THE BEST VACATION TROUT FISHING

There is a notion among eastern fly fishermen that river trout of the West are too easy to catch for true sport. "Fat, dumb and happy," they snort. Nevertheless, the best fly fishing in America is in progress right now in a magic 100-mile circle of the Yellowstone National Park area. There, in lovely rivers like the Snake (above), feeding trout may dimple the water like rain, but an eastern expert must bring his skill along to catch them
August 15, 1954

The greatest temple of fly fishing in America is to be found by the logic of Lewis and Clark: Where do the great waters come from? Follow them up to what the Indians called the summit of the world, which is indeed the summit of the U.S.—Yellowstone National Park. There in the northwest corner of Wyoming, edging into Idaho and Montana, a 2,213,207-acre group of plateaus impounds Gargantuan rains and snows to form the fount of two great river systems, the Snake and the Missouri.

If he likes, a man can fish up there on the mile-and-one-half crest of the continental divide. Actually, though, he need only admire it from a distance, for out of this relatively small and curious prize of American topography come pouring in every direction tons of cold, pure, bubbling water, the natural habitat of trout.

Draw a circle around the park with a radius of 100 miles or more and look at the streams that flow out to form these systems. Here is trout water of all kinds from rivulet to river, fast and slow, flowing through steep canyons and broad valleys, roaring in cascades and falls, murmuring through sunny meadows and along shady forest banks. It flows along main roads and byroads and off in the wilderness. In some parts of it children can fish and can catch fish; there are others no fisherman has ever reached. Here are some of the most beautiful waters on earth, the core of which is a permanent reserve dedicated to flower picker and fisherman, to the Thoreau and Walton in every man's spirit.

And the fish: the native western cutthroat with the red gash between gill and mouth, known in some quarters as black-spotted trout, a hard hitter and an underwater runner; the ballet-dancing rainbow; the brown (or Loch Leven) which sometimes appears in bright yellow and is as shrewd as a poker player and increasingly difficult to catch as it grows older and bigger; the brook, as gorgeous a trifler in the West as in its native East; and the lake trout, a big fish of the mysterious depths. Here too are the whitefish and the elegant grayling, both of which take flies.

The sophisticate of eastern streams will grumble, "wilderness fish," meaning too easy to catch. There is some truth in the complaint, for wild trout that seldom see a fisherman include many that can be caught on a cigaret butt, and many of these can be found in this region, especially in the hundreds of remote lakes.

Angling in the streams is usually rather easier and more rewarding than on New York's hard-fished Beaverkill, say, if one does not count the hatchery trout planted in the latter every spring. But it can be tough and sometimes impossible in the West even for the good fishermen. Here as everywhere a small minority of the skillful take a high percentage of the trout, but there is always chance in fishing, and here the casual fisherman has a better chance.

Thus the expectations are good enough to make the angler's journey worth while but not good enough to assure him good sport without a struggle. He will have to bring along his skill, intelligence and great vigor to master the ruggedness of the terrain and some of the waters where in "the good old days" an angler was said to catch more than his weight in trout.

Lest the modern fisherman despair of his chances to become a raconteur of proportions, he should look at the west wall of Dan Bailey's fly shop in Livingston, Mont. There hang varnished board plaques, covering the entire wall like paneling, each with an ink tracing of a trout of four pounds or better, with the fly it was caught on, the date and the name of the fisherman.

Not all of the big fish caught on fly in the Yellowstone and the waters roundabout have gone on this wall; and those caught by lure or bait are ineligible. Yet since 1941 more than 100 fishermen have hung their plaques there.

Only last season I stood on a bank one late afternoon and looked at one of the many pools on one of the many streams of this region and saw dimples of feeding trout like rain on the water, as Theodore Gordon saw them on eastern waters in the 19th Century. In the Rockies today the scene is still not uncommon though you never cease to marvel at the sight of it. The good fisherman on a good day still may take and release 30 or 40 trout; one or two or three of which may run two to seven or more pounds—and that, as anyone knows, is fish.

The relative abundance and large size of trout in western waters is largely accounted for in the abundance of both land and water insects. The winds blow meaty winged food from the hills and wide-open spaces into the water. These heavy insects account too for an occasional unwariness in western trout; it is more difficult for them to make a fine calculation regarding the plop of a grasshopper than the delicate egg-dipping of the May fly.

This is a matter of some significance for the understanding of western fly fishing. The variety of insects there has brought about the use of a wider variety of trout flies than is found in the East, including some garish specimens. From this has come the notion that western fly fishing is occupied not only with wild trout but with crude methods. There is some truth in this notion, but it has' grown into a myth and it conceals a fallacy regarding the nature of fly fishing.

Most of the best-known artificial trout flies were originated in England and (much later) on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., where the May fly predominates. The central position of this fly in the sport has made it the model of most trout flies since the 15th Century in recorded history. In the New World, new colors were found in the May fly, and in the late 19th Century we got the American flies, Quill Gordons, Cahills, Hendricksons and the like (along with a tendency to name flies for their designers).

Farther west, in Montana and Wyoming, not so long ago, fly fishermen discovered the grasshopper. There have always been other flies besides the May fly, but this one gave rise to a misunderstanding. Not being traditionalists any more than was the first fly fisher, western anglers made a new fly. This was the Hopper, or "Joe's Hopper," not bad looking but no May fly. It could be fished wet or dry and was found to be a killer on western rivers. They also made a "Woolly Worm" in various colors, probably the lowest in the order of artificial flies with its simple caterpillar body. These two flies probably lead in popularity among western patterns in the region of the park. The sight of them has led the provincial easterner to suspect the worst of western fly fishing; and he could not be more wrong on two counts.

On the first he is wrong in principle to confuse the beauty of the May fly with a rule of the game. Now the Hopper is a fur-and-feather fly, and fishing it is fly fishing. Fishing it is using a fly of the region, as fly fishers have always done. Furthermore, esthetically, the Hopper has a visual appropriateness in the heavy waters. It marks the region, not the game.

On the second count he is wrong in fact to believe that all or most of western fly fishing is done or can be done with flies modeled on grasshoppers. The experienced fishermen in the West simply use a wider variety of flies than the easterner, extending from the Hopper, Size 8, to a Quill Gordon, Size 18 (the size of a mosquito), on a 14-foot leader tapered to 6X, which is so fine that many fishermen use a magnifying glass as an aid to knotting a fly to it. On some of the creeks fed by springs and flowing as silkily as an English chalk stream, the trout will not touch anything under a Number 14.

The newcomer to the West would have cocked his eyebrows last September at fishermen floating Light Cahills and Adamses and some beautiful western May fly creations in these small sizes down big rivers such as the Big Hole and Yellowstone. The trout, including the biggest of them, disdained anything else throughout the season. No, there is no distinction in subtlety between these waters and the best waters of the East; there are only more kinds of fishing and more conditions—all the old problems and some new ones.

The seasons for western trout are determined by the run-off of snow water, and of course by regulation. The law prohibits early spring fishing in most streams and rivers. Nature limits the fishing, especially fly fishing, from the middle of June to the middle of August with relatively high and murky water. Up in the plateaus of the park, however, the water is good early, and fishing on most of the waters begins on Memorial Day. As the season proceeds the easily accessible park waters—those along the road—become less good, perhaps because of excessive fishing, while the waters downstream and out of the park get better as their level falls. The great season for the great rivers is from the middle of August to the first of October.

The fly fisherman can suit his taste by choice of river. For example, the most prized stream in the park is the Firehole. It originates in the geyser country around Old Faithful and glides north along the west side of the park, drops over falls and joins the Gibbon coming down from the north to form the upper Madison.

Taking its time through a slightly graded plateau, the Firehole makes a smooth run that causes it to be a favorite of the dry fly fishermen. The same might be said of the upper Madison, winding westward through woods and meadows to Hegben Lake just outside of the park. The Madison here flows slick and bears no resemblance to its turbulent waters below the lake. It is water for the long leader and the small fly, and is best in early season.

The waters of the park are everywhere and wonderful. All of them are good waters for trout, though the fish themselves for the most part originally had to be brought up by man and planted—they couldn't get up the falls.

In the northeast corner rises the picture-postcard Gallatin; in the south the Lewis and the Snake. The Yellowstone rises outside the park and runs into Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake at its altitude in the world and full of cutthroat trout. Below the lake the Yellowstone River begins its long great run, picking up at the north end of the park the Lamar and the Gardiner, good fishing streams. But the best fishing, and most of the fishing in the area, is outside the park.

On the north, in Montana alone, and well within the 100-mile circle, there follow in succession from east to west, about 25 miles apart and separated by mountain ranges, the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, the Stillwater, the Boulder and West Boulder, the Yellowstone (on its northward run), the Gallatin, the Madison, the Jefferson and the Big Hole—a concentration of the greatest trout rivers in the U.S.

Although these rivers have been fished with one kind of tackle or another for many years now, and those to the east close to the populous center of Billings are heavily fished, they will not—short of complete drain-off for irrigation—be domesticated. They rise in permanent wilderness and have in their nature the quality of wild water. This quality is inherent in the atmosphere of western fishing, distinguishing it from the pastoral east and England and from that which has been most often described in five centuries of trout-fishing literature.

"The essence of true angling is tradition," says the eastern writer, Sparse Grey Hackle; and there is no doubt that eastern fishing takes much of its inward, intimate charm from its connection with the past. The west cannot now and perhaps never will satisfy this taste and the dogma that goes with it. Fly fishing there is a relatively new sport. The western writer, John Hodgdon Bradley, who has probably fished more western waters than anyone living, says that in 1920, when he first went out there, he saw no dry flies and few flies of any kind for sale or in use in Wyoming or Montana. Yet even with the adoption of the most subtle of traditional ways of fly fishing, the west remains incorruptibly west. It is a country for those whose hearts respond to great shapes and spaces and to a splendor that is forever new and elusive in its constant transformations. The western fisherman carries tradition, along with a few novelties like the Hopper, in his fly box, and by this thread alone is he tied to the past.

The circle described here encloses a country of fish, flies, fishing and fishermen. In the lobby of the Murray Hotel in Livingston the talk is as dedicated to this subject as it is to horses in the lobby of the Lafayette in Lexington, Ky. And everyone has his secret place, a canyon, a pool, a nameless tributary, a lake....

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PHOTOROBERT HOLLAND MAPMATT GREENETHE MAGIC CIRCLE, centered roughly on the Yellowstone National Park area, is where anglers can find an extraordinary concentration of fine fly-fishing waters, the most famous of which are keyed and identified at right.
1—Firehole
2—Lewis
3—Snake
4—Gardiner
5—Lamar
6—Gallatin
7—Madison
8—Yellowstone
9—Jefferson
10—Big Hole
11—Boulder
12—Shoshone
13—Clark Fork
14—Gibbon
PHOTOROSS MADDEN PHOTOAUTHOR McDONALD on the Madison. A lifelong angler, his book, The Complete Fly Fisherman, is the definitive work on Theodore Gordon, father of the dry fly in America. PHOTO

FLY-FISHING WALL OF FAME

On the wall of Dan Bailey's fly shop (above, with Bailey at counter and fly tyers behind him) hang varnished plaques, each bearing an inked tracing of a trout that weighed at least four pounds. More than 100 plaques have been hung since 1941, each representing a trout caught on a fly. The chart below, listing data taken from 25 recent plaques, indicates the quality of fishing in the "magic circle." Most of the fishermen are from the Livingston area.

OUT OF CHARACTER

A POWERFUL FELLOW
Like many youngsters, he began weight lifting to build a body beautiful. Later, he put these muscles to use when he became a power golfer. Though he sometimes sacrifices accuracy for distance, he won such titles as the British, Canadian and men's All-American amateurs. This heir to a spark plug fortune is:
Frank Stranahan

FISHERMAN

VARIETY

WEIGHT

WATER

FLY

DATE

Glen Essley

Rainbow

4 lb. 9 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 10 Black Wulff

June 25, 1950

A. M. Lueck

Cutthroat

4 lb. 4 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Joe's Hopper

Sept. 10, 1950

Jim Dunlap

Rainbow

4 lb. 10 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Black Woolly Worm

March 23, 1951

Ben Kruger

Rainbow

4 lb. 10 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Black Woolly Worm

June 23, 1951

Jack Waynard

Rainbow

5 lb. 9 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Royal Cahill

July 15, 1951

Gene Spilde

Brown

4 lb. 5 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 6 Black Woolly Worm

Aug. 15, 1951

Bill Egeland

Rainbow

4 lb. 12 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Black Woolly Worm

Aug. 31, 1951

Dan Bailey

Rainbow

4 lb. 11 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 14 Fore and Aft Dry

Sept. 1, 1951

Hank Fabian

Rainbow

4 lb. 2 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 10 Black Gnat

Sept. 5, 1951

Tom Dewing

Brown

4 lb. 13 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Laramie Spinner

Sept. 11, 1951

Tommy Durden

Rainbow

4 lb. 4 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 10 Grizzly Wulff

Sept. 22, 1951

Bill Altimus

Rainbow

10 lb. 11 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 6 Gray Nymph

March 26, 1952

Jack Aanestad

Cutthroat

4 lb. 7 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Black Woolly Worm

July 6, 1952

Walter Anderson

Brown

5 lb. 8 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 6 Salmon

July 17, 1952

Calvin Barthuly

Rainbow

4 lb. 7 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Cahill

July 17, 1952

Denis Brandon

Rainbow

7 lb. 7 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Black Woolly Worm

Sept. 3, 1952

Lyle J. Burns

Brown

4 lb. 1 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Lady Mite

Sept. 14, 1952

Walt Eagle

Brown

9 lb. ¼ oz.

Wade Lake

No. 6 Fleder Mouse

Oct. 18, 1952

Russell Steffen

Rainbow

5 lb. 10 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 March Brown

May 12, 1953

Walter Dewing

Rainbow

9 lb. 8 oz.

Dailey Lake

No. 6 Yellow Woolly Worm

June 13, 1953

Bill Bowen

Brown

4 lb. 13 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 6 Silver Doctor

July 25, 1953

R. R. Rickett

Brown

4 lb. 15 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 8 Joe's Hopper

Aug. 25, 1953

Joe Brooks

Rainbow

7 lb.

Georgetown Lake

No. 10 Gray Wulff

Oct. 5, 1953

Jewel Trower

Brown

4 lb. 1 oz.

Yellowstone River

No. 14 Green May Fly

July 16, 1954

Meryl Williams

Rainbow

4 lb. 6 oz.

Dailey Lake

No. 8 Brown Woolly Worm

July 16, 1954

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)