“The hatch is just above the bridge!” said the voice from the phone. While this may be a rather innocuous phrase to the non-angler, in me, it induced an involuntary fist pump, a silent whoop, and a sudden onset of Steve Martin’s Happy Feet in the middle of my office cubicle. I was calling the fly shop in Ashton for the sixth consecutive day, asking about the salmon fly hatch. Ignoring the strange looks from my fellow office workers, minutes later my friend and I were escaping the gopher farm and racing our way across the Idaho desert toward an afternoon of casting orange bellied behemoths, more akin to miniature Goodyear blimps, than the delicate creations normally presented to Henry’s Fork trout.
The guy in the shop answering the phone each morning understood completely and likely would have had a similar reaction to mine if the roles were reversed. Surely he had been tolerating the daily inquiries, in anticipation of the fulfillment of the unspoken agreement that we would be stopping into the shop to purchase a few of his handmade creations in exchange for the information we anxiously pursued. It is my adherence to this type of arrangement that helps to explain the many boxes of “local flies” that continue to fill every pocket, pouch, and sleeve in my fly vest. Indeed, you can never have too many flies. You just don’t have to carry ALL of them with you everywhere you go. Last year, I consolidated some of these into boxes that would only be inserted for a trip to that specific locale. The alternative being a vest more suited for combat training than fly fishing.
Eventually, every angler decides to target a specific hatch of insects. Sometimes it is on local waters; sometimes great distances are traveled in hopes of fishing the often finicky, always ephemeral, and like most things in nature unpredictable, and yet potentially epic insect hatches. I once shared a flight home to Idaho Falls with a couple from New Zealand who were targeting the Mother’s Day hatch on the Madison. We all found it amusing that we both wanted to circumnavigate the globe to fish each other’s home waters.
Some believe that these epic hatches are nothing short of urban legends; or perhaps rural legends as it were. My wife has yet to experience a true dry fly hatch of any kind. Last June, in an effort to remedy this situation, I scheduled a guided trip for us in Yellowstone National Park. The week preceding our trip it rained nonstop causing the rivers in the park to swell well beyond their banks. I still remember the look on our guide’s face as he implored us saying “please don’t make me take you into The Park today”. We gladly changed our plans to float the Madison and had a fantastic day throwing rubber legs. While my wife landed countless trout that day, an insect hatch remained in the same category as our elusive friend Sasquatch.
I find it interesting that while trout play a critical role in this pursuit, the primary focus is on a species of insect. This change in focus allows anglers to tolerate what, under other circumstances would be considered unbearable conditions. Combat fishing; which is normally avoided by all but the most oblivious, some might say imbecilic, of anglers, is suddenly kosher. It seems that when the fish are eating flies as if they were a bunch of skittles that have been strewn about the floor of a day care center, an occasional tangle with another angler is abided by all. The solitude so often sought in our sport becomes a party where proximity is only limited by the propensity to catch each other, wasting precious fishing time.
Ed and I had a blast splashing down sofa pillows that day on the Henry’s Fork. Despite having wings, salmon flies are clearly not designed for flight, especially in the windy conditions of Eastern Idaho. I have to admit that having giant bugs crash land into your head and proceed to crawl up your body in search of who knows what, is a bit unnerving. Eventually I discovered that the brim of my hat is their preferred vantage point.
Whether it be cicadas, green drakes, salmon flies, bikinis, stones, or sallies, chasing something that may or may not happen when and where you end up adds another dimension to an already fascinating obsession. I just heard that the green drakes are coming off on the Middle Provo and my happy feet are shuffling toward the truck…
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.
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.