Yellowstone, WY: Rockstar Fish and Hungover Rivers
I worked as a youth counselor at a church camp once. Over the couple summers, there is one conversation that hasn’t left me. My boss – only a few years older than me, still hardly able to drive to work legally at the time – asked me one of those questions that you never forget your answer to.
“Best rock and roll band of all time?”
“The Rolling Stones”
He didn’t like my answer. His reply was nothing short of theatrical, showy, and monotone to the beat – classic Beatles. He was a Beatles guy; I wasn’t then and I’m still not now.
I don’t know what he’s doing these days as our summer job stint ended about twelve years ago to the day. People grow up; things change. But I’d venture a guess that there are certain elements of people’s personalities that don’t – things that reflect permanent personality traits, things like your stance on the Beatles versus the Stones.
Windows down and blasting forty-minutes of Beggar’s Banquet on repeat, I pulled into Yellowstone National Park with my cat, my camera, and a twelve-pack of Snake River brew for a day with Mick, Keith, and the brown trout of Yellowstone River.
You just can’t do that with the Beatles.
Celebrating 100 Years
I pulled through the stone arch gate on the north end, dropped the thirty-dollar entry fee, and stuffed my Wyoming fishing license into the glove box with the other sixteen states. A gas station burrito breakfast after a night of car camping next to the slightly-snow-covered peaks of Mt. Holmes off of Grizzly Lake sent me on my way south to meet Chris – somewhere between Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful or Paint It Black and Wild Horses. He was knee deep in the Gibbon River – 4 weight rod, dry fly, and Gibbon Brown Trout in hand when I slammed the car into park and came running up from my makeshift parking spot on the southbound side of 89.
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It’s usually a sign that the fishing isn’t going too well when the conversation moves to scenery or beautiful weather and then the final it’s-just-great-to-be-out-here blow. When fish are hitting, they’re the focus of the conversation; the scenery and the weather are insignificant observers along for the ride. But that wasn’t the case for my first conversation with Chris, a new friend for the day. There could have been a 30-inch brown trout playing a miniature version of Keith’s 1953 Fender Telecaster on the end of his TFO Rod and the conversation would still be heavily focused on the majestic view.
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I parked the car and sprinted toward the bank- scratch that, I jogged as fast as a mostly-sedentary road tripper can. I don’t know what came first, my introduction to Chris or a shameless series of photos snapped of the incredible view he was creating. There was a herd of American Bison – Buffalo is a common misconception – between Chris’ dry fly and the still partially snow-capped mountain in the background.
On the parks one hundredth birthday, she was looking good.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Chris and I beat the bad news to the Yellowstone River. Shortly after Chris finished his vacation and I continued my westward exploration, the bad news hit the birthday girl right before her big party.
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At this peak of this summer’s tourist season, including an influx of fly fishing vacationers, the river got a little stomach bug. Can you blame her? I’ve had some sickness after most of my birthdays too, and I’m still a couple years off of the big centennial one.
But it wasn’t a hangover. Rivers don’t get hangovers. They do, however, get parasites – fish killing parasites. The symptom was hard to miss; mountain whitefish of Yellowstone River started dying in massive numbers. After some testing, researching, and fish-funeral-planning, they tracked the deaths to a kidney disease from a contagious parasite, killing between 20 and 100 percent of infected hosts.
That’s bad news for everyone: anglers bringing business to the pristine waters, companies losing business in the peak of the elusive trout summer season, and, most specifically, the tens of thousands of dead whitefish and increasingly parasite-hungry trout populations.
Because humans can – and probably did – spread the parasite from river to river, officials have closed a lengthy stretch of the Yellowstone to all recreational activities.
It’s disappointing for me, Chris, and the Mick-Keith tandem rolling with us all day. The missed summer vacations and the economic hit to the region will hurt in the short run. But if we try, I’ll bet we just might find a way to keep the fish population healthy for another century – which is what we need.