I heard it said recently that the difference between isolation and solitude is that isolation is an avoidance or prevention of connection but solitude is intentional “alone time” to foster deeper and healthier connection.
My return to Montana came right on time. I typically struggle to pause all the internal chaos around normal life when I travel, but exhaustion of the mind affords you the ability to disconnect in ways you normally find difficult. “The soul gets what the soul requires”, as a wise friend says. I packed for this trip feeling that my soul required some things.
Landing in Bozeman, I could immediately recognize the difference in topography than our last trip to MT. Eager to get on the water, he made a quick stop at the fly shop and then set out for the canyon section of the Gallatin. The number of empty hopper boxes should have been our first warning as to what everyone was using. The number of cars parked along the shoulder of the highway should have been our first warning of headcounts but did not dissuade us. Every turnout and shoulder patch of gravel had vehicles.
It became quickly obvious why those boxes were empty at the shop once you made it to the riverbank. Every step disturbed a half-dozen massive grasshoppers. The fish had been feasting on these protein packs for a couple of weeks, packing on calories for winter.
Even in the most accessible stretches, a small hike would usually reward you with something, but you also had the sense that you were batting clean-up after a few folks just an hour or two before you.
The second day, we ventured out to the Madison, and tried a stretch that felt like the river was disassembling itself. Small but strong striations fanned out across a wide area, with skinny water everywhere and the occasional deeper slot. Zach hooked a hefty brown that didn’t feel like shaking hands.
DAY 3: YELLOWSTONE
Almost immediately inside the Yellowstone park entrance, clusters of SUVs gathered on the roadside, telephoto lenses lined up like a firing squad. Buffalo herds in the distance, an occasional brazen antelope curiously eyeing the tourists from the tall grasses. The wildlife is accustomed to the creatures and their vehicles zipping up and down the pavement.
I was told of a slightly-less-popular river inside the park that had great water if you were willing to hike a short distance from the RV jammed roads. Allegedly some hefty cutties resided in the stretch we would try. We parked the car right on the pin I had received, and began our haul through across the sage and scrub-brush.
About halfway to the water’s edge, we crested a small hill and in a flash, heard the snort of a large buffalo as he rolled in one motion to a standing position. Tan dust flew everywhere, and it was immediately clear that we had startled him while rolling in a wallow, protecting himself from pests and the searing sun. He squared up to us and watched us from a short distance. I immediately scanned the surroundings and recognized our only cover was a Prius sized boulder along the hillside. We stared in silence at each other, waiting to see who would move first.
“He’s a big boy,” Zach commented.
We back tracked a bit behind the broken sight-line of the hill and moved further away from the massive bull. My anxiety crept up a bit as we moved back over the top, hoping he hadn’t closed the distance while out of sight that we had just tried to increase.
He hadn’t moved, and watched us stoically as we moved down to the river.
The slots were stunning to look at, and the variety of cover offered in deeper ruts and boulders lent credibility to the intel that brought us here. We took turns in different water types above, in, and below the heaviest water, and we got into a few great fish.
Watching the clock and knowing the lengthy drive we had ahead of us, we agreed to hike out and try a few more spots close to the road on our way out of the park. Again, the vehicle counts should have deterred us but fishing Yellowstone is a rare opportunity so we joined the ranks along the water like legs on a centipede. Big sweeping bends of river careened back and forth, so I surmised that if I hiked out away from the road, the headcounts would dwindle. Let’s just say after 30 minutes I hadn’t hiked far enough to realize the benefit. And to think this was all after “peak season”.
Nate got a few solid cutthroat 20 feet from the guardrails. (The picture above is probably my favorite from the whole trip.) As the sun dipped behind the hills, we hauled out and headed home.
DAY 4: GALLATIN
We returned once more to the Gallatin but this time headed to the lower section. With only the morning to spare, we worked our way over a few stretches as we moved closer to the airport. I could feel the muscles in my feet begin to quit, understandably pissed about the miles covered.
The flight home was quiet. I was ready to return to normal life, but I already felt the desire to return rise up inside me. So much water to explore. So many fires to circle around with trusted friends. So many meals appropriately priced. So many hours with your feet planted in the freestone waters that support an entire ecosystem, and carve their way through a state no resident wants you to visit but you probably should.