Chasing rainbows

Henry’s Fork in Yellowstone National Park is one of the best places to go to for trout fishing in the US. Trout fishing in the area starts in May and continues throughout the whole of the summer season.
On the trail of big-trout hideouts in and around Yellowstone National Park

“What we need right now is a good storm,” said Mike Lawson as he shook a couple of beadhead prince nymphs onto the counter of his fly-fishing shop in Last Chance, Idaho. “The weather’s just too nice for good fishing.”

Lawson is one of the cagiest guides on Henry’s Fork, which is one of the premier trout streams in the country. Trout fishing in the tangle of spring-fed creeks and clear, cold rivers west of Yellowstone National Park starts in May, gets good in June, and continues through summer. In the spring and fall, fly fishers get their best shot at big rainbows and browns, with cutthroats offering a high profile during the summer. But so far our fall trip had been discouraging. My fishing buddy, Bruce, even joked that Lawson’s Last Chance shop might be our last chance to salvage the trip.

While the fishing itself had been good, with balmy weather and hardly any other visitors, the catching had been not so good. And don’t let anyone kid you: the catching is what makes or breaks a fishing trip, especially when you’ve come as far as we had.

We had flown into Idaho Falls a few days earlier and driven right past Henry’s Fork in a hurry to get to West Yellowstone, a little town in the heart of the network of waters in and around Yellowstone National Park. We expected fish to be working these waters the way ants work a picnic. The biggest picnic, I thought, would be on the Firehole River.

My haste to fish the Firehole was deliberate. Years ago legendary Montana guide Bud Lilly suggested I use the remaining light of a cold late-September day to try a dry fly on the Firehole River just above the Midway Geyser Basin.

A storm was approaching, and as I waded into the river, the wind eased and snow began to fall, big flakes spinning as they swirled onto the steaming surface of the water. Somewhere off in the whiteness, a bull elk bugled, an eerily high and mournful trumpeting that echoed off the hills. Across the valley a coyote answered with a yipping howl. By dark I had caught and released three of the largest trout I had ever seen in the park.

I wanted another shot at those fish. Bruce listened patiently to the story for probably the 100th time as we approached the park entrance, only to find that the road along the Firehole up to Old Faithful had been closed for the season for reconstruction.

It probably wouldn’t have mattered. West Yellowstone guides had warned us that warm weather was keeping the dry-fly hatches from happening, and the bright sun on the water was spooking the trout. We fished terrestrials and nymphs on the lower meadow of the Gibbon, the pocket water on the lower Firehole, and the deep pools where the two streams join to form the Madison River. Then we worked down the Madison, wading hip-deep in fast water over slippery rocks to cast streamers deep for brown trout. These big spawners hide out in riffles and pools along River Road and in waters near the park entrance that locals call “the barns,” but nobody we met on the river that day had caught a thing. Neither did we.

We canvassed a good part of the greater Yellowstone area during several long days, but the trout were fussy. Even local guides were shaking their heads over the unseasonably good weather and tough conditions. We were running out of time and options, and I was starting to smell like a skunk.

Which is why we ended up in Last Chance. Normally, we would have tried the bigger, opaque Madison River below Quake Lake, but exceptionally large water releases had made the Madison too high for fishing. We debated trying one of the other big rivers, like the Missouri or Big Hole, from a guided drift boat, but with only one full day of fishing left, we opted for the buggy and challenging Henry’s Fork. Lawson gave us an access map, sold us two likely types of flies, and pointed us toward a stretch of river flowing through Railroad Ranch.

Broad, flat, and shallow enough to wade from bank to bank, the big-bending Henry’s is a classic spring-fed creek with clear, cold water flowing smoothly over thick beds of weeds. A thin film of fog still covered the water as we parked at the access. A bald eagle flew up, then down, then back up the river, occasionally dipping into the mist in graceful swoops. We pulled on waders and rigged up our rods as the sun burned through the last of the mist. Casting one of Lawson’s size-16 green leeches, I worked slowly down the river without much hope.

For a long and futile hour, I threw out line and stripped it back. Then a cold wind came up and blocks of dark clouds began stacking above the western horizon. The good weather was finally breaking.

The temperature dropped quickly, and a scattered hatch of small mayflies started coming off the river. A few trout rose tentatively, leaving faint dimples where they sipped the surface. Snipping off the leech and tying on a tiny, size-20 dry Griffith gnat, I took a deep breath. Casting into the wind makes presentation difficult, because the fly must drift naturally over the feeding fish.

I whipped the line downstream and to the right between gusts; the fly sat high on the surface as it drifted through the feeding lane. On the next cast, it started its drift, then suddenly disappeared into a glinting swirl. Setting the hook, I held on with both hands as the 22-inch trout sprinted, dragging my line toward the far riverbank.

Even now I can see that rainbow leaping high above the water, throwing a glittering spray of droplets, flashing silver and gold in the bright autumn sun. Carefully releasing the trout, I tied on a new fly as the cold wind picked up. Finally, the catching was good.

Yellowstone fly-fishing planner

Separate fishing licenses are required for Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park. Fly-fishing shops sell licenses and can explain local regulations.

Fly shops and guides

Hire a guide to get the lay of the land (about $275 to $350 a day for one or two anglers). Call the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce (406/6467701) for a complete list of area fly shops, which can direct you to guides. In West Yellowstone (it has five shops), try Blue Ribbon Flies (406/646-7642). In Last Chance, try Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Anglers (800/788-4479).

Lodging

The best fishing lodge in the region is Henry’s Fork Lodge (208/558-7953) near Last Chance. It isn’t cheap (from $250 per person, including meals and airport transportation), but it is so comfortable that nonanglers won’t complain about your fishing time if you strand them here. For more choices, call the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

Roads

For an update on road closures in Yellowstone National Park after September 1, call (307) 344-2113.

Reference

The Yellowstone Flyfishing Guide, by Craig Mathews and Clayton Molinero (Lyons & Burford Publishers, New York, 1998; $16.95; 800/836-0510, ext. 29), has 176 information-packed pages with 15 maps showing every fishable stream in the park.

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