Simply Shenandoah

I spent a few days near Thanksgiving being grateful not only for friends, family and supporters but also for our National Park system, which includes Shenandoah, where I caught a break from premature winter in the Northlands.

Chester, at home

It was a simple move, a needed change of pace. Virginia’s Rapidan River didn’t fish well for me on the first day but, on day two, a quiet hike on the North Fork Moormans brought me into a deeply forested plenitude of trout. It’s not that the fishing was remarkable. It wasn’t, but I found some brook trout, still feeding despite their cold-water, post-spawn funk. For that, an old catch-and-release angler simply had to tip his hat.

lookin’ up, on holiday

Like my homeground and other areas of the East, Virginia has had more than its share of rain this season. I wasn’t sure if I’d be seeing flood damage, or not. Although the streams were higher than I’d seen them in years, the waters were clear and (mostly) in good shape, reminding me that times of overflow were better than times of drought. It all seemed simple enough.

a shade of autumn

Wading wasn’t so easy, though. It was difficult at times. For example, I’m not used to crossing the diminutive Staunton River, typically a gentle brook, with a beaver-cut walking stick for support. With cold, boulder-studded waters of the Staunton rushing at my knees, you can bet that I placed my steps with care.

they were small…

A holiday gathering of family was scheduled for later in the day. With this in mind, I enjoyed Thanksgiving peace and quiet in the mountains. The high-water crossings along the Moormans Trail kept away the folks with only hiking shoes for travel. I saw no one above the third river crossing, where my only company was the brook trout, a Carolina wren or two, a chickadee, a jay. The sun was out; the air was autumn crisp; I liked the day’s simplicity.

simply irresistible…

As I headed out for Black Friday on the Rapidan, my son said I should take it easy on the hike… “We suspect that if you don’t eventually die in bed beside your wife, we’ll find your body rotting in a creek somewhere, clutching a fly rod, with trout nibbling at your eyeballs.”  Yeah, I said. Sounds great. So, with intimations of mortality and feelings of diminishing time, I set off on the trail, more comfortable with the cold gray morning than with combat shopping at the mall. A simpler outing, for sure.

a steep gradient…

The temperature never peaked at the expected high of 40 degrees. Ice formed periodically in the guides of Chester, the fly rod. I hiked well into the mountains and stepped carefully around the white tongues of the Rapidan. Catching a couple of oversized chubs was not a good sign for trout fishing, but hooking up with a few colorful natives was a fine way of getting back in balance with the watershed.

yeah, Egg patterns and a Prince nymph worked the best…

The weather was cold, but warmer than it was in New York State–  a simple fact, a simple face-to-face with nature. Like a good book opened by a woodstove on a winter’s night. A simple game with friends or family. A closing to a complex life.

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Between Two Oceans

In two days of fishing, eight days apart, I caught enough salmon to last me, in spirit, for the year. The ancestors of these fresh-run fishes came from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and it was good to meet this latest generation on the high ground of New York.

On the first outing, Chinook and Coho salmon ran the tributary from the lake, replenishing the spawning stock, the first arrivals already dead or dying. The sky overhead was blue; the stream was full; the air crisp with autumn promise. I looked for brown trout, as did nearly every angler on the stream but, for the most part, there were salmon. Lots of them.

I hooked and landed more than a dozen Chinooks, mostly with a jaw connection on a Woolly Bugger and a 12-pound tippet. Several of these, still green and feisty, chased the streamer from a border of their territories. A Coho, said to be unusual and seldom seen at this location, proved to be my best fish of the day. With the pink tones of the spawn along its gills and handsome sides, the Coho (like the Chinook, a Pacific variety) grabbed a dead-drifted streamer in the depths of a pool and gave a powerful, head-banging display of leaps and runs.

pink gills thru the peephole

These Pacific salmon,  the descendants of first transplants to the Great Lakes system in the 1960s, brought a Northwest feeling to my bones, an energy transferred from body to body, an exhaustion at the day’s end that was good. Today that feeling lingers, and helps to soothe the anger and the sadness when I think about the western fires, the destruction and heartbreak fueled by the science and climate-change deniers who run, or think they can run, our government.

Coho’s spawning color

On the second day of fishing, I still sought the brown trout, as well as landlocked salmon, but in a different watershed. It wasn’t easy. The sun was out; the morning air was cold; the creek was river-wide, full, and dark enough for treacherous wading. To fly-fish was to hunt for shadowy forms and to cast for hours without a strike. Eventually, I acknowledged that, if I could get single hook-up, I’d be happy and call it a day.

I started seeing salmon but they had no interest in the flies I usually find successful. I hooked a fish’s tail, unfortunately, and the salmon swam downstream to freedom. Shortly afterward, I noticed several fishes moving into deeper water and pausing. I tied on a streamer created by my friend, Tim Didas. A salmon took it right away. I fought the head-shaker to a landing and took a couple of photos. Removing an old fly and leader from its tail, I realized it was the same fish I had foul-hooked fifteen minutes earlier!

king salmon, day #1

Landlocked salmon are Atlantics that have lost the urge to taste the salt. Nonetheless, while the fish recovered in the stream then shot away, I sensed Atlantic waters deep down in its core, a wave that pulled me from my knees to stand and regain my wits.

landlocked salmon… no, that’s not blood there under the fish….

With three species of salmon in two days of fishing, I felt the freshness of natural cycles, of fishes programmed to survive, of comfort from the grandness and diversity of nature, and of pleasure given by our thoughtful interactions with another form of life. But autumn, almost by definition, has a cheerless element, a despondency, as well, a darker complement to the beauty of the season. I can sense it when our inhumanity raises its ugly head, when our alienation from the world around us gets the better of me.

blow-down near the house, winter 2017-2018; how I felt while wading the big stream…

Then its time to think of those fishes again, working to fulfill their destiny (oh yes, my time for the browns will come). It’s time to think of the good folks in the land, unflinching in their labors to help the stricken and the poor.

what lurks beneath the bridge…

finally got something to work… thanks T.D.!

the creek on Veterans Day…

King’s jaw…

my singular landlocked salmon…

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Earplugs, Turbines and Snobbery

Relative to other Octobers that I recall, this month has been drab and wet, with little change in the color of the foliage, and with few fish caught on my various ventures. Several highlights, however, come to mind and beg description…

Early one Sunday morning, I hit the upper Kettle watershed with friend and long-time blog supporter, Bob Stanton. Kettle Creek, even above the bridge on Rt. 44 in Potter County, PA, was flowing too high for comfortable wading, so we found good reason (as if one was needed) to fly-fish on a couple of wild tributaries of the upper stream. The brook trout that obliged our efforts were mostly small fish rising to the surface, but it seemed as though the spawning had occurred already, and those trout, still willing to feed, were pretty much exhausted by the process.

Mr. Bob Stanton, at work…

We talked to a fellow on the main stem who was giving up but quick to tell us of his recent success. This guy, who lives nearby and knows the trout stream pretty well, pulled out his phone and shared a photo of a massive brown trout (22 inches?) that he claimed to have taken on a deadly lure– several of which adorned his otherwise reasonable fly box.

What kind of “fly” works so well on autumn browns? Why, the “Ear Plug,” of course. That foamy orange thing, shaped like a tear-drop, that you insert when mowing the lawn or trying to sleep beside a snoring spouse. I doubt that I’ll ever try one of these awesome attractors but, if you think about it, an Ear Plug does resemble a big overcooked fish egg, doesn’t it?

It’s those things there, on the right, hear?

By mid-week, I was ready to appear in City Court along with other rivertop protesters concerned about the “Wind Farm” proposal to cite about 176 windmill turbines, each one close to 600-feet in height, throughout several townships where I make my home. The placement of turbines may be good in some locations where people truly want them but, for this place, they’re deplorable and tragic. Most people don’t give a shit about wind farms one way or another, or just assume that Government and Big Energy corporations are telling the truth about their relevance wherever people of modest incomes are too poor to fend them off. I was glad to have good company in the courthouse when I read the following statement to assembled citizens and to various officials…

A “fun guy” on the soapbox…

I will speak for people deeply rooted in this area who harbor a concern about the so-called wind farm projects slated for Steuben County. I will try to speak for the wildlife of this region that has no voice to be heard by the outsiders.

I, for one, consider these proposals to establish 600-foot turbines, along with accompanying infrastructure, to be an invasion of industrialism, unwanted and unnecessary. These energy companies enter our homeland claiming to consider the environmental effects of what they do, claiming to consider our input and anxiety, but they are here for one thing only– government green.

Kettle Creek, beyond the “government green.”

They don’t know what the people want, nor do they have an antidote to the serious problem of global warming. They are here on business with a singular concern, and it has nothing to do with who we are as a community, nor with the welfare of our land and waters. The invaders will rob us of the peace and comfort we derive from our beautiful surroundings.

Their establishment will hardly put a dent in our use of carbon-based energy sources. It will be expensive, and more harmful to our health and well-being than a life that’s lived with a careful and considerate use of natural resources.

Please join me in saying, No Deal to the turbines. May the wind blow freely through these hills and hollows, unfettered by the monoliths that serve but the few.

Bob, at my kind of fishing…

Off my soapbox, it was time for me to reassemble a season for tributary salmon and brown trout fishing. It would be my 20th consecutive season for this crazy pursuit and, frankly, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to continue chasing the big fish where, as some participating critics surmise, the Internet and social media are killing off the fun.

So I fished up north on Saturday. Surprise: the creek was low and still a little warm. The browns had yet to arrive, and the salmon, although freshly run, were still few in number. I had one bruiser fairly hooked on two different occasions but he turned the water upside-down and each time threw the hook.

On an Ontario trib– not “my kind” of fishing…

Just before I left, a group of 10 or 11 Pennsylvania anglers arrived to fish in their favorite pool. They were armed with heavy-duty spin rods and nets the size of table chairs. A father and son stood in the middle of one pool blatantly attempting to snag a cruising chinook. Two fly-fishers approached me on the bank while staring at the father-son duo. One guy said, “Look at that. IQ’s of 17, looking for lunch.” I don’t think I responded verbally, preferring not to reinforce an obvious case of socio-economic snobbery, but I’m sure that I smiled inside.

on a long tributary of Kettle Creek…

The quiet at the end…

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Quonnie Pond (R.I.)

Quonochontaug Pond, or “Quonnie Pond,” as it’s known to many locals, is a salt lagoon (or lake) located in southern Rhode Island. The pond, with its 4.5 mile shoreline, became my touchstone for saltwater fly-fishing in the state when I found the place with my daughter’s help (she who lives in Providence), along with plenty of research and miles of highway travel. Although Quonochontaug isn’t likely to win a beauty contest for natural splendor, it’s the wildest of nine such saline waters in southern Rhode Island and it functions as an important bird sanctuary and a nursery for winter flounder, striped bass, bluefish, and tautog.

at Quonnie Pond

I recently fished the pond in the middle of a long “5-day weekend” in early October. This coastal area is a long way from the rivertops and you might be wondering what a nice guy like me is doing in the backwashes of coastal America but, truth be told, I love the salt marsh habitats for their great diversity of life, and for the fact that they are seriously endangered by the rise of ocean levels. They also offer some fascinating birdwatching and fly-fishing opportunities.

west side, Q. Pond

Quonnie Pond is a touchstone for my small state wanderings, an ordering device that I’ve placed at the center of a whirlwind of experience there. It’s like an eye in the hurricane of sights and sounds along the coast. Out beyond the water, Providence glistens and pulsates with the blare of sirens, with the bonfires on the river at night (think gondolas and third-world music), with the taste of international cuisine and crafted beers, with the plight of homeless people holding signs at intersections. Out beyond the water, Newport wafts on the scent of seafood and the sight of sails, with the tours of Gilded Age “cottages” like The Breakers and Chateau sur Mer. Quonnie Pond, the tranquil hub, has an untouched barrier beach, a saltmarsh sanctuary for migratory birds, and large Victorian summer homes along its western shore.

The Breakers, a Vanderbilt summer “cottage”…

I walked out from the busy ocean breachway, from the rapid currents of the channel to the sea, from the speedboats and jetties and fishermen, to the deep clean waters well-flushed by the tides… The sand was firm as I waded slowly, easily, casting a Clouser Minnow on an 8-weight line, looking for sea bass, seeing little other than great flocks of cormorants,

a weeping European beech…

egrets, gulls, and geese. Sanderlings and yellowlegs fed nervously on the shore behind my back. A lone female loon appeared nearby, swimming underwater, surfacing 30 to 50 feet ahead. A stingray drifted toward my feet, its shell like a giant turtle’s, its long whip-like tail weaving behind a body kicking up plumes of sand.

Chateau sur Mer…

I don’t know where the striped bass were. I waded to the red buoys of the channel in the pond, to the deep edge where, ostensibly, the bass fishing had been good all season. Perhaps the big fish had moved on. Lacking the hunting capabilities of an osprey, loon, or skilled bass angler, I took a skunk on Quonnie, as well as on other sites like Charlestown Breachway and Kings Beach. That’s okay with me. Quonochontaug (don’t you love the name?) will sit with my thoughts through the fall and winter. Late next spring, when the stripers swim back on migration, I’ll know where to greet them; I’ll know where to go.

son, Brent, and Catherine, stopped at Providence en route to Maine…

the pleasant beach was a challenge…

I did some casting here, as well…

at the Armory, Providence…

migrating Monarchs by the thousands moved along the coast…

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Autumn Run: Four Strands

1/ The first full day of autumn brought the usual blend of premonition and seasonal promise. I drove to Lyman Run, thankful for the sweatshirt on a morning as chilly as the John Cale tunes, like “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend,” that I was listening to. Yeah, the hot summer days were fading now, replaced slowly by a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” a John Keats tune. A recent storm had ushered in the cold front. Air and water temperatures along Lyman Run would peak at around the 50-degree (F.) mark, equalized like the lengths of daylight and night-time hours on this date. I quickly caught a wild brown trout with a dry fly floating on a feeder stream, but the main stem of Lyman Run was not yet energized or productive.

2/ I love the deep woods for the way the forest brings the ego to its knees, and for the way it reconstructs a balance in the seeker of solitude, the wanderer who needs to see the wild resurface in his or her life. I love the deep woods for the magic that’s imparted there, and for the hint of danger, too. The act of balancing the wild and civil elements within the self may be only short-lived but, as long as tumbling water sings of rocky passages or the wind strums its way across the hemlock boughs, the balance there is real.

3/ My late September visit to the West Branch Genesee responded to the sudden clarity of air and water, but there was little to remind me of a similar visit at the same time, 31 years ago. I wrote a poem then (from The Wild Trout (1989), including these fragments: “September willows/ line the banks and mask/ the corn fields and the woods./ Raccoons leave gnawed cobs/ and pawprints. Muskrats lengthen trails/ beneath the asters/… Three brook trout/ seize the fly./ Fog regains the valley./ Twig by twig/ the silent birds/ move south.” There’s little animal sign today. No brook trout appear. A singular vireo flutters silently. At least one hatchery brown and a rainbow have survived the summer heat and flooding waters. Best of all, I came close to landing a big brown in the wild section, after it rushed a Prince nymph from a hide-out in a great white pine tree’s undercut.

4/ With the intentness of a heron staring through the pond scum in the rain, I fished a favorite mountain brook for native trout and found what I was hoping for. The wild stream was flowing full but clear, and the brookies were eager to seize a drifting nymph or a floating dry. I fished upstream through the state forest for about two hours, catching and releasing numerous trout. The fish ranged from small young-of-the-year (a good sign) to hefty adults with spawning hues, prepared to dance the gravel beds in water song, the work of continuity and survival of their kind. September closed its shop here, balanced on the slopes between two seasons, but with autumn coloring the spirit in shades of a wood duck’s intricate plumage, a brook trout’s speckled sides.

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Down by the (Genesee) River

Anticipating heavy rainfall over the next couple of days, I decided to fish my home river again. I hadn’t touched base with the upper Genesee in New York for a while, and I needed to get reacquainted with its pools and riffles and to see how the aquatic  life was doing. The sky was overcast; the air felt cool with a promise of rain; and the river looked inviting.

upper Genny, w/ invasive knotweed growth

I quickly raised a brown trout to a dry fly (Blue Quill spinner) but then came an hour where nothing more could be taken at the surface. I fished across the border into PA (multiple licenses) and switched to a Prince nymph which connected with a 15-inch brown trout offering to have its photo taken in exchange for a quick release. Being a kind-hearted so-and-so, especially in these days of grim political news and severe flooding problems in the eastern U.S., I said, no problem; it’s my M.O., whether you’re a stream-bred fish or an alien from the hatchery.

I walked back into New York State, expecting the rain to fall at any moment. Just before reaching the LaBarre Pool (where a third trout would come to hand), I saw an odd sight, like an apparition– a white dog on the roadway by the gravel pit. The animal, looking so much like an Arctic fox that I felt unsettled, ambled around in circles before pausing to glance at me then running off. I didn’t know what to think, but the dog really took my mind off fishing for a minute or two.

land of the White Dog…

I thought of a close elder now in hospice care in Colorado. I’m not the superstitious sort, but I know that reality can get a little spooky on occasion, even in the warm embrace of Nature just before it rains… I checked my watch, as if I needed to know the time.

season of the shrooms…

Down by the river I refocused my attention on the roots of things, like fishing the watershed of home because it’s there.

on Dyke Creek…

Like inspecting the tree roots of a washed-out hemlock where the brown trout took my nymph pattern.

Where a strange white dog and I crossed tracks one quiet evening.

Where the fly line pulled off of the Pflueger reel and flew out to another riffle courtesy of wrist and bamboo rod.

Slate Run in the mist…

Where the face of time gave a grimacing look and then relaxed…

yr basic Green Weenie…

I heard the words of Neil Young’s song flow in a blistered rendition by Roy Buchanan. I didn’t hear them at the river but I heard them close enough to make a vague connection.

T. & T. Classic, Pflueger reel, and mushroom…

No, I didn’t get dragged over the rainbow nor did I shoot my baby (thank you, White Dog) but I’ve been around long enough to understand that the late Roy B. remains one of the finest electric guitarists of all time…. His bluesy notes reverberate like a river’s current in a lair of trout.

 

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The Break-Off

The afternoon was hot and humid. The long holiday weekend was coming to a close; the family gathering had been energizing and fun. It was time, now, to bid farewell to the summer season with an hour or two of fishing in the shaded riffles of the Slate Run gorge.

The water temperature was on the warm side, 68 degrees F. (my upper limit for trout). I attached a 6x tippet and a small Red Ant to the leader and began to cast comfortably with  Chester, my three-year-old bamboo. The upstream wade was an easy one. I quickly caught two brook trout colored like the first trees in an autumn’s turning.

I approached a long glassy pool. A steep cliff rose from the left bank and a pine woods opened on the right. I was feeling hot and tired (and a little sad to see the summer end)– like an old fishing rod, a nameless 1930s wand, perhaps. Luckily, I had a young and spirited instrument in hand, a good split-cane that would pull me through. If I was feeling rough and worn out like an older stick, well, I could still throw an easy line despite my spirit’s fraying silks, a broken tip, and drying varnish.

Not much was happening at the pool, so I started to reflect… It had been a good summer.  We had traveled out West. Back at home, I had an opportunity to start and finish the first draft of a new book that I’d had in mind. And now, school was ready to commence again.

Suddenly I saw the swirl of something just below the surface– out there, near the middle of the pool… Not quite believing my luck, I thought about the summer past, as if to dispel an illusion of a big fish near at hand… Yeah, there had been a lot of rain. As a consequence, my outings had been fewer but, actually, I had done okay. Tim and I had caught big browns one rainy late-night on Oatka Creek. And I had recently enjoyed the upper forks of the Sinnemahoning. I was ready to move on with the autumn promise. But, wait… Wasn’t I feeling like… an old bamboo?

Chester, the young split-cane dude, wasn’t about to let me wallow in self-pity. No sir. He delivered that artificial Red Ant to the middle of the pool, three feet to the right of where I’d seen the surface swirl. A large trout drifted over to inspect the morsel and… take it.

First Fork Sinnemahoning

The fish was strong and heavy, but I gained control and played the give-and-take while putting all the action “on the reel.” As the trout came in close, I could see bright autumn colors and presumed the fish to be a German brown, a recent migrant up from Pine that had sought the cooler temperatures of Slate. On the other hand, the trout could have been a large stream-bred fish since, by most reports, Slate Run was fishing stronger every season.

First Fork brown…

You can see where I’m going here… yep, the fish broke off. The thread-like tippet snapped at the barrel knot and gave the raison d’etre for this writing. I could curse that breakage (actually, I did curse it at the time) but I quickly acknowledged that I shouldn’t get complacent; I needed to take more time with knots; it was only fishing, etc. There was no reason to succumb to a late-summer funk. A new season would be on us soon. The fishing would get better. Chester and I had work to do.

wild brown, PA….

Looking back… a Snake River fine-spotted….

Looking back… the Rambler in the Colorado Rockies….

 

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Drifter

My opportunity to fish the Driftless area of western Wisconsin was more like a homecoming than it was a clear response to all the good angling press the region has received over the last few decades. I spent my high school years in La Crosse, Wisconsin but had to leave the area after graduation, before I could fully appreciate the outdoor benefits that came with living there.

Surprisingly, I can still remember some of my existence in Wisconsin. I hunted small game near Viroqua in 1967, and even trapped muskrats that year in the Mississippi River sloughs. I still have my stamped fishing license from ’67 but I don’t recall ever casting a line for Driftless trout when I was young. Clearly, in 2018, it was time to make amends.

The last wave of glaciation never drifted into the southwestern part of the state, so the soil is rich and loamy, a boon for dairy farming, especially in the past century. I don’t think the brook and brown trout fishing was much to get excited about when I was in high school– if it was good, I was too preoccupied with other things to really care– but the angling took off later when environmental issues came to the fore, when landowners, state officials, and groups like Trout Unlimited started working for stream improvements and the benefits derived from recreational pursuits.

We left our Wildcat Mountain campsite early in the morning and visited Viroqua, Wisconsin and its Driftless Angler Fly Shop where the help that we received for my ensuing day was excellent. The folks at the shop have everything for the visiting fly-fisher, and their guidance for my first look at the Driftless water was… essential. We were soon on our way to Coon Valley and the charming coulees where fly-fishing with barbless hooks not only makes good sense for many of us but also is required as part of the catch-and-release regulations established for particular sections of the streams.

The weather on that July day was horrible– hot and humid, with the morning punctuated by thunderstorms that only seemed to irritate and madden the mosquitoes and blackflies while enhancing the sultry air and darkening sky. I had asked a local dairy farmer if I could fish his pastures, and he was fine with that, but I got turned around and frustrated with fencing obstacles that barred me from trout rising in the pools, so I hastened a retreat from the barnyard and its herd of inquisitive Holsteins.

Leighanne and I went for lunch in Coon Valley, and after that our situation improved. The weather remained hot, but the afternoon looked better for a friendly get-together with the trout. I found an attractive stretch of meadow stream (sometimes reminiscent of a spring creek in the East), with pools and riffles, and a water temperature of 62 degrees. A stiff breeze seemed to banish all the biting insects, and the streamside cows acknowledged me as just another crazy angler. I was wet-wading, and all was sanguine with the world.

I quickly caught and released six wild browns on a small Black Ant. Several of the fish were not only colorful but easily a foot in length. A couple of larger browns were hooked and lost, as well, and I had a feeling that some hefty trout inhabited the stream. Chester the fly rod had a healthy work-out on this Driftless afternoon, and I’m glad I didn’t need him to intimidate an angry bull. It was time for us to head on home, with a brief stop for some local wine and cheese, and even a photo op with sandhill cranes.

I’m glad I drifted into the Driftless after all those years away. Although you might suspect I’m prone to understatement, I will say, it was better than a class reunion.

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Close Encounters of the Western Kind

Fortified by our recent finds in Yellowstone country, my wife and I continued on our homeward route through northern Wyoming, drawn by the geography and myths of the land, toward Devils Tower and South Dakota’s Badlands. I was looking forward, as well, to a stop for trout in Wisconsin’s Driftless country, but that would have to wait for a while. The unpeopled spaces and the wild dimensions of Wyoming held us in thrall.

Devils Tower rises dramatically from the valley of the Belle Fourche River in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming, an igneous butte that stands 867 vertical feet from base to summit. The Tower, long considered to be a sacred place by Native Americans living in the region, is comprised of fluted columns of stone with hundreds of parallel cracks from top to bottom. Climbers are drawn to the Tower from around the world.

In 1906, Devils Tower became the first national monument when President Roosevelt officially recognized its significance in the landscape of America. Long before that, the great formation had played a part in the sacred rites of indigenous people such as the Kiowa and Lakota Sioux. Native American ceremonies continue there today, especially during the month of June.

The Tower, an eroded mass of igneous rock, had uplifted from earth some 60 million years ago as magma rose through layers of sedimentary stone, eventually eroding into what we saw today– a huge green-gray butte ablaze with white feldspar crystals in the early morning sun. As we walked around Devils Tower on the 1.3 mile trail developed by the Park Service, and as we poked in and out of the scree, we felt humbled and in awe of Earth’s tremendous powers.

As a fly-fisher I could look up at the vertical columns of six-sided stone and be reminded somehow of a tapered bamboo fishing rod, hexagonal and exquisite in design. As a birder, I could peer at the upper heights and summit of the rock and see the flights of peregrine falcons (and competitive prairie falcons, too) that nested there and fed on the numerous rock doves of the Tower. As tourists, we might have been reminded of the Indian legends that connect with the origins of the place…

Devils Tower, in the years following the debut of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977, saw a big increase in tourism at its site. I’ve never bothered to watch the movie, myself, but observing several rock-climbers working slowly toward the summit on a beautiful early morning in July, I could understand how the Tower was appealing for the narrative of a tale in which aliens made contact with the common folk of planet Earth.

Just before entering the South Dakota Badlands for our second visit to the national park, we stopped and spoke with a Native American artist who was working a wind-swept post near the southern sector of this broad American landmark. We enjoyed a friendly discussion of social and political matters, as well as the craftsmanship involved with his trade. My wife bought me a lovely gift– one of the jeweler’s handmade “charms,” an elk tooth that I wear around my neck to keep me close to the Western spirit.

We made a long drive through the Badlands. First of all, I saw a burrowing owl perched on a fence post, and it seemed to say, Come along and fly Our Way. Pronghorns were encountered, lots of them, followed by some bison and, perhaps most interesting of all, groups of roving Rocky Mountain sheep. As for the landscapes that contained us all in a great variety of arid forms and color, they really have to be seen in person to believe the beauty of their “alien” character.

note the sheep in the foreground…

 

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Outward Bound, and Back

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.

Madison River

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.

Steamboat Geyser, Yellowstone…

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.

the so-called salmonfly…

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.

drifters on the Beaverhead…

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.

one of the many surface-feeders on the Gallatin…

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.

yellow columbine, Pebble Creek, Yellowstone…

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.

in the Norris Geyser Basin..

Coming soon– Devils Tower, the Badlands, and the Driftless of Wisconsin…

sculpted horses in a field, Montana…

tufted evening primrose, Wyoming…

Sylvan Lake, Yellowstone…

sulphur springs, Yellowstone…


 


 

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