Woolly Buggers in Buffalo Country
Through the Heart of Yellowstone
I started my day on the west side of the park at the Madison Campground because that is where I was lucky enough to find a spot to sleep (That is another story for another day. But as a note, plan ahead when going to Yellowstone no matter the time of year). I’d taken the time to mark the spots I wanted to fish on my Yellowstone map that the ranger handed me at the south park entrance. The spots I marked on the map were based on intel I got from an angler named Jim as I was coming off the Gros Ventre river in the Tetons. Turns out Jim used to guide in Yellowstone back in the day so he had plenty to share. He gave me some suggestions of spots I could hit out near Tower Falls and recommended the Lamar River as well as trying out some remote creeks near the Yellowstone. The Lamar River seemed like a great place to try my hand at landing a hog, so that’s where I headed!
The trip from Madison out past Tower-Roosevelt and up to the Lamar was absolutely gorgeous. The area around Tower-Roosevelt was a fairly different terrain from where I was staying on the west side of the park. Madison was more wooded and had a mountain feel, where the Lamar River meandered through some beautiful vast open plains and was home to herds of buffalo. Along the way to the Lamar, I drove past incredible, boxy rock formations that were naturally placed there by an incredible artist. The rocks towered over the height of my rig and I felt as if I was driving through a giant’s chess game where all of the pawns were made out of magnificently large boulders.
After an hour and half drive through winding mountain hills, I spit out into the Lamar Valley and saw the river I would be working for the day. I got out of my rig and scouted out a couple stretches of river, walking through knee-high brush and loads of buffalo chips. A windy stretch of river where a fast riffle hit a cut bank looked like a good spot to start my day. Plus it had a great view of a nearby herd of buffalo which didn’t hurt. I geared up and started working that hole with no success. The water looked awfully fishy, but the rocks in that area all looked small and uniform which didn’t bode well for subsurface structures that a trout could seek refuge from the fast current. I worked my way upstream to try a new stretch and happened upon a helpful fisherman.
Art of the Fly
I love talking with anglers on the river for a whole multitude of reasons. You can glean great wisdom from experienced anglers, share tips about sections of water where you’ve had good success, talk about big fish you pulled out, commiserate over a lack of success, or just get to know someone on a personal level. Talking on the river is a nice sprinkle of humanity in an often solo sport, so I cherish those moments.
Anyhow, I stumbled upon a seasoned vet of the Lamar. He said he’d been coming back to fish the Lamar every year for decades. With the way he was working the water, I didn’t doubt for a second he was telling the truth. I told him I had just started my day and had never fished the river before. He shared about his experience on the river and started divulging his inside info about which flies were working that day and recollecting how much the river’s structure has changed through the years. We talked for a while and, come to find out, he was a University of Washington alumni like myself. The wise angler let me know they were biting on his Cathy’s Super Beetle pattern, as well as caddis, and olive-colored woolly buggers. He was even kind enough to give me a few of the beetle patterns that he tied himself! I got his name as we parted ways. His name was Art. Fitting for a fly angler who ties his own flies.
Throwing the Kitchen Sink
I hit an extremely fishy seam that Art was kind enough to let me work (even though I was practically fishing on top of him). I threw a caddis in the seam for a while with no luck. Hopeful, I switched to the beetle pattern Art gave me. Maybe my drifts weren’t up to snuff for these book-learned fish, but I had no success getting them on top of the water. They simply weren’t interested. Apparently the friend Art was fishing with was having the same problem with picky fish.
I tied on an olive streamer that Art also suggested and fished the upstream side of rocks as he recommended. It seemed counterintuitive to fish the upstream side of a rock but I decided to give it a shot since I clearly wasn’t having success by my own wisdom. First cast with a streamer was a little sloppy. Second cast fell right in the lane I wanted it to and I gave it a little mend to ensure the streamer didn’t cut across the current so fast that the trout wouldn’t bother chasing it. I flicked my rod tip a little to give the streamer a twitch and WHAM! “Snagged bottom” was the first thought that went through my head. That was until I felt the fish running into the current with my fly. There’s nothing like a fish slamming a streamer and running with it. He was big and I had him in a fast current so I was seriously concerned he was going to break me off. I ended up hauling the girthy creature through the fast current and scooped him up with my net. A beautiful 17 inch Yellowstone cutthroat! More than enough fish to get the blood pumping.
I didn’t see Art after that, but found his buddy who he was fishing with. I asked him to thank Art for all the advice he gave me and to let him know that it paid off with a big old cutthroat. If you’re reading this, Art, thanks again!
I worked back downstream since there were a couple anglers heading upstream that I didn’t want to fish on top of. Downstream didn’t produce much for me except for a big trout who teased me with a couple strikes. The rest of my time on the river was an attempt to help a baby duck that got split from his mom and fellow ducklings. He would quack for help but there was no duck in sight to come to his rescue. The duck was in a fast stretch of water and was fighting the current to swim upstream. I was trying to at least get him to shore where he could make some progress, but he refused. Each time I got close and would try to guide him to shore, he would dive beneath the water’s surface and swim downstream. Then he would repeat the upstream battle. I felt bad for the little duck, but my efforts were futile and I had to head back to camp.
Back to Camp
The drive back was equally beautiful with some golden hour views of the valley and rocky hills. I hit a little traffic jam that turned out to be the effects of an elk herd that decided to make their home on the sprawling lawns of downtown Tower-Roosevelt. It’s a very unique sight to see animals and ‘civilization’ interacting so closely. These elk were practically acting like weekend picnickers enjoying their day in front of the historic buildings. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen outside of National Parks, but it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
By the time I made it back to camp it was getting real windy and was starting to rain. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the day though. It was well worth spending my entire day on the Lamar even though the fishing wasn’t as lights-out as I had anticipated. I highly recommend that area of the park to any angler or any person who enjoys views of unspoiled buffalo country.