On this last day of our epic trout adventure, photographer Troy Batzler and I decide to hike deep into Yellowstone National Park to a remote reach of the Yellowstone River to target big cutthroats. We've tangled with smaller fish all week. Now it's time to go trophy hunting.
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The morning begins on the porch of Mountain Sky guest ranch’s fishing cabin, a perfect little getaway on the banks of cheerful Big Creek just above Paradise Valley between Livingston and Gardiner, Montana.
Today we will hike to a stretch of the Yellowstone River that is accessible only by fording the Lamar River. We hope it’s a date with outsize cutthroats.
The Yellowstone River deep in the park is a fast-moving treacherous stream. The velocity is so quick that the best fishing is behind big boulders, in slower, quieter water where trout wait to grab insects swept past them by the current.
Keeping my fly in pocket water while my line is being swept downstream in faster current requires constant mending, high-sticking and short dab casts into very tight targets right behind boulders.
I opt to put on waders to give myself a little more reach. I can see fish in the clear water, but placing my fly right above them requires pin-point casts.
Finally we reach the lower end of the Lamar River. It’s a rock garden of boulders and napkin-sized pocket water.
The Lamar holds a few smaller cutthroats, but mainly I catch rainbows in the faster seams and tail-outs.
Lunch time. Nothing like a fat bagel to fuel this athletic fishing. I wear bear spray on my fly pack’s belt. I don’t want grizzlies to smell my lunch and decide to claim it for themselves.
The sun comes out and I grab a few minutes of shut-eye. After lunch we wade the Lamar and hike several miles to reach the most remote reach of Yellowstone in the park.
We pick a spot on the Lamar with shallow, slower-moving water to ford. We have to tote all our gear, fishing equipment, cameras and backpacks.
After hiking across sage flats and basalt fields, we reach the Yellowstone several miles below the mouth of the Lamar. No riverside trail here. I’m guessing the cutthroats in this reach of river haven’t seen many flies. This could be the spot for a whopper.
I tie on two feet of fluorocarbon leader to the bend in my Chernobyl Ant dry fly. On the other end of the leader I tie on a red-wire Copper John nymph, which will sink and should appeal to trout that aren’t feeding on the surface. On my first drift I catch a 17-inch cutthroat on the nymph.
We are into fish. I catch a few smaller trout before I set the hook on a trout that engulfs my dry fly. My 4-weight Loomis rod bends, even more than it should. No wonder. I catch two fish on the same drift. A 14-inch cutt takes my dry fly and a 12-inch rainbow ate my nymph. It’s a circus trying to net both the fish, but I get them both in the bag. Troy snaps a photos and I release the brace of trout.
I’m feeling good about our location, and drift a deeper seam. My line stops, I set the hook and am immediately battling a hard-pulling fish. It seems big and heavy, especially in the fast current. Finally I bring it to slower water where Troy nets it. It’s the trophy trout we’re hunting, a big wild cutthroat in the 20-inch class.
After photos we revive the cutt, which slips out of my hands and back into the deep seam of the Yellowstone River where it will probably feed all winter without encountering another angler.
Our objective is fulfilled. We have found the river’s biggest fish. The light is fading and we have to meet friends 75 miles downriver, at Chico Hot Springs. Time to hike back to the Ford Flex and get the wheels rolling.
Chico Hot Springs is the perfect punctuation for this epic fishing trip. Located in the heart of Montana’s Paradise Valley, Chico sports a thermal soaking pool, wonderful rooms and the best restaurant in Montana.
I’m greeted by Colin Davis, Chico’s general manager, who reminds me that Outdoor Life is no stranger to Chico. We held a staff retreat here a few years ago. Davis hosts us for dinner, and I tuck into a bottle of wine and a succulent bison steak. Things are good, indeed.
It’s been a marvelous trip. We’ve fished the best publicly accessible fly waters of the nation. We’ve been awed by stunning views. We’ve met warm, welcoming people–and tipped glasses and bottles with some of them–and we’ve admired gem-bright trout.
Last day of Outdoor Life epic trip down the Yellowstone.