October 15, 2023
This essay is an excerpt from the book Troutsmith: An Angler's Tales and Travels (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2013). THE EDITOR.
This article originally appeared in the Oct-Dec 2013 issue's Seasonable Angler column, entitled "Trout Lake."
The dry chill of a cold Yellowstone morning greets me as I step outside the tent and start our morning ritual. A thick layer of frost coats the purple fireweed beside the tent. Off to the east rise the sunsplashed heights of Abiathar Peak and the Thunderer, two mountains in the Absaroka Range, which forms the east wall of the Yellowstone Plateau. Behind the picnic table, Mount Hornaday is golden in the clear morning light. Just twenty yards from the tent, Pebble Creek busies itself cutting and polishing the smooth stones of its wide bed, murmuring the ancient spell of running water as it courses through the campground on its way to Soda Butte Creek, and eventually to the moody Lamar River. The sharp-sour odor of sulfide, blue spruce, and fir is heavy in the air as I clatter about in the truck and pull together the ingredients of a camp breakfast. Soon the little single-burner stove is roaring like a rocket engine, and the strong aroma of fresh, hot coffee is enough to lure even Teresa, a Florida native, out of the warm comfort of her sleeping bag.
Over Pop-Tarts and trail mix we plan and map out the campaign for the day. The upper Pebble Creek meadows are a stiff five-mile hike up the trail from the campground. There jewel-like cutthroats would smash our floating crickets and 'hoppers in every pool and pocket, but neither of us feels up to the steep climb of several thousand feet this morning. Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar are good starters, but heavy rains the past two days have both rivers bank-full and running chocolate with volcanic mud and clay. In the end, we decide to spend the morning fishing Trout Lake, one of our favorite places in Yellowstone.
Trout Lake is one of the rarest water types in the park. The rock cradling its twelve-acre surface is mostly dolomite, which exposes the groundwater percolating through it to high concentrations of magnesium bicarbonate. As a·result, Trout Lake has a strongly alkaline pH, and its turquoise shallows are unusually rich in trout food for a high alpine lake. Except for Mount Hornaday towering over it, at first glance Trout Lake looks like a giant Wisconsin spring pond. The likeness is more than skin deep. Their aquatic invertebrates are similar, and since Trout Lake is close to a major road and has large, obvious trout patrolling the shallows in plain view, it's quite a popular fishing spot. However, as many anglers have discovered to their chagrin, the big, beautiful rainbow and cutthroat trout can be evil, wicked devils to catch.
Midmorning finds two intrepid Wisconsinites huffing and puffing their way up the trail from the little parking area to the lake. Though it's only a half-mile walk, that half-mile is nearly straight up the side of a steep, boulder-studded moraine. Midwestern lungs lose something at an altitude of eight thousand feet, but we stagger on gamely with our fly rods in hand. Near the top of the moraine is a huge Douglas fir, one of the largest trees in the park, and a convenient rest stop where we can renew our commitment to regular physical exercise. The Douglas fir is an old friend, and we take time to greet it and ask how things have been going in the years since our last visit to Yellowstone.
Over the top of the moraine we go, and then as we clump down a switchback, the shores of Trout Lake come into view between the trunks of lodgepole pines. It is absolutely calm, and the blue-green depths gleam like a twelve-acre sapphire in the morning sunshine.
With a wave and a "good luck," Teresa and I separate and begin stalking around Trout Lake in opposite directions.
Teresa continues on to a little point of black basalt that juts a few yards out into the lake from the north shore. It's a strategic place to wait for fish. The elevated platform gives her an excellent view over a wide, weedy flat illuminated by sunlight coming in from behind. I walk back to the little bay where the inlet stream pours in and scan the water patiently, forcing myself to concentrate on the task of seeing instead of looking.
For a long time nothing stirs, but suddenly I'm aware of two large rainbow trout swimming slowly along the edge of a weed bed in about six feet of water. Every now and then one of them tips down and roots around in the weeds on the bottom, and judging by the way both fish whirl around and snap their jaws from time to time, the trout are feeding on scuds (Gammarus).
As I watch, the rainbows glide slowly off to my left and disappear into deeper water that is shot through with sunbeams. Ten minutes later they reappear off to my right. Like many stillwater trout, the rainbows are following an elliptical orbit that will take them within casting range every ten to fifteen minutes.
My hands are shaking so much that I struggle to tie a#12 Olive Scud to the 4X tippet. In a few minutes the trout appear on their next pass. I cast the fly well ahead of the fish, allowing enough time for the fly to sink to the bottom when the trout are still fifteen feet away from it. No dice; the rainbows don't show a flicker of interest even when I twitch the scud off the bottom as they pass by.
My next trick is a #16 Pheasant Tail Nymph on a long SX tippet. This time the trout are interested, and for a heart-pounding moment I think that the lead fish is going to inhale the little PTN. But the trout stops, takes a hard look, rejects the fly at the last minute, and turns away. Subsequent tries with the PTN generate no response at all from either trout.
An hour goes by and the sun climbs higher above the mountains. I try a few other flies without success. Soon the rising midday breeze will ripple the surface of Trout Lake and sight-fishing will be over for today.
Conscious of my limited time, I add a 6X tippet that extends the leader to eighteen feet, and tie a #20 Brassie to the sharp end.
This time I cast the fly when the fish are nowhere in sight. I pick a place where I think the two rainbows will swim past if and when they show up on their next orbit. I let the little Brassie sink to the bottom. I can't see the fly, but I concentrate on the square meter of bottom where I think it is. Long minutes pass. My back is sore, the surface of Trout Lake is a giant mirror, and my head aches from peering through the glare of the morning sun reflected in it. I'm tired. It's hard to wait until the trout return. Will they return? Am I wasting my time?
Then the thick, green-backed rainbows appear magically out of the sunbeams, swimming along in a slow, stately fashion befitting their royal proportions. When they're within a yard of the fly I give the line one good strip. The lead trout suddenly changes direction, swims another couple of feet, and stops. Time stops too, but my heart is pounding in my chest. A little flash of white blinks in the depths. I strike, and the big rainbow writhes up to the surface, gills flared in anger, pain, fright, surprise, or maybe all of those things. Then with a sharp, muscular contraction that begins at its head and wrenches its body all the way to its tail the big trout bolts for deeper water.
I feel rather than see what happens next: a thump on the rod, which can only have been the trout crashing through a tangle of weeds, then a second, then a third time, and suddenly the line stops moving. I reel in most of a soggy fly line encumbered with weeds and algae. The 6X tippet has sheared off from the drag of all that weight.
I'm boiling with adrenaline. My whole body shakes so hard that it takes an age to rebuild the leader and tie on another Brassie. When it's finally done, I look out over Trout Lake again. The sunlight sparkles on the surface in a million diamonds, and from her rocky perch Teresa signals me with a friendly wave. I don't really expect another chance at a fish like that, but when I look again I see the second trout cruising along its patrol route as if the first episode had never happened.
The rainbow turns and tails away to the more remote part of its beat. Once more I cast the fly and let it sink to the bottom. In the minutes that follow I rehearse a new game plan in my mind. Minutes later the trout reappears. Again I twitch the fly when the fish is close, and suddenly I'm connected to the trout of a lifetime, a giant green fish with a crimson stripe that must be three or four inches wide. For a few seconds after the strike I have the big trout off balance. This time I keep the line tight, applying maximum side pressure with the rod and refusing to let the trout right itself and recover its bearings. It works. I keep the pressure on and the fish's head off line, slowly walking it farther along the bank and away from the weed beds near the inlet.
But just when I think I might be able to win this one, the trout wrenches its head down angrily and bolts off at near light-speed. Beads of water shoot off the line as it hisses through guides. The reel handle spins so fast it's a blur of shiny silver. The Peerless is screeching higher and louder than I've ever heard a fly reel shriek in fresh water. I close my eyes and wince, because I know what is going to happen.
This time it takes only one clump of weeds and the trout is gone, and I am gone, and a sinking feeling hits my chest like a hammer. My knees are weak and wobbly as I reel up and stagger out of the shallows into the sagebrush on the bank. Far out in the lake a giant rainbow trout leaps several times. I can't be sure from this distance, but I think it's trying to shake a #20 Brassie and a hunk of 6X tippet from the corner of its jaw.
Teresa walks over, exclaiming “Wow! Did you see that fish jumping? It must have gone ten pounds!” “Yes,” I answer, softly and absently, “I saw it.” Then I find a grassy spot and daydream for a while beneath that wide Wyoming sky, watching clouds built like haystacks, forming and evaporating, rank upon rank marching across the blue vault of heaven from west to east.
That night around the campfire we visit with our neighbor, a professor of English literature from Idaho State University. Every summer he camps at Pebble Creek for a few weeks, reveling in the peace of camp life and catching upon his reading. He's also a veteran fly fisher. The professor's home river is Idaho's tumbling Lochsa, and its fat German brown trout are his teachers and confessors. As sparks crackle in the starlit night I tell the story of the two trophy rainbows, and in a gentle, indirect way he helps me to put things in perspective. We talk about the wolf pups at play on the wide sagebrush flats of the Lamar Valley. We talk about bears, about the ever-changing waters of Yellowstone, and about the ephemeral nature of the things that we love.
Finally he says, “You know, in a place like Yellowstone, fly fishing for trout is merely a bonus. “I know he was right, but even now those two big rainbows sometime swim into my thoughts, huge and stately as they cruise the emerald deeps of Trout Lake, only to vanish in the sunbeams of my mind.
Kevin Searock is an avid fly fisher, photographer, and writer. He lives in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and teaches advanced placement biology and chemistry at Portage High School.