Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Point at it!

Slough Creek is a tributary of the Lamar River which in turn is a tributary of the Yellowstone. It is a delightful stream that winds its way down from mountain meadows way up in Montana, crosses over the fat, imaginary boundary line into Yellowstone National Park, then into Wyoming, before it meanders down to the Lamar.

As part of the Yellowstone drainage Slough Creek should be chock full of Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout (YCT). They're there for sure. But one will also find a few Rainbows and hybrids and who knows what else.

According to Mike Ruhl, a Fisheries Research Scientist at Yellowstone National Park and the lead guy for fish conservation in the rivers and streams of the park, Rainbow Trout were stocked in the Lamar River in 1938 and in another tributary of the Lamar, Soda Butte Creek, in 1937.

Additionally, Westslope Cutthroat Trout (you can't make this stuff up) were stocked into tributaries of the Yellowstone drainage, notably the Lamar, in the early 20s. These are great trout streams so it was very easy for these legacy non-natives to settle into their new homes. And once you're in the neighborhood you might as well visit other nearby streams. And they have.

We took a hike up Slough Creek on Thursday. At least I think it was Thursday. The cumulative effect of PBRs was beginning to take its toll. Regardless, one day two weeks ago we hiked into bear country to find some trout.
A fearless walk in bear country. I let everyone go up ahead while I checked to make
sure we didn't get ambushed from the rear.

Rich Hohne, Simms Marketing Manager Extraordinaire
boulder hopping in the canyon. Source: Rebecca Garlock.
There's a steep, boulder strewn canyon about a half mile or so upriver from the campground and that's where the fishy water starts. Above there is a meadow, Upper Slough Creek, where some lunkers are rumored to live. We split at the canyon with the more patient heading up to the meadow and those of us who just couldn't wait any longer to wet a line set out to work the canyon's pockets.

There was a sweet little plunge pool along the near bank that was well guarded by a leaning pine. My first cast got a look, the second a strike and then I did my best to spook the whole damn thing. All in all the first hour or so on the water was unproductive though others found fish.

After hopping some rocks and wading the rapids Rebecca Garlock, Marc Payne and I decided to fish downstream in some slower water that just begged to be fished. We all managed some smaller fish, mostly Cutthroats with one Rainbow in the mix, but we lacked a satisfying tug on the line.

The Wooley Bugger Rules
After another hour of working along a gravel bar with Rebecca I decided to return to the foot of the canyon and fish the fast water where earlier Marc had seen a larger fish roll. I sensed a Wooley Bugger hatch coming off so I tied on my best #8 Olive imitation and went to work.

On my third swing the fly stopped dead and the rod bent with a curve that was the inverse of the smile that immediately lit my face. This was a heavy fish that made a short run to the deep water of the immense pool where he tried to hide to no avail.

The fight wasn't dramatic. Some heavy tugging occurred and there was the occasional swirl on the surface but for the size and weight of the fish I would have expected more energy. That's not to say the fight was short but I would have appreciated a leap or two. In fact, the most pulse livening dimension of the fight was me praying for the tippet and knots to hold.

Marc fishing the run at the bottom of the canyon.
I was disappointed that Rebecca and Marc weren't there to see the battle. Part of that was ego driven but I also relish the camaraderie that is borne of shared success and without someone to share it with it only felt like half a fish.

My telepathic powers must have been enhanced by my excitement because when I looked up a few moments later I saw the two of them coming around the bend on the far side of the river. They were waving and were excited; no doubt from seeing the bend in my rod.

As I scooped the fish into the net I looked up and exclaimed in a loud and confident voice "Big Fish!".

And it was not a lie. The fish easily exceeded the seventeen inch opening on my net and was so fat that I couldn't measure it's circumference by connecting the fingers and thumbs of my two hands. It was fat, fat, fat. And long.

Trying to pick a pocket without luck.
Source: Marc Payne
Rebecca echoed her excitement by shouting in an equally confident and loud voice "Bear!"

Now I have only been fishing for a few years but I was pretty sure that this was a trout and not a bear. Then Marc shouted something about a bear and then Rebecca said "On your side!" and my fishing brain slowly yielded to cro-magnon brain and processed this whole "bear" thing and it dawned upon me that my special moment with a large trout was being trumped with the threat of mauling by a large furry beast.

"Where?", I shouted back.

"On your side" came the reply.

Yes, I know that but if it's not behind me (it wasn't, I checked) and I can't see it so I need more information.

"Where?" I asked again and got the same reply. Okay, that was stupid. Maybe I should ask a different question.

With a flash of brilliance I said "Point at it!"

She did. Somewhere vaguely downstream well out of view.

Now I started bargaining with myself. Surely the threat was not imminent. For all I knew the bear was a mile away, had one eye and a limp and wouldn't be here for days, if ever. Surely I had time to unhook this magnificent beast, snap a few photos and bask in the adulation of my angling comrades.

But both Marc and Rebecca renewed their pleas for me to join them on the non-bear side of the river and since the fish managed to roll out of the net as I considered this, I was immediately faced with a logistical problem that was soon solved when I grabbed the leader and snapped off the fish; the olive bugger swam away with its new friend.

I moved around the pool to the shallow riffle and saw the bear for the first time. It was on my side of the river, on the bank, about one hundred yards away. Black bear, probably. Smaller than I expected but still a good sized beast at a distance.

Swimming bear. Who's side of the river is safe now?
Source: Rebecca Garlock
I crossed over to the "safe" side of the river and moved downstream a bit to get a better look at the thing. It was then that we noticed the bear was also crossing to the "safe" side of the river. This was no surprise to me as I have been told that bears are safety oriented since I was a young'un.

We were joined by another angling couple who also saw the bear so now the five of us stood watching the bear swim upstream towards us. It turns out that I was the only one carrying bear spray so I was nominated to stand in front of everyone and to do something to prevent mauling.

The bear wandered along the bank for a bit moving in our general direction. Then it disappeared behind a small rise at the edge of the gravel bar and then reappeared right at the top of that rise looking at us. Ten yards away. Maybe fifteen. Not more than fifteen. This was close enough.

I gave the bear a firm "Hey, bear" in the same loud and confident voice used earlier. I wanted to put it on notice that a whole world of hurt was about to come down on it -- assuming I pointed the bear spray in the right direction and didn't gas us all before we were lunched upon.

The bear halted and gave us a "Where the hell did all of you come from!" look before quickly turning and trundling off into the woods. Of course, before he departed he paused in a clearing and answered the age old question. Later we noted that the bear wasn't so much coming towards us as he was following the path the winds along the river's edge.

Marc went back downstream to fish the water the bear had chased encouraged him off of and I went back upstream with Rebecca to see if lightning would strike twice.

No joy.

Marc, Rebecca and I on Slough Creek. That beach over my left shoulder is Bear Beach
The big fish I caught was sadly not a Cutthroat. Nor was it a Rainbow. It was a hybrid. It had the slashes on the throat but it was spotted heavily like a Rainbow. I'm not sure if it was hybridized with the Yellowstone Cutties or some hardy Westslope from generations past but regardless it is the poster child for what needs to change in this particular watershed -- Rainbows Out, Cutties In.

I should have killed it though I'm not sure if that'd been legal.

Finding a hybrid that large in a river that is thought of as a stronghold for Cutties is surely another sign of why the Conservation Plan needs to move forward. Mike Ruhl mentioned that the boulder strewn canyon we fished was once thought to be a natural barrier but they now know they'll have to create some sort of constructed barrier before restoration efforts can begin.

The plan for eliminating Rainbows and early hybrids from Upper Slough Creek (above the Canyon) will included electrofishing as well as harvest by anglers.

Where do you (and I) sign up?

Well, I'll tell you a bit about how anglers are helping research and conservation efforts next week.

A quick photo taken of the Franken hybrid shortly before the potential non-mauling.
I loved that Olive Bugger. I will miss it.

Editor’s note: In June, Trout Unlimited, along with Simms, the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Outdoor Blogger Network, held an essay contest. Two winners, Marc Payne and I, were selected to attend the second annual TU Blogger Tour–this year’s tour took place July 24-28 in Yellowstone National Park.


  1. steve, I stared at the photo, and im pretty sure it was a beaver, not a bear.. you can see its lodge behind it... great story

    1. I tried to convince myself and Rebecca & Marc of the same thing, but they were pretty insistent that it was a bear. And it did shit in the woods which was what finally convinced me.

  2. Is that a PBR in a shoe slung over your shoulder!? ;-) Great read, Steve...of what I'm gathering was an incredible trip!

    1. You are a keen observer of the human condition.

      For some reason, we had shifted to Miller High Life at that point but would later make a tactical withdrawal back to PBRs.

      This was an incredible trip. I had moments during the trip when I wondered how I could hang-up my corporate hat and get more involved in conservation. Of course, then I thought about the whole paycheck thing and that nipped those thoughts but it's something I continue to noodle.

    2. Erin got to my question first, but it's still not clear to me if you carry an extra boot just for the beer, or if you simply only wear one wading boot, hobbling along with one bare foot and a beer holder. Either way, it will make it easier for the bear to catch you.

    3. Those are hiking boots. I switched to sandals when we got to the water and waded wet; I was not in any way at risk for the bear.

      When you're the only one carrying bear spray you really have two shots at avoiding mauling. First, you can hope it works on the bear. Second, you can light up your friends with peppery seasoning and beat a hasty retreat whilst they're disoriented. It's really a win-win.

    4. Spray your friends first. Then it's likely you won't even need to spray the bear. Save pepper spray that way.

  3. Great storytelling there Steve. I'm with you except you disable your competition first, leave them the bear spray (gotta be sporting about this) while you run like hell.

    1. Thanks Howard.

      You're right, why take the chance that the bear spray won't work on the bear in the first place. Cutting to Step 2 is probably the right call. :)

  4. Great post and pics Steve. I thought for sure this was a fish story and no picture of the beast would be present and we would be left to TRUST you that you caught such a fish and then BAM. There it is. Awesome!

    Remember, black bears are more afraid of you then you are of them.....That's what my dad says at least but I've never seen one shake in all my encounters, but I was!!!

    Keep them coming.

    1. Thx, Jim. Yeah, I had my camera sitting on the bank and just got lucky that in my rush to wrap up the fishing took a quick shot. Closest encounter with a bear yet. Pretty exciting.

  5. Hey Steve. With Rebecca and the River Damsel)it's always a bear of an adventure.


    1. In any adventure with people you don't know the mix is always critical. This one was without a doubt the best cast I have ever traveled with. Rebecca was a star.

  6. I worried about bear quite a bit while in MT last month. Considering I never have to worry about being lower on the food chain than critters in the area, it gave me pause. I was armed with my bear spray and never had to use it. I actually never saw a bear. I'm glad I didn't see this post before my trip however. I'm sure I would have been jumpy for sure. Great photos!

    1. Thx, Pam. Yeah, the frequency of bear encounters is high in that neck of the woods which had me alert for sure. One will occasionally find Black Bears in Connecticut but they're closer to an urban legend than "Oh shit, it's right in front of me and it's coming this way!"

  7. " I have been told that bears are safety oriented since I was a young'un...."

    Thanks for the guys no doubt had a great time

    ...oh, and I'm glad that you were able to verify that bears do indeed go where they are supposed to.


    1. Always happy to bring a little mirth into one's life. :)

      It was a spectacular trip!

  8. very cool. i lived 5 summers in YNP and Jackson. I guided whitewater and trout. beautiful.

    1. Definitely a trip that I will remember forever.