I passed on fishing Rangeley this year for the first time in 20+ years and headed west to Yellowstone with my good friend Craig. Many of you know that I travel for work quite a bit so I decided to take advantage of my points and miles so the trip cost me pretty much nothing. We stayed in Bozeman because of the hotel points for the first 4 nights and then in West Yellowstone with another friend for the last two nights. The Bozeman location and wanting to fish in or near the park made for some early morning and late night commutes but we were okay with that.
We started the first day with fishing the Gallitan close to the park and got shut out. Little did we know that we passed some really good water on the way in but couldn't see it in the dark! We didn't actually see the sights on Montana 191 until Friday morning on the way out to the airport! The drive is beautiful so make sure you do it but do so carefully. There are 51 roadside crosses from Bozeman to West Yellowstone so pay attention.
We left the Gallitan not discouraged and headed to the Madison on the park. Our first stop should have been a drive by but we didn't know any better and suited up. We fished without any success and got in the Infinity Q70 to head further into the park. We found a nice pullover devoid of tourists and some nice water. I tied on one of my leeches as I was anxious to hook a fish and it's an excellent searching fly. A few casts in and I hooked and landed my first fish...a 5 inch brown. I was counting it. A few casts later I hooked and landed a much bigger fish but popped it off. I then headed up river a bit and spotted some BIG fish in a deep pool. I got a few to move to the leech but no takers. Craig came back down river and I gave him the hole while I tied on a white miller as a few were coming off the water. It didn't take long and the fly was inhaled by a nice fish. It took me a few minutes but I landed my first real Madison River rainbow that was in the 19" range! We fished the section for a few hours and had it all to ourselves for the most part.
From there we headed to the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbons. Here we had to share the water with a lot of others and becasue of that we didn't hang around to long and seeing how it was getting dark, headed back to Bozeman. We went out the north entrance through Gardiner and stopped for dinner. There's not a whole lot going on in Gardnier!
The next morning we arranged to meet with Parker at Slough Creek. We had hoped to hike into the 2nd meadow but the fire (which was out) keep us and everyone else out. The good news is that there was little pressure in the the lower meadows. We got some coaching from Parker and started stalking fish and I mean stalking. Standing high on the banks you can see the cruising fish. And not little fish, I mean fish in the 18-20 range were everywhere. Craig started with a dry and I started with the leech. Three of four casts in and I had a nice cutbow at the net. Notice I didn't say in the net. Never under estimate a fish bouncing around at the net...it broke off and back in the river it went for another day. Exciting way to start. We fished up and down the river and managed a few fish before deciding to head over to the Soda Butte.
The Soda is a pretty creek but was loaded and I mean loaded with people. The Lamar was running coffee because of the rain that night so we headed back to the Slough. Good choice for us as everyone that was there left and we had the place to ourselves. Good choice. Craig picked up a nice cutbow in the 18 inch range and I landed 2 that were similar plus a BIG 23inch one! The Slough turned out to be one of my favorite spots. There are no small fish in that creek. I think the smallest we caught might have been 14 inches. It's tough fishing but we had a blast.
The next day we headed to a few sections on the lower Madison - the section above Quake Lake and then Raynolds Pass. We started up near the restaurant - which by the way is a great breakfast spot and I challenge anyone to eat the 3 stack pancakes. Craig did well up high fishing the pocket water and landed a few fish while busting off a good one. I got shut out and we decided to check out things down lower. The section just above the lake is beautiful just like everywhere else out there. Parker moved down to the slow water while Craig and I nymphed some of the heavier water. I picked up one brown and a few mountain whitefish. Craig had moved to a smaller side channel and was focused on a large pod of fish tailing and feasting on nymphs. We didn't catch many fish here but the place is loaded and decided to try again later in the week. Raynolds Pass was the last section of the day. Beautiful water with lots of big boulders, faster water and some dry fly water too. I headed to the far side while Craig and Parker focused on the near side. Some tips in hand from Parker I was into fish pretty quick as I focused on the pockets behind the big rocks. Again, we didn't catch a lot of fish here but the ones we did were all in the mid to high teens.
Wednesday we focused on the Madison in the park along with fishing the Firehole. We hit the spot that I caught the rainbow on the first day but the only attention we got was from the tourists. It's good to know that Craig and I will be in some family photo album. Off to the Firehole where Craig did well. Me, I got shut out. We finished the day on on some heavier water closer to the park entrance and both Craig and Parker got some nice fish. Craig landed a nice brown that literally took him 100 yards down river. I broke off one fish as I forgot to change the 6x tippet from the Firehole. Rookie mistake for sure!
The last day we fished Quake Lake again and was challenged by the multiple hatches going on. Craig picked up a nice rainbow in the waster water up above and I popped off two in the same spot before headed down to the slow water with Parker. The fish were rising and we managed to pick up a few fish on top. The fish inhale the fly and because the water is so clear you need to slow down the set as you'll miss the fish. I think I pulled the fly out on one fish 3 times before he finally moved out. We finished the day at 3 Dollar bridge fishing dries to pods and pods of fish. It was a bit windy and raining and very frustrating to have so many fish at a rod length away and not catch any! I think we did manage a few fish but walked away with a I'll be back!
It was a great week. Beautiful country for sure. We didn't catch a lot of fish but what we did catch was big. We kept asking where all the small fish were! And much different fishing from what we have here in Maine. More technical for sure and I now have a much understanding of what many of you have reported for years on fishing the west. It was great having Parker with us as he certainly lowered the learning curve. many many thanks to him for showing us the ropes and putting us up for a few nights.
Some other notes:
You can't rent bear spray - or at least we couldn't find a place to rent it. We bought some but never opened and in the end, got a store credit at Madison River Outfitter in West Yellowstone. They were nice people to deal with. We didn't open it as we had hoped to get into the upper Slough. I'd say we took some risk by not opening but...If you do buy, buy the neeprene holder too. A can is $45 +/- depending on the shop
Food - we ate dinners out and peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Hightlight was the Buffalo restaurant's hog handle appetizer - try it! Breakfast at the Quake Lake diner - not sure of the right name - is really good. The cinnamon roll is outstanding and the pancakes are plate sized! Could use real maple syrup but I looked past that.
Flies - we caught fish on dries, nymphs and of course leeches. Both the nymphs and dries were small, like hard to see small. Not a single take on hoppers although I did have a have a few takes on foam beetles. Craig landed a nice Slough Creek cutbow on a chernobly ant.
Animals - we saw lots of buffalo, a very large coyote on Slough, mule deer, elk, a badger and a large bear jumping a fence just north of Gardiner.
Gear - you can wet wade even in September and we saw many people doing it. I had bought a pair of Reddington pant style waders to use for the trip - spanking brand new - they leaked on day two. More like gushed on day two. They will be going back. That was the only equipment failure. Bring lots of tippet - we used 7x to 4x. We changed flies a lot! I used my hardy Zentih 5 weight with my Orvis Battenkill LA reel. New line is awesome!
Camera - don't forget to put the battery in your camera after you charge it. I didn't and so don't have any fish pics. Craig has some and will post.
Crowding- The rivers were busy but we always found water to fish and only once did we have have a person encroach on our space. People were very courteous. There's so many fish and so much water that you can move to another spot and be guaranteed to cast to fish. And people don't fish early or late for that matter. We had the first 2 and last 2 hours mostly to ourselves. I was good with that!
It was a great trip and I learned a ton. I thought I was a good fisherman but the west can humble you for sure. Already planning my second trip!