Tyler Sharp is a documentary photographer, writer, and filmmaker based out of Dallas, Texas. Traveling extensively on assignment, he has filmed and photographed a myriad of cultures and landscapes, and slept under the stars in some of the most remote regions of the world. Today, Tyler explores the American West in Montana with a fly rod and his family.
There is something very mystical about the American West, where the spirit of the wilderness is still alive for those who know where to find it. It is a place that quiets my mind, soothes my soul, and gives me strength. The honor and tradition of the old ways, which are harder and harder to find today, still exist there. In this same spirit, my father, brother, and I keep a tradition of our own alive, as we meet in the Montana’s Paradise Valley each year to gallivant in the blue ribbon waters of the Yellowstone River.
It is a place of angling legend, and countless dreams of reeling in one of the colossus trout that reside there. The Yellowstone River is a tributary of great power, and seems to pull anglers towards it from all over the world. Every time I go back, I pay closer and closer attention to all of the details; the river conditions, the guide’s talk about hatches, the lines they take in the boat, the energy and finesse they put into selecting and presenting a fly, and how it can all be a metaphor for self improvement. Fly fishing is such a subtle art, and one that is carried out quietly, without much recognition. Perhaps that is what makes it so rewarding, being the pursuit of such a simple task. But though the task is simple in theory, the complexities of fly fishing are slowly revealed over time, and the vastness of the world beneath the shimmering surface expands beyond what you thought was possible in shallow water.
Per tradition, we floated 3 days on varied stretches of water on the Yellowstone. Two guides each manned a boat, and we traded off rowing duties with the third. Though our spirits were high, and our intentions grand, the conditions were not in our favor. There had been massive storm cells moving through the park, and the torrential rains brought a profusion of mud downstream, severely clouding the water. Murky would be an understatement, and despite our efforts with big sculpin streamers and wooly buggers, we were shut out on the first day. The second day was a little better, but still too murky for dries, as it had poured overnight again. We caught A LOT of whitefish that day, and a few small browns, but despite the lack of sizable trout, a fruitless day of throwing flies on the Yellowstone River is better than most. If any of our troubles followed us to Paradise Valley, they were soon thrown into the river with our chosen flies and forgotten as we sipped beers on the porch, and watched the sun go down behind the Gallatin mountain range.
The third and final day of floating proved to be the best, as the water had cleared up some, and the river hogs came out to tango. Everyone managed to reel in a plump brown trout, a few rainbows, and our friend and his son both managed to hook 20 plus inch brown trout at the same time. As the day faded, and the take out ramp drew closer, I hooked two beautiful browns in a ten minute period, and pretty much any memory of the two day drought was washed away.
Post float, our nights were spent at the Old Saloon. Conveniently located close to our cabin and the boat take out, the storied watering hole has been standing since 1902. Littered with remnants of the old west, the broken down wagons and antique mining carts set the appropriate backdrop for the theme of our adventure. The bartenders and owners know us by name, and always greet us upon our annual return. On our last night, I met a local who worked in Yellowstone Park and was a wolf researcher. She drew me a detailed map of where I could find a pack, and potentially photograph them at dawn. Being that I had a few extra days, I was certainly going to try.
So after my father, brother, and friends left, I rented a car, and drove into the park. I had only been once when I was 17, so the prospect of returning as a grown man with a proper camera was promising. I camped that night in the Slough Creek area, and just before dawn, found the ridge where I was told people gathered with their spotting scopes to observe the wolves. Four of them appeared in the valley, two grey and two black, but were WAY beyond range of a decent photo. So I slipped away from the crowd, and set out on foot. I hiked across marshy fields, waded across Slough Creek, and climbed to the base of the hillocks that would keep me hidden from the wolves’ vantage for a good mile and a half. My hope was to stalk within two or three hundred yards of them, and pick off a few frames with my long lens.
As I approached the edge of the rock escarpments, the air grew thicker and more electric, especially after finding a fresh elk kill of theirs. I could sense that I was getting close to the pack. But as I crept around the cliff, crouching in the shadows, I could see that they’d moved off, now a good 700 yards away, retreating from the the rapidly rising sun, and the approaching heat of the day. But the excitement of the stalk was good enough for me, far better than a mediocre photo, and made me feel infinitely more alive than observing from a crowded hilltop 2 miles away.
Hiking back towards my rental car, a massive bull bison sauntered into my path, sizing me up, and grunting in a lazy sort of challenge. I continued to walk in the direction that I desired, and managed to slowly raise my camera, shoot a few frames without disturbing him, and got the photograph of a buffalo that I’ve always dreamed of. As commonplace and ordinary as they may seem to some, the American bison has always been a fascinating and majestic animal to me, a living symbol of the spirit of the west.
Moving on, I hiked up to Trout Lake, where the crystal clear water reflected the mountains perfectly. From the bank, I could see monster rainbow and cutthroat trout cruising the surface. But the clear and completely calm lake made the fishing difficult, giving those old & wise fish the advantage, something they were obviously used to. I spotted a 25 inch plus rainbow, and threw an olive sculpin in his direction, hoping that the action of a streamer might entice him. He chased it all the way to the surface twice, feigning a nibble at the end, but not fully committing. Perhaps it was a polite gesture, some patronizing nod to keep my hopes alive, or perhaps he truly did not want to eat anymore after gorging himself at the glass lake buffet. Trout-less, but brimming with adrenaline, I packed up my rod, and I headed toward the geyser basin.
I had forgotten how diverse and colorful the geysers were, looking like some serene apocalyptic dreamland. Bright blue, green, and reddish orange hues contrasted the stark white mineral deposits, all of it enveloped in a rising, hissing sulfur steam. I went and waited for Old Faithful to erupt, and in the idle time between bursts, contemplated the magnificence of the Earth’s power being brandished in that way. It was like some timed fountain at amusement parks or casinos, only caused by thermal exertion, and carrying some subtle, dark undertone hinting at the forces beneath that are beyond any of us to withstand. While hundreds of people clapped and awed at the towering spray of boiling water, I symbolically bowed in respect, humbled by the controlled show of force from Mother nature.
In the end, I managed to do a full circle of the park, seeing most of the major features, but extensively exploring none of them, and I was totally happy with that. It was not a detailed trip planned long in advance, but a short side trip that ended up being one of the most amazing, adventure filled days I’d had in a long time. And though I didn’t get to hike any of the wild backcountry, catch any trout, or see a wide array of wildlife, it made me realize how accessible it all is. It woke something up inside of me, and made me truly understand what our forefather conservationists were really talking about; that all of it is ours as Americans, to enjoy, explore, and protect. It is a legacy that symbolizes the grandeur, diversity, and beauty of America. And when the time is right, I can come back for as long as I would like, and thoroughly water my wild roots.