Notes From the Field: The Lamar Feels the Pressure

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Yellowstone National Park.  There are few places in the Lower 48 where you can see bison, wolves, coyotes, pronghorn, prairie dogs, elk, bald eagles, osprey, and grizzly bears all in the same place.  The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park is one of those places.  On any given day in the summer and fall, the valley is full of life.  Sizeable bison herds usually dominate the scene.  The bison, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, migrate to the valley to feed on its nutritious grasses, drink from the cold, clear waters of the Lamar River, or to seek protection from marauding packs of wolves.  The wide-open flat country encompassing the lowlands allow the bison herds plenty of room to maneuver upon the approach of a wolf pack.  Humans are drawn to the valley to take in the scenery or to view its wooly inhabitants.  The fanatics who daily crisscross the national park trying to spot wolves, and who are known as “Wolfies,” regularly visit the Lamar Valley.  Every evening during the summer months, the cars and trucks of the Wolfies line the edges of the Lamar Valley’s single paved road.  From the comfort of their vehicles, the Wolfies scan the lowlands and the forest verge to the south with high-powered scopes or expensive binoculars, hoping to get a glimpse of the object of their voyeuristic obsession.

For fly-fishers, the biggest draw of the Lamar Valley are the river’s cutthroat trout, which can grow to 20 inches or longer.  Lamar cutthroat are probably the most cautious trout in North America.  By late August, the fish have seen every conceivable fly known to man.  Lamar cutts have a reputation for eluding the net.  Through the years, I’ve had hundreds of fish silently rise up from the dark depths of the river to examine a fly.  Then, after giving my imitation insect a quick look-see, they realize it’s a fake.  Once they’ve determined the fly to be a phony, the fish quickly turn away and descend back from whence they came.  Fishing the Lamar is a lesson in frustration.  If you go there, be ready to see lots of fish come to the surface to examine your fly (some of them will be true monsters of the deep) but only a few will actually give you a chance to set the hook.

This year, the Lamar fished hard, real hard.  There were several reasons for this.  First, many of the rivers in Montana experienced fishing closures due to low water and high daytime temperatures.  Consequently, the fly-fishers who would have normally fished the Upper Missouri at Wolf Creek or the Big Hole at Wisdom, travelled instead to Yellowstone National Park to fish the Lamar or one of its feeder streams, such as Slough Creek or Soda Butte Creek.  The crowds were thick on the Lamar in July and August.  Second, low water on the Lamar bunched the fish up in a few deep holes.  During years of normal or high flow, the fish spread out.  In the past, fish could be found in the riffles, the flats, next to the shoreline in the shallows, and down in the deepest holes.  Not so this year.  By July and August, the fish concentrated in a handful of holes, or stayed very close to those holes (because they were the last sanctuaries left to them), only leaving them to feed in nearby riffles.  Predictably, the fly-fishing community pounded the few holes holding fish.  Finally, with untold numbers of fishers hitting the same fishable water day in and day out, the cutts in the Lamar became very wise.  By August, a cast had to be perfect, the leader’s drift had to be absolutely imperceptible, and the fly had to look as though it would flutter away from your fly box on its own hackled wings.

In August 2015, a good day on the Lamar meant 4 fish.  A fantastic day – 10 fish.  Two years ago, I fished the Lamar on a good day and caught over a dozen big cutthroat on a size 10 tan Fat Albert or a size 8 peach-bodied Moorish Hopper.  This year, the fish would not take to the foam.  My guess is that they’d seen so much foam drift over their holes that they didn’t even bother rising up for a close examination.  Maybe next year the river will run higher and summer temperatures will remain lower.  I sure hope so.  Because if 2016 is like 2015, the Lamar is going to continue to feel the pressure.

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