Fish America: Wild West

The conclusion of this week brought me to the six-month point in my journey. Moving constantly doesn't really leave too much time to reflect, but a half-year on the road makes you think whether you mean to or not. Idaho was colder than usual in November, with lows dropping down to 17 below in Ketchum. I'm from Upstate New York, so the cold didn't surprise me, but that kind of cold is something you never get used to. More than anything, it's a matter of speed. The speed at which the cold eats through your jeep, through your skin as you're pumping gas, through every layer of clothing. The high in Idaho one day I was there was a single degree.
As you leave Idaho for Wyoming, you'll pass through the Craters of the Moon National Monument. The landscape is surreal covered in snow, and you do feel as if you've left the planet.
I'd suggest a drive through the landscape if you ever get the chance.
Leaving Idaho, I was making my way east, for Wyoming.
My eventual destination was Montana, but I made sure my trip went through Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Jackson Hole's National refuge protects a herd of 7,500 elk that migrate through. There's no better time than the winter to witness this spectacle. A bull elk makes his way across the refuge.
Elk aren't the only sight to see on the refuge though. Herds of bighorn sheep, like this one, graze close to the park roadways.
I also timed it right for elk season, and Jackson was filled with camouflage.
At the base of the Teton mountain range, Jackson has been one of my favorite stops on the trip. If you at all consider yourself an outdoor enthusiast, make it a point to get to Jackson, Wyoming sooner rather than later.
A juvenile bighorn sheep quickly crosses the road while a dog curiously observes from the rear passenger side window of a waiting vehicle.
Clint Haltquist of Pinedale, Wyoming had waited three years before drawing a bison tag, and had shot this animal the day before I met him, and was having it hauled out.
The size of these animals only gets more impressive the closer you get.
On my way out of town I met Clint Haensel of South Dakota, who, along with a friend, had waited ten years to draw a bull elk tag for Jackson, and they were going home happy with two bulls to show for their journey.
Chris Colligan, a Wyoming Wildlife Advocate who worked for the Greater Yellowstone foundation, was still trying to fill his cow tag when I ran across him.
The National Museum of Wildlife Art sits on a hillside overlooking the preserve and the animals that inspired much of the art inside it.
The whole museum is fascinating but a photography exhibit by Michael Forsberg is truly some stunning stuff. Forsberg used the assistance of helicopter pilots, automatic motion-sensing cameras, and years of field study to assemble one of the most impressive collections of wildlife photography I've ever seen.
Every photo is stunning in it's own right ...
... but examples like this, shot on a 35 mm slide, stop you in your tracks.
The museum also has a room facing the preserve with a spotting scope, allowing you to get a closer look at the herds of elk.
In the town of Jackson, stop by Jack Dennis's shop if you've only got one stop to make. It's a fly shop (and one of the cooler ones I've been in), an outdoor store, and upstairs there's a gallery.
The paintings upstairs offer a different twist on traditional trout.
Then stop by the Wort Hotel. The Wort is worth a visit. The Wort's hallways are lined with photos, and stories of days when the hotel's basement served as an illegal casino, where barroom brawls were an every-night occurrence. This almost-unbelievably monstrous lake trout was caught by Jess Wort, a guide on Jenny and Jackson Lake, on Flathead Lake in Montana, on a handmade lure. Jess inherited the guiding business from his father, but sold it to finance the purchase of the hotel, which allowed him to fish around the world.
From Wyoming I'd head north through some icy mountain passes into Montana, and to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, in Mammoth. Many of the park's entrances are closed for the winter, but the Mammoth entrance remains open year-round.
This coyote wandered up to my Jeep uninhibited almost immediately when I entered the park.
Route 89, which leads from Mammoth to Silver Creek Montana, was the only park road open.
Wolves, elk, bear, bison, coyotes and foxes are just a handful of the creatures you've got a chance at getting a look at in the nation's oldest national park. Yellowstone offers the largest concentration of free-roaming wildlife anywhere in the lower 48.
A herd of bison grazes through the snow. Bison use their heads as plows to move the snow and get to the grass. When all other animals will stand and move with the wind, bison will face into it.
In the winter months, at the end of Yellowstone's one open road, is the town of Cooke City. There is only one road out of Cooke City, and it goes back through the park. It's a town inhabited by mostly snowmobilers. Almost all the shops are closed in late November, and there's no cell phone service. I'd spend the night there before heading back through the park at dawn.
The bison are omnipresent along the park road in the winter, and are oblivious to your presence, allowing you to really get an appreciation for their size up close.
These massive animals are like grazing traffic along the roads in Yellowstone, and on stretches like this bend, you don't have to worry about speeding.
A juvenile bison tries to keep pace.
A mule deer looks up in surprise.
All of my driving would bring me to my angling destination of Ennis, Montana, about an hour and a half southwest of Bozeman. There's not much in Ennis, aside from the legendary Madison River, pictured here. Keep in mind this is below the dam, where the river is frozen solid.
I had been looking forward to Montana for the entire, trip. I had meant to arrive in the early fall, but found myself here on the first of December, but I wasn't going to leave the state without a trout. Pictured here is the Madison river above the Ennis dam, where it was only partially frozen on the 20-degree day with gusting winds that I chose to fish it.
I'd need help though, and I got more than I could have asked for from Greg Thomas. Thomas is a fishing bum cut from the same cloth as I am. He's lived in Missoula, Montana, Sun Valley, Idaho, Jackson, Wyoming Seattle, Alaska and Hollywood. But he's been catching big trout in and around the Ennis area for the past eight years.
If you've got any interest in angling, check out his blog at www.anglerstonic.com, you'll find some remarkable fishing photos and good writing to go along with them.
With wind chills in the single digits, there isn't enough insulation and there aren't enough layers to keep you warm when you're wading through ice breaking off from the shoreline, but we forgot a key ingredient for warmth.
We made do with something called Dancing Trout Ale, for warmth and good luck both.
Greg ties some crucial knots before he loses feeling in his fingers.
A brutal cold snap had sheets of ice piled up along the Madison's shoreline, and we edged out, floating nymphs under indicators through pockets and holes.
Greg wades out to an iced-over bolder to drift a nymph through a promising pocket.
Even this smile doesn't express how excited I was to hook up my first Montana trout, on the freezing first of December.
I wasn't in danger of falling through the ice with the added weight of this fish, but a trout in December is a trout, and this rainbow was all I needed to justify the frigid temperatures.
Greg would land a few bows of his own afterwards.
These fish feed actively despite the icy water temperatures.
Greg slides out to the edge of an ice sheet to land and release a rainbow.
This brown trout gave us a multi-species day. Greg was trying out G. Loomis's new NRX fly rods, and I took a couple casts. The rods are amazingly lightweight. And sensitive enough to make up for all the feeling you're losing in your hands on days like this.
I am making it a point to come back to Montana in the fall, but sliding across ice sheets on the Madison and pulling browns and bows out from underneath them was one of the most fun days I've had on the water in the last six months.
Greg releases the brown trout through a hole in the ice. If you find yourself in Montana in December, don't think there aren't fish to be caught.
You can't warm up fast enough after a day like that on the water, but there's one way to try.
Cheap beer and a shot of well rum.
Montana is a trout state, there's just no escaping it, although I don't know why you'd want to.
I was told Restvent Meats in Ennis has the world's best beef jerky, so I stopped.
The family-run business offers a variety of styles and they say in the summer they can't keep the stuff in stock. I haven't tried every jerky in the world, but I can't say I've had better either.
After getting off the water, we went in search of some rutting bucks, and they weren't terribly hard to find. Montana has some massive whitetails.
The sheer amount of wildlife in Montana is unrivaled in any other place I've visited on the trip.
One buck pushes another out of his way.
Fields of geese took flight as we drove by.
I'll be coming back to Wyoming and Montana, and I'd suggest you do the same if you've never been. When you go, check out… www.nps.gov/yell (Yellowstone) www.nps.gov/cmo (craters of the moon) www.nationalelkreguge.fws.gove (Jackson Elk Refuge) www.wildlifeart.org (National Museum of Wildlife Art) www.anglerstonic.com (Greg Thomas's Blog)

Check out elk in Jackson, Wyoming, bison in Yellowstone, and my quest for a December Montana trout on the Madison River.