Lewis River, Nez Perce and Soda Butte Creeks, the Gibbon and Firehole into the Madison, the Gardner River into the storied Yellowstone. There’s a lot more to see in Yellowstone National Park than the rivers. But when you’re a fly fisherman, and one who has never really been ‘out west’, it’s difficult to look beyond them.
We entered the south gate of the park on a sunny, 50 degree day. It wasn’t long before we were climbing mountains, driving through passes and looking down on unutterably beautiful waters. We had hit it perfectly, with fall in full splendor and winter literally only a day away. There was almost no tourist activity – much too late in the season, I suppose. The only humans we encountered were rangers and the occasional angler. Our first sighting of wildlife was an American elk casually crossing our path with little acknowledgement of our existence.
We didn’t fish that first day. The sense of discovery and awe were just too powerful. And Yellowstone is so immense that we had to throttle back our scurrying around just to catch the a bit of the real scope of nature found there. So we dropped in on the more familiar attractions that first day. National Parks are not dog-friendly places – leashes only and no farther than 50′ from any parking area. So with Bear and Georgia scribing nose tracks on the windows, we had to be selective about where we took them. We pulled into an empty parking lot at Old Faithful. A construction crew was busily pouring new concrete walks, scurrying before the coming storm. To our delight, a ranger saw the dogs’ sad faces in our truck and told us to feel free to take them on the tour of the hot springs where dogs are normally forbidden.
We spent an hour at the Old Faithful hot springs, but left just minutes before the next scheduled eruption. It was getting late and we were an hour’s drive from dinner and a night’s sleep in West Yellowstone. As we drove westward through the Madison River valley, we came across a herd of bison crossing the road. We sat for 10 or 15 minutes just watching them slowly cross like they owned the place. (And not a single vehicle pulled up behind us!) Two juvenile bison kicked up their heels and harassed the older animals until one old bull chased them away. Bear and Georgia sat spellbound looking out the window at the beasts and blowing their own versions of buffalo snorts.
After the bison had cleared the road and we were finished our gaping at them, we drove west in failing light and under very black skies. Within minutes, lightening seared the valley and the flashes recurred frequently. We squirmed with a feeling of vulnerability as our truck was the highest object in the valley. As I sped up to get back into the woodlands, it started snowing – heavy snow mixed with hale and gropple. I dimmed the lights to improve my vision of the road and slowed to 25 mph. It was totally dark when drove into a grove of pines and we were feeling a bit safer when, through the white sheet of snow, a gigantic, furry, brown ass-end appeared in the windshield with a tuft of tail cocked to the right. “Bison”, Molly screeched just as I swerved the truck to the left, then back to the right. A massive head and horns swished passed the passenger window and barely missed the outside rear-view mirror. ‘Are there more beasts?” my brain raced. “Is it another herd?” There were no more animals. We were most fortunate. That outrageous price I had recently paid for a new set of Michelin truck tires suddenly became worth every penny.
West Yellowstone was very sleepy when we arrived, our limbs and eyes worn-out, but still giggling about our close bison encounter. We gassed up the truck, found a good meal, and settled into a pet-friendly motel for the night. Before bed, the dogs ‘went outside’ in six new inches of snow. The next morning, we found a nice diner for breakfast, then headed for Bud Lillie’s Trout Shop. It was closed for the season.
There are so many adventures I want to share about the remainder of our Yellowstone visit, but both you and I probably don’t have time for all those details. Basically, we turned our attention to the rivers and ‘sampled’ the fishing up through the Park. Many of the storied rivers were dressed in their winter capes, winding beautifully through meadows of grass and willows. It was just warm enough to keep your guides from freezing up. Here are a few scenes:
So what’s on my mind, now that time has passed since my personal voyage of discovery? Getting back out there, for sure. My sampling of these rivers’ trout demands a return with a more fitting engagement with them, their cold water and vast skies. Perhaps a week or two earlier next time around, and with a more open itinerary.