A little walk on the wild side

There's something perfectly normal about the vision of my two kids wandering together down a backcountry trail, fly rods in hand and a little bounce in their steps. I know how lucky I am to take in this image on a somewhat regular basis--living in a place where the ability to just start walking on lands that belongs to everyone with no particular destination in mind is not the norm for many Americans.

Plus, it's the only time the two of them actually get along. They have a mutual goal--they both want to catch eager backcountry trout, and they're excited to be outside, wandering the woods. And they have a mutual enemy--this time of year in the Yellowstone backcountry, if the horseflies can't find a bison or an elk or a grizzly, a teenage girl or a 12-year-old boy will work just fine. And I've yet to meet the insect repellant that deters these hungry critters. 

When we set off on the trail this past weekend, we truly weren't sure where we'd end up. The map indicated the trail would first intersect a small backcountry stream, but it also showed a small lake just a bit further. The whole trip--mabye a mile and a half each way--was kind of a "we'll see what we see" experience. No guarantees. Just a trail, a blue line on the map and two kids eager to take advantage of a gorgeous day in the Rockies. 

We crossed the little creek first--and it was, indeed, little. But with just a quick look, we could see a small trout finning in the tailout of a small plungepool. My son, armed with a fast little 4-weight, made a quick cast and put a Stimulator in the foam of the little waterfall, and the small fish--a native Yellowstone cutthroat trout--moved immediately to the fly and slammed it without hesitation. Seconds later, Cameron cradled the tiny native fish in his hands and turned it loose into the tiny stream. 


Yellowstone cutthroat trout

Sated by the first fish, he looked at his sister and said, "Let's keep walking. I bet there's another creek up here." And off they went, leaving Dad in their dust. 

He was right--just a few minutes later, the trail joined the small creek that, in trying to remember the map, I believed to be the outlet for the little backcountry lake. Again, the water was very small. 

Delaney carefully attached the supple braided line to the lilian of her Tenkara rod and within a minute or so, she, too was playing a small cutthroat to hand. With the long, supple Japanese rod, Delaney was able to bounce the caddis over a deep pool with nothing but the fly on the water. It took less than 10 seconds for the dapping bug to bring a strike in this austere little stream. 

Minutes later, we were walking again, and we came across a family armed with spinning gear coming the opposite direction.

"There are so many fish in that lake," the young father said to us as we slowed down to chat. "We didn't catch very many because they were rising, but I bet you guys do really well your fly rods." His wife nodded, and the little girl walking behind them was quick to chime in, too.

"But you have to walk by a big bison that's rolling in the dust," she said. "He didn't seem to  mind us being there, but, you know, just in case."

The kids and I looked at each other knowingly. Bison. Rising fish. Lake. Our fate was sealed. 

The lake was just a short walk further along the trail--and there was, indeed, a bison snorting and grunting and rolling in the dry grass as we walked by. The big bull was doing whatever he could to combat the nasty biting flies that were starting the plague me and the kids, and, honestly, we were tempted to do the same thing after a while. 

We arrived at the little lake and discovered that our spin-fishing friends weren't exaggerating. All along the lake's western shore foot-long cutthroats were flying from the water, chasing a hatch. Moments later, we discovered that the backcountry trout were keying in on thousands upon thousands of damselflies. And, of course, I didn't have a single matching pattern in my spartan backcountry fly box. 

So we improvised. With a pair of nippers I trimmed back the hackle on a few of the bushy Adams patterns I never leave home without, and I pulled a few nymph patterns from the box that would likely pass for the immature bugs that, upon hatching in the grass beds along the shore, would hover just inches above the water and entice violent strikes from the lake's fish. 

We started to catch cutthroats with regularity on top, and when I started a slow strip with a hare's-ear nymph, I began to hook up with larger fish. To my surprise, I caught a grayling. And then another. And another. 


Arctic grayling

Grayling are native to the park, but not to the Yellowstone drainage, so I realized that these adfluvial--or lake-dwelling--fish were likely introduced to this small lake. But catching them is such a treat that I truly didn't care. While the native cutthroats are truly beautiful fish, the grayling are simply stunning. Their oversized dorsal fin is laced with blue etchings, giving them a lacy appearance that is so otherworldly that the fish seems to be something that, if described to a non-flyfisher, would be received as something the storyteller was dreaming up. 

And the kids, of course were thrilled. 

Cameron actually took his very first steps along the shoreline of Grebe Lake, a well-known grayling lake situated in the headwaters of the nearby Gibbon River (where grayling are actually native, but very rare these days). For him, seeing the grayling was a special treat, and my daughter was glowing when the first one came to haned. 

"I'm very proud of you, Daddy," she said. Of course, my heart just melted. 

Hours later, back at the car and spent from the three-mile walk, not to mention peppered with welts from the pesky horseflies, we were faced with the prospect of a two-hour ride home. But, after a quick stop at an overpriced Yellowstone convenience store for sodas and snacks, all they wanted to do was talk about the little lake and the fish in it. 

And, as we left the park at West Yellowstone--there's something melancholy about reading the sign that reminds you that you're "leaving Yellowstone National park"--Delaney perked up and asked, "Next time, let's take the trail to the creek and fish our way all the way to that lake."

"Done," I said. "We can make that happen."


Arctic grayling

Trust me. I know I'm lucky. Blessed, even. I live in a place where public lands start almost out my back door. But remember, these lands belong to all of us, simply because we live in America. We all have a stake... we all have ownership.

That's why I cringe every time I hear some wrong-headed idea from some radical politician lecturing me about the need to transfer ownership of public lands to the states or to private owners. I get incensed at the idea, angered that someone would even suggest that lands that are ours by birthright would be better off managed for timber or minerals when the recreation economy is growing more and more robust every single year. It's short-sighted. It's selfish. Sadly, though, it's not surprising, given the money in politics these days. 

If the notion of wandering off the blacktop along a distant trail that might cross a creek or end at a mountain lake is something that appeals to you, please let your representatives in Congress know that. It's our land. Our resource. And it hold true economic value that will pay off for generations to come, so long as we keep it like it is. 

In a few years, maybe I'll be able to take my grandchildren on that same walk, or one just like it on the millions of acres of public land that will be theirs, as Americans ... by birthright. 

Keep it like it is. Is that too much to ask?







said on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Thanks for sharing the stoke, Chris. All kids should be so lucky as to fish the Yellowstone backcountry -- and we should keep our public lands public so that any kid -- as well as the rest of us -- can have that chance.

said on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

That's absolutely incredible!
We just fished that lake last week!
I saw the picture and thought "Naw, it can't be the same hike." But sure enough. Your detailed explanation leaves me doubtless. Cascade Lake!

We went up there for the grayling but only caught westslope cutties. I'm so glad nymphing did the trick. Fantastic!
I actually posted some footage from that lake on YouTube under Yellowstone '14.
What are the odds?

said on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Love it! We had so much fun... the cutthroats were great... the grayling surprised me!

said on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Checked out your video--you guys had a blast! Thanks for sharing!

said on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Sounds like an awesome summer family outing, Chris--and yes, let's keep these incredible wild places in public hands, forever!


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