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Fish Stories

In Montana, learning about casting, fishing guides and the secret lives of trout at an A-list lodge near the fabled rivers of Yellowstone

July 26, 1998|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

EMIGRANT, Mont. — A trout is a very nervous creature, says "The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide." Early in July, flying into Bozeman, Mont., along the frosted crest of the Rocky Mountains, I could empathize, because I was about to test my nerves against theirs in the fabled trout streams that drain the northern precincts of Yellowstone National Park: the Madison, Gardner, Gibbon, Lamar and the mighty Yellowstone, the longest free-flowing river in the Lower 48.

Inside the 2.2-million-acre national park there are 400 fishable waters, including meandering creeks, ponds and lakes where, after being duped by fly-fishermen, most fish live to be duped again because, thanks to conservation, catch and release is largely the rule. The fishing season lasts from snowmelt in late May to first snowfall in October, and the average size of trout landed in the park is about 14 inches--lake, brook, brown, rainbow and the native cutthroat trout, known for its incredible gullibility. Studies have shown that the average cutthroat gets hooked 10 times a season, and that some are so dumb they land in a net three times a day.

So, despite the fact that I'd only done a little fishing before, and never with an imitation fly (versus a real insect lure), the odds were with me and against the trout. To strengthen my advantage, I booked a six-night guided fly-fishing package at Hubbard's Yellowstone Lodge ($2,080, not including equipment rental or van transfer from the Bozeman, Mont., airport), one of about 40 lodges endorsed by the well-known fishing outfitter, the Orvis Co.

Hubbard's is perched on the shoulders of the Absaroka Mountains beside 85-acre Merrell Lake, 17 miles north of the park in the Paradise Valley of Montana. To say the least, a river runs through it. The Yellowstone River, which gets lazy after its chute off the 7,000-foot Yellowstone plateau, and oxbows through the valley until it turns east to meet with the Missouri River near the North Dakota border.

The overhead compartments on my flight were full of rod bags, and when I landed at the little Bozeman Airport there were fishermen practice-casting on the lawn. At the baggage claim, I was met by my guide, Phil Gager, a junior majoring in history at Colgate University in New York. He was tall, diffident and dangerously cute. This did not seem a good sign, because I was serious about the cutthroats, and unlikely to learn anything from a 20-year-old.

Fly-fishing differs from other kinds of fishing chiefly because it involves luring a fish with artificial tied flies, as opposed to live bait.

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A wise man once told me that fly-fishing is a perfect marriage of technique and art--an imponderable sport really, more contemplative than athletic, requiring grace, observation, considerable science and imagination, which is what makes a fly-fisherman able to think like a fish.

That wise man was Phil, who learned the art from his father on the fly-fishing streams of Pennsylvania when he was 8, and spent last summer on Colorado's Frying Pan River apprenticing with Pat McCord, a 1996 Orvis Guide of the Year. In my week with him, Phil taught me how to cast; the difference between dry fly-fishing (on the surface) and nymphing (with the fly slightly submerged); to look down my nose at worm fishermen; that even cutthroats know a real fly from a fake one clumsily dragged across the water. And he taught me something else: that you can learn from anybody, old, young, naive or sage.

Even though 50% of the guests at Hubbard's are beginning fly-fishermen, and 40% of them are fly-fisherwomen, Phil had never guided a female novice before. At one point during the hour-and-a-half drive east from Bozeman, he looked over at me, gave a little shrug and said, "This will be an adventure for us both." There is significant pressure on a guide to see that guests land fish. But he couldn't know that I was already fully satisfied just watching the valley unfold, bounded on the east by the Absarokas and on the west by the Gallatin Range.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through the Paradise Valley in 1806, followed by trappers, ranchers, a railroad line that took tourists to the north entrance of Yellowstone a hundred years ago, and most recently by the rich and famous. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda paid $22 million for their 110,000-acre spread in the Paradise Valley, and if you stop for a beer at Chico Hot Springs near Emigrant, you might see Meg Ryan at the bar.

What you will see when you reach the entrance to Hubbard's is one of the grandest sights in the American West: the Yellowstone River snaking north through the valley, bordered by mounded hills where herds of sheep, cattle and elk graze. The fishing resort is composed of three structures built of stout pine logs, containing an office, Orvis shop and 15 doubles with small baths, durable carpet, Indian rugs, Western prints and an unfussy, boyish air.

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