There is a place that has fascinated me and teased my imagination since childhood. As a young boy I stored every rumor and story I ever heard about the stunning canyon only 3 miles downriver from my house. This canyon has always filled me with wonder, obsession and even fear.
The legendary Yellowstone River rumbles out of Yellowstone National Park and rages through the town section of Gardiner. About 15 miles north the river in its entirety is squeezed to a fraction of its width and grows exponentially in depth. As one stands at the mouth of this epic canyon, the river seems angry and intimidating as it roars back at you, daring you to enter.
It falls over devastating boulder fields and swirls into submerged caves and in one particular section squeezes into a narrow crevice where the entire river is constricted to a mere 40 feet while its waters swirl almost dead still! It is this piece of water, locally known as the "box car hole" which harasses my imagination and even haunts my dreams.
No true data exists on this water. I have searched high and low for any documentation on its true depth, but none exist. Some Gardiner locals claim it to be over 100 ft. Others speak of divers reaching depths of over 60 ft only to have to resurface due to the unstoppable hydraulics and upcurrents accompanied by opposing undertows which sucked them into caves in the canyon wall deep beneath the surface.
The divers were searching for the remains of drowned boaters. The canyon seems to take at least one life a year. This is usually the result of poor judgment and lack of respect for it power. You won't find any locals out in the canyons waters, they respect the killing power of the forces unseen. It is the tourist who are drawn to the impressive whitewater. These brave (but naive) souls often kayak or pack raft through the canyon. Most make it through safely, but those who do not are often never found, sent to a watery grave deep in the rivers mysterious grasps.
Yankee Jim Canyon was named after James George. George came to Montana looking for gold, but instead established a gold mine of different sorts. In 1873 he came into land inside the canyon. He build and maintained a road through the narrow corridor which became the only road to Yellowstone Park. He set up a tollbooth and charged all park visitors to cross his land and gain access to the park. This went on for about 15 years and James George became fondly known as Yankee Jim and was notorious for his personality and knack for telling tall tales.
Rupyard Kipling was one of Jim's visitor on his way to Yellowstone in (1890). He flyfished in the canyon which was of course then only filled with native Yellowstone Cutthroat. He writes this about his time there.
“…the fish bit the brown hook as though never a fat trout-fly had fallen on the water….At the fortieth trout I gave up counting, and I had reached the fortieth in less than two hours….They fought like small tigers, and I lost three flies before I could understand their method of escape. Ye gads! That was fishing….”
The railroad came and ended Jim's lucrative business. Despite his protests they built the railroad right through his land. Jim turned cold and bitter and legend tells that on more the one occasion he let his shotgun do the talking. He was eventually driven out and as an old man, left his canyon for good.
Maybe Jim had something to do with the derailment of the boxcar in 1903. As the train pushed through the canyon a car derailed and tumbled down the steep canyon walls and came to rest in the depths of what is now known as the box car hole. It is possibly the deepest water of the entire Yellowstone River. The box car still rests today, deep within the unknown.
The water is really not heavily fished. Very few fishing boats dare the canyon waters and those that do don't mess around in there, making as many quick casts as they can as they fly through the raging whitewater. The canyon waters can be accessed from the highway on its east side. There are no good trails and the bank is steep and dangerous. The west side of the river can be reached by crossing Corwin Spring or Carbella bridges. A dirt road now runs over the old railroad bed. The west side provides some better access but none of it is easy. The local flyfishing community deems the canyon as "not worth the risk" and some even venture to claim that despite its obvious looking holding water that "in their experience" the rumors of very large fish are untrue. Speaking of rumors...
Remember the divers searching for bodies in the boxcar hole? These same divers claim to have seen trout of unbelievable size deep in the dark waters. So large were these beasts that one diver reported a fear of being in the water with them. Other rumors claim that FWP shocked a brown of unimaginable size from the boxcar.
The local bait fishermen believe the hype. Some 8-10 lb. browns have been taking by live sculpins, nightcrawlers and even whitefish meat. Many of these brutes were taken at night.
Needless to say, I have chosen to believe all of these stories and since childhood have been on a quest to catch "The One." Every fall I travel to the canyon and search its waters, but this fall I decided to something that possibly no fly fisherman has done (even Kipling).
I set out to fly fish the canyons entire west bank. I began across from the Joe Brown Access (the last chance for boaters to get out to avoid the canyon's waters) and over the course of two days fished the 3.5 miles of bank down to where the rivers exits the canyon walls near Carbella Bridge. The fishing was streaky, and long slow spells were rewarded by sudden bursts of action. I had decided to fish only streamers and had constructed a set-up particularly for the deep waters. I fished a Reddington 8 wt matched with a large arbor reel which was loaded with a fast sinking line. I fished a short leader built of 25 lb. mono followed by 15 lb. fluorocarbon. This setup worked remarkably well and I was able to fish large sculpin patterns deeper than I ever had before.
As the light was waning on the 1st day I encountered a sheer cliff that marked the entrance of the box car hole. I was forced to climb up out of the canyon and back down a ridiculously steep slope. There are no fisherman trails into the heart of the box car and to be honest I wondered if I could even get down there in 10 years!
The box car is scary. It is so intense. You are standing literally feet away from a virtually bottomless pit. The waters churn in an eery silence and you are almost intimidated to fish it. I tied on a self tied sculpin pattern. I began experimenting with different casts, trying to get the fly as deep as possible. It was amazing how the streamer would one minute be forced to the surface by powerful upcurrents and then suddenly sucked into the darkness by opposing undertows. As the fly would sink out of site, the imagination starts to work overtime. If only I could see what that sculpin fly sees.
On one particularly good swing, (I estimated my fly was over 20 ft down) My boyhood suspicious were all but conformed. Deep beneath the surface my rod went heavy and I set into something thick. There was no thrashing or rod throbbing, just a dead weight. I had to wait a second to confirm it was even a fish. Then I felt the steady pull of a living creature at the end of the line. I began to to wench the large arbor reel and to my shock the monster brown came to the surface with very little fight. I got my net and for an instant thought I had her. I got a good long look at the beauty. She was huge and thick, buttery yellow with vibrant red spots. I started toward the water and began to reach out with my net when suddenly the brute realized what was going on and made a huge run. It is strange when fish take 20 feet of line straight down! She didn't head down river, she just dove straight down. Then came the vicious head shakes. One, two three and....the line went limp. I did my tantrum thing, cursed the gods and sat down for a bit. I was so close to landing a giant box car brown. It would have been by far the largest trout of my life. I have to say she was over 25 inches and at least 6-7 lbs.
The next day I continued my quest to fish the entire length of the canyon. I landed many modest cuts and a few respectable browns. I again lost a few fish that got me thinking. I finished my mission late Sunday evening. I caught a lot of fish but left feeling I had been bested.
I returned to the canyon the following Sunday. This time a brought a buddy. Alex is also from Gardiner and shares a common interest in fly fishing the the Canyon of Yankee Jim.
It was cold as hell! 15 degrees with a stiff north wind. The ground was covered in a slippery skiff of snow and quite frankly we froze our asses off. We literally slid down into the box car hole. The fishing was pure misery. Frozen hands, feet and flyline. We had to clear guides every 5 casts. We pushed through and swung streamers through the depths for over an hour with only a 14 inch cutthroat between us. We decided to move to the tail end of the hole but to do so required us to climb up the steep wall and then back down on the other side of a cliff. How we got out of there I don't know. Thanks to some sage brush to grab a hold of, we made it out and then headed down to the tail end of the box car.
The tail out section is a little easier to get to and there is a faint path. I often find empty cartons of worms and beer cans, so the bait guys have definitely been down there. The water broadens a bit but is still very deep and the currents just as powerful.
I positioned myself on a flat boulder and made my first cast into the freezing air. I nice brown attacked my sex dungeon and then shook free. I was talking to Alex about it and was preparing to make another cast. I lazily threw 15 feet of line down stream in preparation for a longer cast when something crushed my streamer near a rock by the bank. Now I am going to try not to exaggerate but whatever was on the end of my line was like nothing I have ever experienced.
My 8 wt was bent double and I had to use both hands to keep my rod up. The mysterious beast struggled in the depths for a bit and then began a steady run down river. It was not a blazing into your backing run, just a slow and steady departure as if to say "I'm outta here and there is nothing you can do to stop me!" There was nothing I could do. It was the first time a truly felt powerless on my end of the rod. The fish just kept going and Alex and I (half frozen mind you) futilely tried to chase it. Then, like deja vu the fish was gone. My line had broke at the knot. Defeated again!
I don't know what fuels my obsession more, the landing of a trophy fish or the loss of one. Needless to say I made a last minute Thursday decision and called Alex and headed back for another rodeo in the canyon.
This time the weather was great but the fishing was not. I landed a 17 inch cuttbow across from Joe Brown, but the fishing was slow to say the least. I needed to be on the road by 3 so we decided to go all or nothing and headed back into the box car. More of the same. No fish interested in our streamers. I had worked down river with no luck and when I returned Alex's crazy ass had somehow traversed a cliff and was fishing from a ledge 10 feet above the river. I was suddenly excited because he was able to fish a huge submerged rock in the center of the river that I had never been able to get to before. I made my way up and over cliffs and then tiptoed the narrow submerged ledge to get out to him. We both stood on this ledge 10 ft above the river. We had zero room to backcast so we would take turns. I would duck so he could cast backhand and then he would duck so I could make a bit of a roll cast. The fish were starting to move on our streamers and I said outlaid "What the hell are we going to do if we catch one?"
I was standing watching Alex make his retrieve. My olive sex dungeon was dangling 10 feet below me, pulsing in the current when out of the corner of my eye I watched a large fish take my streamer off the surface like a dry fly! I set the hook and knew I had a dandy. Alex readied for action as I played the heavy fish. I would kill for a photo from the highway side of the river. Both of us standing on a ledge 10 feet above the box car hole, rod bent double...it was awesome.
The bad new was I had left the net on the other side of the cliff. Alex immediately set out for it and I did have the courtesy to tell him not to die for the fish...he seemed willing to. He climbed down the 10 foot boulder, tiptoed the submerged ledge, scaled the cliff overhang, retrieved the net and returned just in time to net my fish who had been kind enough to swing within his grasp. I climbed down and met him in the water. We high fived and took some photos. What a awesome fish! The female brown measures 20.5 inches and was girthy. She had distinct baby blue halos around her red spots that almost gave her the appearance of a brook trout. We then revived her and watched her swim off healthy, back to the mystery below.
It was almost 3 so I reeled in and called it a day. It is such a great feeling to make your last cast the one that catches such a great fish, much like a walkoff home run or a buzzer beating three-pointer. You just can't end it much better than that.
I finally felt a sense of redemption. Although this fish was no where near the fish I had lost before or the ones that haunt the depths untouched, I still felt a sense of perseverance and victory.
I am not done exploring this canyon. There is still so much to be found. I still know that a fish larger than can even be imagined lurks in the depths, probably the ghost of Yankee Jim himself, still guarding his canyon, collecting his toll.