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The Streamside Guide - Return to Elkhorn

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We all have memories of rivers, lakes and streams visited in our youth that seem to sparkle with pools full of trout we wished we could revisit. Well Peter Cammann reports on just one such trip he made this year back to the Gallatin River of his youth at the Elkhorn Ranch in Montana.

by Peter Cammann

Wet wading in the Gallatin River - Peter Cammann steps back in time to fish a pool lodged in his memory from year beforeThe Gallatin River flows from its source at Gallatin Lake in Yellowstone National Park to a place called Three Forks, where it meets the Jefferson and Madison rivers, creating the headwaters of the Missouri River. When Mike and I visited Montana last August, one of our goals was to spend a day fishing this famous trout stream. As a kid, I'd fished the Gallatin, walking along the banks near the Elkhorn Ranch, about 30 miles north of West Yellowstone.

Elkhorn is a well-known "dude ranch" founded by Ernie and Grace Miller in the 1920's. I met Grace for the first time in New York City in 1968. She was an old friend of my mother's family and when my parents, my brother and I went to stay at Elkhorn the following summer, Grace fussed over us madly. It wasn't until some years later that I realized that Grace had been just as affectionate with and as attentive to each and every one of her other guests from the East. That level of consideration was passed on to her daughter Barb, who once admonished her daughter, "No, you can't hit the dudes, Kate - no matter what".

The "dude" in question, who had so vexed young Kate to a point of violent rage, was me. Kate and I worked things out and I managed to avoid getting the snot beaten out of me on subsequent visits to the ranch in '71 and '72, although I'm sure I sorely tested the patience of many, if not all of the ranch hands while I was there.

There was a pool on the Gallatin River, just at the southeastern edge of where the ranch's fence ran that I would fish almost every night after dinner. It was filled with rainbow trout and whitefish and I caught dozens of them there on a $15 fiberglass fly rod my parents had bought for me out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. My goal, for over thirty years, since my last visit to Montana, was to return to that same pool and catch a trout out of it.

Mike and I waded into the Gallatin one August morning, but sure as hell didn't feel like it though. Even though it was well after nine o'clock, the temperature still hadn't broken 60 degrees, maybe not even 50 for that matter. There was a damp mist in the air too, so we put on our waders and rain gear, just to keep dry, and hopefully stay a bit warmer as well. We started at a car pullover, across Highway 191 from the entrance to Elkhorn Ranch. I'd spotted the pool I'd been dreaming of for 35 years as we drove along the road and suggested that we fish upstream to it, scooping up as many loose fish as we could before settling into to what I was sure would be "The Main Event".

We didn't get a single strike. Not one! By the time we reached "my pool", the temperature had warmed up enough that I shed my waders and jacket. I waded bare legged into the Gallatin and made my first cast into the lower flat of the pool. Well, I worked the living hell out of that pool, using a dazzling array of terrestrials and attractor patterns with no result. Mike caught up with me and he watched in mock shock as I abandoned my fly rod and pulled out the dreaded ultralight-spinning rod and tied on a gold Phoebe lure. I flipped a cast into the middle of the pool and immediately hooked into a foot-long rainbow. I brought it in, revived it and released it. A few casts later, a much larger trout smacked at my lure, but I was unable to set the hook.

I lost another fish before noon, which was when we'd decided to break for lunch. My father's brother and his family were all staying at Elkhorn and they'd asked us to join them there for a few beers and a bite to eat. Wandering into the compound was pretty weird. With the exception of the facts that the new owner had buried the power lines and tightened up the cabins where the "dudes" all stayed, the place looked almost exactly the same as it had in 1972. Meeting up with my uncle, aunt and cousins was a great time - but the biggest thrill was to come right after lunch. My aunt put her arm around my shoulders and steered me over to a guy who was sitting on the edge of a post.

It was Dwight Minton, the guy who'd taught me pretty much everything I learned about fly fishing for trout back in the summer of 1969. I remember him desperately trying to show me how to tie a nail knot one night at his cabin at the ranch. The fact that he did so to the extremely dim shine of an oil lantern probably had something to do with the relative failure of the effort - but his good humor more than made up for it. Dwight and his wife and kids spent damn near every summer out at Elkhorn back then. He liked it so much that when Grace Miller's daughter Barb had decided enough was enough, he'd bought into the place.

I peppered him with questions about the river and he responded simply that ever since the 1992 release of Robert Redford's film, A River Runs Through It, the Gallatin had become overrun with "over educated trout". That'll happen, he said, given that every angler east of the Mississippi had arrived the following summer, armed with a fly rod and determined to catch a trout from the waters where that movie had been shot. Those poor trout in the Gallatin had seen just about every fly pattern in Art Flick's book.

He also told me how he and his son Brewster had gone out fishing the Gallatin on a recent summer afternoon. They'd come to a deep pool, with several very nice looking trout holding along the bottom, flicking back and forth in an unhurried manner. They'd seen thousands of grasshoppers along the shoreline and so the two of them tossed an endless parade of hand tied hopper imitations at the pool, without so much as even a refusal by way of a reaction from the fish.

Finally, Dwight and Brewster tramped a few dozen paces away from the bank and began driving the grasshoppers in front of them, towards the river, creating an insect stampede. They scattered in panic, but most of them eventually hurled themselves into the water as they tried to escape. Father and son stood on the bank and cursed at the trout as they boiled on the water's surface, gorging themselves on the bounty that the two men had provided them.

I decided not to tell Dwight about the spinning rod.

Copyright 2008 by Peter Cammann

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