Exploring Yellowstone during 'shoulder season' proves enchanting

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No mosquitoes, no crowds – that’s just the start of what attracts savvy outdoors enthusiasts to schedule trips during

the post-Labor Day “shoulder season.”

Families and inner tubers vacated trout streams to focus on school activities just as fishing was perking up from the summer doldrums.

The woods are relatively quiet as the most popular hunting seasons have yet to open. Backcountry permits are easier to obtain for restricted park and wilderness areas. A full season of trail maintenance has been completed.

Fire season has abated and late summer-early fall weather can provide the clearest air and best conditions of the year for active outdoor sports.

Or it can change in an instant and kick your butt.

That’s why every shoulder-season plan should have a backup.

Few regions offer more options this time of year than Yellowstone Country, an observation two friends and I proved last week.

Scott Wolff was flying in from Minnesota and Al Goldner was coming from Oregon for a week of backpacking and fly fishing. The trip had to be worth the effort and expense and flexible enough for changing conditions.

My proposal: hiking into the backcountry reaches of cutthroat and brown trout streams near Cody, Wyo., and/or backpacking into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and its vast network of high-mountain lakes.

The backup plan was hiking and wildlife watching in Yellowstone National Park.

The stream fishing option was eliminated the day we arrived by unusually heavy rains that muddied every creek and river in the region.

But the backup plan already was working beautifully. Wolff and Goldner justified their airfares on the first day of the trip as we drove through Yellowstone, enjoyed a hike and then joined a group of visitors on a hillside to marvel at a very rare spectacle.

A boar grizzly was feeding on a bison carcass near the road in the Lamar Valley. Even more remarkable was its tolerance of a sow grizzly and her three cubs joining the feast, since boars are notoriously intolerant of cubs.

Perhaps the bears thought it was best to join forces against the five gray wolves that circled the carcass, probing for opportunities to dash in and rip away a mouthful of bison flesh as the grizzlies lashed out at them occasionally with bared teeth and huge clawed paws.

“Five grizzlies and five wolves in one spot,” Wolff said. “Wildlife watching doesn’t get much better than this.”

“That is, unless you’re out hiking and wildlife watching and catching a fish at the same time,” I said.

The next day , we packed bear-resistant containers with four days’ worth of food and headed into the Beartooth Range out of Cooke City, Mont., one of the most impressive backpack-fishing destinations on the planet.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which borders Yellowstone Park, includes a lion’s share of the Treasure State’s high-elevation distinctions.

Not only does it include Granite Peak, the highest point in the state at 12,799 feet, the wilderness of 943,648 acres(http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/acreage?WID=1) also includes the 42 highest peaks in Montana and about 300 of the state’s 1,000 high-mountain fishing lakes.

Most of the lakes in the wilderness hold either stocked or self-sustaining populations of trout.

The area’s distinctions for highness pose a challenge even to fit backpackers. Our planned routes of up to 12 miles a day on the Beartooth Plateau would range from 8,000 to more than 10,400 feet in elevation.

We planned for the altitude shock, taking time on our drive through Yellowstone for a day hike to the top of Mount Washburn, elevation 10,243 feet.

Still, on that first day with full packs heading toward Aero Lakes, we could feel the searing in our lungs as we marched uphill in the rarified air.

“The Beartooths are the rooftop of Montana,” said Jeff Gildehaus, Forest Service outdoor recreation planner for the Beartooth Ranger District in Red Lodge.

“It’s a big wilderness that’s not heavily trailed,” he said, citing the management challenges. Most of the 250 miles of maintained trails on the Red Lodge District run up drainages with a few that cross the rocky, treeless tundra-like plateau from one drainage to another.

“There’s a lot of wild country in between trails,” he said. “I’ve worked on the district 23 years and I still haven’t seen it all. You have to be a mountain goat to cross the talus slopes and creep up the cliff bands to get into the highest lakes.”

We also learned that hikers must ford many of the streams en route to the fishing holes. Bridges are as rare as trail signs in the wilderness.

The two top attractions in the wilderness are Granite Peak and the fishing lakes.

A high percentage of the people who attempt climbing the peak fail, primarily because of the weather it generates, Gildehaus said.

“It’s a commitment of at least two or three days, and if you don’t start at 3 a.m. or so on summit day, you have a high probability of getting stormed off before you reach the top,” he said, calling Granite Peak the region’s “lightning rod.”

Fishing attracts a broader spectrum of visitors to the Beartooths, although the season is short. Most of the high lakes are ice-free only from late June through late October.

“You have to be ready for snow any month of the year,” Gildehaus said.

Indeed, two days of lightning storms, hail, rain and, finally, snow, forced us out of the wilderness.

The backup plan kicked in again as our gear dried in a Cooke City motel room.

We rented a $3,000 Swarovski spotting scope for $30 at the town’s General Store and drove back into the park.

Our spirits were buoyed by getting up close and personal with herds of bison and dozens of sandhill cranes. The scope provided an intimate look at a lounging grizzly that yawned, scratched, shimmied and finally wandered into the brush after putting on a show.

We hiked to vantages and photographed the reckless abandon of bull elk and pronghorn bucks gathering harems of cows and chasing fleet-footed does during the peak of their mating season.

These spectacles alone attract thousands of people to the park in September. But when the skies cleared, we headed back into the wilderness.

Although not as wildlife-rich as Yellowstone Park, we would see critters – or sign of them – ranging from pikas, marmots and Clark’s nutcrackers to mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears and grizzlies.

Most important to us, having eight full days to play with allowed us to head back to the Beartooth Plateau and scratch our fishing itch.

Lakes are much more numerous in Beartooth Range than in the adjoining Absaroka Range.

We focused on sampling as many wilderness fisheries as our legs and daylight would allow. We wet lines in lakes with Yellowstone cutthroat trout, stocked mostly by helicopter, as well as fisheries of self-sustaining brook trout.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department biologists say the stocked lakes get 50-100 cutthroat fingerlings per acre every eight years or so. Depending on the year you hit a lake, the fish can be numerous and small or sparse and large.

During our five September days in the wilderness we saw only two other groups of backpackers. One group told us they’d caught “large, very healthy cutthroats” at a lake we had bypassed. Instead we used hopper and other dry attractor patterns near inlets, outlets and off shoreline shelves at nearby Clover Leaf Lakes, where we caught numerous cutthroats in the 10- to 12-inch range.

Even Earl Radonski, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologists who manages the Beartooth lakes, said he expects surprises in the wilderness lakes.

“I’m always looking for updates from fishermen,” he said.

Indeed, by the time our group headed out of the Beartooths last week, ice was forming on the shorelines of some waters and another round of snowstorms was moving in.

“If we had another few days, we might be able to write a report on how fly rods work for ice fishing,” Goldner said.

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