North Fork Anglers - Cody, Wyoming by Kris Olsen
When I think of Cody, Wyoming, I first think of the famous history of the town and the namesake for whom the city was titled. William F. Cody, born in 1846 and known the world over as Buffalo Bill, first passed through the area in the 1870s. He fell in love with the beauty of the region for its rich soil, good hunting and proximity to Yellowstone Park. In 1895 he helped found the city that bears his name, which officially incorporated in 1901.
Bill Cody had an exceptionally diverse career in the west. In 1860 at the age of 14, he became a Pony Express rider before enlisting with the US Army, serving as a scout in the 7th Kansas Cavalry. In 1872 he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry during the Indian Wars. After acquiring a contract to provide meat to the workers of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, he became a very prolific buffalo hunter. Cody ultimately won the exclusive right to bear the nickname Buffalo Bill in a competition with William Comstock by shooting 68 bison to Comstock’s 48 over an eight-hour period.
Ultimately, Bill Cody became world-famous for his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a circus-like touring troupe that traveled annually all over the United States and Europe depicting life on the frontier. The show was replete with military personnel, famous western figures such as Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and sharpshooter Annie Oakley. It also included Native Americans, including Sitting Bull and some of his warriors. The show had many facets, including main events, feats of skill, races, etc. It was the pre-eminent event of its day and would likely be a popular attraction with today’s generation. In 1899, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show covered over 11,000 miles in 200 days, giving 341 performances in 132 cities across the United States.
Usually, there would be a parade with a couple two-hour performances.
Afterward, the entire show would be loaded up and moved overnight to the next town. The show eventually went bankrupt in 1913 but had entertained countless enthusiastic patrons over its thirty-year existence. During times when the show was on hiatus, Buffalo Bill always returned to the TE Ranch (Trail’s End), his beloved Wyoming home thirty-five miles southwest of Cody along the South Fork Shoshone River.
He eventually grew the ranch to include roughly 8000 acres of grazing land to feed his 1000 head of TE-brand cattle originally acquired from Nebraska and South Dakota. Cody enjoyed a spacious ranch home in which he entertained many VIP guests from all over the world. Ever the entrepreneur, many of today’s existing lodges along the North Fork Shoshone began life as Cody’s guided hunting camps run via the TE Ranch.
William Cody died in January, 1917 surrounded by family and friends at his sister’s home in Denver, Colorado. He was married to wife Louisa for fifty-one years, producing four children, only one of which survived him. Two of them died very young and only Louisa and youngest daughter Irma outlived him. The hotel he built bearing his daughters name, The Irma, is still in operation today and is quite a downtown tourist attraction. Opened in 1902, it remains one of Wyoming’s most famous landmarks and still retains its original old Cherrywood bar.
As were his wishes, he was buried on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado despite the protestations of the citizens of Cody. Buffalo Bill was arguably the most famous American of his time. His memory lives on and is forever immortalized in the town he helped to found. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West museum and cultural center is also a major tourism site in Cody. Along with one of the most comprehensive gun collections you will ever see, it hosts an entire wing dedicated to Cody’s life and legacy, a must-see when visiting.
Cody, Wyoming has another distinction that legendary guide and outfitter Tim Wade says puts it in a league of its own.
Tim, owner and operator of North Fork Anglers, a full-service fly shop that is a mecca for fly-fishermen everywhere, firmly believes that the area surrounding Cody hosts some of the very best trout fishing in the entire country.
He has fished the world over and believes the region boasts better fishing than his sister state of Montana, offering fifteen-hundred miles of trout infested waters throughout the Bighorn Basin.
Tim has filmed many fly-fishing TV shows in the area and in my initial phone conversation with him, it was clear that his superior knowledge of the streams and various hatches throughout the summer were earned through a lifetime of experience.
What I did not count on was his comprehensive knowledge of the history and geology of the entire region. Tim is a virtual encyclopedia regarding ranch ownerships, famous events and other local gems he shared with us enroute to our destinations.
Flash back to the summer of 2016, when I enjoyed the chance to visit Cody for the first time while visiting the area on a motorcycle trip with my wife Tricia. We stayed in Red Lodge, Montana for a week with several other riders and made various runs over Beartooth Pass, through Yellowstone Park and spent the better part of a day in Cody visiting the Center of the West Museum. We also made several runs westward out of Cody along the North Fork Shoshone River to the east entrance of the park, an eye-popping ride of infinite beauty.
It was while riding along so many gorgeous and productive looking streams that really got me thinking about returning later to explore the rich fly-fishing opportunities surrounding the area.
Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone (not to be confused with Montana’s Clark Fork), the Shoshone River, and countless small creeks had me dreaming of casting a fly into them as I passed one gorgeous run after another at 60 miles per hour.
I was determined to make it back with my waders and contacted Tim about visiting for a few days. After discussing various options, we decided on mid-July, 2017. As much as you try to plan around such things, Mother Nature always has her say and this trip was no different. In a normal year, all the watersheds would have been well into good fishing shape by then, but a near-record snowfall and a scorching heatwave in early July had streams flowing high, hard, and some completely blown-out.
I have heard it said that when life gives you lemons, you simply make lemonade.
My good friend and fly-fishing aficionado Roger Earle joined me for the trip from his home in Rhode Island. As luck would have it, our flights from Seattle and Boston via Salt Lake City had us on the same connecting flight into Cody, so it was at gate E72 at the SLC Airport where we shook hands and began our adventure in earnest.
Once in Cody and settled into our hotel, it was a short walk down the street to North Fork Anglers for a lunch date with Tim to go over the game plan and learn a bit more about him and his operation.
Tim grew up in California with a love of fishing and the outdoors in general. He saw his dreams vanishing in the Golden State, so he moved to Wyoming to begin a new chapter in life.
After retiring at a very early age, his love of fly-fishing led him to launch North Fork Anglers and begin a new career guiding fellow enthusiasts. Over the past thirty-eight years, he has guided professional athletes, movie stars and all kinds of VIP’s, yet I found him to be extremely humble and gracious with his time for anyone who shares his passion.
Tim laid out a three-day plan where day one would have us walk/wade fishing the South Fork Shoshone in the morning and the upper North Fork Shoshone in the afternoon, walk/wade fishing some small creeks for native Yellowstone Cutthroat on day two, then finishing up by floating the lower North Fork Shoshone for large Rainbows with one of his young guides on day three.
While the plan didn’t go exactly as we drew it up, it turned into some fine lemonade by the time we were packing for the trip home. We finished up on a pretty epic note, leaving us with some cherished memories and hopes to someday return.
From our base hotel, the Bill Cody Motor Lodge, literally everything was right at our fingertips. There were a liquor store and Wells Fargo bank on either side of us, and many restaurants and/or bars within easy walking distance. While we rented a car for our stay, we would have been better served to just take a cab from the airport for the five-minute ride into town. The car may have been more useful had we more time to explore some of the many tourist attractions in town.
On our first foray, we headed up the South Fork Shoshone, which to our surprise was dirty and unfishable. It was reported by Tim’s other guides to be coming into good shape, but a long, sustained thunderstorm the night previous had a devastating effect on the water clarity. We continued to the end of the road near the gorgeous TE Ranch hoping to get above what Tim thought might be a slide, but to no avail.
Regardless, the ride alone was a magnificent treat.
We shifted gears and headed for the upper North Fork Shoshone, just a few miles outside of Yellowstone Park, where we donned our waders and cherry-picked a few holes easily reachable from the road.
Although having good visibility, the river was flowing well above ideal rates for what we had intended. On top of that, my fishing partner Roger has two titanium knee replacements and I’m no Billy goat myself, so we could not help Tim out very much as far as reaching some of the runs he felt were available to us.
It was a good day though in terms of getting our casting strokes down with the splendid Orvis rods Tim provided for our use. We did manage to find a few fish, but overall the bite was slow, even for the guides who floated the river below us. The scenery along the Shoshone River valley is most certainly something to be soaked up. The rock formations on the upper ridge lines, called hoodoos, provide an interesting geological perspective formed by long-ago retreating glaciers. I always say that the fishing isn’t the only thing going on during such outings and make every attempt to take in as much of nature’s splendor as I possibly can.
Day-two was like turning the page in a book you simply can’t put down.
On the way to our first destination, as we passed through the old outlaw town of Meeteetse, Tim regaled us about a long-ago feud between Butch Cassidy and a local Cattle Baron, Count Otto Franc von Lichtenstein, who founded the famous Pitchfork Ranch in 1878. Tim pointed out the land in question and the historic old bank Cassidy once robbed in hopes of getting Otto Franc’s money.
Both the Greybull and Wood rivers were flowing high and turbid, so we crossed our fingers that our not-to-be-mentioned creek would treat us fairly. Although wade-able, it too was flowing hard and had a greyish tint to the water, making fishing the soft edges of each little bucket a must. We found the hiking to be more reasonable for us both and managed to cover a fair amount more water than the day prior.
Tim was gracious in not making fun of my sometimes-misplaced casts, but I got it right often enough to be rewarded with spectacular rises from some gorgeous native Yellowstone Cutthroat. They do so in slow-motion, requiring unwavering patience for them to take your fly before setting the hook, a task sometimes easier said than done.
After a few hours working a decent section of streambed, Tim decided after a lunch break to try a second, smaller, and even more remote creek drainage in hopes of finding that gin-clear water where the Cutthroat rally to nearly every well-placed cast. Finding any water at all that was running at a normal flow was proving to be a near-impossible task.
After a long, bumpy ride through private Pitchfork Ranchland, we finally came to public land and a spot we could access the creek. Cattle were actively ranging the watershed and had trampled much of the foliage along the creek, making traversing it an easy task. This creek was tiny and could be crossed in four or five steps. In lieu of long runs, this was classic pocket-water fishing where the small bucket behind each boulder did indeed hold its treasure.
The allure of this type of fishing comes not from the size of the fish, as they are all relatively small.
It’s the excitement that comes from seeing your perfectly placed fly get rewarded by a thrilling rise from a willing and unsuspecting trout. While Roger chose not to venture far from our initial landing point, I was anxious to work my way down to a promising corner I had spotted on our drive-in. With Tim at my side, arming me with the perfect fly and coaching me on precise placement, I put on a virtual clinic. I spent an entire hour in that glorious little pool enticing one rise after another. I finally called it a day after drawing a beautiful cutty out from under a bush on three consecutive casts before finally sticking him.
Day two was a definite improvement over day one, but day three was the coup-de-grace to round out our trip.
At Tim’s shop, we were teamed up with guide Colin Mills for a raft float down the lower North Fork Shoshone River. Colin said he did well the day prior, so we had high hopes we could continue the good times. As much as we thoroughly enjoyed our walk/wade fishing with Tim, both Roger and I are more used to floating the rivers, or as we call it, fat-boy fishing.
The chance to target large, rambunctious rainbows from the comfort of a raft was something we looked very much forward to.
After launching, Colin set us each up with the popular hopper and dropper set-ups so deadly on many of the West’s best rivers. The dry grasshopper fly on top also serves as an indicator for the nymphs hanging below, which turned out to be the more popular offerings on most all our hook-ups throughout the drift. As was the case a few days prior, the river was still flowing at a non-typical high rate for mid-July, so it was critical we found the soft pockets where trout could rest. Colin was great and had us in the zone all day long.
The first hour or so was a bit slow, but as the sun rose higher and the day warmed, so did the rapid pace at which we started to do battle. I seemed to catch lightning in a bottle and began hooking up at the rate of about three fish per run. In fishing lingo, a hot angler is considered to be on fire. According to Roger, I ascended beyond that distinction and had become in his words, volcanic.
Eventually, Roger got in the game as well, encountering many nice rainbows.
Most of the fish we hooked were hot as firecrackers and had our reels screaming. We lost as many as we landed, but by days end we had encountered one heck of a lots of hook-ups. It was a fantastic day by any measure and a tremendous way to end our Wyoming fishing adventure.
The Shoshone River is considered one of the top ten free-stone wild trout streams in the country and we experienced the very reason it holds such high regard. As such, I was shocked to learn that the Wyoming Department of Fish & Game still allows a bait and kill fishery on the system. The value and future of that fishery is in the all-important tourism dollars, not to keep a few locals happy. Virtually every business in town benefits in some way from visiting anglers who will only do so if there is a healthy and vibrant fishery to enjoy.
It is extremely short-sighted to think a faltering fishery can hold the interest of discerning anglers looking to part with their hard-earned discretionary income.
Look no further than my home state of Washington to see how not to run things.
Once home to a thriving steelhead fishery, most rivers that flow into Puget Sound are now nearly devoid of steelhead and anglers alike, a sad commentary on what should be a world-class destination for devotees of the sport. I hope Wyoming Fish & Game takes heed and protects those fish for future generations before it is too late. It is much easier to safeguard the fishery now than to try and rebuild it later.
The entire region around Cody is big, beautiful country surrounded by the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountain ranges. We were constantly on the lookout for grizzly bears while stomping around the brush near the stream beds. There is a large bear population that has migrated out of Yellowstone Park and is always to be considered when recreating in the region.
We saw lots of deer and antelope and Tim often sees elk and even moose while on his excursions. Whether you are an avid angler, hunter or hiker, there is ample opportunity to live your dreams in the region surrounding Cody.
I can’t express enough my personal appreciation to Tim for providing me the occasion to visit and get a comprehensive feel for the fly-fishing opportunities surrounding Cody, which appear endless.
I also wish to thank my good friend Roger Earle for joining me and sharing some quality time doing what we both love. While this was my first fly-fishing adventure to Wyoming, I can assuredly attest it will not be my last.
North Fork Anglers (http://northforkanglers.com/) is a full-service fly shop with a dedicated staff that offers everything from walk/wade day trips, guided float trips, to multi-day horseback trips into the beautiful Absaroka and Beartooth Wilderness. Except for likely a few less glaciers, very little has changed in those areas since John Colter first explored them in the early 1800s. Check with Tim and his staff if a Wyoming adventure is in your future and let them help you create memories that will last a lifetime. I know mine will.
- written by Kris Olsen