Fishing Yellowstone - Three Generations, Six Rivers, Four Days.
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
It was supposed to be a hunting trip.
My oldest son, Kyle, moved to Bozeman in 2018 to attend college and since that time my dad and I had been planning a backcountry Montana Muley hunt for the three of us. While I had already found reasons to visit, this was going to be dad's first time. We'd drive to Bozeman, grab the boy and hit the boundless backcountry - hunting, camping out, stories around a campfire, heavy packs coming out. Glorious. I couldn't wait.
And then around mid summer I received a letter in the mail from Montana Fish and Wildlife. A check actually. A refund for my permit and an explanation that I had not been drawn for a hunt. Better luck next time.
That put a small wrinkle in things. It was time to develop Plan B.
In truth, Plan B was pretty easy. I had been able to fish Montana several times, but I had never fished in Yellowstone. It was a bucket list trip and this was just the opportunity. The stinging disappointment of a missed hunt was quickly replaced with the gratifying anticipation of a fly fishing adventure in America's oldest national park. We would target the end of September hoping to cash in on the terrestrial season and possibly intercept some large pre-spawn Browns and native Cutthroat.
The research phase began in earnest. Friends were contacted, books were read, maps were consulted, favors were called in, plane tickets were purchased and cabins were booked.
The itinerary that emerged was pretty straightforward. We'd fly into Bozeman, hit the Gallatin that afternoon, bunk at my son's house and get up early the next morning to make our way to Cooke City - Silver Gate, located just outside the Northeast entrance. Then we'd fish the park for three solid days and part of a fourth as we worked our way back, stay at his place again and catch planes out in the morning. Simple.
The first part of the trip went exactly as planned. Kyle met us at the airport, we loaded our gear, purchased our licenses and headed straight for the river. And we were quickly rewarded. The weather was beautiful and the Gallatin was feeling generous that afternoon. We landed a number of good-sized Browns and topped the night off with pizza downtown. The trip was off to a perfect start.
But, as often happens with these types of trips, things changed.
Kyle ended up having a test he couldn't miss the next afternoon, which left an entire day open. Beyond that, the news was reporting weather rolling in that threatened to shut down the terrestrial fishing and, even worse, the roads into and out of the park.
Dad and I decided we would head down and try our hand at the Madison near West Yellowstone while Kyle was in class and then we'd head back up, grab him and make our way to our cabin for the night - weather permitting. We were hopeful of intercepting one of the large migrating Browns this section was known for. With the dire forecast, we weren't sure what to expect, but the weather gods smiled on us, even if the fishing gods didn't. We caught a few mid-sized Browns but mostly just enjoyed a beautiful day in beautiful country.
As we were heading back to Bozeman the weather started to take a turn for the worse. We picked up Kyle and began the journey to Silver Gate. I'll admit now that I seriously underestimated this drive. The short trip to Livingston was uneventful although largely in the dark. As we traveled south through Paradise Valley we started to get pretty socked in and had to slow down. From there we entered Yellowstone through the North entrance and had a slow, white-knuckle drive through the park, navigating slippery roads and dodging wildlife in the dark. When we finally made it to our cabin it was well after midnight and we were spent.
We woke up to a light dusting of snow and breaking cloud cover the next morning. After grabbing a quick breakfast and our licenses for the park we were off to the river. Today we would be fishing the Soda Butte and the Lamar. Kyle had a spot he wanted to hit first; a productive pool he had found earlier that season that required a short hike in.
We scouted the spot. The river was a little up and slightly stained but the pool looked fishy as hell. The best way to fish it, I was told, was from the large boulder just upstream.
I must have looked anxious (or maybe stupid) because dad and Kyle elected to give me first pass at the hole. I gingerly made my way through the slippery rocks and quietly up on to the boulder perch. I could see the current lines and knew exactly how I wanted to play my streamer through the pool. With great anticipation I started stripping out line. I carefully made my cast, realized some of the line was under my boot, tried to readjust and quickly found myself ass over applecart off the back of the boulder. Somehow I landed straddling a smaller boulder behind me, neither foot touching bottom, sunglasses gone and line tangled in a giant bird's nest of a mess. I was as mad as a wet hornet. Once my loving companions realized I wasn't dead, the laughter and taunting quickly ensued. Clearly my turn in the hole was over. Kyle took the next run (wisely electing to work from shore instead of the stupid boulder) and added insult to injury by hooking into a nice fish within seconds of his streamer hitting the water.
At that point it is possible that I blacked out from rage.
I wanted to punch him - in the face. Instead I took his picture while he flashed a shit-eating grin and I continued to untangle the mess I had made. Somehow I was given a second chance. I'd like to think it was fear induced but it was likely just simple pity or perhaps they just wanted to see more river acrobatics. Either way, I was glad for the opportunity and elected to use the "shore method" this go round. On the third cast my streamer disappeared in a violent slash and I had redeemed myself - at least for the moment.
After a few incredible hours on the Soda Butte we decided to try our luck on the Lamar. We loaded back into the truck and made our way through the Lamar Valley, dodging Bison along the way as the weather cycled from rain to sun to hail and back to rain.
The Lamar is a beautiful river that looks and fishes very different than the Soda Butte. It took us a while, but once we figured it out, we were able to get into a number of Cutthroat in the 8-13" range. We fished for a while in and out of weather.
Deeply satisfied and more than a little hungry we made our way back into town for dinner. Meatloaf was on the menu. With full stomachs we hit the beds, sleep coming easily.
The next day presented a bit of a navigational challenge. The plan was to hit the famed Firehole and the Gibbons, but that meant traveling from the far Northeast corner of the park to the deep Southwest corner. In normal conditions this would be a relatively easy, albeit somewhat slow, drive but we had go up and over Dunraven Pass. So far we had gotten pretty lucky with the weather, but the pass would be the test.
We made it up and over the pass and the weather on the other side was a little more forgiving. We were off to the Firehole, the river that one friend of mine described as an almost religious experience. He wasn't wrong.
Imagine fishing a pristine, gin-clear river on a strange and somewhat barren landscape while steam rises into the air around you and Buffalo graze alongside. It's truly impossible to properly describe in words or in pictures - the closest I can come is otherworldly.
The bed of the Firehole is very different than other Western rivers I had experienced. Instead of sand or gravel or slippery boulders, the bottom is mostly volcanic rock. And, because the river flows through several significant geyser basins and is surrounded by geothermal features which empty water into it, the water runs significantly warmer than some of its sisters. It all combines to create an extremely unique fishery.
We started fishing streamers with good success, but soon saw the water dimpled with rising trout and small bugs in the air. It was time to switch to dry flies. Kyle, who by my own admission has a much better dry fly presentation than I do, was landing fish after fish. Meanwhile dad and I got blanked despite offering up the same menu items. I was not impressed.
The weather was starting to get pretty ugly. The wind had picked up and a cold rain was starting to fall.
We still wanted to fish the Gibbon, so we found a pull off, hiked in and made what could be called a half-hearted attempt at best. Hands numb from the cold we landed a couple small Cutties and Cutbows and crossed it off our list.
It was getting late and we had a long drive back to our cabin, electing to forgo the trip over the pass again
by taking a longer route that would bring us north to Mammoth Hot Springs, before heading east to our cabin. It was a long day and again, after full stomachs, sleep came easily.
The next morning we didn't get as lucky with the weather. A heavy wet snow was falling and we had a long drive back to Bozeman.
The plan was to fish our way through the park on our way back but we weren't sure how long the drive would take with the weather conditions. We decided to stop in town for a quick breakfast and then get on the road as early as possible.
The route through the park was beautiful but slow and more than a little sketchy. Narrow snow-covered roads mixed with poor visibility, wandering wildlife and steep ascents and descents made for adventurous travel even with four wheel drive. After seeing a few cars ditched off the road, we elected to skip fishing on the way back and take our time getting through the weather, occasionally stopping to photograph the wildlife.
We made it back to Bozeman by early afternoon, the weather gradually improving along the way. But we weren't quite ready to be done fishing. We decided to hit the Gallatin one last time before we called it a trip. Kyle mentioned a sneaky spot that typically held good fish and, despite the cold, we found a few willing to play.
We ended the evening back at Kyle's house playing cards and sharing stories. I was sad that our time together was coming to an end, but I was grateful for every moment.
On the plane ride home it struck me that a lot of things on this trip didn’t go exactly how I had planned but how, in the end, it was all part of the adventure.
I left Yellowstone with memories of chasing new wilderness and new water, encounters with incredible wildlife and fickle mountain weather, stories of lost fish, lost sunglasses and lost rods and bruises in a few tender spots.
Mostly I left knowing I had spent irreplaceable time with my dad and oldest son in a place that together made us feel connected and alive.