A recent trick to winter flyfishing depends simply upon the weather. For instance, last winter there was hardly any snow—so little, in fact, that I’ve never seen a winter that dry in the central Rockies in my lifetime. I’d call it a drought. This year’s winter started with parallel results, but finally it began to snow, albeit a couple months later than usual. But once it got going, it snowed every few days—through December & January. By the middle of January, it seemed like the foremost trick to winter flyfishing was simply finding some open, un-frozen water to fish. We did have a dry spell at the end of January through mid-February, but the idea still amounted to finding fishable water.
Does fly selection make a difference? Maybe…research in recent years points out that black, blue, and fluorescents are the most visible colors in deep water; many winter anglers will testify to the effectiveness of patterns in these colors. Biologists do not exactly understand what trout see, but what I find truly interesting is that trout not only see color—they can identify some colors that are beyond human visualization. In particular, trout can sense shades of red and ultra violet that we cannot, and in lower light conditions. I used to think that blue was a nonsensical fly color, since I have not seen blue insects on the streams I fish, other than adult dragonflies/damselflies. However, scientists report that the fish’s capability to distinguish minute pigmentation differences is greatest within the blues.
A lot of experts say that trout seek deep water and become less active in the winter, which may explain (at least in part) why highly visible flies are effective. However, Levi, a buddy of mine who has been ice fishing for years says trout can actually feed aggressively; you just have to hit it at the right time. He also says Pam cooking spray helps de-ice rod guides, and advises to prepare for extreme weather. Cold winter weather might seem like common sense, but as I said—he’s been doing it for years, and hypothermia is a very real danger.
Winter flyfishing can be a great way to discover secrets about your favorite trout stream, and offers a change of pace from the tying bench. Flies tied in outlandish, unnatural colors might be the ticket to get strikes, and may shift your thinking about the appearance of your favorite patterns. Who knows, maybe someday research will show that fishing blue flies will reduce cabin fever!
I think I’ve read every reason that has been written to explain why someone fly fishes. Many are cliché: to get away from it all, to enjoy the solitude, to spend time with friends and family, the serenity, or perhaps the spiritual experience of connecting to nature. Everyone comes to fly fishing for different reasons and under different circumstances. Those who have fallen under its spell know that it becomes more than a hobby or a sport. It’s a passion, a livelihood. It’s something that transports you from the mundane routine of everyday life to a world of excitement, appreciation of nature, and a challenge to your skill. We envy those who get to fish often, and look forward to the next cast. As a former avid golfer-turned fly fisherman, I liken the feeling in your hands of a good golf shot to the feeling of making a physical connection with the handle of your fly rod when you hook up with a fish. The feeling never leaves your hands and draws you back time and again.
I am a restless person. Since I was a kid, I have had a hard time sitting still. I was constantly rearranging my room, building “forts” in the backyard, or inventing something. My grandpa taught me to be a fisherman. Trips to the river, ponds and lakes, and Minnesota taught me the first skills I need to hook a sucker, a bullhead, and later a crappie, bluegill, walleye, or bass. Before the day of the Internet I read books published in the 50s from the public library to learn more about species of fish I only dreamed about catching. I loved to learn about something I was interested in and still do. When I was 12, my grandpa gave me a fIy rod he had no use for. Fly rods in the flat farmland of Iowa are few and far between. I loved the idea of fly fishing, but had no idea what I was doing. I read all I could, but without someone to show me, I did my best to mimic the actions I had seen. Despite catching a few bluegills in a local pond, casting in the backyard was about as far as I got with my fly rod, which was soon “benched” for a more practical spin reel. I loved fishing, but as I grew up, time on the water took a backseat to sports, cars, girls, and college.
I returned to fly fishing through two individuals at just the right time in my life by means of a high school friend and a former athlete-turned-best-friend. In my early twenties I went on a summer camping trip with some friends from high school. One morning, my buddy and his wife left to try trout fishing a nearby stream, and on a whim, I decided to join them. On light tackle and a spin rod, I landed my first trout in years. The excitement of the possibility of catching such an intelligent creature and fishing a dark, cold, unknown stream drew me in. The next 3 months turned into the “summer of trout fishing,” a 2-3 times/week affair that afforded me the best distraction from the reality of my life and the purpose of the initial trip: getting away with some friends after a sudden divorce had turned my world on end. My life as I knew it had been ripped apart, but trout fishing gave me a new definition and a new identity.
Spin fishing was productive, but the restless side of me wanted a challenge. I turned to an athlete of mine, a runner who loved fly fishing and who was the only person I knew that could help me get a handle on what I needed to invest in, knots, set-up, etc. He patiently taught me everything I needed to know, and my enthusiasm filled the gaps with reading and research in books, magazines, and the Internet. He helped to fix my mistakes, took me along on trips to our spring creeks, showed me places to fish, showed me how to get a good drift, set the hook, tie flies, and how to be a more efficient fly fisherman. The friendship lasted well past his high school days, through his guide school in Montana, and into his first guide job in Maine, then Montana. Our friendship has afforded me the opportunity to fish for landlocked salmon on Grand Lake Stream, steelhead on the Brule, big browns and bows on the Madison, Box Canyon, and the tricky Henry’s Fork. Though I’ll never be the technician that he is, our mutual passion feeds off one another. He’ll be incredibly successful either on his own or to a business in the industry and I envy the courage it took him to seek out a career that is unheard of in our school system and the passion that keeps him always dreaming and moving forward.
Amanda and I got married in June a few years ago. Our first date we spent at a large, ponded, natural spring, watching a BWO hatch, tiny trout feeding at a free buffet. She was eager to learn to fly fish, and turned out to be a natural. When I proposed, I surprised her at that spring during a fishing trip this time, in waders, with a ring. Her and I have spent many days on the water. I savor every moment. She is a quick learner, and fishing has been competitive whether it be on our annual steelhead trip, on vacation in Montana or Colorado, or home on our spring creeks. Her and I and now our guide friend are practically family, spending winters tying, and warm summers on the stream or river. In our small town, I feel like the three of us have an exclusive fly fishing club. Walking into our downtown coffee shop, I wonder if anyone thinks twice about what my Simms hats mean. Then again, it’s probably as cryptic as the snowmobilers’ jackets are to me.
I somehow feel “richer” as a fly fisherman. I have never made an income from it, but it has enriched my life. I often think about what fly fishing has given to me and how I can begin to give back, or “pay forward” what I have been given. As a teacher, I have had that chance. Each year, I take students to a spring creek north of our town during an activity day. Prior to the trip, we talk about what trout eat, their habits, and the importance of catch and release. They always have fun and learn how tricky catching a trout can be. For some, it’s their first, maybe only, experience fishing. I like sharing that. Last year, with a partnership with my local TU chapter, we started Trout in the Classroom, a TU program where students learn about watersheds, raise and care for trout eggs in the classroom, and release them in the spring. The kids loved it, were sad when a few died, and got to experience nature first hand. We’re set to begin our second year of TIC this January. With the help of my friend, we started a fly fishing club at my school. A devoted group of 5 students came each Friday morning to learn about set-up, casting, tied flies, and put their skills to the test with some casting contests. This year, we’ve earned a grant for fly tying materials and a fishing trip for the club. It’s given some of the kids involved an identity and an activity to be involved in that they may not have had otherwise. I love to teach, to help people discover something new. It’s the reason I became a teacher in the first place. Combining that and a personal passion has been a lot of fun for me. Maybe someday I’ll try my hand at guiding.
A person has no idea what life has in store for them. That’s the adventure. All the experiences- good and bad- help to shape a person. We’ve all made choices we’d take back, but that’s not part of the deal. Becoming a fly fisherman has been one of the best choices of my entire life. It gives me peace of mind, an outlet to creativity, an escape, friendships, happiness, and humbling experiences that keep me coming back. I look forward to someday sharing my passion (the good with the bad) with my own children.
The passage of time is a peculiar thing. It seems that if we are involved in something we don’t particularly like, the seconds pass thick and slow with now rhythm or pace, everything is laborious and clunky. Then there are days when we are so full of what we enjoy and what we love that it is as if time were racing away at warp speed. It was with this thought in mind that I found myself looking square into the last two days of the tour. I had completely abandoned any concept of time to the point that most days it could have been Tuesday or perhaps Sunday and it would have made no difference. Light and dark, awake and asleep…that pretty much summed up existence in Yellowstone, and by the time I had realized what was happening, I was looking into the face of the one thing I hadn’t taken into account. The trip was coming to an end.
After leaving Slough Creek, we drove across the amazing chaos that is Yellowstone and up into Montana. One thing that never ceased to amaze me about this National Park was the quick change of the geographic, geologic, and topographic nature of the landscape. Drive a few miles in one type of terrain, cross a hill, and it is as if someone has plucked you out of one place on the planet and deposited you in another location thousands of miles away. Surreal would be an easily overused word here in this majestic location.
So with the disorientation of time and the sensory overload of the terrain, Bruce Smithhammer and I drove west…our destination was to be the last stop on the trip. We would be spending the next two days in Big Sky Montana and fishing the Gallatin River. Basing my expectations of Big Sky upon what had transpired throughout the week was not wise. Every second of rustic living, every moment of wild and unpredictable environments, every old building and historic structure were in another world altogether upon our arrival in this small Montana locale. We were staying for two days in a two story penthouse of Big Sky Lodge, a place in which the President had stayed a few months earlier. I don’t know the exact square footage of our sky high lodging, but I feel very safe in guessing that we had at least three thousand square feet of living space to enjoy. But, just so we didn’t think we were completely removed from the wild, a big bear was wandering around the parking lot as we were unloading our things. It is moments like these that will enamor you with this part of the world.
After gawking at our dwelling for a while, I hit the rack and fell into the kind of sleep that can only come when the perfect bed meets unreal fatigue. It seemed that I had only closed my eyes and it was morning, and with the rise of the sun we headed out to fish the Gallatin.
The Gallatin is a meandering river, much smaller than I pictured it, but an excellent fishery…with one problem…the fish were nowhere to be found. Six anglers, all accomplished in their craft, were pretty well skunked. My only fish on this day was a complete accident. I was fishing a hopper up against the far bank without luck. I misjudged my distance; hit the bank, pulled it free, and bam…a ten inch rainbow smacked it as soon as it hit the water. My only fish.
Back to the lodge. We were all beyond tired. The week that was had begun to catch up with us. Gathered around the television that evening, we watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, laughed, and told stories until late into the night. We had started the week as strangers, just names, people who for the most part only knew of each other from what we had read. I looked around the room and was amazed at who I was with. Kirk Deeter, Chris Hunt, Bruce Smithhammer, Rebecca Garlock…Field and Stream, Trout Unlimited, The Drake, Outdoor Blogger Network. Wow. But the cool thing about it is that the accolades and accomplishments of these people were secondary to the fact that Steve Zakur and I were hanging out with friends.
Often on trips like this, when the people don’t know each other, the potential of a train wreck of interpersonal issues is always a potentiality. However, on this particular trip, we just hit it off…everything meshed. It was as if we had done this trip together for years. To say that lifelong friendships were formed would be a gross understatement.
The last day of the tour started with a trip to a local fly shop and an event that will forever define the attitude of Big Sky Country in my memory. After a night of libations and more than one David Allan Coe song being sung loud and out of key, I was parched. Just as you walk in the door of this particular fly shop, there is a soft drink machine. So I stopped there and started digging in my pocket for a buck to feed. I drop in my money, select my favorite citrus laden beverage…and out came a Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was then that the guy behind the counter told me that he could not remember the last time that machine had soft drinks in it. I looked at him and smiled, then I spotted some fly shop hats…one had a PBR style logo with the fly shops name on it. Sold. I still wear it with pride.
Another tough outing on the Gallatin as storms moved in from the west with a ferocity that put every fish in the river down for the day. So we spent the remainder of the morning just hanging out by the truck and talking. Perhaps that was the best way for things to end. In conversation with people who had become friends and may see years pass before their paths would cross again.
This trip and the amazing events that I experienced have forever changed me. It did not make me a better angler, but it did change the way that I go about the craft. The skillset remains, but in some ways the philosophy behind it has been forever altered by this great bunch of people.
Roughly five months have passed, and I am still in consistent contact with these folks. Sometimes it is business, and sometimes it is just to say hi. In the early part of the fall, Steve found himself in my neck of the woods and I took him to the South Holston. I told him where the trout would be, and what they were likely to be keyed on, then I stepped back, cast into water that has never yielded fish, and watched as he pulled multiple fish from the water. It made me happy to play guide for my friend, and in a way it was my gift to him. As we left that afternoon to once again go our separate ways, we said goodbye as if we would be together the following week…because we both knew that eventually we would meet again on a river somewhere.
A cruise ship is an excellent way to get teenagers into the outdoors and also fly fishing!
This past summer, my 15 year old daughter and I boarded the Norwegian Sky for a 3 day/4 night Bahamas cruise. We swam with dolphins in Nassau, kayaked through mangroves on Grand Bahama Island, and snorkeled with reef fish near Great Stirrup Cay. And I distinctly remember parasailing as well…
Between these ports-of-call, our time on the boat flew by. Immense buffets – and the gym equipment to work it off – kept me occupied. I also spent a fair bit of time scanning the open ocean, hoping to witness some tuna or mahi-mahi churning the surface to a froth. (I actually did see one feeding frenzy. Even though the species was unidentifiable, it kept me and another guy– also an angler – absolutely glued to our binoculars for a good twenty minutes.)
My daughter, Kerri, loved the boat’s supervised teen club. Hanging around with kids from all over the continent was a great experience for her. To be honest, once we were on the boat, I didn’t see too much of her at all.
But how does fly fishing fit into all this?????
Miami was our home base for a couple days before the cruise departed. We did some shopping, some South Beach sightseeing, and some fly fishing.
Hamilton Fly Fishing Charters (www.flyfishingextremes.com) out of Palm Beach took care of the fly fishing. The idea was to go just outside the reef and chum a bunch of false albacore up to the surface. However, the wave action was a bit rough and the albies stayed deep, so we headed back “inside” to the Intracoastal Waterway. As it turned out, this was a real blast! It was very visual – the guide tossing out bait and all kinds of jacks crashing it.
I was using a streamer and an intermediate line. My daughter was armed with a spinning rod. Both her and I thoroughly enjoyed it – Kerri was actually landing fish out on the boat’s deck in pelting rain. Unfortunately, some nasty wind and thunderstorms cut our day short.
The accompanying video shows the whole adventure. It isn’t in chronological order – South Beach and the cruise ship activities come first and then the fly fishing. (And then the nasty wind and thunderstorms.) I also have to admit that Kerri did all the video editing… Enjoy!!!
Over the first part of the tour, all discussion of great fishing wound up turning to Slough Creek. So we left what was a very relaxing morning on Soda Butte and headed back into the Lamar Valley which meant that I would be rubbernecking for at least the next hour.
I rode with Bruce Smithhammer and what a pleasurable drive it was. His music selection guaranteed that the miles in between would be a treat. When you can be on a fishing trip with people you really haven’t known for more than a couple of days, and the conversation is structured around the amazing technique of Dwight Yoakam’s former guitarist Pete Anderson it is readily apparent that you are in good company.
We pulled onto a winding gravel road with rolling hills all around. From the topography, it was obvious that a river was out there just beyond view…and then we reached the parking lot and I saw what all my friends were so pumped about. This is an active body of water that just begs to be fished.
We all piled out of our vehicles and Chris began getting the lunch stuff out of his ride. As the wonderful spread was laid out for our pleasure, you could see each of us being drawn away from the conversation and the food. We all spent our lunch break taking a bite of food between hard gazes into the creek. Anglers are funny that way. We can be the most focused and in tune of people, but put us in front of fishy water and we instantly become restless. The mind of a fly angler is always reading the water. We are always determining in our minds where the lies are in the stream, where the holding spots might be. A bug can hover round the stream for fifteen seconds and we have already done our own identification which is then followed by a mental selection of fly and size. It is a sickness, but I have yet to meet an angler who feels the need for a twelve step program…about the flies at least.
And so, with full a full belly, we strung up the sticks and hit the trail.
Slough creek is recognized by its meadows. First, second, and third. It is also common knowledge that the further up you go on the creek, the better the fishing. This seemed so odd to me. If the fishing is better upstream, then why not bypass the other spots and move up to the areas beyond the parking lot? Oh how foolish I was. When we set out into the timber it was easy going, then slightly easy, then a bit of a haul. All the while, you are walking beside this amazing creek and staring at water that is just about as perfect as you will find anywhere. It was then that I learned that it was not the distance to third meadow that was the impediment, it was the water itself. Eventually, the water is going to win. The unending enticement becomes too great and most folks will succumb before they ever get to the super fish.
We traveled beyond the first and second meadow. I am looking at this water, and I am getting tired of walking. Then we reach the canyon. A high walled mass of pocket water that is beginning in conjunction with a more extreme hike. We stopped. I looked at Steve. We were both so fired up to fish that we elected to forgo the journey to the third meadow. This would be where we took our stand. So, Steve and I, along with Rebecca and Rich, stepped off the trail and into a massive boulder strewn run of pocket water that would make Gierach drool.
Below the pocket water where we began was a large open area. Looked pretty deep, and though I saw no risers, in my gut I just knew that there would be fish in there. The three of us headed down with Rebecca and Steve moving below me to where this open deep water tailed out into a tighter stream. I moved over to the hard riffles right at the head of this massive pool and began casting just far enough that the fly would engage the turbulent current and drift into the slow water. It was my thought that fish would stack up and be ripe for the picking.
Two or three casts into it, I set the hook on a small cuttie. No more than nine inches, it hit the nymph with authority and in short order I brought it to hand. I didn’t even lift the little guy out of the water, and he swam away in a rush to settle into just about the exact spot where he was holding when I arrived.
Downstream Rebecca was on to fish and landed one that put her in quite a quandary. She had caught a rainbow, which in most cases you would simply admire for a moment and then place back in the drink. However, we had been instructed by our hosts to kill any rainbows we caught which would assist in the full fledged dominance of the cutties. A little unsure as to how to dispatch the fish, she finally just elected to squeeze it until it died then gave it a proper burial into the river where it once called home.
As Rebecca was wrestling with the moral dilemma of the dead rainbow, I had switched to a neversink caddis and using basically the same methodology, I cast up into the rough water and let the fly fall naturally into the slick water. After negotiating the riffles, the fly slowed down with the current and I watched a large fish rise into the same aquatic path as my fly. The big boy hung around and as the fly crossed over it, the tell tale sign of a pending take began to take shape. Then, as if he remembered that he had left something burning on the stove, one splashy flick of the tail and he was gone. I cannot say exactly why he turned away. I had placed that fly in perfect position, it had drawn attention to itself, and then total refusal.
I tried a couple of more casts without any luck so I waded my way around to the area that Rebecca was fishing. Steve began moving his way round to the spot I just left.
Rebecca and I stood together working the water for a while when we heard screaming downstream.
In the Smokies where I live, someone yells bear and unless they have cubs with them, they honestly are not much of a threat. I have seen dogs that are bigger than the vast majority of bear I have encountered in the GSMNP (Great Smoky Mountains National Park), but this was not Tennessee and the bears out here will mess you up.
The very nanosecond that my ears sent a survival message to the brain, I turned and looked at Rebecca. Nice to know that I wasn’t the only one who was filled with adrenaline. It wasn’t really that we were scared other than the fact that we did not know where this bear was located. Then I spotted her, standing on her hind legs and scratching her back against a tree. Big.
It is funny how sometimes our thoughts become reality. Those short ideas that pass through your mind so quick that you barely identify it as a thought at all. I looked at this rotund black mass rubbing its back against the tree and thought to myself, “Glad that sucker is on the other side of the river.” It was at that exact moment when said bear stopped rubbing, looked across stream, and immediately trotted down into the water. While this was going on, Rebecca had yelled upstream to Steve that we had a bear. Steve was probably sixty yards away, and had managed to hook the large trout I had turned earlier.
Steve heard Rebecca, but sometimes there is a wide chasm between hearing and understanding what has been said…such was the case now. So Steve thinks that she is congratulating him on the deep bend in his rod and gets this big smile that protrudes from behind his cigar. She yells again. This time he hears, so instead of a long moment of admiration for the lovely cutbow he has just landed, he snaps a picture and comes to the rescue. See….Steve was the only one of us with bear spray. He was by default the first line of defense and was the last one in line to be mauled. And so, in a manner likened unto Mighty Mouse…here he came to save the day.
By the time our faithful friend and hero had made it over to us, so had the bear. With eyes focused on the lumbering beast, Steve took the forefront, bear spray close to the hip and ready to fire. Steve used to be a cop so I felt relatively confident as to his ability to strike quick aim with the spray. However I was a little uneasy about wind direction and could just see myself catching the downwind drift of this pepper concoction just before I was disemboweled by an angry member of the Yellowstone community.
The bear got as close as maybe ten yards or less. Could have been fifty yards, but when you are looking at a big beast that is on a collision course with you, distance looses all logistical relevance.
Then we began talking to the bear. “Hey bear!” which is actually angler speak for “Dear Lord please get this beast away from us in a hurry because we have at least one other river to fish and I don’t want to miss it.”
Eventually, the bear turned and headed into the woods. While still within our line of sight, it stopped, briefly looked back at us, and proceeded to do that which has always been said that bears do in the woods. The thought occurred to me then that this was just his way of letting us know just what he thought of us, our taunting, and Steve’s bear spray.
We didn’t catch anymore fish, but we sure had one great story to tell when we converged on the parking area.
It has been said more times than you could count that often the best part of a fishing trip is not the fishing. That statement was very true in this case. Oh, to be certain we were happy that Steve hooked a nice one, and we did admire his picture. But on this day, on Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park, a darn nice trout was trumped by a big black bear. But man what a story we had to tell.
I passionately enjoy catching genuine, pure-bred cutthroat trout. Regarding the Greenback, there are places where this is possible, albeit catch & release–which suits me just fine.
Oh, wait—the Denver Post said a study of cutthroat genetics revealed that “pure greenbacks” only exist within a four mile section of Bear Creek, near Colorado Springs. Which means…all other greenback populations are…lowly hybrids! Additionally, greenback cutts are native to the South Platte, but Bear Creek is a tributary of the Arkansas. This fact alone calls into question whether or not they really are “pure greenbacks.” The Center for Biological Diversity circulated a press release that says “some scientists believe [this population] to be a long-lost subspecies known as yellowfin cutthroat.” Well, after more than two decades of recovery work and millions of dollars expended to save what turned out to be hybrids, we apparently know only one thing for certain—Greenbacks: the name fits!
So now, the Forest Service, Division of Wildlife, the City of Colorado Springs, Trout Unlimited, and a host of other interested parties are trying to figure out what to do next. Motorcycles, mountainbikers, and trailriders can still use the trails, but fishing Bear Creek apparently is illegal.
Apparently, previous rescue efforts used cutthroat populations that were thought to be greenbacks, but were actually western slope hybrids. My question is what happens now with these fish…we’ve already spent so much time, effort, and money on them. Bill Edrington of Royal Gorge Anglers in Canon City, Colorado, says that the forest service now refers to these hybrid trout as “The Green Fish.” This may be a wordplay referring not only to their color, but to cutthroat that were reared in the 1990’s in a tailwater creek of Fort Carson’s Townsend Reservoir. When I served in the military, my unit camped near this reservoir during a training exercise. I remember a senior officer told me that greenbacks had been stocked in the creek, but then a drought wiped out the population—all that greenback recovery time & money, erased.
As I recall, pretty much everyone was excited about the earlier greenback recovery efforts. The general public seemed to think of this as a means to “give back” to the environment, to the cadence of the “go green” motto. But Adrian Stanley relays in the Colorado Springs Independent that U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Leith Edgar “…says the findings go to show that the moment we think we have nature figured out, science proves otherwise.” It’s true; we must be good stewards of our fish & game, but what do we do now with “The Green Fish” hybrids? After all, they may be small fish that rarely exceed 12 inches, but at least they’re pretty!
In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone. We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the fourth of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
Roughly twenty years ago, I watched a special on the Lamar Valley. Rivoted to the screen I saw this valley of high peaks and rolling hills and thought to myself, “I have got to see this face to face”.
Sometimes the culmination of dreams takes time.
Twenty years of watching specials, reading articles, surfing the net, wearing my wife out with comments, and daydreams too many to number, I finally found myself in the Lamar.
Our band of merry anglers, still giddy from the mornings adventure on Yellowstone Lake headed north and I felt a level of anticipation that almost matched the vast beauty of this place, this amazing place.
At every turn, every rise, every drop in the road, I kept looking for this storied location until finally the expanse of the Lamar Valley opened up before me.
Honestly, it was almost like driving into a John Wayne western. The rolling hills just begged to be flecked at their crests with bands of Native American warriors. I chuckle now when I think of this because out of the myriad of sights I would feast on from that point forward on the tour, I kept thinking that there should be a circle of teepees and dark haired natives riding along on white and brown horses. It just goes to show how much we are influenced by both our childhood and our addiction to media.
I am not going to be able to do justice to the beauty of this place with words. It is one of those places that you simply must see to fully grasp.
We pulled to the side of the road and off in the distance to our right was the Lamar River. As I looked it seemed so small, little more than a tiny creek. That perception couldn’t be farther from the truth. It was here that I learned the deceptiveness of distance. In the land in and around The Great Smoky Mountains National Park that I call home, the hills roll, are full of foliage, and the mountains are softer, being as old as they are I suppose that is to be expected. But here in the land that I call home, distance is just easier to judge. The point of reference is so close that feet, yards, and miles are pretty easy to judge.
So….after gearing up, we began walking down to the river. And we walked….and walked…and walked…and then when we were done walking, we walked some more. When I stopped long enough to look behind me, I was amazed. Our vehicles were barely visible. There again, it bears restating that you just can’t imagine how big Yellowstone is until you have been there. And if you have not been there…you really owe it to yourself to go.
The Lamar River is a truly beautiful place, and as we stepped into the water, Steve calmly waded in very close to a bison that was picking grass near the far bank. Between he and I was Rebecca. Farther downstream the rest of the party were barely visible as they sized up the water.
I stood for a long time and just gawked at the place. It was almost like a kid who has wanted a certain gift for Christmas, and once the prized package was in his hands, he is to shocked to open it and play.
With no obvious risers, I tied on a hopper dropper with a prince nymph and set to work. Each time I cast, I thought to myself, “I am here”. The effect of my presence in this place was not the feeling of going home, but it was close. Sometimes your heart will long to the point that the unknown dwells as close as the familiar, and I looked around me as the big clumsy hopper pitched along downstream, in absolute awe.
I realize that I was in a place where fly fishing was king and fish are bright, vibrant, and wild, but I honestly didn’t care if I caught anything or not. I was present, and sometimes just being aware of that is enough. This thought would prove on more than one cast to be prophetic because I was so immersed in the place that I missed multiple strikes as the hopper briefly vanished under the weight of a fish as it engaged the prince.
Upstream from me I see Rebecca raise her arm and that familiar flush of the water as a trout realizes that it has just made a critical mistake. Beyond her, a billow of cigar smoke drifts above Steve. We are new friends, but the peace and familiarity we share unifies us as if we had been together since birth.
Rebecca slips the trout back in the water, and begins again as if what happened had never taken place. She is in her zone, and, as she would later recount to me, she has never been skunked on this river.
Chris, Bruce, and Kirk had very little luck and had traveled back to the cars long before our group had it fill. In a park like Yellowstone, you can expect traffic jams from time to time, and these guys decided to break the monotony of waiting by creating a traffic jam of their own. They would wait until a car approached, then they would point and spy out into the vast expanse of the valley, of course nothing was there. Cars would stop, set up cameras, pull out binoculars, gazing out at nothing. Its the little things in life that bring the biggest laughs, and later that night we would spend a good portion of time chuckling about it. Honestly, if I were driving up and saw a bunch of people pointing out to the river, I would stop too.
“Sometimes I caught fish – sometimes I didn’t. …….I lived merrily, mindlessly, uncomfortably on the fringe where fishing bleeds into madness.” – Nick Lyons, The Intense Fly Fisherman
There was a time in my youth when I chased fish with all the passion I had within me – with all the force and vigor and excitement I could muster. I would get up two hours before dawn and drive four hours just to reach the first available trout water. I’d fish all day, stopping only to eat a quick lunch or move to another spot on the river. When darkness fell, I continued to fish – pushing the limit of effective fishing and the legal limit of fishing regulations. A four hour drive back home would end with me dragging myself into the house, leaving all my gear in the truck to be cleaned out the next day, or the day after that perhaps. I was “on fire” for fly fishing and I ate it – drank it – obsessed over it – loved it – was consumed by it.
This went on for some time. Years passed, then decades and then one day I experienced a great tragedy in my life when my father passed away suddenly. At the same time, I lost my job. I was devastated. I stopped fishing almost completely. I think I may have spent time fishing, just a few hours each time, only twice that year. In my salad days fishing happened every other weekend for years and years. I fished only twice in that most terrible year and thought several times that I might give it up altogether. Over the next few years, there were times when I felt like flinging my rod and reel into the lake or river. No, I’m not kidding. I just couldn’t get that passion back, even though when I wasn’t fishing it was still there and as strong as ever.
I still consumed fishing articles, photos and chat like they were going out of style. I loved to talk about bass on poppers and trout flies that sit just so, right in the film. I’m still a sucker for hearing another angler talk about a river that’s new to me. Last year I even took my very first trip out west to fish in Montana and Wyoming. I’m fishing more now – probably twice a month or so when I can get away and I’d fish more often if I had the time and money. So, I had to ask myself – what happened? How did I come back from the brink of leaving the sport behind me for good?
I think what it all came down to, was that I had to realize two things: that I didn’t have that 24-hour-7-days-a-week passion that I had in my youth, and that not having that passion was OK. Once I stopped worrying about the fact that I didn’t go fishing as much (and frankly didn’t catch as much either) I was able to begin to enjoy my time outdoors again. These days it’s not so much about the fishing. It’s more about being outside and enjoying time spent around the water. It’s the feel of the river on my legs and the fleeting glimpse of a deer on the drive home. Now that I’ve had a couple of years of this relaxed fishing life, I think I rather prefer it to living on, as Nick Lyons so accurately put it “…the fringe where fishing bleeds into madness.” Maybe someday you’ll be there, too. Maybe you already are?
In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone. We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the third of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
In part two, we saw how involved and messy gill netting for the small lakers can be. But what about the big boys? What about the mature adult that is actively reproducing? Obviously the whole gill netting thing will not work on a fish that size. So instead of the spider web analogy, lets switch over to the corn maze. Easy to get into one…not so easy to get out.
What happens is this. A huge live trap net is set in the lake. This massive enclosure has a series of extensions on it that are like long hallways. Hallways that are hundreds of feet long. Big guys swim in, hang out, can’t find the exit. And then the men on the boat go to work.
This is where the action really picks up. We left the gill net boat feeling pretty satisfied with what we had just participated in, but we literally had no idea as to the massive undertaking necessary to get rid of the Lakers. Yellowstone Lake is big and very deep which is perfect for Lake Trout. They are literally in Laker Valhalla in this majestic body of water, and they do get big.
The crew starts out by retrieving the net. I never quite figured out if the net was stationary and we were moving or vise versa, but either way, we were in for the surprise of our lives when the catch started revealing itself.
There are some fish that get caught in the net, but most are still alive when the crew started hoisting it aboard. But the big show was the huge net enclosure that held numbers of biblical proportions. The sheer number of big fish was astounding. To compare what we were seeing to the 167,000 plus that had been retrieved up to that point just blows your mind. I caught myself looking out at the lake an just trying to grasp just how many leviathans were swimming in those waters.
In the picture below you see a tub full of dead Lake Trout. To get an idea of how large these fish were, the box they are in was about two and a half feet by twenty inches by two feet. Just about every fish we brought to the boat would be grip and grin status.
There were several tubs stationed at the rear of the boat. By the time our work was done. Every tub would be full. It bears mentioning again that this operation is taking place, every day for at least ten hours per day.
Tracking devices are placed in some of the Lakers. The use of these trackers is to identify movement of the fish throughout the lake. Listening stations placed in various locations in the lake will monitor movement of the fish as they go about their day. The hope is to positively identify spawning locations so that they can begin the arduous task of killing eggs. There is still an ongoing discussion as to how they could best accomplish this. Everything from UV rays to a vacuum system has been brought to the table. The Park Service, Trout Unlimited, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation are actively pursuing their options with a hope to tackle this next battlefield soon. The telemetry study was started in August of last year. 141 tags and 40 receivers were implemented. As of this writing, there are 221 tags and 55 recievers on and in Yellowstone Lake. This is not a cheap undertaking either. Trout Unlimited purchased 153 tags at a cost of 85,000 dollars and the National Park Service purchased 68 tags at a cost of 25,000 dollars.
And yes, some of the Cutthroat are caught. Here is the statistics as best as I can recall. In a day when we caught probably close to 1,000 trout. I only saw two Cutthroat dead at the gill net boat, and I think there were maybe five live Cutties on the live net boat.
The large holding net is brought to the side of the boat and there are literally hundreds of fish swimming around. A long net is used, and you simply lean over and scoop up a net full of fish. It is really quite amazing. And keep in mind that you are scooping netfulls of 20″-30″ fish. Exhilarating to say the least. There were a couple that were to big to fit into the net. You would scoop through the holding net, get the bruisers head in it, and that would be all that would fit. That is when the crew stepped in and gilled them to the boat.
After the fish are caught. They are cut, identified as male of female, and the air bladder is ruptured. A lot were full of eggs. Thousands of eggs. This is the point when it all started coming together for me. We caught and killed a multitude of these fish, but if you also take into consideration how many eggs we removed form the life cycle of the species in this lake, the numbers were staggering. I really felt like I had done something that was good, worthwhile, and important. Important to more than just the Cutthroat. It was important to the total ecosystem of the park. And that is a very good thing.
Though Lake Trout are a very good food source, and plentiful, these fish are not put into the food market. My thought was that they could be used to feed the homeless, needy, mobile meals, but the logistics and cost of doing this are just not feasible at this time. So much would be involved in trying to get this idea off the ground, and the amount of money it would require prohibit it.
So we left that afternoon feeling very good about what we had done. The conversation among us was like that of a team after winning the big game. We recounted the events, smiled, shook our heads in disbelief, and made our way north to the Lamar Valley.
*Photos by Rebecca Garlock, Chris Hunt, Steve Zakur, and Marc Payne
In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone. We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the second of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
Okay, how many mornings have you awoke, and over breakfast said to yourself…”yep, today I think I am gonna kill a thousand trout. That is the goal. Not gonna eat em, not gonna sell em, just gonna kill em, cut em, and dump em in the deep water. Then maybe call it a day.”
Lets just settle on agreeing that lake trout aren’t baby seals. Soft fluffy white fur and big watery eyes will trump a cold slimy fish any day of the week, but still…the wholesale slaughter of a trout seems antithetical to the mantra that we catch and release types chant each time we head to the river. We will pass someone who is leaving with a stringer full of trout and we assess them as if they are pariah; an unclean blight on the angling world.
I speak somewhat in jest, but it is honestly a very strange feeling to know that your goal is a mix of trout and death. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily…until you actually do it.
Here is the situation. At some point lake trout arrived in Yellowstone Lake. I say “at some point” because no one is really 100% certain when it happened. Yellowstone Lake is a Cutthroat lake, end of story. The population of this amazing body of water has changed dramatically in recent years, and it has become quite frightening on more than a fishing level. This issue literally effects every creature in the massive Yellowstone that has Cutts as a food source.
Try wrapping your mind around this statistic. In or around 1978, 70,000 Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout were recorded in Clear Creek. In 2008, the number had dwindled to less than 500. You read that right…500. Keep in mind that we are just talking about one creek, God only knows how many feed into Yellowstone Lake. You start running the numbers and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to determine that Yellowstone is in trouble.
Lake Trout live and spawn in Yellowstone Lake, they access no tributaries, they live in deep water, and they eat a bunch of Cutthroat which do access the tributaries to spawn. This leaves only one viable solution. You must get on Yellowstone Lake and kill a bunch of Lakers. Each female Lake Trout is capable of laying thousands of eggs, and with each passing season, these hungry invasives feast on the Cutts.
HOW IT IS DONE
We were blessed with the opportunity to travel out onto Yellowstone Lake and take part in the removal of the Lakers. After a coffee and a danish at the boat dock, we gathered round and Todd Koel gave us the rundown thus far.
When you can tally up 167,703 lake trout caught thus far in 2012, and your work is no where near done…you have got a huge task in front of you.
There are two primary methods that are being used in the eradication process. Gill netting and trap nets, and our merry band of anglers, bloggers, and industry folk embarked on what would become one whale of an adventure.
Gill netting is not pretty. It is a messy, smelly, methodical task that takes a strong constitution and a certain degree of speed to do the job well. So, imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the gill netting boat, and a young blonde coed climbed out and welcomed us aboard. I envisioned a crew of bearded and somewhat scruffy fishermen using foul language, smoking filterless cigarettes and drinking coffee from an old rusty percolator. This boat had two gentlemen who were very polite and soft spoken and a crew of nothing but girls.
With my personal stereotypes completely shattered we put our hands to work. Gill netting was the focus of this boat, and though it wasn’t Deadliest Catch it was pretty intense at first. The best way to describe gill netting would be to envision a massive underwater spiders web. These nets are dropped or “soaked” for several hours and basically the fish entrap themselves within the holes of the net, struggle, tangle, and die. Then comes the dirty work. The net is retrieved and it is the task of the deck hands to extricate the fish from the nets. I knew this was gonna be messy when the captain of the boat handed out blue rubber gloves. Sometimes this involved actually pushing the internal organs of the lakers from one part of their bodies to the other just so they would go through the holes in the nets. This procedure can also cause what the girls on the boat called “poppers”, I won’t go into details, but imagine a balloon that is squeezed just a tad to much. Only this balloon wasn’t full of air….
For ten hours a day, six days a week these co-eds place nets, pull up nets, removed dead fish and repeat, and they actually seemed to be having fun doing it.
So where are all the big lake trout? This particular process is used to remove the smaller fish. On the next post we will take a look at how the big boys meet their maker.