We went up the Stillwater River into the Beartooth Mountains. Past Sioux Charlie and Frenchy’s meadow. Beyond Cutoff Mountain. Further than I had ever gone. Until we reached the valley where Slough Creek flows down into Yellowstone Park. Vibrant green pine saplings blanketed the earth beneath tall grey sticks the fires had left along the slopes until they reached the high edges of rockslides and steep granite. When the wind blew wildflowers in the grasses swayed and made fleeting purple waves in the pastures. We were alone. I was twenty years old, and thought I knew how special it was. Knew how small I was in the mountains. How precious that time was. Now I understand it was more than I could have known then.
It was dawn when we made a fire and ate breakfast the first morning. When we had sat and talked enough, we walked through the grass to the creek and followed it downstream until we reached a small waterfall with frothy water churning into a pool surrounded by rocks. We climbed down the rocks and crawled on our hands and knees to a boulder that rose up below the pool. There was only room for one of us to cast at a time. My friend sat on the granite next to me. I did not have much gear then. I brought a rod and reel, and my vest with the essentials that we shared.
The fly? Elk hair caddis of course. What else for a novice fly fisherman to throw? There was no fly shop. No guides. No fishing reports. Only a fly box with a few flies that seemed to work on the Stillwater back at the ranch. I had brought the little I had from Colorado. Fly fishing was different for me then, but I did not know why or how.
I cast into the fast water below the falls, stripping line quickly but only for a few seconds. The fly disappeared in the mouth of a trout and bent my flyrod in the next instant. A beautiful west slope cut. I cast again. Another cutthroat. My friend watched while I caught fish. Sometimes we laughed and talked and sometimes we were quiet. We took turns casting from the rock and catching fish. When most of our flies began to fall apart, we stopped for the next days.
I have never been back to those falls in Slough Creek. I wish I saw my friend more often these days. The memory ties me to him and to the river. Days like that connect things. Rarely do I think of one without the other. Good day’s fishing? Yeah. The best day.
What Are We Searching For?
What was it that made that day so special?
Was it catching fish? I do not know how many we caught. Once we realized what was happening counting seemed silly. But each was exciting. Each was unique. Each cast ended with native cutthroats splashing and leaping from ancient waters. Every cast another victory.
Was it being on the river? We were hundreds of miles from civilization. Surrounded by beautiful mountains and separated by nature. They say trout don’t live in ugly places. I have found this to be true. It certainly was that day.
Was it the stillness? Everything else seemed to disappear that day. As it always does for me. No room for distractions and worry. The focus on the motions and rhythms, and the doing of it brought calm and joy.
Was it being with my friend? My memory of that day is like so many I have of fly fishing with people I care about. Enhanced by sharing something special with someone who gets it. Now, if I spend the day with my brother or father on the river, it is certainly a good day.
Was it all these things?
Something was happening that day and every day after. Something hard to see if you do not look for it. Something I also believe makes a good day’s fishing. Now I search for it. It keeps me coming back although at times it is hard to understand.
That day on Slough Creek was perfect. How could it not be? I was deep in the Beartooth Mountains, catching beautiful cutthroat trout non-stop, and spending time with one of my closest friends. Both of us aware of the quiet and the magnitude of the mountains. Every cast and every hook set a joy. These are the days we seek in fly fishing, although now I see that more is happening.
Now my best days on the river include the learning that comes from overcoming obstacles. Growth combined with the rest of it. Always trying to progress and get better. That struggle is what I judge a days fishing on now more than anything. It is always there if you look for it, whether you catch fish or not.
But it is not merely the challenge – it is meeting the challenge. Problem solving. Learning. And ultimately, teaching – where and how I can. A day of not catching many or any fish is valuable to me if I can take something away from it. And the longer I fly fish, the more I look to learn as an end unto itself. So that it IS about catching fish, but only to the extent that catching fish means getting better.
How Do You Find It?
The experiences we have in fly fishing add up over time. If you are patient and observant, you can see the progress in those experiences. Here are a few of mine:
Working all day to learn how a simple orange scud could bring in the most beautiful brown I had ever caught on the Provo River. READ: WADEOUTTHERE | The Orange Scud Theory.
Matching the hatch on the Bighole with the last of my PMD emergers and learning the value of patience on the river. READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.
Spending an hour watching a trout pass on fly after fly, then watching him take the next one. READ: WADEOUTTHER | Six Techniques for Fishing Small Streams.
Maneuvering rocks and current and snags to pull a fat brown from a hole I knew held a fish, and that few others would fish. READ: WADEOUTTHERE | I Bet There’s a Trout in There.
Setting the hook with a poorly tied size twelve olive hares ear and being prouder of that little Provo River rainbow than had it been a monster because it was the first fish I caught with a fly I tied myself. READ: WADEOUTTHERE | One Story and Six Reasons Why You Should Tie Your Own Flies.
It is the fact that the fish do not bite all the time that makes the take more exciting. And when you start to catch fish, you know that there are days that they do not land in the net. So that you cannot help but appreciate it more.
This is the other path in fly fishing. The one that we search for at Wadeoutthere.
I didn’t always think this way. In the beginning there were more days without fish than with. Those were the times that I learned to appreciate the river and my surroundings. Being there in the water, wading and casting, was enough. Fly fishing had to be about more than catching fish because there were so many days I did not.
As I learned more, slowly I caught more fish. Everyone starts somewhere and as you improve, generally, this happens for all of us. My goals became to catch more fish and bigger fish.
And then I started to realize that it wasn’t just the big fish or the most fish I was after. What is it then? Just the excitement of it? The anticipation of the take? The hook set followed by fighting the trout to your hand? Or was it those things that I remembered from Slough Creek?
Something else. The doing of the work and figuring things out for myself. Sometimes in a day, and sometimes over years. The real joy for me comes from that problem solving. This is what brings enduring meaning to fly fishing for me.
No End in Sight.
Am I still searching for a day like that on Slough Creek? Maybe.
Even with the naïve ease that we caught fish that day, I cannot say it was missing anything. Progress was there. If only to remind me now of the joy.
There are so many things that make a good day’s fishing and it is different for everyone. Being on the river. Sharing those moments with friends and family. The stillness and quiet that comes with the act of fly fishing. Or simply the unending hope that this time, a fish will rise.
The challenge is something I have grown to search for and embrace. To catch fish in spite of obstacles makes it more special than catching fish with every cast. Because I know that with every challenge comes learning, and progress, and the journey. The other path.
What makes a good day’s fishing? That depends on you. Are you Wading Out There?