Standing chest high in waders in the swiftly-flowing Firehole River, water peeling off to both sides, Pam Parker extended her right arm in a far-flung cast.
Over and over again, she threw out line, high in the air, her fly landing with a small splash under an overcast sky on the opening day of 2019 fishing in Yellowstone National Park.
It was a waiting game, patience required for an inquisitive trout to be teased into wrapping its mouth around the fly.
Parker, a librarian from Ketchum, Idaho, understood. She might cast frequently enough to incur a repetitive strain injury, but good intentions and commitment could still only carry her so far.
“This is nothing,” Parker said after a half-hour of letting the river run through her. “It could be all day.”
All day fishing without a catch is called getting skunked.
But then she felt the tug at the end of her line, and saw a little splash as a fish briefly broke the surface while she reeled. Within a minute or more Parker had brought the fish to her hand-held net.
“A tiny one,” she said, nestling the brook trout into her palm before releasing it. “I was looking for its dad.”
Parker ordered this 5-inch-long trout to swim off and not come back until it grew up.
Then she had another hit. This was also a little fishy and was quickly released after being given essentially the same message.
“That’s two,” Parker said.
A special day
The first day of fishing of the season in 45-ish temperatures, commonplace during a cold and wet spring, was not necessarily going to be the finest of the year.
But for some, fishing the Park on opening day is a tradition, a must-show occasion, regardless if fish are biting or not.
“It’s kind of a special day for fishermen,” Parker said. “I love Yellowstone.”
The Firehole, the Madison and the Lower Gibbon rivers are prized destinations, fly-fishing only. The coveted species is the native cutthroat trout, though those fish must be released back into the waters.
To fly fishermen, there seems to be an almost mystical appeal of these rivers, foremost of which is their location inside the Park.
Part of it, too, may be a holdover “The River Runs Through It,” movie effect, a film released in 1992 about Montana fly fishing that revolutionized the sport.
These waters also offer a rare opportunity to pursue cutthroats, the fish within Yellowstone’s 2.2-million acres with the most exalted status.
“I had to be here on opening day,” said Robert Metzger. Since 1958, Metzger, 70, has been coming to Yellowstone from Seattle where he spent his working life as a food services manager.
Those trips were mostly to fish in the fall, but he recently retired to Montana, making it easier to at last hit his first opening day.
Fishing has always been an attraction within Yellowstone, even before it was officially designated the nation’s first National Park in 1872, though those first fishermen faced no regulations and undoubtedly ate their catch.
The season now begins on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and closes on the first Sunday in November.
“The start and end dates were established to provide for a lengthy, open-water fishing season for visiting anglers,” said Todd Koel, the National Park Service supervisor of fisheries in Yellowstone, “while also ensuring a resting period during winter for the Park’s native and wild trout.”
In recent years, the annual Yellowstone visitation rate has topped 4.1 million people. About 50,000 anglers purchase licenses. Yellowstone-specific fishing licenses are required, even if anglers own Wyoming or Montana licenses.
The minimum is a three-day license for $18. A license costs $25 for seven days and $40 for the whole season.
Throughout the U.S. fishing world, rainbow trout and brook trout are sought after. In Yellowstone, those are basically invasive species that have helped dilute the cuthroat population.
It is man’s fault. Over the last century, officials have stocked those trout in numerous Park waters. The threat to the cutthroat’s future was compounded when lake trout were illegally introduced into Yellowstone Lake in the early 2000s, and they began destroying the native fish’s population.
While some $2 million a year is being spent to control and kill as many lake trout as possible, the Park Service is also engaging in eradicating rainbow, brown and hybrids in certain creeks and rivers and then restocking them with cutthroat.
For those anglers making the journey, whether from the region, other states, or foreign lands, the cutthroat’s uniqueness provide the premier challenge. But there are other perks to fishing in Yellowstone’s wilderness environment.
When James Jackson of Seal Beach, Calif., and Dennis Riley of Emigrant, Mont., appeared on a bank of the Firehole in early morning and began casting, they were greeted by a white wolf on the other side of the rushing water, less than 50 yards away. Unthreatened, for a while it watched the men cast and catch.
Jackson fished with streamers and nymphs.
“They’ve been hammering that,” he said of the fish. “It’s been a successful day so far.”
By his definition, successful was about 10 fish, though browns and rainbows more than cutthroats, at midday. Opening day at Yellowstone is a tradition for these partners, who rendezvous a week a year for this seasonal trip.
Jackson sat on their truck bed, poring over his fly box, first surveying for a new combination and then tying a new fly on.
“Did you see that?” shouted Riley while standing less than knee deep in the water. “It went head over heels over the line.”
The splash sounding was a good one.
“I heard that fish from here,” Jackson said.
But Riley and Jackson never caught more than a glimpse before it splashed away.
Pining for the past
While their temporary fish total (and hopeful of it climbing) seemed satisfactory to Riley and Jackson, Cody’s Tim Wade, longtime owner of North Fork Anglers, pines for the past.
“I’ve been trying to get there every year since 1982,” Wade said. “It’s usually fun. You see people from all over the world.”
Famous fly fishermen (many who have passed away) used to gather at Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop in West Yellowstone, Mont. That shop opened in the center of that town in 1952. Lilly died in 2017 and the location is now called Big Sky Anglers.
“We’d tie flies and tell lies,” Wade said.
This year, Wade was precluded from participating in the opening day ritual because of other business, but he did go in the next day.
He sought fish at Soda Butte Creek near the Northeast Entrance between Cooke City and the Lamar Valley.
“The fish were hard to find,” Wade said. “The Lamar was muddy. The creek was out of its bay. We had a great day photographing elk and black bears.”
Heavy rains contributed to creeks running over their banks, so that inhibited prospects.
Up until about 2000, Wade said, anglers might catch 75 to 100 fish on opening day.
“It was incredibly good at that time,” he said. “The fish were dumb. They hadn’t been fished since the last October.”
Another Cody veteran of Yellowstone fishing on Day 1 is George Simonton. He also missed out this year, but had about a 25-year streak going.
Simonton drove a camper to West Yellowstone in advance to spend the night. He rose early and hit the road into the Park at about 5:30 a.m. Simonton identified “my little place” on the Firehole, sometimes arriving an hour-and-a-half before anyone else.
Simonton recalls catching anywhere from 50 to 70 fish, cutthroat trout and brown trout with some brook trout mixed in. Once, he caught between 10 and 15 fish without even moving for two hours by casting to a mid-river log.
No bear ever menaced him, but once a bison eyed him.
“One year it snowed 12 inches,” he said. “It was kind of weird. I sometimes fished all day.”
Another year, after fishing the opener, Simonton was back in West Yellowstone. He got into a conversation with a fisherman from New York and his girlfriend. They drove hard to get there and were recuperating in anticipation of opening day.
They accidentally sat out the opener right there because they believed it was the Sunday, the next day.
“Sorry, pal,” Simonton informed him.
Fish to find
There are passionate participants in all sports, people for whom their activity is a way of life more than daily life itself.
Dillon Bennett, 21, from Carlisle, Pa., and a student at Penn State, is on his second summer working for a Park concessionaire.
The reason he chose a job in Yellowstone was to have access to fly fishing on days off. His drive was shorter than others, so he was out on the water first thing, catching six cutthroat before taking a break.
Yellowstone’s weather is notorious and while Cody was accumulating a May rainfall record of 6.22 inches, every day for a week in the Park before the opener, Bennett witnessed snow flurries.
Bennett said he prefers smaller creeks over larger rivers and although the Yellowstone River was mere feet away, he chose to step into the woods and cast into a narrow creek.
Bennett stood at bank’s edge and tossed his line into the dark water. The water’s tug was towards the big river and he kept edging closer to the creek flow and the Yellowstone.
If he got tugged in, no matter. He was equipped, wearing appropriate boots and waders. He was prepared if it rained, too. Fly fishermen expect to get wet one way or the other – and they don’t care as long as there are fish to find.
Wetting the line
Steve Crawford of Belgrade was prepared to fish the opener, even under the guise of coming to Yellowstone to hike.
He parked his vehicle, jumped out, leaving his wife and son sitting inside, just to make some quick casts into the Firehole.
Crawford caught a rainbow trout and had another fish on ... briefly.
“It was a long-distance release,” he said.
Ah, the bane of anglers.
Soon enough, Crawford was back in the vehicle, back with the fam, fishing rod holstered.
On the long drive to the Firehole from her Idaho home, Parker broke it up with pauses at four fly-fishing shops. She bought and listened to advice.
That was about whetting her appetite before wetting a line, the excitement growing as fishing time drew near.
Soon after Parker tied her first fly and straightened her line she reared back to cast. The fly never reached the river, hanging up on the branch of a nearby tree.
Parker looked up. The fly was out of reach, the branch seemed too weak to climb the trunk and crawl to the end. Caught, and abandoned close by were other flies. A hazard of the game.
“I got my tree,” Parker said.
Lucky for her, the joke went, Park regulations say there is a one-tree limit. Less than a hundred yards away those two trout awaited, far from overhanging vegetation.