In Search of Special Fish
While in Montana last week, I picked up a book for fishing the West Yellowstone area and I was doing some searching and research for something totally out of the ordinary to try while on my fishing vacation. I wanted to fish somewhere I had never heard of and do some exploring. While perusing this book, I stumbled upon an area that was reported to have grayling. This immediately piqued my interest as I had caught grayling in Alaska, but there are very few places in the lower 48 that have grayling. This became my quest for the week.
Asking around at the local shops and talking to other anglers really did not yield much intel or affirmation on what I had read was actually true. While at a 4th of July party, one of the people I met actually said the state was trying to remove all the cutthroat from this area and there were swarms of anglers up there keeping a limit of 20 fish a day since the book was written, so I was immediately discouraged. While at the Slide Inn, I asked Kelly about the reports in the book, "Oh, sure there are grayling in that water. Last time I was up that way I landed a 19 incher and a few other smaller ones." Not really sure if this was factual, because Kelly has a tendency to take a really wide berth of literary exaggeration in telling of his piscatorial pursuits. One of the true charms of this man, but you have to sometimes sort through some of the story to get to the facts. His tone and twinkle in his eye had me convinced and so I sold my fishing partners on the idea to make this trek and go check out some new water in search of grayling.
We arrived to the stream and the low willows and remoteness of the scene simply seemed really "beary" and wild. I was super pumped to try something well outside of my fishing comfort level. The plan was to split up, try different sections of the stream and then all convene back at the drop off point around noon. Ken and I started in the same direction up the fisherman's path and then we came to an old bridge where there was a mud pit that was covered in fresh bear tracks. Senses heighten, and you realize that you are not apex predator at that moment, but you become more aware, adjust and move on. He headed downstream and I hiked upstream.
The stream was small, and pretty easy to read, definitely looked fishy and I worked my way slowly upstream fishing cautiously and trying to get a handle on what to present as a fly. Starting out with a smallish attractor pattern fooled some brook trout and juvenile cutty's. I was having fun working a new stream and observing. It was so nice to be in a place so foreign yet, felt like some of the creek or smaller rivers I fish in Michigan. The fish were really sensitive to movement on the banks and I flushed a couple of really nice fish out of an undercut bank while moving too heavily on my feet. Slowing my approach, I saw a rising fish. I switched over to a PMD pattern and hooked the rising fish on my first cast. It caught me completely off guard and I hooked the fish long enough to realize that it wasn't a trout. Oh man, had I just blown shot at a grayling, or was it just my mind playing tricks on me? I then thought I caught the odor or a bear, so I started making some more noise and singing a few verses of a song that was stuck in my head. This poor excuse for singing was certain to keep the critters away.
For the next couple of hours I hiked and fished and noticed a handful of really promising spots that were seemingly devoid of grayling but looked good nonetheless. Catching and releasing several fish that seemed proportionate to the size of the water I was fishing, I was having a blast. Relaxed and really getting into figuring the stream out, I glanced at my watch and realized that I needed to start heading back to the meeting point.
As I crept along a bank, I noticed a cloud of PMD's and a handful of trout rising in a long run. I started at the top of the run and picked off a few of the nicer fish and as I was landing one, I heard a fish feed downstream that sounded much more sizeable than the trout I was currently working. Slowing my pace even further and dropping my profile, I could see it feed in a pretty tight lie. There were actually two fish feeding, one was most definitely a nice sized grayling. This fish was rising very sporadically, but with extreme deliberation, the other fish was sizeable, but was feeding 3 or 4 times more than the grayling.
My heart raced as I was able to see a perfect silhouette of the fish I had come to catch. I tied on a PMD that had been working most of the morning and cast it just upstream to where the grayling was feeding. Immediately the fish charged for the fly and I set the hook. A swing and a miss. Was it a refusal or had I just missed the fish? I was in disbelief, my adrenaline was pumping and I was trying to figure out if I had pricked the fish or what exactly had just happened. I cast the fly back in and I saw a flash, but no take. For the next half hour I went through my box of flies and threw everything I had that would make sense. I rested the fish, let it get into a feeding rythymn as much as possible with the PMD's dwindling and my time to meet up with the guys drawing nearer. I was content to know that I had the opportunity to catch a grayling, but something was gnawing at me, saying, "Come on Pits, you have to do this, just connect with that fish." I started to walk away, but then I turned back and saw the fish feed very clearly. I tied on a different pattern that looked almost like the cripple I had just witnessed the fish clearly take. In a heron like stance, I made the cast, and wham, the fish crushed the fly and I felt the line go tight as I whooped! My heart jumped and I fell immediately on my ass, like I had been struck with something from above, so much for being like a heron.
I laughed pretty hard at myself and somehow, by the grace of God managed to land the fish. Shaking with adrenaline, I brought the fish to hand and snapped a few pictures, took a release video, thanked him for playing today and climbed out of the water. Somehow, after all of the fish I have landed in a 25 year career in the fly fishing business, this one seemed like one of the most special fish of all times. Who am I kidding? They are ALL special... the first tarpon, the first bonefish, that steelhead on a dryfly I didn't land, the muskie, the 8 inch brook trout I spent over twenty minutes once trying to get it to eat and finally fooled, so many fish over so many years.
As I was hiking back to the meeting spot, I replayed the scene over and over in mind. What an awesome experience and what an awesome fish. Typically, I am not super competitive nor do I take myself too seriously and I fish purely for the enjoyment, but in this case I was happy that I listened to that little voice inside my head urging me on to catch that grayling. Definitely one to crack the code on and land the sought after prize. Admittedly, I was on cloud nine and for the rest of the day, that was truly one very special fish. Mark and Ken both connected with grayling that morning too, so the adventure was a success all around.
While dozing off that night, I wondered what would have happened had I quit guiding when I was 29 and went back to law school what would my life be like. It's really hard to say, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been filled with all those special fish.
Great article Brian. My wife Jackie and I were out in Montana and fished the Big Hole, Ruby, Madison rivers some years back. The rivers were very high because of the run-off. But we were able to land an assortment of fish, All fish were released unharmed. We also had a chance to fish the Jackson Hole area, although we didn’t know the names of the small rivers we fished, we had a wonderful time. Hoping to do it again soon in our Motor Coach. Tight Lines, John Sturges
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