Fall weather has finally hit northwest Wyoming. After near record highs on Saturday, it was refreshing to awake Sunday morning to much colder nighttime temperatures and to see snow once again blanketing the Absaroka Mountains.
Time is now short for angling opportunities inside Yellowstone National Park and also in some of the alpine areas of not just the Absarokas, but also in the Beartooth and Bighorn mountain ranges.
Traveling to distant angling destinations has been my passion since receiving my first driver’s license and a set of car keys at the age of 16. I have been fortunate to do this and will admit that the opportunity to do so has been one of the greatest blessings I could receive, other than my wonderful family who have been more supportive than I could hope for, or deserve, in order to keep the planes flying, boats sailing or the tires turning on my numerous Fishmobiles over the years.
Since the coronavirus hit this past March, the only trip I was able to make outside the Big Horn Basin was to northern California for a spring steelhead trip. May through August was a whirlwind of activity as travelers from all over the USA descended upon Cody and Yellowstone to enjoy piscatorial pursuits and to escape the lockdown found in some of the more infected states.
Once Labor Day passed by, the urge to hit the road again became a significant reminder that fishing surrounding states as weather transitioned to fall might not happen.
As luck would have it, several opportunities arose that allowed me to take full advantage of the extended warm weather to take relatively short but productive fishing trips to fly fish parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Yellowstone since mid-September. I related one of these trips a few weeks ago when I went to Missoula to fish the Blackfoot, Clark Fork of the Columbia and tributaries to both these vast watersheds. An epic four days.
When my wife said it was now time to enjoy our delayed anniversary trip that had been planned in April but shot to pieces by the COVID-19 epidemic travel restrictions, I jumped at the chance to escape and spend some quality time with her. She was astute enough to mention that she would allow me room to pack my fly gear as long as I promised not to fish the entire time. Can you imagine? She knows full well after 28 years that driving past miles of prime trout rivers and streams would be as painful as telling a kid he could not have his trick-or-treat candy on Halloween.
Off we went with plans to explore our way through Glacier National Park, Coeur d’Alene, Orofino and other places in a week. The two of us have celebrated our wedding vows in many places, but the chance to spend a few hours a day on rivers like the Judith, Kootenai, Clearwater, Lochsa, Big Hole and the Yellowstone was a dream come true and the ultimate enticement for me to agree to the trip. This was especially true because the fishing in the Cody area was still rocking and rolling at the time the trip was planned. No reason to leave if the fishing was still great, right?
As luck would have it, the wind blew very hard the first few days of our trip. This kept the fishing gear from cluttering up the rear of the SUV and also gave the two of us time to explore Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery route through the middle of Montana and Glacier. As an aside, I will say the Corps definitely covered a lot of ground on their way to the Pacific Ocean. How they managed to explore all the tributaries of the Missouri River on their trip is still amazing over 200 years later.
It was the third day of our trip before wind laid down. By that time, we had put Kalispell in our rearview mirror and found ourselves on the Kootenai River in northern Montana around 1 p.m.. As we followed the river, the car and my eyes kept drifting closer to the road’s edge to look at all of the prime trout lies that we were passing by as the miles rolled under our car’s tires. Finally, just outside Libby, Mont., my wife had heard enough whining to let me pull off into a campground and wet a line.
The Kootenai is a huge river. It is better fished from a driftboat than by wading, but there was a great inside eddy that peeled off a small peninsula of gravel and rock near our parking spot that created the perfect holding lie for trout. Fortune was smiling that afternoon. Small, size 22 pale morning duns were all over the slick created down-river and there were rainbow trout rising on these tiny mayflies. I fished dries for two hours and landed enough to satisfy my passion. When the action slowed down, waders were pulled off, the fly rod was kept rigged and the two got back on the road to Coeur d’Alene, our next stop for that evening and the next two days.
After touring this magnificent town with the backdrop of Lake Coeur d’Alene and its logging and railroad history, we hit the road again for Orofino, Idaho, where we had hotel reservations and where I planned to fish the Clearwater River later that day. After getting an early check-in and grabbing a bite to eat, I rushed off to find a likely spot to ply my skills on the Clearwater. This is another river best suited for fishing from a drift, or even a jet boat, due to its size and the heavy flows that run west to Lewiston, Idaho.
As luck would have it, the B run steelhead and Chinook salmon were also running the river according to my local information source at Red’s Fly Shop. Since the sun was fully bright on the river and there was no sign of rising trout, I figured going deep with nymphs would be my best bet until the sun waned and the trout were willing to rise in the shadows. Again, as luck would have it, my first cast into the long, 150-yard riffle-and-run section I had chosen to fish put my nymph into one of those B run steelhead.
After a quick run downstream and watching my fly line disappear at an alarming rate, my 4X tippet could not take the strain and I broke that fish off. I seriously doubt my five-weight fly rod could have landed that sea-run rainbow and might have ended up broken, which truly would have been a bummer. The rest of the afternoon was spent hooking rainbow trout in the 12-18 inch length on nymphs. These trout were much more manageable for my fly rod and tippet size. By 5 p.m. the action slowed down and I had to hump out of the river and get back to our hotel to take my bride to dinner. Needless to say, I had a smile on my face when I came through the door.
The next body of water was the Lochsa River, a tributary of the Clearwater that begins high in the Bitterroot Mountains that border Idaho and Montana. It enters the Clearwater near the town of Kooskia, Idaho. This river is noted for its whitewater rafting and kayaking during snowmelt season, but it also harbors a good population of Westslope cutthroat. I fished the Lochsa about 30 miles upriver from the town of Kooskia. Here, the Lochsa tumbles through a basaltic canyon with deep runs and lots of pocket water.
It seems my timing was good once again because those same tiny PMD’s were all over the Lochsa and the cutthroat would eat them with abandon when I could get a good drift through the heavy flows. Time passes too swiftly when fishing. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to jump into the Lochsa in several more places as we drove on our way to Lolo Pass and then on to Missoula, Mont., for dinner and the night.
Smoke from all the forest fires had been absent the entire trip. Upon awaking in Missoula, however, the smoke was deep into the Bitterroot Valley and also the Big Hole River valley, which was our destination that day. Since I couldn’t convince my bride to go back to Kooskia or Orofino, we decided to hit the road and fish when we had left the smoke in our rearview mirror. Hopefully, that would be somewhere near Butte or Bozeman.
Sadly, the smoke was everywhere so we pointed the SUV towards Cody. As we neared our hometown, Heart Mountain, Pat O’Hara, the Beartooth Mountains and other landmarks were not even visible due to the smoke. Sadly, our trip ended earlier than expected. On a positive note, the two of us really enjoyed the time together traveling through all that magnificent real estate while following the travels of Lewis and Clark the entire time. And, if you are wondering about COVID-19 concerns, yes, we wore our masks, washed our hands a lot and then tested negative for the virus a week after we landed back in Cody. I am looking forward to our next anniversary trip, believe me.