Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT
I must admit that I am a loner when it comes to fishing. It’s not because I don’t like to fish with other people, but taking the effort to organize and coordinate two or three schedules just gets in the way of being on the water. I’d estimate that 9 out of 10 times I am on the water I’ve made the trip alone. I think the real reason I get to fish alone is that I almost always try to get on the river before dawn. That can mean some pretty early alarms, especially in mid-summer when the destination is 120 miles from center. Most of the guys and gals that I do end up fishing with don’t know how to get out of bed before 8AM. I tell them they can sleep in the car, but that rarely moves the needle. So, many more times than not, I am on the river at dawn, alone, hunting trout. This is where the Oxymoron comes in.

Bald and Golden Eagles watch me fish on the Big Hole
Bald and Golden Eagles watch me fish on the Big Hole

You can never be alone on a Southwest Montana or Yellowstone River at dawn. Where ever I go, nature – the birds, mammals and fish – are there. In some places they are almost omnipresent. Their absence would be noticed. I fish a stretch of the Big Hole River outside of Twin Bridges at least a half dozen times every season. Less than a mile upriver from the put in there’s always a watchful Bald Eagle high up in a Cottonwood snag. At times the Balds are accompanied by a pair of Golden Eagles. They watch as I slowly fish past their home rarely leaving the snag.
Muskrats and beaver are common sights along the rivers. At dawn, the beavers get seriously annoyed with my presence and nervously circle and slap their tails as I pass their homes. One morning on the Yellowstone in a shallow side channel I came upon two very small beaver kits munching on some leaves on a gravel beach. They were too young to be scared of me as I approached. Momma beaver thought otherwise and aggressively showed up to escort her kits across the river. Otters are also a common sight as they travel up and down the rivers in search of food.
Sandhill Cranes are noisy birds commonly seen along our rivers. In the tall grasses at the river’s edge their chattering gives them away with only their bobbing heads visible against the tall grass. Every June when I finally make it back to the East Gallatin as runoff subsides, large chains of Bobolinks and Waxwings can be seen along the willowed banks as they make their brief stops on their way north. In the Fall as I paddle across Ennis Lake at dawn into Valley Garden, massive flocks of cranes and geese cross in front of me in the dawn sky.

Too Close
Too Close

Of course in Yellowstone, fishing alone is just not possible. Wildlife in Yellowstone is everywhere, sometimes to the point of annoyance and in fact danger. On rivers away from roads, encounters with wildlife are common. Bison, elk, pronghorn are routine sights. Bison are the most annoying because they just go where ever they please, oblivious to your presence. If they want to cross the river where you are fishing, they will and you have to find a way to get out of their way.
I’ve had a few encounters that really shook me at the time. This June on the Firehole I was in Goose Lake Meadows doing my thing as the sun was just clearing the lodgepole pines behind me. The river was high and because of that I was lucky that I was on the east side of the river at the time. On the bench overlooking the river in front of me, I noticed movement. It was a very large boar grizzly slowly working his way south along the edge of the bench. He had not seen me yet but was less than 100 yards away. I made my present known with my arms and the woefully inadequate tiny bell on my back pack. He finally saw me, stood tall and sniffed and ran back over the top of the bench out of sight. As I was catching my breath and releasing my death grip on the bear spray, he reappeared and seemed determined to move south along the side of the bench. My day’s fishing in Goose Lake Meadows was over. I nervously backed away from the river and headed back to the car about one mile away. Needless to say, the bear, a beautiful sight in its own right, kinda freaked me out for the remainder of the day.

Nervous Cow Elk with Calf
Nervous Cow Elk with Calf

In early July, I found myself at the mouth of the Gardner River in Yellowstone at dawn. Pronghorns, deer and elk are common sights along the river. I had just started fishing with large stonefly nymphs in the large pool that forms at the mouth when the Yellowstone River is in runoff. Across the river a cow elk and here calf walked down to the river and started to cross at the head of the pool. The cow had no problem crossing but the calf did and was swept down into the Yellowstone. The calf managed to make it back to shore and attempted to cross again encouraged by the bellowing of the cow. This time was successful. Unfortunately, I was now dead center where the cow and calf wanted to go. The cow was not shy and headed right for me. I had just hooked a fish and had to crouch behind a scrubby Juniper to avoid the elk. They passed within a few feet without incident, but my fly line was now seriously tangled in the juniper branches and the whitefish I had just caught was flopping on the sandy bank.

Ten Feet is too close
Ten Feet is too close

Although this next incident didn’t occur at dawn, it always reminds me how wild Yellowstone really is. I had walked into the upper Lamar from the Soda Butte Creek trailhead. It’s about 1.8 miles to where the Lamar flows into the valley out of its upper canyon water. It was late August, wet wading time and hopper season. As I walked in, I saw a small family of Pronghorns, a buck, doe and two fawns. They were grazing along the bench that shadows the south side of the trail. The fishing was good with a few nice Yellowstone Cutthroats landed on hoppers and Mormon crickets. My return to the car was a direct route off the trail across the sagebrush flat. It was hot, dry and sunny. About halfway back, I noticed the Pronghorn family off to the south resting in a shady ravine, but the buck seemed very nervous. Within a minute or so, I saw why. I noticed movement to my left and saw a wolf trotting at good gate directly towards me. It was less than 10 feet away before it noticed (or cared about) my presence. It veered around me and I was able to get off a few photos before it got out of range. It was intent on the Pronghorns who were now moving back into the ravine with the buck nervously protecting the rear. Beautiful animal, but ten feet was too close.
I may drive to the river alone. I may gear up and launch the kayak with no one about. I may catch dozens of fish, many of them bragging size, without anyone to watch or shake my hand. But here in Southwest Montana, I never fish alone.

4 Comments

  1. Nice article. I like to fish alone, too. But a few years ago, I was netting a nice trout in a senic stream in western NC. I was wading in about 12 inches of water with my felt sole wading boots and thoroughly enjoying myself. Then . . . CRASH! My left foot slipped out from under me and I blew out my left knee. I lay there in the cold stream several minutes catching my breath and hoping it wasn’t as bad as it first felt. But soon enough, it was apparent I couldn’t possibly stand, much less walk. I managed to free the fish, to gather up my banged up reel and my new, 3-piece Sage rod (which had been a 1-piece rod moments before), and begin about a half mile of slip-sliding on my backside, over rocks and through shallow pools, in a crab-like crawl on two arms and one leg to a point where the creek banks were no longer so steep to prevent me from crawling out of the water. After resting a while, and luckily, finding a broken branch stout enough to be an improvised walking stick, I hopped and hobbled another half mile back to my truck, and eventually back to the cabin the wife and I had rented for the rest of the week. I didn’t get out of the truck, just honked until the irate wife came out to see why I was making such a racket. She packed while I sat in the truck, then we drove and hour or so, back to my hometown and straight to the doctor’s office, still in my stocking foot waders. Had the fall injured my head instead of or in addition to my knee, the outcome might not have been nearly so good.

    Yes, it’s great to fish alone, away from civilization, in a pristine stream. It’s also potentially very dangerous, especially if no one knows exactly where you are fishing and there is no cell phone service. Make sure to have someone that, if not with you, knows exactly where you are, and when you should return or check in. Take care and be careful out there.

    1. Tommy, good advice. Some of my favorite quotes on the subject.

      “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Captain Lawrence Oates (1880—1912), British soldier and explorer. Before leaving the tent and vanishing into the blizzard on the ill-fated Antarctic expedition (1910-12). Oates was afraid that his lameness would slow down the others.

      “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” William Saroyan (1908-81), US dramatist.

      “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy

  2. Mike- we are kindred spirits in the dawn patrol activities. My family is not. Secondly, on the wildlife, I would have had a cow if I had seen that grizzly or even the wolf. Amazing what you see out there in Montana. I see a lot of wildlife in my mountain biking and ski activites but usually limited to deer, blue heron, and more docile creatures. I really liked this article. Very well written.

  3. Wonderful article Mike.

    As do most of us I gather, I too fish without human company, and like you that’s usually because of logistics. What with the head-of-household role, the only way I can arrange an occasional few hours on the stream is to do it in a way that doesn’t impact my family’s demands on my attention–to get up at 3:30am, drive ~100 miles, get into the water 30 minutes before dawn, put in a couple of hours tops, and get back before my wife and child are out of their pajamas.

    I wish I lived in Montana–the brilliant wildlife of which you speak is the mark of a charmed life. But even on my own stream that threads between farm fields, Nature comes together to share the moment. A huge-wingspanned Great Blue Heron likes to fly in and stand on a log a mere 30 feet away, to watch me fish. Muskrats and river otters go about their business, back and forth, within casting range. Small critters and wild turkeys scrape and scamper around on either side. I often stand at the head of a deeper glide right below a wide shallow riffle, and a little noise behind me always means a few deer are fording at those shoals, watching me but still content to coexist.

    (I’ve seen no bear yet on that stream, but one kayaker at his top-o-the-morning hour of 10am was pretty scruffy; I knew that as a good time to leave.)

    Well anyway, thanks for a terrific tale. Some day I’ll go back to Montana and no one will ever pry me out.

    – Mike

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