After a good night’s sleep, waking up at 5am was no big deal. The sound of the toaster springing up Mark’s pop-tart breakfast meant it was time to go, and there wasn’t a moment to lose. We were traveling through Yellowstone Park to reach the Yellowstone River just downstream from Gardener, MT, and in order to get there fast we had to beat the crowds. One lonely elk is enough to create a traffic jam that could take thirty minutes to get through, and we didn’t have that time to waste. Heading towards the north entrance we came across a large steam vent.
“Look at that.” Mark said, noticing the thick cloud just ahead.
“Oh, I think that is called Dragon Mountain, or something.” I said, as the cold morning emphasized the amount of steam protruding from the earth. The thick air surrounded the truck, and with that came the dense smell of rotten egg that made us cringe.
“Oh, geez. It should be called Dragon’s Ass.” Mark said, covering his nose.
“Roaring Mountain.” Mark said, reading the name of the steam vent.
“Well, dragons do roar…” I said, trying to make a connection at my failed attempt to remember.
We were nearly out of the park when we passed a bison, about the size of Mark’s truck, laying by the side of the road. The docile animal looked sleepy and like it needed a friend. The look on its face almost seemed harmless and made you want to get out of your vehicle to scratch it behind the ear… but that would be stupid.
“Well, the drift boat hatch is happening; that’s got to mean something.” Mark said. Lucky for us, we had arrived about 20 minutes ahead of the bulk and we were ready to launch the boat for a nice head start.
I was at the front of the boat first, and Mark jumped behind the sticks to man the boat.
“Wow, this is a beautiful river.” Mark said, finally able to take a look after our mad dash to gear up.
“Yes it is, look at the mountains!”
It was true, the river was rooted within a wide canyon surrounded by mountains, but right now my focus was on the river’s edge where my flies had been perfectly placed.
“Damn!” I yelled.
“Did you just have a take?” Mark asked.
“Yep, but I lost it.” I replied, quickly slapping my flies back under the overhanging brush. SLAP! Another fish came and took, but I missed that one too. Boom, another hit and another miss.
“What the hell is going on?” I yelled, after hooking onto another fish, then immediately losing it.
“You saw that I had it hooked?” I asked Mark, who was laughing at my misfortune.
“This is such rare form for you, Erik.”
“I don’t know what’s going on. I tried saying ‘God bless America’ and ‘God save the queen’ before setting the hook, I set it quickly, then slowly, and I even held the line tight to give it a strip set.” I rambled, trying to find something, other than myself, to blame for missing so many fish. In the mean time my flies were right where they should be when, SMACK!
“Yeah baby!” Mark yelled when he saw that I had made a solid connection with my fish. The fish wasn’t big, but did its best to get away.
“Oh, you aren’t going anywhere!” I yelled to the fish, “you are not going to escape me! Not this time!” I yelled again, keeping the line extra tight.
“What is it?” Mark asked, as I gave the fly rod one final lurch to bring my fish to the net.
“It’s a white fish!” I yelled, laughing in disbelief. “My first fish on the Yellowstone River is a damn white fish!”
I dumped my fish back into the river, and shot my flies back under the bushes. There was a nice shadow line created by the taller shrubs that looked like a home for a decent fish, and that’s right were my flies were. Bam! I set the hook fast and felt the full weight of the fish, right before it leapt completely out of the water.
“There it is, Mark!” I yelled with glee.
“It’s jumping again!” Mark yelled, as he handed me the net.
“It’s about time I get a nice fish.” I said to Mark, after I netted the fish and handed him my camera for a picture.
“Ready?” I asked before lifting my fish out of the water.
“Go for it.”
I brought the fish up, and it kicked hard and right out of my hands.
“Noooo! Maaaaark!?” I yelled in disbelief, as the fish slapped the water and darted out of sight.
“You’re up, Mark!” I said, after regaining my composure. We quickly switch spots and before I could lift the anchor, Mark was casting.
“I’m glad it’s not just me.” I said to Mark, who was also having trouble sticking a fish. Hit after hit with no connection was getting frustrating, but on the other hand, it was making for a fun day.
“Rising fish!” I blurted out, and dug the oars in deep to stop the raft. I dropped anchor in a little back eddy, as Mark pitched his flies upstream to the rising fish.
“There we go!” Mark chimed, as he connected with a fish.
“What is it?” I asked, as Mark went to net the fish.
“It’s a white fish.”
“Are you serious?”
Sure enough, a large salmon fly was sticking out of the mouth of this little white fish, and you had to wonder how the fish was planning to consume it.
“Okay Mark, the white fish is out of the way, time for a trout.” I said, lifting the anchor.
“Oh, right there…” Mark said, casting his flies to the very spot he was aiming for. Although Mark is relatively humble, he never passes up an opportunity to compliment his casting.
“Yeah baby!” He yelled, as a fish slammed his fly and Mark was ready to set the hook.
“It’s a Yellowstone cuttie!” Mark yelled. It has been a long time since I have seen a Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and it was every bit as pretty as I remember.
There were drift boats everywhere now. Most of them were not back-rowing to slow themselves down, and were shooting past us quickly. Despite the number of people fishing, it did not hinder our fishing at all. The further down river we went, the better the fishing got. Time was flying, and hunger snuck up on us fast, so we pulled over and under some shade to rest before hitting the water again.
As we sat back and enjoyed our sandwiches, drift boat after drift boat was soaring by.
“I can’t believe the fishing has been so good, considering how many people are on the water.” Mark said.
“Even when there are three boats fishing the same side ahead of us, we are still picking up fish.” I remembered. “It hurts, Mark… It hurts to be so good.”
After a few more minutes of praising ourselves, I was back at the front of the boat.
“Nice cast, Erik!” Mark said boldly, after my flies hit inches from the bank. “That’s why you are you!”
“I really want a Yellowstone Cutthroat.” I told Mark. The last time I had caught a Yellowstone cuttie was over 15 years ago, when my grandfather first brought me and my brother to Yellowstone Park. That was certainly a fun trip that I’ll never forget, but ever since I have wanted to catch one on my fly rod. And I was about to get my chance.
As slow as ever, a Yellowstone cutthroat appeared right under my fly. Though the water was not super clear, the bronze body paired with the dark copper head gave it away. It opened its mouth and consumed my fly. Everything about this fish’s approach was so slow, it’s no wonder people often pull the fly out of their mouths before they have a chance to bite down. Not this time. Years of screwing up had prepared me for this specific fish, and when the opportunity came, I nailed it!
“Want a picture?” Mark asked, after I had the fish in the net.
“No.” I said, after I snapped a picture of it in the net. As much as I did want a picture, I had played the fish a little too long and figured it wasn’t worth taking it out of the water. I held the fish under the water for a while, waiting for it to kick away. The details of my grandfather taking us fishing all came back to me as I held the yellowstone cutthroat. Finally, it kicked away and swam back to its home. I washed off my hands and looked back at Mark, who was smiling so bright you would think he was sending a message to the moon.
“That’s your Yellowstone cuttie BABY!” He said to compliment my achievement.
“Feels good, Mark!” I said quickly before returning to fishing.
Fly fishing with salmon flies is the best, and it’s always an anomaly as to when they will be hatching, and if the fish will be keyed on them. Today could have not been planned. So many times the salmon flies will be out, but the fish will not be eating them. To be here and fishing when everything is happening perfectly is an experience most anglers can count on one hand.
Mark was back up at the front of the boat, and casting to the bank. With an undercut bank, the fish can be hiding right under the shore; which means you need to get your fly right at the edge of the grass, touching the water. In order to perform this, while giving the fish enough time to select your fly to eat, you need to mend your line in mid-air before your flies hit. By air-mending, you will ensure a nice long, natural presentation, leaving your flies touching the grass near the under-cut bank for as long as possible.
“Right there…” Mark said after performing the cast perfectly, and it paid off. A fish came out and ambushed the unsuspecting fly, unbeknown that Mark was at the other end waiting.
It was another little shaker on the line, and Mark brought it in fast.
“Did it take the salmon fly?” I asked.
“Yep, they don’t seem to be interested in my caddis anymore.” Mark said, looking at the size 14 caddis he had dropped off the back of his salmon fly.
“Salmon fly again!” Mark yelled, bringing in another fish.
“That one looks a little bigger.” I said, as Mark netted the fish. After you catch so many fish, you get tired of taking pictures of all of them. Mark was just about to let it go before I stopped him.
“Hold on, I want a picture of that one.” I said, holding up my camera. Mark just reached the fish over in time for one shot, before he dropped it back in the water.
As we switched spots on the boat, we noticed there was hardly any boats left on the water.
“They all shot by us so fast.” I said, tying on some new flies.
“I know, it’s like we have the river to ourselves.” Mark said. “What are you tying on?” He asked.
“A salmon fly.”
“Don’t you already have a salmon fly on?”
I simply held up my new rig, showing Mark that I had not only one salmon fly on, but a second one tied off the back of the hook about two feet.
“Oh my God, is that legal?” Mark yelled, laughing at my rig.
“Have you never done this before?” I asked.
“Well, prepare to be amazed.” I said, and started casting.
Both of the salmon flies plopped on the surface of the water, and floated there looking like little birds. They hadn’t been there more than thirty seconds before I saw the slow rise of a cutthroat trout.
“Boom!” I yelled, as I set the hook.
“Oh, no way!” Mark yelled, as I brought in a nice Yellowstone cutthroat.
“I want a picture with this one.” I said handing my camera to Mark, and I held up the fish when he was ready.
My fish kicked away hard, and I was back to fishing. Mark pulled up the anchor, and I flicked my flies back into the water. WHAM!
“Already?” Mark yelled, back rowing like mad.
“Don’t worry, Mark, it’s a smaller one.” I said, bringing in the fish fast, and letting it go just as fast.
“That rig seems to be the trick.” Mark said, as I slapped my flies back down again.
“What’s going on? Where are the fish?” I asked, jokingly, needing to recast before a fish took. Mark laughed as my flies hit the water again, right near the bank.
“Oh right there, Erik!” Mark said, happy with my cast.
I had my eyes on the flies, when SPLASH!
“Whoa!” I yelled with surprise. Whatever took my fly, took it super aggressively and was putting up a great fight.
“This is a nice fish, Mark!” I yelled while applying the torque to my rod.
“Pull up the anchor, it’s running!” I said, and my reel started screaming. Mark didn’t waste any time hoisting the anchor and following the fish. I was reeling in as fast as I could, and when I had the leader near the rod tip, Mark handed me the net. The fish darted away to make another run, but Mark was already pressing forward on the oars. The extra boost put me right over the fish and my net right under it.
“Gotcha!” I yelled, finally able to get a look at the size of my fish.
“What a nice brown trout.” I said, as I dipped it back in the water.
“Okay, Mark, one more fish.” I said, as I stood back up to cast.
“Sure…” Mark said, wanting to get a chance at this miracle mile of river.
I pitched my flies out, and SMACK!
“OH, NO!” I yelled, “Not another one!”
“Oh my God, seriously?” Mark laughed, as he dropped the anchor.
“Look at this one, Mark. I think he likes you!”
It was Mark’s turn, and he just used my fly rod with the same setup.
“Oh, that looks good.” Mark said, complementing his cast. Bam! His fly was hit. Mark brought in his fish fast and let it go before I could pull out my camera. Again and again Mark hooked up, and brought the fish in so fast that there was no need to anchor up.
Just upriver a couple of guys in a drift boat were rowing forward to snake our water from us.
“Are they seriously going to cut us off?” Mark asked, as the boat got right in front of us.
“Catch a fish, Mark! Catch a fish in front of them!” I said, forcefully. I back-oared a little harder to get some distance between the other boat. I glanced downstream to see how they were fishing.
“Look at them, Mark. The guy can’t even cast, and the other guy is nymphing… during a salmon fly hatch no less.” I said bitterly. Mark just laughed at my annoyance, and then he did exactly what I wanted him to do.
“YEAH, MARK! THAT’S HOW YOU CATCH A FISH!” I yelled, as loud as I could.
Mark stayed quiet while he brought in his fish, but I kept on.
“I guess you just have to know what you’re doing!” I blurted out.
“It’s nice to have a fish coming to the boat!”
“Oh look, it’s a fighter!”
“It’s definitely a fighter, Mark!” I kept on. Mark was doing his best to hold back his laughter.
“Okay, okay, Erik, we get it, you hate when people cut you off.” Mark said, as he netted his fish.
“Oh, I’m just having fun, Mark.” I said, laughing. We came around the bend and saw the bridge just downstream.
“That’s our takeout point.” Mark said, and caught one more fish to end the day.
“What a fantastic day.” I said, “There is no way we could have timed it better.”
“I think this was the best day of fishing I have ever had.” Mark said, as we took out the boat.
“I may have to agree with you, Mark. I have fished some good salmon fly hatches, but nothing like this.” And it was true, we had spent almost eight hours on this river that felt like three, and if there was enough light left in the day we would have done it again.
“I hear the terrestrial fishing can be good on this river.” Mark said, getting in his truck.
“Well, we will have to come back and find out, won’t we?” I asked, as we drove home reminiscing about the day, and planning on returning sometime soon.