Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dear Wyoming...I Miss you Already

Mary May and I hadn't had a real vacation in over a year.  And although the fishing here in central North Carolina has been awesome this summer, I was ready to get away.  Work has been incredibly busy and Mary May just finished one of her toughest semesters of grad school.  We decided to take a week to explore Wyoming and visit with family there, then swing to Michigan for a good friend's wedding before returning home.  It was such a fun trip that I am not even sure how to blog it all, so here goes nothing.


Day 1 - Tricky Travel: We left RDU on Friday after work.  Our itinerary was to fly from RDU to Houston, Houston to Denver, and Denver to Gillette.  We got to Houston right on time, but just before we boarded for Denver, a huge storm cell crushed the airport and delayed us nearly two hours.  That led to us getting to Denver 2 hours after we were scheduled to land and missing our flight to Gillette.  We went to the United Customer Service desk and noticed a flight to Casper that we would just be able to make.  We found out that Casper was only about 2 hours from Gillette, so we re-booked for Casper, changed our rental car location, and let my sister know that we wouldn't be in until super late.  Running on caffeine and adrenaline, we meandered through the Wyoming plains dodging deer, coyotes, foxes, antelope, and other critters along the way.  We got to my sister's place in Gillette around 1:30 AM, which of course felt like 3:30 AM to us because of the time change.  To make matters worse, two nights before the trip Mary May was on-call at work and she/we barely got any sleep.  Then the night before our trip we were up late packing and up extra early to work and run errands.  Needless to say we crashed quick and hard.

My nephew Caden in one of the many costumes my nephews have

Day 2 - Family & Fellowship: We slept in until about 8:30 AM, although sleep from 6 AM onward was intermittent as we listened to my nephews doing laps around the upstairs.  After a quick breakfast we headed to pick up our checked bag from the airport, get groceries and supplies, and head for the hills.  My sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, and their dogs came with us as we made the hour plus drive to the Bighorn Mountains just outside of Buffalo.  Mary May's aunt and uncle have a cabin there that they were nice enough to let us use for the week.  Her uncle's family has very old roots planted in the area as sheep herders and ranchers.  It is a beautiful, rustic cabin set on the middle fork of Clear Creek surrounded by federal land.

Note the upper left hand corner...possibly my favorite thing about the cabin!
We got to the cabin in the mid-afternoon and started prepping our fishing gear.  The boys wanted fish for dinner, so we got them set-up at a small pond nearby to try and catch a few trout.  My sister and brother-in-law stayed with them, while Mary May and I met up with her aunt to visit with some other folks who had cabins on the same road.  We returned from our neighborhood visit just before dinner to find that the boys were fishless.  Thankfully, we had enough steaks, hot dogs, and sides to go around.  Dinner was followed by smores, a couple bottles of wine, and more than a couple cold beers - which put us to sleep quickly.

I hadn't had an Alaskan Amber since I lived in Oregon...DELICIOUS!

The nephews are ready to crash

Day 3 - Middle Fork Clear Creek & Prime Rib:  We all awoke a little groggy the next morning.  Even my nephews weren't as energetic as normal.  After they did some exploring - highlighted by a ball that was lost in the creek, they all decided to head back to Gillette.  Mary May and I went back to sleep.  We finally got moving again in the early afternoon and snuck down to the creek to catch some wild trout.  I know creek fishing isn't terribly glorious to most people, but I love it.  It is what I grew up doing and even if the fish don't get that big, the challenge of casting and presentation in tight quarters is what draws me to it.  We picked off about a dozen wild rainbows as we worked our way to the pond. 

My first Wyoming trout of 2013

Mary May's first trout of the trip

When we got there, fish were rising to mosquitos and emergers.  Mary May got on the board first with a 12"-13" trout that sucked down her mosquito pattern.  I missed a few fish before finally catching a 12" fish of my own.  We both continued to land fish, while missing twice as many, on dry flies that included an assortment of mosquito, blue winged olive, black ant, and Adams patterns.  I then caught a couple on an emerger and a tandem of nymphs before we called it a day. 

My 12-incher from Middle Fork Pond

Fly fishing in that particular pond isn't rocket science.  The fish are a mix of stockies and 2-3 year hold overs, but it is a good warm-up for a couple of easterners who hadn't cast a fly at a trout in roughly two years.

Lovely lady with a lovely trout - the big fish of the afternoon

We went down to Buffalo that night and had dinner with Betty (Mary May's aunt) at a place called 'The Winchester'.  Something kept bringing my eyes/stomach back to the prime rib.  I hadn't had a prime rib in years, so I ordered it and Mary May did too.  Maybe it was because of the long layoff, but my gosh was that a good prime rib.  Topped with a little horseradish sauce, I ate the whole thing and left the restaurant with a smile.

When we got back to the cabin, we took out the maps and started searching for our destination for day 4.  We wanted to do a hike into the wilderness area and do some fishing.  After some debate, we settled on Sherd Lake.  Sherd was only about a 2.5 mile trip from the Circle Park Trailhead, so we figured it would be a good warm-up hike to let our lungs adjust to the lower oxygen levels - given that the difference in elevation between Sherd and our home here in NC is roughly 8200 feet or over 1.5 miles higher.  But given our recent weight lost (we have now both lost 30 lbs since May), we were feeling good.

The moon sneaking through the pines

Day 4 - Sherd Lake:  We again slept in a little, had a late breakfast of steak, guacamole, and salsa, and headed for the trail.  We filled out our Cloudpeak Wilderness permits and started the climb to the lake.  As we began to ascend the first ridge, I could immediately feel my lungs working extra hard to find oxygen.  Mary May echoed my feelings.  It is a weird feeling, typically accompanied by slight light headedness.  But our legs didn't let us down and we drank plenty of water as we continued the trek.  The hike had some ups and downs as it wound through the Bighorns, but overall it wasn't bad.  We did the hike in about an hour with only fishing rods and day packs.  We finished the final uphill and were met by the beautiful lake at roughly 8800 feet.  I was shocked to see lily pads floating on the far bank with a shallow, weedy flat, flanking the pads.  The rest of the lake was surrounded by boulders, downed trees, and standing timber - mainly pines.  It was around noon by then and we were eager to wet a line.

Lilypads in alpine Wyoming...I didn't see that coming!

These lakes always take a while to figure out.  They all fish a little differently and they are deep, super clear, and typically have little room for backcasts, which makes putting the puzzle together a little trickier.  I rigged a hopper on my rod and a bumble bee on Mary May's.  Those of you who remember our last trip to WY may remember how much luck she had on that bumble bee pattern, so we had to try it first.  I began making long casts toward some high grass along the shore, but after about ten minutes I had no takers and fish were occasionally rising in the vicinity.  I decided to switch to a black ant pattern.  Immediately, I hooked and lost a short trout on the ant and had a couple other small fish come up and stare or swipe at it without hooking up.

Sherd Lake - nestled in the Bighorns

Then the winds picked up, as they seem to always do in the higher elevations of the Bighorns.  I took a short break to tie on a prince nymph dropper below my ant and Mary May decided to catch up on email while the wind gusted over 20 MPH.  We didn't get service at the cabin, nor in the Bighorns, so it is actually kind of nice to catch up on email when the wind starts to really blow. 

No sooner did I re-tie, then I looked down the bank to see what appeared to be the outline of a trout moving toward me.  The wind was blowing directly at me, but I was able to flick my flies in his direction.  He slowly came about a foot off the bottom and very casually sucked down the nymph.  I set the hook and it was game on!  The fish never went airborne, but he fought like crazy before I finally landed him.  In person, he looked like a cuttbow, but the picture looks more like a true cutthroat.  Either way, at 15" he was a great start to the day.  We debated whether we would keep him for dinner or not, given that it was only the beginning of the day.  My initial reaction was that we would let him go, but that philosophy has backfired on us a few times.  So we ended up putting him on the stringer for later that night.

A perfect size cutthroat to keep for dinner...and a glimpse of the never en vogue hiking socks

Mary May got on the board next.  I tied a peacock nymph dropper below her bumble bee and on the first cast she hooked up with a gorgeous cutthroat - her first ever.  It was shaping up to be a potentially incredible day.

Mary May with a gorgeous cutt

We made our way around the lake and caught a couple small cutts and cuttbows and missed a few more.  We eventually circled around toward the lily pads.  That is when our run of bad luck began.  The casting was super tight on that side and the wind picked back up, which led to both of us hanging some flies in trees.  When we were getting them out to the fish, it seemed we were either missing fishing, losing fishing, or having them break the line.  Frustrated, I tried a few different flies, including a frog pattern through the pads) without much luck.  I knew I had to take a break, re-fuel, and refocus.  Like with any type of fishing, when things start to go poorly, it is time to get back in the right place mentally and go back to the techniques you have confidence in.  So I tied the ant-prince nymph combo on my rod and a dragon fly-mayfly nymph duo on Mary May's rod. 

We slowly crept down the bank when I noticed a big fish lying along the shore.  Unfortunately, we weren't far away from him, so he easily saw us and started swimming in the opposite direction.  Shortly after, he dissappeared into a shadow near some lily pads about 30-40 feet away.  I waited a few moments to cast, then softly laid a long cast right on the deep edge of the shadow.  Suddenly the fish exploded out of the pads and nailed the ant.  Is there anything better than watching trout suck down dry flies?  We both let out a scream of excitement as the fish tore across the weed flat.  He jumped, juked, and twisted, but we wrangled him onto the shore.  It was a 17.5" brute of a cutthroat - my biggest ever.  We added him to our makeshift stringer and continued fishing.

My new PB cutthroat!

We decided to hang out in the same area we had just caught the big cutt and watch for cruisers over the shallow weed bed.  This time, Mary May took the reigns.  It wasn't long before we saw a nice cutt suck down a lady bug, then an ant as he moved toward the shoreline.  She laid a perfect cast about 15 feet in front of him and it looked like he was on track to suck her fly down as well.  Then he started to veer off of his track before he even saw the fly.  She stripped the fly hard once, which got his attention.  A second hard strip and he rocketed the remaining distance and crushed the fly.  He was another fighter and she did a great job keeping him out of the weeds.  It was another gorgeous fish - measuring about 16". 

Mary May applying the ninja grip to a hefty cutt!

We stayed in the same spot and caught another 3 fish in the 14"-15" range and lost another about the same size.  We started to make our way around the lake further and landed a few more cutthroats in the 11"-13" range - mainly on the dragonfly-mayfly nymph set-up.  On one particular fish, Mary May had spotted him cruising and eating bugs, but couldn't quite get him to eat.  She called me over and played guide as she directed me to his location.  Sure enough, he sucked down my fly and would have been a nice addition to the stringer, but two fish were all we really needed for just the two of us.

A gorgeous leopard frog MM spotted on the bank

By about 4 PM we were ready to start hiking back out.  I gutted the fish along the shoreline, finding an assortment of bugs in their stomachs.  For the day, we had landed probably 20-25 trout and lost/missed just as many.  We made quick work of the hike back to the car and were at the cabin just in time for dinner.  We baked the trout with garlic, lemon, and butter - it was phenomenal.  We ate then surveyed the maps in front of the fire - trying to decide on our adventure for the next day.  We hit the pillows hard with grand thoughts of Angeline in our dreams.

A perfect dinner at camp!

Day 5 - Angeline Brown Bear Lake Trigger Lake:  Our original plan on Day 5 was to ascend to Lake Angeline - a gorgeous alpine lake at just under 11,000 feet of elevation.  The hike was about 12 miles round trip and almost entirely uphill for the first leg, including a first mile where the trail was basically paved with loose chunk rock and boulders.  We woke up early, but both of us were still exhausted from our massive sleep deficit.  On top of that, we were both congested because of the dust and other particles in the air at the cabin.  We decided to sleep a little longer and opt for Plan B.  Plan B was Brown Bear Lake - one of a series of lakes situated in a glacial moraine.  It was recommended to us, but we were told it was a little tricky because of the trail...or lack thereof. 

It is always a good feeling to walk past a wilderness boundary sign

Coincidentally, we used the same trailhead as the day before and started our jaunt into the Cloudpeak Wilderness.  On the USGS quad map, we had seen a trail 183 that looked like it would cut about 2.5-3 miles off of the hike, but for the life of us, we just couldn't find it.  So we opted to hike to Sherd then take a looping trail through the South Fork Ponds before crossing Duck Creek and climbing the final ridges up to Trigger Lake.

Time to fling!

It was a gorgeous hike, littered with all sorts of animal tracks, wild berries, massive boulder fields, and snow capped peaks.  The scenery from the ridge just before the lake is simply breathtaking with a nearly 360 degree view.  We got to Trigger Lake around 2:30 PM and took a little break.  We realized that Brown Bear was another mile further, uphill, and with no trail.  We bushwhacked for about ten minutes before deciding to turn around and fish Trigger as the going was tough and the trail back to the car was fairly long. 

One of the many boulder fields...the picture does it no justice.

The fish at Trigger were particularly spooky and we quickly realized that we would need to go into stealth mode to catch them.  I tried a few flies before finally settling in on a dragonfly with a peacock nymph dropper.  That seemed to do the trick as I was landing rainbows in the 10"-12" range on both flies.  We decided to leave around 4 PM, which was a bummer, but our time there was productive after we figured out how to catch them.

My first trigger lake rainbow

We were *hoping* to find trail 183 on the way back, knowing that it would cut about 2 hours off of our return hike.  As we approached the area we thought the new trail started, we ran into to a cow moose only 15 yards away.  We kept our distance initially, fearing she may have a baby with her.  But I think she was solo and we eventually walked past her.

Bride of Bullwinkle

Thankfully, we did find trail 183 and it wound through a beautiful pine grove and along the main fork of Clear Creek.  The creek looked like something from a post card - sandwiched between meadows and snow capped peaks.  Were it not for our lack of time, I would have fished it thoroughly.  At one point, we had to cross the creek.  There was no bridge and because the water was higher than normal, it took us a while to find a place to cross without getting wet.  I was able to lunge from rock to rock and make it to the other bank.  Mary May was also agile enough to avoid getting wet - although she had a close call that we got a laugh out of. 

Another Trigger Lake bow

The trail followed the creek for about half a mile further then rose into a small meadow that was clearly being used for cattle grazing.  As the trail met the meadow it disappeared.  You could no longer discern hiking trail from cow path from deer path.  We followed what looked to be the main trail, while keeping a close eye on the map.  Suddenly, we realized we were on some sort of animal trail and were faced with a decision of whether to go up and over a rocky ridge to where we knew another, well marked trail was or to stay along the river.  We didn't have a compass, so it was a no-brainer to stay along the river.  Rivers are great landmarks for hikers and outdoorsmen because they will always lead you to civilization and are easy to follow.  So we moved back toward the river and meandered another half mile through the woods until we came to a barb wire fence.  We recognized the fence, as we had to pass through a gate in it on the hike in the morning.  The debate in my mind then became whether we would follow the fence up the hill to the other trail, which didn't look to be more than a mile, or cross and keep going straight(ish).  Then Mary May exclaimed, "what is that" and pointed down the hill to a small yellow sign.  I told her I would check it out and as I got closer as I exclaimed in repsonse, "Oh, thank God!".  It was a sign that marked a gate in the fence.  The gate was marked for trail 183 and the trail was clearly worn and easy to follow.  We had only been about 50 yards from the trail the whole time, but both of us had been a little nervous.  We let out a big sigh of relief and finished the next mile of the hike back to the car.  I am pretty sure they are trying to phase out trail 183, because from the top side (near the trailhead) you can't see where it starts unless you know it is there.

The one foot on shore-one on a rock cast

Since we didn't keep any fish we went back to Buffalo for dinner that night.  We were hoping to eat and grab a beer at the Clear Creek Brewing Co., but they weren't open.  After looking at our options online we decided to back for the good stuff.  We again ate at Winchesters and Mary May again had the prime rib.  I switched it up and went for a Surf & Turf special.  And we again left stuffed and smiling.

Mary May and I at one of the South Fork Ponds

Day 6 - Tie Hack Reservoir:
It was our last full day in the Bighorns and we wanted to do something fun, but not too far off the beaten path.  So, we met Betty around noon at Tie Hack Reservoir, which wasn't more than 10-12 minutes from the cabin.  It is a fairly big body of water, so I figured if we didn't see active fish in the main lake, we would hike to one end or the other and fish the creeks that run in and out.  The hike to the far end was further, but pretty easy.  The hike to the dam and tail race was super short, but very steep.  Since there was nothing happening at all at the main lake and we heard report after report of skunks, we headed for the tail race.

The dam at Tie Hack

Now this wasn't your typical big water, monster trout tail race.  This was a small tail race that feeds the south branch of Clear Creek.  I quickly caught two short rainbows and a solid 12-incher on a BWO.  But the water was turbulent and deep, so I switched to a streamer.  That resulted in a couple follows, but no fish.  So we started to work our way down the creek and were picking off trout in each pool.  In one pool, I caught about a dozen trout and had probably another 10 strikes.  I even caught a healthy 13" fish from the creek, which was a nice surprise.

My biggest trout from our afternoon on South Clear Creek

Since Betty had to be out of there by 4 PM, we returned to the tail race and I began nymphing.  That produced a bunch more fish in the 10"-13" range as well as a couple really short bows.  It wasn't quite wilderness fishing, but it was still super fun.

MM looking like an ant on the dam

We trudged back up the steep incline to the car and walked across the dam, something you can't do anymore in most of the east.  There was still no action on the lake, although a couple of yuppies did almost hook us with their backcasts.  Suddenly I remembered why I like wilderness fishing so much more than dealing with crowds, which in Wyoming (or on Penns Creek in central PA where I grew up) means yuppies.

We took it easy the rest of the day and started to pack and clean the cabin.  We had one last fire as we listened to the old country station on the radio.  Then we slipped off to sleep.

The fire queen

Day 7-9 - Goodbyes, Weddings, and the Return of the King:
On Day 7 we finished packing, cleaned up a bit, and headed to Gillette to spend the day with my sister and nephews.  We played in the dirt, shot dart guns, played some baseball, and got out just about every toy in the house.  It was a lot of fun, although admittedly tiring.  My sister made a delicious dinner as we scoped out antelope through the binoculars and Caden, my nephew, showed me everything he wanted from the Cabelas catalog.  The rest of the evening and next day was spent visiting before we headed to the airport.

This time, things went smoothly and we got to Detroit right on time.  We were at our hotel in Ann Arbor a little before midnight, so we decided to crash.  The next morning we explored the downtown area - having brunch and a beer at the Jolly Pumpkin.  Then it was wedding time.  Our good friends Levi and Alina were getting hitched.  You have probably seen Levi's name on this site before.  He is a crazy good fly fisherman, fly tyer, and all around outdoorsman.  He ties a lot of the crazy bass patterns you see pop up in my blogs.  Anyway, the wedding was gorgeous, the reception was a blast, and we couldn't be happier for them.  They are now galavanting around Yellowstone on their honeymoon, hoping to not become bear food.

Fancied up for Levi and Alina's wedding in Ann Arbor

The next morning it was back to the Detroit. Thankfully we were early because the Hertz people put us on the wrong shuttle to the terminal.  But the rest of the trip was smooth.  In fact, we got home a little early.  After a Sheetz stop, we headed toward Greensboro where Bill was kind enough to meet us with Huck, our Shih Tzu.  He was a little out of sorts at first since it was only the second time he had been away from us and the first time he had been away without his big "brother" Brewer (our other dog).  But that night he plopped down in his usual spot at the foot of the bed, re-assuming his role of king of the room.

It was a simply awesome trip and we did not want it to end - particularly coming back to a pile of work and emails that Monday.  The rugged nature of the west is simply beautiful and the wilds often breathtaking.  A huge thanks to Deidre and her family, Aunt Betty, Levi & Alina, and Bill & Misty.  We have some incredible friends all over the country and I think this trip kind of epitomized how blessed Mary May and I are in our lives.  I think we are particularly lucky to have found each other.

I am super glad to know that I can still catch smart, wild trout and that I am not yet a yuppie, although I worry I may become one some day.  Until next time, tight lines!

Seeya next time, Wyoming!



  1. Enjoyed the read and the adventure--thanks for sharing

  2. I enjoyed reading about your adventures. Next time you are in the Casper area, fish the North Platte River. It's some of the best trophy trout fishing in the country. Thank you for loving our state so much. Wyoming sure is a beautiful place.

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