Thursday, November 13, 2014

Orvis week at Hubbard's Yellowstone Lodge

A week of fishing and bamboo rod building in Twin Bridges, a week of guide school in and around Yellowstone park, and now, a week of guided fishing, also at Hubbard's Lodge. Guide school taught me quite a bit, and I had hoped to continue that education in the next week. When I started planning this trip and making bookings, a close English friend who currently lives in Singapore decided to spend god knows how many hours on a plane to join me for a few days during this last week. I was happy to see him. It was a long few weeks on my own without really knowing anybody, and although everyone I met during my time, without exception, was very friendly, it was nice to see a familiar face. We'd gone fishing together every year for the past 5 years, and we're not planning on breaking the streak anytime soon.

On Saturday, I picked him up in Bozeman, determined not spoil the experience that lay ahead for him. We grabbed some supplies, a bottle of 15 year old Glenlivet, and headed to the lodge. We spent that evening out on the rowboats catching some far rainbows before enjoying dinner and some of the aforementioned whisky on the terrace overlooking paradise valley.

Doesn't get much better than this

Our guide for the week, Matt, came by, intoduced himself, and we settled on a rough itinerary for the week. Matt was one of my instructors from the prior week's guide school, and I knew I could learn quite a bit during a second week with him. He's a ridiculously good fisherman, an equally good guide, and a fun and friendly guy to be around.

Day 1, Yellowstone

The next morning would be another day of floating down Yellowstone, from McConnell to Yankee Jim. It's something I wanted Mark to experience, so I let him choose. The fishing was good, and Matt pulled us in to some great spots where we could exit the boat and fish for a half hour or so. Mark hooked into some good sized fish, but had the same trouble I did the first week. Getting used to these slow cutthroat takes wasn't easy and we both blew plenty of hooksets, but plenty of cutthroat and whitefish came to the net. Seeing Mark have success on the first day was great, I would have felt responsible if the fishing had been lousy. In the end, we were both of the same opinion regarding drift boat fishing. Fun enough, but we'd both much rather stalk some fish and wade a river.

Matt on the oars

One of the typical spots we stopped to stretch our legs and wet wade for a bit
Mark taking a break from the drift boat

Day 2, Depuy Spring Creek

Day 2 was a visit to one of Montana's famed spring creeks. I'd reserved a spot at Depuy's months in advance. I realized it seems absurd to spend 100 bucks to fish a river in a place with so many amazing, free rivers, but it was something I wanted to experience, and I'm glad we did. Matt suggested we take the drift boat with us, which was unexpected until he explained that there was a decent sized pond on the property as well. We got there, rang the doorbell on a rather imposing plantation-style mansion, filled out our paperwork and got to fishing. I grabbed my Epic 580 for a little delicacy, and it certainly made a difference.

The stairs at Depuy's reception. I'm guessing they're decorative?

The first thing that struck me was the water clarity. The second thing was the amount of fish. There were fish everywhere. The water was so clear that identifying the species from a few yards away wasn't particularly difficult. Matt took us to some good wading spots in the morning, and we started out with nymphs, without much success. A move to another section brought us to regularly rising trout. Big shadows hovered just under the surface, slowly rising and gently sipping bugs. I had on a 7x tippet, and promptly cast to a nice fish, set the the hook, and broke the tippet. Matt wisely suggested I drop down to 6x and try again, which I did, and ended up with one of the more memorable moments of my trip. I spotted a large brown rising sporadically a good distance away, I managed to get a decent enough drift a few times but to no avail. Finally, I cast, saw him rise, pause, and take. A gentle, long distance hookset, and he was on. Not the biggest fish I'd catch, but somehow, this moment was one of the defining ones of the entire trip. Everything just coming together the way it's supposed to. It's hard to explain, but I'm guessing you'll know exactly what I mean.

The Depuy's Brown, on an Epic 580 fiberglass rod.

Casting dries on Depuy

Typical example of the water clarity

And again...

In the afternoon, we hopped into the drift boat and Matt rowed us around the pond. Again, fish were visible and actively rising everywhere. The density of fish was simply astounding, even more so when you consider that these are all wild fish. Mark had a little more luck than I did on the pond, and after a few hours we sent Matt back to the lodge. Mark had an appointment a year in the making, his rod was ready to pick up at Tom Morgan Rodsmiths. We ate a quick dinner, and made our way to Manhattan. We found the shop after a little confusion, and met Tom and Gerri Morgan. We talked about some mutual friends, got a brief tour of the rod shop, and of course, eagerly inspected the works of art that resulted from Tom and Gerri's efforts. Mark's rod was flawless, an 8 foot, 4 weight graphite, along with a Saracione reel. A dream rod, just slightly out of my price range. I'd have to content myself with a mere blank, and after describing my home river and style of fishing to Tom, he suggested an 8 foot 4 weight glass blank. I'll be honing my skills on some lesser blanks for now, but when the time comes, I have big plans....

Mark and I in Tom Morgan's shop

Day 3, Soda Butte and Lava Creek

The next day we went to Soda Butte. The fish were active, and Mark was having some trouble with the hooksets on the Cutthroat, so he spent most of the day with Matt, while I was off fishing on my own. There wasn't much remarkable about this day, it was gorgeous, we both caught plenty of fish, but, in a testament to how phenomenal the trip was, a good yet uneventful day of fishing doesn't have much staying power. I regret not writing more down at the end of the day, but that felt a little too much like work for my liking. After lunch we headed to Lava Creek, I wanted Mark to experiences Brookie fishing at it's finest. Here I was able to catch the same big brookie, or one that looked just like, that I did during guide school, only this time I didn't let it slip out of my hands before taking a photo...

Fishing Soda Butte

Nice Lava Creek Brookie

Hooked into a Brookie on Lava Creek
Mark on Lava Creek

Day 4, Slough (First Meadow)

We decided on a hike up to the first meadow of Slough Creek. The hike was scenic and very enjoyable, and after about a half hour Mark realized he had forgotten his reel. He insisted we go on without him, stashed his pack behind a rock, and headed back to the car. Matt and I arrived at the first meadow shortly afterwards, and started waiting. And waiting. We geared up, ate some snacks, drank some water, and waited some more. It occured to me that it was bear country, and we had the only can of bear spray. After a while Matt suggested we start fishing, and since I had to get my mind off of how I would tell Mark's widow that I had gotten him eaten by a bear, I acquiesced. He came huffing and puffing up the trail a little while afterwards anyhow. Even the bears in Yellowstone wisely look down on English cuisine...

Share the trail!

Hooked into a Slough Cutthroat

Such pretty fish!


Mark and Matt on Slough

We ended up splitting up again, Matt put Mark on some fish while I enjoyed the solitude. I kept an eye out for bears, half hoping I would see one and half hoping I wouldn't. There was steady action on beautiful, vibrant Cutthroats with hoppers. I still blew plenty of hooksets, but the fish were eager enough that it didn't really matter. On one cast to an undercut bank in particular, a huge fish came out of nowhere, waiting a split second as cutthroat seem to enjoy doing, and took the hopper. I didn't blow the hookset, and found myself on the largest fish of my trip. A long fight ensued, and I had landed a beautiful cutthroat of well over 20 inches.

The fish of the trip, a 20+ inch cutthroat on Slough Creek

Same fish before release

Day 5, Depuy Spring Creek

After fishing Depuy on day 2, we liked it so much that we put our names on the list in case another few spots opened up, which they did. The fishing was great again, as was to be expected, and I spent most of the day fishing a beetle with an ant dropper. We checked out the on-premises fly shop, and Matt showed us around a little. We'd decided to do something a little different today and give mouse patterns after dark a try, Choosing which evening to skip dinner at Hubbard's was agony. I think it was the pasta bar that we reluctantly decided to forgoe in favor of wading a waist high river in the black of night. We fished until 6pm or so, then headed into Livingston for dinner. A pizza and some local beer later, we pulled back into the maze of dirt roads crisscrossing the Depuy property. I brought an Epic 686 for the occasion, and as the sun set, we stepped into the river and headed downstream. We caught no fish, but had a few explosive strikes, and I caught a bird, which was a first...

Sorry, bird.

Day 6, Lamar

The week, and the entire trip, flew by, and here I found myself on the last morning of my trip to Montana. Fittingly, as we drove into the park, nature was calling with increasing insistence. I didn't want to drag two people along with me on my search for the toilet, nor did I want to spoil the sanctity of America's oldest national park, I dropped off Mark, Matt, and all the gear at the side of the road and sped off in search of a restroom while they made their way across the expansive Lamar valley to the river. I didn't know where the nearest restroom was so I just continued on the road were had been on, and got lucky. I found one, used it, and returned to the turnout relieved and ready to fish. I geared up, locked the car, and began walking across the grassy valley floor, keeping an eye out on the ever present bison. As I began to walk, I couldn't help but notice that with each step, a cloud of hoppers would alight. Literally, every single step brought 10-20 grasshoppers into the air. This was to be a good omen. After walking for 10 or 15 minutes, I spotted Mark and Matt, and made my way over. Mark had a giant grin on his face, and even the normally reserved Matt seemed a little taken aback.

"Every cast is a take. Literally. It's unbelievable!"

Matt nodded.

Mark turned around, cast, and was immediately hooked into a foot long cutthroat. And then he did it again. All the while I'm trying to tie on a hopper so I can get in the action. Then I realized I tied on the hopper before threading my line through the eyes. I frantically tried stuffing the hopper through the eyes and gave up well before I made it to the tiptop. After what seemed like an hour of fumbling and cursing, I finally managed to get tie a hopper on the end of the leader, with the line and the reel in the correct spot, and immediately blew a hookset on the nice cutthroat. Next cast, I had one on and landed him. It went on like this for the rest of the day. It was ridiculous. Every single cast that had a halfway decent drift brought up a cutthroat. We were in the exact right spot at the exact right time, on the last day of our trip. By the time we sat down for sandwiches and drinks on the river bank, we'd lost count of fish somewhere around 50 or so. We sort of split up in the afternoon, Mark found a giant deep hole downriver a way, and Matt was collecting live grasshoppers to feed to the hungry trout, a sight to behold. I alternated between fishing and taking photos. It was the most amazing day of fishing I've ever had, and I don't see myself experiencing anything like this again in my life.

Mark, hooked into a Cutthroat with his Tom Morgan 4 weight. This was probably his 30th fish or so of the day.

Steep banks made netting and releasing a workout

Mark on Lamar, I'm guessing with very tired arms at this point

Planning our way back the car, we ended up having to take a big detour around a herd of Bison that had moved in behind us.

We'll never top this trip.

We headed back, tipped and thanked Matt for his guidance and hard work, had some drinks with the rest of the guests at the lodge, and readied ourselves for a 3 AM wake up call to make our early morning flights. It was a bittersweet end...I was sad to say goodbye the friendly staff at Hubbard's that hade made me feel at home for the last two weeks, I said goodbye to my friend who lived halfway around the world, not knowing when I'd see him again, and I marked the end of an unforgettable trip to one of the most beautiful places on the planet. At the same time, the ache of missing my family had grown to the point where I got a lump in my throat just thinking about the smell of my son's hair, the sound of my daughter's voice and a hug from my wife. It was time to go home!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Guide School

Guide School

Hubbard's Lodge

Instead of posting individual days, I'll just do a consolidated writeup of my experience at guide school. I have no intentions of guiding professionally, and all I really hoped to get out of this was some enjoyable experiences and improved fishing skills, and my expectations were exceeded. Plus the food here at Hubbard's lodge is damn good and plentiful, and the lodge is situated on the shores of a scenic lake full of of fat rainbows, cuttthroat, and browns, and bald eagles and mule deer are common around the lake. Despite being pretty exhausted at the end of each day, I couldn't resist rowing one of the provided drift boats out to hook into some of these hard fighting and big fish almost every evening after dinner.

One of the pigs from Merrell Lake

Day 1 was some classroom work. Knots, connections, casting, entemology, tying, that sort of stuff. The classroom is outfitted with an enormous amount of fly tying materials and equipment, videos on rowing drift boats, books on bugs and hatches, and lots of stuffed heads and bearskins for a truly rustic feel. In the afternoon, our teacher, Eben, took us down to Tom Miner creek for a little small stream work. We took turns guiding other students and hooked small, feisty cutthroat and browns in pocket water. We prepared for the next day by ordering lunch to go for all the participants, and enjoyed grilled T-bone steaks and cold bottles of Trout Slayer while gazing out at the Yellowstone snaking through the beautiful paradise valley. This one of those places where you have to conciously remind yourself to appreciate it, that you're beginning an experience that you'll never forget.

The view from the Lodge. No, seriously.

The food was great, without exception. But the ribs were especially great.
I've met a lot of  great yellow labs named Daisy, and she was no exception.

On Day 2 we got up, ate a gigantic breakfast, prepared a cooler full of drinks and lunch, and headed into Yellowstone park, arriving at Slough Creek after a very scenic hour's drive. To say I was excited for my first day of fishing inside Yellowstone would be a massive understatement. We parked the car, walked a few hundred feet, and immedatiately saw rising fish of considerable size. After a quick primer on the river, we again took turns guiding each other. I caught a handful of decent sized cutthroat and cuttbows, and when it was my turn to guide, I tied on a self tied sparkle dun for my "client", who ended up hooking a good fish. The sparkle dun would be a go-to fly for the remainder of the trip. (That reminds me, I need to tie some more!) 

Day 3 heralded a return to the park. We spent the morning fishing the Gardner amidst the occasional rain shower. The fishing was decent, and again, we switched off between guiding and being guided. In the afternoon we visited Lava Creek, which would end up being one of the more memorable parts of my trip, despite the small sizes of the fish. I never really experienced brookie fishing like this, and not only were the fish and the surroundings breathtaking, but catching one fish after another on my Orvis Superfine Glass 3 weight was endlessly entertaining. I did manage to hook and land a brookie of around 14 inches, a beast for a small stream like this, but he slipped out of my hands before I could take a photo. (Spoiler alert, I went back a week later, and got him again, and managed to get a photo this time) Before heading back to the lodge, we stopped at a deep hole on the Gardner to try some deep nymphing with no success. The drive back to the lodge, as it did on most days for the rest of the trip, featured the occasional traffic jam caused by elk or bison watchers. Tomorrow we'd try our hand at floating the Yellowstone, so we watched some videos on how to handle the boats. (Watching my 18 year old fellow guide school students trying to figure out how a VHS machine works was an added and amusing bonus.) I watched the videos attentively, but couldn't shake the feeling that I was somehow unprepared.

Learning to read the water on the Gardner

Lava Creek. One of the most perfect, picturesque little streams I've ever seen.

Brookie on a Royal Wulff

The one that got away.
 (After he got away, when I got him again a week later and he didn't get away.)
Hooked into the one that got away the time he didn't get away.

On Day 4 I'd confirm, without a doubt,  that I was somehow unprepared for the rowing a drift boat down the Yellowstone. We put in at Carbella and planned to drift to mile marker 26. After some mistakes, some firm corrections from Eben, and ironing out of bad habits, I got the hang of it. I found it a bit stressful at first, but enjoyable after a few hours. I rowed roughly half the day, and got to fish from the boat for the other half, after the usual streamside lunch. The fishing was slow, we'd land the occasional cutthroat, the less occasional brown, and the ever present whitefish.This was the first time I'd fished from a drift boat, and it was very different from what I'm used to. Constant repetitive casts as close to bank as possible, rarely to rising fish, and generally one shot per likely looking spot. At the end of the day, my arm was exhausted, and I was half dreading, half looking forward to the next day of rowing.
Typical spot for lunch.
Rowing, day one.

Day 5 was Slough Creek. It wasn't wide open by any means, but the fish were cooperative enough to make the absolutely vicious insect population tolerable. I'd learned from earlier mistakes and wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt to keep the flies at bay. They were still remarkably determined and would crawl in ears, down shirts, and under sunglasses, but mercifully, they were particularly easy to kill, likely because they were bogged down by a tiny stomach full of my flesh. At the end of the day, I was covered in mashed fly bits, but each one represented a tiny bit of satisfaction. Fortunately, the bugs only seemed particularly bad around Slough Creek. Elsewhere they'd vary from mildly annoying to nonexistent.

Most of the morning was spent casting a sparkle dun to a single big rising fish moving sporadically around an eddy. I was determined, and after what was at least two hours, and a missed strike, he took and I landed a pretty 19 inch cutthroat. I'd land a few smaller, less well-deserved fish as the day went on but this one was the most memorable.


19 inch fish on a sparkle dun
On the last day, we'd float the Yellowstone again, this time from McConnell to Yankee Jim. I rowed the whole morning under the supervision of Matt, one of the guides at Hubbard's, and the same guy who'd be guiding us for the next week at the Lodge. I felt more comfortable rowing the second day, and the fishing was substantially better than the first day as well. Watching Matt fish while I rowed, and Eben fish earlier in the week was a good learning experience as well, watching a good guide fish is a humbling experience. I can't even begin to estimate how many hooksets I blew on slow moving cutthroat during my trip to Montana, hooksets these guys nailed every time. Another delicious streamside lunch, another pleasant afternoon of fishing, and another sore arm at the end of the day, and my experience at guide school was already behind me. The next morning, after the other students and I exchanged goodbyes, I went for a hot, midday run in the park. I'd be picking up a friend from the Bozeman airport that afternoon, and readying myself for another week at Hubbard's, this time in a slightly different capacity.

Still basically incompetent, but slightly more relaxed on the second day of rowing the Yellowstone
So, in short, guide school was great. It made me a better fisherman, and I got to fish some of the best trout rivers on the planet in the process. However, what a week of guide school can't give you is the years of experience that all these hard working guides have under their belt. It can start you on your journey as a guide, or it can show an experienced and good fisherman with a many years of experience how to put it all together, but there is no shortcut to putting in those hundreds, even thousands of hours on the river you need to put in before you can truly call yourself a guide. (This point would be made over and over again the next week with Matt as our guide.)

My favorite part was fishing inside the park. Having a bison sneak up behind you while fishing and seeing a dazzling array of wildlife on your way to a new pristine fishing destination every day is an unforgettable experience. I have to be honest and say that fishing from a drift boat is a novelty that, while fun, isn't something I'd choose regularly over wade fishing. I miss the stalk, the serenity, the peaceful feeling of gently making your way through and along a river. 

The lodge and staff were amazing, the location is breathtaking, the food plentiful and delicious, and the price, for guide school, is a bargain. Even if you have no intention of becoming a guide, the chance ot hone your skills, fish some of the best rivers the American west has to offer, and stay at a first class lodge is well worth the price of admission.