Taking a 2,600 mile fishing trip cross country only to say goodbye to Josh, my husband, was a bittersweet journey filled with many memories. While fly fishing in Ketchikan, Alaska with Project Healing Towers (a program dedicated to the mental and physical rehabilitation of disabled veterans), Josh received an invitation from one of the guiding businesses there to come back to be a guide for six months. I knew this was too incredible of an opportunity to pass up so I told him to go while I finished up school, since I practically lived at the college or in my art studio. I was smart enough to add one of those things called a catch. He had to wait until my college spring break to leave so I could travel as far as possible with him and fish along the way.
I barely had to twist his arm for him to agree ... Alaska here we come!!!
In preparation to leave, we needed to invest in some items that would make it easier on both of us as we traveled. We were both injured while serving in the Navy and when it comes to driving long distances, we need as much help as possible so we are able to walk when we stop.
After a long discussion, we came up with the following comforting essentials; a camper with an upgraded mattress so that we could stop anywhere in case we were too tired or in too much pain to drive. Rod vaults, which I recommend to anyone, as they eliminate the need to break down rods and allow for quick roadside fishing. A long handled fish net and, finally, a couple new rods and reels to allow for a wider array of fishing and for back up should something break.
We also started a list of places that each one of us wanted to fish along the way. Mine consisted of one river that was non-negotiable, the Yellowstone River in Montana, which was already on Josh’s list. I knew it was going to happen. His list was longer and consisted of places throughout the West; the Bitterroot, Nelson’s Spring Creek and Rapid Creek.
Trying to fit in some of the most incredible places to fish while trying to cross the country in a matter of 10 days was going to be a challenge. We almost had to postpone our trip as we both caught the flu, but we figured it was better to be sick while fishing than just sitting around the house.
We hooked up the camper and loaded our gear. We left the beautiful Smokies in Tennessee for the rivers of South Dakota. We arrived at our first destination in Rapid City, South Dakota two days later.
We found a campground and unhooked the camper, heading immediately to the local fly shop where they recommended flies and helped us pick the most accessible river with the fewest people and greatest chance of catching fish in the Black Hills.
We had planned on seeing Mount Rushmore when we arrived and fishing the next morning, but since we were running behind, we decided Mount Rushmore would be here next time. Without hesitation, I asked Josh to take me to the river and pack the camera!
We decided to go to Rapid Creek to fish and I am so glad we did. The day ended up being one of the hottest on record at 83 degrees, but a light breeze made it pleasant. The sunny sky and clear, low water made for a seriously difficult day of fishing. We could spot fish close to the other side of the bank taking cover in the shade of the grasses, so we threw upstream to see if we could get them to eat. There, we tried just about everything including blue winged olives and every nymph we brought, without a bite.
We moved another good hundred feet upriver and finally got a bite. The fish eluded us by breaking off on a rock near the bank. Josh decided to tie on a streamer and cast to an area that i was sure only held a Creek Chub.
It was then that I saw something I have never seen before in my life; the most beautiful brick of gold came out of nowhere.
I was oblivious to Josh calling for the net as he brought it close to the shore. I was in awe of this magnificent creature.
Finally, I snapped out of my trance and realized I needed a picture so I could paint him in the future. We netted the Brownie with ease. I once again stood in awe with a dropped jaw as I saw the colors on this fish. It had the most seductive blood red with a gold belly that elaborated it’s magnificence and the brightest blue cheek that looked as if it were part of the Pacific Ocean.
This was the first painting I planned to finish when I got back to my studio and I was going to call it “Sweet Dreams”.
Eager to hold one of my own, and bear in mind I am not proud of this, I pushed Josh’s rod back towards the trail and took my own to start casting. About an hour passed and we had no luck. I was starting to hurt and was getting hungry, so we decided to call it a day. I was still happy, even though I had only caught a couple massive twigs. I felt special just witnessing the beauty of that Brown Trout; he was something so beautiful that I knew I would have dreams about one day catching a Trout like him.
Walking back to the Jeep, we made sure to walk close to the river just in case. That is when we both saw it ... the fishiest looking eddy yet. Josh found a Hares Ear Nymph for me to try. Almost immediately the fly was smashed and I saw the same brick of gold flash, only this time it seemed brighter.
I finally maneuvered him to the net and couldn’t believe the strength this small Brown Trout had in him. Again, the colors struck me speechless, his belly seemed to be a brighter gold, his cheek a more cerulean blue. He was the most beautiful fish I had caught. This was the first painting I planned to finish when I got back to my studio and I was going to call it “Sweet Dreams”.
The next morning, we called Nelson’s Spring Creek between Livingston, Montana and the East entrance of the Yellowstone National Park to make sure we were still booked to fish the stream. We arrived at the next campground, which happened to be on the Yellowstone River, and unhooked to head into town for some grub. We headed to Nelson’s Spring Creek which seemed like perfect fishing conditions, 55-60 degrees with overcast skies and a little sprinkle of showers here and there. No sooner did we get to the creek and the weather changed. The temperature dropped 30 degrees with wind gusts of 50 mph and pelting sheets of rain.
You know you love fishing if you are in pain, miserable and spend more time trying to get wind knots out of the line than fishing, and you stay out there in hopes of holding one of God’s most fragile, yet strong creatures.
Josh hooked a few on a Blue Winged Olive Emerger, but fishing was tough. We tried numerous flies but the further up the creek we fished, the more finicky they became. Out of desperation, I tried a red San Juan Worm and I finally got a taker. He took me up and down the stream trying to get away. Per usual, pictures were taken, but at that point we were both in enough pain that if we didn’t call it a day, we wouldn’t be able to fish the rest of the trip.
Even with terrible fishing conditions, Nelson’s Spring Creek was such an incredible place to fish that I highly recommend it. The creek was filled with beautiful fish and the snow covered mountains were breathtaking. That has always been something I have loved about fishing, the places you go to find the fish are some of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the universe. Worries melt away and what you see and feel in the moments of fishing becomes your whole world.
There is no doubt we will be fishing there again, but we will make sure it is in better weather conditions!
The next morning we made our way to Missoula to fish the Bitterroot River. Our campground was conveniently located next to a great fly shop. We bought a map, loaded up on flies, grabbed some quick food and made our way to the river.
The main part of the Bitterroot that we fished required travel down a road that I am pretty sure has swallowed many fishermen and their vehicles!!!
By the time we got to the parking lot I felt sore but was eager to fish. This area was a bit difficult for me to maneuver but for the average healthy and injury free fisherman this should be no issue. You have the option to go right downriver or left upriver. We chose left since it seemed less physically challenging. The river was wide open, the day seemed to be perfect and we arrived early enough to make sure the waters were not already disturbed. Apparently, the fish did not feel the same about the beautiful day. It felt like we could not get a fish to eat even if we chummed the waters. Somehow, Josh managed to still find a spot that all other fisherman had overlooked and caught a big Brownie.
On our way back downriver, we ran into a local guide and volunteer for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing who was kind enough to share one of his favorite spots with us. Agreeing that it sounded more accessible and without a dirt road that could swallow you whole, we loaded into the Jeep and headed 45 minutes to the East branch of the Bitterroot. This was my cup of tea!!!
Farm land surrounded the river with mountains hiding it away in secret; bison on either side of the road and herds of elk standing everywhere claiming it as theirs.
About seven miles up the Braids, we found a bend in the river that we could wade and decided to try it. I now officially call this the “Callihan Bend.” We ended up fishing other parts of the river, but always came back to this area. I had heard and read about this type of fishing experience, but had never experienced it until the “Callihan Bend” of the Bitterroot River. In a matter of hours, we had both caught Cutthroats, Cutbows, Brownies and Rainbows. Josh even caught a Brook Trout and hooked what looked to be a Bull Trout, though we will never know for sure.
Since, I had only caught a Cutbow in Alaska the summer prior, I was astonished at how beautiful the Cutthroat Trout were. They carried salmon pinks throughout their bodies with hints of summer yellows and sunset oranges.
I could not believe that during this trip I had the opportunity to hold some of the most beautiful fish I have ever seen. The Cutthroat I caught was about 16 inches and lighter in color than the gorgeous 13 inch Cutthroat Josh caught. Brown and Tiger Trout had always been my favorite type of fish with no competition until I held this magnificent Cutthroat. Now I would have to say I have three favorites.
At “Callihan Bend” we didn’t have to change out the pattern, as Stoneflies were the preferred choice. The fish were on fire, every fish we caught was within 50 steps of the bend! We lost count of how many were netted, but I know I have a picture of every single one no matter their size. We ended up liking that braid of the river so much we decided to extend our stay in Missoula.
Eventually, we packed up and headed to where my trip would end and I would have to fly back to Tennessee ...
Again, it was off to find the local fly shop to get some advice. They recommended Puget Sound.
It was a special day in Seattle as we celebrated seven years of marriage.
We decided a nice meal after a day of fishing sounded like the perfect day and headed off.
When we made it to the spot, I was a bit nervous, since I was used to fishing rivers and streams. We eagerly threw out our lines in hopes of catching Sea Run Trout.This was the only place that both Josh and I got skunked, but I think the weather played a role. A storm rolled in extremely fast with pelting rain and a finale of five foot waves. Fishing was difficult to say the least. We decided to play it safe and call it an early day.
We enjoyed dinner and talked about future destinations. The following morning, we said our goodbyes at the airport and by the afternoon I was back home.
All in all, this trip was an incredible experience and I feel lucky to have spent it with Josh. Not all days, if any actually, were perfect for catching fish but being out there still made for some incredible memories with lots of laughter and exhaustion.
It is not just about challenging yourself through the tying of flies, the casting of a line or the excitement of catching and releasing a fish, but about finding out who you are.
I have come to believe that fly fishing is a peculiar and special sport. This trip reminded me of who I am; I am a strong and capable woman who loves dearly, paints and fly fishes with passion, cares to be the voice that nature has slowly lost, a continuous fighter, and a supportive wife who will do whatever it takes so that her husband may follow his dreams as well. I am blessed to have had this opportunity and will forever be grateful to each place I fished and each fish I held.