Connecting the Dots, the 2023 Trout Bum Road Trip
As a kid, "connect the dots" puzzles were especially popular pastimes on rainy days at Grandma's house when street football was out of the question. Now, I see the similarities in laying out a road trip on Google Maps, connecting the rivers we want to fly fish like the dots in a puzzle book. No wonder I love to plan angling adventures.
The 2023 Trout Bum Road Trip took shape in February, nailing down a Yellowstone Park campsite and connecting all the other streams we wished to fly fish before and after our Park stay. Since the Yellowstone, Gibbon, Soda Butte, Lamar, and Slough Creek were on the list, we chose Canyon Campground as our operations base and then filled in the blanks. Canyon is centrally located in the Park, and, all things being equal, it would allow us to spend more time fishing and less time driving. If you have not camped in the Park, I would say Canyon is not a bad option and much quieter than Madison Crossing. (Unfortunately, Candle Creek Campground, a tranquil spot in the Lamar Valley above Soda Butte, was wiped out in the 2022 floods. I could not tell if they plan on rebuilding it, but it didn't look promising.)
Once Yellowstone was booked, we looked at routes that took us by rivers we wanted to sample, plugging in coordinates and bouncing back and forth between Google Maps and my GPS/SAT Nav program. As many of the streams we planned on fishing were "off the grid," it's nice to have other navigation aids to get you where you want to be. While I love the high-tech stuff, we carry a full complement of paper maps, too, and Jennifer is great at following our route with a highlight pen. Remember, Google Maps and most simple Navigation systems are only useful in cell range. If you push beyond those limits, make sure you have some way to reach the outside world in case of an emergency or be prepared to self-rescue.
While for most of our journey, we never went too long without seeing another adventurer, it would be easy to get stranded once off the beaten path if you had a mishap. So, in the immortal words of the Boy Scouts of America, be prepared.
In putting together our list of rivers and streams, as mentioned, we started with favorites, then added suggestions from friends or bucket list waters we wanted to fish. This year, the Grays River, Gros Ventre, and Crystal Creek in Wyoming made the list, as did the Big Lost and a few creeks in Idaho that shall remain nameless. All produced Trout, some more memorable than others.
We pulled out of our driveway on Tuesday after Labor Day and headed east. A last-minute stretch marred our departure as Jennifer connected with the truck door, causing a terrible contusion on her ankle. I had retrieved an ice pack from the house, but she was in terrible pain. We stopped in Hood River for an ankle brace, then continued on towards Pendleton and Joe's Fiesta Cantina. It's essential to get any road trip off on the right foot, and while we failed in that endeavor, Joe's serves up fantastic Mexican food. A margarita would help with Jennifer's pain, while an iced tea would have enough caffeine to get me to the first camp spot, wherever that might be. We saddled up and headed towards Stanley, Idaho.
Running out of daylight with no planned accommodations for the night can be imposing unless, of course, you carry your accommodations with you. We pulled up our iOverland app and started searching for camp spots. After passing a few too close to the road options, we located a beautiful BLM primitive camp high above the Payette River. We woke in the morning to an inspiring view of the river from the top of a rock cliff. Breaking camp, we again headed towards Stanley.
The Sourdough Lodge is located somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains on the way to Stanley, and since we were both hungry, I pulled a U-turn and headed to the parking lot. Sourdough pancakes, eggs, ham, and Jennifer's bacon would fuel me into Stanley and beyond, with our angling destination being in the hills above Sun Valley.
The road out of Sunday starts out innocently enough, a simple country road with fantastic views of the foothills. Then, the pavement disappears, and the climb to 8000 feet starts. Imagine the lower Deschutes road, narrower, stood on end, with a shear drop to the left. It's not for the faint of heart or Prius drivers. Once crested, the climb gives way to stunning hills, rugged basalt, and miles of sagebrush. Tucked in between are rivers and creeks hiding native Cutthroat, introduced rainbows, and even the occasional Grayling. The only thing missing is the crowds. We fished until the sun slipped behind the mountains, Jennifer bringing an exceptional Cutthroat to hand, then sought a camp spot along the Big Lost River.
Forgoing breakfast, we fished the Big Lost until noon, then decided to look for waters without hatchery plants. Soon, gravel gave way to pavement, and the miles slipped away. We dropped down to HWY 20 near Arco, then towards Alpine, WY, passing our friends Brian and Caron in their VW camper van heading towards home after their own Trout Tour. We texted to confirm the sighting and drove on. The next few days, we fished the Grays, Gros Ventre, and Crystal Creek, played tourist, took in the National Wildlife Museum, and enjoyed a date night in Jackson. It was now time for Yellowstone.
The Park is one of our favorite places on the planet. While crowds are problematic, with the right mindset, the wonders of Yellowstone offset the inconvenience of tour buses and Bison jams. We checked into our camp spot while doing some laundry and indulging in a hot shower. Then, it was time to hit the Gibbon.
Many years ago, my first fish in Yellowstone was on the Gibbon River, a feisty Rainbow that rose to a hopper. Since then, I have taken a fish from the exact spot on every visit, no matter the season. Native Cutthroat made up most of the catches, yet when I lay the fly down in the zone this trip, it was a respectable Brown Trout that rose and took in the little green hopper. After a tense battle, with the small fly barely hanging to his lip, the fish slipped into the net and was carefully released.
We fished until dark, Jennifer pushing past "last call," attempting to pull someone to the surface with a skittering mouse pattern. A giant swirl beneath her offering kept her trying until the light faded completely, but unfortunately, nothing came to hand on the mouse.
Bugling Elk sang us to sleep every night and continued the serenade while we fished the Yellowstone. Bison waded nearby on Slough Creek, and wolves followed the herds on the Lamar. Yellowstone is a magical place and one we never get tired of. We drove up to Soda Butte Creek to see the damage and were stocked at the amount of material moved by the flood. Places that had cutbanks for hiding were now shallow flows, leaving few places for Trout to hide. We walked down to where trees blocked much of the stream and found where the Trout found shelter. The trick was bringing them to the net when the odds and branches favored them. We loved the challenge. Soon, a thunderstorm forced our retreat, and after a brief stop to be schooled by big fish on Slough Creek, we headed over Mt Washburn and back to camp.
Leaving Yellowstone is always bittersweet, but we had friends to visit in Twin Bridges and Bozeman before heading home. We finished our tour with a drift on the Yellowstone out of Livingston, then pointed Griz to the west and eventually home.
Our trip was incredible, with scenery that took our breath away, crystal clear waters, wildlife, and a respectable number of fish. While sticking to casting dry flies probably lowered our score somewhat, we nevertheless caught fish on our terms, making for a most enjoyable 2023 Trout Bum Road Trip. We are looking forward to next year. Where would you go?
A special shout-out to Mark Fuller and Eric Neufeld for suggesting places to check out on our trip. You guys rock! Also, thank you to Tye from Raging Rivers Sales for rowing us down the Yellowstone, putting us on a few fish, and getting us on the road in one piece. Thanks, too, to Adam and Jeff at Winston Fly Rods for indulging me the opportunity to cast a few rods. Next time, we need to do it on the water!