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Montana Thunderstorm

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 6 of 6

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.

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 5 of 6

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.

“BEAR!”

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.

Taking a Break

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 4 of 6

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.

Lake Trout Processing

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 2 of 6

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.