One of the main myths surrounding the salmon-fly hatch is that the insects move upstream at the rate of four miles per day, so that by timing it right, an angler can always be certain of finding the action. But timetables of any sort are a figment of man's irrational compulsion toward organization, and when the weather continues warm and fair over the next few days, salmon flies are reported hatching all along the river from Livingston to Tom Miner Basin, a distance of some 45 miles when measured by the meandering Yellowstone.
We float with regularity and determination, putting the boat in the river at a different point each day in hopes of covering all the best water. Even failing to encounter salmon flies is not considered discouraging; the fishing is said to be best in the period immediately after the main body of the hatch passes. Then the trout will greedily hit any drifting artificial pattern that resembles a leftover from the recent bug gorge. Still, in spite of the optimism the fishing is no better than sporadic.
Soon the hatch moves above Yankee Jim Canyon, and now the best willow banks on the river are accessible by foot and we leave the boat at home. The days continue to glow, and hanging in the honeyed afternoon sky above the Yellowstone are fluttering squadrons of wind-borne salmon flies.
The fishing is good. At Corwin Springs I take a two-pound rainbow on my first cast. We wade along the edge of the willow stands, knee-deep in the strong pushing current, fishing upstream so our flies will drift close to the submerged bushes where the trout are rising. We find mostly small rainbows and browns, in nowhere near the prodigious numbers of the legendary past but still fun and frequent enough to keep things interesting.
The last trip of the salmon-fly season occurs after the hatch has passed out of the lower valley up into the rugged back-country of Yellowstone National Park. A group of us, including two visiting teen-age cousins along mainly for the hike, treks into the spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. For the first few miles the trail follows the rim of the canyon before dropping into the netherworld along a series of severe switchbacks through the pines and across a steaming landscape. Thermal vents and boiling springs hiss along the side of the path. Climbing out of here will be no fun at all.
The junction of trail and river is abrupt; literally no banks to speak of, only the startling slice of water through rock. It is too fierce for wading, so we fish among boulders jutting from the rushing current, in the riffles and eddies that form in their wake. Within minutes everyone has a fish on, including the teenagers who have never held a fly rod in their hands before.
Unlike the lower Yellowstone, which is dominated by the more aggressive rainbows and browns, this stretch of wild river above Tower Falls contains a goodly number of native cutthroat. They are stunning now in their spawning colors, with deep olive-gold sides and gill plates of metallic crimson; the conspicuous scarlet slash under the jaw seems almost an afterthought. We catch them readily; if not on every cast, certainly on one in five.
As we work our way downstream the tally goes up: "nine, 10..."—these are vigorous fish up to two pounds—"15...20, 21." All fish are released. No one wants to carry an extra ounce out of the canyon, although there's a park limit of two fish and these cutthroat have flesh as pink as salmon and would be classed a delicacy on anyone's table.
It's all a bit unreal: the powerful river, the abundance of trout, the exhilaration of being right on the money after so many years of failure. About a mile downstream is a small feeder creek, a narrow ladder of terraced pools so thick with trout that we catch them lying on our stomachs at water's edge, dapping the sofa-pillows on the surface, like Izaak Walton. These are spawning fish and we decide not to disturb them further, returning instead to the river and the continuously mounting tally. By afternoon my companion has caught 75 fish and I have caught 50, a bonanza, yet as we begin the long trudge back to civilization, with the salmon-fly season at an end, I find myself speculating about next year when the big bugs return.