Some folks see dams as a source of energy, a creator of recreation, or even the protector from seasonal floods. This can be true but during the early twentieth century there was an obsession to put a dam on any river or stream they felt could be beneficial to human progress and not considering the environmental damages that could be caused during and after the build. Thanks to the partnership of Patagonia and Felt Soul Media, they have produced this amazing video depicting the negative effects caused by dams and the impact they have on native fish populations. This video was an eye opener for everyone here at Fishwest, each and everyone of us learned something new from it and we encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to view it.
When folks talk about fishing in remote places for most the first thought that comes to mind is the Alaskan bush or the back country of the North West. But there’s a place in Asia where human development and time have almost been forgotten. Most of you may have heard of Mongolia and the unique salmonid found in it’s waters. For those who haven’t heard of these creatures, they are the largest in the salmonid family, and fierce predators gorging on everything from bait fish to small mammals and birds. Here is a look at what it takes to have a chance at these incredible fish and what is being done to protect it’s habitat.
Two years ago, the staff at our middle school began to think creatively about activities we could get students involved in. Our goal was to connect students to fitness and promote healthy choices and lifestyles. We considered a wide array of clubs that promoted wellness and fun- snowshoeing, running, tai chi, and yoga. The idea was to give the students a choice and make it fun, and it’s more likely that the activity and healthy choices will become a permanent part of their life. The same philosophy applies to adults. As a track and cross country coach, I sponsored a “run club” and was pleasantly surprised by the number of students that came early to school to run. The clubs were a wonderful outlet for kids who had varied interests who may or may not already belong to a team sport and a place to make new friends. Feeling, however, that I had omitted one of my life’s great passions, I introduced a “fly fishing club.” I recruited my friend and seasonal guide to come help us out.
The club generated some immediate interest from a few skeptical/curious students. I can’t blame them; in our corner of the world, if you casually mention “fly fishing” it either conjures images of fishing for or with houseflies or among adults, “A River Runs Through It,” the only connection to fly fishing they have thanks to Hollywood. I guess if they have us fly fisherman equated with Brad Pitt in some form or another then we’re doing alright.
The club met every Friday morning and we had three students that showed up regularly. We covered setup, knots, casting, even some fly tying and entomology. Kids are much better students than we sometimes give them credit, especially when they are interested. I say this with experience as a classroom teacher and a former swim lessons instructor for both children and adults. Adults would come to lessons with pre-conceived ideas or things they have seen which resulted in muscle memory habits that are often difficult to break. The same applies to fly fishing. Kids are interested and new to these skills and are often in the mindset of being a student, that is to say, teachable and willing to learn. It seems we sometimes lose this ability as we grow older.
We culminated the year with a casting competition for a puck of flies that my friend had tied. Nearly all the weeks of casting skills we had taught flew out the window as the students worked to hit the target we had placed out in front of them. They laughed, struggled, and had a great time. The skills didn’t matter- they were having fun, and that’s what it’s about. Eventually one of them, slowed down his cast, hit the target, and was beaming with his new prize. Those are the moments that you do this kind of thing for: the look on his face was reward enough and reassurance we needed to keep the club going.
When school started in August of this year, students were already asking about when Fly Fishing Club would start. A fall coach, I planned on November as a good time to begin, allowing fall sports and that “settling in” time to expire. The club had generated more interest this year, a few newcomers that had talked to me in hall. My favorite line, “Hey Mr. R, I’m kind of interested in fly fishing club this year. I don’t know- fly fishing- it just seems like it would be something good for me to know.”
When November came around we had five attendees show and have had near perfect attendance since. We started with the same skills as last year, spending some Fridays in the classroom on knots and some at our pool, working on roll casts with hookless hoppers. We put our focus on fly tying this year, however. Tying, as we know, involves some tools and some expense, and being no money in the school budget for vises and the pieces of various animals we require, we sought out a grant from our state DNR.
The grant provided us funds for a trip and materials. In the meantime, we reached out to various TU chapters and fly fishing associations across the state for help. These are amazing groups of people when it comes to helping kids. Days after requesting help, I was sent an email from a man across the state who wanted to help out by sending us his old vise and tool set. He shipped it that day (which must have been pricey to do) so that a student could have the opportunity to learn to tie. It’s been used every Friday since. More recently, a man sent us homemade bobbins and threaders to use in our club, and another chapter is setting us up with used rod/reel combos for next year’s club. The generosity we’ve had bestowed on our group is incredible and speaks for the generous attitudes of fly fishermen and women.
With tying, our emphasis has been on making it fun. We chose some beginner patterns to start with and let the students decide the colors. We try to repeat the pattern the next time, so it sticks. We’ve tied a lot of wooly buggers and beetles, flies they can use around town on the river and ponds. Quick learners, they have learned how to use the tools and ask questions when they need help. I’ve been amazed with their excitement and enthusiasm. Every Thursday afternoon they make sure we’re still on for Friday morning and ask to borrow copies of Fly Fisherman magazine or the Feathercraft catalog to look at on weekends. The Friday before spring break, they convinced their study hall teacher to host an impromptu fly tying session during the last half hour of the day. It’s fun to hear them talking about fly fishing in the hall or during free time in class. They talk gear, flies, and where they want to fish. A few of them have really found their creative niche with fly tying, bringing in patterns they’ve tied and the stories of their experiences. They find patterns they like, ask questions, and experiment with hooks and materials they are finding everywhere. It’s refreshing and inspiring to see their ingenuity. I’ll never forget the mouse pattern one student brought in a few weeks ago. He had seen it in a magazine and did a great job replicating the pattern down to the shoestring he creatively used for a tail. He told me how he had glued it, and as I held it, I could still feel some moisture. I quickly asked, “Is this wet glue?,” not wanting to pry my fingers apart. His reply, “No, I just tested it in the sink before I came to school!”
I don’t believe that these kids have a real understanding of how excited we as instructors are to be a part of this club as much as they are. Introducing them to a new skill, helping them to tie a fly and be proud of what they created, and seeing their reaction to a technique has been a rewarding experience. At the end of April, we’re taking our club on one of our first club fishing trips to trout streams north of us. We’re all very excited to put their skills to the test and looking forward to a memorable day on the water.
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!!!
“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.
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 first of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
There is always a slight risk involved in dreams. So often we paint pictures in our minds about these enchanted desires, thoughts that grow, doubling each time they wander across our mind. Then we are somehow placed in a situation in which we can actually see this dream come to pass and it feels empty, shallow, and unfulfilled.
Thankfully, this was not the case in my dream of Yellowstone.
My friend Steve Zakur didn’t touch down in Jackson until late in the afternoon/ early evening which gave me time to soak in the Tetons in their glory. When his plane landed and we shook hands, the dream which I carried for so long gained life. Go time had arrived.
Steve has visited the park several times. He knew what to expect. So that evening over drinks we made a plan that in retrospect was quite ambitious. We were going to start at the south entrance and head northeast before meandering our way around and back to the south entrance. I had no idea just what I was in for.
The next morning Steve and I took off from Jackson on a grand tour de force of the park. It was a complete mind blower. Crazy as it may sound, you literally cannot look in any direction without a photo op. This place is a photographers Valhalla.
We had not even entered Yellowstone yet, and all I kept saying was “wow”.
Steve, being a seasoned vet of the park, graciously played tour guide for me and just let me gawk at the shear majesty of the place. It just overwhelms everything about you. I had thought of this place for so long and had focused so much on getting ready for this trip that it just left me numb.
In the center of the park there is a road that basically is a loop. That was to be the focus of our day as we worked around toward our final destination which was Flagg Ranch (more about them later), and our rendezvous with the other folks that would be on tour with us for the week.
But of course, Steve and I being anglers, there came a point in which we could wait no longer and fishing became the focus. Saying fishing became the focus in Yellowstone is almost a misnomer. There are so many places to ply the angle as they say that you literally are overwhelmed in trying to find a spot. We settled on the Gibbon which is a smaller river that joins the Firehole to become the Madison.
It was a warm afternoon, the water was perfect for wet wading, and the little browns that call this particular body of water home were willing to at least give Steve and me a taste of just how good it could be. We ended the afternoon with three small browns each. Nothing worthy of the grip and grin that is almost a mandatory validation of success (to which I strongly disagree), but we felt the drug that is the tug, and that was quite enough to settle the spirit.
We finally made our way back to Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch and met those who were to be our companions for the rest of the week. (More on that next time.)
Baby tarpon react to a hook like their oversized parents; they try to put as much air as possible between themselves and the water. However, they are far more accommodating. When fishing for adults, a great day is 5 fish jumped and 1 landed. With babies, jumping 15 and landing 5 is definitely not out of the question. And the babies aren’t exactly puny – 5 to 10 pounds is a common size.
I am by no means a seasoned tarpon hunter, but over the last few years I’ve managed to visit some of the Yucatan’s premier baby tarpon fisheries. Although not definitive, my impressions might be helpful if a trip is germinating in your brain.
It should be noted that all my trips took place in July or August. Visiting the Yucatan in the heat of summer sounds a bit twisted but it’s actually prime time for baby tarpon.
The gear for baby tarpon is simple – an 8 or 9 weight rod, a floating line, and a reel with a smooth drag. Most baby tarpon will not take you into your backing. Some veteran baby tarpon fishermen recommend stripping them in without putting them on the reel. A decent fly selection would include baitfish patterns, poppers, and Seaducers – all on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. A very functional leader looks like this: 5 feet of 50 lb mono for a butt section, 2 feet of 25 lb mono for the tippet, and 2 feet of 40 lb fluorocarbon as a shock tippet.
Now, here’s a look at some baby tarpon destinations…
Tarpon Cay Lodge in San Felipe (Rio Lagartos) www.yucatanflyfishing.com
San Felipe, about 100 miles west of Cancun, is a sleepy, pleasant village where walking around gives your camera a taste of real Mexico.
The baby tarpon fishing starts after a 5 minute boat ride. It’s mostly blind casting the mangroves off points or in the rios, which are saltwater creeks. Oftentimes, rolling fish provide targets.
Once you’ve shaken the jitters when fishing to babies, San Felipe can give you the opportunity to come unglued in front of much larger fish. A boat ride of an hour or so will take you to a spot offshore where migratory adults up to 100 pounds hang out. This is sight casting to rolling fish over deep water.
Isla del Sabalo at Isla Arena www.yucatanflyfishing.com
If San Felipe is sleepy, then Isla Arena is comatose – in a good way. Even though you are only 100 km north of Campeche, it’s like the edge of the world.
The fishing is very similar to San Felipe with the addition of sight fishing on the flats in front of the mangroves. (N.B. Tarpon are much easier to see than a bonefish.) Some of the guides like to go WAY up the tiniest of creeks. Bring a mosquito repellant and don’t forget to duck under that mangrove branch! I found a Sage bass rod a great tool for such close quarters.
You will likely fly into Merida, which is an incredible colonial city. It’s like being in Europe, but the tarpon are much closer.
Paradise Lodge on the Costa Maya Coast www.tarponparadise.net
Between Chetumal Bay and Espiritu Santos Bay, Paradise Lodge has a breathtaking variety of fishing opportunity.
Baby tarpon are the backbone of this fishery; they hang out in cenote lakes, which are land-locked lagoons connected to the ocean via underground channels. Each day starts out with a truck ride as your boat is trailered to one of these lakes. Bring your casting arm – you’ll blind cast the mangroves like crazy. Nevertheless, you’ll probably see enough tarpon to keep your motivation in high gear. One of the lakes has a good population of both snook and barracuda.
During your stay at Paradise, you’ll probably drive south to sprawling Chetumal Bay to chase bonefish and permit. I caught my only permit in Chetumal Bay. I’d like to say I made a 70 foot cast to a tailing fish but I actually flipped a crab pattern about 30 feet into a HUGE mud. The permit that popped out was VERY small. At dinner that night, I downplayed my catch and was promptly chastised by the lodge owner. “A permit is a permit!” he insisted.
If baby tarpon are the backbone of the Paradise Lodge fishery, then Espiritu Santos Bay is the jewel. It’s a long, pre-dawn drive to the north. Punta Huerrero, an obscenely picturesque fishing village, guards the bay’s entrance. Once your skiff ventures into Espiritu Santos Bay, you’re not on the edge of the world, you’ve actually gone over it!
Very few people fish Espiritu Santos. Its flats are beautiful, wild and abundant, just like its bonefish. Chances are you’ll see permit, too. My guide even pointed out a few wily snook underneath the mangroves. I didn’t believe they were there until he chased them out with his push pole.
Isla Blanca by Cancun www.yucatanflyfishing.com
Cancun, as you probably know, is fueled by thousands of beach and bar-seeking tourists.
However, 30 minutes north of the sunscreen-slathered hordes lies Isla Blanca and its tremendous variety of fishing environments – hidden lagoons, picturesque bays, mangrove tunnels, small flats, large flats. Is your boat careening towards a solid wall of mangroves? Relax, the guide knows exactly where the opening to the other side is. Baby tarpon, a few bonefish, and smallish permit roam all over these waters. The permit, although small, are numerous.
If you want a break from fishing, and perhaps Cancun’s frantic pace, there are loads of guided excursions to Mayan ruins, traditional villages, and cenotes.
Isla Holbox is comfortably touristed but in a golf-carts-on-funky-sand-streets sort of way. It is about 60 miles northwest of Cancun; the last part of the journey is onboard a ferry.
Although Holbox is noted for big, migratory tarpon in the open ocean, the backcountry flats and channels in the lagoon behind it have excellent populations of babies. Tired of slinging 500 grain heads on a 12 weight? The babies chase poppers and streamers and put on a great show when connected to an 8 weight. I found sight-fishing for the babies to be excellent.
Another attraction at Holbox is the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks.
Nichupte Lagoon (Cancun) and Campeche
These are a couple places I have yet to visit. The former is the lagoon directly behind the Cancun hotel strip. The latter is a colonial city.