Outdoors

Brad Waltman, of Cortez, Colorado, fishes Flat Creek on the National Elk Refuge on opening day of 2016.

“What are we going to use?” asked the eager angler when strategizing with his favorite Trout Whisperer about a scheme for their Aug. 1 assault on Flat Creek.

“Flat Creek has been closed to fishing since last Nov. 1, so I really don’t know yet because nobody has been out there to examine conditions,” came the logical reply.

Come 6:09 a.m. (legal sunrise) on Thursday, everybody along the National Elk Refuge’s magic ribbon of public trout water will have abundant confidence along with a “can’t miss favorite” lashed to their leader.

A universal mindset permeates the hordes that will brave the brisk upper 40s temperatures: Aug. 1, 2019, may live in infamy because a Moby Cutthroat could be my unforgettable reward.

A three-month party

Aside from its several convenient refuge entrances being 2 miles north of Jackson, Flat Creek’s meandering meadows offer all anglers — particularly those without access to opulent private spring creeks — a three-month opportunity to challenge northwest Wyoming’s handsome native Snake River cutthroat in idyllic, almost aquarium-like conditions.

Flat Creek carries major importance to both beginner, hobbyist and serious anglers alike. For starters it has reasonable public access, utopian conditions, excellent visibility and Wyoming’s sole official “fly fishing only” venue. Above all, Flat Creek is a luxuriously upholstered outdoor classroom for the study of all things that encompass the pursuit of trout fishing.

Flat Creek continues evolving gently and graciously, as have its many visitors. For instance, the waterway isn’t quite as natural as it looks because the majority of its flow comes from the Gros Ventre River. Upper Flat Creek high above the Elk Refuge, where I nabbed my first SR cutthroat in September 1969, ultimately disappears underground only to magically reappear as bubbling springs on the refuge. Long before Jackson was repopulated by tourists, enterprising ranchers diverted a portion of the Gros Ventre into Flat Creek to mainline irrigation-worthy flows through Jackson and into South Park hay fields.

Although a brilliant agricultural and Hereford-benefiting scheme, early diversion flows sliced through loose substrate, creating a mini Grand Canyon effect. This crammed tons of choking silt into the refuge portion. Confining this Gros Ventre addition to a large pipe stopped further erosion but necessitated extensive habitat repair championed by Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, other environmental groups and agreeable Elk Refuge managers.

Modern Flat Creek visitors can never begin to recognize the amount of fundraising, planning, engineering and detailed work that allows this treasure to continue as a major northwest Wyoming trout destination.

The easy way

In the early 1970s when fly boxes lacked the imaginative contents of today, Jackson angling gear pioneer John Simms introduced me to his practiced Flat Creek methodology. Warning me to stay out of the water at all costs, John occupied one bank and placed me on the opposite.

“This is the most efficient way to fish,” John said. “I can easily fish across the bends on your side and you can do the same to my side.”

He demonstrated by skidding a size-14 Yellow Humpy into a run along my bank and gently floating it into the waiting mouth of a sipping trout. One bend downstream I was able to create the same magic with my Brown BiVisible.

This was easy!

Sometime between then and now the majority of Flat Creek ceased being “easy” for me. And that’s after arming with proven Henry’s Fork and spring creek floating nymphs, emerging half-and-halfs, biot spinners, emerging pupas, X-Caddis, stillborns and sparkle dun mayfly and caddis imitations.

I emphasize mayflies because it’s a good bet this week that Pale Morning Duns will prevail among the naturals floating past. But never rule out some caddis. Of course my suggestions are obviously foolish because the majority of opening day-ers will be plopping their favorite foam patterns on top and the rest will splash quiet banks via Galloup-esqe streamer artillery.

Before this yarn crawls too much farther I would be remiss not to recall “in the dark” Aug. 1 refuge arrivals where my ungloved hands were painfully frozen and ravenous mosquito hordes attacked me simultaneously.

Hoppertunity

To many western anglers Flat Creek is a true dream stream. Other nonresidents I know schedule their Jackson visits to include a luxurious meadow walk. Refuge water offers many more complex aquatic insect challenges than most realize. As summer advances the joy of grasshopper fishing becomes appealing. Skating an adult cranefly or facsimile over the mirrored morning surface may bring the surprise trout strike of a lifetime.

In proper conditions a hair mouse draws similar eye-popping shenanigans. Regardless of your fly rod skill level, the first couple of times a fine spotted giant T-bones Mr. Mouse, your adrenaline reaction will yank the fly away!

Wait and see

Flat Creek’s resilience hinges on deeply undercut banks where bulky cutthroat relax and remain invisible most of the time except when they slide out and feed. Underwater movie cameras that invade these trout hideouts provide breathtaking video of Flat Creek’s secrets.

Bear in mind that many anglers carry immense loyalty to Flat Creek. It’s their special trout place. So regardless of the generous sounding special Wyoming G&F Area I “six trout per day creel limit” regulation, “no more than one shall be a cutthroat trout. All cutthroat trout less than 20 inches shall be immediately released back into Flat Creek.”

Regs say one thing, but …

On its face, a successful flies-only angler is allowed to keep one 20-inch-or-bigger fish. However, in a past instance, after a diligent effort failed to revive a giant fish, a G&F biologist literally had to protect the angler from angry fishermen when he legally decided to keep his trophy for mounting.

Later in the season, when the crowds thin and the rich fall lighting bathes the refuge and its surrounding hillsides, I find myself wandering about Flat Creek and seeking a midge-sipping cutthroat or two. Unfortunately this ambling, like my travel along all trout-holding watercourses, is distracted. I report this because when matted grass obscures pathways Bruun has more than once plunged into hidden bank gouges and muskrat holes.

Enjoying the Aug. 1 Flat Creek opening is a tradition for many. One special artist friend has logged 35 openers, missing perhaps two due to work and health. “I show up on Aug. 1 like Santa Claus arrives on Dec. 25,” he announces, “and that’s in all kinds of weather, too!”

Any Flat Creek visit from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31 will end with a memory.

Pre- and post-Flat Creek

Today Maggie Heumann, Orvis Jackson Hole’s new honch, hosts a Flat Creek Opening Eve Match The Hatch festive with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. Check out rod demos, conservation chats, entomology and brews from 6-8 p.m. Call 733-5407.

Thursday, drag in from Flat Creek to the Cafe Genevieve lawn on Broadway between 4 and 7 p.m. for Casting & Cocktails to help Jackson Hole Land Trust Save The Block. Retired Orvis CEO Perk Perkins challenges all comers to a fly-casting accuracy, distance and around-the-tree competition. Orvis and Yeti host snacks, beer, wine and Jackson Hole Still Works cocktails.

Thursday 6:30 to 10 p.m. Snake River Fund presents “Artifishal” at Jackson Hole Center for the Arts. A Q&A is at 9:15 p.m. with Yvon Chouinard.

Paul Bruun writes every other week on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors. Contact him at columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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