In my defense, I didn’t set out to target carp with my fly rod yesterday evening. The previous night I was out in the kayak around the same time with the dogs and there were bass jumping all over the place. So this time I left the dogs at home, grabbed a box of poppers, my 5-weight Hardy fly rod, a couple of iced beers and launched around 5:30.
The river was pretty low and slow, so I just cruised around, settling in behind boulders where the eddy kept me in place to fish. I caught my first smallmouth in the new Native Slayer, got a crappy photo of it and a few more small ones. Nothing special. Although I did see a very large smallmouth among some underwater logs around a bridge piling. But the river was getting squeezed between the pilings, quickening the current, and I could not figure out how to anchor myself safely to take a shot at him. Special fish know safe places to live.
So I moved on upstream, switched colors on my fly and caught my biggest smallie of the day on a white popper, but he was probably no more than ten inches. I was just releasing him when over near the bank I saw a massive carp jump all the way out of the water and splash down. I don’t know why they do this, maybe someone could comment if they know. They’re not feeding on surface bugs like trout. Someone once told me they do it to knock parasites off of their scales. I paddled over to investigate. The terrain underwater changed as I got closer to the edge, and not in the way I expected. The underwater grasses that are quite heavy in the rest of the river were not present along this edge. There were big boulders, deep holes, no grass, and the water was fairly still and much murkier.
But in the shadows I could see cruising carp. Big, cruising carp. I even saw one tail up, presumably feeding, in the shallows right along the bank.
I was ill equipped to fish for carp with a light 5-weight and poppers. But I had a lone, peach wooly bugger that was on the rod when I put it in the truck. So I took off the popper and tied on the bugger. I looked for movement, mostly just vague shadows but every now and then I could make out the outline of a monster, maybe thirty inches. I threw the wooly bugger upstream and let it dead drift like a nymph along the bottom in the nearly still water. There wasn’t a sound, anywhere. My kayak was dead still. I stared at the end of my fly line a foot below the surface of the dark water, watching for the slightest pull, easing up on the rod ever so slightly to keep contact with the bottom. I wanted one of those carp so bad.
On my third or fourth cast using this method I felt like I was really putting the best drifts out there I could. Although I had no idea if it’s the type of fly or presentation a carp might go for. Intensely focused, I felt like I could feel in my fingertips the vibration of the fly tumbling across the gravel below. I waited for the strike. Waaaaiiiit. I could feel the temperature drop as the sun dipped behind the mountains. Three degrees, maybe five. I felt in tune with everything from my kayak to the fly rod, the line, leader, tippet, knot, down to the eyelet, down the hook all the way to the point. All my focus was on the unseen point of that hook five feet below the black surface.
Boom! I saw the fly line surge forward at the same instant I felt the bump through the line and into my fingertips. I brought the rod up fast and hard behind my head, finger tight on the fly line to set that point deep.
To really feel — not guess, but feel — an extremely subtle take of a fly that you cannot see, and to do it in a place where you have seen very large fish known for subtle takes, and to know when you bring that rod up that you were right and there is life on the end of the line, is pretty damned exciting. But it became immediately apparent that I had not caught my first carp on a fly. What I had caught, it turns out, with the hook set of a pro bass fisherman on a Saturday morning TV show, was about a seven inch smallmouth.
Only the resistance of five or six feet of water kept me from launching that smallie many yards in the air behind me. I instantly felt horrible for the little guy, I literally had to have dislocated his jaw with that hook set. When I got him in the boat and removed the fly, I said I was sorry, that I got a little carried away. He said nothing, which I took as tacit acceptance of my apology. I slipped him back in the water and he shot back to the hole from which he was so violently removed.
I reeled in my fly line, opened my last beer and watched the sun set over the bow of my kayak. Every now and then I’d glance over at the shadowy depths I had just fished. I was not expecting the opportunity and had no business attempting it, but I had fun toying with them. I’ll be back, soon, armed with a 7-weight next time. I think this might just be the pool. One day I’m going to pull one of those big ugly bastards out of that murky water. One day.
It wasn’t a big problem, as problems go. But it needed to be addressed soon or a member of Team Orange was going to be unhappy. We had a kayak, and each of the dogs could ride in it and they both seemed to enjoy it. The problem was, I could only fit one dog at a time in the boat. We had a staff meeting over at Dispatches from the Potomac Headquarters, and after much deliberation, we were at an impasse. To borrow Roy Scheider’s famous line from Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
So I started researching kayaks that could accommodate my two primary goals: I wanted a stable sit-on-top kayak that was good and comfortable to fly fish from, and on occasions when instead of fishing I opt to just take the dogs out for a paddle, it would have to comfortably fit them both. At first I looked at boats with big, wide open floors such as the NuCanoe Frontier. And to be honest, if there was a dealer close to my location I would probably have pulled the trigger on it. It looks like a really nice boat. But at the time I had yet to even try to get Finn in the kayak, so we interrupted shopping and went for a test run. What I learned from this was that a 70-pound dog can, with relatively small movements, have a large effect on what the kayak is doing. Furthermore, he seemed to be comfortable in the well area of my Wilderness Systems Ride 135. I decided that it would be better to have the dogs sitting or lying in a confined area of the boat to minimize their ability to wreak havoc.
I count among my friends – both facebook and ‘real life’ – a lot of experienced anglers and kayakers. And when I told them what I was looking for and asked for advice, I realized I didn’t want a big open floor plan, but a boat with two good sized wells. The Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5 has that and much more. The seats are ridiculously comfortable, the entire boat is smartly set up for fishing, and everyone I know who has one speaks very highly of the brand. Some of the friends early on who helped point me toward the Slayer are Keith Hendrickson, who has kayaked with several dogs at a time before; Mark Lozier, a kayak fishing guide who knows the Native line inside and out; and Cory Routh, a guide who I met through Project Healing Waters years ago and who also has extensive knowledge of the Slayer and just about any other kayak out there.
After hearing everything these guys had to say about the boat, I decided that the Slayer 14.5 would be my next boat, and I would of course get the orange model.
Cory and the fine folks down at Wild River Outfitters in Virginia Beach secured the Mango 14.5 footer, rigged it with an anchor trolley for me and propped it up in a corner until I could get down there to pick it up. I was worried about the small factory rack on my new vehicle and how that would work with an almost fifteen foot boat. But Cory spent some time with me devising not just a way to get the Slayer home once, but a safe, stable, repeatable system I could feel comfortable with every time I needed to travel with it.
While down in Virginia Beach picking up the boat, Mark offered to take me out fishing. After a week of clear forecasts, the weather got a little volatile the day I was there and a thunderstorm delayed our outing. But the skies cleared and we were able to launch for my maiden voyage. Here ahead of me is Mark, and beyond him is his friend Joe. Mark’s wife Kris was already off catching fish without us.
My initial impression of the Slayer was that you really do feel the difference in your center of gravity with that raised seat. It has two positions, and I was using the lower one, but it took a few minutes to get used to it. I immediately noticed that it seemed to glide very smoothly and easily through the water. I also observed, possibly related, that the boat seemed to wander off left or right a little more easily than the Wilderness, but I am not convinced of this and even if it is the case that it doesn’t track as well, the difference is slight and probably just takes a bit of time to get accustomed to.
I found the raised Slayer seat very comfortable to cast a fly rod from, with an uncluttered deck that keeps fly line from getting tangled. But I didn’t get much time on the water as another storm was approaching. So she still hasn’t seen her first fish, but I had already fallen in love with the boat and we had a pleasant time out on the water for a bit.
So the next day, with the Slayer strapped to the roof, I headed home. I immediately applied the Team Orange decal to the hull. Here Winnie inspects the application and thinks it’s a little crooked, but she’s a weirdo and trust me, it’s perfect.
I picked up a couple foam rubber welcome mats from Home Depot (thanks for the idea, Keith!), and cut them to fit the wells. Then I removed the bungees that criss cross over each well. As soon as I did, the dogs were in the boat wondering why we’re sitting here in the driveway when there’s water to be floated. How could I resist? I had not planned on a two dog/new kayak test run quite so soon, but no better time than the present, right?
Well the test went as smoothly as it could have. Winnie would ride up front in the smaller but deeper well, and Finn could sprawl out in back in the much larger but shallower well. Winnie took to this like she’s been doing it her whole life. I really believe she loved it up there, just observing the woods and water of the canal as we pushed upstream.
While we only went up and down the C&O Canal a little ways, the test was a huge success. Next stop will be the Potomac River proper. But I think Team Orange will do fine, and that we have lots of river fun in our future!
Be sure to click the links in this post for Mark or Cory if you’d like to kayak fish with a guide in the Virginia Beach area, and check out Wild River Outfitters if you’re in the market for a new boat. Meanwhile, if you see Team Orange out on the water, please paddle over and say hi!
The Northern Snakehead Fish, subject of much discussion and debate among anglers and conservationists, seems here to stay. And while certainly invasive, the nightmare predicted by some who thought they would eat everything in the river doesn’t seem to be playing out. And in the middle section of the Potomac River, their numbers, size and fierce fight have attracted countless anglers. When my friend Kodi, who recently caught a 30-incher from his kayak, invited mutual friend and guide Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters and I to join him for some kayak largemouth bass and snakehead fishing, I had to go.
We went down the Maryland side to Mallows Bay and met at sunrise. At one point in the planning process I wondered if it would be easier for me to take the shorter drive down the Virginia side and just paddle across from Quantico. This picture shows what a stupid idea that was. The Potomac is wide where I live, maybe 800 yards or so. But down here, it’s got to be at least five miles across. I couldn’t understand how all the muddy water from the Upper Potomac from recent downpours wasn’t turning the Middle section just as brown. To quote the old Saturday Night Live skit about how the National Change Bank can make a profit just offering change for various denominations, “The answer? Volume.”
This is Harold, one of the best people you’ll ever meet. I met Harold many years ago when I first started fly fishing and booked a float with him on the North Branch of the Potomac. It’s worth noting that the farthest upstream and the farthest downstream I have fished the waters of the Potomac (over 200 miles between), I fished both with Harold.
The picture above looking out past the shipwreck across to Virginia is out in the main stem of the river. Mallows Bay looks more like this, with weeds and grasses providing lots of cover for bass and snakehead. It’s tidal here, so at low tide normally the fish that seek cover in the taller weeds you see here get forced back into a position where they are more exposed and, presumably, easier to catch. But the rain pushed the water levels up a bit. For whatever reason, the fishing was extremely tough.
My very first Snakehead encounter happened in a little cove. You see Harold’s kayak in the distance, he’s at the opening of the cove there. I was paddling quietly back there in maybe twelve inches of water, the bottom eleven of which was all grass or Hydrilla or whatever it is. I heard a noise to my left and saw large, black fins weaving and splashing between the tall weeds. Snakehead. I threw the popper tight against the weeds but could not entice him out. When I had exhausted that option, I decided to paddle over and just see if I could get a closer look. I drifted silently to the weeds, peering over the edge of my kayak, looking for movement. Then the water exploded next to me in a violent burst as the Snakehead bolted to safety. Not gonna lie here, it scared the shit out of me. But I immediately knew I just had to get one of those fish on my line!
The fishing did not improve. Harold caught a decent largemouth and hooked a Snakehead but lost it. And I missed a few bass and that was it. So we left Mallows Bay and headed to a pond that Kodi knew about which held a lot of Snakehead. It was a little tricky too, as you had to cast out beyond the lily pads, which left you very little room to strip in a top water fly before you had to pick it up and recast. But I got lucky and fooled this little one right as my fly reached the lily pads. People asked me how the fight was. He was overmatched with my 7-weight Sage, and I had to basically horse him over the pads, if he went down in there I never could have gotten him out. Even a small one, though, is pretty intimidating. Slimy, more beautiful in color and more hideous in form than I expected. They look equal parts ancient, evil and angry.
It was a tiring day of not catching many fish in the hot sun, but it is always a pleasure to be among good friends, and the challenge of catching fish who don’t want to be caught is a character builder. Sometimes the fish win. Regardless, if you’re only going to catch one fish all day, let it be something new and exciting!
On the 4th of July I spent a few beautiful evening hours on my home stretch of the Potomac River, and had one of the most fun outings I’ve ever had here. Conditions were perfect for wading. The level was low but not too low, and the water was crystal clear. Later in the summer, the grass will take over and the water temperatures will approach bath level. The fishing can still be very good, but it’s less pleasant to be in the water when it gets that way. But for now, perfect. Although the clear water has a down side. You can see below just how well the fish can see me, the camera was completely submerged here. So I find for the most part, some longer casts have good results. There is one notable exception described later in the post.
I’ve been really wanting to entice some smallmouth to poppers and other surface flies. I know lots of people who have great success on the top. But for me — and maybe it’s technique, location or both — I only catch sunfish when I try surface flies. Of all the smallmouth I’ve caught on the fly, I’d say less than 5 percent have come on the surface. If anyone has some advice on how to entice a smallie to the surface without having a sunfish feeding frenzy, please comment here.
So after several sunnies in a row I went back to my go-to fly, the peach wooly bugger from Dead Drift Flies. On my first cast I brought in this beauty, and that was just the beginning. The smallmouth bite was ON, and it was a blast. By the way, this 5-weight Hardy rod is new, and I can’t get over how much fun this rod is. It throws line like a dream, but feels like a 3-weight with a fish on. You feel every tail beat and head shake. Fun, fun, fun.
This was the first Potomac River outing this year where I had far more smallies than panfish. I always catch some tiny smallmouth, and quite a few were what I’d consider large fish for this stretch. But most were about this size, which you smallie hunters know, is plenty big to put up a nice fight!
The nicest fish of the day, though, was the last of the day. I had waded upstream from the house a ways, and then went across the river a quarter mile or so. It was so beautiful out there, far from either bank, cool water on my legs, the sun setting upstream and fish enthusiastically biting. But, shallow or not, I like to see my feet when I’m wading, and darkness comes quickly when it comes. So I reeled up, secured the fly and admired the setting sun one more time before wading back to shore.
Along the way, now close to the bank and walking parallel with it, I passed three or four holes I fished on my way out with not much luck. I thought I saw a shadow move in the current, but didn’t have a lot of faith in my eyes at dusk. I decided to toss a fly in. I totally half-assed it, though. I never stopped walking, and didn’t even take any fly line out. I just unhooked the wooly bugger from the guide where I secured it earlier, held the rod out to the side and let the fly drop in the water. The shadow immediately slammed the fly. I pinched the fly line to the cork and set the hook, but I think the fish had already done that for me. He jumped four times under the tip of my rod — I basically had only the leader and about a foot of fly line out past the guides. What a great punctuation to a fantastic evening of fishing!
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing utilizes fly fishing and fly tying in the rehabilitation of disabled servicemen and women in Military Hospitals, VA Medical Centers and Warrior Transition Units all across the country. Their premier fundraising event is the 2-Fly Tournament held each year at Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia. The farm, dedicated as PHW’s Home Waters, is owned by PHW Chairman of the Board Douglas Dear. Douglas, who also serves as the chair of the 2-Fly committee, graciously offers the use of this special property to numerous charitable organizations throughout the year.
This year was the seventh annual event and it was a huge success by any measure. Everyone had a fantastic time, many fish were caught, and over $220,000 was raised to keep programs running across the nation. The 2-Fly has grown from humble beginnings seven years ago to a full weekend of activities. Things kick off Saturday with a casual pond bass and bluegill tournament in the afternoon, followed by a riverside cocktail party and dinner with a full program of special guests and inspiring speakers. Then the 2-Fly Tournament follows on Sunday, followed by an awards ceremony. Below are some of my favorite photos from the weekend that I hope convey a bit of the heart of this wonderful event…
A great addition to our Saturday evening festivities the last couple years has been the Virginia Patriot Guard Riders. Each year more and more patriotic motorcyclists ride in behind the colors, and it is a sight – and sound! – to behold. As for the parking violation? Well I’m certainly not going to tell them!
Another tradition has been great music from the Gold Top County Ramblers.
It was an absolutely perfect evening for an outdoor cocktail hour along the Rose River, with dinner supplied by Gentry’s Catering.
Co-chair of the tournament (and bamboo rod maker extraordinaire) Jerry Nonnemacher worked tirelessly to pull together staff, volunteers, sponsors and other contributors to make this the smoothest running event yet.
Former Miss Virginia Tara Wheeler is Co-anchor of the Fox 21 27 in Morning News in Roanoke, VA. Tara has been the MC for our evening program for three years now and is a cherished friend of Project Healing Waters.
The only way to truly know how this program changes lives is to listen to the words of those whose lives have been directly impacted. Each year a handful of participants take the podium to share their deeply personal and sometimes painful experiences. CPT Eivind Forseth, US Army (Retired) is one of the first participants of the program. Eivind is a good friend and a powerful speaker. I know his story well, but hearing it again after not seeing him for a few years was quite emotional for me as well as the rest of the audience.
After a special evening program and a silent auction that raised over $34,000 thanks to the generosity of those in attendance, and perhaps a little sleep, it was time for the Sunday tournament to begin! Ed Nicholson and Douglas Dear go over the rules.
I love this shot for one reason: Hats. Despite the fact that everyone has a hat in their possession, you won’t find a single hat being worn during Lisa Mei Norton’s beautiful rendition of the National Anthem. A wonderful display of shared respect and patriotism.
Alright, let’s get to some fishing! Thanks for hanging in this long if you have. Kiki Galvin was named PHW’s National Capital Region Volunteer of the Year this year. Here Kiki nets a nice rainbow caught by SFC Aaron Morse, US Army.
Long time supporter Harold Harsh oversees a drift from fellow Marine LCpl Ryan Wightman, USMC. Douglas Dear’s son Kyle built two of these ramps as an Eagle Scout project, and they help many wounded servicemen and women access water they would have difficulty reaching otherwise.
…as bright as the smile on the face of the man who caught it. Josh Williams, along with his wife Lisa, have become great friends of mine over the years, and I always look forward to seeing them. Josh gets a hand here from guide Phil Gay.
SPC (ret.) Andrew Pike, US Army, who claims to have never fly fished before this week, fights one of many, many fish during the tournament under the guidance of pro guide Brian Wilson. Andrew is a great guy, I enjoyed spending some time with him and hope to see him back next year.
During lunch on Sunday, PHW President Ed Nicholson asked everyone in attendance who has ever served in uniform to gather around for a special presentation. Lefty Kreh served this country with honor from 1942 to 1947 and is a combat veteran from the Battle of the Bulge. He continues his service today as a generous supporter of Project Healing Waters, selflessly giving his time and sharing his talents and knowledge with our disabled active military and veterans. Thank you Lefty, what a great American.
Having experts like Lefty and Ed Jaworowski on hand all day to instruct participants is an invaluable service. I watched Ed teaching casting to this group and others in a steady rain for hours, never once suggesting they take a break or wait till things cleared up.
Washington Redskins safety Reed Doughty (#37) was on hand all weekend spending time with the participants, signing autographs and even catching a few trout. Reed, originally from Colorado, is a passionate fly fisherman. He’s also as friendly and down to earth as you can imagine. I’m a huge Skins fan anyway, but meeting someone you admire as a fan and finding out they’re a great person too, makes it even easier to root for them on the field.
You remember Andy Pike from a few photos ago, the one who had never fly fished before? Well not only did he and his teammate SGT (ret.) Michael Davis, US Army win the Pro/Vet category of the tournament, Andy picked up this trophy for the biggest fish of the day, a 19″ rainbow. Congratulations Andy on a great tournament!
As successful as this event was, Project Healing Waters needs the support of donors and volunteers throughout the year to continue healing those who serve. Visit the PHW web site here to find out more about how you can help.
From left to right: I met Matt many years ago when he showed up at a party at my house with a mutual acquaintance. He spotted a picture on our fridge of me with a Steelhead and we got to talking fly fishing. A few weeks later we were on a road trip together to upstate New York to fish for salmon and we remain great friends and fishing buddies. Harold, who runs the guide service Spring Creek Outfitters out of Western Maryland, was the first guide I ever fished with when I started fly fishing. Since then we have become friends through his generous work with Project Healing Waters. I first met Joel when a mutual online friend introduced us because Joel needed a fly fishing related logo design. We became fast friends, and his Missoula, Montana-based guide business Montana Troutaholics is an absolute must if you are planning a trip to that area to fish.
So myself and three friends I met because of fly fishing but who have never met each other, came together because of that shared passion for fly fishing at one of the best places for it, Rose River Farm.
But I was fishing with two of the best trout guides I know, so I was positive it was just a matter of time.
In the afternoon, with just a hint of sun to warm the water a couple of degrees, things turned on and the fish became a lot more active.
There was a little beer drinking going on as well, of course.
Matt and Joel warming up by the grill before lunch.
A hot lunch hit the spot after spending the cold morning in the water.
Here’s Harold putting the bamboo to the test on a nice rainbow.
And back you go into the Rose River.
My biggest fish of the day.
I think it’s safe to say the Rose was pretty clear!
Joel always looks like he’s in a Simm’s ad or catalog cover.
A full day of fishing behind us and more weekend adventures ahead for Joel and I, we all headed back to the wonderful luxury yurt-style cabin at Rose River Farm. More beer and many laughs went great with a few thick rib-eye steaks on the grill. A perfect end to a great day.
Hanging around the fire pit was so much fun. There was weather coming in, but luckily it held off long enough.
We were surprised the next morning to find a couple inches of fresh, wet snow on the ground!
An unhurried, hearty breakfast started our day off right.
I don’t drink coffee, but on this morning I could have used a cup or two!
After breakfast, Joel and I headed into the Shenandoah National Park for some brook trout fishing and a vigorous hike. We stopped at a few pools along the way, but the fishing was pretty tough, quite possibly the result of the weather front that had just moved through.
But Joel would not be discouraged! We tried many different flies to get the attention of these stubborn fish.
Finally patience and skill paid off as Joel brought this little beauty to hand. Joel’s first native brookie, and also by far his farthest easterly fish caught in the U.S. So while not big, it was memorable.
When we let this little guy go, we told him to tell all his friends that he was treated with care and respect and that the fly was delicious. But they didn’t get the message, this was the only fish of the day. I was psyched Joel got it though, and the company and great hike made for a fantastic day despite the fishing.
This is my favorite photo of the day, and I encourage you to click on it to see it larger. Joel stepped off the path to try one more spot on the hike back, and I captured this cool panorama with my iPhone. Winter has its own brand of beauty, and while at first glance it can look pretty brown and dull outside, nature reveals wonderful, subtle colors in the winter. Sometimes we have to just remember to open our eyes and maybe look a little harder.
The next day brought another opportunity to share with Joel, who has never been out this way, something that’s very special to me: A hike with Team Orange (my two Wirehaired Vizslas). I chose the more difficult trail at Maryland Heights, which has some neat Civil War history along the way.
Another iPhone panorama from the summit, showing the historic town of Harper’s Ferry, WV, and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.
A mellow evening after a fun filled weekend was in order, beginning with a final beverage on the Platform.
The sun sets on the last day of Joel’s visit. I’m so grateful to have my friends together for some fishing down at Rose River Farm, and for the chance to spend some more time with Joel, he and his wife Debbie have been such gracious hosts to me when I’ve visited out west.
Everyone was a bit tired after three days of fishing, hiking and drinking. So some couch time was what we were in the mood for, and Finn wasn’t going to let his new hiking buddy get too far away.
I spent a couple of days fishing in beautiful Madison County, VA with my friends Andrew, shown here on the left, who set up the trip as a birthday celebration, and Josh. I met Josh several years ago through Project Healing Waters, and while I always look forward to seeing him at PHW events, he is very much in demand at those events, so it was nice to spend some quality fishing time with him.
We started out with a day of fishing at Rose River Farm, a wonderful private stretch of water that holds some big, strong rainbows, with a few beautiful browns mixed in. Here Andrew targets some trout that were still sluggish in the cold morning water.
William from Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing was also fishing the Rose that day. I know William from his volunteer work with PHW and was glad he was there. He not only took this photo of me with a beautiful rainbow, he provided the fly I caught it on. Thanks William!
The day wound down, and we said goodbye to the Rose River. After a slow morning, the fish got pretty active in the afternoon and the late day dry fly fishing was incredibly fun. A great day on the river.
Andrew had arranged to rent one of the three luxury cabins at Rose River Farm.
I have never tied a fly before. But Josh, an accomplished fly tier who sells his flies on his Dead Drift Flies web site, offered to teach me how to tie one. The wooly bugger is a common beginner fly design, and is also something I could fish the next day as we headed into the Shenandoah National Park in search of brook trout. So this is what I tied. It is far from perfect, but Josh insisted it wasn’t awful for a first attempt.
The next morning brought temperatures at least 20 degrees colder than the previous day, a change that can sometimes turn off fishing altogether. But we decided to head into the park and give it a try. After a vigorous uphill hike to reach some nice pools, it wasn’t long before my first ever fly tricked this beautiful brookie.
The brook trout are typically small here in the park, with some exceptions, but if there is a more beautiful fish you can catch on a fly rod in the eastern part of the United States, I do not know what it is.
It was a wonderful day of hiking, scrambling on rocks to access hard to reach pools, and catching stunningly beautiful trout. A fantastic couple of days in a beautiful part of the state with great company and cooperative fish. Can you ask for anything more?
I’ve been pressed for time since I got back, but wanted to get these photos up from my trip to New York. So I’m trying the slideshow feature. Let me know how you like it!
I am normally very content to remain in my beloved Virginia. But every now and then, something in my brain clicks and I need to go west. It’s as if some sort of internal GPS needs to be reset and I can only do it in Montana. I am happy to accommodate this particular quirk of my brain every couple years, and am blessed to have a loving wife who is happy to support my pilgrimage.
On this trip, I wanted to dip south into Wyoming and explore Yellowstone National Park for a couple days. I had heard about Slough Creek, a special creek that takes a good hike to reach and holds some beautiful Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. So I decided that’s where I was headed.
I recruited some company for the journey, my good friend and Missoula-based fishing guide extraordinaire Joel Thompson for three very good reasons: One, he knows western water and bugs and trout like nobody else; Two, I very much enjoy his company; and Three, Slough Creek is firmly located in an area where it’s not wise to hike alone, an area teeming with wildlife such as elk, moose, wolves, bison and there’s one more, what was it? Oh yeah. Grizzly bears.
I’ll be honest here, I consider myself relatively ‘outdoorsy.’ But I admit that my particular brand of outdoorsy is a far cry from Yellowstone bear country outdoorsy. Joel, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time backcountry hiking and camping in truly remote, potentially perilous locations and conditions. So when he gave me a lesson in bear encounter body language, I listened intently.
I also made the mistake of reading the booklet that came with the bear spray I bought for the hike. This ‘helpful’ guide is loaded with things like a list of ways to avoid a bear encounter, and then a disclaimer saying that might not work. Or a list of bear behaviors that may indicate aggression, and then, “or, a bear may not exhibit any of these signs and attack without notice.”
So while the pep talk at the trailhead was not a big confidence booster, I felt a little better with the bear spray on my belt and the knowledge that encounters are rare, even in areas thick with bears. Backpacks were packed, and I felt anxious and excited and ready to go. We toasted our adventure (and settled my nerves) with a Moose Drool Brown Ale, an excellent choice in a Montana breakfast beer, and hit the trail.
Within 300 yards of the truck we encountered our first sign of bear activity. A huge, steaming (okay, not actually steaming, but unmistakably fresh) pile of bear scat. Soon after that we saw tracks, thankfully headed in the opposite direction we were hiking. But Joel’s relaxed conversation put me at ease and soon I was focused on the hike and scenery.
It was beautiful, no question, and I could have easily spent the entire day there. But we were both looking forward to a longer hike, and had our sights set on the second meadow, about five miles from the trailhead.
These were, as it turned out, easy miles. As we encountered more open country, my bear anxiety lessened. And my fitness efforts over the summer paid off as I felt comfortable hiking at a quick pace with a considerable pack on my back.
When we arrived at the second meadow, the trail had taken us well wide of the creek. A smaller path led a half-mile or so north to the water, and we quickened our steps in anticipation. As we reached the creek and shed the backpacks we spotted a large trout holding in a huge, deep pool below us and our excitement grew. We assembled our fly rods while discussing strategy. Joel was going after the big cuttie in the pool we were watching, and I headed upstream to explore.
Here, a half mile from my friend, I had a clear view in every direction, thousands of acres of grassland spotted with sagebrush surrounded by rugged mountains along the entire horizon. I stopped walking, stopped looking for rising trout, stopped thinking about catching them, and said to myself, “Look at where I am.”
A lone bison grazed in the quiet across the creek from me, and I sat on the bank and watched him. On our drive to the trailhead we saw hundreds of Yellowstone’s bison, but this solitary beast, so peaceful in this spectacular setting, triggered something in me. I was overwhelmed with the grandeur of it all.
It was more than the beauty of the place. It was working hard all year to save for the trip. It was sweating all summer to shed 25 extra pounds so if I got to a place like this I wouldn’t be worried about the hike back out. It was that rewarding burn in the legs from the walk. It was the easy comfort of a good friend nearby and the pleasant mix of adrenaline and Moose Drool in my stomach. It was the sandhill cranes above, the bison in the meadow and the trout below the creek’s surface. It was the aroma of sage with a distant hint of wildfire smoke in the air. It was a landscape unchanged for thousands of years, yet somehow utterly American. It was everything I ever could have imagined in a place, and it was more. It was emotional, spiritual and physical. It was timeless.
I could have wept. And, truthfully, that bison across the way did go blurry for a moment or two.
But there was fishing to be done, and only two of us as far as the eye could see to do it. So I took a few photos of this powerful place, knowing full well that even if I could somehow capture the beauty of it, the images would only tell a fraction of the story. But if nothing else, the pictures would serve as a reminder to me that special places and moments are out there, and that the ones you work hard to reach are made more special by the effort.
He was, predictably, having more success than I was. He had found a tight series of turns in the creek, with gravelly little beaches and rock formations forming a stunningly beautiful collection of promising fishing spots where both of us could fish on our own but still be nearby if one of us needed a hand landing a fish or taking a photo.
Joel loves to fish, but he also loves to help others catch fish. He spotted a feeding trout in a pool and carefully waded across to climb the rock face on the other side so he could look down and direct me where to cast. It worked, and in a few casts I had my very first Yellowstone cutthroat on the line. Joel hurried back across to make sure we got a photo of me with my fish. This is special to me not just as my first fish of this species in the most special place I have ever stood, but because Joel worked hard to help me get it.
But we were five miles from the truck and wanted plenty of daylight to get there. Animals move at dusk and if bears were going to return to the path, it was my preference to be sitting safely somewhere enjoying dinner and a beer or nine by then.
The trail going back seemed different, partly because I was pointed in the opposite direction of course, but partly because I was more relaxed. I was still alert for big things, but able to look around and enjoy the little things we encountered along the way. A grouse tried to startle us from the trailside brush. We watched a Clark’s Nutcracker (named for explorer William Clark) hunt for grasshoppers just a few feet away. Odd insects caught our attention like the bizarre and repugnant Mormon Cricket. And conversations abut these encounters and everything else under the sun were not only enjoyable, but also served to make a little extra noise on the trail so we didn’t surprise any Grizzlies.
But the packs were getting heavy, and we were parched and hungry. We had plenty of water, but it was packed away so we decided to just push on. We got to the truck without incident, and as I shed my backpack I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I had traveled a greater distance on foot than on any other single day in my life. I had stood in a place I will never forget, with a fly rod in my hand, and fooled a new species of fish to my fly. And I had not been mauled by a Grizzly bear. Pretty good day. One of the very best days, in fact.
In the uniquely charming town of Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, where elk walk the streets and graze on lawns between swing sets and recycle bins, there is a bar called the Iron Horse. We spotted it the previous day and declared when we returned from Slough Creek we would sit outside on their deck overlooking the mighty Yellowstone River, toast to our day with fine Montana brews, and shovel absurd quantities of food into our faces. It was another in a long list of excellent decisions we made all week long.
We refueled our depleted bodies with bison burgers topped with bacon, kielbasa sausage, caramelized onions and cheese. I washed mine down with several Bozone Amber Ales, Joel went with his beer of choice, an IPA.
And then it was over. Days just like it happen one after the other in this special place. The elk bugle, the bison graze and the cutthroat feed whether I’m there or not. But I am humbled, honored and privileged to have been able to stand in that meadow, to reach into that cool, clear water and touch those beautiful trout first described to science by Lewis and Clark, to be a part of this place for a day. And I’m not overstating it to say that all my days from now on will be a little bit different, a little bit better, for having been there.
If you are looking for a fly fishing guide in western Montana, look no further than Joel Thompson at Montana Troutaholics.
Note: All the above photos were taken with the Olympus Tough Series TG-1, many with the optional Olympus FCON-T01 Fish eye converter lens.