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Author: Jack Ballard
A day pack, boots and a bit of effort are all that is required to transport yourself from the crowds and into the fish in Yellowstone Park.
Over a million visitors motor into Yellowstone National Park each summer, a significant number of whom have a fishing rod stashed in the camper or strapped on top of the station wagon. Drive the roads of the park on a warm July evening and you'll see loads of those anglers pounding the water of the Yellowstone, Lamar and Madison Rivers. But I'll bet you notice few of them tussling with the trout they're itching to tame.
Poor technique and inexperience? Are these the reasons that so few of the roadside anglers actually hook a trout? Maybe, but their biggest problem is simply fishing in the wrong place. The average angler who fishes within sight of his or her automobile in Yellowstone (especially on the major rivers) seldom ends the day with much more than casting practice. However, an investment of just 30 minutes or so, in the form of a vigorous hike, can find even the novice trout buff landing the crimson-jawed cutthroats that are the crown jewels of Yellowstone's stellar trout streams.
Just last summer, I had the opportunity to observe a couple of these novices on the Lamar River. Parking at a turnout on the east side of the Yellowstone River, they hiked cross-country for about one mile to fish the lower segment of the Lamar. A father-son team, the two were both at a "learning" stage in their fishing, but for different reasons.
The seven-year-old was graduating from a push-button reel to an open-faced affair with a bail. The father was renewing his 20-year love/hate relationship with fly-fishing, the single subject he failed to master in college.
Down on the river, dad rigged up his son's pole and clipped a red and white spoon onto a snap-swivel at the end of the line. Instructing the boy to cast toward the edge of a wide, deep pool, he then turned to the business of assembling his fly rod. Moments later, pandemonium broke out down-river.
"I got one, I got one," the boy shrieked. In water up to his dark calves, black eyes sparkling with the excitement known only to young boys, the lad was wildly cranking his reel as the drag whined its protest.
"Slow up, son," the father advised. "If that is a fish on the end of your line you'll lose it if you don't quit burning the bearings on that reel."
Expecting to find a clump of vegetation dredged from the bottom of the river, dad sauntered over to have a look. When a 15-inch cutthroat came thrashing to the surface with a red and white spoon hooked in its lower jaw, dad's causal attitude evaporated in the thin mountain air.
"Keep that rod tip up," he coached the ecstatic youngster, "and don't reel against the drag." Moments later, the boy had the fish in the shallow water at his feet. Dad quickly dislodged the hook from the trout's jaw and handed it over to the boy to release.
An hour later, just a quarter-mile upstream, it was dad's turn. Standing on a big boulder at the river's edge, he managed to hook and land a rainbow cousin to his son's cutthroat. Switching from a Royal Coachman to a grasshopper imitation, he soon caught a cutt' of his own. A few casts later, his hopper was sucked under the surface and sucked in by a cutthroat noticeably larger than anything the duo had caught previously.
"Get him, dad, get him," the boy cheered from the bank. When the fish was safely in the father's hands he instructed his son to grab the camera and fire a couple of quick photos. Then he returned the husky salmonid to its watery lair.
That, my friends, is a nice morning's fishing -- and one of the most memorable mornings that I've spent with my oldest son. We saw no other fishermen that day, but did spy an osprey flying reconnaissance up the river and watched a thirsty mule deer come timidly to the water for a drink. Had we fished the Lamar upstream, where the narrow park road runs within rods of the river, I can say with absolute assurance that our fishing would have been less productive and pristine.
Having fished Yellowstone for over a decade, it still amazes me that so many people will cast to the roadside waters without a strike for hours on end, but won't "waste" their fishing time by hiking to a more remote location where anglers report their catch in "fish per hour" rather than "hours per fish."
And there's literally hundreds of backcountry waters where the "fish per hour" rule applies. Many of these are highlighted in Yellowstone fishing guidebooks that are widely available in flyshops and general stores in and around the park. These books, and inquiries with park rangers and local fishing guides, give serious anglers multiple options for backcountry adventure. In case you don't find time to consult these resources before you hit the park, though, here are a couple of hike-in hotspots to get you going:
Lamar River- From its headwaters in an expansive valley where wolves, bison, coyotes and elk grace the setting to its confluence with the Yellowstone River, the Lamar River is a favorite with park anglers. The Lamar sees heavy use on the upper segments visible from the road, but there's roughly three miles of water from the Yellowstone River to Slough Creek that receives low angling pressure.
Lower pressure means larger and more aggressive fish. You'll find rainbows, cutthroats and "cutbow" hybrids in the lower Lamar, typically ranging from 11 to 18 inches.
There's a trail of sorts that heads north from a pullout on the north side of the road, east of the bridge over the Yellowstone River, about a mile east of Tower Junction. Hike north from the pullout and you'll hit the river in no time. Remember, though, that this is grizzly country, so carry pepper spray and hike with caution.
Yellowstone Canyon- If you fancy yourself as something of a tough guy, you'll find stunning scenery and superb fishing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This fishery is well known among park trout bums, but relatively few make the trek. It's about a five-mile hike into the canyon from the Glacial Boulder trailhead (east of Canyon) to what's locally known as the "Seven-mile Hole". However, it's not the mileage that kills you. It's the hot and dusty 1,200 feet of elevation that you have to scramble back up after you've hit the bottom.
However, every trout lover should make this trek at least once. Huge chunks of rock, ranging in size from a Subaru wagon to a city bus, slow the water as it surges through the canyon. Brightly colored cutthroats rest behind these boulders. Drop a wet fly or a spinner on the downstream side of one of the hulking rocks and you'll likely find results.
Along with your fishing gear and plenty of water, a camera is essential to a Seven-mile Hole fishing trip. You'll want to catch your first trek into the canyon on film -- in case your first is the last.
Whether you repeat the Seven-mile Hole trek is an issue I'll leave for you to decide. Once bitten by Yellowstone's backcountry trout bug, though, you'll have a tough time staying away. If the Grand Canyon doesn't lure you back you'll still have to resist the temptation of Heart Lake, the Bechler River, Grebe Lake, the Gardner River, the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, Slough Creek, Fawn Creek, Shoshone Lake and other waters too numerous to classify.
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