Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Gibbon River. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gibbon River. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River in Yellowstone on a Cold Rainy Day

If I had to pick one river that draws me back to Yellowstone National Park time and again it would be the Gibbon. Primarily featuring gorgeous meadow water, the Gibbon River also has some canyon sections, water falls, lake run fish, and huge resident brown trout. The Gibbon River is also a stream facing significant challenges and unfortunately may not long be a stream worth fishing. Despite those challenges, fly fishing the Gibbon River still provides some of my favorite fly fishing in Yellowstone. In my most recent Yellowstone trip, I had a chance to spend a little time on this wonderful stream. Before that story, here is a bit about fly fishing the Gibbon River as well as challenges facing this incredibly unique fishery.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Lower Meadows

The Gibbon River can be split into several distinct sections. The lowest and probably most famous water is from Madison Junction upstream to Gibbon Falls. This section hosts tremendous numbers of large rainbow and brown trout from Hebgen Lake from fall through early spring of each year. The brown trout head upstream from the lake through the Madison River on a spawning journey that eventually finds them in either the Firehole River or the Gibbon River. Rainbow trout move into the system as well for the same reasons. While many anglers make the journey to Yellowstone in October to fish for these incredible trout, I prefer fishing areas upstream from this section simply for the challenge that they present.

Fly fishing the Gibbon River Gibbon Falls
Gibbon Falls - ©2018 David Knapp Photography

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Canyon and Gibbon Meadows

The next section of the Gibbon River is the canyon from Gibbon Falls upstream to Gibbon Meadows. This canyon section provides some great fishing both early and late in the season. Fish are not very large on average although a few larger fish are present. In Gibbon Meadows, the river slows down and meanders slowly across a wide landscape. A few large trout may be found here, but few anglers are up to the challenge of stalking them.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Elk Park to Grebe Lake

Upstream from Gibbon Meadows is another short canyon stretch which ends near Norris in another meadow section. Elk Park provides more meandering meadow water and is also some of my favorite water on the river. Meandering behind the Norris Geyser Basin, the Gibbon leaves the road for a couple of miles before returning and providing easy access near Norris Campground. If you want to fly fish the Gibbon River in its upper reaches, stay at this campground. Above Norris, the Gibbon enters another canyon leading upstream to Virginia Cascades. Above this scenic waterfall is another beautiful little meadow known as Virginia Meadows. This water previously had some fantastic fishing for wild brook trout although I've also caught cuttbows here with more rainbow heritage than cutthroat. Those fish are no longer there, however.

Above Virginia Meadows, the river and its tributaries flow through heavy brush as it descends from Grebe Wolf, and Ice Lakes. This entire section was recently treated by the National Park Service. While well intentioned, the Yellowstone National Park fisheries department is following shaky science at best with their efforts on the Gibbon River.

Gibbon River Restoration Efforts

Restoring native species is an admirable endeavor under most scenarios. Unfortunately, the National Park Service is following a rather broad definition of "restoration" for restoring the upper Gibbon River. According to their own environmental assessment in the planning stages, the upper Gibbon River never contained west slope cutthroat trout nor did it contain grayling. Unfortunately, the National Park Service has decided to prioritize one invasive over another. Long term, the plan calls for the total elimination of "non-native" species all the way downstream to Gibbon Falls. That means that my favorite stream will no longer be worthy of a visit. 

Why? I travel to Yellowstone to fish for the wild brown trout of the Gibbon upstream of Gibbon Falls. In particular, the water around Norris Geyser Basin is specially suited to these beautiful fish. Once they are eliminated and replaced with cutthroat, this stream will be full of an inferior fish and one that is not even native. If it was a true native species restoration, I would have nothing to say even if I did not like losing the wild browns. Since it is not a true restoration, I have no problem saying that I think this is a worthless project that will ruin an amazing fishery.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River for Large Resident Brown Trout

While everyone else is thinking about fishing the lower Gibbon River for lake run fish, I like hunting the giant brown trout that inhabit the upper watershed from Gibbon Falls upstream to Virginia Cascades. These fish are finicky, spooky, and everything else that you would want from large challenging trout. On my most recent trip to Yellowstone, I was able to spend a bit of time on this, my favorite river in Yellowstone.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River on a Cold Rainy Day

Nasty weather always seems to bring out the aggression in brown trout. This is often the case on the Gibbon River. Under normal sunny weather, fish will tuck up under overhanging undercut banks and in any other piece of shade they can find. These brown trout did not get large by being stupid. However, under cloudy skies and rain or snow, these fish come out to hunt. Truth be told, my favorite time for fly fishing the Gibbon River is mid summer on a bright sunny day. Knowing that the fish are tucked up under those undercuts helps immensely in locating them. However, you just cannot beat a good stormy day to get the fish on the feed. 

On our trip to Yellowstone National Park, the weather took a turn for the worse within our first couple of days. Unseasonably cool weather prevailed, eventually producing the first good snowfall of the season at higher elevations. More on that in a future blog post. Somehow, my wife kindly agreed to let me fly fish the Gibbon River in this nasty weather. The rain wasn't falling when we started, but soon a cold fine rain began to soak our rain jackets. I knew I was on borrowed time since I did not want to make my wife miserable. Thus, I focused on some of the best and also most accessible water near Norris. 

Fishing through this section, things started out rather slow. In time I found out why. The National Park Service restoration efforts had been ongoing and many of the stream's trout appeared to be missing. In their place were pasty pellet head west-slope cutthroat straight from a hatchery somewhere. The brook trout were lacking compared with other visits to this stream. I'm still unclear on whether fish are being mechanically removed (via electroshocking) or what is going on through this section. 

Eventually, the YNP fisheries hopes to completely remove non-natives from this section according to my last information. I'm seriously hoping that they instead allow the brown, rainbow, and brook trout to coexist with the cutthroat. This is a contrived fishery after all and the Park Service should not be favoring one invasive over another. 

With the slow start, I knew I had two choices: either move faster to cover more water in my search for brown trout or slow down and really pick apart the water. When fishing this type of water, the worst thing you can typically do is to move too fast. Thus, I found myself slowing down. Often, this is a part of the process for me. As a Great Smoky Mountains angler and fly fishing guide, I'm accustomed to moving fast. Therefore, I always need to change my mindset and approach when fishing other water. This normally takes me an hour or so. 

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Success!!!

Finally, as I was working into some of the best water I would fish on this trip, it happened. I had cast up above a deep bend pool and allowed my fly to nearly dead drift deep into the slot at the head of the undercut. A couple of twitches kept it from snagging the bottom. Suddenly, my line simply stopped. When I set the hook, I fully expected to be stuck to a large pile of weeds on the bottom of the stream. That first head shake told me otherwise. My amazing wife grabbed the net and went for the fish. Because of the heavy tippets I use for this fishing, it didn't take long before I maneuvered the fish to the bank and she slipped the net under my largest brown trout of the trip. While not as large as some I have caught on this stream, it was still an amazing fish.

Large brown trout caught while fly fishing the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park
Gibbon River Brown Trout - ©2018 Leah Knapp

I fished a bit longer, catching a few more solid brown trout. However, it was getting colder and the rain heavier. My lovely wife was no longer having fun and that meant it was time to stop. 

Observations on the Gibbon River From My Trip

As I mentioned above, the Gibbon River was simply not the same stream as before. Fish numbers and size were down significantly. I do not know if the National Park Service has modified their approach on this stream. Perhaps they are attempting to mechanically remove the majority of fish in an effort to avoid using poison on such a large stream. Perhaps the change in regulations is hurting this stream. Unfortunately, in conjunction with their new management strategy, the National Park Service removed all limits on "non-native" fish in this section. That does not extend to the non-native cutthroat, clearly demonstrating the hypocrisy of the Yellowstone National Park administration in managing this formerly incredible trout stream. 

If this bothers you as well, I encourage you to contact both the Yellowstone National Park fisheries department as well as the overall Park administration. The Gibbon River will probably not be a good reason to visit Yellowstone National Park in the future unless things change. Before the removal efforts, myself and many others would travel there just to fish this stream. Now, I'm planning vacations to other destinations. There are still amazing places in Yellowstone, and I will be highlighting some of these from my trip this summer in future blog posts.

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Sunday, November 01, 2015

Day of Days Continues With a Large Brown Trout on the Gibbon: Yellowstone Day Two

Gibbon River brown trout in Yellowstone

As with most fishing trips, my journey to Yellowstone was the result of months of pre-planning. Unlike those last minute decisions to hit local water for a couple of hours, driving 30 or more hours across the country is something that must be deliberated on, planned for, and researched. Oh and do not forget those hours and hours pouring over satellite views on Google maps. Ultimately, this trip was the result of one wish in particular: to fish the upper Gibbon River where large brown trout dwell in some of the most perfect meadow water you will find anywhere. The Park's plan to eradicate these amazing fish convinced me that it was now or never.

Fast forward to my second full day in Yellowstone and you'll find me completely content after several hours the previous day on the Gibbon and an already full day fishing the iconic Lamar River in Yellowstone's northeast corner. Native cutthroat trout had rose all afternoon to my hopper offerings. Now, with the sun sinking towards the horizon, I was nearing my camp alongside the Gibbon River at Norris. Approximately one hour remained to me before legal fishing hours were over and the chill of night would send me looking for a fleece jacket. My gear was ready to go from the previous day's fishing, so there was nothing left but to walk down to the meadow and get started.

Gibbon River at Norris

The evening got off to a quick start with a couple of nice browns. The moon was already in the eastern sky, rising before sundown since the full moon was still a few days away. A large male bison grazed nearby. I suspected that the traffic stopping and all the cameras clicking along the road nearby were probably more because of him but still did my best to put on a show. Of course, I needed a good fish to cooperate for that to happen.

Working slowly through one of the prettiest bend pools you can imagine, I was surprised to not get any strikes. The deep heart of the pool, larger than most on this stretch, seemed devoid of fish. So did the undercut bank that seemed to go on forever as it curved towards the slot at the head where the shallow riffle poured in. Reaching the riffle without any strikes, I figured it wouldn't hurt and tossed my fly into what looked to be inches deep water. Almost immediately, the line stopped.

When I reared back, I was positive I had snagged a stick or log that had somehow gone undetected because there was no give at all. That only lasted for a fraction of a second though, mostly because the "log" started swimming downstream in the most convincing manner. Onlookers were probably amused to watch me running backwards as I tried to keep everything tight between me and that fish. As it rounded the bend into the deep still water of the main pool, I breathed a sigh of relief before remembering that the hook was barbless. The barbless hook requirement is one of those well-intentioned rules that I applaud for providing some measure of protection for the trout of Yellowstone; however, I'm fairly sure it was actually made to give fisher people like me heart attacks while fighting trout.

Through a series of minor miracles, not the least of which was the fact that I didn't screw things up, the fish somehow came to my net. The fly slipped out of its mouth before it even hit the bottom of the net, but it was in there so I breathed a sigh of relief before taking a moment to just stare at the gorgeous fish now my net. I got a couple of pictures (see top of post) and a fellow angler stopped by and snapped a couple more for me.

Gibbon River monster brown trout
Thanks to Tom Stout for taking this picture for me!

With this fish, both my day and trip were complete. My favorite meadow stream had produced a fish to remember. Everything after this point was just a bonus because this was the fish I had come to catch.

I definitely hope that I get another opportunity to fish this water with brown trout inhabiting the undercuts, and perhaps the fisheries department in Yellowstone National Park will even change their mind on eliminating these amazing fish. The habitat in this stream is definitely more supportive of wild brown trout than it is of wild cutthroat trout. Even more importantly, I hope some of the local misguided support for this project will be reevaluated. The cutthroat were not native to this section of stream so why trade one invasive for another?



Monday, October 19, 2015

Welcome to Yellowstone

Mt. Haynes in Yellowstone National Park

Arriving late to Yellowstone can be a risky thing. I always forget how incredibly far it is and how long the drive is across Wyoming. The original goal was to be in the Park by midday on Sunday, but between stopping to sleep a few hours in the car on Saturday night and buying some groceries on Sunday, I arrived in the Park late in the day. The sign at the South Entrance informed me that all of the campgrounds were already full except for at Lewis Lake. Luckily that was the closest so I had a chance to claim a site.

Sure enough, I snagged a site but none too early as lots of forlorn looking travelers were doing the drive around the campground routine looking for a nonexistent available site shortly after my arrival. With an hour or two until sundown, I walked down to the lakeshore and enjoyed the sunset before heading back for an early bedtime. The drive had me tired out, and I needed plenty of energy for the next few days of fishing. 

That night I was reminded how cold it can get in the high country, especially late in the season. However, being tired has its advantages so I slept quite well. The next morning, I was up and packed before sunrise and made it to West Thumb Geyser Basin for an early morning photo opportunity. The early morning sun lit up the steam creating some beautiful views. A big bull elk surprised me on the way. He was wandering in the road and bugling, his breath condensing into vapor in the cold morning air. 

Elk bugling in Yellowstone National Park

West Thumb Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park

West Thumb Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park

Moving on down the road, I decided to take the scenic route over to Norris by way of Hayden Valley and Canyon. The idea seemed even better when I found a delicious breakfast at Canyon and a place to buy a fishing license. Full and content, I hurried on towards Norris and grabbed one of only a handful of available campsites. Clearly the crowds were still on the high side considering how late in the season it was. 

Camping in Norris Campground

In no time I had my camp set up, and soon I had a rod strung up headed to the meadow stretch on the Gibbon right by the campground. Shortly after starting, that first Yellowstone trout graced the end of my line, a gorgeous Gibbon River brown trout. 

Gibbon River Brown Trout

Releasing a Gibbon River brown trout

I continued up through the meadow, catching fish here and there, and as the sun was starting to drop in the western sky I decided to head for West Yellowstone. The sky over the Madison was worth a stop for pictures. By the time I got back to camp, I was already completely satisfied with my Yellowstone trip and the adventure had only begun!

Madison River in Yellowstone National Park

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Talk To Me About Yellowstone In September

So there is a chance, nothing definite mind you, that I will get to take a trip out to Yellowstone the last two weeks in September. Originally, I dreamed of a long trip covering the better part of three weeks or maybe even a month. Colorado, Wyoming, Yellowstone of course, Montana, maybe even the Green River in Utah, just me and the most wild places I could find, preferably places that were blessed with numbers of quality trout.

The more thought that I've given to this possible trip, the more I realize that I mostly want to just visit Yellowstone. I've never had the good fortune to fish it in the fall but have long wanted to. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I'm never always quite certain, there is nothing to take me to Colorado other than the fishing and those rivers will be there for a long time still. In Yellowstone, however, while my favorite stream will be there for a long time to come (unless the super volcano blows that is) the very thing that makes it my favorite Yellowstone National Park stream is in danger of being destroyed.

So far as I can tell, the Park has not yet implemented their ludicrous plan to remove the browns, brooks, and 'bows from the Gibbon River, but knowing how such things work, it is surely still in the works. While a good number of people seem to be in favor of the change, they clearly have little knowledge of both cutthroat and their habitat preferences (the meadows of the Gibbon get way too warm for cutts) and also very little knowledge of the gem of a stream that the Gibbon is as is. I'm okay with people not understanding this beautiful stream since it leaves the lunker browns for me and a few select others to hunt, hopefully in a few more weeks.

A trip across several states and nearly across the country just to fish one stream may sound a bit extreme, and that is where I was hoping for some advice. I'll spend an inordinate amount of time fishing the Gibbon but would like to do more while I'm in the area. I've already fished Yellowstone National Park several times so need more info on how various waters fish during the last two weeks in September than anything. Will the Firehole be back in play yet? How about the lake run fish out of Hebgen on the Madison, lower Gibbon, and lower Firehole? How does the Madison outside of the Park fish at that time of year? Northeast corner of the Park such as Slough, Soda Butte, and the Lamar? How about the Yellowstone in the Grand Canyon or the Black Canyon? Backpacking that time of year would be pretty sweet, but since I'll be solo I doubt I'll tempt the bears too much. Day trips are risky enough by myself I suppose. I've never fished the Gardner. Would it be worth hitting for runner browns in late September or would I need to be out there later in the fall?

Any and all advice would be appreciated. I prefer catching brown trout first, cutthroat second (I would be in Yellowstone after all), and any other trout are just nice bonuses. Since there seems to be a war on browns, and I know the cutts will be there in the future, I'm not as concerned with finding and catching cutthroat even though I'm sure I'll fish for them at least some. Finally, I fully recognize that fishing advice is rarely if ever best shared through the Interwebs for all to read. Feel free to email me at TroutZoneAnglers@gmail.com if you prefer that to answering on here.

Thank you in advance for any and all advice!




Sunday, September 09, 2007

Crazy Timing: YNP Day 3


Crazy timing, a developing hatred of whitefish, and unreal brookie fishing all made up day three of our Yellowstone adventure. The previous day we decided that a trip over to West Yellowstone and Blue Ribbon Flies was in order. In the process, we hoped to check out the Gallatin River.

We got a reasonably early start and headed west without too many delays. Anyone that has been to Yellowstone knows that what looks to be an hour or two long drive can easily be twice that with all the traffic jams where the tourists gawk at a buffalo that decided to park on a nice piece of pasture immediately adjacent to the highway.

Thankfully, we didn't run into that situation much on our way and were soon in West Yellowstone at Blue Ribbon Flies. We went into the shop and were immediately in heaven. This shop has the best large selection of traditional tying materials I've probably ever seen. The selection of hair and feathers was astounding not to mention their patented Zelon. After browsing for altogether too long, I finally decided it was time to get out before I saw all my money depart my wallet. I made my way up to the counter to pay where a gentleman with a slight southern accent was conversing with the guy at the register.

Standing there listening and waiting my turn, I started to realize that this guy looked familiar and then he mentioned something about "back home in Tennessee." In amazement I asked, "Are you Hugh Hartsell?" We had known that Mr. Hartsell would be out there but hadn't expected to see this excellent guide from Tennessee. After all, it is a huge area out there and the chances of running into him were extremely small. Incredibly, he answered in the affirmative so we had the pleasure of spending several minutes chatting with him about the fishing he had been doing in the area. He informed us that the Gallatin was off color which was a bummer since we were planning on fishing there. He also mentioned that he thought the Gallatin was the best option for good fishing in the area based on his experience so far. Still in shock over the unbelievable timing it took for us both to be at BRF at the same time, we eventually said goodbye as his wife was waiting on him.



After finishing up at Blue Ribbon Flies, we decided to head up to the Gallatin anyway. It turned out to be a good decision. We got there and while the water was cloudy, it was still fishable as long as you could cast in the increasingly gusty wind. I started out fishing hoppers figuring that surely the strong wind would be blowing them into the water but I couldn't rise a single fish. Soon after, I switched to a Tellico nymph and things improved drastically.



The first few fish were chunky hard fighting rainbows that put on a great aerial display. Then it happened. My nymphs were drifting through a nice hole when my line suddenly stopped and then shot upstream a couple of feet as I set the hook. A nice fish had taken the Tellico and started bulldogging persistently. Flashes of what looked like gold were soon reaching the surface and I thought it was a good brown. Soon however, I brought a whitefish to hand (my first I might add). I'm beginning to understand why people dislike these fish. More on that another time...



After landing that beast, I soon caught several more rainbows and cutthroat before finally landing one brown. Four species in a couple of hours from one stream was pretty amazing but it was time to move on. The wind had got even worse and we had other streams we wanted to look at.





After stopping to check a few spots, we finally settled on the upper Gibbon where I had fond memories of casting to brook trout in a beautiful meadow setting. It was just as I remembered and we were soon catching brookies and the odd rainbow on small ant patterns. They came in two sizes mainly, small and smaller. However they were very willing to eat and provided nonstop fun on dries which is a good time any day in my book. I even caught one guy that had some serious "teeth."



It turned out to be an excellent day exploring a couple of nice streams. We still had other adventures ahead though including the Lamar and Slough Creek not to mention the Yellowstone...