A Tale: Fishing the Once Barren Firehole River — 1897

Fly Fishing on the Firehole River

Early travelers assumed  the reason that some lakes and streams in Yellowstone Park were barren of fish because of hot water and chemicals from springs and geysers, but systematic studies indicated that the problem was physical barriers like water falls. In 1889 officials initiated a program of stocking fish and proved the studies were right.

 By the late 1890s, when Frank B. King and his friend hauled their fly rods and creels through the park, the once barren rivers and lakes were teeming with fish. King has been traveling through the park for several days before he arrived at the Firehole River and finally got an opportunity to test the famous fishing waters of Yellowstone Park. Here’s his story of what happened then.


When we reached the Park, every one told us we could catch fish anywhere and everywhere, but still those rods remained under the seat, and as the days passed by, we wished we could tell some of those people what we thought of them. When we looked into the hot springs, we saw no signs of fish, and in the geysers the finny tribe was missing.

Still we went bravely on, now and then casting a longing glance at the rods, and hoping, at least, that we might some day find some place where we could take them out of their cases and look at them, if nothing more.

As we turned our backs upon Old Faithful and his companions that afternoon, and drove down the Firehole River toward the Fountain House, the shadows were just commencing to lengthen. Through the pines, I could catch here and there tantalizing glimpses of the river as it ran along between its meadowy banks. Now and then, it formed rapids which ran into beautiful pools and then out again into long, open riffles. Here, there would be a log extending out into the water, at the end of which I could see a tempting eddy from which I was almost sure I could coax a “big one.” Next, there would be a long bend with a riffle above and below it. In those riffles, I could imagine I saw several “beauties” waiting for a fly to drop upon the water that they might jump at it.

Well, I stood all this just as long as I could. I was going to get out my rod and make a try, even if I failed. My companion was a little, in fact, very sleepy, and did not care whether there were fish or no fish; what he had his mind on was that long, quiet nap he was to have when he reached the hotel. By promising him that I would only make a few casts, and that he could sleep in the surrey while I tried my luck, he consented to wait just a minute or two.

I pulled on some overalls, a fishing-coat, a pair of “gums;” set up my pet rod; tried the reel to see if it still knew its song; ran the line through the guides; tied on a leader; picked a brown hackle, a royal coachman, and a black gnat, out of my book; and sallied down to the river. Before me was a beautiful pool, one of those long, deep ones with just enough current running through it to make the flies work well.

I crept up as close to the pool as I dared, took the rod in my right hand, and made a long, pretty cast out past the middle of the pool. The flies had no sooner straightened out than there was a break in the water and a streak of gold and black passed over the end hackle and into the water. He had missed it; but he was a beauty. I felt like letting out an Indian whoop—there was a fish in the river anyway, I had seen him. The next thing to do was to catch him.

I was all of a tremble, for if ever I wanted a fish in my life, I wanted that one, if for nothing more than to give me some cause for yelling to my sleepy companion to bring down the landing-net. Once more I drew back and made a long cast, but the flies struck a little too far up stream and had to travel with the current a little distance.

No sooner were they over the spot where I had had the first rise than, zip, something struck the end fly and started up stream, making the line hum through the water and the reel spin. I did not think, as some people tell, that I had a whale or an elephant, I knew what it was—it was a good big trout. There is only one thing that acts the way this something on the end of my line did, and that is a gamy trout.

He ran up stream until the current and strain of the rod was too much, and then he left the water. You can imagine the way he left the water. You know the way a big trout acts. Well, he acted as they all do. When he was back in the water, he started down stream, and when he reached the end of the pool, he broke again and then came toward me and then away from me.

By this time, the first rush was over and I let out a long, deep yell for my sleepy friend. As soon as he heard that yell, he knew just what was up, and he came down that hill with the landing-net in his hand just as fast as a man who was not a bit sleepy. His first words were:

“What have you got? How big is he?”

After a little sulking, a few dashes, and a break or two, came the fight around the landing net, and at last I had him kicking in the grass on the bank. He was a beauty! A Loch Leven that measured nearly twenty inches and weighed over two pounds and a half. As he lay there in the grass, his yellow stripe and red spots upon the black made a very pretty picture. He was a beauty, and he was ours.

Thoughts of a nap left the mind of my companion, and fishing was declared the order of the day. He soon had his “Leonard” set up, and before many minutes had a mate to mine bending it almost double. I never saw any one wake up so quickly in my life. He never had a thought of sleep the rest of the afternoon. The fact was, he did not have time for such thoughts, the fish kept him too busy.

From the time I hooked my first fish up to a little while before dark, we had the finest fishing I ever heard of. When I say it was the finest fishing I ever heard of, I mean it, and I have heard some very tall fish stories. We fished side by side all afternoon and one was working with fish all the time, and part of the time both of us had our hands full.

We lost the biggest one we had hooked, of course; one always does. When we left the stream, we had twenty-two fish that would average over two pounds apiece. Some were Rainbows; some were Loch Levens; some were Cutthroats, and they were all beauties, every one of them a work of art. I never hope to catch such a gamy, beautiful mess of trout again. Such fishing one only has once in a lifetime.


— Frank B. King, “In Nature’s Laboratory: Driving and Fishing in Yellowstone Park.” Overland Monthly, 29(174)594-603  (June 1897).

— Wikipedia photo.

— To see more stories about fishing in Yellowstone Park, choose “Fishing” under the categories button on the right side of this page.

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