Summer Road Trip 2013: North Fork of the Shoshone

Day 1: Denver to Cody

By Randy Scholfield

The wind kicked in just as I crossed the Wyoming state line. I was driving my 1977 green VW camper bus—perhaps the most aerodynamically challenged vehicle ever created—as part of a week-long summer road trip. The goal: get out of the office and visit some of TU’s stream restoration projects in several Western states and do a little fishing, camping, and blogging along the way. First stop: North Fork of the Shoshone, just west of Cody.

But first I had to survive Wyoming’s angry wind spirits, which were gathering in force to punish me for daring to bring a VW hippie bus into cowboy country.

I tightened my seatbelt as my groovy road-trip fantasies veered to grim scenarios involving wind shear and head-on collisions with semis. For several hours across Wyoming’s windswept tundra, the bus lurched and swerved, battered by sudden microbursts and vicious crosswinds that threatened to rip the wheel from my deathlike grip.

The Green Machine: Aerodynamically challenged, but a road trip classic

A reality of vintage VW bus touring is that you get nowhere fast. The bus is as slow as molasses, but the Conestoga pace lends itself to leisurely touring with windows down. You experience the sounds, smells and various assaults of the landscape. That’s part of its retro charm.  Still, I was passed by, among other things, an “Oversized Load” truck, a Winnebago Chieftan pulling a boat, and—I’m not kidding—a Smart car. I didn’t think they even allowed those in Wyoming. Feeling a bit humiliated, I gamely tried to overtake it but failed.

I finally limped into Cody that evening, shaken but alive.

The next morning, a sunny Friday, I met up with Tommy Thompson, TU’s project manager in the Cody area, in front of Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel.  Tommy is a biologist and self-professed bug freak who, like several TU staffers, is also an accomplished fly-fishing guide with stints in Alaska and Montana.

I followed him east toward Yellowstone National Park, along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, a broad and beautiful freestone river and remarkable fishery that thousands of visitors race past every year on their way to Yellowstone. Big mistake.

Tommy pulled off at a bend in the North Fork, beneath some rugged chalky cliffs and hoodoo spires.  He wanted to show me an irrigation canal along the river where TU and partners are launching an ambitious restoration project this fall.

Tommy at old canal headgate, with North Fork in background

The problem: the canal—the largest diversion on this stretch—is big enough to be an offshoot or branch of the North Fork. That’s what fools the fish. They check in, but they can’t check out when the water levels drop in late summer and fall. Thousands end up dying.

This “fish entrainment” issue is a huge problem across the West, with hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of fish trapped each year in irrigation ditches. TU is leading efforts in many states to rescue fish and retrofit canals with fish-friendly headgates.

The problem is aggravated on the North Fork, Tommy explained, because of the amazing migratory habits of trout in this stretch of river.  While a few fish are year-round residents, most overwinter in the deeper water of Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody. In spring, they migrate upstream, populating about 35 miles of the river and over 300 miles of tributary habitat. In the fall, they migrate back down to the reservoir.

That return journey is when thousands of fish—including native Yellowstone cutthroats, wild rainbows, whitefish and other fish—take a wrong turn and become entrapped in the canal.  In 2010, TU’s East Yellowstone Cutthroat Chapter members rescued some 1,000 salmonids in the first mile alone of the canal, which snakes several miles up the valley.

The annual mass migration makes the entire North Fork fish population vulnerable to canal entrainment.

This is a popular, productive fishery, but it could be even better, Tommy and others believe, if the canal problem was addressed. A couple of years ago, he approached the local East Yellowstone chapter about doing the project, and they enthusiastically jumped on board. The Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Forest Service have also been important partners.

Together, they came up with solutions: A new fish screen in the canal that allows water through but redirects fish back to the main river channel through a return chute. A new debris boom installed at the head of the canal diversion that deflects woody debris back into the main river and greatly reduces the ditch company’s maintenance problems.

“The partnerships have been great,” said Tommy. Like most of TU’s water projects in the West, the solution is a win-win for irrigators, anglers, and of course the fish.

We fished that afternoon along the North Fork as it flows out of Yellowstone. The stretch has excellent accessibility, the highway paralleling the river and offering many places to pull off and fish.

This is active grizzly country, so we carried bear spray.  I also felt the urge to sing loudly.

Randy and a healthy Yellowstone cutt

Just downstream of a shelf of riffle and deep pool, I cast a dry-dropper rig into the tumbling water and, seeing a flash underneath the surface, lifted my rod tip into a Yellowstone cutt that made several strong runs before I brought it to shore—a golden-bellied beauty.  A few minutes later, just upstream, I caught another nice cuttie on a Bloody Mary, which seemed to be the ticket that afternoon.

Walking back to the truck, I stopped and looked around. The North Fork is the kind of river many anglers envision when dreaming of fishing in the West:  A broad-shouldered river teeming with big, healthy fish, running through a stunningly scenic canyon.

And the fishing will be even better here in the future, thanks to the hard work of Tommy and local TU members.

These are the kind of special places that TU is protecting and restoring across the West.

Next stop: Working with ranchers to bring back salmon in the Upper Lemhi valley of Idaho. 

Randy Scholfield is communications director for TU’s Western Water Project. 

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