There’s a bridge over a tumbling bedrock creek near the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It’s a good place to stop—if you walk a bit downstream, there’s an impressive set of waterfalls where the creek dives off of a plateau and dumps into the Lewis River just before the latter meets the humble beginnings of the mighty Snake.
But, as is the case with most places in the park, folks just kind of stop and look. They rarely set foot off the pavement or the boardwalks. So, I wasn’t the least-bit surprised to be the only guy gearing up for a little fly fishing at the south-bound pull-off, just before the bridge. I was surprised, though, when a nice couple with two kids in tow wandered over to me.
“Can you fish in the park?” the woman asked. “I didn’t think that was allowed.”
You can, indeed, I answered. Fishing and Yellowstone go way back to the beginning, I explained. It’s a great way to see what not many other people see, and to get away from the crowds at every pull-off. I might have winked at her, but I don’t think she got the joke.
She smirked, and looked at her husband, who was eyeing my fly rod with what seemed like envy. His two young kids—a daughter I guessed to be about 7 and a son a couple years younger—gripped his legs tightly, not sure what to the think about a guy standing on the side of the road armed with a fly rod.
“But aren’t there bears?” she asked, as if stepping foot onto a dirt path was an open invitation to be a dinner guest after a good old-fashioned mauling.
“Oh, sure,” I said, watching her husband’s face as he again checked out my gear. I pointed to my small canister of bear spray on my hip. But this time of year, I explained, most of the grizzlies are up high and the black bears are a lot more active early in the day and again at night.
“That’s a light rod,” the curious woman’s husband said, as if he hadn’t heard a word his wife had been saying. “I heard all the fish in the park are really big.”
I grinned and shook my head. While there are big fish in the park, most of the trout are worthy of a 3-weight and some imagination, I explained. And fisherman are pretty crappy at basic math, so I’d have no problem with the latter.
“If they’re not big, why fish for them?” his wife asked.
I was about to launch into the “it’s not always about the fish” reply, but sometimes, you can tell when the conversation just isn’t going to go anywhere. So, I just nodded and said that I enjoyed being where nobody else was. And then I locked the truck, bid them a good day, and turned on my heel. I hopped over a stone wall separating the Grand Loop Road from what I’m sure the wife thought was pure wilderness where I would be devoured by wolves and bears and never seen or heard from again. Seconds later, after a quick walk through the pines, I arrived at the creek well upstream of the bridge and was rewarded with exactly what I was after.
I was still close enough to the road to hear bigger engines roar by, but soon, after more walking, all I could hear was the gurgle of the stream as it poured over pockets in the dark, volcanic rock. I stepped into the stream and immediately felt a thermal influence—not unusual at all in Yellowstone. One side of the creek was cold and trouty. The other side was downright warm.
I walked upstream, casting to the cold side, and managed to hook a few really beautiful Yellowstone cutthroats. They were colored up from the recent spawn and, while they were indeed worthy of a 3-weight, they were also likely worthy of a 2-weight or even a Tenkara rod. Diminutive, mostly, but great fun away from envious dads, worrying moms and tourists armed with bug spray, sunscreen and selfie-sticks.
A while later, I arrived at a small confluence. To the left a warm spring tumbled off a lush, green meadow into the little canyon stretch of the creek I’d just fished. To the right, the creek leveled out atop that same meadow, and the water was deliciously cold. After a spell, the cutthroats got bigger and a bit more numerous and enthusiastic.
And I kept walking and fishing, gloriously alone.
I do love to fish with buddies—folks who have a common interest and guys with whom I don’t mind sharing boats or cabins or float planes. But now and then, it’s good get centered and trudge through wild country all by my lonesome. It feels right and somewhat pure to catch wild trout where they belong and not be tempted to look around to make sure my buddy has witnessed my angling prowess. There’s nothing complicated about it. Cast and, hopefully, catch. There’s no showing off when you’re by yourself.
A few hours later, the sun had dipped behind the ridge to the west, and the air took on that Rocky Mountain chill. With it came the mosquitoes, and that was my cue. I reeled up a horribly tattered Royal Coachman and did some quick memory work. I knew I could follow the creek back to the bridge, or I could be just a tad cavaliere, point my rod east and walk out somewhere well above my parked truck on the Grand Loop Road.
I chose the latter, knowing I’d cut my hike back to the rig in half. And, a short while later, after a modest bushwhack through the woods, I stepped up onto the skinny shoulder of the highway and started walking south. I could hear a vehicle coming at me from around a gentle bend, so I made sure I was well off the blacktop.
Moments later, a burgundy red mini-van raced around the corner. There, behind the driver’s seat, was the envious dad, his mouth slightly agape at the sight of this fisherman a mile or two from the pull-off, hoofing it down the highway. His wife pointed at me from the passenger seat and waved. From the backseat, the two kids waved furiously, too. I nodded my head and just kept walking.