Scott finds his way to Montana and the fabled Yellowstone cutthroat.
When I first began my flyfishing journey a little over 20 years ago, flyfishing didn’t seem to be as recognisable as it is now. As a young boy, I would tune in to every episode of Rex Hunt’s fishing adventures, hoping he would be waving the wand around. Or I’d watch serious video cassettes on how to fly cast, or distinctly ‘B-grade’ DIY videos on flyfishing for New Zealand’s big brown trout.
Then it happened. First came the Robert Redford’s motion picture, ‘A River Runs Through It‘ starring a young Brad Pitt, which put flyfishing in the spotlight. Rob Sitch and Tom Gleisner’s television series, ‘A River Somewhere’ followed a few years later. It transformed flyfishing in Australia from a serious sport where you had to know the scientific names of the bugs; to a fun, mainstream pastime that anyone could do.
Both ‘Rivers’ fuelled my already growing passion for flyfishing. I began to dream of travelling to exotic locations around the globe. Fast forward a couple of decades, and by the end of 2018 I’d had the pleasure of visiting some of the world’s premier flyfishing destinations: New Zealand, Christmas Island, Ireland and Anaa Atoll, Tahiti.
April 2018 was an exciting month as I was to marry the love of my life, Ellen. Preparations for the wedding were hard work, though I must admit, Ellen did most of the tough stuff! I had the easy job of looking after the live entertainment. During wedding discussions, we began brainstorming ideas for potential honeymoon destinations: Vietnam? Japan? America? Europe? After lengthy chats, we were both leaning towards America. Three weeks in America sounded fun but where would we visit? Ellen thought about heading to some of the great cities such as LA, New York and San Francisco. Great, but where would I be able to flyfish? There was clearly something missing for an obsessed flyfisher: nowhere to wet a line.
I pulled out a map of the USA and Montana immediately popped out at me, almost calling my name. ‘Perfect,’ I thought, ‘A week in San Fran, a week in Montana, and a week in New York.’ But how would I sell this proposition to Ellen? Yes of course, I’d pop on ‘A River Runs Through It’ and we could watch it together. After seeing Brad Pitt in action amid dramatic Montana landscapes, I’d ask her thoughts on going there for a week of our honeymoon.
But then, on movie night, before I even put DVD in the player, Ellen knew what I was up to. “If you want to go to Montana that’s fine,” she offered. “Just no fly rods.” My heart sank, but then she added with a grin, “Only kidding!” So we watched the movie, Ellen for the first time, me for the eleventh. We both agreed Montana looked spectacular and it was into the itinerary for a whole week.
Over the next month, I gathered as much information as possible about Montana. The plan was to mix general touring with a little DIY fishing and a guided day. For the DIY bit, I purchased a book ‘Fly Fishing Montana’ by John Holt. I found this extremely handy and with the information I gathered, I chose the Bozeman area as home for the week. Bozeman has the Gallatin River passing close to town: this was the river Robert Redfood chose for most of the fishing segments in ‘A River Runs Through It’, even though in the storyline it’s the Blackfoot River about an hour away. I’m not sure why they chose to shoot the movie on the Gallatin, but naturally I had to fish it!
I looked for accommodation on the Gallatin and found a guest ranch that had 3km of Gallatin River frontage, a saloon bar, fly shop and log cabins. Ideal!
For a guide, Hank from Montana Anglers was recommended by a friend, who assured me he would be able to get me onto some of the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout I was desperate to catch. My mate also recommended heading across to the Bighorn River and joining him on a drift boat, as he would be there during our stay. The trip was coming together and I couldn’t wait!
We headed to the US in late summer and after an awesome week in San Francisco, we boarded our direct flight to Bozeman. Bozeman Airport itself was amazing, resembling a large lodge constructed with logs. We headed over to arrange our hire car, which the guy at the service desk described as a nice little Japanese hatchback. I said to him jokingly, “I came all the way to Montana to drive a hatchback? I want a yank tank!” He started going through a bunch of keys and suggested, “How about a free upgrade to a Chevy Silverado?” I immediately took him up on his offer.
The next morning, we loaded up the Silverado and headed to Montana Angler fly shop where my guide Hank was based. The shop was fantastic, although I did notice one thing on display that we don’t have in our fly shops: bear spray. Hank introduced himself and we discussed our fishing options for the following day. We settled on a hike into the Yellowstone River in the National Park chasing cutthroat. I pointed at the bear spray and asked Hank, “Do I really need this stuff?” He said he hadn’t pulled his out in over 10 years, but thought I should still carry it.
We then made our way to our accommodation at the ranch. The drive up the Gallatin River valley was spectacular, with the road practically following the river all the way. What was astonishing was the number of fly anglers – we must have passed a hundred or more on the one hour drive.
We arrived at the ranch under blue skies and warm temperatures. After checking in, I was of course buzzing to go and fish the river. Ellen followed me down to water, which was flowing swiftly over a wide, relatively shallow bed littered with boulders.
I approached carefully and as I stepped into the river, it was easy to imagine I was Brad Pitt, about to get towed downstream by a giant rainbow like in the film. Then I shook off the daydream, looked upstream, and my fishing instincts kicked in. This was pocket water: no long casts required, just a short line and dead drift would get the job done. The boys back at Montana Angler had recommended a Stimulator as it was hopper season. I tied a size 12 Royal X Stimulator on to my 4 weight outfit and started fishing.
It was only a matter of minutes before a rainbow came shooting out of one of the deeper pockets to nail the fly. At about three quarters of a pound, it was no monster and it wasn’t going to tow me downstream. But it was my first Montana trout and I was rapt. The next two hours were pure bliss, with stacks of ‘bows of the about the same size coming up to the fly like it was their last meal. By the time I’d finished fishing, I’d only covered about 200 metres of water. What a fantastic start the trip!
The next day began with a 4.30am start to meet up early with Hank for a two hour drive into Yellowstone National Park, followed by a hike to a spot that had good numbers of cutthroats. The trip into the park was amazing, and we passed elk and bison roaming the grassy flats.
Our destination was a gorge on the Yellowstone and it took a 40 minute walk to get to the river. As we crossed a swing bridge, Hank pointed out the section we would be fishing. The Yellowstone here was a large body of water which reminded me somewhat of a big New Zealand backcountry river pushing through large boulders.
I’d heard rumours of cutthroat trout being a relatively easy fish to outsmart, happy to eat any large terrestrial dry thrown at them. However, it wasn’t the case on this day. After a few fish had come up to inspect then reject a large Stimulator, Hank somewhat reluctantly offered to tie a nymph to the back of the dry fly. I’m no purist and I immediately accepted. The nymph brought instant success and I had my first native Yellowstone cutthroat of a little over a pound. For the next few hours, the cutthroat took the nymph readily. The fish themselves were in great condition, mostly a pound to a pound and a half. The fight was interesting, with many fish heading straight to the bottom where they would run hard down deep, rarely coming to the surface to jump.
Although I was having fun and had landed around half a dozen cutties by lunchtime, Hank felt the fishing was a bit slow due to warm water temperatures. He gave me the option of either persisting where we were, or heading to another stream with cutthroat that were larger, though more difficult to catch. Well, it was an easy choice: head to the big cuttie water!
The walk out of the gorge was just as stunning as the walk in, except it was all uphill and I was a tad overweight from a week in San Francisco eating burgers and fries. Then it happened. I heard Hank say the word I had been dreading: “BEAR.” I looked up and Hank had already pulled out his bear spray. A black bear was sitting on the track 30 metres ahead of us, casually feeding on a berry bush. I immediately pulled out my bear spray too as Hank started to make a lot of noise. I recalled pre trip being told you cannot outrun a bear, and the grizzly scene from ‘The Revenant’ also crossed my mind!
My concern was, with the bear being on the same track as us, it would take the easy way out – straight towards us! Fortunately, the bear instead took the difficult route and went straight down the steep slope. After the dust had settled, I could tell how pumped Hank was seeing the bear; and so was I once we were safely in the car.
Now, back to the fishing thing. Ah yes, I remembered – the big cutties that are hard to catch. We drove to a stream named Slough Creek, located in the high plains of the Park. It was a stunningly beautiful meadow stream, weaving its way through the open meadows with bison roaming close by. We walked not far from the road and begun to fish upstream. The Slough resembled a large spring creek, slow flowing and with a high bank on one side that was perfect for sighting trout.
We immediately spotted a few cutthroat gently sipping off the surface. Hank observed that they were feeding on ants, so I tied on some extra 5X tippet and size 16 parachute ant. A few casts later, a lovely cuttie came up and sipped in the ant. It nudged three pounds in the net. Then a breeze picked up the fish began to feed midwater. Hank attached a lightly-weighted purple Prince Nymph and most of the cutthroat from then on fell to the nymph.
At one stage, Hank’s attention was drawn to something behind us, and he began pointing his camera and shooting away. He called, “Check this out!” so I climbed out of the water and about 100 metres away, a herd of bison had wandering into the valley, bring with them a thunderous grunting and rumbling.
A few cutthroat later, we returned to the car, surrounded by mountains and grazing bison. It was time to head back to the ranch. As we drove out through the Park with the summer sun low in the sky, I realised I had ticked off one of my childhood dreams.
The trip continued with some amazing drifting on the Bighorn and hatches on other famous rivers, but sitting here now in the Melbourne winter, it’s Yellowstone that sticks in my mind. I have no doubt I’ll be back to explore more of the Montana’s rivers and streams. While a few days provided an experience to remember, there’s clearly a lifetime of water to visit.