Bison and Fly Fishing

Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, Former National Park Superintendent

As a rookie Ranger, right out of twelve weeks of training, I was assigned to Yellowstone for the more practical realistic on-the-job training by experienced rangers. I arrived at my new assignment on December 17, 1967. That winter was spent on boundary ski patrol with one of the best ski rangers in Yellowstone during Montana’s extended elk hunting season.

When the visitor season began, typically May to October, the Chief Ranger assigned me as the Madison Sub-District Ranger. One serious accident I investigated was a 37-year-old man who was attacked by a male bison. He had been trying to get a close-up picture of a bison with one of those throw away cardboard cameras when the bison charged and accurately drove his horn in the man’s rectum. His 12-year-old son said, “Boy, did daddy go high.” His father lived through the incident, and both he and the many witnesses got an education on what not to do when around a 1,400 to 2,000-pound wild bison.

After almost a year of on-the-job training I was assigned to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota as the law enforcement/resource management ranger. The park maintained a brucellosis free herd of bison that were rounded up each year with horses. Local ranchers, working cowboys and several retired former professional rodeo cowboy champions always threw in for that annual event.  Good thing too, as I was no cowboy. Rounding up several herds of bison by horseback is a wild ride. I was raised in Pennsylvania. We didn’t have horses, and I was lucky to have my own dog.  Yellowstone’s horses had been winter ranged in Eastern Montana, were they roamed freely. They were returned to the Gardener corral each spring where several rangers were charged with breaking them back to riding and packing stock. As the rookie, I drew that assignment. That is where I learned all I would ever know about horses until I got to Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt National Park also has a herd of wild horses which infrequently included some domestic horses that escaped from nearby ranches or mares that were recruited to the herd by the dominant stallion.

The goal at Theodore Roosevelt was to maintain the park bison population at a level consistent with maintaining the historic mid-grass prairie as it may have been when Theodore Roosevelt began cattle ranching there in 1883. Excess bison were shipped to other states and federal areas desiring bison. The operation and management of bison was an opportunity to learn a lot about wild bison behavior and I developed a method to age older bison by their tooth wear. Eventually another ranger and I were loaned out to train other state wildlife departments that were considering the introduction of bison.

All this is interesting, but what does it have to do with fly fishing? Years later and for many good reasons I retired in Cody, Wyoming. One of those reasons was the fly fishing opportunities in Yellowstone. One day I decided to fish one of Yellowstone’s many famous rivers. I waded across the river early one morning when the water was low as it usually is at that time of day. I knew it would be higher later in the day, but I thought I would eventually find a safe place to cross the river at some point as I fished up river. I carried a collapsible wading staff as my hips and knees have more frequently developed a mind of their own. Surely there would be a safe place to cross somewhere.  There wasn’t. I started back down the river to see if it was possible to cross where I did in the morning or perhaps I could find a better place to cross below that. However, the entire area was now occupied by hundreds of grazing bison.

My options were to attempt a dangerous river crossing or pass through the hundreds of grazing bison to find a safer crossing. I decided to walk through the massive herd of grazing bison and hoped that all I thought I knew about bison behavior would prevent a disaster. Some of that knowledge is to maintain no direct eye contact, keep as much distance from individual bison as possible, walk slowly but at an even pace, do not stop, stare and appear as a threat. Keep watching the bison’s tails. if a bison raises his tail and rotates it like a helicopter, he is disturbed and may charge. If that happens, I’m toast. I spoke softly and reminded them that I spent years protecting them. I reasoned that Yellowstone’s bison had numerous human contacts throughout their life in Yellowstone and they should be somewhat conditioned to human presence. Of course, some of those contacts were a bad experience for both the bison and the unlucky human. The question in my mind was which of the bison in this large herd didn’t forget that and now considered all people a threat. I made it through the herd without incident and located a safer crossing point.

Well, it isn’t much of a fly fishing story, but if you find yourself surrounded by a wild bison herd, this might be useful information.

2 thoughts on “Bison and Fly Fishing

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Loved your story Clay–any adventure on a fishing trip is part of fishing.

    It reminded me very loosely of a time some years back when I was flying a local mountain in my hang glider, along with a lot of other pilots. A strange cloud congealed around us (some kind of low pressure condition I guess), making many gliders sprint for the designated landing field…but that was going to create a very constricted bit of “traffic” getting into that small field, with the real pssibility of a midair collision should somebody do something even the slightest bit unique. Not for me, thank you…I still had good altitude and a tailwind, and decided to risk overflying 2 miles of rough country to get to the other local flight park in the area, where I was convinced no one would be flying or occupying the landing field because the wind was wrong for that park.

    I made it, and was right, but unfortunately someone else was occupying the entire landing field–a large herd of cattle that in absence of park-goers a farmer had let through the lower gate. And cattle, I suspect like bison, tend to space themselves out every 25 feet evenly across a grazing field. That hardly leaves room for a 200-foot straight approach, final glide and landing.

    I had no altitude left, naturally no motor, no space and no other options. I managed to set the wing down in tall grass on the edge of the herd. I was congratulating myself for still being in one piece when I noticed the closest bovine–yes, the big ol’ bull, as luck would have it–glaring at me at close range with lowered head. And suddenly I remembered the bright magenta leading edge cloth I’d so proudly opted for when I’d ordered that glider from the manufacturer…what color do bullfighters use again to provoke a charge?

    On an impulse I shook the glider vigorously. The sail flapped and snapped. The bull continued to glare but couldn’t decide what kind of alien I was, with my huge bulbous helmet-head, large goggle eyes and massive wings. He backed down and I carried the thing around the far side of the herd.

    It wasn’t a flying adventure, exactly…but then again it was. A lot like your tale. That must have been a fishing trip you’ll remember forever.

    – Mike

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  2. Clay Cubbingham

    Mike that is an experience that could have been a disaster. and like mine you had no option. Good story. It reminded me of 60 years ago when I was learning to fly and had to make a ground control approach landing to a heavily fogged in airport in Mexico listening to the guide guide who didn’t speak English very well. A lot of the directions he was giving me I really wasn’t quite sure of what he was saying.

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