Blood sacrifice

Heaven and hell in search of pre-runoff brook trout on the edge of Yellowstone
brook trout
Photo: Rueben Browning

It was to be a stealth operation, quickly arranged and executed.

On a brilliant mid-May afternoon, I just couldn’t help myself. Punctuated by the knowledge that the sun is setting later, I knew it was feasible, after a day spent toiling over the the computer, to drive a bit farther and see if that little-known brook trout stream on the shoulders of the Pitchstone Plateau had cleared up enough to make a few casts possible.

But it was early yet. The rain and the warmer temperatures had the little stream pulsing with high water, but this stretch of fly fishing heaven never goes completely the color of chocolate. It drains the western rim of the Yellowstone caldera, and cold water runs over black basalt until it picks up a charge of spring water, eventually dumping a clean, cold surge into the Henry’s Fork.

Higher up, above all the shoulder-season chaos of muddy tributaries and early-season four-wheelers charging across swollen streams and mud bogs, this little creek runs all by itself—a lonely outpost for diminutive, yet generally willing, non-native brook trout that long ago claimed these waters from what would have been native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. And because it clears more quickly than nearby waters — or doesn’t really get dirty at all — it comes to life early.

As I crested the ridge and veered off the blacktop onto a quiet dirt road leading into the lodgepoles, it was good to see that, even under the north-facing rocks and slopes, all the winter’s snow was gone. When crossing the stream on a rickety Forest Service bridge, I noticed tiny noses taking bugs on the surface in a slick just below.

Brook trout. Dry flies.


I parked the rig in a makeshift campsite along the creek and quickly realized that, while the fishing would likely be fairly straightforward, I was already faced with another challenge I was hoping I would be able to avoid.

This stretch of Idaho is wet this time of year. With runoff nearly over, but spring rains peppering the plateau, there is a lot of standing water. And with standing water, one can reasonably expect a bumper crop of mosquitoes. There, sitting in the truck, I realized that I had counted on it being just a bit too early for these blood-sucking monsters. But between me and few panes of autoglass hovered a swarm of insects that seemed to descend upon the vehicle as if answering a dinner bell. It’s as if they knew that, once the crusty outer shell of the vehicle was penetrated, the soft, juicy insides awaited. The bugs hovered and bumped the windows like a grocery store patron staring hungrily through the aquarium glass at the soon-to-be dispatched lobster.

Glaring through the windshield, the mosquitoes faded to a blur as I focused in on the trout water just a few yards away. The brookies here aren’t big, but they’re game, and on light tackle, they’ll make any fly fisher giddy for a little while. My eyes returned to the glass and the ever-increasing swarm of bloodsuckers daring me to step outside and expose my skin.

And, given the somewhat spontaneous nature of this little adventure, I had plenty of skin exposed. Shorts. Wading sandals. T-shirt. No repellant. No waders. I was an all-you-can-eat buffet for the damn mosquitoes.

Poor planning? No. No planning. A cool, overcast spring day in the Rockies. A gazilliion mosquitoes waiting just outside the car, swarming between me and my trouty destination.


I took a deep breath and opened the door, moving quickly to to the back of the rig where I could assemble a little 7-foot 4-weight just right for this small water. It took seconds before the first bug was attached to a bare calf. By the time I had all four pieces of the rod in place, I had half a dozen mosquitoes on my left leg and another flock had assembled on my right. I quickly wiped my hand along both shins, smearing my legs with mixture of my own blood and the remnants of a handful of bugs that couldn’t detach themselves. Then, I set about attaching the reel.

I figured it might be better if I offered a moving target, so I started walking away from the stream, tightening the reel in its seat and stretching line through the guides. The bugs followed ravenously, outpacing my now deliberate march away from the water. I stopped for a quick second and peered over my prescription sunglasses in order to thread the tippet through the eye of a size 14 Stimulator. It was a horrible mistake. In the second or two it took to thread the tippet, the armada descended on my face and hands. I got a nasty bite right above my right eye and I watched as, my hands occupied with the fly and the line, a mosquito drilled into my right index finger.


And the buzzing. The constant incessant buzzing. The damn things were trying to crawl into my ears. I started walking again, this time faster, with a purpose. The fly attached, I turned to face the creek and immediately saw the long slick. Fish noses dimpled the surface. Caddis flies dipped and skittered across the water. I charged on. Just a few casts, I told myself.

I stepped into the icy creek several feet below the run, ejecting a swarm of mosquitoes that had attached themselves to my shins. Quickly, but as delicately as I could given the harassment I endured just getting to the stream, I cast over the slick, dropping the fly a few inches from a small, overhanging willow.

Predictably, the Stimulator barely got wet before one the stream’s enthusiastic brook trout rose from the water and inhaled it. Seconds later, I released the six-inch char into its adopted home water, all the while squirming at the latest round of vampiric injections from the damn insects that just wouldn’t quit. My kingdom for a head net.

I cast again, and a second brookie came calling. Then a third. As I cast yet again, I noticed four mosquitoes perched on my casting arm, and I knew I was beaten. I missed the fourth fish, thanks largely to my growing paranoia and the itchy, queasy feeling that, very likely, was all in my head. But sometimes, it’s the mental game that lets you down, and I was conquered, psyched out by a mass of buzzing, biting bastards that had done more than just get under my skin.

I stumbled from the water, tripping over rocks and, as I crashed onto the bank, I couldn’t move fast enough. I toyed with the notion of breaking down the fly rod, but that thought left my head as quickly as it entered. To hell with that, I thought, reaching into my pocket for my car keys.

My keys. Where the hell were my keys? I started to panic. No keys? I’m stuck out there with these bloodsuckers because I can’t find my keys? When they find my shriveled corpse, I’ll be covered with mosquitoes, a couple of which had become engorged to the size of a cocker spaniel.

They were in my other pocket. Thank God.

I slid the still-intact fly rod into my rig as quickly as I could, and plopped into the driver’s seat with virtually no grace. I slammed the door to the vehicle and looked back out at the swarm. I swear, if I listened close enough, I could hear thousands of tiny “tap, tap taps” on the glass.

I ran my hands over my arms and legs and marveled at how quickly the bumps had risen on my skin. I looked up on my dash and noticed that one of the little critters had found a way in while the door was open oh, so briefly. There it hovered, now more focused on getting out than on getting in.

It landed on the dash, and I took great delight in squashing it with my index finger, leaving a red fingerprint on the black plastic.

Blood sacrifice. Take that, you son of a bitch.


Love the article; brings back a lot of memories of early summer fishing in the backwoods of Manitoba. Think blackflies and noseeums on top of mosquitos.
The red itchy welts were a badge of honour.

It sucked. I'm getting old, clearly...