Grizzly Bears

While in Yellowstone, I had the pleasure of seeing a Grizzly bear and her two cubs near a park road.   The bears did not seem at all threatened and ambled through the bushes, grazing on berries.   The raw power of the mother Grizzly seemed more elegant than frightening.  Of course, not all bear encounters in the park are this positive.   You can read about a deadly bear attack here

When fishing in the Yellowstone backcountry or anywhere else that Grizzly bears frequent, it is vital to keep a can of bear spray at the ready.  Bear spray is pepper mace that can be sprayed at a Grizzly to deter an attack.  A study by a BYU professor, posted here, shows that bear spray is more effective than a gun in fending off a charge.  The spray should not be sitting in your backpack, not still wrapped in plastic, not tucked away in your fishing vest, but on the belt or on the chest, ready to be used.  Otherwise, why take it?

A second point to remember is that bears hate surprises.  When hiking alone, be sure to call out "hey bear" at every blind turn and make a lot of noise to alert bears to your presence.  When in a group, keep up a steady conversation and again, shout "hey bear," at blind turns on the trail.  

A third point is to safeguard your food.   Don't leave a pack full of food on the river bank while you are fishing.  Take the proper precautions in camp to keep food away from Yogi.  Don't camp next to where you cooked a fresh caught trout or even top-ramen. Hang food on trees or keep it in a "bear can," but be sure to consult park rangers to see which method they recommend. 

While you should take these safety measures, it is important to remember that buffalo charges and vehicle accidents cause more deaths in Yellowstone than bear attacks.   On my trip, I saw a sleepy driver slam into a tree and a small RV catch on fire.   Sometimes our fears can magnify certain risks and minimize others.  


Gray Beards and the Henry's Fork

The Henry's Fork of the Snake, located in Last Chance, Idaho, is one of the most challenging and unique trout streams in the nation.  The river is slow, wide, and relatively shallow.  Cool temperatures and a fertile environment produce a tremendous amount of insect life.  There are so many bugs in the river that large trout  continue to feed on insects rather than converting to a predatory diet.  Once past twenty inches in most rivers, trout feed on sculpins, minnows, and juvenile trout, ignoring mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, and terrestrials.  On the Henry's Fork, by contrast, one can find huge rainbows feeding on size 22 blue-wing-olives. The stream is also unique because it is a sight-fishery.  One wanders the bank in search of big trout to cast to.  "Searching" the water is unproductive and generally frowned upon by other fishermen. 

There is a catch.  Due to years of catch-and-release management, the abundant food supply, and clear, shallow, water, the large trout of the Henry's Fork are notoriously picky.   The old refrain that "90% of trout can be caught on a Adams or a Hair's Ear" simply is not true on the Henry's Fork.   Fish key in on particular hatches and stages of hatches.  They closely inspect flies for comparison to the natural.   Some of the most accomplished fly-fishers on the Henry's Fork, such as Rene Harrop, owner of the Trout Hunter lodge, carry up to 18 fly boxes while on the water.

My own experience on the Henry's Fork has me yearning to go back.  My friends and I began the morning near the log jam pullout just down the road from Last Chance.   Walking a mile or two into Harriman Ranch, we did not see many risers until about 10:00 in the morning.   When I finally had the opportunity to fish to a couple, the trout spooked at my offerings.   On the way back to lunch, we had the pleasure to witness an accomplished angler hook and land two large rainbows.   The older gentlemen informed us that he had caught the trout on a Pale-Morning-Dun emerger. 

The afternoon brought more much more opportunities and an up-close-encounter with what appeared to be a 25-inch trout.   We made the critical mistake, however, of not following the old fly-fisherman's advice and picking up some PMD emerger pattterns.  Instead, some kids at a fly shop we stopped at insisted that brown ants were the way to go.   We drove further from Last Chance, taking Wood Road to a secluded part of the river.  At about 4:00 pm, a plethora of large fish started rising, sometimes only 10 to 15 feet away from where we were standing.   The largest of them--the 25 incher--had its fin sticking out of the water like a miniature Jaws.  We tried for three hours to hook up with one of these monsters, but could not select the right fly pattern.  Brown ants garnered no interest, neither did PMD cripples, nymphs, or spinners.   I had one strike on a PMD sparke dun, but it was a smaller fish that got off the hook.  Finally, around 7:30 pm we decided to call it a day.  Walking back to the car, I stopped to confer with some other fly-fishermen.  They had done well on--guess what--PMD emergers.  My friend Mike remarked that we "should have trusted the gray beard."  I could not have agreed more. 


Mutliple Use Gear

A major tenet of lightweight backpacking is that each piece of gear you carry needs to serve multiple functions.   The same should be true in fishing.  Having a multi-tool that can de-barb hooks, remove flies from a fish's mouth, and cut tippet saves having to carry a separate item for each of these functions.  I'm a big fan of Rising's tools.    They last a long time, are easy to use, and can take on many-a-task. 

Another cheap item that I am a fan of is Mucilin.  The red paste serves both as a fly floatant and line dressing.  When fishing on the Green River this summer, my father noticed that his line tip and leader were sinking almost immediately after he completed a cast.   The situation caused his fly to drag.   After greasing up the line tip and leader with Mucilin, the change was immediate.  The whole rig floated better and enabled Dad to take several nice trout.   Some of the line companies warn against putting Mucilin on the fly line, but I think if you use it sparingly on the tip, there will be no adverse affects.  It also is magic on furled leaders. 


Yellowstone Grayling

Yellowstone carries a diversity of trout and char species, including several sub-species of cutthroats, brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, the invasive lake trout, and the artic grayling.  Grayling appear in a few drainages and lakes in the area.   My friends and I caught several of them at Cascade Lake, about two miles past Grebe Lake in the park.  Unlike some late summer lake fishing, the grayling and cutthroats in the lake were cruising the shore line and eager to take dries.   This one took a stimulator, but we got several on rusty spinners.  

Grayling and cutthroats are similar to the eastern brook trout we find here in the Shenandoah.  They are more than willing to take a dry fly if the presentation is somewhat accurate.   Attractor patterns such as stimulators, triple-doubles, and adams are all that you need.  


The Slide Inn

Mike McDonnell fishing the Madison River

At the beginning of the month, I was up in Yellowstone, fishing some of the most famous trout waters of the West.   There are enough miles of trophy trout streams in the area to last one a lifetime.  During the week I was there, I fished the Madison, the Henry's Fork, Grebe Lake, Cascade Lake, Hellroaring Creek, and Slough Creek.  

While fishing these streams, my friends and I stayed at Kelly Galloup's Slide Inn, which is between Last Chance, Idaho and West Yellowstone, Montana.  Slide Inn is also on a prime stretch of the Madison River.  Galloup is a famous streamer fisherman with numerous patented patterns to his credit.  For Virginia fly-fishermen, Galloup has fished Mossy Creek and suggested some killer streamer and terrestrial patterns for our spring creek.  The "Zoo Cougar" and "Wooly Sculpin" in black should imitate the sculpins found there. 

If you are ever out in Yellowstone country, I highly recommend Slide Inn.  Kelly is in the fly shop in the morning to help you select the right patterns and techniques for a successful day.  The cabins are nice and feature good views of the Madison and the neighboring mountains.  The price--$120 a night for a 2 bed cabin with kitchen--is very good as well.  



The Ethics of Catch and Release

A few weeks ago, the New York Times hosted an online debate on the practice of catch and release.  You can see the article here. At the risk of devolving into abstruse logorrhea--I am an academic after all--there have been several thoughts percolating in my mind about this subject.   First, is my personal history with fishing.  The first time I remember going fishing was when I went on a backpacking trip with my father in the third grade to the Uinta Mountains in Utah.  I carried my small school backpack filled with micro-machines, a sleeping bag, and a spin-fishing outfit.  Looking back at it, Dad must have carried a lot of my stuff.  We went to a small mountain lake where we had a field day catching starved cutthroat trout.   My Dad and his friends kept the fish and we had one of the best meals that I can remember to this day.  

For a long time, this initial trip informed my view towards catch and release.  When fishing just for a day, one should always catch and release trout, because, well, my fishing betters told me it was the right thing to do.  Even now, when I kill a fish, I can see Larry Barriger (a family friend and expert fly fisherman) shaking his head.   I remember being told that the practice allowed for bigger fish (better fishing) and a healthier population.  But when backpacking, when you were "catching your dinner," "cook'em' and eat'em"  was perfectly acceptable. 

After reading Mark Anders Halverson's An Entirely Synthetic Fish and edging towards the lunatic fringe of fly-fishing, I have taken a different view.  First, especially when fishing for the average "stocked," non-holdover, trout, fisherman need to be aware of how manufactured their experience is.  Rainbow trout have been bred for "fighting ability" and willingness to take a fly (or bait), then subsequently released into nearly every ecosystem in North America.  Once in the rivers, the fish are generally sterile and dumb, but nontheless destructive to other piscatorial species in the stream.  In the mountain-West, they have been particularly harsh on the native cutthroats that I first caught as a kid.  Without a lengthy deluge into the nature of the "authentic experience," suffice to say that fishing for twelve-inch (the standard size) stocker rainbows just does not appeal to me any more.  I also am dismayed by the private "trout waters" cropping up in the East and parts of the West, where people buy 25-inch hatchery fish and then charge people 250+ dollars for the opportunity to catch a "trophy" sized trout.  So, in terms of stocked trout, I do not think there is a justifiable need for "catch and release," unless a manager or owner is trying to establish a "wild" trout population, described below.  In fact, in many cases, taking the non-native fish is actually healthier for the existing ecosystem. 

Wild trout--as distinguished from native, wild trout--are another matter, one that is more difficult to deal with.  Wild trout are the descendants of fish stocked long ago, in some cases, as many as 100 years ago.  Wild trout are generally healthy, self-reproducing, and discriminating fish in tune with the insects in their environment.  In places that depend on big fish for tourism and that do not have a native trout population, such as the Green River, I think that wild trout should be released.  In areas where wild trout compete with natives, such as in Yellowstone National Park, I think the natives should be preserved. 

In terms of the "ethics" of catch-and-release, i.e. whether catch-and-release fishermen are morally suspect because they are causing pain to animals in exchange for pleasure, I come down firmly on the side that catch-and-release trout fishing is a defensible enterprise.  First, it is an open question whether trout "feel" pain.  There are obviously some animals that do feel and express pain, such as my dog Greeley, and animals that do not, such as bivalves and oysters.  Trout probably fall somewhere in-between, but I feel it is more on the oyster side rather than the dog side.  Second, I feel people critical of "catch and release" fishing are focusing too much on the individual fish rather than the species as a whole.  In countries like Switzerland and Germany, where catch-and-release has been banned, populations of certain species like brown trout may fall with few larger individuals appearing.  It seems that regardless of the effect on the individual fish, it is healthier for the population as a whole if anglers practice catch and release.

Thomas Jefferson Trout--Back to Life

A couple of years ago I started this blog to report on fly-fishing and conservation issues in Central Virginia as well as my own travels. After posting for several months, the project fell by the wayside. What can I say, after working all day on my dissertation, I just did not feel like writing on a blog.

This past weekend, I met up with the good folks at Thomas Jefferson Chapter of Trout Unlimited, located in Charlottesville. Despite being inactive, a number of them said they enjoyed reading my past content and hoped I could post more information in the future. I said yes. The only difference is that the updated blog will feature content and announcement posted by TJTU chapter members in addition to myself.

Tight Lines,