The Beginning of the Idea
It was the trip of a lifetime. Spurred from a late night idea, poorly planned, but executed to perfection.
The idea just kind of developed. I never had an “aha” moment, but I had a point where I just said “I’m going whether someone joins me or not”. Nick Gragtmans and I had talked about traveling somewhere around the world when I finally just suggested we go see America’s Northwest and fly fish; he wasn’t about it.
Photo by Sean Sullivan. Location: Ashton, ID
It was that point when I contacted my good friend from home Michael Shield. Mike and I played football growing up and had stayed connected mostly because of our affinity for the outdoors. He was a spin gear guy and had never thrown a fly rod in his life. A few hours after an immediate rejection to the idea, I received a call that he was in. About a month later and a whole lot of convincing, Nick finally hopped aboard.
I had two good friends (who had yet to meet each other), a 1998 Toyota Land Cruiser (Pumba – after the character from the Lion King) with 277,689 miles on it and what I would like to consider a good amount of knowledge about fly fishing. What could go wrong?
My previous experiences fly fishing out west were brief and of limited success. I went out to a family friend’s ranch in Freedom, WY with my brother and father one October only to spook cutthroat for three days and catch two fish with a guide on the fourth. As far as I was concerned, exploring new water, and catching fish all in a short period of time was no easy feat, hence the guiding industry success, but we were going to go for it anyway.
Just go West, and stay open to anything. Oh, and no GPS. Our National Geographic Road Atlas & National Park Maps were our trusty guides. We had to meet Nick’s brother, Chris, in Whistler, get to Craig, MT at some point, and just be back home by July 20th (five weeks later) so Mike could move to CA to work for some small startup named General Electric.
Getting set up took a bit of an investment. We all kind of viewed it as “cheaper than a plane ticket” but in the end, when you’re surviving in the outdoors, you rely on your gear to perform. Especially when you’re going to push it to the limits for five weeks straight. Fortunately, the three of us were able to pool in what we had to cut costs. I don’t want to bog down this write up with a hefty list of everything we used over five weeks, but here are some highlights:
A reliable vehicle (277,689 mi & counting)
Thule roof rack (would have brought two if we could have)
Fly Rods: varying 4-9wt and a spey because you never know.
Flies: We stocked up on the go to’s and most commons, figured local fly shop expertise would have us buying there anyway.
Good Waders & Raincoats because Dry=Happy
My neighbor’s used Wal-mart tent, because free=free
Animal T’s, duh.
Costas #seewhatsoutthere (no, costa didn’t pay us to do that)
YETI Tundra 45 & Hopper 30 because who likes warm beer
Two Canon DSLRs (One worth more than the Land Cruiser)
Two GoPro Cameras.
The Push West
Our first push west was incredible. From the moment we left Chicagoland, the views only got prettier and the roads less crowded. Wall Drug (if you know you know) wasn’t as cool as we thought, but definitely worth the stop. After a few days in South Dakota’s Badlands we set forth toward Grand Teton National Park in Northwest Wyoming. Although known for the famous Snake River, we found that without a boat it was much easier to fish the surrounding tributaries. Our tips weren’t as successful as we had hoped at first, but after scanning the maps for some more blue lines, we eventually found what we came for, cutthroat, and they only wanted dry flies. The scenery in this region was stunning.
From Ashton, to Salmon, to Sand Point, Idaho was one of the places we all agreed was our favorites. Idaho started for us as a detour. We always knew we had to to drive through it, but never had we heard of a town called Ashton before. An associate at High Country Outfitters in Jackson Hole told us we had to head there to fish the South Fork and try Harriman’s Ranch. We had the night of our lives fishing dry flies only to some monsters, and shot the shit with some new friends at the parking lot.
Canada, BC, Alberta
Canada was gnarly. Wild Brook Trout, Mountain Biking in Whistler, Kayaking Drainage Chutes in BC, the Calgary Stampede (a great time). By the time we got to Canada we were in full swing of the trip.
We spent the first week in western BC kayaking, mountain biking, and recovering from the induced injuries from each. Then we just started to drive toward Banff. The drive from Whistler to Banff isn’t something that should be rushed; we took a swim in Pavillion Lake, known for its freshwater coral, stopped for long lunch by Kamloops Lake and just kind of made our way leisurely.
Once we got to Banff, we prepped for our four day backpacking trip out. “Bear Aware” had been our motto most of the couple weeks, but turned into our livelyhood up there. This was Mike & my own first real backpacking trip, so Nick showed us the ropes the whole way. With some of the most stunning scenery I’d ever seen, mike and nick dragged in some brook trout that looked like they were from a coloring book. Then after a couple days in the woods we freshened up into cowboys for the Calgary Stampede, in my opinion, the world’s greatest rodeo. You’ve got parties from sun up until sundown at Cowboy’s casino and club and a incredible rodeo all day long.
“Craig who?” my mom replied when I told her where we’re going west. I should have just told her we were heading to “The Last Great Place”. Our good friends, Dorn Brown and Teagan Jendro (the guys behind @yellowtreeflyfishing) from Crosscurrents Fly Shop put us up for a week on the grass plot outside of his 1982 Itasca Sun Cruiser.
Dorn went to Clemson with Nick & I but is now a full time guide. Drift Boats are designed for three people, but four is a party, right?These guys helped us make our time in Craig arguably our most productive time on the water. We lucked out to catch Craig right when the major Trico hatches occurred, and we fished from sun up to sundown every single day. The fish would just sip, and sip, and sip (just like us but on trico’s instead of Budweiser). It was hard fishing, there were so many bugs on the water that you had to really make sure they took yours. We even had to get Dorn’s tahoe shuttled back to Craig twice because we weren’t moving down the river fast enough, the fishing was just too damn good where we were.
If you’re thinking about irresponsibly taking a month-long road trip with some buddies this summer, DO IT.
As corny as it may sound, I daydream about my memories from this trip at least once a day.
If you want to see some more of the pictures from our trip, check out @PumbaGoesWest on Instagram. Using a custom instagram account was a great format for us to highlight our memories and post some of our favorite photos. I think the only downside was our limited cell service throughout the trip.
Thank you to all the people who supported us along the way. The people who showed us hospitality, and the we met in fly shops and everywhere else who tipped us off on great places to go and things to see, you truly made it an adventure to remember, the trip of a lifetime.
Follow the Pumba goes west boys on instagram!