ON MANY September mornings, cold air nestled high in Yellowstone National Park wakens with sunlight, slowly warms, then swirls a determined path up through Montana’s Paradise Valley. A few hundred feet above the valley floor, it clashes with dry ranchland heat and begins to bounce off the Absaroka Mountains, transforming into an erratic, volatile breeze. Where the valley narrows, near Carter Bridge, the wind gathers velocity until it explodes northward like a shot from a jet nozzle aimed straight at Livingston.
Such is the case this morning as we stand in the parking lot of George Anderson’s Fly Shop, lining up and casting 6-weight fly rods until they warp beneath the wind, wondering aloud about our chances on the open flats of the Yellowstone River.
Rusty Vorous stomps out of the shop, rattling flies in his left hand like dice. At first glance, he is not an overwhelming presence. Somewhat slight, with a brushy, graying mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, duck boots, and a well-worn cotton shirt, he looks like a junior high school principal on a field trip.
Looks are deceiving. Half grimacing, half grinning, paying no mind to the wind roaring overhead, he walks up to us, snatches a Winston fly rod we had been noodling around, gives it four or five short, sharp strokes, then hands it back.
“It’ll march,” he proclaims. And with that, we jump in his truck and head south.
AT FIRST, Rusty is all business, quiet and composed, running through the day’s fishing options on the fly with no lengthy introductions or small talk. We pull into the Mallard’s Rest put-in, back his giant, wooden dory into the river, then watch him clear a dead rattlesnake from a fishing access sign. He lights a “hump” (a no-filter Camel) before setting off to park his beat-up, brown Suburban.
To the novice fly-fisher, a 30-mile-per-hour headwind is foreboding. To the average oarsman, heavy wind is either a bitch or a blessing, depending if it buffs your face or pushes over your shoulder. Rusty could give a rip, one way or the other. To him, the breeze means only one thing: hopper day.
We had heard plenty about Rusty Vorous before we ever reached Livingston. Mention of his name often elicits wry smiles and head bobs among some of the most seasoned guides in the West. Rusty is an underground cult hero to many of those in the know. He’s a rowing and fishing iconoclast, an intellectual who carries himself with jagged-edge aplomb.
Rusty is not guarded with his opinions, and he will not roll over for anyone. He is tough, brazen, and at the same time, surprisingly poised and insightful. He has done, seen, and put up with too much in the fly-fishing world ever to worry about formalities or facades. Within the first 20 minutes in his presence, you realize that Rusty Vorous is the real deal, an honest title contender. Shoving away from the ramp and pushing out into one of the last undammed trout rivers in the American west, Rusty mutters, “Let’s go catch these fish while they’re still alive. Let’s see what they’re chewing on.”
A LOUD splash behind a sweeper on the shady, east side of the river breaks the tension. It is a decent trout, probably a brown. He just hammered a terrestrial. Rusty calmly spins the bow toward the bank and presses ahead on the oars.
“Let’s rob this bank,” he barks. “Lash ’em!”
Two casts into the shade, another trout rolls on a Dave’s Hopper, and only seconds after it hits the water. After a quick chase, Rusty grabs the net and scoops up a beautiful, medium-sized brown. A hundred black and red spots on its back and sides prompt Rusty to chime in with his own variation of one of the oldest clichés in the angling world.
“Exquisite fish, bitchin’ colors,” he laughs.
THREE HOURS pass, but except for the first brown and a few errant strikes, the wind and hoppers are not producing with much consistency. Rusty decides to switch to a nymph rig, which quickly produces a well-built whitefish.
“Yeah, yeah,” he mutters to the fish wiggling in his hands. “You shouldn’t have bit it.”
After prying the hook from the fish’s mouth, he holds a handful of leader up to the sun, revealing an intricate maze of knots. Rusty is not the type to mess with tedious, on-river puzzles, so he bites off the tangle with a back molar and quickly reties a new rig. He says there are no such things as wind knots, only casting knots and fish knots.
“If God had meant for us to untie knots all day, he would have given us smaller fingers,” he adds.
As the wind subsides, the fishing picks up a bit, but most of the catch is still whitefish. The trout, for whatever reason, are nowhere to be found. We float in the heat and begin working gray streamers along giant drop-offs and submerged boulders, hoping to find a player in heavy water. But the trout have taken the day off. Rusty laughs as he rows and lights another cigarette.
“That’s the character of the Yellowstone,” he explains. “ I went through a phase when I thought I could figure this place out. It’s on for two days, then off for six. No apologies, no explanations. To be in tune with this ecosystem is to accept that some things happen without reason. That’s why a lot of guides won’t work here.”
RUSTY was born in Winchester, Virginia, seventy miles west of Washington D.C., among Civil War battlefields and in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. He grew up fishing for panfish and smallmouth bass in the many warm water streams, but it was not until many years later that Rusty began to focus on fly-fishing.
He moved to remote northern California in the late 1960s and eked out a living building furniture and cabinetry. Following days at the shop, he would buzz over to the challenging, spring-fed currents of Hat Creek, teaching himself the technical intricacies of small bug, light line trout fishing.
A local outfitter eventually took notice of the anonymous angler who was catching fish with greater frequency and consistency than his own guides, and in a wise business move, hired Rusty. In the following years, Rusty began guiding many of northern California’s blue-ribbon trout streams, including the Fall River, the McCloud, and the Upper Sacramento. When we ask him why he stopped guiding California, he simply responds, “Those rivers are just ghosts now.”
Rusty was drawn “up north” to Bristol Bay, Alaska, during the 1980s and 1990s, in search of giant runs of chrome-plated salmon and the leopard rainbows and arctic char that followed. Stationed at Mission Lodge near Dillingham, he spent summers flying and exploring the now famous drainages of Bristol Bay: the Goodnews, the Togiak, the Kvichak, the Alagnak, as well as countless other lesser-known rivers.
Returning in the autumn to build furniture in California, or in some years to Oregon to guide steelhead on the North Umpqua River, Rusty quietly earned a reputation as one of the West Coast’s most experienced guides. He soon entertained offers to consult for fishing manufacturers, and even to join their in-house advisory staffs, but never could muster enough resolve to come in out of the cold. In 1993, it was with deliberate thought that he moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he hoped to spend the rest of his days bumping around the Gallatin, Madison, Missouri, and Yellowstone rivers. He thinks this part of Montana will hold up the longest.
“I think the Yellowstone might be the last good river, one of the last truly wild places,” he says. “Other places show glimmers, but this is a place that will not be fully understood or manipulated in our lifetimes.”
TO PEOPLE who fish and hunt in the West, the greater Yellowstone region and its legendary rivers are no secret. The stretch of territory between Bozeman and Red Lodge is home to some of the most celebrated outdoor writers, artists, and assorted fishing “gurus” in the world. Rusty knows most of them, and they know him. He refers to the notables as the “princes of merriment,” but not with disdain. Anyone who would move to south-central Montana for the fishing, or the wide-open country, deserves his respect. But Rusty simply is not interested in status or fame.
“Notoriety doesn’t do that much for you in Montana, except maybe impress some of the buckle bunnies down at the bars in Livingston,” he says.
Rusty’s biggest brush with fame came in 1994, when he was featured as Fly Rod & Reel magazine’s guide of the year, an accolade that he says only prompted higher expectations from clients, and made several of his local friends “want to put rocks in his waders.”
Rusty is typical of the non-glory seeker who has seen and done more than he cares to let on. Like the small town barber who you learn won a medal of honor piloting planes in World War II, it is an ironic revelation to know that one of the very best fly-fishermen in this legendary region happens to run a small woodworking shop on a back street in Bozeman.
AFTER DAYS on the river, we enjoy sitting with Rusty in the din of his wood shop, amidst smells of cut pine and turpentine. Rusty gently winds an old Hardy Lightweight reel, shows us boxes of original, hand-tied flies, and recounts story after eloquent story from his time on the water. Nail-biting flights from Dillingham straight into blue northers, hacking out makeshift runways in the Alaskan bush, holding ground against “pissed off, straight-charging bears,” and torrents of “tundra mosquitoes” so nasty, he says, they lick the Muskol off your skin, then bite you.
He could go on for hours if not for one subject: people. It is one of the few times his wry smile and laughter subsides. Dealing with people is the toughest part of the job, Rusty says. The narrow confines of the boat, endless small talk, individuals who truly do not care about the experience, all take their toll on Rusty.
“Bears are the least of my worries,” he says. “A guide’s life is tough. I bet the divorce rate is 10 times higher among river guides than it is for doctors or cops. You can only yell ‘strike’ so many times before you get a brain aneurysm.”
On the water, he does his best to listen, instruct, and connect with clients, regardless of the circumstances. His job is to get you into fish. No excuses. And he probably works harder at it than anybody we have ever seen. All he asks is that the people waving the fly rods focus on the task at hand. There are days, however, that “even God can’t help.”
“Every now and then, I get these southern, type-A assholes in my boat, and all they want to do is talk about football,” he describes. “Finally, I say, ‘Look, I know a little bit about fishing, a little about hunting, and I focus on my lady friend. Organized gladiator sports don’t interest me at all.’”
SO MANY people, says Rusty, could care less about the fish. When speaking of the way Pacific salmon, West Coast steelhead, and Alaskan leopard rainbows have been — and still are — treated, Rusty becomes visibly upset. The Alaskan rainbows, an increasingly rare and irreplaceable species, are an especially painful subject. Adorned with blood red flanks and gill covers, white-tipped fins, and thousands of irregular black spots, leopard rainbows often live to be 15 or 20 years old, having adapted to the short Alaskan growing season. Three-foot fish, when they existed, may have been older than that.
“These are magnificent, post-glacial creatures, some of the most beautiful animals in the world, and many are dying right in front of the camera.”
Rusty grimaces at the thought of these great rainbows routinely being killed for trophy mounts or bragging rights. It is hard to stomach, he says, how the game was, and still is, played.
“It’s supposed to be about conservation, but I can tell you when you have a guide scratching and clawing to make a living, and a person with more money than God on an ego trip, the rules change. Two C-notes equal a dead fish.”
Rusty lights up with a grin, however, when he explains how the rainbows caught on his watch always found their way back to the water unharmed.
“I made it real clear that those trout needed to stay in the water for viewing only. That way, there was no need to worry about an accidental discharge from a .44.”
RUSTY does have his own favorite photograph. It captures the highlight of his guiding career. There is a big fish in the frame, of course, but what is really important is the expression of the woman holding the fish.
He was working out of Mission Lodge and was assigned to a husband-wife team from the Midwest. As soon as their float plane taxied to the tundra, the other anglers (including the woman’s husband), made a mad dash toward the salmon-choked runs they had spotted on their approach. “I guess that means you’re stuck with me,” the woman told Rusty.
She moved slowly because of Parkinson’s disease. Glancing at her old, second-hand rod, Rusty rigged his own with a small egg fly and had her cast it through a nearby riffle he suspected of holding a few rainbows. She was a good, experienced angler who understood how to cast and drift flies, but her body would not cooperate any longer. The disease had made her arms and hands shake to the point of continually moving her fly under the water. Even the most aggressive fish would not be interested in her offering.
Confronted with this seemingly impossible situation, Rusty had the woman dunk the end of her rod into the river after she made her casts. He knew the power of the current could absorb the trembling effects, allowing for a natural drift through the run. Minutes later, the woman hooked, fought, and eventually landed a heavily-spotted 30-inch Alaskan rainbow trout. It was the fish of the trip.
“The pilot ran over with a camera once we landed the fish,” Rusty recalls, with emotions resurfacing in his voice. “We were both holding this giant fish, tears streaming down both of our faces, smiling ear to ear.”
He pauses, then adds with grace, “She’s one of the few people I’ve had on the river almost touch God.”
THE MORNING of our second day is only slightly less windy. Rusty decides to give the Yellowstone another try. We start with a short float, then anchor beside a deep, sweeping run. Rusty wants to nymph the tailout. He grabs a rod and hikes downstream, occasionally turning over rocks in search of insect life.
Several minutes later, he is casting narrow loops of line deep into the wind and run. We just watch. Rusty uses an old Scott 7-weight Powerply rod. He says most new rods simply reinforce poor casting habits and cause sore elbows. At present, it is hard to disagree with his logic because he is pounding casts into the farthest reaches of the riffle, three times farther than us. It is an amazing sight, watching this diminutive silhouette double-hauling an entire fly line into a solid headwind.
We feel invited to a lesson. Rusty says the trick of a fly cast is the backcast. Legendary distance caster Steve Rajeff once taught Rusty that an angler should approach the backcast with the same effort and motion as throwing a drink in someone’s face. Accelerate with purpose.
He lets loose a cast that unfurls the entire fly line, straightens the leader, and drops a weighted nymph into the middle of the Yellowstone.
“Sometimes I like to take a look at my backing knot,” he grins.
PRESSING downstream, Rusty scans a series of wide, shallow runs with Quint-like conviction. Soon, his eyes are diverted and locked on an iron irrigation pipe, sucking gallons of river, then shooting the water over fields that will become a housing development and planned golf course. He does not try to hide his disgust. We ask what the new golf course will be called.
“Another travesty,” he grumbles.
The battle over water in the west is not new. The farmers of Montana’s eastern plains have used the Yellowstone’s water to irrigate fields of wheat and alfalfa for the better part of the century. Ranchers, in turn, depend on the grain to feed their cattle throughout the long, unforgiving winters. Debating the economic viability of the wheat farmer, or those who run cattle in this harsh and dry climate, however, is not high on Rusty’s list of things to do. The rancher and farmer, he says, are here to stay. And they will take as much water as they need. Conservation groups and developers are locked in a battle for second place.
The fact that the Yellowstone has endured in a natural state throughout the past century and a half despite constant and often severe draw-offs is a testimony to its character. Still, it troubles Rusty to witness the river being violated. Maybe what bothers him most is the apparent inequity with which water rights and usage are determined in the new western economy. The ranchers and farmers got to the water first, and we just pay for it, says Rusty. First come, first serve.
“Karl Marx would roll over in his grave and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’ if he knew what the western cattlemen get in terms of water and subsidies in Montana.”
SOME of the most ardent critics of the western cattleman and his practices are the naturalists. Ranchers and naturalists (environmentalists with a “hands off” approach) have disagreed over river and adjacent land use for years. Ranchers put the river and their land to work, damming, diverting, grazing, and irrigating; naturalists would like to see the rivers returned to their unrestrained, free-flowing forms, and watersheds liberated from human development and alteration. It is easy to see why these two groups do not get along.
A living irony of their ideological rift can be found in the north end of Paradise Valley. Several decades ago, ranching families with acreage along the Yellowstone channeled and collected the natural flows of cold water springs in their pastures. What resulted was the incidental formation of some of the purest trout habitat in the world — Armstrong, DePuy’s, and Nelson’s spring creeks. Armstrong and DePuy’s flow on the west side of the river, through the O’Hair and DePuy’s ranches; Nelson’s is a shorter stretch on the Yellowstone’s east side.
All of this water is now prime trout habitat, and considered vital spawning grounds for migrating brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout from the big river. The creeks are also home to hundreds of species of birds and river-born insects, whose hatches make for legendary dry-fly fishing. Anglers from throughout the world flock to these little creeks, sometimes planning trips years in advance, reserving the right to knock on Mrs. DePuy’s or Mrs. O’Hair’s door early in the morning to ante up a $75 rod fee. What they receive in return is the right to try their luck with some of the toughest trout in Montana.
During the spring of 1996, a catastrophic “flood of the century” occurred when a runoff-fed Yellowstone jumped its banks and washed over and into Armstrong and DePuy’s spring creeks, tearing through embankments, earthen dams, culverts, and in effect, according to the naturalists, returning the landscape to its natural state. There was heated debate in Livingston regarding the future and restoration of the creeks, and more than a few people wanted to see the Yellowstone’s new west bank left as is. But more than a million dollars later, and through the tireless bank and in-stream restorations of the O’Hairs and DePuys, the spring creeks were reclaimed. Many ardent fly-fishers, and even dyed-in-the-wool conservationists, did not complain.
Rusty Vorous is one of those. Though he saw both sides of the issue, he recognized the unique value of the fishery. Perhaps he needs it, because it is in the tight bends of the spring creeks, one of the sport’s most technically-challenging theaters, that Rusty shows his true mastery as an angler’s guide.
RUSTY taps on the ranch house door and greets Mrs. O’Hair with courteous reverence. After we cut our check, we drive downstream, sure to close the cattle gate behind us, and park by the warming hut. The early morning light illuminates the creek, highlighting patches of clean gravel, long, green weeds snaking in the current, and interspersed, the methodically tipping snouts of trout eating emerging midges.
Rusty rifles through a fly box to find a tiny brass-bodied midge. He pinches on a foam indicator, only five or six inches above the fly, then sends an angler to a casting spot at the creek’s edge just below the pod of fish. Rusty positions himself atop the bank and peers down at the run through a pair of field glasses. He says if you get close enough to watch a spring creek fish eat with the naked eye, you’ll spook him.
The indicator hesitates, but no hook set.
“You got bit,” he says. “Next fish over now. You don’t get two shots at these guys.”
Another hesitation. An excited hook set, one that would have made a veteran tarpon fisherman wince, busts off the fly on fish number two.
Rusty hurries down the bank and grabs the rod. He ties on another pattern, then takes a quick cast at fish number three. The indicator staggers, and Rusty sets the hook with a gentle underhand flick of the wrist, then hands the rod back.
“The rules you use out there,” he says, nodding toward the Yellowstone as the battle ensues, “go out the window on the creeks. This is where we find out who’s up to the big challenges.”
BY DAY’S END, we each netted and released a good number of fish on Armstrong Spring Creek. Most important, though, is that we were left with an impression that we had been taught by a master.
It isn’t so much about the number of fish you catch, says Rusty, it’s how you catch them. He wishes more anglers would abandon the “body count” method for measuring success. It is an old mindset, dating back to the days when the railroad first came to Paradise Valley. The locals had contests to see who could haul in 100 pounds of cutthroat trout the fastest. Sometimes, it only took an hour or two.
If Rusty could have it his way, there would be fewer people on the creeks, making the fish less skittish and more willing to eat “real bugs,” like hoppers and stoneflies. But counting fish, crowded streams, and picky trout are not really giant worries for Rusty. Beneath the cynical exterior is a man who possesses rare insight and a timely ability to put fishing matters firmly in perspective.
“There were 45,000 people born in India today,” he says as we load our gear in the back of his truck. “It doesn’t make much sense for us to worry about finding space in a river.”
RUSTY finally finds space and solace in October, hunting upland game birds in Montana’s scorched foothills, coulees, and short-grass prairie. On the first of the month, he ends his river guiding for the year so he can set out with his German wirehaired pointer in search of Huns. Rusty shoots sharp-tailed grouse and pheasant also, but the Hungarian partridge is his prized quarry. He says hunting season is the time when he works the demons out of his body.
“Grinding five or six miles up and down these hills behind the dogs works the tar and nicotine out of the system, and it helps me reflect on myself. I let go of some of the frustration that builds up over the summer,” he explains.
Rusty, like many Montanans, considers hunting somewhat sacred, even more so than fly-fishing. The productive hunting spots he has put together over the years are not meant to be shown to anyone, at least not to strangers, or for money. “There aren’t too many places left on this earth worth burning memories,” he says, “but I’ve found a few shooting.” He keeps their locations close to the vest.
“A few years ago, a guy decided to write a book about all the good hunting spots in this part of Montana, and within a few weeks, a good number of locals were lined up, ready to burn his truck.”
IT TURNS out that we were not only one of Rusty’s last guided trips of the year, but perhaps his career.
A year later, we return to visit him in his wood shop in Bozeman. He says he often fishes, but on his own terms. Rusty still floats the Yellowstone, and he cannot pry himself away from the fickle temptations of Armstrong Spring Creek. He also is passionate about dry fly-fishing on the Missouri. The big Mo, he says, is home to fighting trout beyond compare, and he often finds himself trekking up to Wolf Creek, looking to battle with the Missouri’s great browns and rainbows.
“I’ve often thought that if you tail-tied two fish together — a 20-inch rainbow from the Mo and an equal or larger fish from the Yellowstone — the Missouri fish would drag the other around until he drowned,” he describes with enthusiasm.
Rusty will not say he is retired from guiding. Instead, he calls it “indefinite hiatus.” It gives us hope.
You could say that one fewer guide on the water may well be a small blessing for the river, or for other fishermen, but you cannot say this with regard to Rusty Vorous.
On the telephone with Rusty, he recommends that we stay in his hometown, Bozeman, to take advantage of its central location and proximity to the Gallatin, Yellowstone, Madison, Missouri, and many lesser-known rivers. When you think about it, says Rusty, you couldn’t fish all this water in two or three lifetimes, and we agree. We have hung around Bozeman enough in the last 15 years to see it grow and develop, like almost everywhere in the West, yet once you scrape beneath the Birkenstock veneer of students and tourists, there remains a small-town humility and working-class toughness rarely found in the ski towns of the southern Rockies. Montana, for all its recent change, is still some pretty rugged country and the year-round residents tend to reflect this fact.
We rendezvous at George Anderson’s fly shop in Livingston, out of the stubborn, late-September wind that seems to blow, in town, all the time. Rusty tells us to grab our coats, dry-bags, and fly rods that “can cast,” which means 6-weights. He is not sure where we will fish today, and he’s certainly not happy with the Yellowstone’s recent mood, but he thinks the great river might be worth a try. He wants to hunt down some “real” fish, plain and simple, and is willing to row ten miles for the chance. To beat the wind, we head upriver to float Mallard’s Rest to Carter Bridge, keeping our fingers crossed as we push through the current in his giant wooden dory, hoping to find banks of wind-blown hoppers and brown trout. But the fishing is a disappointment, mostly small cutthroats and stringers of whitefish that eat Pheasant Tails and Copper Johns. The “real” fish never materialize, not even for streamers before dark. Near the take-out, we spot two bald eagles in a stand of cottonwoods, which ends up being the day’s highlight.
We spend the next long-awaited day fishing Armstrong Spring Creek on the O’Hair ranch just south of Livingston. Part of playing ball on the spring creeks of Paradise Valley means paying daily rod fees and making reservations months, sometimes years, in advance. This often raises the hackles of many out-of-state visitors and even some locals who think everything in Montana should be free. But like it or not, Armstrong, DePuy’s, and Nelson’s spring creeks flow through the privately-held ranchlands of the DePuy’s, O’Hair’s, and Nelson’s, and they are not required by anyone to grant access to this remarkable trout water. The fact that they do reflects years of generosity, an honest willingness to share these resources with the public, and a need to diversify their cattle-heavy income. Be glad you can get on these creeks at all, says Rusty, the day is coming that some Silicon Valley CEO will make these people an offer that they can’t refuse, then all of this will be gone.
Until then, private spring creek fishing is what dreams are made of, at least on Armstrong Spring Creek. The currents are gentle and easy to wade, crawling with mayflies, midges, and terrestrials, and house tons of 14- to 22-inch rainbows and browns that eat predictably throughout the day. The handfuls of other anglers we encounter are deadly serious, yet courteous about their fishing business and mostly keep to themselves. The fish can be incredibly picky in the mornings as they pod up and pick at single midges along current breaks and drop-offs. By mid-afternoon, however, many of the trout, and especially the browns, loosen up and become more opportunistic, feeding on hoppers, beetles, and remnants of the mid-morning Blue-winged Olive emergence. Every fish we catch is earned with a careful approach and meticulous technique. These fish can be had, but you better bring your A-game, Rusty is fond of saying.
Tip: The use of field glasses to stalk and observe feeding trout before making casts is an often talked about but rarely used skill. Rusty is convinced that if anglers would take more time to observe the feeding patterns of fish, especially on the spring creeks, they would make fewer casts and catch far more fish. Most of these people march right in, beat the river for an hour, then leave, says Rusty. Hardly anyone takes the time to view these creatures in their natural habitat. Think of what they would learn if they did.
Andrew Steketee is the editor of MidCurrent.
Excerpted from Castworks: Reflections of Fly Fishing Guides and the American West (Game & Fish Mastery Library) (Willow Creek Press, May 2002, 208 pages).