Montana Fly Fishing As It Was
November 15, 2017
The big-boned bay gelding barely spared a glance as we dug out a 5-weight from the pack mule's panniers. He was more intent on the tall, lush grass directly in front of his face, and with a look around the meadow as we staked the horses in, I decided I couldn't blame him. The grassy meadow was only beginning to surrender to midsummer Montana heat, turning crunchy under our footsteps, and the branches of a large tree offered shade from what promised to be another unseasonably warm day. The sound of trickling water drew my attention to the clear current of nearby Hellroaring Creek, and I realized the bay had the right idea. This was a special form of paradise.
Scenes like that, however, must be earned. Several days earlier, we mounted up at Box Canyon, an access point alongside the Boulder River, and rode horseback through a portion of Montana's wildest country. Crisscrossing the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness brought an entirely new meaning to the word "isolated." These days, even in Montana it can prove challenging to find oneself truly removed from civilization.
The day-long ride canvassed miles of Big Sky Country terrain, climbing sharply uphill to cross over the Great Divide at Hellroaring Divide, and then descending into a meadow right out of a Zane Grey novel. Trees burned nearly 30 years ago in the great Yellowstone fires guided our train of horses into Bull Moose Camp, a congregation of tents situated at the confluence of the three forks of Hellroaring Creek—the same Hellroaring that meanders into Yellowstone National Park a mere eight miles south and eventually joins the Yellowstone River.
Forget the trendy bustle of Bozeman or the industry of Billingsâ€”in the backcountry, it's far more likely you'll see moose, deer, or even wolves than another person. You are removed from the distractions and worries of everyday life. Days drift by, timed only by fishing expeditions and a hearty three meals a day from the steadfast camp cook, Pat. At the seasoned age of 69, Pat spends the entire season in the camp before heading into Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness to cook for hunting camps for the fall season. From first arrival into Bull Moose Camp, it was readily apparent Pat ran a tight ship—and that it was best to stay on her good side.
Sitting around the campfire, I came to the conclusion that the rest of our compatriots could have stepped directly from the screen of a John Wayne movie. The outfitters Cameron Mayo and his wife Lonny (absarokabeartooth.com) formerly managed a successful ranching operation near Big Timber, Montana, and now lead backcountry fishing and big-game hunting trips to their two permitted camps on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park. Lonny's family has been running sheep in these mountains for generations, and she had the stories to prove it.
The camp crew were characters all their own: Patrick was a ranch hand who also ran a small-town bar (the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe) with his wife. Jacob was a third-generation Montana 22-year-old who competed in the rodeo when he was not in the mountains or working the family ranch. And young Jeremiah had a quick wit and good tales from the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale.
The logistics behind running a camp like Bull Mooseâ€”and running it safely—were staggering, as evidenced by the long mule train Cameron, Patrick, and Jeremiah packed in with supplies for the week. But at the end of the day, we were there on a united mission: to chase one of the most extraordinary trout species in the Rocky Mountain West.
Our quarry was native Yellowstone cutthroat, and the fishing was prime. The fish were under very low pressure; keen to rise to anything that looked halfway interesting.
Hellroaring Creek proved to be primarily a dry-fly fishery, one where a well-placed fly almost always raised a fish. (It had been several years since I went eight fish for eight casts, but one afternoon when I traded the camera for a rod, it happened.)
According to the National Park Service, "Yellowstone cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri) are the most widespread native trout of the park and were the dominant fish species prior to Euroamerican settlement. They provide an important source of food for an estimated 20 species of birds, and mammals including bears, river otters, and mink.
"Genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations have declined throughout their natural range in the Intermountain West, succumbing to competition with and predation by nonnative fish species, a loss of genetic integrity through hybridization, habitat degradation, predation, and angling harvest.
"State and federal wildlife agencies classify the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as a sensitive species. However, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not warrant listing the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
"Yellowstone Lake and the Yellowstone River together contain the largest inland population of cutthroat trout in the world. While the Yellowstone cutthroat trout is historically a Pacific drainage species, it has (naturally) traveled across the Continental Divide into the Atlantic drainage. One possible such passage in the Yellowstone area is Two Ocean Pass, south of the park in the Teton Wilderness. Here, it's possible that fish swam across the Continental Divide at the headwaters of Pacific Creek and Atlantic Creek and, thus, swam from the Pacific to the Atlantic watersheds."
The "cutties" require cold, clean water, making the high country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness an ideal home. Even in late July, there was water cold enough to make my skin prickle while wet wading. While the rivers at lower elevations were under hoot owl restrictions or complete closures, the water in Hellroaring was cold and supporting a healthy fish population.
Cutthroat live chiefly on a diet of aquatic insects, but any terrestrials that happen to fall into the creek are also fair game. The cutthroat seemed eager to take anything we threw at themâ€”the Royal Wulff was a favorite, as was really any "meaty" dry fly. It was light rod/large attractor dry-fly heaven, and would make a positive first experience for family members just getting into fly fishing.
Every clear, pastoral pool seemed to offer up plenty of smaller cutthroat (most fish measured 12 inches or less), while larger fish could occasionally be found tucked in the undercut banks lining the meandering creek.
The fish themselves looked like something out of a children's coloring book. Prominent crimson slashes marked their lower jaws, lean light brown, silver, and even yellow-tinted bodies were dotted with an artist's splatter of dark spots, the concentration heavier toward the fish's posterior. There was no mistaking these trout with their other Montana kin, and even a child could easily identify the differences between a Yellowstone cutthroat and a rainbow or brown trout.
There was easy, accessible fishing within comfortable walking distance both above and below camp, allowing anglers to take advantage of morning, evening, or "camp day" angling. The three forks of Hellroaring Creek met at the camp, offering a delicious decision every day... which way to go? An hour's ride on horseback opened up even more stellar water. The horses were tethered, happily parked like cars in a posh lot while the anglers and guide fished along the creek.
Mountain lakes dotted the high-altitude countryside, surrounded by hills lined with burned trees from the 1988 Yellowstone fires, slowly being reclaimed by persistent new growth. For fly fishers in the mood for larger rods and stripping streamers, several mountain lakes presented targets for larger trout.
Cameron joined us every step of the way, showing us his favorite holes and undercut banks in the creek and, one particularly hot afternoon, guiding us up to one of these large lakes that provided both an opportunity to tie on a few streamers but also to enjoy a midday dip into the surprisingly frigid water.
With his ever-present, weather-worn cowboy hat and ancient Simms vest sporting stains from many seasons past, Cameron proved to be a jovial, entertaining, and savvy guide both on the river and in the backcountry. When we found one particular pool that offered up more than its fair share of eager cutthroat, he volunteered to hike back several miles to get the horses while we continued to work our way upstream. We eventually met him beyond the next several bends in the river. I felt a bit spoiled, it was like valet service for your horse. In the backcountry. Somehow it worked.
Life in camp was comfortable. An outdoor shower, large wall tents sporting both carpet and cots, and a well-stocked kitchen complete with a bearproof snack cabinet ensured we were comfortable. Midweek we delved into the snack bin looking for mini chocolate bars for s'mores, and I couldn't help but laugh. "Roughing it" indeed.
Electricity was pointedly absent around the camp. After dark, you needed a headlamp. A communal wash station rested right outside the mess tent, and a pit toilet was tucked back in the willows. With Pat's hearty three meals a day and a well-stocked bar stored in a bearproof container, the camp rivaled many hotels I've stayed in over the years.
After a long day of fishing, hiking, and riding, the simple acts of splashing water on your face to get the dust off, digging into a hearty meal, and then sitting around the campfire talking about nothing in particular tended to remind one of the real priorities in life. Why do we fish, we often ask ourselves? At times like this, and places such as this, the answers are easy: For people like these. For fish like the however many (we lost count every day) Yellowstone cutthroat we saw each day. For adventures thatâ€”without the somewhat inexplicable need to catch fish on a string with a bit of feather and a hook—we'd never otherwise experience.
My final morning in camp, I pulled out a notebook and wrote the following, trying to find a way to capture the place: "There are no moose in Bull Moose Camp. They were chased out by ranging wolf packs, and have been absent four years. There are, however, plenty of cowboys, horses, mules, and a curious supply of rather good boxed wine.
"This morning, the sun not yet peeking over the mountains and the air frosty, Pat rules Bull Moose. The camp cook is 69 but looks a full 15 years younger, and rules the kitchen with an iron fist and the gravelly voice of a lifelong smoker. The temperature hovers near 30 F., but she's making cowboy coffee and prepping breakfast in a battered tank top, seemingly impervious to the cold. We hunker in front of the fire and talk about lifeâ€”she's the eldest of 12 siblings and an ambitious world traveler when she's not cooking in remote mountain ranges.
"A distant thunder sounds and we move to the front of the tent, watching as Patrick and Jacob run in the horses from their overnight grazing far up the meadow. The herd of horses and hardworking mules—all good, solid stock glistening with health—break down into a trot as they near the pen, eager for the grain ration they know is waiting. Horses settled, the guys meander to the tent for hot coffee, igniting another round of quiet morning chatter as we settle before the stove and wait for the rest of camp to wake."
Hellroaring presented Montana as it was, the West as it is, and fly fishing as it should be.
Jess McGlothlin is a freelance writer and photographer, currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Find more of her work at jessmcglothlinmedia.com.