American Fly Fishing

By Jeff Erickson


Like legendary outlaws, intrepid fly anglers crave outposts where they can periodically escape, but in their case it’s from marquee waters, ostentatious attitudes, and endless drift boat parades. Toward that end, northern Wyoming’s oceanic upper Powder River basin is nearly terra incognita, remote territory where trout anglers can slip into cave-riddled canyon mazes that sheltered Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid during their 19th-century robbery and rustling heyday. Tucked amid the shock-blowing so-called roads and primitive trails that probe the area, some of the Cowboy State’s most productive water holds several thousand trout per mile.
   If you’re rocketing over the lower Powder at 80 miles per hour on Interstate 94 at its junction with the Yellowstone River near Miles City, Montana, you’ll see a classic high plains stream. It displays the proverbial “too thick to drink and too thin to plow” prairie character—shallow, warm water best suited for dunking stink bait for catfish. In their book Roadside Geology of Wyoming, David Lageson and Darwin Spearing reveal that “Indians would rub dirt between their fingers, then let it fall as fine dust to signify the Powder River.”
   Trace the Powder’s silty course a few hundred miles upstream into the southern tail of Wyoming’s sprawling Bighorn Mountains—above the last-chance supply stop of Kaycee—and it fractures into small, clear, cold-water forks, threading through labyrinthine gorges that soar like medieval cathedral towers. An enduring bounty from billions of antediluvian sea creatures deposited over millennia, the upper Powder’s fossiliferous Madison limestone, hidden springs, and fertile, calcium-carbonate chemistry create trout paradise.
   Robert Behnke’s treatise, Trout and Salmon of North America, indicates no native trout in the Powder River basin—odd for such naturally prolific water. It’s a biogeographic curiosity, because the Tongue River—the next drainage entering Montana’s Yellowstone River upstream from the Powder—swarmed with Yellowstone cutthroat when U.S. military personnel explored the upper watershed during the 19th-century Indian wars. During the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, for example, General George Crook’s contingent, oblivious of the nearby carnage inflicted on Custer’s men, idly amused themselves by catching thousands of cutts in Tongue tributaries. One explanation for the Powder’s lack of indigenous trout is that its erosive, sediment-laden prairie main stem—one of the nation’s longest undammed streams—made it inhospitable for trout trying to ascend into its headwaters from the Yellowstone.
   The trout lacuna changed around the time Butch and Sundance gained growing notoriety in the 1890s, when browns, brookies, and rainbows were widely introduced across much of the Western landscape. The Middle Fork is the best-known Powder fishery—and the site of a famous outlaw getaway cave—but other narrow headwater fingers of the watershed pulse with wild trout, including Blue, Buffalo, Beartrap, and Eagle Creeks, along with the unfrequented North Fork Powder River. Campers can grind it out to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) primitive Outlaw Cave Campground, perched on the rim of the Middle Fork Canyon, or follow better roads to another site at the upper end of the chasm.
   A quest for upper Powder River trout requires several things: sufficient time; a good set of 1:100,000 BLM maps (e.g., for Kaycee and Norwater Creek); a generous supply of gas, food, ice, and beer; a vehicle that can absorb axle-busting punishment; hiking and fishing gear suitable for steep descents; and a box of twitchy terrestrials and attractors. Yes, you can corral plenty of upper Powder trout with nymphs and streamers, but arguably the best way to tempt these beasts is with creatures like the Turck Tarantula, Madam X, Chubby Chernobyl, Fat Albert, Royal Trude, and a veritable nightmare of outlandishly leggy foam hopper mutations that might have skedaddled out of an Alfred Hitchcock horror film. The Powder is mainly a summer and early fall proposition, when sun-baked cliffs, meadows, and overhanging ponderosas are crawling with ants, beetles, crickets, cicadas, and grasshoppers.
   Winding my way out on the last day, I passed near the iconic Hole-in-the-Wall, a secret passageway in a vermillion-hued hogback where Butch and Sundance herded pilfered cattle to their hideouts. For fly anglers who enjoy prowling outlaw-haunted streams and craggy canyons, the upper Powder is the Holy Grail.


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