On this, the last day of Outdoor Life’s epic fly fishing trip, photographer Troy Batzler and I have a summit meeting on the front porch of a picturesque cabin overlooking a tributary of the Yellowstone River.
Appropriately, this is called the Fishing Cabin and is available for rent at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch (mtnsky.com). At issue for Troy and me is how to finish our trip.
We have caught dozens of alpine trout in the crystalline lakes of the Beartooth Plateau. We have hooked spooky cutthroats and rainbows in the serpentine seams of Yellowstone National Park’s Slough Creek. And we have loaded up on big-river trout during yesterday’s float of the Yellowstone River.
But we haven’t yet landed a trophy fish, and that’s the goal of this day. Troy and I discuss our options. We could drive across the park to fish the Firehole or Gibbon rivers where they combine to form the legendary Madison River. Or we could focus on the lower Yellowstone River, below Livingston. Or we could shrug on packs and hike to a remote reach of the upper Yellowstone River inside the national park.
That’s the option we pick, based partly on a rumor we’ve both heard that huge cutthroats lurk in the river, accessible only by hiking off-trail and fording the tempestuous Lamar River. The notion of casting to fish that haven’t seen many flies all summer fuels an early start.
We pack a lunch, a selection of wet and dry flies–including some big stonefly nymphs and my ever-present inventory of grasshopper and beetle patterns–my 4-piece Loomis rod, and bear spray. I also pack my waders and wading boots. If we have to cross rapids I want to be as waterproof as possible.
As we leave dust-covered Ford Flex, the sulphuric smell of geysers and thermal pools prickles my nose. Yellowstone was formed by fire, and evidence of its violent creation remains everywhere, from smoke curling out of hillsides to the fresh, jagged lava flows that jut out of the sage-covered hillsides.
Down the trail, we look into the Yellowstone River canyon. The river is a tempest here, raging around house-sized boulders. To catch a fish in this water, I’ll have to work pocket water, the quiet pools and small patches of water behind boulders where trout can stay out of the current and dart out to grab morsels of food as it floats by.
I hike down to a likely looking gravel bar, struggle with maintaining a drag-free drift, and start to target pocket water. I hook a fish but lose it in the heavy current, then land a 17-inch Yellowstone cutthroat that grabbed my Chaos Hopper as it slipped around a boulder.
It’s a stunning fish, brown as caramel, with rose-colored cheeks and a blood-red slash under its jaw. These fish are natives here. They’ve survived landslides and volcanic eruptions, boiling water and earthquakes. I feel honored to hold one for a brief second before slipping it back into the water.
CROSSING THE LAMAR
I fish several more reaches of river, dredging trout out of most seams. They’re mostly cutthroats in the Yellowstone, rainbows in the lower Lamar, all spunky fish ranging from 13 to 18 inches.
We break for lunch, then steel ourselves to the task at hand. We must cross the Lamar River to reach the remote reach of the lower Yellowstone. In most places, the Lamar is deep and moody, swirling around boulders. We hike upstream and finally find a riffled section of river that looks to be only about hip high. I don my waders, find a 4-foot Douglas fir branch to serve as a wading staff, and enter the water.
It’s not bad, and I invite Troy to follow. I have only my backpack to keep dry; Troy has to keep all his camera gear high over his head. But we make it across without slipping, and start our long march across the trackless sage flats.
Finally, we rejoin the Yellowstone. There are no human footprints here. We find an old lichen-covered elk shed, wolf scat and a mangled bison carcass. This is wild country, and as we drop into the river, we hope to find big, wild cutts.
I re-rig, tying on a smaller black grasshopper with short rubber legs that a fish might mistake for a big beetle. And I add a big red-wire Copper John nymph off about two feet of leader. I’ll be fishing the surface but also appealing to trout lurking in deeper water.
I know this is an appealing option when on a long drift a trout strikes my hopper pattern. I set the hook, and immediately my 4-weight bends more deeply than it should. It turns out I have hooked two fish on one drift, a solid cutthroat on the surface pattern and a lively rainbow on the Copper John. It’s a circus trying to net both fish, but finally I bag them, admire the brace of trout and release them.
FINALLY, A GIANT
I wade downstream, cast into a deep seam behind a boulder and watch my dry fly disappear. I have hooked a fish on the nymph, and once I gather line and put the fish on my reel I feel its weight. This is a big trout, shaking its head and trying to pull into the main Yellowstone River current. I try just as hard to keep the fish in quiet water, and after four drag-ripping runs, manage to angle the trout toward Troy, who waits in the shallows with my net.
I’m guessing an 18-incher, but Troy’s smile tells me this is the trout we’re hunting. It’s a huge cutthroat, somewhere in the 21- to 22-inch class. We quickly set up photos and admire the big, brawny trout. I let it swim out of my hands, back into this wild river, this untamed symbol of the West, where it waits to be hooked by another enterprising angler willing to hike, to gamble that big fish remain in the most remote water of America’s first national park.
We just have time to catch our breath, slap each other’s hands and collect our gear. We have a dinner date tonight at Chico Hot Springs (chicohotsprings.com), and it’s at least an hour down the road. We still have to hike out of this canyon and across the sagebrush, then recross the Lamar.
We are hot and sweaty by the time we return to the Flex. We strip out of fishing gear and pull on civilian clothes. We will be late, and I hope we don’t encounter roadside deer or bison.
HOME AT CHICO
There may be no happier end to a week of fishing than Chico’s bar and restaurant, and no more gracious host than Colin Davis, general manager of the legendary Montana landmark. He’s waiting for us in the back bar, a drink for both Troy and me, and wants to hear about our day. We finish our story over wine and succulent bison steaks in the bustling restaurant.
A nightcap in Chico’s bar–feed caps and seed caps and fishing hats adorning its ceiling–with friends who have driven over from Bozeman and up from Livingston ends our adventure. Troy and I talk about taking a quick dip in Chico’s immense thermal pool, but I’m beat, and bed is a better option.
It’s been a memorable week, full of grand country and legendary water. I have handled scores of lively trout, all of them caught on public rivers and streams, and most of them on dry flies. I’ve met great people and reconnected with my love of fly fishing.
I’m the Hunting Editor of Outdoor Life, but as I drift to sleep I make a drowsy note to ask my boss in the morning to think of me for any future fishing assignments.