Talk about hectic start to a relaxing holiday in Yellowstone National Park: Catch a plane to Bozeman, rent a room, and in the morning, a motorhome. Drive the motorhome real fast and buy some gas on the outskirts of the park. Check into a campground inside Yellowstone, have some dinner and head down a hill to a grassy meadow split in two by the beautiful Madison River.
Soak in the setting. All those Rocky Mountains interspersed with lodgepole pines. The thin, mountain air smells like sage and sulfur from the park’s ubiquitous hot springs. I feel the river current tugging at my waders and listen to the swish of fly-line as it’s deployed from the reel. Scores of caddis dart an inch off the water’s surface and I notice the splashy, reckless rises of smaller trout in flat water.
I tie on a caddis of my own and cast real hard. The wind plays tricks on my presentation and the river’s considerable size and pace swallows my fly. It skates across the surface, sending the smaller trout scurrying for the hills as if they were chased by Nez Pierce warriors.
And then it hit me: trout don’t care about the lengths to which I had traveled. They aren’t impressed with the mountains nearby or the fact they live in trout fishing mecca. All they wanted was to get a bite to eat while the eating was good.
I took a step back, and reassessed the situation. Time to regroup and collect myself in a dreamy, trout fisherman’s setting. Relax. Have fun. Outwit the witting.
Thirty yards downriver, I spotted another trout rise which looked considerably larger than the dinks I had just scared.
Steadily, I moved downstream, and calculated the situation. “My” target was feeding in the seam between fast and slow water. If my cast was too long, the fly would light in fast water, then get pulled into the slower by the floating fly line. If my cast was too short, it’d languish in the slower water and out of the fish’s wheelhouse. Grace and precision are two prized qualities when slinging trout flies. Patience and cautiousness don’t hurt, either.
I had no place to be, no schedule to keep. That hectic travel schedule was behind me now. It was just me and the fish, still plucking dinner from an overhead buffet line.
A group of vehicles had stopped on the blacktop nearby, its inhabitants watching a cow elk suckle her calf that had scurried out of cover on the opposite side of the river. ‘Twas pretty as a picture – with sun cloaking the mountaintops in tangerine orange, while in the valley: the elk, and me – bumbling over the rocks and stones towards a fish of uncertain length.
Gradually, I moved into easy casting distance, played the wind, and presented the fly better than if I had waded into the river and placed it there myself. My little caddis bobbed merrily in the current, over the fish’s last eruption.
My second offer was rejected just the same.
The third and fourth entrée were ignored too.
Patience, I reminded myself. There’s no greater challenge than catching a nice trout on a dry fly.
I don’t know if the trout beneath the water’s surface struck my fly out of sympathy or if it was tired of seeing it float overhead. Whatever the case, my caddis disappeared in an impressive gulp.
Quickly, I set the hook. The fish jumped, then peeled line off the reel. Back and forth we danced until my little 4-weight rod won the battle. It was a trout all right, a rainbow about sixteen inches long.
I pulled the hook from its chops and turned it loose. A flick of the tail later, and my trout drifted off into the rocks, the stones, and the gurgling river that seemed to stretch for miles and miles.
The Madison is one of many rivers in Yellowstone Park that draw the attention of fishermen from all over the country. One evening – while on the front porch of Roosevelt Lodge in the northeast part of the park– I chatted with an angler from Washington State who came to Yellowstone to fish with his buddy who lives in Tennessee. They fished the Lamar River where they caught “over 30 cutthroat trout, all on dry flies. The biggest cut was almost 20 inches.”
Inside the park there are so many rivers that it seems there aren’t enough hours in a week to sample each one. Almost all the rivers were swift, rocky and wide open. I saw multiple cars parked at access sites, but it appeared as if everyone fished within a hundred yards of their vehicle. The Lamar is 40 miles long and is enclosed completely within the park borders.
On my last morning in Yellowstone, I parked my vehicle a half mile from the nearest access to the Lamar River. Using a compass, I grabbed my bear repellent spray and headed into a rolling, sage-covered meadow to where I knew the river flowed. Once I arrived, I caught more than a few nice cutthroats in a leisurely downstream pluck-and-cast approach amongst the rocks and boulders. It was fun.
I would have fished longer, but as I rounded a curve in the river, I spotted a cow bison maybe fifty yards away. Looked like she had found a gentle easement into the river, and I assume, she was getting a drink.
Knowing that bison travel in herds, I decided to sneak up the bank to have a look around. That crafty technique is one that I’ve employed successfully during turkey season.
Good thing I did. Standing thirty yards away was a 2,000-pound bull bison like the ones seen on nickels minted decades ago. I don’t know if it saw me, but it was big and bad and most importantly, blocking my path to the motorhome.
Doubling back to the river, I realized that trout fishing in Yellowstone offers a lot more to offer than just trout fishing.