Northwest Fly Fishing

Wonder and Wild Cutthroats in a Primeval Tableau
By Jeff Erickson

I was lollygagging through Wyoming’s Lamar River Valley on a perfect August morning when my bliss was momentarily interrupted as a large, chocolate-brown wolf suddenly bounded toward the front of my truck. The animal did a remarkably quick pirouette along the shoulder, flashed a toothy snarl, and leaped back into the brush.
   Later, happily hiking along a hillside above the Lamar, I surveyed a primeval scene little changed since the end of the last Ice Age. Across the river rose Specimen Ridge, famous for its petrified subtropical forest that was entombed in volcanic mudflows 50 million years ago. In the expansive valley below, dust devils swirled a mile away as hundreds of bison roamed through sage-studded grasslands, grunting and roaring. It was breeding season and testosterone-fueled bulls skirmished, head-butting fiercely while cows and calves stood nonchalantly. A spooked herd of pronghorns sprinted away at 50 miles per hour, an evolutionary ability they may have developed to escape speedy prehistoric cheetahs and ferocious bone-crunching hyenas. I half expected to confront a mastodon, giant sloth, or saber-toothed tiger next.
   That’s life along Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar River, one of the world’s most spectacular, wildlife-rich places. But there’s more: watching a 20-inch, butter-flanked Yellowstone cutthroat leisurely float up from the bottom to engulf a dry fly is one of fly fishing’s great thrills. Just as often, though, these sly teases will drift along studying your offering, contemptuously bump the bug with their snouts, then retreat like phantoms to their log jam or cutbank lairs—a snub that may force you deep into your four-letter-word vocabulary.
   But immersed in this wonderland, one’s ire at such slights will be momentary. Hiking back to my truck after fishing, I concurred with mountain man and writer Osborne Russell, who explored the Lamar region in the 1830s: “…I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this, where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild
romantic splendor.”

 

Absaroka Peaks to the Yellowstone
In Fishing Yellowstone Waters, the venerable Charles Brooks updated Russell’s Lamar Valley sentiments: “Today there are tourists and fishermen who spend their entire vacations in this lovely, beautiful place.”
   A major Yellowstone River tributary, the Lamar drains much of the northeastern quadrant of the great park. In addition to the Lamar’s main stem, the watershed offers myriad other options, including tributaries like Soda Butte, Pebble, and
Slough Creeks. 
   The Lamar rises amidst the lonely, 10,000-foot-high fangs of the Absaroka Range rimming the eastern park boundary. Backpackers or horse riders starting at the Lamar River trailhead near Soda Butte’s mouth must cover at least 16 miles to reach the headwaters. Portions follow the route beleaguered Nez Perce Indians used to cross the Absarokas in their 1,170 mile flight from the U.S. Army in 1877. The river here is tighter, faster, and more canyon-like than in the valley below, dropping almost 100 vertical feet per mile. Cutts can come easily but run smaller than their
downstream brethren.
   The upper Lamar is a mecca for fly anglers who enjoy cutt pilgrimages propelled by muscle power. Options range from easy day hikes to lengthy backcountry expeditions. Yellowstone’s extensive trail system magically transports anglers into a lost realm, away from 21st-century nonsense: no incessant texting, moronic cellphone chatter, bloviating politicians, or breathless TV updates on the latest arrests and escapades of Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen. It’s just the Absarokas ripping into blue sky; rambling elk, moose, and bears; and a lonely chasm of trout water. You’re off the radar screen like Amelia Earhart, into terra incognita.
   Below the backcountry stretch, the Lamar enters a sublime, 6-mile-long, glacier-carved valley; it’s one of the West’s iconic stretches of fly water. The sinuous river skirts the Northeast Entrance Road in places, making it readily accessible. But it also snakes away from the pavement, enticing more ambitious anglers to make cross-country hikes of up to a mile to partially evade roadside crowds, if not necessarily bison. Pressure notwithstanding, trout between 15 and 20 inches long are routinely landed.
   Downstream from the valley, the Lamar slices through 3 billion year-old rock—the oldest in the park—creating a canyon littered with tank-size boulders, fast runs, and deep green pools. Anglers scramble down from roadside parking areas on informal trails. The terrain then flattens again for a few miles near Lamar Bridge. Below the mouth of Slough Creek, the Lamar largely breaks free of roads and trails on its final, fast run to the Yellowstone River. Cross-country hikers have much of this comparatively more unpredictable water
to themselves.
   By midsummer, the Lamar Valley displays a massive, cobble flood plain scoured by spring snowmelt. Because of torrential flooding, the primary angling window is narrow—late-July into October. The Lamar is typically the last Yellowstone stream to drop and clear. Mean flows peak in June at an unfishable 4,260 cubic feet per second (cfs), plummeting to 225 cfs by September. Because of violent thunderstorms and erosive volcanic soils in the Absaroka headwaters around Hoodoo Basin, the river blows out with silt after rain, sometimes discoloring the Yellowstone downstream for days. But as Craig Mathews and Clayton Molinero observe in their excellent book, The Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide, “If you’re fortunate enough to be here the day it clears, the fish will make you beg for mercy.”
   Perhaps because of the river’s unruly, spate characteristics, Lamar trout are unusually prone to roaming like hobos between holding areas. A honey hole one day may be seemingly barren the next. Keep prospecting.

 

Preserving Cutthroat Paradise
The main quarry for Lamar anglers are wild, indigenous Yellowstone cutthroat, mixed with rainbows and cuttbow hybrids. The latter two have gradually made inroads in both the Lamar and Slough Creek, a problem for biologists trying to protect these critical cutt refuges. Nonetheless, genetically pure Yellowstone cutts still thrive—especially in the headwaters.
   While no one disputes rainbows are a superb game fish, they are not native to Yellowstone and have had serious negative impacts on cutthroats across the West. According to a comprehensive 2009 report compiled for the U.S. Forest Service by biologist Robert Gresswell, Yellowstone cutthroat have been reduced to 42 percent of their original range, with only 28 percent occupied by core, genetically unaltered populations. Rainbows—among the first wave of exotic fish introduced to Yellowstone, in 1889—compete with cutts for food and space, and reduce their genetic purity through hybridization. This is true even though they sometimes occupy different habitats. Rainbows are perfectly at home in riffles and other fast water, while cutthroat tend to prefer slower reaches, more suitable for their leisurely natures.
   Of great concern, cutts in nearby Yellowstone Lake—the world’s stronghold for this beleaguered fish—have been severely reduced due to predation by illegally introduced lake trout and whirling disease. While acknowledging these impacts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to list Yellowstone cutts under the federal Endangered Species Act, although they are listed as a “sensitive species” or “species of special concern” by various federal and state agencies.
   To help address challenges facing the park’s indigenous game fish—the Yellowstone, westslope, and Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat subspecies, along with arctic grayling—the National Park Service approved its Native Fish Conservation Plan in 2011. It’s an ambitious effort to help cutthroat and grayling, including the installation of barriers at various locations to reduce encroachment; removing exotics in certain areas (e.g., lake trout in Yellowstone Lake); restoring pure-strain fish populations in selected locations; and ongoing research, monitoring, and adaptation. Some popular nonnative trout fisheries such as the Firehole, Madison, and lower Gibbon Rivers aren’t affected by the plan. 
   Just as catch-and-release is often an effective management tool, under certain circumstances, so too is catch, keep, and grill. Park rules now require that nonnative trout taken from the Lamar watershed be harvested. Conversely, all cutthroats and cuttbows must be released. “If it has a red slash, put it back,” advise the park regulations. The move toward killing exotic trout in portions of Yellowstone has aroused some opposition, including a vocal Jackson Hole group called the Wild Trout Conservation Coalition, which has been lobbying the Wyoming congressional delegation about the issue.
   Ultimately, a fundamental mission of the National Park Service is to conserve indigenous species like Yellowstone cutthroat. Here’s what the veteran Yellowstone experts at Parks’ Fly Shop in Gardiner, Montana, posted on its website about this topic: “If enough anglers can move past their usually commendable tendency toward catch-and-release fishing in this case, rainbows should be held in check sufficiently for cutthroat populations in the fabled waters of the Lamar drainage…to remain almost pure.”
   Here’s my take: There are plenty of places to catch (and release) large rainbows not only inside Yellowstone, but within easy striking distance. If that’s your goal—and it’s one I often share—try the Madison, Missouri, or Bighorn. But Yellowstone cutts need all the help they can get to survive.

 

A Terrestrial Uprising
The marquee attraction on the Lamar is terrific terrestrial action. If you’ve prowled fly shop aisles in the past decade, you’ve observed multiplying bins holding garish terrestrials. It’s as if they’ve been reproducing after hours, then mutating into ever-creepier Frankenstein-like creatures of foam, Flashabou, and twitchy rubber legs. Many look as though they hopped out of a nightmare rather than a proper, old-school fly box.
   Gone are the days of my youth, when I marched confidently along the Yellowstone’s streamside meadows armed with a $10 fiberglass rod, rope-like tippets, and my trusty, battered Joe’s Hopper. The trout didn’t mind much, but today’s Lamar fish have more to worry about: a dizzying flotilla of fake grasshoppers, ants, beetles, crickets, cicadas, and other land-loving insects that blunder into the water.
   We are in the throes of a terrestrial revolution and Lamar anglers have been primary beneficiaries. Lamar meadows harbor prolific ants, beetles, hoppers, and cannibalistic Mormon crickets, chirping and clumsily cavorting as though they’d hopped out of an Alfred Hitchcock horror film. A well-stocked Lamar fly box harbors large, leggy creatures that you’d never want actually crawling on you: Slough Creek Cricket, M’s Hopper, Thingamahopper, Tiger Beetle, Jiminy Cricket, Grand Hopper, Chernobyl Ant, Chubby Chernobyl, Longhorn Beetle, and the monstrous Fat Albert.
   But there’s more to the Lamar watershed than terrestrials. Beginning in July, depending on the location, anglers may encounter various mayflies, including Baetis, Callibaetis, Epeorus, Heptagenia, Pale Morning Duns, and Gray Drakes; Green Drakes, especially, appear in August and September. Caddisflies are important throughout the prime season, including Brachycentrus, Hydropsyche, and Rhyacophila. Midges can spark periodic action anytime. Faster reaches produce Salmonflies and Golden Stoneflies in July, with Yellow Sallies stretching through August. Ultimately though, fishing the Lamar is less of a precise, Silver Creek-like match-the-hatch exam than the ability to hurl bugs the size of baby rats into the wind.
   Attractors, such as Stimulators, Turck Tarantulas, Trudes, PMXs, Humpies, and Wulffs, are tasty cutt appetizers. Subsurface, standard nymphs in small sizes take fish, as do stonefly nymphs in boulder water and soft hackles swung through the riffles. Streamers provoke strikes, too, especially sculpin patterns.
   On the Lamar, it pays to restrain your zeal for striking early and hard, as if a largemouth bass exploded on a deer hair frog. Because of the cutts’ infuriating tendency to closely scrutinize and curiously nudge bugs, it’s best to wait until the whites of their mouths definitively clamp around your fly and they are heading back down. Following a refusal, wait a few minutes before attempting another cast; lighten your tippet; try a different angle; and consider another pattern, perhaps smaller. In the Lamar’s most heavily fished reaches, cutts are often caught and released multiple times during the season. Hence, their caution.

 

Cornucopia of Options
The Lamar River is pleasantly isolated from urban centers. Visitors will likely want to linger at least a couple of days. This is especially true because of the other alluring water within a long double-haul.
   There are a trio of long, gloriously scenic routes to the Lamar: rambling up Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River from Livingston, Montana, through Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs, then east toward the Lamar; north from Canyon Village near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, over Dunraven Pass (check to make sure it’s open), then east from Tower Junction; or west from Cooke City, Montana, the remote northeast park gateway. To reach the latter, travelers must painfully choose between two of the planet’s most spectacular drives, the rollercoaster Chief Joseph Scenic Byway running northwest over the Absarokas from Cody, Wyoming, or corkscrewing up the lake-splattered, 2-mile-high Beartooth Pass (check weather and road conditions), southwest from Red Lodge, Montana.
   There are no campgrounds or park lodges on the Lamar. However, the rustic Slough and Pebble Creek Campgrounds are close; during prime season, you’ll likely need to arrive early to secure a site. Also in the area are the Tower Fall Campground and the Roosevelt Lodge, which offers accommodations, a restaurant, and a store with basic supplies. Sleepy Cooke City has a larger selection of the same. 
   One place worth checking out in the Lamar Valley is the Yellowstone Association Institute at the historic Buffalo Ranch, originally built in 1907 to help repopulate the park’s nearly extinct bison. This nonprofit organization offers a wide range of materials and educational programs related to natural history and outdoor recreation, including fly fishing. For a party with diverse interests, checking the association’s website (www.yellowstoneassociation.org) prior to a Lamar trip might keep everyone happily occupied. Rental log cabins are available at the ranch for
program participants.
   If the Lamar turns chocolate following a thunderstorm, Soda Butte Creek offers a productive roadside cutt/rainbow fishery. The drainage also shelters alluring backcountry angling along Pebble Creek and its namesake trail, which runs 12 miles from the Pebble Creek Campground to the Northeast Entrance. Pebble’s upper end winds through a Shangri-La-like meadow, perfect for light gear.
   The last major Lamar tributary downstream of Soda Butte is the renowned Slough Creek. While the lower runs are reached by short walks from a gravel road, four upper meadows (and several headwater lakes) beckon above the campground, ranging from 2 trail miles to more than a dozen. Finally, the western bookend to the Lamar is the mighty Yellowstone River, attracting fly anglers looking for big, roily water and sizable trout.
   While Yellowstone hosts more than three million visitors a year, the Lamar country still offers a walk on Wyoming’s wild side—especially if you venture off road. It’s like stepping into a canvas or photo by seminal frontier artists Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson, whose work helped persuade Congress to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872. In his passionate, poetic 1901 volume of essays collected in Our National Parks, the great naturalist John Muir reflected about his time in Yellowstone, our first and still most wondrous national park: “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.… Nature’s sources never fail.”
   If Socrates was right that “wisdom begins in wonder,” the Lamar is the perfect place to progress further down that long path.

 

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