, the place where Winston fly rods are produced and where the Ruby River joins the Beaverhead. My introduction to the high and muddy Beaverhead was memorable, thanks to a heavy, headshaking brown that took a Muddler Minnow and stretched to nearly 18 inches along the rod.
I was interested in finding clear water, so I thought that the Missouri headwaters might be worth inspecting. The drive to the famous tail-water north of Helena seemed too far and too exhausting, though, at this point in our journey, so we opted for a visit to Bozeman where we spent the night and then prepared for a revisit to the Gallatin River which I hadn’t fished since 2001.
It was a fine day on the Gallatin. The sun was out; the hatching bugs were everywhere– Pale Morning Duns, Tan Caddis, Salmonflies, and even the Green Drake– and I was ready for the rise. In the lovely canyon reaches up near Big Sky, I caught rainbow after rainbow and even one wild brown. No cutthroats, unfortunately, and no fish larger than about 14 inches, but the trout that came to hand to be released were lots of fun. Additionally, there were bald eagles, American dippers, western tanagers, and even a “hatch” of 20 or more magpies that kept flying over the river, one side to the other, capturing imagination while I waited for a trout to rise.
Beginning our long trek home, we reentered Yellowstone National Park and experienced numerous places that we hadn’t seen before, exquisite locales such as Grand Prismatic Spring, the stark beauty of the eastern burnt lands, the snow-streaked mountains near Sylvan Lake, etc. Yellowstone is so large and varied that it’s guaranteed to show you more on each visit that you make. The big advantage that I saw in visiting this region early in the summer rather than waiting later in the season is the presence of birds and wildflowers in all their glory. The biggest drawback is, of course, the crowds that you encounter; and if you’re an angler, there’s the issue of heavy water.
The Absaroka Mountains and the canyons of northern Wyoming were impressive and invited the spirit of exploration. The North Fork Shoshone River begged me to add it to my Angler’s Bucket List. Fringed gentian, larkspur, tufted evening primrose, and sunflowers formed alluring banks of color along the highway. The Big Horn Mountains and the rock formations east of Cody floored us with red-faced Triassic freshness and a pre-Cambrian antiquity (two to three billion years of age). As for the long distance views from the high plateau of the Big Horn Mountains, they should be a mandatory experience for politicians and other power-grubbing Egos in the world who need a bit of a reality check. I’d recommend it, as long as the bigwigs don’t get shipped to the place en masse.
Coming soon– Devils Tower, the Badlands, and the Driftless of Wisconsin…