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.