Day Trip Interruptus 1

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

Day Trip Interruptus 1It was a typical morning in my fishing life. I had decided the night before on a destination for an early morning start. Gear—cameras, hat, glasses, etc.—was laid out on the dining room table.

Out in the pickup I’d loaded up the two fly rods I planned to use on the day. The weather had cooled a bit so I would be using my waders and regular wading boots. After reviewing the weather (it wasn’t going to be windy and there’d be light cloudiness) I thought I’d head over to one of my favorite stretches of the Yellowstone. I’d been monitoring the flows over the last month as the river dropped out of run-off and it had reached a level (less than 4000CFS) that would be comfortable with the kayak. According to recent fly shop reports, the Yellowstone had been fishing well. I was ready to go, but had failed to notice some depressing news in last minute fly shop reports.

As I headed up the Paradise Valley to my put-in point the sun had yet to rise. It was a gloomy dawn at the fishing access site and as I walked down to the river, the situation became obvious. Thunderstorms in the Lamar drainage of Yellowstone Park had been severe enough to blow out the Lamar. High on the slopes of the Absaroka’s, many of the tributaries of the Lamar are surrounded by huge gray clay deposits that flush a milky gray sediment into the river during heavy storms. When it hits the Yellowstone, it turns the river into an unfishable opaque milkshake like flow. That’s what I found at the put-in. These dirty water situations are usually short lived and travel down the river in plugs, clear before and clearing after. I didn’t want to take a chance and head up river and find more dirty water so I thought I’d head for a put-in well down river below Livingston, Montana. When I got there it was no joy again. The river was unfishable. It was too late to take a chance on another one of my favorite destinations but I didn’t want to waste the morning. So I tried something new.

Day Trip Interruptus 2About a half mile downstream from the put-in I was standing at, the Shields River entered the Yellowstone. The Shields was named back in 1806 for Private John Shields, the gunsmith during the Lewis and Clark expedition. On the return leg led by William Clark via the Yellowstone, members of the expedition camped at the mouth of the river in July of 1806. Back in the 1970s I’d fished the upper Shields as it flowed off the western face of the Crazy Mountains. The mountains got their name from the Crow Indians who called them “Crazy Women Mountains”. So the story is told, in 1846 an early immigrant family on the way to Oregon was attacked by Blackfeet. Everyone was killed except Mrs. Morgan who managed to kill a few Blackfeet with an axe before escaping into the mountains near their camp on the Musselshell River. The Shields is your typical Yellowstone tributary with Yellowstone Cutthroats in the higher reaches and rainbows and browns in the valley sections. The Shields is 65 miles long as it rises high in the Crazy Mountains and flows west into the Shields Valley then south to the Yellowstone. Most of the Shields River runs through private ranch land and access has been historically poor. In the valley, the river is littered with cottonwood snags and very difficult to float in any kind of craft. The river is notorious for serious flooding during run-off and low-water during the height of summer. For a lot of these reasons, this wasn’t one of the rivers you’d travel to Montana to fish. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Shields was running about 100CFS this morning. About a half mile above the mouth of the river, the first county road crosses the Shields. Thanks to Montana’s Stream Access Law, the bridge right-of-way would give me unfettered access to the river as long as I stayed below the high-water mark.

I found the river very clear and cool. It would have been a good day to wet wade, but I was unprepared for that so I donned the waders and got the kayak in the river. A short upstream paddle took me through the deep bridge pool into classic riffle, run, and pool water. At every bend in the river, large cottonwood jams created deep holes and the long riffles displayed plenty of undercut banks—great brown trout cover. As I fished upstream the 6 weight with the 200 grain sink tip I brought alone for the big Yellowstone was useless. I wish I’d had my 5 weight with me as it is a bit more versatile. I did have a short 7’6” 4 weight which tossed small hoppers nicely. The hoppers brought up enough fish to make the day worth it. As I passed by a pool in which a rancher was drawing water for irrigation, an old rancher came down to the edge of the river. One is always a bit apprehensive when fishing through private land and someone comes down to talk. You never know if they are going to hassle you in some way. In this case, the old guy was very interested in how the fishing was going and the strange kayak I had tethered to my waist. We chatted for a while and he wished me good luck as I moved upstream.

The rarest member of the Yellowstone Slam
The rarest member of the Yellowstone Slam

In four hours I fished for about a mile upstream and back and the kayak was never really necessary except to get through the bridge pool. Almost everywhere there were extensive gravel bars that were a testament to the seriously nasty condition of the river during runoff. Looking back at my fishing log, the four hours netted me almost 30 fish, mostly browns. Not bad for an unplanned, unfamiliar section of river. Average size was 10-12” but a couple of browns probably pushed the 16” mark and I certainly saw a few larger fish abort as they rose to the hopper. The trip did produce one milestone—the Yellowstone slam. The so-called Yellowstone slam is a day in which an angler lands all four species of sport fish from the Yellowstone (in this case it was a tributary). So on a day in which you land Yellowstone cutthroats, brown and rainbow trout as well a whitefish, you have accomplished the Yellowstone slam. Fairly routine for us regulars but the tourists get a kick out of it.

On the way back to the bridge, I put on a small bugger and picked up a few more fish but high sun and incredibly clear water didn’t have the fish chasing anything very far from cover. I made the most of my day trip-interuptus and added another potential destination should I need an alternative to the Yellowstone. I was encouraged by the presence of good fish and really clear, clean water. However the Shields doesn’t stay in shape all that long after run off and I suspect by the end of July the river will be too low and warm to fish effectively. Additionally, the tricky access is also discouraging but one never knows, maybe all the ranchers and property owners along the river are as friendly as the old guy I chatted with in the morning.


  1. Mike, Thank you so much for the article. Reading it took me back to times of fishing that same stretch of river with my father. Memories of large rainbows and browns on dry flies. We also fished the Yellowstone by Columbus with equal success with my largest brown being in the 10 lb. range. I do not live in Montana now and really miss it. Thanks again so much for bringing me a little closer to home. I have a feeling you may know my younger brother Scott Morrison as he is a fly fishing nut also and used to live in Bozeman. I leave an open invitation to all J. Stockard followers to come to Wisconsin and try your luck at hooking and holding on to one of these large Chinook Salmon. If you know my brother Mr. Cline maybe you can talk him into coming to Wisconsin also.

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