Trails To Glory

Trails To Glory

Northeast Yellowstone, Wyoming

  • By: Jeff Erickson
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Northeast Yellowstone

Wyoming

By Jeff Erickson

From a ridge-top trail I surveyed a tableau little changed since the end of the last Ice Age. Amidst roars and grunts, clouds of dust rose a mile away across the expansive valley as hundreds of shaggy bison rambled through sage grasslands. It was August—mating season—and testosterone-fueled bulls skirmished while cows and calves looked on idly, wondering what the fuss was about. Earlier, I spotted sprinting pronghorns, and a chocolate-brown wolf that bolted away.

Trusty 5-weight in hand, I was wandering along the upper Lamar River, in northeastern Yellowstone National Park; it’s a Mecca for fly anglers who enjoy pilgrimages to world-class water via hiking boot or pack horse. Options range from easy day hikes to lengthy backcountry expeditions. While the park hosts more than three million visitors annually, Yellowstone’s extensive trail system sees a lot fewer people and magically transports anglers into a lost realm, away from 21st Century insanity.

The main quarry for Lamar basin anglers is the wild, indigenous Yellowstone cutthroat (with some non-native rainbows and cutt-bow hybrids mixed in). The latter two have gradually made inroads, a concern to biologists trying to protect this critical cutt refuge. Nonetheless, genetically pure Yellowstones still thrive—especially in the headwaters—and the rainbow permutations are feisty acrobats. Thick, forearm-length trout are not merely phantoms concocted by campfire bourbon.

A major Yellowstone River tributary, the Lamar drains much of the northeastern quadrant of the park. The watershed offers myriad options, including important feeders like Soda Butte, Pebble and Slough creeks, as well as excellent stillwaters. The river rises amidst the lonely, 10,000-foot-high Absaroka Range, which rims the eastern park boundary. Backpackers (or horsepackers) starting at the Lamar River trailhead—near the mouth of Soda Butte Creek—must cover at least 16 miles to reach the headwaters. The trail mostly hugs the river, with paths branching off along cutt-packed tribs like Cache, Miller and Mist creeks. The upper Lamar is tighter, faster and more canyon-like than the valley below; cutts come easy but run smaller than downstream.

Below the backcountry stretch, the Lamar enters a sublime valley: It’s one of the West’s iconic reaches, punctuated with perfect iterations of riffles, runs and pools. The sinuous river skirts the Northeast Entrance Road in places, making it accessible for folks who don’t want to walk too much. But it also snakes away from the pavement, enticing more ambitious anglers to make cross-country hikes of up to a mile to evade the crowds, if not necessarily the bison.

By mid-summer, the Lamar Valley displays a massive, cobble floodplain scoured by copious spring snowmelt. Because of biblical-scale flooding, the primary angling window is narrow—July, August and September, into October. The Lamar is typically the last Yellowstone stream to drop and clear. Mean flows peak in June at a dangerous and unfishable 4,260 cubic feet per second, plummeting to 225 by September. Because of highly erosive headwater soil, the Lamar quickly blows out with silt after a big storm, discoloring the Yellowstone 100 miles downstream. Perhaps because of the river’s unruly spate characteristics, Lamar trout are prone to roaming unpredictably between holding areas; when in doubt with your fishing, keep prospecting.

Below the popular valley reach, the Lamar squeezes into a canyon, with car-size boulders, fast runs and deep green pools. This is productive water too, and anglers scramble down from roadside parking areas on informal trails. Downstream from the mouth of Slough Creek, the Lamar largely breaks free of both roads and trails on its final run to the Yellowstone. Anglers who like cross-country hikes have much of this water to themselves; a short trail near the Lamar Bridge leads to the mouth.

Beginning in July, Lamar basin anglers encounter Blue-wing Olives, Pale Morning Duns and Gray Drakes, with Green Drakes appearing in August and September. Caddis are important throughout the prime season; midges spark periodic action. Faster reaches produce salmonflies and Golden Stoneflies in July, with Yellow Sallies stretching through August. Attractors like Stimulators, Trudes, PMXs, Humpies and Wulffs are always popular cutt treats.

A marquee draw is terrific terrestrial action. Meadows harbor ants, beetles, hoppers and monstrous Mormon crickets, chirping and clumsily cavorting like they hopped out of an insect horror film. A well-stocked Lamar fly box carries large, leggy creatures that initially seem more appropriate for largemouth bass. Consider these bad boys: Fat Albert; Slough Creek Cricket; M’s Hopper; Thingama-Hopper; Tiger Beetle; Jiminy Cricket; Grand Hopper; Chubby Chernobyl; and the Longhorn Beetle. Watching a 20-inch Lamar cutt leisurely drift up from the bottom to engulf one of these beasts is one of fly-fishing’s great thrills. Just as often though, these fish contemptuously bump your offering with their snouts, then retreat to their log-jam or cut-bank lairs—a snub that may force you deep into your four-letter lexicon.

If the Lamar morphs to chocolate following a thunderstorm, Soda Butte Creek offers a handy roadside cutt/rainbow fishery. But the drainage also shelters alluring backcountry tributary angling, especially along Pebble Creek and its namesake trail, which runs 12 miles from the Northeast Entrance to the Pebble Creek Campground. Lower Pebble just above the campground tumbles through a canyon that’s difficult to fish, but the upper end winds through a paradisiacal meadow.

Downstream from Pebble’s mouth and perched above Soda Butte is beguiling Trout Lake. The family-friendly hike in is a half-mile, with an easy trail circumnavigating the small, fertile tarn. The reward for this modest effort: Surprisingly large, wild cutthroats and rainbows. They don’t come easy though, so bring your spring-creek finesse, including long, light tippets and tiny nymphs, along with scud, damselfly and leech patterns. Last summer, after several infuriating missed strikes in two hours of fishing, I vowed my next throw would be the last. Sight-casting, I saw a cruising fish’s head subtly turn to inhale a size 20 Pheasant Tail. I wrestled to shore a pink-splashed 19-inch cutt, to kudos from passing hikers. One stunning fish instantly turned me from a hopeless chump into a grinning hero.

This hardly exhausts the trout-trail options in Yellowstone’ glorious northeast. The next major Lamar tributary west of Soda Butte is the renowned Slough Creek. While the lower runs are reached by short walks from a gravel road, four upper meadows (and several headwater lakes) beckon above the campground, ranging from two trail miles to more than a dozen miles away. And, as kind of a Western bookend to the region, the mighty Yellowstone River hosts a network of trails, too, attracting fly anglers looking for big, roily water, sizable fish and relative solitude in the world’s first and still most wondrous national park.

On my final day roaming Yellowstone’s Lamar country last summer—taking a wide detour to evade bison obstinately blocking the trail—I concurred with mountain man and writer Osborne Russell, who explored the vicinity in the 1830s: “ . . . I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this, where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor.”

After the Grind

Cooke City, Montana rests just outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. Visit on a Friday or Saturday night and you can find some pretty fun nightlife, with solid Western music and free-flowing beer. To get in on the festivities, hit Miner’s Saloon—it serves pizza, burgers and salad (are you really going to order the salad after hiking your tail off all day?), and lots of domestics and microbrews.

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