Paradise Valley is not a retirement community or an eccentric television show. It’s the scenic setting where the Yellowstone River flows beside green pastures between the Absaroka and Gallatin mountains. It’s worth the drive down Highway 89, from Livingston, Mont., all the way to Gardiner to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, which remains one of the United States’ truly great places.
But if you drive too fast you’ll miss the white-gated entrance to DePuy Spring Creek, the angling mecca. The punctuation and pronunciation are difficult (duh-pew), and the fishing is just as hard. That’s because DePuy is a spring creek, with vivid, clear water that runs cold all year long. These streams—Silver Creek south of Ketchum, Ida., is another—derive their water from underground springs and are filled with large, educated trout. You can see them, they can certainly see you, and they prefer to ignore you in ways that feel downright insulting.
This is technical fishing, both thrilling and slightly alarming to those who make the pilgrimage. Walk right up to the water, and fish will dart away from the bank. It requires a stealthy approach—slowly creep up to the water like a supplicant before a monarch. This summer I was using the Orvis Helios 3F 5-weight 9-foot rod—it’s accurate, responsive, and good for delicate presentations. That’s important because you’re working with incredibly fine tackle—a 6x leader or smaller—so your fly creates the most minimal disturbance when it lands. Drift the fly in sync with the current—any drag or inadvertent splash will upset the whole endeavor. This is everything you’ve learned over the years; now just try to stay calm, which is hard because enormous fish are everywhere you look.
Returning to any great water, you recall past triumphs and devastations. But you’re also measuring yourself against your last visit. Has your casting improved? Do you mend line well? Are your tactics more refined? You have to have faith that, yes, they are indeed. You also know that when you catch a trout and land it, you’ve approached the high level of this endeavor and etch those fish in your memory.
At DePuy in August, I knew I had my work cut out since it was late in the season and the fish have seen a lot of flies. I recall losing fish here in a startling variety of ways. I’ve tried to bring them in too aggressively, and they broke off those fine leaders. When I tried to be patient and ease them in, they ran and broke me off downstream (one that bolted in a rainstorm was, I swear, the largest trout I’ve ever had on a line, not that I expect you to believe that). But bit by bit you do improve.
You can’t make fish do what they don’t want to do. This trip I had a sunny day, and hoppers weren’t working; the trout were active but not taking dry flies. They seemed to be eating midges. Now midges are about the most nondescript bugs there are, barely more than a small hook wrapped in string. I’ve always resisted midges since you can barely see them and, in some way, they seem so improbable. But trout eat midges all day long, so I’ve experimented with them more this year—even a stubborn angler can learn.
I drifted the midge through the feeding fish and quickly had a hit. A fat rainbow jumped and flashed his metallic sides. Glory on the spring creek! Praise to the midge! I steadily retrieved the fish, like a competent angler who’s read Nick Lyons’s wonderful book Spring Creek—I was ready for my angling PhD. Then, what’s this? The line went suddenly slack. I succumbed to that sudden, hollow feeling. In my torrent of self-congratulation the trout made one last dive and broke free. I smiled the smile of one wronged by the injustices of the universe but with only himself to blame.
The next trout, however, came quickly. My heart raced, but everything aligned, and I landed it. It was a healthy cutthroat, with the wonderful rose-and-gold color those lovely fish are known for. I needed nothing more in the world. I drank a beer. My sense of enlightenment was strained, however, when I lost the next fish. But it was restored when I landed a meaty rainbow. There was a pattern here. I was doing my part, tactically speaking, though that still meant I might lose a fish. You can do what’s right and still not succeed. Every angler knows this, but the pang when you lose a good fish never goes away. This balance between triumph and pain is a reminder that on spring creeks, as everywhere else, improvement gets you in the game while teaching you how much more you have to learn.