Fly Fishing The Greater Yellowstone: The Trip

Henry's Fork, Road 313

Any journey, even to a familiar place, can lead to discovery, whether that discovery is seeing something new or learning something new – even about oneself.

So it was with the trip my wife Terri and I took to Greater Yellowstone. Except for visiting our son and his family in Bozeman, the focus of this trip was fly fishing. Our plan, over an eight day trip, was to fish Rock Creek, Yellowstone National Park (and the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison rivers), Henry’s Fork, the upper Madison, and the Ruby River.

Though we had been to Yellowstone many times, this was our first time fly fishing on the rivers. And we created an element of adventure by facing the unknown without hiring fly-fishing guides.

That choice was based on a number of major cash outlays on the house, which meant cutting some costs on the trip. That meant turning this into more of an exploration of the rivers rather than an effort to get a high catch count in trout. That’s not to say we weren’t hopeful. We took advice where we could get it; and the recommendations from some of the local fly shops was outstanding. Credit also should be given to Justin Waters from the Gig Harbor Fly Shop, who put us on a truly beautiful part of the Henry’s Fork; Justin also recommended stopping by Mesa Falls, which was spectacular.

As might be expected, the Henry’s Fork was the highlight of the trip. The slow-moving current and easy wading, together with the distant vistas of the Tetons and the lyrical feel of the place, made it a place of magic. We spent parts of two days on the river and it wasn’t enough.

Ruby River Below the Dam

Our next favorite river, which was a bit of a surprise given the rivers of Yellowstone National Park and Upper Madison, was the Ruby River. We fished below the dam, which was recommended by Maggie Mae Stone, one of the guides at The Tackle Shop in Ennis, Montana. Her recommendation on where to fish and which flies to use was very helpful. While we did not have the success of a fly fisherman across the river from my wife who pulled out a good 20-inch brown trout while nymphing, we’ll remember what she told us and will go back on our next trip to Montana.

Madison River Three Dollar Bridge

Sometimes just seeing a storied place is enough. That was the situation with our visits to Three Dollar Bridge on the upper Madison River and Rock Creek. We got on the Madison river on a warm and windy afternoon and fished the area of the bridge. We tried the pocket water but couldn’t even get a strike. But I was struck by the unreality of standing in a place I had seen so often in photographs.

Rock Creek

We fished Rock Creek on a sunny Saturday morning. We drove up the road about three miles and found what looked to be a great spot with a small island to work from and three channels to fish. However, my first attempts at wading were a problem. Even in less than 12 inches of water the creek was too dangerous to wade in. We had arrived at the creek early but as we were fishing we watched a number of cars move up the road. We exited the creek and explored up the road. The next pullout was near what would have been a great place to fish, but we had been beaten to it.

Gibbon River Yellowstone National Park

And then there was Yellowstone National Park. It was our first stop after our visit to our son in Bozeeman. Except for visiting the park, we should have just skipped it. It had been years since I’d been in the park during the summer and the crowds and traffic, even prior to the Independence Day holiday, were more than I was used to seeing in the park; off-season is the time to visit. The fishing was poor. We started on the Firehole River a few miles above the Firehole canyon. Water temperatures were in the 70s. Moving down to the Gibbon River, near where it joined the Firehole to form the Madison, again we found the water warm. Moving downstream we fished the Madison near Nine-mile where the water was turbid. Nymphing produced not even a strike.

Our poor results were confirmed by the staff at Madison River Outfitters, who told us their guides were seeing everyone was having a tough time. The weather and water had both been warmer earlier than was typical.

And finally we fished the Yakima Canyon on our way back home where Terri got the last fish of the trip.

It was quite a journey, one with some lessons that will be detailed in my next post. But one thing for sure. Next trip we will hire guides for trips on the Henry’s Fork and the upper Madison. And we will return to the Ruby River.

Red’s Rendezvous VII

Casting Area

Yesterday my wife and I drove over to the Yakima River canyon and Red’s Fly Shop for their seventh annual Rendezvous. As has been common for previous years, the day was filled with classroom presentations, beginner casting instruction, casting competition, vendor booths, and great food.

As in past years, we left the clouds and rain of Puget Sound and found ourselves in sunshine two hours later.

The only difference this year was the limited amount of streamside casting and instruction. The Yakima was blown out and was running high at full bank. Stepping into that would have meant a quick ride down to the Roza dam.

That was unfortunate as a full day of spey casting had been planned for both novices and experienced casters. Also unfortunate was that yesterday was the first stop on Sage’s On the Water Tour and the only casting available for all the rods they brought was standing on the bank near the boat ramp.

Sage Tour

As it was, we still had a great time.

I got a chance to cast the Sage MOD in a 5 weight. I was impressed by its light weight and how easily it cast – while still throwing tight loops. If I lived in a place where I’d get to use it more than a few times each year, it would be a nice rod to own.

I also talked to the Sage rep who only smiled (and pointed out that he was smiling) when I suggested the Sage ONE was getting long it tooth and a replacement must be coming soon.

My wife had a chance to work with one of the Federation of Fly Fishing Instructors who was on site, helping her with her back cast. He watched me cast and pointed out an area where I need work too. It was something I had thought I had corrected, but clearly he saw something I had not. One of the great things about fly casting is that there’s always room for improvement.

We also had a chance to both do some casting in the wind. We are going to Montana in a couple of months and the canyon is a great place to get exposure to how the Montana winds blow on the big open rivers.

On the high rocks on the other side of the river we did see a wild turkey. That was really cool as I hadn’t seen one before in the area. While not native to Washington they have been introduced as game species in many areas of the state.

One thing my wife and I both really like in the canyon is the relative absence of electromagnetic radiation. There are not neighborhoods full of wireless routers blasting in all directions. It’s a joy to get away from that.

We’ll return again next year.

Bozeman Road Trip – And R. L. Winston Rod Company Tour

Simms

My son David, and his wife Jamie and daughter Bridget moved to Bozeman Montana last Spring.

Two weeks ago I made a driving trip over to see them and their new house. A flight would have been quicker but I prefer driving and seeing the country whenever possible. And this was my first solo road trip since I got married.

Coming into Montana was a treat. It’s been about a decade since I’d been there; way too long. As I crested the Continental Divide east of Butte, I recalled it’d been 40 years that month since my first visit to Montana and Yellowstone.

I was living in Idaho Falls at the time while training at the Naval Reactors training site 40 miles west of Idaho Falls. Long, long days and not much sleep was the norm; good practice as it turned out for life later in the submarine service.

But the rotating shift schedule we worked did offer 5 consecutive days off once per month. And that gave me the time to make my first visit to Yellowstone; saw a moose in the park. Coming out on a late snowy Sunday afternoon I saw a man wading in the Madison river. That was my first time seeing someone fly fishing.

Back to the current trip.

The time in Bozeman was fun. Got to see the Simms building – the source for so much gear for so many fly fishers. Sampled the local beer and had a great meal at the Montana Ale Works. Did a quick day trip to Big Sky and West Yellowstone. And just had a wonderful time. Driving out of town I was figuring ways to stay.

Rather than heading back on the interstate, I headed southwest to drive through Ennis and Virginia City on the way to Twin Bridges. Ennis may be among the most storied fly fishing towns around and Virginia City is a historic gold mining town.

The final part of the trip was along the Ruby River, a tributary of the Beayerhead River, which joins the Big Hole River near Twin Bridges to become the Jefferson – one of the tributaries of the Missouri River.

Winston Fly Rods

I got to Winston Fly Rods about 20 minutes early for the daily 11AM tour. Winston Fly Rods sits at the southern end of Twin Bridges, Montana, which has a population of 375 per the last census (the entire county has less than 7,000 people). It was quiet except for the wind. With the rivers and mountains, I thought if you were going to choose a place to build fly rods this would be it.

I was greeted by Adam who asked if I wanted to cast any of the rods while waiting. The office was lined with all the rods in the Winston inventory. I chose the Boron III Plus in a six-weight saltwater version and took it out to the casting lawn in front. It was smooth and easy to cast both against and with the wind. Quite a change from the rod it’s replacing – the Boron III SX.

The tour started near the front of the rod building area and gave me an overview of the rod building process – stopping to indicate a door behind me where the green paint is applied that makes Winston rods so beautiful. He said he couldn’t say much about it except that it’s all proprietary and closely guarded. And later in the tour he said the green thread used for trying on the guides was also proprietary to Winston.

He showed me a rod blank after it comes out of the rolling and heating steps – it looked like the natural finish of a Scott rod. He explained why Winston believes the sanding process is required, by saying they find very small numbers of errors that can only be detected by the operator of the sanding machine. Any blank section that fails at this point is destroyed.

We walked through the various stations in the rod building process. Along the way I met a number of the Winston staff who without exception were friendly and extremely proud of the work they did. I talked to the guy who does all the repair work, the woman tying on a guide on a returned bamboo rod (she said can do all guides on a typical rod in about one hour). While she wasn’t there (it was lunch hour) Adam mentioned they have one woman who has been doing all the script work on the rod (model, weight, and serial number) for over 15 years.

We wound up in the room where final inspections are done. Adam showed me a couple of the rods that were marked for minor rework. He looked at one of the rods and saw the problem. Handing me the rod he indicated where the problem was but I couldn’t see it.

Winston has 30 employees working at the facility; in addition, they have 12 contractors in the local community who do the tying of the guides. It was clear to me everyone of those people build every Winston rod with pride and attention to detail.

I had thought going in the tour would be a quick walk through. But I spent almost 50 minutes on the tour and likely could have stayed longer if I had more questions. As I left the tour Adam invited me to come back anytime I was in the area.

I have appreciated Winston rods for some time. But this tour gave me a peek at what truly makes them exceptional – and that’s the people who put so much of themselves into building them.

And I’m going to have take another look at the Boron III Plus rod.

Red’s Rendezvous VI

Simon with Method Switch Rod

Last Saturday, I attended Red’s Fly Shop Rendezvous VI. The Rendezvous is an annual event sponsored by Red’s at its fly shop and the Canyon River Ranch on the Yakima River. I’ve attended all but one of these events and every year it seems to get bigger and better.

The day was filled with riverside seminars, classroom presentations, beginner casting instruction, casting competition, vendor booths, and great food.

The highlight for me was attending seminars taught by Simon Gawesworth (RIO Spey line development guru and, author of several well-regarded books on Spey casting, and an internationally known instructor).

I attended his beginning Spey seminar. He provided an easy to way to understand the elements of the Spey cast. He called it A-B-C: A-starting position of the cast; B-forward movement of the rod and arm; and C-the rotation of the rod. A simple but eloquent way of understanding a casting stroke can be overwhelming when making the transition from single-hand to two-handed casting.

The other thing he pointed out is learning the line length/rod length ratio that works for an individual caster (e.g., 2.65, 3.0,). He said that ratio would then work with any length of rod. So if a caster learned on one length rod and switched to another rod, maintaining that same ratio would allow the caster to quickly become comfortable with the new rod. As for line length, it includes the shooting head and the leader or sink tip.

After a lunch of Crusted Line Caught Rockfish and Chip in the Canyon River Grill, I attended his Single Handed Spey Casting seminar. Simon pointed out at the outset that using a weigh-forward line for single-hand Spey can be done, but it’s not optimal as the weight is forward and away from the rod tip during the roll casts. He recommended the use of a double-taper line for someone interested in focusing on single-handed Spey. He was using a line for the seminar that will be available in August; beyond that he just smiled.

Also providing Spey Casting instruction was Charles St. Pierre of Northwest Speycasting who was available all day for on-the-water instruction. Charles is widely known and regarded in the Northwest as a Spey-casting instructor and having both him and Simon on the same river at the same time was a real treat.

Every year the International Federation of Fly Fishers are on hand to help with lawn-casting instruction and beginner’s classes. I had one give me a tip when I was casting the Winston Nexus 6 weight; good tip from him, but I wasn’t impressed with the rod.

A change this year was a woman-only beginner class taught by Molly Semenik (Tie the Knot Fly Fishing) from Livingston, Montana. The class had 18 students, including my wife Terri. I think a seminar like this was long-overdue as it provided women an easy introduction to fly fishing with no pressure from husbands or significant others.

Terri came away excited and after casting a few demo days bought a Sage SALT (6 weight) from Red’s. Good choice! Great rod.

We also stopped to talk with Joe Rotter, the Guide Service Manager at Red’s. Joe’s just a great guy that we’ve talked with before, and after we thanked him for another great rendezvous, he said it was becoming what they wanted it to be: a celebration of fly-fishing. He said they’ve had some of their competitors show up without any feelings of awkward or resentment and that was he wanted.

As I’ve noted in other posts, in a small industry like fly-fishing cooperation and friendly respectful competition will help the sport grow and is good for everyone.

It was a great rendezvous. I look forward to next year’s!

Chasing Salmon

Narrows

This is our second autumn on the west side of Puget Sound and after only focusing on SRC and resident Coho last year, this is the year I’d go after the migrating Coho (pinks will be next year).

First time out I went down to the Narrows on a cloudy cool morning and worked the beach casting both a Miyawaki popper (surface) and a woolly bugger (sub surface). I got no grabs and only saw a few fish jumping well off the beach – likely around 120 feet out (well beyond my casting range).

I didn’t expect much as this was a day for growing comfortable with the bigger ten-foot eight-weight rod, and I wasn’t disappointed. The view of the bridge and spending time on the water was enough – for that day.

Father’s Day 2014

Fathers Day 2014: Narrows Beach Park

I have always thought of Father’s Day as one of the holidays manufactured for commercial purposes – though in reality all current holidays, which in Old English were holy days intended for religious observances, are now little more than retail opportunities intended to separate coin from consumer. Thanksgiving is the exception – at least until it completely disappears, given Jon Stewart’s observation that Christmas is eating all the other holidays coming after the Fourth of July.

Father’s Day may not have the fanfare of a Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day – but to those of us who have the role of a father or step-father, it is still a time to anticipate a hug and “I love you”; a greeting card; movie tickets; or in an earlier time, a neck tie – though fewer of us have occasion to own more than one or two, with the primary need for an always dreaded funeral.

So when this Father’s Day approached, I expected a few of the above. It was quite a surprise when my daughter Katherine announced that she and her fiance Ryan wanted to go fly fishing with me. Even more surprising was when my wife Terri said she wanted to go – to that point she had only accompanied me and walked the beach while I fished in the Sound for sea run coastal cutthroat trout.

While I was delighted, the challenge was to pick a location that would serve as a good introduction to the sport. I wanted someplace that no matter the fishing, the location would be its own reward.

There were two other considerations from the perspective of the fishing itself: winds and crowds.

I wanted to avoid anywhere where headwinds would be an issue – even light winds would make it difficult for first-time casters. Sidewinds were also an issue but I could work that unless the wind was blowing stink; that would have aborted the trip. In addition, I wanted to avoid showing up at a smaller beach with a crowd of four fly fishers – with two being rookies.

Finally given that not everyone had waders and wading boots, this was going to be beach casting.

With all those factored in, there was only one place that came to mind: Narrows Beach Park.

The park, with the Narrows Bridge to the left, is always photogenic. There is a good chance to see wildlife on shore and seals in the water. The beach spreads for a couple of miles and I knew we could move away as needed, or others moving to other locations as they desired. I knew that unless salmon were bunching the odds of catching anything were small; given that I’d been skunked there on all but one previous trips.

That meant more a session of fly casting rather than fly fishing. That was its own reward. It was a chance to reflect on how far I’ve come in my own casting by watching a couple of beginners struggle to form loops and get anything approaching an adequate cast.

Not that Terri or Katherine appeared to mind; they both were having a great time. Ryan has a great cast, and this was a chance for him to get back to fly fishing.

This may have been the best Father’s Day in a long time. I hope this starts a new tradition.

Tacoma Narrows Morning

I went to the Narrows park this morning. Got there just after a high tide and no one was there.

Gearing up I put a chum baby on my leader and walked down to the beach. Moving to the right I started seeing fish jumping to the near left. It also appeared to me as if they were moving with each subsequent jump downstream. Quickly I moved in that direction and starting quartering my casts. I started to think maybe the chum baby wasn’t the best for the conditions as I could see nothing in the water, I switched to a pink Puget Sound Slider.

The second cast with the slider (about a 35-foot cast), I got a big tug.

This fish fought, keeping up a constant pull, and putting a good bend in my Sage One six-weight. I stripped the line in to land in the fish in shallow water, but even then it fought and would not settle down. I did get a good look and it was a very nice 13-inch resident Coho. It jumped off the fly before I could get a picture. It then rested for a moment on its own than swam away. It was the first Coho I caught and that first tug was like nothing I experienced before with a sea trout.

And it was significant for another reason: this was the first fish I’ve caught at the Narrows Park – I’d been skunked every time I’d been there in the past. I kept casting and got only one more hit. I left after that.

Sometimes all it takes is the one fish to make a perfect day.

Mother’s Day Fishing

This year was a slow start to fishing for me. Poor weather, cold, other priorities kept me out until today. I was able to get up for an early Mother’s Day visit to my local beach. As it turned out, it was an outstanding start to 2014 fishing.

I used my Scott Radian (9’6″ 6 weight) with an Airflo 40+ floating/intermediate line. As a side note, in earlier posts I had expressed some reservations about the Radian, but a bit more testing caused me to take the plunge and get one at the Gig Harbor Fly Shop.

On arrival, my favorite spot below a point was occupied by a spin caster. So I started farther down the beach in a very soft back eddy. As he moved up the beach, I followed along until I got to may spot where the current is much stronger. Not sure what he was doing as he hadn’t caught anything that I could see. But I had gotten 3-4 hits as I moved up the beach on a chum baby. I switched to a Clouser-type (size 6) and then it was like magic. I was catching searuns almost as quickly as the fly hit the water. In a very short period of time I caught and released 9 fish (smallest was five inches, most were in the six to eight in range).

I continued up the beach to the edge of the seawall, getting at least one more hit until I called it a day. But not a bad day – most fish I caught in one day.

In terms of equipment, I was using a stripping basket but still had a good deal of problems with the Airflo line, the running line tangled frequently. I should probably On the other hand, the Sage performed wonderfully. When I was in the groove the casting was easy and I could put the fly where I wanted.

Red’s Rendezvous V

Yakima River

Yesterday we drove over to Ellensburg for Red’s Rendezvous V.  Sponsored by Red’s Fly Shop, and held at the fly shop and Canyon River Ranch on the banks of the Yakima River, this annual gathering provides instruction, casting competition, the IF4 fly fishing film festival, and presentations on trips and other topics. And it’s a great opportunity to just sit and watch the Yakima River.

Spring is a wonderful time to drive down the canyon. The hills are still green in many places.  And the temperature was in the high 60’s – far from the blast furnace temperatures one can experience mid day in summer. And even the winds were light – which is a somewhat uncommon occurrence. I really like Ellensburg, but the winds were one of the considerations in not moving that way.

We had missed the last two rendezvous due to conflicts and last year’s move to Gig Harbor. So this was a terrific opportunity to see how much progress had been made in the construction underway.  The Canyon River Ranch Grill was in operation (the owners had given us a tour of it before it opened several years ago). The food was great. Line caught rock fish and chips was a quick but delicious lunch.

Canyon River Ranch Grill

There were a number of sessions of riverside instruction, including switch rods by George Cook (Sage’s Northwest representative); introduction to Steelhead fishing by Steve Joyce, guide and part owner of Reds; and European Style Nymphing by Russell Miller of Team USA Fly Fishing.

Overall, the theme of this year was on spey and switch casting, which for river fishing bigger streams like the Yakima make bank fishing possible with their longer casts.  I got the chance to try the new Sage Method switch rod (11’ 9” 8-weight).  It was a gorgeous rod to look at with its bright Magma (bright red) color.

Lawn Casting

It would be wonderful to say I picked up the rod and boomed out one hundred foot casts.  That wouldn’t, however, be the truth. I basically sucked at it.  I understand what I was supposed to do, but as in most things it takes practice and development of muscle memory.  But watching experienced spey casters was intriguing.  They were able to easy get lines out far into the river with little effort.

I’ll mark switch/spey casting down on the to-do list. And we will make it to Rendezvous VI next Spring.

Beach Fishing 101

Fishing the Ebb on Puget Sound
Fishing the Ebb on Puget Sound

When starting something new, one of the first questions to be considered is how to begin? The choice at the extremes comes down to plunging in or taking a class.

In my case, I’ve always believed one can never know too much or learn too much, so I opted for a class; assuming I’d pick up the needed technical information, local knowledge about where to go, and get some instruction on casting (for which too much instruction doesn’t exist).

Given I’d been fishing fresh-water rivers, I already had most of the gear I needed. I did pick up a Winston BIII-SX (more on that in a later post); and bought a few flies for the species of choice: sea-run cutthroat trout (bought a few more the day of the beach session).

There are a number of outstanding fly shops in the Puget Sound. But I chose Gig Harbor Fly Shop’s class. I like the area a lot and there are tentative plans to move there when I can cast off the harness of corporate America. The shop’s location overlooking the harbor borders on the sublime. And I was impressed with the shop staff in both past online orders and talking to them in the store.

Their Puget Sound Beach Course (Fly Fishing 1.5) was held in two sessions: the first was three hours on a Wednesday night followed by a four-hour session on the water.

Taught by Blake Merwin, the owner of Gig Harbor Fly Shop, the course was a great introduction to fishing in the salt water of Puget Sound.

The three-hour classroom session, taught with slides and a lecture that was interspersed with tales of trips local and afar, was like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. I scribbled notes furiously as the course covered equipment, target species, food sources, tides and winds, and where to find good fishing. When I reread my notes I was surprised how much ground we covered. One tip: if you take the course please bring beer – none of the five students in our class did and it’s a shop practice!

The Saturday session was held on a sunny Saturday morning on a local beach near Gig Harbor. The tide tables called for a -1.3 foot low in the afternoon so we were in prime time to fish the ebb.

Driving over the Narrows Bridge earlier, the winds were calm and the water smooth. By the time we met at the shop, bought a few last remaining items, got down to the parking lot and got into our waders, the wind was up. A very visible back eddy in front of the beach matched the strong ebb.

Blake took some time to explain the beach and where good fishing should be found as well as tips for fishing different types of flies.

We five students separated along the beach and sought to catch a sea-run. Unfortunately, the back eddy never dissipated allowing a rip to form close to the beach. The bottom line is that no one caught anything.

And it wasn’t just the five of us. Water birds on the water weren’t diving for anything; a seal that poked his head up out of the water disappeared; likely finding better fishing elsewhere.

But I wasn’t disappointed. One doesn’t go fishing to only to catch fish. As Haig-Brown consistently alluded: fishing is more about context than practice. Standing on Puget Sound watching the sea birds and a bald eagle circling overhead, and feeling the chill of the wind and the warmth of the sun more than made up for getting skunked.

The course gave me the tools and information to head out on my own. And we did get some good information on where to go on our own. But you’ll have to the class to find out where.