The phrase “Opening Day” conjures up a variety of images and emotions. For baseball fans like our dear friend James Kelley, it’s all about baseball. I’m sure for hunters, “opening day” brings vivid memories of deer, elk, pheasant and more. For anglers, it’s the promise of hungry, eager, more gullible fish who’ve not seen any pressure from fishermen for many months. Opening Day for fishing in Yellowstone National Park is always the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Since I was in Bozeman this year…… ROAD TRIP!
Before I begin, a quick thought about “Road Trips”. They aren’t totally about the destination you’re heading toward…. and….. in many cases they are MORE about the journey than the destination. So, while my destination was the Firehole River in YNP, the journey to get there was just as important.
Having fuel is, of course, a requirement for any road trip but I’m not talking about gasoline, I’m talking about the kind of fuel that keeps YOU going…. food! My first stop on the way to the West Entrance of YNP was our regular spot, Mama Mac’s at Four Corners. Four Corners really isn’t a town at all; officially, it is termed a “census-designated place” at the intersection of US Highway 191, MT 85 and MT 84…. 29 miles to the west is Norris Hot Springs and the Madison River, to the east 7 miles is downtown Bozeman, to the north 9 miles is Belgrade and 82 miles south is the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
At Four Corners you’ll find gas stations on three of the corners, a bar/restaurant/casino on the other corner and two great fly fishing shops, Fins and Feathers and River’s Edge West, right next to Simms Fishing headquarters. But I digress, this first stop is really about fuel for the stomach and Mama Mac’s. When do we most often stop here…. breakfast….. for what?… a giant breakfast burrito or their special breakfast consisting of eggs, meat of your choice, hash browns, biscuits and gravy. If you go, I’d recommend splitting either of these with your fishing buddy, the servings are huge. It’s all cooked to order, served with a smile and stick to your ribs good.
After fueling up at Mama Mac’s, it was back onto US 191 heading south. After crossing Spanish Creek just before it enters the Gallatin (a fav fishing spot) you enter the “Canyon” area in which US 191 parallels the river with usually only a guard rail between you and the river. This whole section of the river fishes very well at certain times of the year and we have many pull off spots where we park and drop down into the river to fish. This trip, I was alone as Barb was back in Missouri visiting family over the Memorial Day weekend. However, all along the drive on this stretch, I could STILL hear Barb saying “keep your eyes on the road!”. She knows I like to take a peek to see how the river flows are looking. Barb…. I was good….. well, ok…. pretty good.
In fact, I was so good that when I wanted to really look, I pulled over and got out of the car to take a peek at the river. There was this one spot I really wanted to see how the river was flowing; the rapids at House Rock. As you can see when you look at the House Rock Rapids Video I’ve posted on Vimeo, the rock is literally as big as a small home and at this flow, you really can’t see it all. Amazingly, with our good friends Ted/Deborah Watson and Don/Kim Freeman, we actually rafted this area a couple of years ago, and while it was definitely NOT at this flow, it was still a bit scary, especially as half of our boat (Ted, Kim and I) had already been tossed into the river at a much less treacherous spot. Anyway, Watsons and Freemans… I hope you are watching this…. and cringing like I was when I shot the video.
The next stop along the way is often the Big Sky Conoco Travel Shoppe at the turnoff to the Big Sky Resort. It’s about half way between Four Corners and West Yellowstone. While we rarely get gas here, having already filled up at Four Corners, it has a great convenience store, a respectable little grill for burgers with a few tables and most importantly, pretty clean bathrooms. I’m sure you can see the logistics in all of this, right? Four Corners…. Mama Mac’s…. pit stop half way…. it just works perfectly.
Back on the road, still headed south toward West Yellowstone, you actually cross into Yellowstone National Park for a bit. Not exactly sure why at this point you pop into the park and then back out before West Yellowstone, but you do. There is some great fishing in the park section of the Gallatin, and if you’re ever this way, make sure to stop in at Wild Trout Outfitters in Big Sky, right on 191, and see JD Bingham. He’ll get you the right bugs and give you great Gallatin River fishing tips. His best one is “walk to fishing spots where you cannot see the road”.
When I finally pulled into West Yellowstone (MT), I did a U-Turn on 191 and pulled up in front of Blue Ribbon Flies. I was greeted by our friend, Aaron Freed, who has been an invaluable resource in getting us the right flies and sending us to the best locations to fish. While we talked a lot about our past fishing adventures and caught up on present activities, I was excited to tour the fly stand to pick out some flies for the day’s fishing. After picking up a few dries and a few wet flies for swinging, I jumped back in the Suby and headed for the West Entrance to YNP…..
And stopped! Traffic to get into the park was horrendous and backed up past the stop sign back in downtown West…. at least for a mile. However, being the experienced traveler to these parts, I knew a secret way to cut a bit of time off the wait… and having a Senior park pass, I was able to get into the “fast lane” and make it into the park in about 10 minutes, which as it turned out, really didn’t help me much.
About a mile after entering the park, and being able to drive at the posted park speed limit of 45 mph, I again came to a full stop. And for the next 12 miles, never got out of second gear (yes, the Suby Crosstrek is a stick so we can tow it behind the SaraLinda). As a matter of fact, I drove in first most of the way, when we were actually moving. I knew it had to be an animal jam but thought this one must be big… bears? wolves? moose? After nearly an hour of “driving” along the road from West to Madison Junction in the park, I came upon what was causing the delays, two bison, just walking down the road, oblivious to the traffic; they were both walking the center line, letting cars pass SLOWLY (aka. stopping to take pictures) as they sashayed their way down the road. The old saying from the classic Seinfeld episode kept playing in my mind “Serinity Now! Serinity Now!”, but I was already at “Hoochie Mama!”.
Which brings me to our next regular stop (yes Barb, I really missed you this trip, but we’ll be back when you return to Bozeman), the Madison Junction “rest stop”. I truly needed a stretch after “driving” for well over an hour to traverse the 14 miles from West to the junction as well as a “rest” after drinking the coffee I’d filled into my Yeti at one of those coffee huts. And while this “rest stop” is a fixture on our trips into the west side of YNP, stopping here always makes us smile, which is why you’ll find a picture of the trash container in the video above. On one trip, we’d brought some trash in a black trash bag with us, as well as good friend James Kelley’s boots and waders, also in a black trash bag…. can you see where this is going yet? Yes…. I tossed the wrong bag into this dumpster, and in went Kelley’s wading attire. The dumpster will live in infamy.
Turning right out of the Madison Junction “rest stop” parking lot, I ventured onto the southern loop road toward Old Faithful, crossing the Gibbon River and climbing up a long winding hill before reaching a plateau. At this point, the road joins the Firehole River. The Firehole really only fishes well from Opening Day until it just gets too warm in August, and then cools down in the fall to fish well again. It’s not just the warm temps that make this river get too warm to fish in summer, it’s because so many thermal features in the park empty into the Firehole. Aaron had hinted I should fish soft water near the banks, so, the first pull off I found, I parked in a spot Barb would have never let me pull off, given it had a 4-6” lip that dropped onto gravel just about the width of the Suby before falling down rocks into the Firehole. The spot wasn’t one we’d ever fished before, as we often went for slower flow sections to spot rising fish. As you see when you watch the video, this spot had fast rushing water that slowed only partially, but slowed enough.
Scrambling down the rock embankment, I found a spot to stand, tied on one of the wet flies Aaron had recommended, and on the first cast felt a slight tug. Hmmmmmmm… I thought… I have to remember how to set when swinging wet flies. Another few casts and I actually saw the trout come up to eat the wet fly as it rose on the swing. A beautiful, 12” brown trout had been enticed as the fly had risen in the water column. After a brief fight, I got him in, kept him in the water, removed the fly and let him go. Yes James!….. I mistakenly threw your waders and boots away and do realize that a fish without a picture is JUST a story…. lol… You see, James is one of our dearest fishing buddies (a post on this subject to come soon) and his line about “just a fish story” is always with us. In this case, I was fortunate to repeat this cast a quarter downstream….. hold tight… swing… and fish one one more time before deciding to move on.
Moving on, I found another thing Aaron warned me about, the river was going to be crawling with anglers…. after all…. it was Opening Day! Every single pullout along the road between my first stop and the turn off to Old Faithful was filled with cars, not sightseeing mind you, but fishing. I saw anglers in various stages of suiting up and gearing up at each spot, or looking toward the water, already in what seemed good holding water. Given it was already 2:00 and the Mama Mac’s burrito was wearing off, I decided to head to another of our “must stop” spots along this route, Old Faithful Inn and the Hamilton Store.
This is hallowed ground to us that draws us back every time we are even close to it. We’ve had friends who’ve worked here and our daughter Krista even worked a summer and WINTER here at Old Faithful… the summer at OFI and the winter at Snow Lodge. If there is one thing you do once you get into the park, it’s just step inside the Old Faithful Inn… and take it all in. But again, sorry, I digress.
I decided to stop in the Hamilton Store and grab a sandwich, chips, cookie and drink to go; it’s what Barb and I always do if we haven’t made our own sandwiches. I wanted to take it back to the Firehole, find a spot to pull off if I could, and have lunch next to the river, scouting for rising fish. As I was checking out, I couldn’t help but notice tables of diners eating their lunches in waders. What I realized at that moment was, Opening Day really wasn’t about the fishing, it was about the experience of Opening Day…. the camaraderie, the bonding, families together, parents and children fishing for perhaps the first time or the hundredth time. Truly, “Its Not About the Fish
I found a parking spot near a tall stand of pine trees, and after I found a spot to put my chair that didn’t have a mound of somewhat fresh bison “poop” near it, I settled in for lunch. It was peaceful and relaxing to just watch the river flow by. A few years back, at this very spot, Barb and I were fishing when two bears appeared on the opposite bank. It’s always fun to be the first to spot animals, especially bears, as they emerge into the open. That time, within minutes, there were bear jams in both directions, but we’d gotten to watch them for a minute or two, just us. Again digressing here, but it really isn’t just about fishing, but the memories.
This time, no memories in this spot, other than of a great, store bought chicken salad sandwich. There were no rising fish, no bears, nada, zip, zilch, nothing…. which in some respects made it….. perfect! Just lunch and a lazy Firehole River flowing.
After lunch I headed back to the spot where I’d caught the two brown trout earlier, partly because I knew if two fish were there, the likelihood of even more fish being there was good….. and partly because again, all the other pullouts were taken. This time, after a dozen or so casts, and trying two different wet flies, finding no takers, I moved on.
When I’d originally driven into the park, I noticed someone fishing a spot on the Madison River where in the past, Barb and I had slayed’em, thanks to our guide, Patrick Daigle, out of Blue Ribbon Flies. Granted, when we fished with Patrick it was in October, and big fish had moved out of Hebgen Lake into the Madison and this was late May. However, I had to stop and try, right? Also, there was a herd of bison directly across from me, so I had built in fishing buddies…. sort of. They seemed much more interested in just resting and every so often, nibbling at the grass or butting heads with one another. After no bites, and realizing I had a two hour drive back to Bozeman, I decided to head out.
It had been a great “Opening Day”, not because of the fishing, but all of the other things encountered along the way. The sights, the sounds, the air, the water…. even the SLOW traffic all contributed to a memorable day. But I knew there was one more stop to be made, another of our favs.
Often, after a day in the park, we’ll be heading back to Bozeman, feeling a bit hungry or thirsty, and make a stop at The Corral. It’s a friendly spot where locals and tourists alike are welcome. It’s great food, cold beer and right up our alley. There are snazzier places along the route back, but this one seems like home to us. This trip, just to quench a thirst, I stopped in for a cold PBR. You might be thinking, PBR? Really? To paraphrase a famous beer drinker, “I always drink local beer…. but when I cannot drink local…. I drink PBR.” It’s the “go to” beer of fly fishermen and fisherwomen in these parts.
Cheers to Opening Days everywhere… and….