Fly Fishing Traditions

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Fishing the Beartooth Mountains in Montana

I have been looking through photos of past fishing trips and I ran across some photos of a back packing trip that I orchestrated with some friends a few years back. I thought it would be fun to go back and reminiscence.

There is nothing like the site of Pilot and Index Peaks when you're on a road trip and are headed to the Beartooth Mountains in Montana. I have back packed for trout in these mountains for many years. Each summer is like a migration to the back country to get a fix on solitude and cutthroat trout. When you drive through Cooke City, Montana heading for the trailhead all of a sudden there they are, beckoning you for adventure. It seems that when you are hiking in the high country Pilot and Index are always there in the distance to give you an idea where you are.

We were headed into some of my favorite country. It is just across the northern state line of Wyoming and northeast of Yellowstone Park. Believe me this is a place, if you ever get the chance to go there, you will never forget. It is an area of high country lakes and streams with Brook and Cutthroat Trout. There are larger lakes that are connected with streams that are fed each summer from glaciers, with names like Grass Hopper Glacier, up above 11,000 ft in elevation. It is the country of the Beartooth Plateau, which is primarily in and out of the tree line at about 9000 feet in elevation. The lakes in this region were planted years ago and the spawning streams now make the lakes and streams in the area self supporting fisheries. There are large cutthroat trout in some of the lakes although they can be difficult to fool. It's best to get into the high country soon after the lakes thaw. Each year this can happen at a different time. Mid July is a good target date.

I had orchestrated this trip with some of my close friends. We hired the "Beartooth Plateau Outfitters" to drop camp us up at about 8,000 ft or so. We were planning on a trip of about 10 days in the back country. We would have the outfitters drop us off with all our back packs, food and fishing gear and then we would travel around up high on foot and when we were done hike back out to the trailhead. This is a great way to go. The outfitter charged us $75 a head for the day plus an extra $100 a day for two wranglers. So it cost us about $100 bucks a piece. This meant that we didn't have to hike 15 miles up 2000 feet of varied terrain with 70 to 80 pound backpacks on. It also saves about 1 1/2 days of hiking, which means you have more time to explore and fish. Sound like a good idea?

We met the outfitter at the trailhead early in the morning and got our gear packed onto pack horses and got comfortable on our trail horses. It takes awhile to get it all together, but we were headed into the back country after about an hour and a half.

With all our gear, the six of us and two wranglers the string of horses totaled about 10 horses. We expected a ride of about 5 - 6 hours. It actually took about 8. We were a little saddle sore by the time we got to our drop camp destination. The head wrangler used to work for my cousin, J.O. Hash, who used to have an outfitting business in Red Lodge, Montana. He had just started working for the Beartooth Outfitters. We headed up a side trail and I was thinking to myself that this route did not look familiar. I figured that the head wrangler knew a better route. It was about an hour later that he stopped us and we got the maps out and figured that sure enough, we should have zigged instead of zagged. We eventually got to a nice drainage, although about 3 hours later than expected, unloaded our gear set off on our own for another mile or two.

We hiked and then got up to a lake that was situated at about 8250 feet. It was time to drop our gear, set up camp and sort everything out and get ready for the rest of our journey. We made a nice camp near the inlet stream to the lake. We still had a hike with about a 1200 foot gain in elevation to look forward to. This would get us up to tree line on the Plateau where we wanted to spent most of our time.

"Well, Clay, do you think you know where we're supposed to go now?"
"I don't know, Mark, but why don't you just quit scratchin' your a_ _ and find some firewood!"

The lake where we set up our first camp was over-populated with brook trout. Mostly small ones. We had brought a backpack skillet, pancake mix and syrup so we harvested a bunch of the small brookies the next morning for breakfast. We typically catch and release the trout we catch. But the truth is that these lakes are so over-populated with brook trout that the Forest Service encourages and wants people to take fish and have them for breakfast. So we thought that for this one day we would help out. How long has it been since you had a fried trout drenched in corn meal, hot out of a frying pan with pancakes and syrup? Pass the syrup, please.

The mountains in the photo above give you an idea how varied the terrain in this part of the mountains can be. It stays like this until you get up to the Beartooth Plateau where it flattens out. When hiking up to the higher elevations it seems like sometimes you've made it up to the plateau and then the next thing you know you're headed 300 feet in elevation back down a draw and then have to climb back up the other side.

We finally made it to the tree line on our second day and this is the elevation where we planned on staying for most of our time. Once we reached the tree line, we hiked in a westerly direction for the next 7 days. We traveled at the same elevation more or less and camped at different lakes and streams most nights. By staying at tree line there is shelter from the winds and firewood for the campfire. The campfires are twig fires and made from dead fall that is scavenged from the area. You need to scout and find the best spots to set up camp that have (1) proximity to water (2) shelter from the wind, rain and snow (3) dead wood for the fire (4) most importantly trout.

This is a photo of my friends, from left to right. Dave Walsh, Aaron Utman, Mark Morgan, myself, Mike Ciafridoni, and Blake Larsen in front. This was a good, compatible bunch. You need to choose your backcountry friends carefully when you're in the back country for 7 to 10 days.

This is a view of the terrain when you reach the Beartooth Plateau. It is a rugged environment and it takes a concerted effort to get there in comfort and safety. But it is worth the time and effort spent. On another trip to the Beartooth Mountains with the infamous Stahl Brothers (I'll eventually get around to telling some stories about that bunch). We were camped in a draw that looked similar to this, it was late and we had a campfire going and were hanging out swapping stories and pulling on a bottle of scotch. The draw had rock out croppings on both sides of the draw. We saw four bright eyes starring at up from on top of the rocks. We got a flashlight out and turned it on and there were two Rocky Mountain Goats staring at us. They kept coming down right into our camp not 15 feet away and were licking the rocks near our camp. Turns out they were after the salt from where we'd relieved ourselves nearby. They kept us company all night.

Rocky Mountain Goats

We found a lake had a lot of cutthroat trout cruising the shoreline. We would find a hidden spot along shore and could watch them noodling around the shore looking for bugs. The first day all you had to do was throw a small attractor like a elk hair caddis, royal wulff, or an adams out there and the trout would take it. It didn't take too long until you had to start using emergers, spinners etc. to catch one. They got smart fast. When they started refusing dries you could throw in a sinking line with a rubberlegs and or a generic nymph and strip it back in from down deep and they would hit it hard. The cutthroats in this lake went from about 14" to 18" and I believe that one was caught that went about 20". That's about as big a high country trout gets.

The weather in this country can change rapidly and it is not unusual to get afternoon and evening thunderstorms and lightning. Most mornings are crystal clear. We always bring along a tarp or two and string them up as a shelter tied to trees, rock outcroppings and such in order to get out of the rain in the evenings when we are hanging around camp cooking meals and later enjoying a warm fire. A good camp features a good tarp shelter, a fire pit just outside of it and is located out of the wind. You'll need firewood, water, and a place to hang your food.

As an evening storm approaches we are all battened down. Tents set up, meals prepared and cleaned up, firewood gathered and a "wikiup" built in case it rains or snows. I have spent many a night huddled under a secure tarp with my friends, with a warm fire burning in front, passing a fine bottle of scotch around and telling stories of the day and past trips in these mountains and others like it. It is times like this that bring warm memories and a yearning for the wild country.

The experiences are out there waiting. You can make them happen, you will never be sorry.


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