The Cowboy Way
"Them Department of Evironment bears don't eat no cows!" was the curt answer of Dave, our outfitter, to my question on the wisdom of cattle grazing 7500 feet up in Wyoming's Beartooth Mountains. Read Eric Arbogast and Jean-Marc Klees' fascinating story about Trouting the Cowboy Way.
"Them Department of Evironment bears don't eat no cows." was the curt answer of Dave, our outfitter, to my question on the wisdom of cattle grazing 7500 feet up in Wyoming's Beartooth Mountains. His horses, sure-footed beyond any reasonable expectation, were hauling us through rugged terrain to the Silver Lakes of our boyhood dreams. There we would catch a few nice rainbows, 18 inches or so. Nothing but blue skies, crystal clear waters, strong headwinds and choppy waves made our quarry annoyingly wary.
170 trout between two fishers
Just a couple of 'bows. Disappointing, if it weren't for the beauty of God's Own Country. The day before on the other side of the valley, after an even worse ride, we had shared 170 (!) trout: Bows, Cuttbows and native Cutthroat, with their distinctive slash, all released into a tiny mountain stream hardly charted on the map.
Down in the main valley, on the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River, Ernest Hemingway, the swashbuckling novelist, who mainly told the truth, but occasionally took some liberties, boasted to have hooked 95 fish in a day. All on a McGinty, a wet fly which imitates a yellow jacket, a kind of hornet. We tried it too and it sure caught some trout. But nothing beat the high-riding hoppers, Wulffs and Adams suggested by Dave.
"What in case of an emergency? An injured horse with a broken leg?" - "Shoot the animal; get back to the ranch for a couple of sticks of dynamite. If scavengers haven't taken care of the carrion when you return..." This gruesome method of disposal left me somewhat speechless.
Grizzly bears and marauding wolves from Yellowstone Park roam the steep slopes and gulches of the Absaroka Range. Obviously Dave felt that federal penpushers overprotected these predators and threatened the livelihoods of ranchers and hunt outfitters.
You never get enough
A mid-August float trip down the Goodnews River in Southwestern Alaska hadn't been tough enough for two crazed anglers like ourselves. So we wanted to check out the best the Lower 48 had on offer. My friend often rambled on about the Yellowstone backcountry. His stories were extraordinary and so were the photos of earlier trips. We settled on a guest ranch doing pack trips up into the high country on horseback. Soon we were pursuing wild mountain trout fitted out with western saddles, high-heeled cowboy boots and Stetsons. After all weren't we displaced souls born too many miles east of this Eden?
Our lucky pick was the K Bar Z Guest Ranch, a family operation lorded over by Elliott Seagal and run on a daily basis by Dawna Barnett, the gal in charge of administrative matters. "Don't you worry about catching fish; up there you'll get anything like a hundred or more." He told us at Cody (of Buffalo Bill fame) Airport. Was this cowboy overstatement as opposed to British understatement, or just a plain fib? The ranch itself is located at the foot of the towering Cathedral Cliffs just off the road to the Northast Entrance of the Park. We spared a day to get accustomed to the laid-back style especially as we needed some sleep to rest from the dreadful Anchorage flight and to avoid high elevation sickness, and so we took part in the K Bar Z barbecue and dance. We also were spectators at the Cody Night Rodeo.
Eagerly rising to fur and feather
Early next morning, Dave, Elliott's son, introduced us to our mounts and off we rode to the first of many No-Name-Creeks; all these remote valleys didn't seem to have a name, or so we were told. Our slender and silent guide sure was guarding his trade secrets. The riding was back-breaking. Fortunately he chose the streams according to our saddle skills. But still six long hours at 8.000 to 10.000 feet plus five hours angling cuts you down to size.
We halted at a stretch of water that ran remarkably low and were told to have a go with dry flies "right there". I was skeptical. The stream looked devoid of fish and Dave's approach to fishing seemed so simple. We had expected trout with a Ph.D. in "Deceitful Entomology", but I was connected right away with a small aggressive fish which I lost because I was so amazed. Prime examples of mountain Cutthroat were eagerly rising to our fur and feather. Jean-Marc did better and quickly released his first trout. This experience boosted our spirits and we moved upstream, looking for other "holes" infested by feisty Cutts.
Dry Fly Paradise
The next few hours were dedicated to casting to small pockets and backeddies teeming with fish of healthy size. Elliott's hadn't been an empty boast. We stopped the body count at 50. It was unbelievable!. The Cutts kept rising to any well-presented fly. In Papa Hemingway's words: "It was wonderful fly-fishing. The native trout were sleek, shining and heavy, and nearly all of them leaped when they took the fly."
No nymphs, no streamers. This was Dry Fly Paradise. As usual we were absolutely overequipped. As Elliott told one of his sane (that is non-fishing) guests: "These guys carry more flies than I have in my shop". We were "competing" against each other, running to the better pools. But despite of hooking a few hundred fish in five days, we only had to kill one, which was bleeding profusely. Cooked by Mary-Anne (Elliott's wife and possibly the most important person at K Bar Z), what a breakfast it made!
Although we never caught any real monster, we managed to land some real beauties. The largest one, a Cutthroat of about 21 inches, released by Jean-Marc into the Lamar river inside the Park, the bonus here being our ride through a herd of buffaloes, the mighty flee-ridden Tatanka. The average size of the fish we caught was between 10 to12 inches with some better ones and the "cricks" as Dave would call them were at an elevation of about eight to ten thousand feet!
The main species in the Absaroka Range is the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, a native with many subspecies. The mountain Cutts of the Beartooth Wilderness are phantastic fish wearing a fabulous wardrobe of gold and red hues, dotted in black. We also caught naturally occurring Rainbow-Cutthroat hybrids: these beautiful fish are called Cuttbows. Rainbow Trout would take the flies on the lower reaches of the creeks. On these waters a hatchery is a place unheard of. The incredible number of fish is due to the fact that these creeks only see little fishing pressure and American Conservation Ethics do reign supreme! The following days, we ventured out a little further uphill; the higher in elevation the wilder the scenery looked and the better the fishing was.
Occasionally, Dave fished with us, but he was more inclined on banning us on videotape adding spicy remarks about our inaptitudes. He led us to the places of our dreams and showed us more fish we cared to see. We had a great time with him and can't wait to go back to K Bar Z to enjoy more of the hospitality, friendship and great fishing.
If it doesn't hurt, it ain't true
Our only bad luck were the forest fires which made our 5-day pack trip impossible. The U.S. Forest Service had put a ban on overnight camping and we had to return to the ranch every night to the very dismay of Jean-Marc who likes his trips a bit tougher than most. "If it doesn't hurt, it ain't true".
I didn't mind and therefore got to appreciate Mary-Anne's great Cowboy cuisine. Our meals were taken under the impressive trophies of mule deer, bighorn ram, moose, trout and the inevitable jackalope. I still was more than happy to relax in a rocking chair under antlered game in the lounge enjoying the sarcastic wit of our host Elliott.
Gear and flies
The flies used were my favorite patterns: high-riding dry flies like Wulffs, Adams, Hopper and Ant imitations. I sure had to try my version of a Chernobyl Ant and was not disappointed. However smaller patterns insized 12 to 16 produced better.
Short rods up to a length of 8 feet with a comfortable action in 2-to-5 line weight are a good choice. I liked to fish an old 7'7" G-series Scott rod that allowed me to feel fish when fighting them, whereas Jean-Marc preferred the crisper action of a 7'9" 4-weight Winston. For mountain lakes we upgraded to longer rods, heavier lines and longer leaders. A 5-to 6-weight rod is a good choice here. All fishing is done with floating lines. When we return we won't certainly forget a belly boat, sink lines and the pack mule is not going to break it's back.
The Welcome mat is always out
All the nine days we stayed in Yellowstone country we had gorgeous weather with only one serious thunderstorm, which was half dreaded, half welcome: it might put out the fires or kindle new ones. The region has seen horrible droughts these last summers, a fact that favors large scale forest fires. An unwise fire policy has left the Park with hideous scars. Packing decent summer clothing as well as a rain jacket is required.
K Bar Z is a licensed outfitter for Yellowstone Park, but Dave's favoured haunts are well outside its boundaries. The setting of the ranch is phantastic: you stay in comfortable private log cabins and the massive stone fireplace leaves a lasting impression. Mary-Anne knows how to pamper her guests and does so with great pleasure.
We can't wait to return to this ranch where, the Welcome Mat is always out. K Bar Z claim to be in the business of creating memories. They are not! They make dreams come true!
K Bar Z
K Bar Z is a family-operated guest ranch that caters to "sane" people that just want to enjoy a stay at a ranch but also to "insane" outdoor people such as fishermen and hunters during the respective seasons. Both the hunting and the fishing truly is world class! Being in rough terrain makes either trip a very special one, especially when you are successful.
Visitors come as clients but go as friends and there must be lots of friends as you can see on the map in the dining room.
Though a typical tourist trap, Cody offers a few exceptional sights: the Buffalo Bill Historical Center is absolutely stunning; it incorporates Buffalo Bill's Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, Whitney Gallery of Western Art, McCracken Research Library and the very complete Cody Firearms Museum. "Irma's" is the bar and hotel owned by William F. Cody's daughter. The leather upholstery, the massive cherrywood bar, presented to Cody the Showman by Queen Victoria, the impressive trophies of elk, moose, mountain lion and buffalo equal the most exquisite gentlemen's clubs in St. James.
There are a few fly shops that carry the essential gear in case of an emergency. The sporting goods stores have what it takes to get along in the woods. Excellent restaurants and bars cater for the hungry and thirsty.
Cody is the ideal place to start a vacation in the region because of all the amenities visitors need, places to see and the proximity to Yellowstone Park.
Yellowstone Park offers endless opportunities for the outdoor afficionado to enjoy nature: wildlife viewing, hiking, camping and fishing. The scenery is unique and a "must see" for every fly fishing enthusiast. Although many of the world-famous Blue-Ribbon streams see heavy fishing pressure, the fishing remains very good. When you take the burden of hiking into remote places, you will experience fly fishing at its very best.
Since we did a float tip in Alaska just before we went on to Cody, we basically had all we need to camp out, and then some!
You need to bring at least two rods, a 2-to 5- weight in lengths up to 8 feet that pack down to 3 or 4 pieces. A softer action is preferred since the fish are not really big. In the lakes a 5-to 6-weight rod in lengths up to 9'6" is perfect. We used leaders in lengths up to 10 feet for dry fly fishing in the lakes. In the creeks a 7-foot 5X leader is just fine. The fly selection is very simple. In August you normally fish terrestrials, hoppers and ants in sizes 8 to 14, Humpies, Wulffs, Trudes, Stimulators, Adams, all produce well since the fish are not wary and literally jump on every fly, especially in the riffles and faster runs. In deeper holes they can be finicky and presentations must be subtle.
We used Gore-Tex waders, but did not really need them. Thigh waders are fine for high mountain creeks. Good underwear is a must especially for those that do not have saddle experience. A hat, good sunscreen and polarized glasses need to be packed as well.
High heeled boots and Wrangler Jeans with the thick seam on the outside of the leg help staying in the saddle and not get the skin chafed too much.