Anticipating an August road trip out West, I recalled several earlier trips taken with my wife and kids– one trip just two years ago, and others, oh, way back… Perhaps the highlight of one westward transition occurred as we stopped for breakfast in a family-style restaurant near LaSalle, Illinois.

prairie dog, a westward look…

We sat at a table near a few old “regulars” slouched at widely separated stools along the U-shaped counter. Waiting for our orders to arrive, we enjoyed listening to some droll midwestern dialogue…

Patron A: “So, how’s work been going?”

Patron B: “Okay.”

Patron A: “I’ll bet I work more in one day than you’ll ever work in a month.”

Patron B: “That ain’t likely.”

Patron A: “I heard they sent a recliner over to your place for what you do.”

The banter continued, sometimes pausing sullenly for a minute or two, as we sat with our coffees, listening, and admitting, afterward, that the blueberry pancakes were pretty darn good, as well.

larger than I could tie or transport…

[What follows are two excerpts from “Western River Cycle” in my book called Sand & Sage (2010). I see them as reflections from Yellowstone, one of many wild locations that my daughter & I are hoping to revisit soon while maintaining our social distance from the crowds.]

The Firehole

The Nez Perce is a major tributary of the Firehole River. It was flowing low and warm as I passed a handful of frustrated anglers. No one was seeing trout in this hot weather, so I opted to explore the Firehole instead. After promising wife and kids that I would go with them on their second visit to Old Faithful geyser later in the day, I was dropped off at the Firehole Canyon.

my wife zeroes in…

The Firehole was flowing full and deep and cool, a fly-caster’s dream where I could lay down my terrestrial patterns on the grassy channels or beside an undercut bank. I caught several good rainbows that were feeding on grasshoppers and ants blown into the water.

Later, following a tasty Montana meal in West Yellowstone, I sampled a bit of the Madison River inside the park. The wind swept layers of storm cloud over the valley as I gave casting lessons to the kids. Releasing a small trout, I thought I heard the river gods intone, “Thanks for trying.” I thought I saw graffiti scrawled on an incoming wave: “I was here for a moment. It was fun.” I definitely heard shouting from the van, “Dad, don’t forget Old Faithful!”

The Gardner

Since the Gardner River below Mammoth Springs is influenced by very hot effusions from within the earth, I figured that any trout in this particular section had to be either suicidal or already cooked. Following some mandatory footwork on the paths of the Mammoth Springs site, we drove upriver toward the isolated Indian Creek Campground. At Sheep-eaters Cliff, named for the ancients who ostensibly hunted and consumed the area’s mountain sheep, my daughter and I strung up the fly rods.

It was the first occasion on this journey for my daughter to try some dry fly casting. She and I enjoyed the fast-flowing stream, but as dusk began to settle on this grizzly bear terrain, we found ourselves edging toward the parking lot. Fellow carnivores had to be respected, of course, and we seemed to be the only human carnivores around.

We were fortunate to have caught and released a lot of little brook trout in the Gardner, each as beautiful in its own way as any of the moose or elk or bison we had seen. The brookies, native to eastern North America, were a splendid fish even though they had usurped the native cutthroat trout in all too many western streams. Cutthroats remained the dominant sports fish on the upper Yellowstone River, and I looked forward to meeting them soon.

Man and machine have brought many changes to cold-water habitats around the world, and one needn’t look farther than Yellowstone Lake for a sobering example. The lake had been home to a stable population of cutthroat trout for millennia. In recent years, someone illegally dumped a number of lake trout into the water and now the non-native species has become a major predatory problem threatening to displace the cutthroat.

The cutthroat struggles for survival in many parts of the West, and the brook trout struggles for survival in the East. At the root of the problem are the transplants, plus the hand that perpetuates transplanting all around the planet. Even on a balmy summer evening, transplants are a theme at the Gardner River. Where once there were native Sheep-eaters struggling to survive, there were at least two eastern fly-fishers, a father and a daughter, trying to live their lives as fully as they could.

[Don’t hesitate to check my 56-second Greys River video below, replete with motorbike sounds & dust, about 20 miles above the nearest village.]

Snake River fine-spotted…

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!
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18 Responses to Transitions

  1. UB says:

    I want to know whoever tied that Royal Coachman – what fish THEY were targeting… 😉
    I’ve only been out to Jellystone once. It wasn’t as pleasant an experience as I would have liked it to be. The company I was keeping seemed to think that I was intend on “GETTING THE CUTSLAM”. I was not. Oh, I did catch the fish – just never applied for the certificate – its just not that important to me.
    We meet one of my companies Step-Father and camped on the Greys for an night or two, then we moved on to the Little Greys where I caught a great cutty. Only able to do that as I made sure to get ahead of one in the party that always seemed to get upstream first. I gave a fly to the Step-Father who ‘got snagged’ on a really nice cutt. Picture evidence of all has been recorded filed.
    I could of stayed on the Little Greys for the entire week. We pushed on instead. It was like Slate with mountains 5x the size and floodplains also – 5x the size.

    • I think that Coachman was intended for a pie-in-the-sky-big-ass-cutthroat-of-dreams, maybe. The thing about the national park is, once you get past the “Jellystone” tourist angle of the place, there’s really so much to see & experience. It helps to set aside the “Cutslam” mentality or to thwart the energies of those who are out to simply get it. That’s not as easy to sidestep as we might think. Anyway, the potential is always good.
      UB, it’s interesting to hear of your experience on the Greys. I love the place. I caught my first fine-spotteds on the Little Greys & then a big boy on the main stem, itself. Can’t wait to get back there.

      • UB says:

        My approach and attitude to a day out fly fishing has probably evolved over time. At one time I wanted to be out all day, but I’ve mellowed over the years. When I get out, I like to ‘smell the roses’ so to speak. I’ve been able to observe a lot with this pace. I don’t beat myself to death and it’s a nice relaxing experience for me when I get the waders wet. The Jellystone experience was full of sleep deprivation and push, push, push it felt like to me. Then they/we drove back without a rest/sleep stop, just gas n go/wee wee break :(. Wasn’t fun.
        But, watching the Step-Father catch that big Cutt and getting his picture, sending it to him – I saw him only one time before he passed away – He was all smiles recounting that moment. 🙂 And that one I got on the Little Greys…. I have it’s mug shot safely saved.

  2. Bob Stanton says:

    There’s a metaphor there somewhere, in the brookie/cutthroat displacement saga that’s so fitting for these times, both politically and socially. We’re all struggling to hang on to some things as we try our best to navigate this new terra incognita. We are both deaf and dumb to our plight, some of us, as are these fish. The worst part is that we’ve largely done it to ourselves. Your words and pictures help hold the grim scenario at bay, Walt.

    • Thanks Bob. I think we’re in it, deep. Terra incognita, as you say. In one sense we’ve brought it on ourselves and now we’ve got to deal with it. We’re like the fish we try to catch & then, hopefully, release with something learned imparted.

  3. Brent says:

    Is Indian Creek where we all camped with the Mayfly on that long road trip? I couldn’t remember the specific location but I remember the chilly August mornings with frost on the ground! Lots of nice memories here; I even (think I) remember the diner in Illinois, although I don’t remember the shit talking customers.

    • On that trip we were camped at Norris, which is pretty close to the Indian Creek camp ground. Chilly mornings, indeed. I don’t think you guys were with us for the droll customer chatter, that came with a 2017 or the ’18 trip. Kind of timeless, though, either way.

      • Brent says:

        Ahhh, Norris sounds more familiar! Also, I figured out why I haven’t been notified of your posts: I was somehow unsubscribed. I re-subscribed so hopefully the situation is resolved.

  4. UB, It’s a sweet maturational process that we anglers are involved in. Lucky perhaps & maybe even wise. Other wise… old age would grind us down unmercifully….

  5. loydtruss says:

    Cathey and I still reminisce about our trip we made to Yellowstone some years ago. My only regret concerning the trip was not getting to fly fish some of the known trout rivers in the area. This post brought back some fond memories. Unbelievable color markings on that trout you landed on the Snake River. Enjoyed the post thanks for sharing

    • Thank you, Bill. I think that whatever people do & see at the park, fishing or otherwise, the place has a way of leaving powerful memories. If you visit the park again, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the fabulous diversity of nature to be found.

  6. Bob says:

    With this COVID stuff and my wife & I feeling flying is unsafe, we’re contemplating a month long drive out to Seattle to see my daughter and husband. I was supposed to head to Yellowstone this month to participate in a Trout Unlimited/National Park Service study of non-native trout species, but that got cancelled. I would have had the chance to spend time with local college biology majors to show me around.
    Soo… I have a favor to ask – can you email me your itinerary so I can get a game plan together?
    Obviously I’d like to fish some – but mostly exploring and learning the area.
    I would truly appreciate it.

  7. Same here. Hope you got my email. Will be there at least for those days indicated, maybe more.

  8. plaidcamper says:

    We’ve skirted the edges of Yellowstone, and will visit one day. It’ll be in a shoulder season, although the draw is pretty great, so I doubt such a season exists… I’m more and more into social distancing these days!
    Enjoyed the words and pictures, and I look forward to days returning when we can sit and listen to meandering conversations in diners. Maybe I’m not really as antisocial and social distancing acclimated after all.
    Thanks, Walt!

    • Thanks Plaid. I agree that these are not ideal times for visiting what are potentially crowded stages. Extra care must be taken if looking into places such as Yellowstone. We’ll keep our distance from mothering bears & wayward bison & especially the rabid tourists!

      • plaidcamper says:

        I’m being even more of a curmudgeon than usual these days. In fairness, most folks are being respectful as they visit, following guidelines and propping up the fragile local economy. What’s irritating is a (too large) minority with a party mentality out there sh*tting in the woods and dumping garbage. Same as it ever was, but perhaps more obvious and even more tone deaf this season.
        Anyway, have a great and safe trip, Walt, and I look forward to your reports!

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