Recently four of us traveled to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to fly fishing. Our group consisted of Craig Smith and attorney Michael (Mike) Shepard from Dalton, Paul Knauth from Hinsdale and myself. We were going to spend 10 days fishing famous rivers in these areas, including Yellowstone National Park (YNP). Rivers such as the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Gibbon, Madison, Teton, Henry’s Fork rivers as well as smaller waters such as Slough Creek, Soda Butte Creek in Pebble Creek, Sentinel Creek and others. Our prey were West Slope Cutthroat Trout, Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, Brown Trout and Cut Trout. (A rainbow is a hybrid fish between rainbow trout and cutthroat trout. They occur naturally in the wild in areas where the rainbow trout’s native range sky and cutthroat trout overlap). We became familiar with YNP fishing regulations, such as: catch and release only, no felt bottom waders, use of barbless hooks only, use of non-toxic weights, etc.
Craig and Mike usually teamed up to fish together, doing three floating trips (Yellowstone River, Teton River in Idaho, and Henry’s Fork River from Snake River) and a day of private water fishing from Nelson’s Creek to Nelson’s Farm in the Montana, and they were very successful. The rest of the time, they waded in the rivers. Paul and I usually fished together and chose not to float but only to wade in rivers.
In short, we have all caught and released a lot of nice trout. But a fisherman stood head and shoulders above the rest of us and that was Craig. He consistently caught the biggest and the biggest fish just about every day. One day he caught six trout over 20 inches, and showed us pictures as proof. Every night we would look on his cell phone for pictures of the big fish he had caught that day. He did not hide the flies he was using and how to catch them. He often loaned us some of his flies and gear, but although we used his tactics and caught some fish, we couldn’t emulate his success. He has been fishing these rivers since he was a child and knows roughly where and how to fish for big trout. As a child, he accompanied his father, who frequently took three-week vacations there. When fishermen have a good day, people say they are lucky. With Craig, it’s not luck, it’s talent.
We all had a great day and caught a lot of fish. There was a short stretch to Soda Butte Creek where Mike and I caught 11 cutthroat trout in one day.
With the elevation typically over 6,000 feet and afternoon temperatures frequently in the 1980s, it didn’t take much to get out of steam. We usually had to walk 3-4 miles round trip wearing fishing boots and backpacks to reach the right fishing spots so we always had two bottles of water to keep hydrated. A few days Paul and I hiked 6 miles back and forth (uphill) to a great fishing spot on Slough Creek where trout swam and soared all around us in the crystal clear water. I never caught one but Paul did catch a few. Even if the fish saw us, they did not stop their feeding activity. They just weren’t interested in what we had to offer. Sometimes these large fish would only take tiny flies of 22-24 flies. In the 10 days of fishing, wearing fishing boots and backpacks, I hiked about 25 miles and Paul 30, based on his pedometer.
There were no wildfires near us, but we could see the smoke as we looked at the distant hills. The color of the sun at sunset was generally orange-red. Whether it’s the altitude or the effects of smoke, we all suffer from nasal / sinus problems and nosebleeds every day.
There were signs everywhere warning us of bears and always carry bear spray. One day, as Paul and I were walking a mountain trail to reach a meadow on the other side of a ridge, we ran into a couple (from Florida) who had stopped and were looking at something ahead of us. It was a brown black bear gorging on Virginia cherries right at the edge of our trail. We had to wait 20 minutes and yet there was no rush to move on. Paul and I wanted to get to our fishing spot so we had to walk with the couple about 10ft to get out. We patted our trekking poles / trekking poles and spoke quietly as Paul had his can of pepper spray pointed at him as we walked cautiously. He didn’t have to use it because the bear seemed more curious than aggressive. I’m not sure we would have been so lucky if it was a grizzly bear.
On this trip, we learned new fishing techniques from Craig. One used a high density downline to bring our dragonfly nymphs to the bottom of the river and then shake them so that they lift the mud. Cutthroats have gone mad because of them. Another tip we learned from him was how to fish tiny coves with flies mimicking grasshoppers. Basically, the method was to stay away from the streams (they were actually out of sight), throw your fly in an area where you thought the stream was, and listen. If you hear a splash, you lift the rod and hook the fish. If you can see the stream, says Craig, then the fish can see you. It worked wonderfully, until the afternoon winds threw our fly lines all over the place.
Another new technique for me was “wet wading”. No waders but only wading shoes, legs exposed to water. We all enjoyed fishing this way except one morning when Mike and I fished in the Gallatin River where the water temperature was 40 degrees. Obviously, we didn’t stay too long in this river.
I will never forget a place on Slough Creek where a herd of bison decided to drink and cross it where Paul and I were fishing, practically surrounding us. Paul paved the way for large boulders in the middle of the stream for protection, thinking they couldn’t step on us. He must have learned this tactic in old cowboy movies. Without going into the details of this meeting, let’s just say we came home with handfuls of buffalo hair. Another time, I put my net on the ground while I walked a short distance to get water in my backpack. Before returning home a large buffalo has decided to lie down next door. After a while, he finally got up and walked away, and I got my net back.
We once fished Henry’s Fork in Idaho. The place we fished was shallow, wide, and filled with long grass swaying in the current. The fish were just out of reach and the weeds kept us from wading too far away from them. They acted like ropes around our legs and we just couldn’t get past them. They didn’t bother Craig because he managed to catch a nice brown trout.
Interestingly, in the morning we were able to fish the Madison River in the YNP which empties into the Missouri River, Mississippi, Gulf of Mexico, and finally the Atlantic Ocean; while that same afternoon we were able to fish for the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River (an hour’s drive away) which empties into the Columbia River and eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean. It depends on which side of the Continental Divide (Rockies) you are on.
Far too soon our fishing trip was over and it was time for Paul and Mike to return home. Craig was able to stay four more days and continued to send us pictures of the big fish he continued to catch. It had been a wonderful fishing trip.
A few minutes after Paul and Mike’s plane took off from the Bozeman, MT airport, my wife Jan arrived and we spent the next four days touring YNP and the Teton Mountains in Wyoming. I’ll tell you about our sightseeing trip next week.