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Firehole River

The Firehole rises in tiny Madison Lake which
lies in a marshy subalpinebasin at 8,200 feet
along a north-facing slope of the continental divide. From the lake to the bridge on the Old Faithful-Thumb road under which it passes, this is a tiny, cold, winding brook trout stream that also holds a few pan-size browns.

Below the Old Faithful water supply intake, down to the bridge above Biscuit Basin and the mouth of the Little Firehole, is a two- or three-mile stretch that is currently closed to fishing. It never was really good fishing water, except for small spot locations, such as just behind Old Faithful and near Morning Glory Pool. Its closure, to protect the many thermal features, is a very small loss for the fisherman.

The Little Firehole is joined just above its junction with the main river by Iron Spring Creek, locally called Iron Creek. These two streams are much cooler than the Firehole itself and are run-up streams for large trout in July and August of warm years. If summer remains cool, with considerable rain and snow (a not unusual condition at this 7,500 foot level), the larger trout will remain in the big river with its better, more secure holds and more plentiful insects.

But if the summer has been warm and very dry, big trout will run up these cooler streams. There will be some very good fish just above the footbridge across the Little Firehole-lron Creek stem, and just below the junction of the two streams. There will be some few fish in the Little Firehole above the confluence of the two streams, but in general this stream is too cold for comfort for the warm water-loving trout of the main stream. Iron Creek will run some 6 to 10 degrees cooler than the main stream. It is somewhat larger than the Little Firehole and is much more favored by big run-up browns and rainbows. To put things in perspective, when the temperature of the main river reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the larger trout, with their smaller temperature change tolerance, will commence to move into the two cooler streams. These trout are accustomed to temperatures of 70 to 78 degrees in summer and, in fact, prefer a temperature of 70 to 75, because for eighty generations, that has been the normal midsummer daytime temperature of the Firehole.

In the early 1970s a series of earthquakes more severe than normal took place near the Firehole headwaters. This region suffers about 200 quakes a year of up to 4.5 on the Richter Scale, but some of the quakes in the early 1970s reached 6.5 on the Richter. Apparently this opened up new or greater high temperature flows into the river, raising the daytime high temperatures to the high 80s by 1979. In the mid-seventies this caused great numbers of large trout to leave the Firehole and enter Iron Creek during the hottest part of summer. These high temperatures also caused the growth and reproductive rates of the trout to drop dramatically, reducing both the size and numbers of trout in the stream.

Biscuit Basin itself is about a mile of winding meadow stream, deep in places, with an abundance of bottom drop-offs, weed beds and undercut banks providing holds and lies for the trout. The trout of this stretch are almost half-and-half rainbows and browns. It has always been too warm for brookies, which are mostly found now in the cooler water above Keppler Cascades. When the river was first stocked with trout in 1889 (it was barren of fish above Firehole Falls when white men first saw it in the 1830s) brook trout from the East were put into the stream. These quickly fled upstream to cooler water above Old Faithful. In 1890 browns were stocked, and in 1897 a woman named Mary Trowbridge Townsend wrote a lovely piece in Outing Magazine in which she tells of catching a "gloriously colored Von Behr (brown) trout of four pounds."

The river was allegedly named by Jim Bridger in 1851 when he was showing a group of mountain men from the southern Rockies through the Park. It is said that Bridger told them that the river was heated by friction from running over its bedrock bottom, but this sophisticated observation does not fit what is known about the uneducated mountain man.

This bedrock bottom is evident in the Firehole throughout its length. Boulders broken off the cliffs of Firehole Canyon and strewn along the river bottom make it appear different than the rest of the stream, but if you are interested enough to move some of these boulders, you will find them resting on bedrock.

Fishing the smooth stretches of the Firehole, dry or wet, still requires such subtlety. Biscuit Basin, Muleshoe Bend, Goose Lake Meadows, Ojo Caliente Bend, the Broads-all these pieces of difficult water require every skill one can muster because these are wild fish that have been fished over for ninety years, and they have learned much in that time.

Coming down from the lower end of Biscuit Basin Meadows, one encounters two miles of riffle and shallow pool water. This is a less fishworthy stretch than the water either above or below. At the lower end one comes to a high bank on the left, formed of siliceous sinter, the whitish-gray material found around geysers and other thermal features. Beginning at the downstream end of this is a quarter-mile stretch of broken-bottomed pools and runs that is quite good and seldom fished, though it is less than a hundred yards from the road. Then comes a half-mile more of shallow riffles and another high bank of sinter, again on the left. This used to be an excellent stretch, with some large trout lying in the channel next to the bank. Ray Bergman wrote extensively about it in the thirties, when three-pounders could regularly be found here. But it has silted in with geyser debris over the years and the larger fish are no longer there.

Just beyond the lower end of this bank is an abrupt break in the bedrock bottom and a short cascade and plunge pool. The stretch from there to the Upper Iron Bridge, about three-eighths of a mile, is quite good, excellent with dry fly or emergent nymph as needed. Below the bridge a long riffle and run reaches to the upper end of Muleshoe Bend. Before the late warming of the river there were big stone fly nymphs of Pteronarcys and Acroneuria (now Calineuria) here, and at the foot of the faster stretches, in deeper water, an occasional large trout could be found waiting for the drifting nymph. This is no longer true, although smaller fish can be taken with some regularity.

The tight loop of Muleshoe Bend is still a half-mile of excellent dry fly water with some good fish in it, as well as many smaller ones. One parks at the road turnout at the apex of the bend on the high bank there and watches for the hatch to commence. I've not found it too profitable to fish this stretch if no flies were showing.

There is a long riffle from the lower end of Muleshoe through the rest of Midway Geyser Basin. It is right beside the road and is an excellent piece of water for the beginner or children. It is loaded with insect life, mostly small, and the rough but not too uneven bottom offers good footing.

Below Excelsior Spring, which pours a steaming cataract of 200 degree water into the river, there is a long, shallow stretch of relatively fishless water leading into the head of Goose Lake Meadows, a long piece of mostly gliding dry fly water. By dry fly water, I do not mean that other methods cannot be used with success, but that the appearance and conditions truly bespeak the dry fly. From mid-July till late September this is a grasshopper stretch par excellence. ^

A small falls and plunge pool terminates the stretch and gives way to a continuing succession of shallow cataracts, not worth your time. This ends in a narrow chute sliding under the Lower Iron Bridge and on into 0jo Caliente Bend, a deep, weed-filled curve that formerly hosted more big trout than any stretch on the Firehole. But during the late warming trend it became the hottest stretch of the river, topping 89 degrees on hot August days.

There are still many fish here, some quite large, and at the end of a hot summer one can find them packed into the lower end of Sentinel Creek, which enters at the very apex of the bend. These fish are very exposed in the clear, shallow water and are wild and wary. Most anglers find it useless to try for them and perhaps one shouldn't, as this stresses them and any additional stress in overwarm water decreases their chance of survival.

In Ojo Caliente Bend itself the abundant weeds make fishing difficult. Thisis true of all the
weedy stretches, which includes all the slower, deeper waters from Biscuit Basin to the lip of the canyon. Also, insects in these weedy stretches tend to be small to microscopic and there are not many of them in Ojo Caliente Bend. Years ago, this piece of water was loaded with caddis and scud (shrimp, so called) but there are few of either that have survived the high temperatures of the 1970s. Now, small black snails form more than half the trout's diet. The fish are smaller and less plentiful than formerly, although by the standards of most trout streams the stock is adequate.

Below Ojo Caliente begins a long piece of water which traverses Fountain Flats and is called by that name. It is fairly even bottomed and its depth is also even, but there are some potholes and broken places in the bedrock bottom, though no really deep spots. The grass-covered banks are undercut throughout and this plus the potholes and some weeds furnish more holds for trout than at first appears. The water is a bit cooler than that of Ojo Caliente Bend.

In spring this is a favored piece of water, especially for the nymph fisher. A large dragonfly type is found here-and in other similar bottom types in the Firehole drainage. The nymph is in the water two years from egg to hatching adult and is tan to dark brown. It hatches into a fiery red-orange adult nearly three inches long.

In summer the Fountain Flats are the dry fly fishers bane-and delight. The water is truly wonderfully propitious for the dry fly, but this open meadow is often assaulted with winds up to fifty miles an hour. It has always been so. Ray Bergman, in the thirties, speaks of winds so strong that he had to aim his cast 45 degrees away from the river's edge in order to drop the fly along the bank where the fish were holding. But wind or no, this is a very popular piece of water in summer and early fall-grasshopper time- and the wind is a help here, blowing these ungainly creatures into the water and bringing the fish to feed.

From below Fountain Flats, below where the Nez Perce enters, to the breakover above the canyon head, is about three miles of excellent water: broad, smooth, well weeded, very tempting to the dry fly fisher. These are the Broads of the Firehole. Ernie Schwiebert allowed that they must have been so named by some of the Englishmen who early fly-fished these waters.

At the very last before the river enters Firehole Canyon are a pair of long deep pools. They lie in the curve of the road where it returns to the river coming up from Madison Junction. These pools have very large boulders scattered through their otherwise even bottoms, and these boulders play havoc with the nymph fisher. They entangle his line and leader as he attempts to get down to the fish, which he must do since they will not come up to the fly.

The Firehole Canyon is beautiful, with pools, flats, runs, rapids, cascades and falls, but except for the last half-mile before it joins the Gibbon and becomes the Madison, it is not worth the trouble and danger of getting into and out of the canyon to fish it.

The last half-mile has run-up fish from the Madison as well as resident fish of decent size. The giant stone fly nymph is found here, and in early June the adult, the so-called salmonfly, is found in sufficient numbers to make for some exciting dry fly fishing. You must hit it exactly right because the hatch only lasts two or three days on this short stretch and the date varies with the weather: In an early warm, dry spring the hatch may come before the May 28 opening of trout fishing in the Park.

The Firehole, in spite of its late temperature tribulations, is still a magnificent trout stream, challenging and difficult as it has always been. It is beautiful and it is unique; the hot springs, geysers and other thermal features that cause its temperature problems also make it minerally rich, which benefits the creatures in it greatly. These thermal features lining its banks have caused both Ernie Schwiebert and National Geographic magazine to call it the strangest trout stream on earth. I guess that makes it official.

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