Color It Wild

Living in a drab political climate where the powers-that-be continue to hack away at our natural world for all the usual reasons such as money and self-interest, I’m feeling the need to add some color to this life while trying to reinforce a little of the beauty that remains around us.

In a way, we’re living in a frightening black-and-white world. I don’t feel much hope or optimism when I learn of the continuing attacks on our environment, most recently at our national monuments for resource exploitation and at democratic-era programs that facilitate our nation’s fight against the ravages of a warming globe. I need to add some color where this dimming world intersects my place, so I heed the invitation from several trout streams in the area to come along and do some fishing.

Streams are powerful natural forces (even in times of relative drought) and have a way of twisting my arm until I say Uncle (Sam), until I say, Give me three steps to the tackle closet, Streams, three steps to where my rods are kept, and I’ll be gone!

For the lack of adequate color in my waking hours, I’m starting to see raw color in my dreams at night, the color of nightmares that I thought I’d left behind a good long while ago. To paint a better picture for myself, I fished the long weekend of Columbus Day (honoring the blunders of the past as well as the hopes for the future) and visited the upper Allegheny and Genesee rivers, plus a trout stream in the wildest woods of Pennsylvania.

Genesee at Shongo

On Monday, I did my casting in the lovely, much-needed showers of Hurricane Nate that sleepwalked over the Allegheny as it passed north through the mid-Atlantic region. The trout I caught and released there while envisioning three ships sailing on the tranquil ocean were stocked fish but, no matter. Stocked or wild, autumn rainbows in the 15 to 17-inch range are full of stormy weather.

The river was cool, the flow was narrow, and these fish could hit a dry fly and then rocket from the tombs of water to the sheltered undercuts of freedom before you knew what snapped your tippet. They brought color from the stream but not as much of it as the smaller trout, the wild brookies, from the day before.

On Sunday I had ventured into Pennsylvania’s proposed wilderness, a thirty-thousand acre green spot on the map that’s managed as a roadless “wild area” (rather than a fully protected wilderness) because of private leasing in some sections by a gas company. At its lower access point, I drove the jeep trail toward an end-point near a scenic trout stream. Fog enveloped the mountain shoulders, and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” entered my ears from a satellite of Earth. I was ready for the upstream hike into brook trout country.

“Mystic Run” seems as good a name as any for this mountain stream. I hiked past the final cabin in this area and entered the backcountry. The stream was low and clear but surprisingly strong considering its short length of nine or 10 miles. I had fished and hiked along this waterway a dozen times or more, but on each occasion Mystic Run looked different to me. Its one constant is the wild trout, native brooks mostly, with some brown trout near its lower end.

last camp before the backcountry

I passed the Beech Bottom Natural Area catching small trout after small trout on a dry fly Adams, Humpy, and Rio Grande King, good floaters on the riffles and occasional pool. I felt like I was on a never-ending journey toward an intimate knowledge of a place. I was adding autumn color to an overcast day, the way poetry can add to and enliven a prosaic hour:

We hiked to virgin hemlock trees/ climbing through mountain clarity,/ autumnal quietude repelling/ volume in our speech; subtleties/ of boulder, moss and tree/ preempting expectations…. [from the poem “Beech Bottom” in my book Earthstars, Chanterelles, Destroying Angels from FootHills Publishing, 2016].

The backcountry has a way of eliciting a “Land ho!” exclamation from seekers of color in a place like this. Columbus exclaimed it in his way, and I exclaimed it in mine, but we too readily forget the natives, the first-timers, extirpated by explorers. We too easily forget about the natives still surviving in the form of beings such as hemlock trees and beautiful trout.

Speaking of native life and its historical context, listen to a song by the Canadian artist Buffy Saint-Marie. Her enjoyable and thought-provoking “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1992) has the power of poetry and music, plus the color of social and environmental justice. [Scroll down…]



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Song of the Kettle

I’m growing silent these days. I’m not sure why, although I’m also angered and saddened by political events and tragedies occurring in this crazy world. I’m growing silent at a time when my voice should be loud with protest. I’m so quiet that the stream and the forest call to me as if they were my home.

I have words but they are few. The torn curtain of this modern life is pushed aside. I seek  solace with the wild things of the mountain. I step slowly, carefully, so not to spook the trout of Kettle Creek. I cast a 10-foot tapered leader with a tippet like a spider’s thread. I listen to the cricket songs, the squawk of a jay, coming from the drab October leaves and streamside vegetation. The ancient hills rise up as if to cradle my advance, to paint me with a hint of autumn flame.

with fire in the blood…

There are times when the poet should be quiet, saving his voice for later. The wildness of the mountain streams, the framing sense of place that gives each day new meaning, has no need for talk. Still, I hear a message to be thankful for my years, thankful for the fire in my blood.

low water… normally these logs would be in the flow…

Without a sound, I lay a long cast of an Adams dry fly on the pool where caddis hatch. Another small brookie rises quickly and comes in. I kneel at the water, wet my hands to release the hook and then the fish. The bond is set.

one dry Adams did the trick…

Years ago, I wrote a poem with this headwaters on my mind, the stream that has seen me year after year, that will see me, surely, when my time comes to an end.

Kettle headwaters…

Sononjoh (aka Kettle Creek)

October mountains/ rise above/ Black Kettle’s fishery,/ over “strange/ romantic land”/ of pioneers who/ feared the wild.// The slack line drifts/ repeatedly/ above elusive trout/ past the boulders of glide and pool.// Sononjoh: one/ sunlit riffle sings/ the ancient name.


I was going to be silent (almost) but instead I’ve fished for words. As a writer, I suppose it’s normal to be filled with contradictions. So I catch a few words, release them on the page. The voice swells slowly as I think about the huge machine called civilization. The machine is glittery and assuring till we learn its ways. Its creature comforts hide the cost. It spits away our children as it eats the earth with war and murder and pollution.


We can protest but the big machine has room for that. It almost smiles and lets us be. I’ll rage nonetheless (as time allows) and hope for better days. For now, I’ll fish in silence and be well.

caddis rock



[Playing the album “Marquee Moon” by Television (1977) always helps me when I’m down. Its final cut, Torn Curtain, is an astounding finish to one of rock’s most perfect albums (don’t just take my word for it). From the “painfully elegant” chorus to the guitar coda that feels like “falling off a cliff,” the song has always made me want to “shed the tears I never shed.”]

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Joe Pye’s Invitation

The clouds were building over Cedar Run and its forested gorge. The afternon was looking good for fishing in the low clear water but the trout weren’t having anything to do with the several small flies that I offered them. I paused to take a picture of Joe-Pye-weed flowers blooming at head-level on the banks of Cedar Run. It was then that I saw the first Blue-winged Olives fluttering from the stream. I tied on an imitation of the little mayfly, and watched the brook and brown trout race out from their hiding spots to try their luck.

Joe-Pye-weed blossoms

I was thinking of Joe Pye (Jopi) for whom the plant, Joe-Pye-weed, was named. Ostensibly, Joe was a Native American doctor living in New England during the 1800s. Not too much is known about him, so I had the chance to think creatively about his life as a healer known for applying extracts of Eupatorium purpureum and curing patients suffering from typhus fever and other ailments.

boneset blossoms, Cedar Run

I was looking all around me but seemed to focus on Joe-Pye-weed near the stream. Butterflies cavorted there and also stopped for blooms of boneset, goldenrod and aster. I’d been standing still for minutes when I saw a bulge in the shallow pool. A very large brown trout was cruising slowly by. As the trout shifted downstream toward the far bank of the run, its wake cut cleanly through the riffles, and I uttered something like, “Holy Jopi!”

not a big guy, just a pretty one w/ Ant

I’m not one to call Joe Pye a “weed.” No. I call it a pale pink flower, an herb that grows well along streams and forest edges. The plant can grow taller than a pro-basketball player, and can make itself at home in flower-gardens. It’s said that if you crush the flower (please be kind), the fragrance that it gives resembles light vanilla. Man, I love vanilla.

Retreating from Cedar Run, I took the Joe-Pye essence with me to the hotel restaurant at neighboring Slate Run village. I forgot about it while I ate a tasty meal of salad, hamburger, and Two-Hearted Ale. When I left the bar environment I made a short hike into the Slate Run gorge. By the time I reached a favorite trout pool, I figured I had about an hour of fishing before the night closed in.

I was casting with my favorite fly rod, laying out a looping line across calm water to the faster riffles at the head of the pool, when I had the feeling that I wasn’t alone. Earlier I had seen a fly-fisherman passing from my view upstream but, with a quick glance up and down the run, all I saw now was another splashy rise-form given by a heavy trout.

at Kettle Creek where I fished the day after the runs (another tale forthcoming)

Several fish were feeding on the surface of the pool, but I couldn’t tell what they fed on. There were no obvious hatches occurring. No spinners graced the air above the stream. There might have been small ants or midges touching the water, but even my finest imitation didn’t get more than a quick inspection and a snub.

Something other than insects and trout food hung in the air. I turned sharply toward the pine and hemlock trees that stood behind me on the bank. There he was– a middle-aged angler sitting silently on a tree stump as he watched me in the run. I felt a little sheepish but gave the guy a wave, and the fellow kindly responded.

when I switched from an Ant to the larger R. G. King, the bigger brooks in Kettle Creek came out of hiding

I remembered Joe Pye. Up to this point in the day, it had seemed like the Joe-Pye-spirit was calling me to the dance. Now I stepped back from the autumn flowers and waited for some words to leave my mouth. I made a few more casts to the head of the pool and watched the drifting fly.

BWO at Cedar Run

I turned quickly toward the fisherman on the stump and said, “How did you do downstream? Any luck?”

“No. I had one fish come up, but I missed it.”

I made another cast, waited a minute, then found a way to ask a final question: “Would you like to fish this pool? The trout are picky as hell, but you’re more than welcome to try.”

“No. No. I just like watching someone who knows what he’s doing.”

the newt knows what it’s doing…

I was speechless. I glanced at the trees across the head of the pool. Was there someone in there unbeknownst to me? Another fly-fisher who this guy was watching? Somebody who knew what these Slate Run browns were dining on, who knew what he was doing?

I just waved and went on fishing, and several minutes later the tree-stump sitter rose and yelled, “Good luck!”

the brooks are getting active but the streams remain quite low

It might have been an incarnation of Joe Pye, someone other than myself, who shouted “Thank you!” in return. I don’t know. September nights come quickly to a trout stream in the gorge.


gotta love those autumn asters

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Double Focus

Someone recently asked if I could do a small post on the Adirondack fishing scene of late because he hadn’t been able to get up into the mountains for a while. I thought it over and decided I could probably do that even though my late-August visit to the West Branch Ausable River didn’t leave me much to write about, other than what you might have seen on my previous post.

white-knuckling on Going-to-the-Sun Road

The Adirondacks form the premier wilderness region of the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic states. It’s an eight-hour drive from my home to the Lake Placid area of the Adirondacks, so I don’t often visit the mountains, although I’ve hiked and fished a fair amount of them over the years… On this occasion I could fish the West Branch only for a few days of early morning and evening hours (plus a non-productive midday venture). photo– Wikipedia

I still had my earlier, western trip in mind, but found that fly-fishing on the West Branch was a good way to help me get refocused on my home ground. There were fires raging throughout the American West and there were major hurricanes brewing near and far, but my thoughts about the Rocky Mountains and the prairie came from a greener time when environmental stressors weren’t as obvious. These meditations balanced comfortably with what I saw while casting for trout in the boulder-studded Ausable.

moose, Colorado River, RMNP

So, I’m serving up a schizophrenic stew. I’m thinking Adirondacks… for which I’m lacking photographs… but sharing more pictures of the West. I’m living in the present, mostly, but still dreaming of the summer road. My god. I hope the stew is palatable.

The Adirondack Park of northern New York is a blend of wilderness and small town civilization, of mountain land and water, both public and private, now celebrating its 125th year of preservation. The park’s six-million acres of wilderness with private inholdings were rescued from the logging and the mineral-extraction industries of the late nineteenth-century.

the Rambler fishing Avalanche Creek, MT

The Adirondacks form the largest state park in America, a land mass larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Great Smoky national parks combined, and nearly half of it belongs to New York residents whose constitution protects it as “forever wild.”

There are no gates or admission fees to the Adirondack Park. The public is always welcome to hike, hunt, camp, fish, or otherwise enjoy the land for free. It doesn’t get much better than that. Many of us who have enjoyed the pristine Adirondacks or have known about them are grateful to those visionaries of the late 1800s who helped establish one of this country’s most storied environmental legacies.

looking down on McDonald Creek, GNP, MT

When I visit the Adirondacks on a fishing trip, I typically head straight for the Saranac/Lake Placid area where I swing out to the West Branch Ausable River. I forego the comforts to be found there, the numerous motels, lodges and cabins, in favor of a simple tenting set-up on a state campground with easy access to the river.

This August I arrived there in the evening, pitched my tent, and bought some coffee at nearby Wilmington for an early start next morning. Then I hit the river, hoping to catch the “evening rise.”

the Denver wilderness, downtown, looking from hotel window

The Ausable was typical for this time of year– low but rapid in the special regulations water found between the Flume and the access to the Whiteface Mountain ski area. Even with low water in this stretch, the Ausable has lots of rocks and boulders of assorted sizes making it fast and furious at times. Is there an American trout stream anywhere that’s more difficult to safely wade? Not in my experience (although the upper East Fork Bitterroot comes to mind…)

writer fishing Rio Santa Barbara, NM

As long as you’re stepping carefully (think, wading staff), the West Branch is a friendly river, especially in late season. The Slate Drake mayfly (Isonychia bicolor) is hatching profusely in the evenings now and often carrying over through the morning hours. The fishing may be slower than in May and June with that season’s great variety of  hatches, but it’s often a lively occasion.

I had help from my friend, Walt McLaughlin, who came out from his home in northern Vermont. We enjoyed some interesting hours on and off the river. Though our catch was rather modest, there were browns and rainbows reaching the 15 and 16-inch mark. It was fun to watch these trout leap from the white-capped flow to grab a dry fly drifting past. It was good to release these fish (as required) to the tannic water in the early morning fog or in the last light of day.

rivertoprambler in the fog, Glacier Nat’l Park

in Glacier, MT

Lake McDonald, near our campsite, GNP

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Coda: the Dakotas and East

With the weight of Glacier National Park and its surroundings sitting feather-like in our thoughts and on our shoulders, we drove eastward through Montana and on to North Dakota. The immense plateaus of eastern Montana were especially dry, and recent fires had blackened thousands of acres of cattle country populated with mule deer, pronghorn and coyote.

apparently the yellow columbine, found high in Glacier Nat’l Park, is quite uncommon there.

We stopped at North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and not surprisingly found it much quieter than all the other parks we visited (less tourism). We enjoyed a 36-mile loop road through the modestly beautiful and arid region of “badlands,” or eroded buttes. Bison greeted us at several locations and, anthropomorphically speaking, the busy prairie dog towns seemed friendly and accommodating as long as you were not a ferret or a falcon.

Glacier still on our minds

We ended a long drive into South Dakota at a pleasant camp-site in the West Whitlock Recreation Area on the Missouri River. I would add two more life-birds near this comfortable camping ground. One of them was a group of chicken-like birds identified as sharp-tailed grouse (seen on three occasions), and the other was a family of burrowing owls that huddled together in the doorway of their house inside a prairie dog town.

the tree hugger, w/ western cedar, Glacier

Another first for me was the sighting of a badger. This short-legged omnivore was seen at the roadside scrambling into an open area, perhaps stalking for a ground squirrel or a prairie dog. Even though I once lived in eastern South Dakota and western Wisconsin, I had never once encountered this elusive creature.

at T. Roosevelt Nat’l Park,ND

Speaking of eastern South Dakota, we drove through the city of Brookings where I lived for a short period of time in the late 1960s and where I spent a year attending South Dakota State University (before I switched to Alfred U. in New York State). The city has almost doubled in size since that less than pleasant occasion, but the house where we lived still looks good, and the university grounds seem more attractive than they did in those turbulent days when this country was at war in Vietnam.

in a prairie dog town…

All in all, our journey that began with a stop in Arlington, Virginia and then proceeded to nearly the Mexican border before turning northward through the Rocky Mountains almost to Alberta, Canada was a great success. We visited four national parks plus Dinosaur National Monument. I had the privilege of fly-fishing in six beautiful western states, caught four species of trout, including four sub-species of wild cutthroat. The people we met and the places we encountered form a wonderful bank of memories.

local residents, TRNP

I could not have done it half as well without the managerial skills of my lovely wife with whom I have now shared 35 years of marriage (anniversary, September 4th– hey I remembered!).

looking down on the Little Missouri, TRNP

I would do it again, of course.

West Branch, Ausable (Adirondacks)

Meanwhile, the fishing has been pretty darned fair at home, considering the time of year. I even got to fish the West Branch Ausable River for a while, along with other fine streams.

More on this, the next time.

lots of brown trout in the early morn & evening hours (Adirondacks)

Ausable brown w/ Slate Drake

Dyke Creek brookie


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We-Who-Went-to-the-Sun (and-Weren’t-Eclipsed!)

“A national park highway should have not only fine natural scenery, but exhibitions of ingenious engineering skill. It should have at least a few tunnels, galleries, terraces, bridges, hairpin turns, and all that sort of thing– to produce the surprises, thrills and joys that tourists seek.”  –Professor Lyman Sperry, explorer, in a 1915 letter to the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and the Kalispell Bee, from the book Going-to-the-Sun Road by C.W. Guthrie (2006).


And this 50 mile-long highway through Montana’s Glacier National Park has it all, my friends. It’s got to be seen to be truly believed, especially for what it opens to the senses in all its jaw-dropping, mind-blowing magnificence. As author C.W. Guthrie states, “That this road exists and somehow seems to belong is a marvel of engineering and gritty determination to do it right.”

For the dedication of the road in July 1933, Horace Albright, the director of the National Park Service, wrote that Going-to-the-Sun should be the singular highway in the park for the motorist and the biker and that it should stand “supreme and alone,” as it does today.

Constructed over a 20-year period by engineers, landscape architects and innumerable laborers, Going-to-the-Sun Road blends in admirably with Glacier’s rushing streams, lakes, and towering alpine mountains. We who drove it (several times!), in the company of all too many other tourists, reveled in the wonders of this place and sadly said farewell to the remnant glaciers now receding into the embrace of climate change.

It’s been said that Glacier National Park (adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada) contains the most stunning scenery in America, and who am I to argue such opinion. Its narrow highway was the first national park road built to complement and harmonize with the beauties of a place while minimizing damage to the country it traverses.

on the rainbow road w/L.

The only times the road didn’t feel artfully constructed over a tortuous but seamless route (thought by some to be impossible when first designed) was when the traffic choked because some driver saw a bear or a mountain goat and couldn’t reach a pull-over spot.

At such a time you might be hanging over a thousand-foot drop-off while staring at the face of Bird Woman Falls or Heaven’s Peak and wondering who was crazier, the original designer or yourself for wanting to drive up here. It’s no place to be if the Earth suddenly quakes.

The significant architectural features of the 50-mile route from West Glacier to St. Mary, Montana are too many to list in detail but, for starters, I’ll note that the road’s 22-foot width narrows significantly along 10 miles of the “Garden Wall.” There’s a six percent road-grade from “The Loop” to Logan Pass, two tunnels, eight bridges plus culverts for the numerous streams, and 40,000 feet of native-stone guard walls to hold the tourists at the mountainsides (especially appealing in sites like the Triple Arches at the Garden Wall).

the road’s Triple Arches

Each year, the upkeep of the highway for its snow and rock removal and support systems is a monumental affair that almost staggers the imagination.

Well, the impossible takes a little longer, but the difficult we do immediately.”–Going-to-the-Sun Road engineer, 1925.

But darn it all, we didn’t come up here just to marvel at a man-made wonder. We came for an honest look at this “crown of the continent,” this place of rivertops whose waters flow to the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay. We scratched only the surface of this 16,000 square-mile wonderland that contains parts of two mountain ranges and over 130 named lakes. It’s a vast and pristine ecosystem that I’d love to see again.

We pitched our tent for several days at the Apgar Campground near the crystalline waters of Lake McDonald following a night spent at an interesting place called Tully Lake. Tully is a forested campground situated about 25 miles from Whitefish, MT and is one of the few locations in the state where common loons are nesting.

Middle Fork Flathead, outside of Glacier

We were lucky to get our Apgar site by arriving early on a Monday morning. Although Glacier is a hiking and a backcountry camping paradise, we found that a designated campground was our best bet for the limited amount of time we had available. From there our short hikes and fishing forays would help us get some insight into the park.

Most of the streams and rivers in the park are glacially fed and thus too clean and sterile, lacking in sufficient nutrients, for good trout fishing, but they certainly are attractive to a die-hard like myself. McDonald Creek was incredibly clear and cold and flowing over colorful stones and gravel. It didn’t matter that its insect life was nil and that its trout are few and far between. It just felt great to cast beneath the awesome peaks of Glacier.

chasm on Avalanche Creek

Avalanche Creek was a different story. There Leighanne and I walked a mile-long boardwalk, a circuit trail, that wound through a forest of magnificent trees (such as western cedar and black poplar). Grizzly bears are a major presence in the park but here are probably too well fed to sniff around for hikers. Anyway, I carried a small bamboo rod, wet-wading on this creek while catching and releasing lots of cutthroats up to nine or 10 inches long and apparently doing okay on a meager diet.

St. Mary’s Lake w/ Isle of Pines

To round out our discoveries in northwestern Montana, we left Glacier National Park occasionally for a quick visit to a brewery or a family-style restaurant or a fishing hole along the South Branch and (especially) the Middle Branch Flathead River where I could make a long cast and successfully land a west-slope cutthroat. It was fun.

[Thus ends my six-piece series called “Top of the Rockies” though a coda from the Dakotas (and eastern Montana) is forthcoming as a final piece to sum things up. Thanks and please stay tuned!]

Middle Fork Flathead, outside of Glacier



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Big Sky, Big Rivers

[In which the lands and waters of western Montana are reflected in the 5th post of my series entitled “Top of the Rockies.” I’ve decided that I’ll need to do an additional post or two, concluding with Glacier National Park and Theodore Roosevelt in ND. As always, thank you for rambling along!]

Royal Coachman over tackle shop in Ennis

Driving north we took an old campsite of mine along the West Fork Madison River. There the main branch of the Madison had a high, uncomfortable flow so I opted for an evening of easy casting on the West Fork. Early the next day, we pushed on for Ennis, the famous river’s coffee and fly-shop haven where we settled in for breakfast.

The Madison near Ennis provided easier wading in its clear but rapid waters. Though I fished for only 90 minutes or so, I caught at least half a dozen brown and rainbow trout, all of them on the smaller side of life, though I had unsuccessful chases from a couple of finny submarines that almost caused a heart attack when they leapt for a high and dry Purple Haze.

Ennis has a fine distillery with tasting tables on its main street, and I think we helped support the business there (as is customary in our role as spirit hunters) but I don’t recall more than a taste or two because we had miles to go before the evening hour reigned us in at Sula. En route we stopped along the Big Hole River.

look familiar? at the Big Hole

I had enjoyed the Big Hole on a previous visit and even took a photo there that eventually became the masthead picture that adorns the home page of Rivertop Rambles. On this occasion we pulled up to a place too low, too weedy and too warm for a catch of grayling, though I found some colder water in a pool with rising trout. An Ant pattern accounted for a catch of two nice rainbows there.

rainbow from the Big Hole

We’d reserved a cabin at the Lost Trail & Hot Springs Resort in Sula, Montana and we arrived there in the evening just in time for some terrific beer and pizza underneath the ponderosa pines. The slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains grow impressive conifers (and trout streams).

a west-slope cutthroat

I noticed how many of the songbirds in this area remained busy raising a second brood of young ones. Rufous-sided hummingbirds, mountain bluebirds, and American robins nested close to our neat little cabin on the slope. After a round of fishing on the East Fork Bitterroot the next morning, a coyote and a small group of young Rocky Mountain sheep appeared before us on the roadway back to Sula.

young mountain sheep near Sula

High up in the national forest, the East Fork offered me some of the best fishing of this trip. The first of several 15-inch west-slope cutthroats was caught in pocket water only a few minutes after starting out. Wading was often difficult in this rocky stream, but the fishing was fast and furious (as it was on the West Fork for me back in 2010, but more on that in a moment). I found a long pool in the evergreens where the white water calmed down and provided the trout with excellent dining opportunities.


The first fish that came to me in the long pool was a brook trout followed by a lot of 10 to 15-inch cutthroats and then three whitefish waking up to their breakfast hour and closing down the show. Whitefish are salmonids that grow pretty large but tire quickly after their small mouths suck in a dry fly. A total of 16 fish were caught and released before I quit the East Fork in anticipation of proceeding to the West Fork Bitterroot, and all of those fish were hooked on a single Stimulator dry fly that remained in excellent shape.

cuttie with a previous hook injury

Unfortunately the West Fork was a fishing disappointment, especially in light of the excellent time I had there on a previous visit, but I’m glad I checked it out once more. The poor showing might have been because the midday heat was just too much and the hatch was off, but I caught nothing in the hour or two I spent exploring this venerable stream. It was time to push off and drive up toward Missoula.

smoke from forest fire near Missoula

Forest fires plagued the region that surrounded Montana’s second largest city, and the smoke from several fires seemed to follow us for a while, especially when we stopped to check on the Blackfoot River and its possibilities. It was too damned hot to fish the legendary Blackfoot. With an air temperature in the high 90s, it was hotter here than it was in Alamogordo, New Mexico when we started on our northward trek.

Clearly it was time to think about Glacier National Park.

a nice westslope from the East Fork Bitterroot

South Fork Flathead River near Glacier Nat’l Park

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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!]



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Dinosaurs on the Green

It was a cool day with light rain showers as friends from Salt Lake City joined us for a cold-desert romp outside of Vernal, Utah. Emma and Brendan joined Brent, Catherine, Leighanne, and yours truly for a visit to the fabulous Quarry Building in Dinosaur National Monument (replete with walls of actual dinosaur remains unearthed by paleontologists)followed by a full day of hiking and exploration in remote northeastern Utah.

The beauty and geological complexity of this region found a showcase for us on the “Sound of Silence Trail,” a 3.2-mile loop through a “cold desert” habitat for many wild creatures such as golden eagles, mountain lions, desert cottontails, white-throated swifts, canyon wrens, lizards, and the occasional rock-climber such as ourselves. Brent, Leighanne and I had done this hike on a sweltering day some 20 years ago, but this was more comfortable. We had learned a few things from mistakes we made back then, and were now well-equipped to enjoy the desert solitude offered by a cooler morning and overcast sky.

skull of T. Rex (nay, Allosaurus!)

With our desert hike complete, we traveled in two vehicles to a trail accessing Harper’s Corner look-out, a one to two-mile jaunt along a rocky spur to a point near the junction of the Yampa and Green rivers. The canyon views from Harper’s Corner are simply spectacular. Again it was a second visit for us, although Emma and Brendan, the folks from Salt Lake City, were new to Dinosaur in general and to the Green/Yampa river canyons in particular. For all of us, this high-country wilderness, bringing rushes of time travel to and from the far reaches of geologic history, was a humbling experience.

Sound of Silence Trail began in an arroyo

Back at our vehicles we gathered and lubricated our senses with a slug of cold water and some very tasty Scotch (I think it was) that Brendan happened to unearth. A Clark’s nutcracker, a black-and-white jay-like bird of the timberline regions first described by William Clark on the expedition of 1805, chattered and flew about the pines and junipers. After an excellent meal with local brews in Vernal, Utah (yes, the Mormon state does have such delights if you know how to find them), we said goodbye to our western friends and, next morning, Brent and Catherine began their own tour by revisiting Colorado.

on the trail of Silence

Leighanne and I (not yet dinosaurs ourselves) departed from the vast national monument in search of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the famous tail waters of the Green. Armed with a new fishing license and an old desire to fish the mighty Green (sans guide and drift boat), I descended the steep canyon stairs and started off along the anglers’ trail down-river. Lucky for me, the sky was overcast and lightly raining.

petroglyph at Dinosaur

I had just broken the “flip-focal” device that attaches to my fishing hat, so I couldn’t see well enough to tie on a small BWO to match the vigorous hatch that was occurring. I went the other way, casting a large dry fly and (more successfully) a #10 Pheasant-tail Nymph. While the violet-green swallows and white-tailed swifts were busy with the olive hatch, golden eagles were at play above the canyon, and an osprey, nesting on the nearby cliffs,  carried a large fish (probably a trout) low across the river’s edge.

eagle/owl petroglyph

I decided I did pretty well for a first visit to the Green, catching several wild trout from the wide, deep waters of the canyon– a small brown trout, a “cut-bow” hybrid, and a 17-inch rainbow that fully exercised the Orvis Superfine rod and brought shouts of encouragement from anglers in a passing drift boat.

drift boat on the Green

It was a good way to bid farewell to Utah and to prepare for the wide open spaces of Wyoming.

my Green River ‘bow

[Next: Alpine, Wyoming; Idaho’s Henry Fork; and Yellowstone!]

my son climbs the slickrock

L. makes an inspection

the Green down there…

looking down from Harper’s Corner Lookout


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Top of the Rockies, Colorado

Our re-introduction to the state of Colorado began with the upper Rio Grande, especially near Wagon Wheel Gap and Creede. I felt a bit remorseful for passing by the Conejos River, an excellent trout stream that I’ll have to visit if I come this way again, but the Rio Grande was welcoming. Sort of.

Among the Collegiates, Colorado

Entering the big mountain river, I had only minutes to fish before another thunderstorm crept in like a bad competitor and drove me off the water, swamping an afternoon of possibility. Ah well, all we could do then was to head back downstream, passing by a pair of golden eagles near the highway, for a food and drink stop at Del Norte’s Three Barrel Brewery. Obviously it wasn’t the end of the world yet.

Arkansas River browns were colorful

We had an entertaining camp-out in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreational Area with subsequent stops along the famous river. I did well there, especially after leaving the brawling muddy waters near Salida for the clearer, colder flows below the towering Collegiate Peaks. Rafting parties and kayakers were a constant sight on the Arkansas but most of the participants were mindful of an old guy casting about, not wanting a fly hook in their costume or inflatable craft. The brown trout were colorful and feisty.

En route to Denver to meet my son Brent and his wife, Catherine, at the airport, we hit a big storm while descending from the heights of Copper Mountain on Highway 91. Rain turned into snow (accumulating quickly) transforming into a fury of hail. The air temperature dropped 40 degrees Fahrenheit from the heights of that mountain to the bottom where we gladly sought sanctuary at a truck stop.

My son drove us from our downtown Denver hotel to a campsite near Estes Park, outside of Rocky Mountain National. In the big park (a second visit for most of us), I stopped to fish the Roaring River and Fall River in the hope of seeing more greenback cutthroats but all I caught there were brook trout. Eventually I would learn that a destructive flood, occurring several years ago, pushed out or destroyed the iconic cutthroat from this area of gorgeous streams but that the fish could still be found in places such as Dream Lake.

We joined the throngs of tourist hikers heading into backcountry sites such as Dream and Emerald Lake and, as much as I’m reluctant to admit it, the beauty of the majestic Rocky Mountains in this region made the long climb more than bearable.

When we reached the outflow of Dream Lake I stepped away from the trail and strung together my four-piece fly rod. Greenback cutties were rising in the crystalline flow and now everything made sense to me. Back at Fall River, the presence of water ouzels, the American dipper, had promised that cutthroats would appear before long, so I thought of the birds again and thanked them. Here the fish rose to carefully presented Pale Morning Duns, the largest of them measuring about 12 inches.

a smaller greenbacked

The drive to the tundra region at 12,000 feet-plus is always memorable along the Trail Ridge Road. While climbing about the marmot and elk-studded snowfields, we enjoyed getting lost in the wind-driven vistas toward the Never Summer Mountains and elsewhere. I added a couple of birds to my life-list there: the rosy finch and the diminutive white-tailed ptarmigan.

Next day, we traveled westward through the heights of the park once more, descending toward the Colorado River headwaters where we paused for a stretch and waterside ramble. Audubon warblers were busy scarfing up a heavy mayfly hatch above the river. We moved a young moose from the streamside alders (much to Catherine’s delight) and I told myself that if I ever came back to Rocky Mountain National Park I would have to sample the fly-fishing along this attractive young stretch of the Colorado.

“Bridging the Gap” bridges the summit

[Next stop: hiking the astounding Dinosaur National Monument in Utah; fishing the mighty Green]

Fall River where I caught a lot of brook trout

near the Arkansas River

near the top of Rocky Mountain National Park

a greenbacked-cuttie resting from the ordeal


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