Preserving the Iconic Yellowstone River

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Paradise Valley, downriver from Yellowstone National Park, boasts some of Montana’s best trout fishing but is threatened by the prospect of gold mines near Emigrant Peak (shown here) and near Jardine just outside the park boundary. Larry Mayer photo

At the time of my first trip to the Yellowstone region, I was managing two fly shops for a fly-fishing retailer in Pennsylvania, and had just finished publishing the second edition of my book Fly-Fishing Guide to the Upper Delaware River. You might call it love at first sight, because after just a few days, I fell in love with the Yellowstone. Two years later, my wife and I had new jobs and a new home in Paradise Valley.

The Yellowstone has everything I want in a trout river. It rises high in Wyoming’s portion of the Absaroka Mountains, flows into Yellowstone National Park and through one of the largest alpine lakes in the world, before cascading down two of the most famous, awe-inspiring waterfalls on the planet. It exits the park near  Gardiner, Montana, crashes through the Yankee Jim Canyon, then continues north, gliding through Paradise Valley to Livingston, Montana. The reliable trout fishing ends near Laurel, Montana. Its 692-mile journey to the Missouri River makes the Yellowstone the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states.

Yes, it’s a large river, but some sections are wadable throughout much of the year. It’s still populated with native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but there’s a lot of variety, too. If you’re fishing the river in the park, you’ll catch nearly all cutthroat. Between the park and Yankee Jim Canyon, it’s a mix of cutts, cuttbows, and rainbows with a few browns. The Paradise Valley stretch to Livingston is mostly rainbows with a mix of cutthroat and browns. Below Livingston, the cutts diminish and the numbers of browns increase. And all through its course, the river is populated by the trouts’ native, silvery cousin—Rocky Mountain whitefish.

The scenery is spectacular. The fish are wild, and the Yellowstone shares its name with America’s first national park. It embodies everything that’s still wild and pure about the American West. It’s heaven.

Historic Beginnings

Fly fishers have been making pilgrimages to this river for more than 100 years. They’ve been taking trout since they first arrived, and occasionally introducing unwanted, destructive things such as invasive weeds, whirling disease, and proliferative kidney disease (PKD). In this same taking vein, and much to the Yellowstone’s misfortune, cutthroat trout aren’t the only golden bounty found here. Miners flock here too, looking for the type of gold that drives men to madness.

Fly-Fishing-Yellowstone-River

Montana outfitter Dan Rooster Leavens plays a cutthroat (the same one from the cover of this issue) near LeHardy’s Rapids on the Yellowstone River. Brian Grossenbacher photo

In A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy-Five Years (Scribner’s, 1948), legendary fly fisherman Edward Ringwood Hewitt recounts his first fishing trip to the Yellowstone River in the late 19th century when he was 15 years old. “In those days, the river teemed with trout, some of which I caught on a fly . . . These trout seemed to run in size from two to four and a half pounds. These trout were, of course, cutthroats as the rainbow and brown trout were then unknown in this part of the country.”

Paul Schullery, in his book Cowboy Trout (Montana Historical Society Press, 2006), places the date of Hewitt’s boyhood visit somewhere in 1881 or 1882, more than 75 years after the beginning of Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery and nearly a decade before the last major conflict ­between the United States and Native Americans at Wounded Knee.

But the days of unspoiled cutthroat trout fishing in the Yellowstone didn’t last long. When Hewitt revisited Yellowstone National Park in 1914, he caught brown trout near Mammoth Hot Springs. And if men had put them there, you can be pretty sure that they were also in the Yellowstone. But today’s Yellowstone River anglers still catch wild descendants of Hewitt’s native cutthroat trout. And that ecological continuity is rare in the modern world.

Seasons on the ’Stone

It surprises many of my Eastern friends who equate Montana winters with Alaska, but winter on the Yellowstone is one of my favorite times. The fishing is usually best from February through the beginning of spring runoff (May). December and January are often cold, and the river generally freezes over. Your best bet this time of year is to tie flies or visit one of the Paradise Valley spring creeks, tributaries of the Yellowstone. All three of these rod-limited, pay-to-fish spring creeks—Armstrong’s, Nelson’s, DePuy’s—remain ice free all year. Standard spring creek nymphs like scuds, small nymphs (generally, size 16 and smaller) such as Pheasant Tails, and olive or tan caddis larvae work well. Small leeches as well as eggs and worms also catch fish.

Midge hatches can instigate surface feeding at any time. CDC emergers fished in the film take rising trout, and red and black Zebra Midges are great subsurface.

When warm Chinook winds begin to blow through Paradise Valley and the ice breaks up on the Yellowstone, it’s time to revisit the river. Finesse is usually unimportant. Stout 3X or 4X tippet for foam drys and dropper nymphs is fine. Stonefly nymphs (#10-12), including Pat’s Rubberlegs are standard, as are Prince Nymphs (#10-16) of every conceivable color and shape. I’m particularly fond of Mike Mercer’s Psycho Prince in yellow or blue.

It’s possible to find fish rising in late winter, but spring provides Blue-winged Olives (Baetis spp.), Western March Browns (Rhithrogena spp.), and more consistent dry-fly action.

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The epic Mother’s Day Caddis hatch concludes the pre-runoff fishing. This prolific Brachycentrus caddis creates a trout feeding frenzy with drys, nymphs, and wets until the river swells with snowmelt. Salmonflies appear near the end of runoff, but it may be difficult to fish large dry flies due to high water.

After runoff—historically sometime in early July—the Yellowstone begins its prime season. Many fly fishers use tandems of variously colored Chubby Chernobyl dry flies and nymph droppers. Prolific hatches of Golden Stoneflies and Yellow Sallies make these foam drys irresistible to ravenous fish that have been unpressured for over a month. Western Green Drakes (Drunella spp.), size 10-16 caddis (black, brown, tan, and olive of various species), and PMDs (E. dorothea infrequens) also appear in the summer.

By August, wind and ranchers mowing hay push swarms of grasshoppers to the water, and it’s time to switch to hopper dry flies. Size 12-16 attractor drys like Purple Haze, Adams, and Humpys round out basic fly pattern selections for summer and fall on the Yellowstone.

Streamers can also be deadly for autumn, prespawn browns, though throwing them early morning or evening can fool any species. But these hatches and fly selections are only basic guidelines. Weather and water levels have become less dependable in recent years, affecting the river’s fishing.

Many Challenges

The Yellowstone’s greatest water-flow challenge isn’t necessarily the amount of snow the watershed receives, but the timing of the snowmelt.

Historically, runoff began at lower elevations sometime in May, and continued through the high country in June, gradually diminishing to fishable flows sometime in early to mid-July. Cold water in “normal” years continued into August and early September. But due to a changing climate, runoff often now starts much earlier in the year. May runoff at higher elevations is becoming common, and recent years we have even seen significant runoff in April. This leaves trout vulnerable during Montana’s dry, hot summers.

Yellowstone-River-Lodge

The new 34-room Sage Lodge near Emigrant Peak is situated on a former stock pond. The lodge and four satellite cabins are set well back from the river to protect its mile of river frontage from continued development. Sage Lodge photo

Low water forces the fish into reduced habitat areas, which makes them more susceptible to disease and predators. Severe flooding in the 1990s has also created a wider, shallower Yellowstone River. Erosion from these high-water events has caused many riverside landowners to install rip-rap (large boulders) along the banks to protect their properties from erosion. This rip-rap constrains and channelizes the river, removing the floodplains and the meandering nature of the river from the ecosystem. A huge increase in seasonal trophy homes throughout Paradise Valley is also pressuring the river’s aquifer.

Whitefish as Canaries

The summer of 2016 was unusually warm and dry in southwest Montana. Below-average snowpack created reduced river flows and temperatures that were already stressing trout when summer arrived. August brought historic low flows, within 280 cfs of the lowest recorded for that month. It was a particularly hot day when my wife and I took our English mastiff puppy, Olive, to the ­river’s Loch Leven access to play fetch. On her third retrieve, Olive brought back a 12-inch whitefish.

“Weird,” I thought, but then I took a look upriver. There were more dead fish. A lot more. Yellowstone whitefish were dying in unprecedented numbers. On August 19, 2016, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) completely closed a 183-mile section of the Yellowstone (and its tributaries) to all water-based recreation from the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the Highway 212 bridge in Laurel, Montana. FWP biologists ultimately concluded that the whitefish were suffering from an outbreak of the Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae parasite, which can cause proliferative kidney disease in fish (PKD).

One of humanity’s greatest character flaws is our desire to witness ­catastrophe, whether it’s slowing down on a highway to stare at a traffic accident or being glued to The Weather Channel as people’s lives are destroyed by hurricanes. Media outlets know this and use disastrous stories to lock in viewers. But the other side of this coin is much less interesting. And when a story is ultimately found to be less serious than initially imagined, the media move on to the next crisis. That’s exactly what happened with the Yellowstone River 2016 fish kill.

Media outlets from NBC’s Nightly News to The New York Times shouted that a catastrophe was unfolding on the Yellowstone. Thousands of fish were dying. It didn’t matter if they were trout or whitefish, but the truth is that nearly all of them were whitefish. It was a sad thing to behold. I love these native fish. But fly fishers don’t travel to Montana to catch whitefish. They want trout.

Yellowstone-River-Cutthroat

In the park, the river holds almost exclusively native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. As you progress downstream toward Livingston, there are rainbows, browns, and of course Rocky Mountain whitefish. Paul Weamer photo

As it turns out, only a handful of trout died from the parasite. But no one wanted to report that good news after the crisis abated. I was still receiving phone calls at the fly shop eight months after the river reopened, asking if fly fishers were allowed to fish it.

Many guides believe the whitefish population was too high, a contributing factor to the kill. Disease often takes its toll when animal populations outgrow the holding capacity of their environment. I spoke to one guide who said it’s been easier for his clients to catch trout through Paradise Valley now that the whities have been thinned a bit. And there are still plenty of whitefish. I’ve caught many since the kill, in all year classes.

The entire Yellowstone River re-opened September 23, 2016. Further testing has revealed that the Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae parasite is also present in the Big Hole, Big Horn, Boulder, East Gallatin, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison, Shields, and Stillwater rivers. It’s important to note that the presence of the parasite does not necessarily mean that fish will get sick.

Speakers at a meeting in Livingston organized to bring closure to the fish kill—were asked not to mention ranchers and their use of Yellowstone water for irrigation because, “We’re all in this together, and one side shouldn’t be singled out as a problem.” But Montana’s pathetically antiquated water laws must be addressed. When the river was completely closed due to nearly unprecedented low flows, ranchers weren’t asked to change a thing. Their irrigation pivots continued to rain down Yellowstone River water into hayfields throughout the crisis.

Vitally important coldwater tributaries like Mill Creek are completely dewatered in their lowest sections every summer. Mill Creek is an important nursery for imperiled Yellowstone cutthroat, yet fishery health receives little consideration when it comes to deeded water rights.

Due in part to the Yellowstone PKD episode, but largely because the Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs tested positive for invasive aquatic mussels, Montana’s legislature passed Senate Bill 363, which requires all resident and nonresident anglers to purchase an Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass. The pass ($2 for residents and $15 for nonresidents) is projected to generate over $3 million to help fight invasive species transmission.

Montana is also loudly preaching the same mantra we’ve been hearing (but not always following) since the days of whirling disease: clean, drain, dry. Clean all mud and plant debris from your boots, waders, and boats with hot water. Drain all standing water. And thoroughly dry all your fishing equipment before bringing it to a new watershed.

Hopefully, this aggressive approach will help curtail the threat of invasive species. But it won’t address climate change or the water removed from the system by ranchers. And it doesn’t address the Yellowstone’s other great threat—gold mining.

Treasure State

Despite the fact that Montana has some of the world’s finest wild trout water, our official nickname is “The Treasure State,” not “The Trout State.” In Montana, mining, ranching, and industry come first. The health of riverine ecosystems is a distant fourth in this fisherman’s paradise. And mining concerns are still very much alive along the Yellowstone.

Two foreign-owned mining companies (Lucky Minerals and Crevice Mining Group) are vying to mine gold beside the Yellowstone River near Paradise Valley’s Emigrant Peak and near Jardine just a half mile outside of the park’s north gate. Mine proponents are spouting the same company lines you hear from all mining companies: It’s safe, jobs are important, what we do on private property should not be regulated by the federal government, and so on. But it’s 2017, not 1817. And it’s incomprehensible madness to allow gold mines on the banks of the Yellowstone River just outside the boundaries of our nation’s first national park.

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Prince Nymphs of all types work on the Yellowstone. The author is partial to yellow or blue Mercer’s Psycho Prince. Paul Weamer photo

Thankfully, the river and Yellowstone National Park have concerned friends. Senator John Tester (D-Montana) introduced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act on April 25, 2017 to protect more than 30,000 acres along the river and park boundaries from gold mine proposals.

Simms has produced a Save Our Yellowstone River shirt, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a vital conservation group founded in 1983, dedicated to protecting and preserving the lands, waters, and wildlife that surround Yellowstone National Park.

The new Sage Lodge is opening in 2018 in Paradise Valley. The Joshua Green Corporation, owner of the lodge and the fly rod company sharing the same name, has also joined the fight to preserve the river and the local tourism economy.

The river has influential allies and is gaining more every day. You can help, too. Call your senator in support of the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act. Visit the web sites of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (greateryellowstone.org) and the Greater Yellowstone Business Coalition (dontmineyellowstone.com) to learn more about the gold mine issue, and to donate time or money to help protect the Yellowstone. The descendants of Edward Ringwood Hewitt’s beautiful Yellowstone cutthroat trout need your help.

Paul Weamer lives near Livingston, Montana, and works at Sweetwater Fly Shop. He is the author of several books and is a longtime Fly Fisherman contributor. His last feature in Fly Fisherman was “100 years: A century of fishing the Hendrickson hatch,” which appeared in the June-July 2015 issue.

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Montana Fly Fishing As It Was

Montana Fly FishingThe big-boned bay gelding barely spared a glance as we dug out a 5-weight from the pack mule’s panniers. He was more intent on the tall, lush grass directly in front of his face, and with a look around the meadow as we staked the horses in, I decided I couldn’t blame him. The grassy meadow was only beginning to surrender to midsummer Montana heat, turning crunchy under our footsteps, and the branches of a large tree offered shade from what promised to be another unseasonably warm day. The sound of trickling water drew my attention to the clear current of nearby Hellroaring Creek, and I realized the bay had the right idea. This was a special form of paradise.

Scenes like that, however, must be earned. Several days earlier, we mounted up at Box Canyon, an access point alongside the Boulder River, and rode horseback through a portion of Montana’s wildest country. Crisscrossing the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness brought an entirely new meaning to the word “isolated.” These days, even in Montana it can prove challenging to find oneself truly removed from civilization.

The day-long ride canvassed miles of Big Sky Country terrain, climbing sharply uphill to cross over the Great Divide at Hellroaring Divide, and then descending into a meadow right out of a Zane Grey novel. Trees burned nearly 30 years ago in the great Yellowstone fires guided our train of horses into Bull Moose Camp, a congregation of tents situated at the confluence of the three forks of Hellroaring Creek—the same Hellroaring that meanders into Yellowstone National Park a mere eight miles south and eventually joins the Yellowstone River.

Forget the trendy bustle of Bozeman or the industry of Billings—in the backcountry, it’s far more likely you’ll see moose, deer, or even wolves than another person. You are removed from the distractions and worries of everyday life. Days drift by, timed only by fishing expeditions and a hearty three meals a day from the steadfast camp cook, Pat. At the seasoned age of 69, Pat spends the entire season in the camp before heading into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness to cook for hunting camps for the fall season. From first arrival into Bull Moose Camp, it was readily apparent Pat ran a tight ship—and that it was best to stay on her good side.

Sitting around the campfire, I came to the conclusion that the rest of our compatriots could have stepped directly from the screen of a John Wayne movie. The outfitters Cameron Mayo and his wife Lonny (absarokabeartooth.com) formerly managed a successful ranching operation near Big Timber, Montana, and now lead backcountry fishing and big-game hunting trips to their two permitted camps on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. Lonny’s family has been running sheep in these mountains for generations, and she had the stories to prove it.

The camp crew were characters all their own: Patrick was a ranch hand who also ran a small-town bar (the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe) with his wife. Jacob was a third-generation Montana 22-year-old who competed in the rodeo when he was not in the mountains or working the family ranch. And young Jeremiah had a quick wit and good tales from the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale.

The logistics behind running a camp like Bull Moose—and running it safely—were staggering, as evidenced by the long mule train Cameron, Patrick, and Jeremiah packed in with supplies for the week. But at the end of the day, we were there on a united mission: to chase one of the most extraordinary trout species in the Rocky Mountain West.

Montana Fly FishingNative Cutthroat
Our quarry was native Yellowstone cutthroat, and the fishing was prime. The fish were under very low pressure; keen to rise to anything that looked halfway interesting.

Hellroaring Creek proved to be primarily a dry-fly fishery, one where a well-placed fly almost always raised a fish. (It had been several years since I went eight fish for eight casts, but one afternoon when I traded the camera for a rod, it happened.)

According to the National Park Service, “Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri) are the most widespread native trout of the park and were the dominant fish species prior to Euroamerican settlement. They provide an important source of food for an estimated 20 species of birds, and mammals including bears, river otters, and mink.

“Genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations have declined throughout their natural range in the Intermountain West, succumbing to competition with and predation by nonnative fish species, a loss of genetic integrity through hybridization, habitat degradation, predation, and angling harvest.

“State and federal wildlife agencies classify the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as a sensitive species. However, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not warrant listing the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

“Yellowstone Lake and the Yellowstone River together contain the largest inland population of cutthroat trout in the world. While the ­Yellowstone cutthroat trout is historically a Pacific drainage species, it has (naturally) traveled across the Continental Divide into the Atlantic drainage. One possible such passage in the Yellowstone area is Two Ocean Pass, south of the park in the Teton Wilderness. Here, it’s possible that fish swam across the Continental Divide at the headwaters of Pacific Creek and Atlantic Creek and, thus, swam from the Pacific to the Atlantic watersheds.”

The “cutties” require cold, clean water, making the high country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness an ideal home. Even in late July, there was water cold enough to make my skin prickle while wet wading. While the rivers at lower elevations were under hoot owl restrictions or complete closures, the water in Hellroaring was cold and supporting a healthy fish population.

Cutthroat live chiefly on a diet of aquatic insects, but any terrestrials that happen to fall into the creek are also fair game. The cutthroat seemed eager to take anything we threw at them—the Royal Wulff was a favorite, as was really any “meaty” dry fly. It was light rod/large attractor dry-fly heaven, and would make a positive first experience for family members just getting into fly fishing.

Every clear, pastoral pool seemed to offer up plenty of smaller cutthroat (most fish measured 12 inches or less), while larger fish could occasionally be found tucked in the undercut banks lining the meandering creek.

The fish themselves looked like something out of a children’s coloring book. Prominent crimson slashes marked their lower jaws, lean light brown, silver, and even yellow-tinted bodies were dotted with an artist’s splatter of dark spots, the concentration heavier toward the fish’s posterior. There was no mistaking these trout with their other Montana kin, and even a child could easily identify the differences between a Yellowstone cutthroat and a rainbow or brown trout.

There was easy, accessible fishing within comfortable walking distance both above and below camp, allowing anglers to take advantage of morning, evening, or “camp day” angling. The three forks of Hellroaring Creek met at the camp, offering a delicious decision every day… which way to go? An hour’s ride on horseback opened up even more stellar water. The horses were tethered, happily parked like cars in a posh lot while the anglers and guide fished along the creek.

Mountain lakes dotted the high-altitude countryside, surrounded by hills lined with burned trees from the 1988 Yellowstone fires, slowly being reclaimed by persistent new growth. For fly fishers in the mood for larger rods and stripping streamers, several mountain lakes presented targets for larger trout.

Cameron joined us every step of the way, showing us his favorite holes and undercut banks in the creek and, one particularly hot afternoon, guiding us up to one of these large lakes that provided both an opportunity to tie on a few streamers but also to enjoy a midday dip into the surprisingly frigid water.

With his ever-present, weather-worn cowboy hat and ancient Simms vest sporting stains from many seasons past, Cameron proved to be a jovial, entertaining, and savvy guide both on the river and in the backcountry. When we found one particular pool that offered up more than its fair share of eager cutthroat, he volunteered to hike back several miles to get the horses while we continued to work our way upstream. We eventually met him beyond the next several bends in the river. I felt a bit spoiled, it was like valet service for your horse. In the backcountry. Somehow it worked.

Montana Fly FishingCamp Life
Life in camp was comfortable. An outdoor shower, large wall tents sporting both carpet and cots, and a well-stocked kitchen complete with a bearproof snack cabinet ensured we were comfortable. Midweek we delved into the snack bin looking for mini chocolate bars for s’mores, and I couldn’t help but laugh. “Roughing it” indeed.

Electricity was pointedly absent around the camp. After dark, you needed a headlamp. A communal wash station rested right outside the mess tent, and a pit toilet was tucked back in the willows. With Pat’s hearty three meals a day and a well-stocked bar stored in a bearproof container, the camp rivaled many hotels I’ve stayed in over the years.

After a long day of fishing, hiking, and riding, the simple acts of splashing water on your face to get the dust off, digging into a hearty meal, and then sitting around the campfire talking about nothing in particular tended to remind one of the real priorities in life. Why do we fish, we often ask ourselves? At times like this, and places such as this, the answers are easy: For people like these. For fish like the however many (we lost count every day) Yellowstone cutthroat we saw each day. For adventures that—without the somewhat inexplicable need to catch fish on a string with a bit of feather and a hook—we’d never otherwise experience.

My final morning in camp, I pulled out a notebook and wrote the following, trying to find a way to capture the place: “There are no moose in Bull Moose Camp. They were chased out by ranging wolf packs, and have been absent four years. There are, however, plenty of cowboys, horses, mules, and a curious supply of rather good boxed wine.

“This morning, the sun not yet peeking over the mountains and the air frosty, Pat rules Bull Moose. The camp cook is 69 but looks a full 15 years younger, and rules the kitchen with an iron fist and the gravelly voice of a lifelong smoker. The temperature hovers near 30 F., but she’s making cowboy coffee and prepping breakfast in a battered tank top, seemingly impervious to the cold. We hunker in front of the fire and talk about life—she’s the eldest of 12 siblings and an ambitious world traveler when she’s not cooking in remote mountain ranges.

“A distant thunder sounds and we move to the front of the tent, watching as Patrick and Jacob run in the horses from their overnight grazing far up the meadow. The herd of horses and hardworking mules—all good, solid stock glistening with health—break down into a trot as they near the pen, eager for the grain ration they know is waiting. Horses settled, the guys meander to the tent for hot coffee, igniting another round of quiet morning chatter as we settle before the stove and wait for the rest of camp to wake.”

Hellroaring presented Montana as it was, the West as it is, and fly fishing as it should be.

Jess McGlothlin is a freelance writer and photographer, currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Find more of her work at jessmcglothlinmedia.com.

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