Off the Beaten Path

Week 7: Exploring the Eastern End of Yellowstone

  • By: Steven Spigelmyer
A salmonfly pattern fools a Yellowstone River cutthroat

Often, my articles have praised the blessings of the Madison River. Its sheer beauty, large and feisty trout and an abundance of bugs are just several of the reasons why anglers all over the world (including me) have fallen head over heels in love with the river. And that’s the problem with truly great rivers: they aren’t kept secret for long. There are no such things as secret spots along the Madison. Guide trips float past and land a fish right in front of you, only after you meticulously waded your way to the spot for the past half hour. Anglers are forced to make sacrifices when fishing well known rivers such as the Batten Kill, Green, Deschutes and of course the Madison. The sacrifice is simple: bigger crowds equal bigger fish, and I’m usually game to fight for water along such famous rivers with big trout lurking. But with a busy weekend promising to deliver hordes of crowds, I knew the Madison would be about as enjoyable as a Fourth of July night with wind: there would be no fireworks.

With this in mind, I set out for the Eastern end of Yellowstone Park, in hopes of finding solitude. During a normal year (one not so wet, like this one), Slough Creek, Lamar, and Soda Butte command a lot of attention, but because of the large snowfall this year, the run off has made these small streams dark, cold and unfishable. But I have always had a river that produces no matter what time of year I have arrived: The Yellowstone. The upper sections of this river don’t open until July 15 because of native Yellowstone cutthroat spawning, but the lower sections below the falls through Livingston open earlier, and usually produce fish earlier as well. The Yellowstone is a completely different experience than the Madison. It is equally beautiful but without the crowds and just as many fish, if not more, only without the daily 18-inchers. But settling for beautiful native cutthroat in solitude is hardly a sacrifice, in my eyes.

A short hike in from either Tower falls or the bridge just above Roosevelt will certainly guarantee that an angler is more likely to encounter a bear then a human. I have seen bears in this section for years, and it is usually better to hike in larger groups so you don’t stumble upon Yogi or Smoky the Bear unwarned. Once I reached my destination I couldn’t believe my eyes or my neck for that matter. There were salmon flies everywhere: clinging on rocks, latched to bushes, flying on top of the water and crawling all over my girlfriend and myself. Although I loved this, my girlfriend was less then excited about the prospect of large orange bugs crawling all over her all day, so the bug spray was removed diligently from my backpack. The Yellowstone usually hails as the king of dry-fly fishing. During August, and usually July, an angler only needs to tie on a single grasshopper or attractor pattern and fish will feast upon it all day.

An average size Yellowstone cutthroat is probably 12 inches, with that estimation being a little gracious. Most of the fish that come and look at your flies make you want to mess up the drag, just so you don’t have to catch another 6-inch lunker, scaring all the other fish in your run. Only on this day it wasn’t the amazing dry-fly mania I had hoped for. I don’t know if the fish were gorged on all the massive bugs flying above the water, or if they couldn’t see them because of the low water clarity, but either way they would barely touch my bug.

Even my money section of water only produced one fish on a salmonfly; apparently the fish hadn’t got the memo that a bunch of food was waiting on top of the water. After realizing that these cutthroats weren’t going to rise to my fly I quickly tied on a nymph rig and landed a nice native on a big Girdle Bug, but that was the only fish who fell prey to that tactic.

I knew I would have to try something different to catch fish today, so I tied on a Wooly Bugger and went to work. The streamers seemed to work, especially my favorite Double Bunny pattern, and what started out as a disappointing morning turned into an exciting afternoon. Even without the afternoon surge of fish, this was truly one of my favorite days on the water all year. The pristine beauty and ability to view nature without any interruptions from our technological world would make even Walt Whitman jealous. Sure we all love to catch big fish—but often making sacrifices and taking a hike to a backcountry section of water will reap rewards that even the largest fish won’t deliver.

Steven Spigelmyer is spending the summer in Yellowstone Park and reporting on his travels for flyrodreel.com. He is a student at the University of Nevada.