Memorial Day on the Firehole

Dawn on the Firehole

Dawn on the Firehole

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

For the last seven years, I’ve fished the Firehole River on the third day of the Yellowstone National Park fishing season. That day is always Memorial Day. I will continue to do so as long as I am able, eschewing parades and other celebrations as I much prefer to appreciate Memorial Day in solitude. The first weeks of the Yellowstone season see a lot pressure put on the Firehole because it comes into shape early, is easily accessible and is full of hungry fish feeding on great caddis and blue wing hatches. On Saturday and Sunday of the opening weekend finding some solitude can be challenging. Such is not the case in the early hours of Memorial Day. For some reason, the crowds just don’t materialize on Monday morning.

Low clouds and steam shroud a deep run on the Firehole at Ojo Caliente

Low clouds and steam shroud a deep run on the Firehole at Ojo Caliente

Having spent 28 years of my adult life in the military, I have grown to appreciate the sacrifice the countless number of soldiers, airmen and sailors have made throughout our country’s history. I am a big fan of military related movies and the Memorial Day weekend provides unprecedented opportunities to watch a great many classics that remind us of that sacrifice on the television. I generally watch my fair share, even though I’ve seen them many times before. As I leave Bozeman at the very early hour of 3:30AM, my goal is to reach the Firehole at dawn. The drive through the Gallatin Canyon is dark and lonely as there are very few souls out at this hour. Throughout the drive, military movie theme music keeps me company and I silently thank all our servicemen who’ve done their duty for country over the centuries. Although I served in Viet Nam and the Cold War in Europe, our servicemen have been making sacrifices since 1776.

Biscuit Basin

Biscuit Basin

As I reach West Yellowstone, the town is still asleep, signals flashing yellow and nary a soul is up and about. The entrance stations in the park aren’t manned until 6AM so no time is wasted learning that the Craig Pass road is still closed and I’d have to take a big detour to get to the South entrance (if that had been my destination). As I passed through the gate, I was about 17 miles from my first stop on the Firehole. In the half light of dawn, a few Bison were to be seen in National Park Meadows but the drive was unencumbered by any animals clogging the road. As expected, I saw no other vehicles all the way to the Firehole. It was as if I was alone in the park. I reached an obscure spot on the Firehole, a mile or so above Firehole Falls about 5:20AM. Official sunrise was about 5:45AM but there was ample early dawn light to start fishing. After gearing up and walking upriver about 100 yards from my parking spot, I was winded. My first trip into the park always reminds me the Firehole sits at 7000 feet.

Deadly combination on light glass

Deadly combination on light glass

The river this year was low for the season opener. It looked like mid-June instead of late May. Fish were popping a few early morning caddis, but this was a deep hole, so I broke out the five weight, sink tip and big buggers. As I prepared to make my first casts, I paused to take in the dawn and appreciate the utter grandeur of the park and the Firehole. As it was Memorial Day, I couldn’t help but remember that 20 some U.S. Army soldiers lost their lives in the line of duty during the Army’s tenure in the park. During the Army’s administration of the park (1884-1917), they helped preserve the natural wonders of the park and established the foundations of the ranger corps that protect the park today. In the early years of the park, poachers were a big problem, especially in winter when there were no tourists and roads were impassible. Protecting the park from poachers was dangerous work and seven soldiers lost their lives by freezing to death during winter patrols. Their sacrifice would not go unnoticed by me on this Memorial Day morning on my little stretch of the Firehole.

I am resting, don't bother me

I am resting, don’t bother me

Fishing was fun and productive as I hit several of my favorite deep runs with the streamers along the Broads and in Fountain Flats. By 7AM, the park was waking up and more vehicles were moving around. I drove upriver to Biscuit Basin, the beautiful meadow that marks the upper end of the fishable section of the Firehole. Here I’d take one of my four weight glass rods and swing some small buggers and soft hackles along the extensive undercut banks that characterize this expansive meadow. As I approached a favorite stretch, I had to detour as a very large bull Bison reminded me this was his river as well. When I was walking out of the meadow, another angler was just starting his trek down to the river. Our paths would cross. As we approached, he recognized me and I him. We had met in this very meadow last Memorial Day. A retired US Army soldier, he makes the trip every year to the park on Memorial Day weekend. He quickly noted, “Hey you’re the streamer guy from Bozeman.” I had given him a few of my streamers last year and he’s become a convert. We chatted a bit and then went our separate ways. I wished him well.

One of many on the day

One of many on the day

Fishing the Firehole in May, June or September, October is always a fine experience, but Memorial Day is special. It’s early spring at 7000 feet and things are just awakening from a long winter. It is a very refreshing time to fish. I must admit I get lost in the experience and sometimes hope it never ends. But it does. By noon, I am tiring and the casts aren’t as crisp as they were at dawn. The park has filled and the fair weather anglers are congregating at all the usual spots. I wonder if they are aware of the sacrifice those seven soldiers made to protect the park and the waters they fish. My Memorial Day on the Firehole is at an end and I head home. If I can, I will repeat this routine every Memorial Day in the years ahead as my way of honoring every soldier, sailor and airmen who has sacrificed themselves for our country and our freedom.

3 thoughts on “Memorial Day on the Firehole

  1. J Stockard

    Thanks for this great post. We join you in remembering all the men and women who serve on our behalf.

    Here on the east coast, mid-day yesterday (Memorial Day) we passed through Roscoe NY (Trout Town USA) and saw the Beaver Kill overflowing with holiday fly fishers. Wonder if anyone was there pre-dawn like you?

    J. Stockard

    Reply
  2. Pat McCloskey

    Another good one Mike. I did not know about the servicemen that lost their lives in the park. You are right, they should be honored too. Like you, I am a history buff and Memorial Day is not lost on me despite the fact that I never served( my draft number was 11 but the war had ended a year earlier and they did not need me- or pull me out of Allegheny College at the time.) My dad was a US Army Air Corps guy and my uncle flew B-24s in the war and was a POW in Burma for a year before the British bombed the camp and he narrowly escaped.
    When you fish, I am sure you can be reflective and this was a good article that honored the solitude of fishing in your favorite area and honored the holiday. Thank you for your article Mike and thank you for your service to this country.

    Reply
  3. Mike Cline

    Thanks Pat and J. Pat, you and Janet are always welcome in Montana where I’ll introduce you to some friendly trout.

    Reply

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