The Offspring were giving me some half decent energy when we hit the road at 3pm
a couple Thursday ago. Dealing
with downtown, pre-rush hour traffic --ugh.
Kristy works right in the heart of Edmonton, and there was no avoiding
it if we wanted to leave that day.
And I needed it, the energy, not so much for that exact day, but for
the next 10 or so days that Kristy and I would be loosely travelling and
fishing in a couple spots scattered both in Montana and the Wyoming side of
The first night our original plan was to camp just on the Alberta
side of the Canada-US border, but as we got further south, it became clear that
if we stopped we’d be both setting up and taking down our tent in the rain
(about an inch of the wet stuff was predictedto hit), so we instead winged it and
crossed the border at about 8pm after driving 5 hours non-stop, except for
coffee, gas, and a couple pee breaks.
“Where do you live?” quizzed a rather chummy American border
“Edmonton,” we respond.
“Which neighbourhood? Terwilliger? Claireview? Jasper Ave?”
“There it is. We live
just off Jasper.”
“You ever been arrested?”
“Really? But you live
We were pretty sure he was joking, so we just sort of sat there and
he let us through without a big production.
Driving through northern Montana is either pleasant and interesting
or deathly boring, depending on exactly where you cross the border. We took a route that skirted Glacier
Park, rather than a mind-numbing interstate farther east that is fast and
straight, but treeless and dull.
The going was slower than the posted speed limit to avoid free range
cattle that kept scaring the shit out of me when they darted onto the road, and
when we passed a couple too many campgrounds (we had no American cash yet, so couldn't pay even if we wanted to) we
just kept driving. I guess Kristy
was fighting off sleep, while I was paying close attention to the pickup
swerving dangerously close to both sides of the twisted road, carefully looking
for a place to pass this guy.
Eventually the driver relented, picking a consistent speed so I
could safely pass him on a rare straightaway, and a couple minutes later pulled
the fully packed car into a 24-hour “GAS FOOD BEER” store somewhere just before
Kalispell, Montana. While Kristy
was happily enjoying a toilet that flushed, I browsed the obligatory fishing
Everywhere in Montana sells flies, and, usually, crappy fly tackle.
Montana apparently used to be a place for hard-core and dedicated
fly fishers to head to enjoy rivers and streams that were venerable aspects of
the sports literature. Now,
despite the fantastic fishing (everyone who fly fishes should go, honestly) it
seems to be some kind of regional quirk that smothers every store in the state as a sort of selling point, and
everywhere seems to sell shotty African tied flies right beside Mickey Mouse or
Snoopy kids rods, seemingly just because they think they are supposed to.
"This is Montana, and we fly fish."
Okay, fine. But do us a
favour. Stop it.
I don’t know. Maybe I
got to Montana too late (2010), or maybe writers’ words and my own
interpretation of them just didn’t jive in a realistic way based on my points of reference. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t overly
impressed with the 7 types of crappy “Montana” flies at the gas station.
Meanwhile, Kristy and I had been wondering if we’d be arrested or
ticketed for grabbing a couple hours of sleep in the car in a roadside turnout
before heading the rest of the way to Montana’s famous Rock Creek the following
So I asked the 40-something female clerk, who was polite in a straight forward way.
“Why don’t you two just park in the lot beside the gas station? My trailer is over there too, and no
one will hassle you. Just don’t
park to close to the shop next door, so they have space when they open in the
By this point, it was raining pretty good, and neither of us felt
like driving in the rain, on a twisty highway with dull-painted lines.
At just before 5 am I woke up to some foggy windows and renewed energy
(no Offspring this time), so I turned
the ignition and we hightailed it past Missoula and up the bumpy as hell Rock
Creek Road. Famous for blowing
tires and ruining suspensions, we tackled the road in a four-door 2003 Chevy
After doing a creel survey a few days later, I asked the guy how
often the road was grated. It had
seemed worse than last time.
“Usually once a year, but this year there is no budget for it.”
|A nice Rock Creek cutthroat caught road-side, and in knee deep water. |
There was also no budget to inspect the pump water either, and it
was locked up. I guess
sub-adequate environmental budgets aren’t just an Alberta and Canada problem
Setting up camp when you’re going to be spending a few days
somewhere is always an interesting proposition. If you’re just stopping for one or maybe two nights, you can
half-ass it. You know, throw the
tent down anywhere that is more or less level, maybe on the downwind side of
the fire ring and directly underneath the tree that the squirrel lives in, the
same squirrel that's going to through pine cones on the roof of your tent at 5
o’clock every morning.
|Kristy with a nice cutthroat|
|Kristy's first Montana brown|
But we’d be staying four nights. We got a nice site (only 2 were taken when we got there) and
set the tent up beside where we’d park the car, on level ground, and far from
the tree-bombing squirrels. Up
went a tarp that we sloped neatly to the west, a sort of combination
wind-rain-sun blocker that gave the camp a homey feeling; like we
weren’t just staying for a night and we could lounge around a bit more
in the late afternoons that apparently weren’t fishing well anyway.
Rock Creek is a famous stream.
Maybe more of a smallish river to some, including myself, it is a good stream to all. With something like 50 miles of
fishable water, a healthy dose of brown, rainbow, cutthroat, cuttbow and
whitefish from 8-16 inches, not to mention the odd bull trout and occasional
torpedo sized fish, there is something for everyone.
|An upper-average size rainbow for Rock Creek|
|Rock Creek has
lots of trout, and much of your fishing will be in runs, riffles, and
pocket water. Move slowly and hit each seem and pocket. You'll be
shocked where you find fish.|
Pretty much the entire river is easily accessed, with the sections
nearer the paved, downstream end of Rock Creek Road being most heavily fished,
and the road dispersing pressure over the rest of the creek. There are some unique and easily
identified sections, such as the Dalles, where Buick sized boulders create huge
pockets and mini-pools, but for the most part Rock creek is a perfectly
familiar and recognizable western trout stream. If you’ve fished the west, you’ll be comfortable fishing here.
|You'll catch pretty even numbers of browns and rainbows, with good numbers of cutthroats some days.|
We spent the majority of our days fishing the few miles of creek
upstream from camp. We’d
have a hearty breakfast involving a couple hot cups of coffee, sausage,
potatoes, and eggs, then by the time our energy wore off around 2pm, the
had pretty much wound down (several other streams in the area were on
Hoot Owl restrictions, banning fishing during the heat of the day) and
it was time for a break and some lunch. Later on, we’d head downstream of camp
for a couple hours fishing right at dusk.
The worst part about Rock Creek is the fact that the road goes right
along it, so really you can never be certain that around the next bend there won’t
be a small herd of fishermen. The
best part about Rock creek is that the road goes right along it, so you can
easily access new sections of river types; if one stretch is a bust, you can
be back at the truck heading to a new reach in about 5 minutes.
It really doesn’t matter where you’re fishing. The entire river has good water, and we
spent our most productive hours fishing riffles and runs right beside the road,
where steep cliffs and rock slides wouldn’t let it go anyplace else, other than
right through the creek.
The road clearly doesn’t affect the fishing negatively. It might even help the creek by
spreading out the fishermen somewhat evenly along the whole river. Some streams here in Alberta only have
one or two major access points, and for the most part, while the fishing might be
good a couple hours up from the bridge or whatever, the first series of runs and pools are often
pretty marginal. Even with few guys fishing, they have nowhere else
to start and that close section gets beat down pretty hard.
And on Rock, the slippery ass rocks (seriously, I’m taking a staff
next time, and doubling the number of studs in my boots) keep people from
covering 4 miles of river a day, which means that when you find a stretch of
good, unoccupied water, you can be assured that no one short of an asshole will
jump in right in front of you can spook up all the fish; you simply can’t move
that fast. So, you spend your days
moving slowly and fishing all the little pockets and seams with at least as
much fervor as the deep runs and pools, and you get a good education on how
little water you need to house a sixteen or seventeen-inch brown or cutthroat.
Kristy and I managed to get the Rock Creek Grand Slam (whites,
browns, rainbows, cutts, and cuttbows) each day, getting good numbers usually, and while there are apparently
some bulls around, the fact that you can’t legally target them sort of puts a
damper on my desire to add them to the grand slam list…
Like is standard with Rock Creek, most of our fish were 10-14
inches, a relatively equal mix of those fish I mentioned above (never caught a
bull trout) with some sections giving up more browns, or rainbows, or
cutthroats, or whatever. We caught
a bunch of white-dogs during mornings when we used dropper nymphs (something
like a Frenchie PTN worked very well), but we typically nipped those off
mid-morning when the dropper tag seemed to just get in the way of getting good
hook sets on the dries, which by the way tended to be Chubby Chernobyls, or #10-12
Elk Hair Caddises that looked like the spruce moths that were flying around
during certain parts of the day.
The fishing was so good that we didn’t even mind sleeping on the
rocks for 4 nights when we discovered a series of leaks in our new (only used
two times previously) air mattress.
After several good days, we moved on to Yellowstone, stopping in
Gardiner to pick up a new mattress.
The loose plan was to sight see the geysers and other famous areas for a day and to fish some streams I’ve been
planning to fish since I was 12 or 13 years old. As
it turned out, I only fished one of the creeks I'd initially wanted
to (for a few days, rather than run around trying to figure out new
water every day), but it was super enjoyable, and to knock off the
suspense now, yes, I did
catch my first native Yellowstone cutthroat. And also my second, third, and so on.
I'd caught some in Alberta where they'd been planted into barren lakes
decades ago, but there is something special about true native fish.
Kristy caught several trout each day
herself, and was a trooper when the wind was blowing, when the tourists and fishermen were driving
us crazy, and when the static electricity in the air was giving her shocks
through her rod over an hour after the last thunder rolled through the
We got the hell off the water fast on that last one.
Yellowstone fishing was something I’m glad I did. On my last trip to Montana, three years
ago, things didn’t really pan out.
Rock Creek was good, the Madison worked out for the first afternoon, but
then we were plagued by misfortune that included 40 mph winds, sleet, and entirely
too much for the next 4 days until we just bailed back to Alberta where we had
sunny September skies and good fishing.
So in Yellowstone we drove along the Lamar Valley that follows the
Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.
It was Soda Butte that I’ve read about for years (also Slough, but we
never did take the plunge on that one.
I needed some reason to go back, you know?). My heart sank when I saw it.
|Casting on beautiful Soda Butte Creek|
For years I read about great fishing and scenery and all that in
Yellowstone. But when I saw the
number of fishermen at each pullout, each 200 metres after the last, it worried
me. Some guys looked to know what
was going on, using good technique and etiquette, but so many looked like people
who drag the gear out of the closet once a year and swing dry flies through
pools for a couple hours on fashionable rivers.
Don’t get me wrong, fishermen all need to start somewhere, but back
home, if someone hacks their way through a cutthroat river, you may as well
sleep ‘til the next day then try again, because the trout will all be shaking shittless on the bottom of the deepest holes.
Well, when we fished we managed to somehow, miraculously, avoid the
nut show. By fishing farther up
the valley, or above the Ice Box Canyon, the number of people tended to shrink
a bit. From what I understand, this
also corresponds with the average size of the trout, but I’ll trade off a bit of fish size in favour of more room,
especially when we consider that the average size is really only varying by an
inch or two. And the top end size
is purported to be about the same.
|Kristy with an average size cutthroat during a morning fish.|
So by getting up early (on Soda Butte this worked, as it is known as
an afternoon fishery) we caught fish before anyone else was bothering, and by hitting
water a bit further across the meadow we managed to fish in relative
solitude. Sure, it wasn’t as good
as the afternoon fishing, but there was no one out, and I wasn’t getting any
cutthroats by sitting around getting high on coffee. The one exception to the great solitude was during a
morning rainstorm, when a group of four guys thought it would be a good idea to hop in
right in front of us and then proceeded to spread out.
|Soda Butte creek in the meadow section.|
So we called it for a couple hours, then when I went back in late
afternoon, I managed to get a dark, golden bodied 16” cutthroat that I’d hooked
but lost the previous morning, as well as a few other healthy Yellowstones from twelve to fifteen inches.
I couldn’t help but think of Alberta at this point. Here within a couple miles of me are
dozens of fishermen in Yellowstone, most fishing the same creek as me. A catch and release cutthroat trout stream; a small one
populated with large, scrutinizing (sort of) trout. Shallow, slow, clear, and loads of
fishermen, many of whom are rookies.
In Alberta, you’d easily cover 3 to 6 km of this sort of creek in a
single session, catching some fish and spooking the rest in the process of
moving up the creek. It's
just how it usually happens, and I usually do it too -fish a
dry-dropper and catch a bunch and cover some stream. But here in
Yellowstone you move slowly.
You’ll fish a small run, riffle, pool or whatever with a small
terrestrial or something, then see what happens. Usually you'll get a couple fish from an obvious piece of good water, miss another couple and maybe
spot another few. Because there is
most likely another guy or two a couple hundred yards (or less) upstream, moving on right away
is counterproductive; you’ll run out of unoccupied stream pretty damn quickly.
So you have two options.
One, you switch flies. Try
and get a couple of those trout that you’d missed or lost, or those ones you
saw rise but wouldn’t budge for a small ant pattern. Or maybe you add a small dropper nymph. I wouldn’t spend an hour on a small pool, but I’d certainly
try at least a couple patterns before moving on, repeating the process at each new hole, and then
even fishing that first hole again on my way back to the car. The other option is to fish say 75 or a
hundred yards with a pattern, then go back to where you started and try
something else through that same 75 yards. This isn’t effective if there are too many people, because someone will be in you’re spot
before you hit the next corner, but it is a good method if you don’t even see a
fish in your first run or pool.
It all seems to make sense.
There are more fishermen in Yellowstone, so while you’ll see other guys in the valley
and on the stream, you can still stay out of sight and feel like you’re in the
wilderness. And by fishing more
slowly and thoughtfully, more relaxed even. And because I know I’m not in a race to
the next stretch, I would end up having at least as good fishing as I do in Alberta
fishing on cutthroat streams. I often didn’t feel pressured, like if I
took the time to change flies a couple times, someone wouldn’t jump past me,
ruining my fishing for the rest of the day unless I jump past him in return.
A few weeks back I was fishing with my best friends and brother on a
sort of stag fishing trip for me.
My brother Trevor and I got down and set up camp by 11am on the Friday,
and headed up the creek. We did
well for the first couple hours, but then the catching dried up. I turned a corner and saw a couple guys
upstream. So we figured they’d
just fished this water and had either spooked the trout or given them sore lips.
After a brief chat with them so that we were all on the same page, Trevor
and I headed up the trail for nearly a half hour to give these guys at least
2-3 hours of water before even getting to where we started. So we hit the water again, and work hard for a single trout. Then as we turn the first corner
we see another guy in a red t-shirt about a hundred yards upstream. We fished for another couple hours,
catching a few more trout, mostly from obscure pockets or shallowish runs, then
hiked back to camp to wait for the other guys.
After a sufficient number of Old Milwaukees, Trev and I got to
talking about fishing etiquette in Alberta on some of our more popular rivers
and streams. To generalize, the
good rivers that flow through public land are pressured. Damn near all of them, and don’t let
people tell you that fishing in Alberta is all wilderness. If you can get a truck, ATV, trailer,
motohome, RV, dirt bike, helicopter, or any type of motorized machine to within a couple hundred yards of it,
there will be a lot of people. And
each of these guys fishes at breakneck speeds, moving upstream, pounding each
hole and wading through, leaving a poorer than necessary experience for those
it's our National and Provincial Park waters that get less pressure
than standard forest reserve streams, thought the fishing in many cases
is better and more wild.
And keep in mind that roads tend to follow creeks, not just cross
them, and that, if what I read is true, Alberta has more roads per square mile than anywhere else on
earth. We have great fishing and
lots of solitude too, it’s just not all wilderness and a friendly small-town atmosphere like some people have us
Anyway, we were discussing that perhaps in certain areas it is time to start fishing more
slowly, changing flies often, reworking water you’ve already covered. Fish all the little riffles with some
effort instead of just wading though and tossing around a couple Hail Mary
casts. Hell, I got my biggest
Yellowstone cutt, about eighteen-inches, in an ankle deep riffle. We spooked it crossing the river earlier
in the day (a mistake I didn’t make again) but went back after fishing another
couple runs. He took on my first
cast over his tiny depression.
|A tiny back eddy and a careful presentation = result.|
|It was an amazing sight to watch this cutthroat come and gently suck back my sulphur dry.|
But in Alberta fishing slowly won’t always work. Some brown trout creeks we have only hold
a couple hundred trout per kilometre.
If you don’t cover water, you won’t get much action, especially because they do
get fished some, but because they flow through mostly private property, not
nearly as much pressure as streams in the southern forest reserves. Our cutthroat trout and rainbow rivers tend
to have a lot of fish per mile, or at least more than most of our brown trout
creeks. And this is small water,
so you could cover everything if you take your time and are careful.
To illustrate this point, take Day 3 of my stag trip, when the
four of us fished a tiny cutthroat creek (about 10 or less feet across on
average). Trevor and Tim used dry
flies (different ones), I had a couple nymphs and was high-stick nymphing, and Andy was
fishing a small streamer. We'd let
the big dry go through, then a small mayfly, then either Andy or
I or both would run through with sunken stuff.
Sometimes a trout would look at a dry, but only take the nymph. Sometimes we wouldn’t see a fish on the
dry, then get three nice cutts on the Clouser, and once Andy had a nice cutthroat
chase his Clouser three or four times before he hung up, then I went in there
with my nymphs and caught him after only about 4 casts. We’d
used all the tactics that would likely work on that creek, and
each hole or run got fished with more than just a single method for 5
minutes. We saw a lot of fish using a second, third, or even fourth
tactic that we would have simply spooked had we tried one single fly
then kept on walking.
By the end of the day when we bush whacked back to the road (after about 7
hours of straight fishing) we only walked 1km of road, or maybe 2 km of
creek, to get back to the camp. In 7 hours on that creek,
if I was just fishing an elk hair caddis and maybe a dropper, I’d have caught
the same number of fish but I’d typically cover 4 road kilometres, or maybe 8 stream km.
|I took my time and reworked the water. I was rewarded. ** Notice the Soda Butte in the background.**|
How many people could have had a fun day in those 6 extra kilometres
I’d have fished and scared up? Did taking up more river make my day more fun? If people fished in pairs, that
could have been 6 more fun days for people, at about 2km per pair, not to mention the stream they’d
cleared up in turn, by not fishing 6km each further upstream.
While I don’t think this slow type of fishing can work everywhere, I
think that Alberta does have some road-followed streams and areas with enough
trout and enough fishermen and enough access that this might be what we need to
progress to. You’ll catch the same
number of trout, give or take a couple, but more people will fit into our
finite wild areas without having a frustrating experience caused by people racing
from one hole to the next, or cutting in front of other groups, with little regard for their impact on others' experiences.
We already fish like this on places like the Bow or Crowsnest, and I
really think this could become accepted practice on streams like the Oldman
and Livingstone, and their tributaries, too.
We have enough water for everyone in Alberta, we just need to be
willing to share it.
|A big head came up in the shallow riffle, and the game was on.|
|5x tippet and a good fish --I had to chase it downstream a little ways to keep it out of some root balls.|
|A happy angler.|
|Fish the water well. Good fish live in subtle places.|
Once I became accustomed to the fishing culture of Yellowstone I
managed to enjoy myself a lot more.
Kristy too. We caught
enough fish that we knew we had them wired; we could have raced around and
caught a lot more trout, but what would that prove? We also got enough refusals and false rises that we could
fish for specific trout that didn’t like what we were doing at first. We spent our last night in Yellowstone
fishing right near the camp, just across the meadow. Kristy was getting lots of false rises to her #16 cream caddis she’d
been using successfully for pretty well 3 straight days. I switched her up to a #16 Sulphur
Harrop Hairwing Dun to match the bugs hatching at the time that were either Ephemeralla or Epeorus, depending on if you think it matters.
The nose-pokes stopped, and she caught a few trout from the next
couple holes while I used a small terrestrial to rework the water and raise a
couple more trout in what was left of the evening light.
We refished those first few holes, and we didn’t crowd the guy
downstream of us. The fish we had
unsuccessfully hooked the first time through were feeding again.
There was plenty of water for everyone.