My flight had been delayed, so I was hurried as I drove down the winding, two-lane Highway 191. I wasn’t able to fully take in the freestone river interlacing its waters through the forest and the perfume of the fresh air. Yet, my shoulders began to relax with the lack of massive billboards with mile markers alerting me to the next hotel with free continental breakfast. I suddenly had a sense of the days of Pete Karst, bringing “dudes” to Yellowstone by stagecoach from Bozeman in the early 1900s.
We eased down main street into West Yellowstone, assessing if we had enough daylight to get in a few shots at the river with the billowing steam of the geysers against the sunset. The succession of drift boats lining the streets likened the showcasing of luxury cars one might see at an NFL or MLB training camp. I paused for a moment, wondering—if I had stayed out West past the summer of ’98, would I too have owned one of these fiberglass vessels steered by teak-handled oars, leading me to a more authentic life? Fortunately, we were able to capture the last act of fish rising amid the dancing caddis.
We discussed which of the waters boasted the most generous fishing gods as we sipped on some Blanton’s. Firehole Ranch offers a limitless variety of rivers, streams, and lakes more abundant than any other ranch can boast. We came to rest on the Madison River at Reynolds Pass as our fate.
As we drove to the ranch, my mind drifted again back to my college summer of working in Wyoming. The sound of the tires on the gravel road and the dust in the headlights driving along Hebgen Lake were all too familiar, and with a sense that I was 20 again—I shut my eyes as we passed under the large, timber-framed entrance. Purnache, the manager’s loyal dog from Russia, greeted me warmly and escorted me to my cabin, assuring me that we were the same, outliers looking for a place to escape.
I'm not exactly sure why I couldn't be on time to meals in the dining room, but it may have had something to do with the warmth of my cozy log cabin and a bed so comfortable I could have slept 20 years just like Rip Van Winkle. My eagerness to see what Kris and Bruno, the French chefs of 30 years, had on the menu for breakfast enabled me to make my way to the sink—nestled in an antique chest of drawers—to brush my teeth and prep for a full day on the water. I walked along the path toward the dining room, undisturbed by other humans due to the limited capacity of only 22 guests. I opened the door to the dining room and immediately spied the coffee cake surrounded by blue and white china bowls full of berries. The large stone fireplace was perfectly placed in front of a series of windows overlooking the Hebgen Lake, which is arguably the best dry fly lake fishing in Montana.
I was seated at a round table with a group of older gentlemen. One cannot escape conversation around a sphere. Assuming I would get the usual question, “So, what are you doing here?” I decided to beat them to the punch. There is usually an immediate halo of question marks surrounding others’ puzzled heads when they realize I’m a party of one. So, I started by asking them why they were here, and was taken aback when they said they were on a father/daughter fishing trip. An immediate grin donned my face. One of the dads, a guest of the ranch for eight years and counting, first put a rod in his daughter’s hand at 10 years old while catching blue gill out of their john boat in Trafalgar, Indiana. I often wonder if those fish know the ineffable feeling that we experience from their tug and that they enrich lives and form communities that otherwise would not be.
Other dads, too, have found fishing as a way to connect with their daughters as they have grown into adults. The Firehole has become some sort of father/daughter nirvana for them. I glanced at the menu as they talked about how they coordinate their calendars to make these trips an annual tradition; the chefs had me at cornmeal blueberry pancakes. Kris prides herself on making all of her baked goods from scratch. I would imagine a large portion of the food budget goes toward butter for all the homemade morsels. Breakfast was short-lived, due to the punctual departure on the pontoon boat that carried us across the lake to meet our guides. A thoughtful gesture, among many, provided to the guest to avoid the longer trek by way of car.
When you see a group of guides and don’t know who will be yours for the day, you stand back and discern the differences like one would a litter of puppies. Fortunately for all the guests, Lyndy Caine, the present owner of the ranch, has hand-picked the best of the best. Some of the guides have worked their way up from the grounds crew while apprenticing on the water on their days off.
I once read, “After a day on the water, a guide can know you better than people you have worked with for 10 years. If you fish with them for a week, then they will know you better than your own mother.” Mostly every one of my guides becomes an immediate friend for life, as the water serves as an equalizer and allows for vulnerability, laughs, and realizations like no other platform fosters.
Most of us come in pursuit of the big brown to brag about to our friends over cocktails, inflating the size of the fish with each passing year. Even so, the restorative powers of the water resurrect versions of our best selves.
We gathered that the fish had an early breakfast and got back in bed because we couldn’t get so much as a nibble. My guide worked tirelessly changing flies, steering the boat, and reading the water, but more importantly, encouraged me and made me laugh. His approach to fly fishing was “hey fishing is fun” coupled with high fives and a big smile through his Magnum, P.I. mustache. He was exuberant and exceedingly kind, and loved sharing his knowledge and his “Office.” Some probably smile at him while he talks about doing this job forever, thinking he’s young and naïve. Maybe so, but his passion is contagious and I would venture to guess every person that has floated in his boat questions how they are living their life. There aren’t many jobs that make you feel alive—not just for a few days, but for years—like that of a fly guide.
In the end, we came off the water satisfied with a few 20+ inch Rainbows, which we celebrated at the local watering hole near the takeout. I reflected as we rode back on the ferry as to why the same juicy fly that satisfied the belly of the fish caught in the other boat snubbed me like how a child would turn their nose up at cold Brussels sprouts. Those fleeting thoughts were met by, “Regardless of what those fish were wanting for lunch, I am about to have cuisine worthy enough to have been plated at Megan and Harry’s wedding.” I would be dining with Lyndy this evening, so I quickly showered off the “day” and dressed, not wanting to miss a second about how a single, female transplant from Seattle accumulated a 640-acre fly fishing ranch.
Traveling up from Utah, she would summer with her grandparents at their cabin five miles down the road from where we sat. The Firehole was originally known as the Watkins Creek Ranch in the early 1900s, primarily serving as a cattle ranch. The Smith family took over the ranch mid-century when Union Pacific was making the journey West more accessible for families to visit dude ranches. Wealthy East Coast families could play cowboy like the ones they watched in the cinema and brush away the pretenses and formalities of the upper-class social code. In 1982, it became a world-class fly fishing ranch, as it remains to this day. Lyndy purchased the ranch years later when she learned of its financial woes and the potential threat of the land being subdivided into 20-acre parcels. Lyndy laughingly jokes, “I didn’t want an abundance of neighbors surrounding my 200 acres I already owned.” I could tell from the way she leaned in intimately and told stories of her childhood the way an adolescent girl would tell her best friend about her new crush, that a potential subdivision wasn’t the sole reason for her new venture. Her new neighbors would become the elk that come to rest by the lake after the summer guest return home and the vastness of her placid land, streams, and creeks would replace the rubber mulched playgrounds for her precocious three-year-old daughter, who would grow into a beautiful angler. For nearly 20 years she has maintained the prestigious reputation of the ranch while being a good steward of the land. The ranch rights came with irrigation to the creek. Knowing that a viable, healthy stream is vital to the fish population, she shuts down her irrigation during droughts leaving water in the stream to support the fish and wildlife. She was very much in favor of the Western Water project, initiated by Trout Unlimited, helping to restore healthy stream flows. Montana passed a law allowing ranch owners to lease their water while still keeping ownership. These restoration projects have proven that working landscapes and fish can coexist.
That evening the table was set with wines from various regions carefully selected by Bruno and a menu that resembled a wedding program. All anglers would agree that swapping stories over cocktails is the best part of the day. Even if we weren’t present, we’ve all been there in some way and have our favorite fishing memory, so we celebrate them all as if they were our own. The understated elegance of this lodge doesn’t compete with the simple, alluring qualities of the West. All titles and levels of social hierarchy are left at the airport. We are all here for the same reason—to feel the rush of tricking that fish to eat. Each passing course from the grilled plums atop fresh arugula and local goat cheese, followed by the North Dakota bison tenderloin with a Cabernet jus, and blue cheese butter was like sampling entries at a James Beard Award dinner. Somehow an extra tenderloin was set in the middle of the table. I will never tell if I did or did not forget my manners and seize the opportunity for the first stab at it. I hated to mentally rush dinner along, but my eagerness to taste another masterpiece of confection from Kris’ kitchen left me continually glancing at the swinging pitch door. Earlier that week I had phoned Kris letting her know our photographer was having his birthday and we wanted to celebrate with something special. To his surprise, and mine, she came out with a well-lit flourless chocolate cake and the entire dining room erupted in singing “Happy Birthday” for his big 50. While 2014 bottles of Remo Farina Valpolicella Ripasso continued to flow, I decided to retire to my cabin to read my book and indulge my frontier fantasies. The walk back was lit with stars and the light from vintage creels resting on post along the path. The quiet and calm outdoors was mirrored inside the cabin by the absence of TVs and phones, allowing the guest in the cabin beside me to enjoy a late-night conversation on the porch. I put on the plush robe I found in the closet and tucked myself in knowing in less than 12 hours I would be returning home where the mountains would be replaced with concrete buildings. I drifted off to sleep realizing that both Lyndy and I made the West our permanent residence in the late 90s—hers in West Yellowstone and mine in my heart. I was looking for a paramount reason to justify staying that summer in college. Now, 20 years later I see through her lens. It’s all the simple things that add up that one may dismiss as trivial, but are truly at the root of our longing to return. Aging gives you permission to defend those notions while in your youth they are not admissible. Staying here these past few days at the Firehole provided affirmation of the splendor of the West. The magnificence of travel may not last forever, but the dream that birthed it can forever change our lives.