October 05, 2022
By Brian LaRue
There’s something about the feeling of adventure and wilderness you experience following a guided train of pack mules as you ford a creek deep in the Yellowstone backcountry. The sounds of the horses splashing while their shoes clang on the slick river stones as they crossed Slough Creek, amidst the scenic beauty, is something that sticks with you.
On this adventure were my dad, Dan, 74, my son, Barrett, 17, and myself, Brian, 48: Three generations of fly fishermen who have been big fans of Yellowstone National Park and Slough Creek as long as we can all remember.
The trip idea came to me after I took a Lamar River trip with Shane, our guide, about 12 years ago. Since then, I’d been trying to convince my dad to go on a trip before he becomes too old to ride a horse, hike, or battle currents to fling a fly. Grandma eventually gave us her blessing.
After a turbulent June with the historical rain-on-runoff event, we didn’t think our Slough Creek trip with Sunrise Pack Station was going to be feasible this year. Thankfully, however, the National Park Service worked hard to make our memorable three generation adventure possible.
Dan (First Generation)
My dad, a photographer and national park fan at heart, was introduced to fly fishing by a family friend in the 1980s. He got set up with some neoprene waders, a Martin automatic-retrieve fly reel and a Fenwick Feralite fly rod. My dad charged hard into the sport, making it a part of nearly every summer trip to Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
Dad is a dry-fly guy who has very little luck fishing subsurface. He catches plenty of fish, but most are 8- to 12-inch browns, rainbow and cutthroat trout from small rivers like the Lewis, Madison, and Slough Creek in Yellowstone, and California’s East Walker, Owens, and Hot Creek. And maybe a larger water like the Yellowstone in the Park. He never got into streamer fishing or swinging soft hackles, and the idea of indicator fishing was just starting to grow roots.
But something happened when I got deeper into fly fishing at about 20 years old. My dad liked going on trips, but enjoyed taking photos and reading books on the banks more than fishing itself. Before this trip, he hadn’t cast a fly in 20-plus years.
Brian (Second Generation [author of this article])
My first exposure to fly fishing came on the Lewis River in Yellowstone at age 12. In rubber hip waders with a few extra dry patterns that my dad and brother had, I kicked around on the riverbank until my dad took a break. Then I’d get the Fenwick and try my luck from the other side of the river, carefully wading all 90 pounds of me across the small riffles. And of course, while I was dragging the fly line through the riffle focusing on my footing–brown trout would hit my fly. It became a running joke that I’d catch bigger fish than the others without even trying.
One trip when I was about 15, I was experimenting with a Montana stonefly along the Yellowstone River. After spotting a sizeable cutthroat in the current that didn’t want a dry fly, I looked at the beadhead nymph and thought, “I’m going to sink this thing and see what this fish does.” On the first drift, he came about six inches off the bottom and took the black and yellow nymph and I soon netted the fat 19-inch Yellowstone cutthroat. I was addicted.
After college, I started writing for Western Outdoor News and was introduced to the outdoor industry, then got married and moved to the Rockies. I love sharing my love of our sport, outdoor adventure traditions, appreciation of nature and photography with my own family now.
Barrett (Third Generation)
Barrett has been part of our outdoor adventures ever since he could drink a bottle and fill a diaper. He would often find himself wedged between my wife and my sleeping bags in the back of our 2003 Silverado. He spent a lot time along the riverbank in a pack-and-play covered with a mosquito net or playing on a riverside blanket as an infant and toddler.
His first fly-caught fish came on the Lewis River as well, but he accomplished this feat when he was 5 or 6 when I took him to the exact spot where I caught mine at age 12 (the Lewis around above the Grand Loop Road Bridge in Yellowstone is a very family-friendly place to take a youngster for quick action). We repeated the feat for my daughter when she was 3. Drop an Elk Hair Caddis on a riffle and you are nearly guaranteed a small brown trout. Photos of both of these fish have been shared numerous times over the years.
Barrett is one of the rare teenagers that would rather go fishing or play golf than stare at his phone. He is a proud kid who has been a great sport on these adventures over the years. I recently introduced him to the world of bass fishing and unfortunately we had an 80-fish day using topwater lures. He even told me on our Slough Creek trip: “Dad I think I like bass fishing better now. You don’t have to put on waders or hike a far distance, just launch the boat and start fishing.” What have I done?
Slough Creek is Alive and Well
When you book a backcountry trip like this, you worry if the weather will hold. Will a lightning strike cause a fire that will close this section of the park? Or in the case of this year, did the flood event affect the fishery? The short answer for this trip is that while you might see signs of the flood, Slough Creek is alive and kickin’ (save for a few changes).
Slough Creek has a few distinct sections, most importantly: the Lower Meadow (downstream of the drive-to campground), the First Meadow, the Second Meadow, and the famed Third Meadow.
Riding the horses by the First Meadow, debris like a few large trees was visible, along with some new high cuts on the banks. But the river looked very comparable to how it looked on my last trip. The second meadow looked much the same with a few new cuts into the riverbank. The Third Meadow, the only section we fished on this trip, also showed signs of the event, but fishing was good.
“It’s obvious all these feeder creeks that run near the campsite here and down to the creek saw some major flows as you can see all the wood debris lining the sides,” Shane McClaflin, owner of Sunrise Pack Station, said. “Slough itself in the Third Meadow appears to have cutoff a few big bends as the force of the water reestablished a straight route. Seems like fish counts are still great as we’ve caught quite a few nice ones and saw a lot more, but some of those bigger, deep pools are now cutoff from the flow.”
Near the Lower Meadows, you could see where you might have had some fish die-off as some trout may have gotten left high and dry in the sagebrush when the waters receded. But the gradient is milder in the numbered meadows, so they mostly became “lakes” like the First Meadow does every season.
Flies for Slough Creek
Hoppers, beetles, Stimulators, Parachute Adams, and Sparkle Duns are all great flies for Slough anytime after runoff. These patterns were and will continue to be my top patterns every summer. Big attractors and terrestrials with yellow incorporated into them seem to work particularly well.
Umpqua’s Point Guard Beetle and the Hi-Vis Foam Beetle (black and orange) turned quite a few heads, but it was my old standby, the Chaos Hopper, that produced the most bites. It looks like a light tan ant/hopper hybrid with long yellow, rubber legs.
When the weather turned to rain and wind on day 2, fishing got tough. The hopper bite was still possible, but for the most part, the Yellowstone cutthroat and cuttbows wanted more of a match-the-hatch offering, so something like a size 16 Parachute Adams became the go-to fly.
The fish of the trip, or should I say, what would’ve been the fish of the trip, was a 20-plus-inch cutthroat that randomly appeared off a characterless gravel bottom. I set after he crossed the creek about five yards and slowly sipped my Chaos Hopper. Alas, I had struck out on the fish of the trip.
The fish in the Third Meadow tend to prefer the deeper, slow runs with multiple currents. This is much the same as the other meadows, but it felt a bit more emphasized in the Third Meadow. There wasn’t much structure or many bank fish to target in the swifter water, so use the environment to your advantage. If there is a large cutbank, stay up high, hide behind bushes and cast from afar to remain undetected by these fish.
You only need to wade to get setup for the next cast. Any wading in the deeper pools will send scouts running up the creek, letting their brothers and cousins know you are coming. Stay hidden and always have a path down to the water should a fish eat your fly when you are on a cutbank.
Slough Creek Gear
In addition to zip-off wet-wading pants and wading boots like Simms FlyWeight, I would suggest a 4 weight or 5 weight 9-foot rod like the Orvis Recon or Helios. Given the wind we dealt with, both 5-weight rods allowed my dad and son a little more power to cast. My 5-weight Orvis Helios2 rod knifed through the headwind like a champ. I only wish I brought a few more streamers and my sink-tip line for when the weather turned nasty. A large Woolly Bugger on a sink-tip in the darker, windy conditions could’ve been the right call.
Most of the time, these cutthroat will just twist and shake a little before coming to hand, but a couple of them in the 18-inch range sure didn’t like coming out of the deep water. They raced back into the depths multiple times, giving my drag a few hard good runs here and there. I was grateful to have 3X or 4X tippet when throwing the bigger dries.
I also recommend sun-protection clothing. On the hot days, our Under Armour Iso-Chill Hoodies kept all three of us cool and free from sunburn, and we stayed warm on the cold day when the wind blew drizzle all around.
Sunrise Pack Station Trip Information
Sunrise Pack Station is not only packs the mules and leads you into the backcountry, but Shane, his daughter Abbey and wrangler, Catherine, take great care of the anglers. They cook full breakfasts, pack to-go lunches, and provide dinners complete with dessert.
The team also provides medical attention should something happen in the wilds, makes you feel comfortable on the horses, sets up your tent, and gets you back the trailhead in one piece.
On our nine-mile ride, we saw deer, a bald eagle, a black bear, a badger, numerous bison and from camp we spotted a couple herds of 20 elk each and some mountain goats on the surrounding hills. We always felt very safe (even so, we each carried bear spray). The horses and mules herd up in the meadows below camp and will make a ruckus if a bear or other animals come near camp in the middle of the night. With no commotions, we slept peacefully every night, and were greeted by a full, hot breakfast each morning.
Future Of Cutthroat in Yellowstone
While we were getting our horses and the Sunrise Pack Station team was loading the mules, I spoke with a YNP representative about Slough Creek and the Buffalo Creek project.
The Slough Creek tributary was recently treated with rotenone to attempt eliminate the rainbow population then it will be stocked with pure Yellowstone cutthroat in its upper section that outside of Park boundary in Montana, to continue the efforts to help the cutthroat stronghold.
In speaking with Shane about the state of the cutthroat, he has noticed a considerable decline when he takes clients into the Thorofare (a remote area around the Yellowstone River upstream of Yellowstone Lake).
“The Yellowstone River in the Thorofare was loaded with cutthroat but in the last decade or maybe even a bit more, the fishing just isn’t the same, though the fish we do catch these days tend to be larger,” said Shane. “It will be interesting to see how the Lamar, Yellowstone, and Gardner rivers rebound from this flood event. We took one trip so far into the Lamar, going over the top from Pelican Valley, one of our most popular trips, and one very well-known pool near our camp is not a pool anymore. It was filled with sediment… But the rivers and the fish will always find a way.”
Having only had a small window to take a trip with three generations, this adventure was something I will never forget. Thanks for permission grandma!
Brian LaRue is the Social Media Partnerships Manager at Outdoor Sportsmans Group.