Cutthroat Copping Coyote Caper

by Don Jordan



Native Americans have all kinds of stories about Coyote, because the Trickster, an often malevolent spirit, can take Coyote's form and bedevil humans.

If you spend enough time, alone, outdoors, you will meet Coyote, they say. The first meeting is always unexpected, and unimaginable events follow that span millennia and make the pursuit of a fish little more than conduits to an introduction.

The thing about Coyote is that you never know what's going to happen when you meet him. The outcome of an encounter can be good or bad, or both. The thing is, when Coyote appears, something unusual is happening.

There is no better place to meet Coyote than at the foot of Baronette Mountain where Soda Butte Creek flows through Yellowstone National Park. That's where I first met Coyote, in September, 1994.

Late September is late fall in Yellowstone. Morning temperatures had been edging lower. It was 18 degrees (F) on the morning of the day Coyote appeared, but by 3 p.m., bright sun beat into the creek valley to produce a perfect 65 degree afternoon.

Huge clouds had formed, and the sky was brilliant white against the Big Blue Sky. It was windy, but not impossibly so, because it was easy enough to fly cast that day. The breeze was just stiff enough to cover downwind sound.

At the spot I now call Coyote Hole, the creek makes a 90 degree left turn. A mass of limbs and logs had piled up there, and a deep hole was washed out beneath the log pile. This bend forced a lot of fast-flowing water to change its course, creating a complex, churning hydraulic formations. The water crashed and sloshed. The din was constant.

It was impossible to get much of a fly drift, but Hars Haugen a Silver Gate denizen ties a wet fly I call Hars' Special, and he had sold me one.

"The first time I tried one of these, I kept looking around for a Ranger, figuring, hey, this fly is too good. Someone's going to come and take it away from me," Haugen told me later.

The first time I dropped the fly into the log pile, I hooked a fat, 16-inch cutthroat and released it. On the next cast, an even larger fish rolled at my fly, but missed. I hooked it on the third try. After a dicey battle where the fish actually ran under the logs, a 17-inch cutthroat, all blazing gold and bright orange, came flopping and gasping to my feet.

I didn't release this one. I could see two big fillets in that fish, and it was legal to keep two trout a day from the Soda Butte in 1994. Still, guilt's sharp point stuck me as I ran a stringer through its gills. I was killing this beautiful fish, and I felt the entire valley watch me do it.

I wrapped the stringer around a rock and laid it in the water at creek's edge where there was little or no current to wash my catch downstream.

The sun was dropping quickly, and the lower angle produced that golden, atmosphere-filtered, late afternoon light that photographers love. Dark shadows of trout were still darting into the hydraulics, rising, rolling, flashing their sides. Three, four fish were rolling at same time, just in front of the log pile.

Casting, watching the fly drift, seeing the trout rise and strike, feeling them pull, landing and releasing--one after another they came. I was lost in the sport, hypnotized.

All my attention focused on the water and fish, but there was something, some movement and that feeling of something watching, behind me.

I turned my head a bit and caught a quick flash of gray. My heart raced. I had seen two grizzlies in this area on previous trips. I turned toward the movement, very slowly, hoping there was no bear.

There wasn't. It was a coyote. It was a coyote with my prize cutthroat in his mouth, my stringer dangling from one side, the fish's tail from the other. He trotted the coyote trot--not running, not walking--and at about 20 feet, he turned and looked at me. Coyote then disappeared into the forest. I did not know it then, but it was Coyote with the capital "C."

I told this story to Sue Glidden (her and her husband Ralph owned the Cooke City, Montana General Store) at breakfast in Joan & Bills' restaurant the next morning in Cooke City. I included the fact that, perhaps, I shouldn't have killed that beautiful fish, that I felt pretty guilty and was surprised at the whole event.

"Oh no, you participated in the food chain. The coyote got the fish," said Sue, perhaps sensing my unstated appeal for absolution.

So? Maybe that one trout would make the difference for that coyote. Maybe, that bit of extra protein would mean survival over the winter.

It was a tough winter in Yellowstone in 1994-95. There was more snow than there had been in recent years, and snow cover lingered through summer in the high country. By late July when I returned to fish the Soda Butte, near the place where the grizzly bears hang out, there was still snow on top.

A gale force wind blew up the creek from the Lamar Valley, carrying the scent of elk and bison and wolves and wild mountain lupine into the mountains.

I approached Coyote Hole from the woods. It was a relief to get out of the wind, the roar of it. The pine woods was silent in comparison, and the wind covered any noise I made, swept away my human scent and carried it with the bison's.

That is why Coyote didn't hear me or smell me.

I saw him right away when I stepped out of the tree line--standing, looking downstream, away from me, ears up and alert. I figured that was about the same spot Coyote stood when he sized me up before nabbing the cutthroat last September. He looked like a smallish German Shepard, but there is no mistaking Coyote.

I took slow, easy steps, barely moving, and still Coyote gazed downstream. I crept to within 15 feet when his head turned, slowly, just as mine had turned last fall at this spot.

Coyote did a double-take. He seemed surprised, but he didn't run or even flinch. We were frozen there, together, for a moment before Coyote made the first move. Without taking his eyes off me, he trotted into the woods and vanished.

It was over in a few seconds, but in those moments we had locked eyes and said "I know you" to each other. Were I native American, I would have sat at a fire in the night with an elder and asked him or her what it meant--my two meetings with Coyote. Since I am not, I am left to wonder and conclude that Coyote is not finished with me yet.

Read Part Two Of DJ's Coyote Saga


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