Home River

Editor’s Note: First published in 1984, “Mountain Time” opened the eyes of many readers to the wonders and tenuous situation of Yellowstone National Park. The author’s love of fly fishing underscored what was valuable about the resource, and the book developed something of a cult following for its ability to cross the scientific, ethnographic and sporting currents that helped define the author’s work as a Park ranger. “Home River” is an oft-quoted chapter from the book.

FISHING HAS A REPUTATION as an innocuous, fairly mindless pastime enjoyed most by shiftless people. Perhaps that impression would be lessened if nonfishers understood more about wild water. Calling fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job. The average visitor driving through Yellowstone sees no farther than the surface of the water. At best the lakes and streams are mirrors reflecting the surrounding scenery. For the alert fisherman, especially the fly fisherman, the surface is not a mirror but a window.

Drive through Hayden Valley, along the Yellowstone River. If you aren’t a fisher you’ll see many things, but the river, except where it is ridden by waterfowl or waded by moose, will rarely enter your thoughts, much less stimulate your spirit.

It’s different if you fish. The surface of the water tells a story: that hump followed by a series of lessening ripples (if they were larger they would be called standing waves) is proof of a rock or a stump submerged below. Those boulders on the far shore break the current, which moves slower close to them as the rock rubs, catches, and retards it; fish and smaller creatures press themselves close to such obstructions to ease the labor of maintaining position in the current. The quiet eddies behind this log jam are home for schools of minnows and the occasional dragonfly nymph that will feed on them if it gets a chance. Soft swirls and rings on the river’s surface are made by trout rising gently to inhale newly hatched mayflies floating on the surface as their wings dry. This water is a wilderness of its own, full of life we do not know and beauties we have not imagined. The fisherman is not unique in appreciating it — any good naturalist finds it absorbing — but the fisherman has found special ways of becoming involved in it.

The Gardner River is a small rocky stream born at about 9,000 feet in the Gallatin Range a few miles southwest of Mammoth. In its entire length of about twenty miles it drops over 3,500 feet to its mouth at Gardiner, Montana, where it joins the Yellowstone (because of a quirk of events, the town is spelled with an “i” and the river is not). It flows from its headwaters pond at first north, then east, then southeast, and across Swan Lake Flat to its junction with Indian Creek at Indian Creek Campground, where it crosses under its first bridge, the road from Norris to Mammoth. After this brief encounter with civilization, it runs east and then north, around what we call the “back” of Bunsen Peak, where it drops into its little-traveled canyon. Far below the vertical basaltic cliffs, the river gurgles along, pouring 150 feet in one jump over Osprey Falls and out across the eastern foot of Bunsen Peak. It passes under another bridge, the Mammoth-to-Tower road, and almost immediately is joined from the southeast by Lava Creek, which has just left its own canyon. The greater flow then follows the west foot of Mt. Everts almost due north until it dumps, rather privately, into the Yellowstone River right at the park boundary in Gardiner.

I caught my first trout from the Gardner. When my brother, a fly fisherman of long commitment and great learning, heard that I was going to move to Yellowstone he forced into my hands a complete fishing outfit, insisting that I learn to fly fish and initiating me in a pastime that has at times been more a way of life than a sport. That first time, however, I was so intimidated by all the new devices and techniques that I was busy fiddling with the reel when a hungry little brown trout grabbed the fly I was paying no attention to, and I landed him only after considerable discussion and with relief that I’d chosen such a private spot for my first outing.

It turned out, as I was then just discovering, that fly fishing is genuinely unlike other types of fishing. The flies — usually small, delicate imitations of various forms of insect life, made of feathers, hair and yarn tied to a small hook — have practically no weight. They cannot be cast with a spinning or casting rod like other lures that weigh enough to be thrown and drag the line along behind them as they go. In fly fishing, you are casting the weight of the line, instead. Fly lines, the best of which cost thirty dollars, are thicker than other fishing lines, thick enough to be worked back and forth through the air on the same principle as a bullwhip. The fly is attached to a fine monofilament leader on the end of the line, and simply goes along for the ride. Fly lines are usually plastic-coated and tapered on the end to improve the smoothness of the cast. It takes some practice to master this kind of casting, but to watch an accomplished caster working seventy feet of line on an eight-foot rod, to see the line looping and rolling straight out behind him, then, as he pushes the rod forward, to see the line roll cleanly out in front of him and settle gently across a stream, brings to mind more artful motions — ballet, perhaps — than are normally associated with fishing.

I spent my whole first summer fishing alone, in the privacy of my own home river, until I could push out a decent trout-fishing cast of forty feet and could catch Gardner fish with some regularity (it was only later that I even realized that some people could cast three times as far with less effort, and learned how much there actually was to getting good at fly fishing).

Learning to cast was only the beginning, and the least fun, of learning to fly fish. fly fishing introduced me to the aquatic world I mentioned earlier, led me to look under countless rocks in the shallows for squiggly little marvels I never dreamed existed. It led me to learn to read water: to study a current and its behavior for what it could tell me about what lay beneath — where the insects, shelter, and fish might be found. In this it taught me to appreciate running, moving water and the constancy of its workings. For never did I visit this river without seeing something new, some slight change in the flow or in the cut of a channel or in the shape of a bank. The changes became part of the excitement for me, and each spring I eagerly awaited the passing of the snowmelt runoff, not only so that I could fish but also to see what new shapes the flow had taken in favorite spots. Over the years some pools silted in; others deepened. A dislodged log would jam in a new position, and I would investigate it as the current dug a new trout shelter beneath it.

Most of this happened very slowly. A tree might be washed from its place on the bank by a sudden flood, but more often it would be undermined gradually, as the water loosened the soil, bit by bit, finally persuading the tree to fall. If rivers were human, they would be very patient people.

Without fly fishing I would never have gotten to know the dipper, a chubby gray bird of the West that is surely the cheeriest friend a fisherman could hope for. The dipper, or water ouzel, has puzzled many visitors; a ranger I know was once approached by a concerned visitor who reported seeing “a little gray bird commit suicide by walking right into a creek.” The dipper, song-bird-shaped and a totally unaquatic-looking creature, lives on aquatic insects and small fish, chasing them down in the water without the benefit of webbed feet. Dippers build nests on low overhanging banks, right at the water, and spend their days splashing around in the shallows, frequently in very fast water (I’ve also seen them in lakes, where they may “fly” along right under the surface for several yards in pursuit of insects). They get their name not from their habit of taking an occasional “dip” in the water but from an enchanting mannerism. As they jump from rock to rock, or sit surveying a likely current from shore, they do little bobbing knee-bends, one after another. At first it seems like a nervous twitch — something you hope they’ll get over — but soon you get used to it and the dipper’s little dance and shuffle become a special part of the day. Usually there is no more than one in sight, or maybe just a quick twittering warble as one flies by, but one winter when most of the river was rimmed with ice I saw half a dozen at one time, each inspecting a different icy shelf along successive pools, a veritable platoon of bobbing, dipping, “fly” fishers, attracted to the warm open water of the lower river. I suppose they compete with the trout for food, as they compete with me for trout, but it makes no sense to me to worry about such congenial competition. They and the trout have been living together for a long time, and I don’t interfere all that much. Fishing depends a lot on such things as dippers, anyway.

But it depends as well on occasional success at catching fish. Success depends on many things, including skill, but especially luck. However, after you practice a lot you learn that more is involved than mere mechanical proficiency or good fortune, and that at times you expect to catch fish just because, well, you feel that you will.

For example, there are days when I feel especially in touch with the end of the line, when I feel every lift of the current, every tick of the hook on gravel, every tug of vagrant weed. Such a day was an evening in July, the most productive (of fish, anyway) I ever had on the Gardner.

I’d just read a book about “soft-hackle” flies, simple little wet flies without tails or wings: just slim bodies of fur or floss with a turn of partridge feather near the head. The partridge feather was marked with fine black lines that gave each individual barbule of fiber a segmented look; the barbules, in the water, responded to every wisp of current as the fly drifted along below the surface. Together, they flexed and wiggled like the legs on a struggling insect. Or so the author suggested: I don’t know what the trout took them for, only that they took them. As more than one naturalist has pointed out, trout, having no hands, must examine curious objects with their mouths, whether they think they are food or are just amusing themselves to pass the time.

According to my stream log the water this day was “gorgeous and low,” and the angler was described as “a trifle low himself,” though I don’t recall why; the reason is probably better forgotten and surely was while fishing on this golden evening. As the shadow of Terrace Mountain climbed the slope of Everts in front of me, the trout greeted the flies with embarrassing abandon. Each pool yielded its fish hastily; no sooner would I make my cast and begin to probe the suspected pockets and recesses of the opposite bank with the quivering fly when another rainbow would yank it, and me, from our thoughtful investigations.

By the time I reached the pool I most wanted to fish, I’d already released eight or ten small trout, up to ten inches, and was planning to throw away all my flies and replace them with hundreds of these magical soft hackles. This pool, a larger, broader version of most on the river, was about 60 feet across, and from where it was formed by a fast, bouncy riffle to where it broadened and fanned into an ankle-deep tail it was perhaps 150 feet long. Along the east bank it was three to four feet deep, and the bank itself was undercut. It was one of the few pools on the river with that ominous darkness that says “big fish.” Five years earlier I’d caught a fifteen-inch brown here on a grasshopper imitation, the first respectable brown I’d ever caught.

I squeezed a couple of small split-shot onto the leader about a foot above the fly (this practice is not recommended in the book I’d been reading, and many fly fishers are offended by such a tactic as crass and unsporting, but I needed to work the fly deeply through this run, and I am generally unhampered by delicate sensitivities at such times) and waded into the shallows at the head of the pool. Remembering a lesson from another book, I pitched the fly slightly upstream of the pool, letting it sink as it washed from the riffle into the deep quiet water. I waited until it was moving slowly through the deep water, then, with a quick upward motion of the rod, I dragged it back to the surface. This, I’d read, imitated the upward motion of an emerging caddisfly. The fish must have thought so, and in an hour I doubled my total take, keeping a thirteen-and-a-half-inch brown for a late dinner. Unlike most pools on the river, this one occasionally yielded several fish from the same spot. Never before had it yielded fifteen as it did this night, but as long as they kept coming I felt no urge to move on. Toward dark I set the hook in a less yielding mouth, and was met with firm resistance followed by a quick run that peeled a few yards of line from my reel. The fish didn’t jump, but had the quickness of a rainbow (I have an unscientific approach to this; it felt like a rainbow). After a few minutes of short zigs and zags, parrying with the fish as I moved down to the shallow flat at the tail of the pool, I was able to pull it near enough to see. It was a big rainbow, fifteen or sixteen inches, and still quite strong. My leader was too light to simply horse the fish ashore, and I was in for several more minutes of fight when the fish turned into the current and fled downstream toward the next riffle, one of the few up here that I was honestly afraid of — a vicious little roller coaster of jagged rocks and slippery footings, nowhere more than three feet deep but a guaranteed soaking for a clumsy wader. I held tight to the line as the fish swung below me and gained weight and speed in the quickening pull of the current. As soon as the line tightened directly downstream of me he broke off, taking the fly with him into the little rapid. I retrieved an empty line, with no regrets for once, pleased to have made the acquaintance, for the first time in five years, of the king of the pool.

These good-looking pools are usually not so generous. Another one, far downstream along the road to the North Entrance, frustrated me for a year or two. It was formed where a flat riffle broke over a bank and dropped into a hole the river had dug against the road embankment. I couldn’t see the bottom of this one, and so I privately christened it the “salmon hole” because several huge fish could have hidden safely in the dark shadows under its broken surface.

I couldn’t even figure out how to fish it. Approach from either side was by high banks where I was visible to the fish. As I climbed down to the stream I’d see smaller fish scatter from the shallows to the hole, presumably alerting whatever big fish lurked there. One evening I started in about a quarter mile above the hole, wading back and forth across the river between the deeper spots and catching just enough small fish to keep my interest up. I arrived at the riffle above the hole just about dusk. My normal approach was the standard approved one for fly fishermen: I would try to cast up over the pool from below with a large floating fly. This time, however, unorthodoxy struck, and I crept through the weeds to a point near the upper end of the pool. The Gardner’s fish aren’t too particular about fly pattern; there’s usually little need to imitate the prevailing insect activity precisely, so I rarely even think about such things. I had noticed, though, that on previous nights there were a good many large heavy-bodied crane flies in the air, flying just a few inches above the surface of the water, presumably mating (crane flies are those giant mosquitolike bugs that resemble flying daddy longlegs; their immature forms are usually aquatic, and the adults lay their eggs in quiet water). I couldn’t imagine any self-respecting fish not noticing these big guys, and so I rummaged through my fly boxes for a likely imitation. The one I found was a graceful monster fashioned by my brother some years earlier of elk hair on a very long hook. It was well over an inch long altogether. Still crouched in the weeds, I fastened it to my leader and, somehow avoiding the high sage that waited to grab my backcast, I laid the line clear across the pool to the shallows near the far bank. Immediately the fast water in mid-pool dragged the line downstream, and the effect on the fly, on me, and on the fish, was electrifying. The fly floated quietly for an instant in the still water, and then, as the faster water hurried the long belly of line downstream, the fly was pulled out across the deeper water, skating hurriedly along on its light hackles and looking just like those big crane flies.

Its first such skating performance was uninterrupted but not, I was sure, unobserved. With a mild case of the shakes and a quickening pulse I let the line drift completely down, then, still crouched, I lifted it into a low backcast and again tossed it across the pool.

Again the line bellied and doubled in the fast current. Again the fly rested only a second, then began its quick skittering over the deep water. But it had moved only a couple of yards when a big brown trout shot from the pool near it and took the fly in a smooth downward motion. (Too surprised at that moment to consider this attack, I later realized how rarely it happens; fish usually just stick their heads up to the surface and inhale whatever is floating there, but this fish actually jumped high and clear of the water and took the fly on his way down, as he reentered the water nose-first. Perhaps prior experience with the crane flies had taught him that they escape if approached from underneath, or perhaps he just got so excited he missed the fly on his way up and lucked out and got it on the way down.) With a power that surprised me he bulled right up into the very point of the pool directly beneath the fastest water at its head. My leader was light, so I had to play him gently, and I figured on gradually wearing him out as he fought both the current and my line. I hurried to the tail of the pool to keep well below him, but I must have pulled too hard, for he turned and raced past me into a stumbling riffle full of snags and small rocks. I somehow managed to lead him past the worst snags to a grassy bank in the quieter water below, where I foolishly dragged him up onto the shore just as the fly fell from his mouth (again, this happens often in fishing books, but of the thousands of trout I’ve caught this is the only time it’s happened to me). He was a little over fourteen inches, a fine fat resident brown, and a fish I probably shouldn’t have removed from the gene pool but did.

The salmon hole is completely gone now, replaced by a shallow silty run that developed one spring during a violent spate of snowmelt. Its trout seem to have moved at the same time to a new big run that the river created about fifty yards upstream. I fished it recently after a long absence, and in about half an hour had at least fifteen rises to large grasshopper imitations, so I apparently didn’t do the gene pool any permanent harm.

The brown trout came to North America in the early 1880s from the United Kingdom and Europe. It had reached Yellowstone (and the Gardner) by about 1890, where it quickly helped other nonnative trouts replace the local cutthroat trouts and grayling. One reason this happened is that brown are a lot harder to catch than cutthroats and therefore withstand fishing pressure much better. A preliminary study done in ponds near the park showed the cutthroats are sixteen times as easy to catch as browns (brook trout, known for gullibility, were only nine times as easy to catch as browns). People who have reason to think about such things wonder if cutthroats would be as easy to catch as they are if they, like the browns, had been fished over by savvy anglers since the 1300s. What must such predation do to the genetic makeup of a fish population, having the easiest caught individuals removed from hundreds of generations?

The question is of special interest in Yellowstone, where in recent years sportfishing has become primarily a matter of fun rather than of meat acquisition. Because there are too many visitors to feed each a wild trout, park regulations and modern sportfishing fashions have combined to promote “catch-and-release” fishing — fishing for fun, not meat. Under proper lure restrictions, practically all the released fish will live to be caught again and again.

But the browns, as hard as they are to catch that first time, are harder than hell to catch again. I learned that on my home river. A tiny step-across tributary ran past my quarters, bordering the lawn and then dipping into a sage field for maybe fifty yards before swinging behind a neighbor’s lawn, where it widened into a small weed-filled pond. The water was partly runoff from the hot springs, so it was mineral-rich and supported heavy vegetation and lots of insect life. Brown trout were there, apparently remnants from hatchery ponds that had once sat nearby and had been fed by the creek. The pond was fished only by a couple of neighborhood kids who rarely caught anything, and the neighborhood osprey, who rarely put anything back. And me, for a few weeks one summer.

There was a narrow channel about three feet wide through the weeds, then the pond itself, about 40 feet wide and three feet deep at the most. The whole stretch ran no more than 120 feet, the length of one backyard. The trout rose easily to insects in the quiet water of the channel and the pond, and I could see them clearly, holding there within short casting distance. On hot bright days they all settled into a slightly deeper depression in the middle of the pond. From a hillock that bordered the yard I could see them holding there, in two rows. There seemed to be about fifteen of them.

I started fishing this stretch one evening after work. It was very civilized, standing on the comfortable lawn and dropping a wiggly little wet fly in front of each trout and snaking them out across the weedbeds as soon as they were hooked. I quickly measured each fish, clipped off a portion of the adipose fin (a harmless if insulting operation), and slid them back into the water. The first evening I caught five, measuring four to thirteen inches. The next night I caught five more, four to ten inches, and again clipped them all. The next night, two more. Five nights later, seven more. The afternoon after that I caught five more. The twenty-first fish I caught had a clipped fin; it was the thirteen-incher I’d caught the first day, a couple of weeks earlier. Over the next few weeks I caught a few more with clipped fins, but I’d learned a new respect for the brown trout. As informal as my little study had been, it had shown me what tough teachers the brown trout can be. I preferred easier.

A friend from Iowa, an enthusiastic outdoorsman, visited me one September. Because of an eccentric graduate chairman we had once taught under, we had adopted a formal manner of addressing each other, after our chairman’s manner.

“Mr. Palmer, you must learn about fly fishing. This isn’t the Big Muddy, you know. We have trout here, not those disgusting mudfish you’re so fond of catching.”

“Mr. Schullery, if you can suppress your elitism about the Mississippi, I would like to learn about fly fishing.”

His first lesson was on the Lamar, near Calfee Creek. The upper Lamar contains many quick, unschooled cutthroat trout, easily caught most of the time. When we walked down to the river in front of the patrol cabin it was late afternoon but the sun was still bright on the water. It would not have looked, to an Iowa angler, like a very promising time to catch a fish.

“You sit down here on this rock, Mr. Palmer. I must find a grasshopper.” I kicked through some nearby brush and quickly sorted an inch-long hopper from the leaves.

“Watch this closely, Mr. Palmer. It’s important.” I tossed the hopper into the stream about six feet from shore. It landed kicking, stirring up little ripples as it was washed along. It had floated only a few feet when it disappeared in a splashy blur of trout mouth, a small explosion of water that left Mr. Palmer wide-eyed. He was hooked. Within a few minutes I had him slapping a few feet of line out over the water, giving these unruly little cutthroats a chance at a bushy dry fly. One after another they poked their noses up under it, inhaled it, mouthed it thoughtfully for a second, then spit it out and sank back to shelter. Each time Mr. Palmer watched the whole rise, take, and rejection with a slack jaw and a slack line, never once trying to hook the fish.

“Mr. Palmer, you have to set the hook when they take the fly. Weren’t you paying attention to the lecture?”

“Yes, Mr. Schullery, I understand. I saw you do it.” He was earnest in the face of my exasperation.

“Well, then, Mr. Palmer, why didn’t you set the damn hook?!”

“I never think of it at the time, Mr. Schullery. It’s all so interesting to watch.”

A few days later I took him to the upper Gardner. I led him to the bank and rigged up the rod as I continued my instruction.

“Now, Mr. Palmer, you should learn about where trout hold in the current.” As I spoke I worked about thirty-five feet of line into the air, keeping it airborne above me, casting back and forth, ready to deliver. This was one of the few stretches of river I know of where what I was about to do was not the worst kind of reckless arrogance.

“They like water at the edges of the current, Mr. Palmer. See that rock there with the little eddy behind it, where the water is sort of still?” He was attentive, if skeptical, as I dropped a small dry fly into the spot, where it was instantly drowned but not eaten by one of the suicidal brook trout that inhabited this precious run. Mr. Palmer choked quietly as I whipped the fly back with a triumphant “Aha!” Then, as I dried it with some false casts, I remarked casually, “Look for calmer breaks in the current, Mr. Palmer, even if you can’t see a rock or anything, like this one up here.” I laid the fly onto a little slick in midstream, immediately grabbing it back from another splashy rise. This was not instruction; this was performance. Again and again I brought trout up, hooking a couple, missing most, reveling in the show they and I were putting on. And each time I’d raise a fish, Mr. Palmer, his voice a mixture of envy, respect, and disdain, would mumble, “Mr. Schullery, you bastard,” or “This can’t be…” I don’t know how many fish I showed him in fifteen minutes, but it was many more than I’d imagined I would. The Gardner and its trout performed royally in beginning the education of yet another fly fisherman.

A home river is that rarest of friends, the one who frequently surprises you with new elements of personality without ever seeming a stranger. The revelations are gifts, not shocks. Like Mr. Palmer, I seemed always to be discovering new secrets of the river; they weren’t really secrets at all, just places waiting for me to become smart enough to notice them. It might be a new trout lie, hidden under a log and invisible from the trail I usually walked; a beaver dam that must be fished this season because it will be silted shallow by next; a deer bed in the willows behind a favorite pool; a deep pocket I never noticed until I walked the bank opposite the trail. What makes this so precious, like so many other meaningful pastimes, is the anticipation of revelations yet to come, or discoveries not fully understood, like the dark pool swarming with diptera that I discovered one day while searching for a drowning victim and never later returned to, off duty. Like the stretches of canyon water I never fished, that pool is a mystery and a promise, probably worth more in anticipation than it will be in actual sport.

Some revelations are bigger. Recently, in an isolated stretch of the upper river, where only brook trout were thought to reside, a pocket of rainbows was found, survivors of some long-forgotten stocking mission of several decades ago. They lived, unknown and unfished, in one short stretch of river, neither expanding their range into better traveled waters nor shrinking into oblivion. Further study may prove them to be of considerable scientific value. Like the other nonnative trouts in Yellowstone — brook, brown, and lake — they were placed here in the early days of fisheries science, before distinct strains of each species were hopelessly crossed and mixed in the great trout factories of modern hatcheries and in countless rivers where thoughtless and well-intentioned fisheries crews dumped new strains of trout on top of existing native populations. Yellowstone has waters, including my home river, that were stocked before that energetic “management” chaos mutilated our western trout taxonomy and were not stocked since; waters that now may give more than sport — they may yield museum-pure strains of trout that we thought we’d lost. It may not be easy for the nonfisherman to comprehend why such knowledge makes the fishing more exciting than it otherwise would be, but it is immensely satisfying to know such a thing. Fishing is a quest for knowledge and wonder as much as a pursuit of fish; it is as much an acquaintance with beavers, dippers, and other fishermen as it is the challenge of catching a trout. My home river does not always give me her fish, but the blessings of her company are always worth the trip.