Oh, Ranger!
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Goin' Fishin'

"OH, Ranger, where can I catch some trout?"

Sometimes that question is a hard one to answer. It isn't always the fault of the fish, either. There are anglers and anglers. Some seem to be able to step out and catch trout in the morning, in the evening, any time. Others have no luck, even when they are wearing a rabbit's paw, a horseshoe, a turkey wishbone, and a Columbian half-dollar, all at the same time. The wary trout is no respecter of good-luck omens. Catching him calls for a indefinable something that some call fisherman's luck, that others call skill—whatever it is, you need it when you are goin' fishin'.

Knowing where the fish swim is half the game, when you are goin' fishin'. There isn't much use fishing in waters where there are no fish to be tempted by your lure. When Herbert Hoover was honorary president of the Izaak Walton League, he declared in an intriguing article that it should be the inalienable right of every American to catch a nice string of fish at least once each year. He touched upon the ennobling and uplifting effect this would have upon the American's soul, and indicated that as a panacea for unrest, discontent, and so on, there was nothing in the world like goin' fishin'. He advocated the expenditure of sufficient funds to see that all good fish waters of the country be adequately stocked with the right kind of fish. Then at least the fish would be there to be caught, and the man who could not catch his share would have nobody but himself to blame.


The rangers know the spiritual benefits of going fishing and have subscribed for a long time to the proposition that everybody ought to catch a mess of fish now and then. They have made considerable headway already in stocking the barren waters of the national parks. To do this they have on numerous occasions carried cans of tiny trout to remote streams and lakes high in the mountains, sometimes on horseback, often on foot, strapping the cans on their backs. That is work, as anyone who has carried a five-gallon can of water for five miles over a rocky trail can testify. These baby trout are known as fry. When the ranger with a can of fry arrives at a lake to be stocked, he gradually fills the can with water from the lake, to accustom the little fish to the temperature of the water so that the dive into their new home will not be too great a shock to them.

After a barren water is stocked with fry it takes several years for it to become a good place for fishing. Hence the planting of fish must precede the building of trails or roads which make the lake or stream accessible to the angler. From six to eight million trout fry are planted in the national parks waters each year. This is but a small beginning compared to the billion nearly grown trout which Mr. Hoover and the Izaak Walton League would like to have planted each year, but it is a start. Of course, the various states plant many other millions of fish. The propagation of fish has passed beyond the experimental stage. It has been demonstrated in the national parks that it is possible to keep more trout in the streams and lakes than the anglers can pull out with the aid of flies, spinners, and other lures, not overlooking the humble angleworm, who is frowned upon in the best circles but who manages to retain his standing with small boys everywhere and with certain other older fisher folk from "down East."


In the national parks the rangers, in the course of their plantings, have learned some interesting and important facts about the rearing of fish. One of the most fundamental lessons is that it is unwise to mix breeds of trout in the same lake or stream unless their habits of life be quite similar. All fish, and trout in particular, are cannibalistic. The trout must be protected not only from destruction by greedy humans or by stream pollution, but also from other members of the finny tribe. Consequently, it is advisable in the parks to reserve a certain water for a particular variety of fish and raise another kind somewhere else. That system makes the sport more interesting for anglers too.

Yellowstone Park offers an illustration of this. The native trout of the Yellowstone is the cutthroat, or the redthroat, as the species is sometimes called. The cutthroat is a fine, gamy fish, growing to good size, a popular trout with anglers. In the early days, before the authorities had studied trout propagation, other trouts were imported and planted in the same waters with the cutthroat. The rainbow was brought from California, the brook trout from the Atlantic Coast streams, and the Loch Leven from other distant points. The cutthroats and the rainbows spawn in the spring. The trout brought from the East spawn in the autumn. Spawning fish are too occupied to be eating each other's eggs but in with a combination such as we have in Yellowstone the Eastern trout prey on the eggs of the Rainbow and the cutthroat in the spring and the latter prey back in the autumn. The great destruction of eggs and fry may be due to the presence of fish that spawn at other seasons.

The National Park Service and the State Fish Commissions try to regulate the fishing seasons so that no fishing is done while the trout are spawning. However, in the Yellowstone where trout are spawning, both spring and autumn, this is practically impossible. Of course, it is too much to expect the chap who has come a thousand miles to go fishing to throw back the fine trout he has just caught because it happens to be of the species spawning at the time. Most of the experienced anglers do that, not only to assist in the task of keeping waters stocked, but also because spawning fish are not the best eating. The meat is somewhat soft and lacks the fine taste it would have at other seasons. This is a practice that should be encouraged. If the fish is handled with moist hands when removed from the hook, there is usually no serious injury inflicted. Thrown back into the water, the grateful trout swims off, a wiser, more wary fish thereafter.

The rangers realize that these technical aspects of trout life are not so interesting to the Sagebrusher as the answer to the question, "Where can I catch some fish?" The Sagebrusher has driven a hundred miles that day, his mouth watering for trout. Even as he cross-examines the first ranger he meets, he can smell those trout frying in the pan. Already he has separated the old rod from its case and he craves action immediately. It is the ranger's job to direct him to the lake where fishing is good, and it is not the angler's worry that the rangers have to stock the waters yearly to keep the fishing good.

The Sagebrushers are the fishermen of the national parks. And the fisherwomen, too. They can stop and pitch tent wherever they find a good fishing hole. Travelers with pre-arranged schedules find it difficult to take time for fishing. Angling for trout can't be done on an itinerary. The trout are the greatest little itinerary busters in the world. Give a normal, growing, healthy trout half a chance and he will ruin the most adamant itinerary. The rangers saw that happen when the late President Coolidge came to the Yellowstone. Advance agents worked out in fine detail a schedule of travel, with every move timed to the minute. It lasted only until the presidential party reached Yellowstone Lake, where the cutthroats got into the Coolidge itinerary and what they did was plenty.

That's the way it goes. Strong, hardy men, of sterling character, leaders in the church and respected in their communities, will go out with a rod and reel swearing by all that is mighty that they have but an hour to spare and promising their wives to return for dinner. Do they? Why, just the "goin'" part of goin' fishin' takes that long. First there is the ceremony of hauling out the old pipe (a special one used only when the annual assault on the trout is made!), scraping it, knocking it on the trunk of a tree, stoking it, coaxing the fire in its bowl, tasting the first few puffs with meaning smacks of the lips, and then getting down to business.

Next comes the luring of the lures out of the lining and the band of the old hat, used the year before. This practice is frowned upon by the more particular anglers nowadays, who hold that flies should be kept in fly books. Even so, bringing them out, inspecting them and talking about them, reviewing the artillery and soaking the leaders, is quite a ceremony. Then there is the rod to be pieced together and strung with the best line in the U.S.A., something owned by every other angler himself in person. After a few flourishes of the rig as finally assembled, the angler addresses himself to the waters and the fly whistles over his head and out where a trout "ought to be." Sometimes he is. Wham! The line is jerked taut and the match is on, a battle of wits between a flashing, zigzagging, fighting trout and an excited, eager opponent on shore or in the boat, the odds somewhat against the trout at that turn of the game.


Sometimes the best of charms fail, and one by one the pretty flies find their way back into the hat lining or into the fly book, and at last out comes the old spinner that did the work the year before, a last resort which fly fishermen always seem reluctant to use. There is many a lure between the Royal Coachman and the humble angleworm, and though most anglers are too proud to use anything but flies at the start, their pride unbends after a few hours and many are the tricks that are played on the poor trout. He is offered rubber minnows and wooden frogs and bright-colored whatnots until he just cannot keep his appetite in curb.

One sees some odd outfits in the parks. Travelers are always looking for compact equipment. Some of it is excellent. The experienced angler, of course, knows exactly what he wants, and seeks no advice. But for the novice, a few suggestions about fishing equipment may not be amiss. Everyone cannot afford the elaborate and costly complete outfits. The beginner at this royal sport often prefers to rent fishing tackle at the stores found in all of the national parks. That is economical, but it is not so satisfactory for the Sagebrusher who may want to stop and fish en route from point to point.

Those who yearn to fish ought to equip themselves with good tackle. Beginners sometimes have trouble with the split bamboo rod, which must be handled carefully when you get a fair-sized trout on the end of the line. If you jerk him into the air you may break the delicate tip, if not the whole rod. An angler must know just how much strain the rod will stand. It takes experience to learn how to play your trout until he is tired out and ready to be dragged in. It is not a bad idea for the novice to try a steel rod at first, one capable of standing hard knocks. Besides, a steel rod can be used for trolling, but if there is any casting to be done, it takes a good line to achieve the snare and delusion.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

As he learns more about the technique of casting, he can get a fly rod and better tackle, smaller flies, and finally in all probability barbless hooks will become a part of his standard equipment.

As to lines, it never pays to buy a poor or cheap one which loses its life and vigor when it gets wet. It wraps around everything in sight, is hard to untangle, and never gets far out over the water. Cheap line may be all right for bait fishing from a boat or for trolling, but if there is any casting to be done, it takes a good line to achieve the snare and delusion.

Leaders are essential in fly fishing and trolling and must be kept in good condition. If carefully preserved, leaders will last a long time. They must always be soaked before using, of course. The weight and strength must be in proportion to the fish to be caught. Never try to land a ten pound Mackinaw with a leader made for one-pound fish. Many people just learning to fish tie spinners and even flies right on to the line and throw them out into the lake or stream. This is bad, for the simple reason that the fish can see the line. The leader has a definite and important value, that of deceiving the fish into thinking the artificial fly is a real one.


The reel is an important part of fishing tackle and the advice to give about reels for the beginner is to get a good one.

A weak reel will let your line run out and will even tangle it up in winding or unwinding. Of course, many experts prefer the automatic reel, but it is not a necessary part of the ordinary equipment and it takes skill to use it effectively.

Getting down to lures, here again experience counts a lot. Bait fishing makes possible the use of a small variety of lures. The spinner is more effective at certain times than at others. When fish are feeding deep, they will not rise to a fly. Trolling is the only way to get them. Spawning fish, especially females, will fight a spinner, and at the spawning time of the year the spinner will furnish a lot of fun to the person who does not realize that every time he catches a spawning female he destroys a lot of good future fishing for somebody.

Everybody who aspires to be a fisherman should learn to cast. The fly fisherman gets the most sport out of his angling. It takes time and patience to learn, but it is a fascinating pastime. He who once catches the spirit of fly casting will stand and cast for hours at a marker practicing the fine points of the game. The choice of flies, of course, depends on what the fish will bite. The best thing to do upon arriving at a new lake or stream is to watch the water and see what the fish are jumping for, if they are jumping at all. If the trout are after a dark insect, use a black gnat or brown hackle or some other dark fly. If moths are flying, use bigger flies of the same color as the prevailing moth or other large in sect. One should have a fairly good variety of flies, both large and small, light, dark, and medium, and keep them in a fly book and not around the hatband—although a few flies in the hatband do help give the impression that one is really goin' fishin'.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

The rangers try to tell visitors where to go to fish and what to use in the way of a lure, but whether or not one is successful will depend upon skill, in the first place, and the number of fishermen who have been there before, in the second place. By August, in many of the parks, the fish have become pretty sophisticated and wary, especially along the roads, and no lure will fool them, unless in the hands of an Old-Timer who has learned how to fool them under any and all circumstances. It has been said in some parks that toward the end of the season along the roads the only lure that will attract a trout is a club sandwich, and even then the fish insist that only chicken and fresh tomatoes be used in the sandwich.

After the trout have been caught, they should be care fully cleaned, and the fisherman should do this himself. The real angler never takes the fish to camp for the women folks to clean. A good fisherman can clean a fish in less time than it takes to tell about it, and he ought to do it as part of the day's work. As a matter of fact, it will be the only work of the day, since everything else is great fun. Most Sagebrushers like to fry their fish over the open fire and that is the best way to cook them. Fry them in bacon grease and serve them with a little bacon. Dutch-oven biscuits with fish and coffee at night, and flapjacks with them in the morning, are camp meals de luxe.

Have you ever heard of a "ranger sandwich"? It is made of the left-over supper biscuits, the left-over morning hot cakes, the left-over bacon and fish from both meals, a little butter, and, if eggs were left over, put them in, too. This combination sounds terrible, but next day about noon, if one is walking, fishing, or riding horseback in the fine fresh air, a "ranger sandwich" will taste better than the best meal the hotel can put up. Besides, it is economy in the use of food, an important consideration in the mountains.


The lure of trout fishing isn't entirely in the catching of fish. It is in the uncertainty of it, the sporting element, the gambling of time and wits against the habits of the trout. Sometimes it would seem that anglers are greater fish than the trout. They will bite on anything! They will trudge miles upon miles, with nary a grumble, because somebody has told them of seeing whopping big trout in a certain remote lake. That recalls a fishin' story. One time when a newspaper writer was visiting Yellowstone he noticed a big club near the cabin occupied by a ranger stationed at Slough Creek.

"What's the club for?" asked the writer.

"Aw, that's my fishin' club," explained the ranger.

"Fishin' club?"

"Yeah, fishin' club. I take it when I go fishin' down the stream. There's a big trout in there that's grabbed every fly I had but one and bit the leader in two. I take the fishin' club along to whang the big devil over the head and drive him away so I can catch some of the other fish."

That story soon appeared in the papers, and during the rest of the summer Sagebrushers kept dropping into the office to ask the location of the stream with that big fish in it that had to be hit over the head with a club. Some of them displayed the double, extra-heavy deep-sea tackle they had brought along with which to drag the "big devil" out of the water.

At that, deep-sea tackle is hardly too heavy for some of the big fish occasionally caught in the western parks. In Glacier and Yellowstone parks, lake or Mackinaw trout twenty to thirty pounds in weight have been caught from the deep waters, while in Yosemite they occasionally catch German Browns that weigh almost that much. These big fellows will not rise to a lure, as a rule, and must be attracted by bait, lowered with sinkers. The big trout are not sporty. As age and size creep upon a trout, he becomes less interested in the active life. He feeds on the bottom of the lake. His meat is often not as good as that of the younger and more active fish. The big fellow simply uses his weight and strength to break the line, if he can. He uses none of the tricks of the one- to five-pounder.

Fishin' stories!

Joe Douglas who for many years was assistant chief ranger of the Yellowstone used to spin some good ones. Doug was a practical fellow, a good woodsman, a superb horseman and a first-class packer. He was an old Army packer before becoming a ranger. He was supposed to know something about mules, as well as fish. Until he told the following story, Doug had an enviable reputation for veracity.


Doug and a companion were out on a pack trip and ran short of rations. They pitched camp alongside an attractive trout stream. Doug is so sure of his angling that he is always counted upon to supply a camp with fish. So, after turning their horses and the pack mule loose to graze in the meadow, Doug turned to fishing. They were biting that day. As he caught them, Doug tossed the trout on the bank a safe distance from the stream and cast out for more, planning to gather them up as he returned to camp. Within a short time he had landed twelve fine trout. He cut a forked stick on which to string the fish and turned just in time to see, to his amazement, his pack mule devouring the last of his catch. The mule had followed him stealthily and eaten every trout he caught. Doug insisted this is not a fish story but is a true account of mule- and fish-facts.

Then there is the famous Jim Bridger story of the mountain climbing trout he saw in Yellowstone, fish which could "pack over the hump of the Rockies," the continental divide. That was regarded as a colossal lie until Two Ocean Pass was discovered. The pass also explains how trout climbed above Yellowstone Falls, into Yellowstone River, and into the lake of the same name. It is really a deep, meadow-covered pass in the continental divide with two connecting streams, Atlantic and Pacific creeks, each flowing ultimately into its respective ocean. Fish can easily move from one stream to another. There can be no question but that the cutthroat trout came over into the Yellowstone headwaters from the Pacific Slope via the Snake River and its tributary, Pacific Creek.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap5.htm — 06-Sep-2004