This is the first installment of our Trout Bum Road Trip Report. We had so many incredible adventures that I'll be presenting them in several updates over the next few weeks...
Our departure was more or less on time. Last-minute details always require attention if you wish to avoid those nagging questions that bounce around in your brain. "Did I pack enough tippet?" "Where did I put my toothbrush?" "Did I turn off the light in the garage?" Once we checked all the boxes, we pointed the hood to the East, heading straight into a blinding sunrise.
Stopping only for gas, donuts, and a Huckleberry shake to celebrate passing through Oregon, Idaho, and into Montana, we slid into a primitive camp spot on Rock Creek, just east of Missoula right at dark. I fired up the camp oven and we reheated homemade pizza while toasting the stars with Huckleberry vodka. Water conditions across Montana are on the low side, and Rock Creek was no exception. However, this was irrelevant as we had a morning appointment in Butte with Glenn Brackett of Sweet Grass Bamboo Rods, so fishing Rock Creek would have to wait for another trip.
Butte, Montana is a mining town built with, and on, the sweat and rubble pulled from the earth. Scars of this history frame a town where churches and brothels provided comfort at shifts end, with only the churches and a few mines remaining operational under the big blue sky that is Montana.
Glenn greeted us as he unlocked the shop, and we entered a world of history and wonder. Bamboo rods in various states of completion and vintage lined the walls and workspaces. Bamboo landing nets, wading staffs, cutting boards, raw cane, and even a bamboo bicycle drew our eyes. The smell of varnish and drying bamboo permeated the air, perfectly complimenting the visual treasures. The conversation touched on friends, places, and a shared passion for old reels, rods, and the history of all. Time slipped away far too fast, with other visits to make calling us back to the road; we said our goodbyes headed south towards Twin Bridges and the home of Winston Fly Rods.
My friend, Joe Begin, has been with the Winston Fly Rod Company forever, or at least as long as I've known him. He's had many duties over the years but now expertly repairs rods modified through operator error or fantastic stories. In addition, he is occasionally called upon to recreate classic models, being a master of the spigot ferrule once popular with old-school makers like Winston. I am personally grateful for this skill, as it has allowed me to retain ownership of one of my favorite rods. I knew letting Jennifer borrow it was a bad idea at the time, but now she has a copy with her name proudly displayed on the rich green blank.
While catching up with our friends at Winston, Joe trotted out the collective toolbox, and I attempted to track down an excessive rattle in the front quarter panel of the 4Runner, unsuccessfully, I might add, but it gave us time to catch up. Once tools and lunch were put away, we got a factory tour, visited some more, then planned our evening fishing agenda.
The Big Hole River was our first option, but we found out the area we hoped to fish was closed due to low water. Ever flexible, we settled on the nearby Jefferson River, found access, and rigged up. A light hatch of BWOs brought Trout to the surface, and we landed several before darkness threatened to end the day. Jennifer switched to a small streamer as the light faded and was soon into a very powerful fish. Her newly acquired 4wt strained as a very respectable Brown Trout took several runs into her backing before being brought to hand and released. Her new Winston was now properly christened. She sent a photo to Joe as we headed back towards Twin Bridges.
With night fully upon us and camping options limited, we sought peaceful slumber in the open field behind the Winston factory. We popped open the tent and retired for the evening, coyotes and frogs singing us to sleep.
Dawn brought a chilly start to the day as temps dropped below freezing. We made coffee, broke camp, and headed towards West Yellowstone. While topping off the fuel, we met a local angler who had been following our adventures on social media. We gifted him a few Royal Treatment stickers and thanked him for his greetings before continuing our travels.
Big Sky Anglers in West Yellowstone happened to be hosting a "Spey Day" on the Madison River, just north of town. So we crashed the party for a few hours, saying hello to friends old and new before heading on our way. A few miles up the road, we fished the Gallatin River in several places under the midday sun without success; we then chose to soften the blow of failure with Mexican Food in Livingston before heading to our lodging in Gardiner.
Yellowstone Park inspires all who enter, especially through the North Gate and the Roosevelt Arch. Missing there are many of the tourist traps of West Yellowstone, replaced with simple dining options and accommodations. Once in the park, the history of the Mammoth area is prominent, and the wildlife is evident. As we worked our way to a parking spot near the hot spring terraces, we watched a tourist tempt fate with a massive Bull Elk, narrowly missing his place on the evening news. We parked and walked the empty boardwalk; the tourists left us in peace as they sought dinner and a warm bed as the light faded. We found our accommodations at the Roosevelt Hotel, appropriately named as a giant Roosevelt Bull Elk bugled just outside our doorway. His harem grazing the hillside above our room.
Sunday morning kicked off the "serious" part of our fishing adventure. We topped off fuel and groceries before heading towards Soda Butte Creek in the Lamar Valley. The sign said FULL, but the camp host stopped us, and we grabbed the last available spot at Pebble Creek Campground before slipping into our waders and stringing up our rods.
The creek was pretty skinny, but we found fish in the deeper pools and under the cut banks. Dry flies and bamboo rods were the order of the day, with the tackle geared to the target and habitat. I kept it simple, with Beetles and Ants my primary offering. Jennifer has a broader fly pallet and mixed it up with Caddis, Mayflies, and attractor patterns in addition to terrestrials. We worked a few of our favorite spots, then headed downstream to the confluence with the Lamar and hopefully bigger fish.
With low water the theme, we sought deeper pools and found receptive fish holding in the icy waters. We fished terrestrials and miscellaneous dry flies to very picky fish. Again, we reveled in the challenge and felt the stress of extended travel slipping away. As we settled into camp that evening, the clear night sky seemed to hold the promise of the adventure that was just beginning.
Morning found us hiking in on the Lamar, seeking out hiding spots, deeper pools, and big fish. The Cottonwood trees glowed in the morning light, the beauty of the Lamar Valley was breathtaking. Bison, bear, and wolf tracks crisscrossed sandbars and mudflats, putting an exclamation point to the area's wildness. While the highway bristled with spotting scopes and cameras, the riverbank was empty of anglers. We had the river to ourselves; just a small herd of antelope witnessed our efforts.
As we worked down a shallow braid, Jennifer rose a fish in a side-channel only a couple of feet wide. He wouldn't come back, so she asked me to give my size 18 Ant a try. As I hadn't seen the fish but could see the slot he was supposed to inhabit, I wasn't prepared for his size as he rose and sipped in my fly. Now the issue was to fight a healthy-sized fish in close quarters and skinny water. There was a lot of laughing and splashing as the fish tried to evade capture, even making a pass through my legs at one point, the tip of my fly rod close behind. Miraculously, I kept my balance and gained control with a ballet-like kick of the right leg and a swordlike sweep of the rod. Once the laughter died down, a few photos captured the moment, and the fish released to test the next angler venturing here.
Our favorite pool on the Lamar held several well-educated fish who would rise to a fresh fly, then ignore other passes. If the presentation wasn't perfect, they declined to participate. We changed flies repeatedly; occasionally, success came with a new offering, but often not. At one point, to avoid changing flies, Jennifer and I simply changed positions, allowing the other to test their frustration level on a new target. While it was frustrating at times, we savored every moment. Challenges are why we fly fish, and the adventure is best when shared.
Next week we'll look at the Madison, Gibbon, and Yellowstone rivers as we continue the Trout Bum Road Trip Report...