A trout is a very nervous creature, says “The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide.” Early in July, flying into Bozeman, Mont., along the frosted crest of the Rocky Mountains, I could empathize, because I was about to test my nerves against theirs in the fabled trout streams that drain the northern precincts of Yellowstone National Park: the Madison, Gardner, Gibbon, Lamar and the mighty Yellowstone, the longest free-flowing river in the Lower 48.
Inside the 2.2-million-acre national park there are 400 fishable waters, including meandering creeks, ponds and lakes where, after being duped by fly-fishermen, most fish live to be duped again because, thanks to conservation, catch and release is largely the rule. The fishing season lasts from snowmelt in late May to first snowfall in October, and the average size of trout landed in the park is about 14 inches--lake, brook, brown, rainbow and the native cutthroat trout, known for its incredible gullibility. Studies have shown that the average cutthroat gets hooked 10 times a season, and that some are so dumb they land in a net three times a day.
So, despite the fact that I’d only done a little fishing before, and never with an imitation fly (versus a real insect lure), the odds were with me and against the trout. To strengthen my advantage, I booked a six-night guided fly-fishing package at Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge ($2,080, not including equipment rental or van transfer from the Bozeman, Mont., airport), one of about 40 lodges endorsed by the well-known fishing outfitter, the Orvis Co.
Hubbard’s is perched on the shoulders of the Absaroka Mountains beside 85-acre Merrell Lake, 17 miles north of the park in the Paradise Valley of Montana. To say the least, a river runs through it. The Yellowstone River, which gets lazy after its chute off the 7,000-foot Yellowstone plateau, and oxbows through the valley until it turns east to meet with the Missouri River near the North Dakota border.
The overhead compartments on my flight were full of rod bags, and when I landed at the little Bozeman Airport there were fishermen practice-casting on the lawn. At the baggage claim, I was met by my guide, Phil Gager, a junior majoring in history at Colgate University in New York. He was tall, diffident and dangerously cute. This did not seem a good sign, because I was serious about the cutthroats, and unlikely to learn anything from a 20-year-old.
Fly-fishing differs from other kinds of fishing chiefly because it involves luring a fish with artificial tied flies, as opposed to live bait.
A wise man once told me that fly-fishing is a perfect marriage of technique and art--an imponderable sport really, more contemplative than athletic, requiring grace, observation, considerable science and imagination, which is what makes a fly-fisherman able to think like a fish.
That wise man was Phil, who learned the art from his father on the fly-fishing streams of Pennsylvania when he was 8, and spent last summer on Colorado’s Frying Pan River apprenticing with Pat McCord, a 1996 Orvis Guide of the Year. In my week with him, Phil taught me how to cast; the difference between dry fly-fishing (on the surface) and nymphing (with the fly slightly submerged); to look down my nose at worm fishermen; that even cutthroats know a real fly from a fake one clumsily dragged across the water. And he taught me something else: that you can learn from anybody, old, young, naive or sage.
Even though 50% of the guests at Hubbard’s are beginning fly-fishermen, and 40% of them are fly-fisherwomen, Phil had never guided a female novice before. At one point during the hour-and-a-half drive east from Bozeman, he looked over at me, gave a little shrug and said, “This will be an adventure for us both.” There is significant pressure on a guide to see that guests land fish. But he couldn’t know that I was already fully satisfied just watching the valley unfold, bounded on the east by the Absarokas and on the west by the Gallatin Range.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through the Paradise Valley in 1806, followed by trappers, ranchers, a railroad line that took tourists to the north entrance of Yellowstone a hundred years ago, and most recently by the rich and famous. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda paid $22 million for their 110,000-acre spread in the Paradise Valley, and if you stop for a beer at Chico Hot Springs near Emigrant, you might see Meg Ryan at the bar.
What you will see when you reach the entrance to Hubbard’s is one of the grandest sights in the American West: the Yellowstone River snaking north through the valley, bordered by mounded hills where herds of sheep, cattle and elk graze. The fishing resort is composed of three structures built of stout pine logs, containing an office, Orvis shop and 15 doubles with small baths, durable carpet, Indian rugs, Western prints and an unfussy, boyish air.
Front doors yield to broad porches with mountain views, and if you want to know whether the cutts in Merrell Lake are biting on flies such as Woolly Buggers or nymph patterns, all you need to do is check the daily fishing report posted on a bulletin board outside the office. The kitchen and dining room are in the cavernous lodge, crossed by a pine catwalk near the ceiling and decorated with easy chairs, a chandelier made of elk horns, and deer and moose heads--attesting to the fact that when the fishing season ends at Hubbard’s, the hunting season begins.
Inspired by the fiction of Louis Lamour, Jim Hubbard came west from Illinois 20 years ago to settle his family on a 13,000-acre Paradise Valley ranch where he runs 500 cows. He opened the lodge in 1988. He doesn’t fish much himself but he’s an astute businessman, who turned the place into a haven for fly-fishermen by stocking Merrell Lake with thousands of rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout, and putting in aerators to keep the fingerlings alive during long, cold winters. In the warmer months, Merrell Lake becomes a smorgasbord of food for the fish, with hatches of chironomids, leeches, scuds and beautiful blue damselflies--all replicated by tricky fly-tyers. Of the July damselfly gorged on by fish in Merrell Lake, the seasoned fly-fisherman, John Randolph, wrote, “Woolly Buggers should be outlawed during this hatch; fishing the fly is like throwing a wine bottle in a drunk tank.”
Apart from the gluttonous fish, Jim Hubbard runs a very tight ship, catering to well-heeled fishing parties, and, above all, corporate groups who fly in on private planes. His chef is a graduate of the Scottsdale, Ariz., Culinary Institute who produces multi-course dinners that feature entrees as eye-catching as certain artificial flies. For every two guests, there’s one guide (though I had Phil all to myself). Most guides are college-age and clean-cut because Jim Hubbard tells them that if they have long hair, tattoos or earrings, they need not apply. Every evening the staff joins the guests at the bar in the main lodge, but the restrained, cocktail-party atmosphere could never be confused with that of a down-home, mom-and-pop lodge.
No sooner had I unpacked than Phil had me on the lawn learning how to cast. Every five tries or so, I got the hang of loading the rod behind me at 2 o’clock, and then launching it forward at 10 o’clock, allowing the line to straighten out like a bird on the wing.
“I can tell you’re really excited about that casting,” he said. (Phil often demonstrated a wry sense of humor; for instance by checking to make sure I had some kind of “frosty beverage” every time we left for a day of fishing.)
Then he rowed me out onto Merrell Lake, tied a Woolly Bugger fly onto my leader, and showed me how to watch for fish rising to sip bugs at the surface. The afternoon sunshine kept most of the trout below, and those that did rise got spooked by my fitful casting. So I didn’t catch anything. But I saw ducks, bright yellow-headed blackbirds, a deer in the reeds at the south end of the lake, elk on the flank of Black Mountain and a bald eagle cruising through the cloud-patched sky.
When dinner time rolled around--featuring tender beef filet in horseradish sauce on a pillow of mashed potatoes and snow peas--I met some of the other guests and guides, just returned from fishing expeditions, with stories of trout caught, midstream dunkings and grizzly bears chasing elk in Yellowstone Park. Judy, another beginner who’d come on her own from North Carolina, instructed me that guides are slaves who can be whipped into taking you for a little shopping in Bozeman when the fishing pales.
Lester, her long-suffering wrangler guide, told me about his love life. And from David and Susan, a nice Los Angeles couple, I got the whole sad story of Blowdin, their pet pig, who weighed 900 pounds before his unfortunate demise at the hands of the local butcher. Halfway through dinner the sky opened up and it started to hail ice balls the size of quarters. Then the sun came back out, shining on until 9 p.m., facilitating post-prandial fishing in the lake. After a deep sleep, waffles for breakfast and stepping through a fitting session in Orvis breathable waders, Phil and I set out for some fly-fishing, entering Yellowstone through the Roosevelt Arch at Gardner, dedicated in 1903. This year marks Yellowstone’s 126th birthday, and the decade anniversary of the terrible fires that burned 36% of the park, leaving behind scorched valleys, forests of leafless lodgepole pines and depleted wildlife. But in early July, the meadows were a verdant carpet of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, baby lodgepoles and aspens had sprung up, and foxes, bison and elk stopped the parade of campers and RVs at every bend in the road.
By 10 a.m. we stopped where the Gibbon River flows into the Norris Geyser Basin, reminding passersby of the great volcanic eruptions that shaped Yellowstone and the semi-molten rock three to five miles underground that keeps the park’s geothermal features bubbling. As soon as they come into sight, John Muir said, “all other wonders are forgotten.”
Not so, if you’re a fly-fisherman. The only geyser I saw during my six days in the Yellowstone area was Old Faithful, because I was too busy fishing--and drawing Phil out. Though he was essentially a man of few words, I occasionally got him talking about various subjects, such as sexual harassment, his trusty old truck and the D-Day invasion. Still, it took me by surprise one day when he piped up and said that he thought we’d been having some good, deep conversations.
That first day on the Gibbon I caught two sweet little brookies, thanks to Phil, who showed me exactly where to put the fly, untangled my line whenever I snagged it on a bush or in my hair, cooked me a steak for lunch on a portable grill, and held my hand as I tried to cross the stream in waders. Plodding in waders through swift currents, thick undergrowth and mud is one of my favorite things about fly-fishing because you feel at once comfy and invincible.
Brookies are awfully pretty fish, with orange underbellies, like browns and rainbows, introduced into Yellowstone waters around the turn of the century. Eventually, though, biologists came to understand that imported species were threatening to crowd out native Yellowstone cutthroats. In Yellowstone Lake it’s thought that a recently introduced lake trout, which feeds on cutthroats, has made the situation critical. There, fishermen are required to keep any lake trout they catch, and the National Park Service is offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who knows how the aquatic predators got into the lake.
Judy got one lake trout, but I didn’t. Instead, on subsequent days Phil and I fished the free-flowing river waters in Yellowstone, like the Firehole, which joins the Gibbon to form the Madison River and runs hastily above its falls. There, Phil taught me how to “mend like a champ” (which involves taking in slack line just after you cast), and I caught a 7-inch brown trout. Nothing to brag about, but an achievement for me. And recall that “Women don’t lie about size,” according to Holly Morris, the editor of “A Different Angle: Fly Fishing Stories by Women.”
The Yellowstone River was still too muddy and high for fly-fishing, and though I made Phil show me Depuy’s, Nelson’s and Armstrong Spring creeks near Livingston, three of this country’s most challenging fly-fishing streams, I didn’t fish them. This is because they are privately owned waters, requiring advance reservations for rod slots. But also, I agreed with a sentiment articulated in Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” In the novella, the narrator says that, “If our father had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.”
After the brown trout, I disgraced no further fish. But on the Fourth of July, Phil and I fished streams that feed the Lamar River in the northeastern sector of Yellowstone, where wolves were released in 1995 and 1996. The river valley there is a great, green oval dish, rimmed by snow-capped peaks, where I pushed through the tall grass, thinking of Willa Cather.
Birds flew up, and bison gave me the once-over. At the deeply cut stream bank, Phil shushed me and got down on his knees, because trout are skittish and have wide peripheral vision. Through his polarized sunglasses, he spotted a fish and told me to cast. I let the fly drift down the current, and when it idled on top of the fish, Phil told me to get ready. Thirty seconds later, it took the fly. I hooked it, and played it. For an instant the fish came out of the water, a cutt 18 inches long. And then I lost it--back into the water where, in its incredible gullibility, it belonged.
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Trout Fishing in America
Getting there: Delta, Alaska and Frontier airlines offer connecting flights from LAX to Bozeman, Mont., with round trips starting at $238. It’s a 75-mile drive from Bozeman to Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge in Emigrant, Mont. Car rental agencies operate at the airport. Hubbard’s also offers van service for guests: Cost is $150 per van, round trip, whether for one passenger or a full van. Where to stay: Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge, 287 Tom Miner Creek Road, Emigrant, MT 59027; telephone (406) 848-7755, fax (406) 848-7471, Internet https://www.hubbardslodge.com. Hubbard’s charges $2,080 per person, meals included, for a six-night, five-day guided fly-fishing package. Most people tip their guides 10% to 20%. Rates for non-guided stays range from $930 for three nights to $1,450 for five nights. A 50% deposit is required; equipment can be rented in the lodge shop.
For more information: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, tel. (307) 344-7381. Livingston Chamber of Commerce, 208 W. Park St., Livingston, MT 59047; tel. (406) 222-0850, fax (406) 222-0852. Travel Montana, 1424 9th Ave., Helena, MT 59620-0533; tel. (800) 847-4868, fax (406) 444-1800, Internet https://travel.state.mt.us.