I was beginning to worry as the brown valley hillsides gave way to snow as I drove up the mountain highway leading to Yellowstone National Park. Then the rain started...in April...in the snow-packed mountains of northern Wyoming.
I was passing prime fishing waters in the lower valley to cast to waters where, in early April, it was unlikely either rainbow trout or native Yellowstone cutthroat trout had yet pushed into the chilly reaches. Why would I head high into the mountains to fish in water where it was unlikely there was more than just a handful of fish to be found? Well, for conservation actually.
You see, on the Northfork of the Shoshone River that rolls out of the east side of Yellowstone National Park until it reaches Buffalo Bill Reservoir west of Cody, Wyoming, fishing is closed for a significant stretch of every spring. In an attempt to provide assistance to the struggling Yellowstone cutthroat trout population that reside in the river and utilize the many tributaries to spawn, a stretch of the river is closed every year from April through the end of June. That's why I was driving deep into the mountains to fish.
The conditions for fishing couldn't have been any better for early April in northern Wyoming. I managed to escape the off-color waters I found in the lower elevations as a combination of snowmelt and rain pushed sediment into the river. Shortly after the warm rain ended a small caddis hatch begin to emerge along the edge of the river.
I tied on a locally famous pattern, the Northfork Special, a bead-head purple nymph concoction. I worked every piece of water where I thought there might be the chance to find a trout. Then I saw it.
A second hatch was coming off the warming waters and just below me, about once every thirty seconds, a trout poked its nose through the water to inhale one of these mystery insects. I could only see the insects when they were nearing the water's surface; oddly, there didn't seem to be any near me. I could only see them at a distance hanging just above the water's surface. Regardless of the type of insect they were, they told me that there were indeed fish in the river even this high up.
Having searched the water with my nymph rig without even a single strike I searched my fly boxes for anything that could possibly imitate the elusive mystery hatch taking place. I spent the reminder of my time on the water cycling through a series of patterns, working winter-weakened muscle memory to try and make accurate casts, floating my fly through the fish's viewing lane only to have it ignored time and time again. Maddeningly, he continued to rise to the mystery hatch that I was unable to match.
I left the water without so much as a single strike, but I was invigorated nevertheless. It was my first day back on the water and I had learned that you could find trout actively feeding even in high elevation mountain waters early in the season. And I was more than happy to make that trek with only the most limited chance for success because doing so was helping to protect the fragile native trout population in the river. In a way it was like fishing for conservation-- and I can think of no better way to start out my fishing season.
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Cheers & tight lines,