Yellowstone Valley Zoo: The Final Installment–Elk, Moose, Eagles, and more


A moose enjoys his lunch in the serene Lamar Valley.  There were three moose traveling together this day.  But this one came closest to the car.



This is the final Yellowstone Valley Zoo blog.  This series’ three previous blogs showcased photos I’d taken after my move from Pennsylvania to Montana in October 2014.  These blogs have highlighted bighorn sheep, bison, and pronghorn–all found along the roads within a short drive from Sweetwater Fly Shop:  Areas near, or in, Paradise Valley, Livingston, Gardiner, and the northern gate to Yellowstone National Park.

Today I’m focusing on some of the other critters I’ve found along these same routes.  Again, a few of these photos were taken with cameras, others with just my cell phone.  It’s the diversity of the region’s wildlife that’s amazing…not necessarily my pics.  You can click on the photos to make them larger.




Bald eagles feasting on bison entrails left by Native American hunters just outside Yellowstone Park.  Make sure you click on the photo to check out all the birds in the tree behind the eagle in the foreground.




A nice mule deer buck walks the field beside the southern entrance to East River Road off of Route 89.  This was post-hunting season, so he’ll be bigger next year.





A coyote feasts on an elk carcass in the Lamar Valley.  He was playing tug-of-war with the scraps like a German Shepard with a rope.




A couple Merriam’s turkeys near walk the road near Pine Creek.  I’d only seen eastern turkeys in Pennsylvania, so these were my first Merriam’s.  I was happy to shoot a picture with my cell phone, but they didn’t seem to care that I was even there.





A small bull elk near Mammoth Hot Springs.  There are almost always elk near Mammoth.  They occasionally try to gore uneducated tourists who attempt to pet them.



A cow elk grazes on the edge of Gardiner, just outside the Park.  These are still wild, but very civilized, elk.  I recently watched a cow wait for traffic to slow so she could cross the bridge in Gardner.  She was better at crossing the street than most kindergarteners.



For some reason, I felt like I was being watched on Christmas Eve morning along East River Road in Paradise Valley.



Then the elk herd moved in for a closer look.



Then they made me slam on my brakes as they tripped into each other in front of my SUV.



Finally, these were my first two Montana Hungarian partridges: a double taken by my old Parker VHE side-by-side shotgun (one bird in my hand, one in Reed’s mouth).  The partridges, found in Paradise Valley, were pointed and retrieved by my friend Jason Corbin’s amazing dogs, Reed and Ruger.  And though the birds are the only creatures in my photos not still alive (as far as I know), I have no regrets…they were delicious!  Just like the moose in the first picture, I enjoy a nice lunch too.


That’s all for now from the Yellowstone Valley Zoo.  Next week I guess I’ll talk about fishing.  Thanks for reading!

Yellowstone Valley Zoo: Pronghorn


Some people call them speed goats because they’re fast and related to goats.  But their proper name is American pronghorn.  A lot of people call them antelope, though they are not closely related to African antelope.  In fact, their closest living relative is the giraffe.

American pronghorn are the 2nd fastest land animal on earth, eclipsed only by the cheetah.  Cheetah can reach speeds near 7o mph in short bursts.  Pronghorn tend to max-out around 60 mph.  But while cheetah can only top-line run for short distances, the pronghorn is able to maintain nearly half of its top speed for great distances–miles and miles.



Unlike mule deer, white tail deer, and elk, pronghorn are poor jumpers.  And all of the seemingly endless miles of barbwire fences across the American west have taken their toll on these animals by limiting food supplies and blocking migration routes.

There aren’t a lot of pronghorn right around Sweetwater Fly Shop.  But I’ve seen them just outside of Livingston in the fields beside I90 and south of shop along Paradise Valley’s Route 89, below the Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone River’s west bank.  Perhaps the best place to find pronghorn, when you’re fishing the Livingston and Gardiner region, is along the Old Yellowstone Trail Road.  There are almost always pronghorn here, near and within Yellowstone National Park’s boundary.  I shot all of the pronghorn photos in this blog along the Old Yellowstone Trail.



A herd of pronghorn just outside Yellowstone Nation Park



Pronghorn are more difficult to photograph than many other animals in Paradise Valley.  They tend to run away from your car when you pull to the side of the road.



Some pronghorn migrate great distances.  The caribou is the only other North American  mammal to migrate farther.



Pronghorn horns are unique: a cross between antlers and horns.  Antlers are made of bone and shed every year.  Horns are comprised of keratin, and they are never shed.   But the sheath of pronghorn horns, made of Keratin, is shed every year.



Yellowstone Valley Zoo: Bison



Today is part two of my “Yellowstone Valley Zoo” blog series.  This one is going to discuss bison. I had decided to talk about antelope today (maybe I’ll get to them tomorrow), but when my wife read yesterday’s bighorn sheep blog, she said, “You have to do bison next.  They’re my favorite.”  So if you don’t like bison, or if you were really amped-up for antelope (humor me here), blame Mrs. Weamer.

Bison are one of the most beloved symbols of the west.   Many people, when they imagine bison today, think of Kevin Kostner’s movie, Dances with Wolves, where epic cinematography captured bison herds roiling the prairie dust as they thundered into the horizon.   It’s hard not to romanticize these magnificent beasts when theme music is playing in the back of your mind.  And it’s true, their story of survival is miraculous.

Before Columbus first sailed to America, there were an estimated 30 to 60 million wild bison roaming North America.  There were even bison living on the edges of the great eastern forests.  But that all changed as newly immigrated Europeans began to slaughter the herds; first for food, then for skins, and ultimately as a way to destroy the Native American tribes’ capacity to survive outside reservations.

With new firearm technologies developed during the civil war, rifles became more lethal at greater distances, and this led to the wholesale slaughter of these animals.  The bison’s destruction was so thorough that by the early 1900’s, fewer than 50 wild bison remained in Yellowstone National Park.  This remnant herd became vital to the species’ survival.  The National Park System’s web site states that Yellowstone National Park is, “The only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times.”  The current herd of well over 4,000 Yellowstone bison is also important because it remains purebred, without any hybridization with domestic cattle.  So when you travel Montana’s Route 89 today, past Sweetwater Fly Shop to the Yankee Jim Canyon, and then into Gardiner and the Park, the bison you see are direct descendants of the 50 remnant bison.  And that’s pretty cool.



This photo, taken on January 14 this year, shows a bison herd just outside Yellowstone National Park on the edges of Gardiner, Montana.


In the winter, heavy snows in the Park push the bison to search for greener pastures, which they find around the small town of Gardiner.  The bison would likely travel farther from the Park, but cattle guards placed on Route 89 at the head of Yankee Jim Canyon, as well as a fence on the river’s west side, force the bison to remain outside of Paradise Valley.  The primary reason for this is to protect cattle ranchers who are afraid their domestic cattle herds will contract brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can spread between elk, bison, and domestic cattle.  Ironically, the bison and elk were first exposed to brucellosis by domestic cattle.  Brucellosis causes failed pregnancies in some exposed animals, and it is passed to others when they come in contact with the aborted fetuses or birthing tissues.

To stop the Yellowstone Park herd from growing too large for its allotted ground, some animals are now being culled.  And this is controversial.  Some of these animals are reserved for Native American tribes to harvest.  This too is debated, both by other Native Americans who want to see the herd grow and expand and some of the residents around Gardiner who watch this all take place int heir back yards.


You can read more about it here:

And here:


Bison are gigantic animals.  Bulls can weigh over 2000 pounds and cows are over 1000.  And it’s pretty cool (maybe a little intimidating) to have them right beside your car.  I couldn’t imagine hitting one, though I came close enough a couple weeks ago when one rumbled in front of mine on Route 89, just outside Gardiner.



Where’s my State Farm representative now?


A couple weeks ago, my wife and I drove through the Park into the Lamar Valley on a sight seeing trip. There was a lot of snow in the Lamar’s beautiful valley.  So much so, that bison were using the plowed roadway to travel through the Park.  We were trapped in this bison convoy for probably 15 minutes before an opening large enough for my car appeared.  As I slowly worked my way through the animals, one of the smaller ones jostled near a big bull.  They bull obviously took exception as he pummeled  the small bison into a snow drift.  The little guy sat there, looking a little stunned, and a little embarrassed, as we drove past him.  But he quickly got to his feet and followed the rest of his relatives down the road.  All I could think was “I’m sorry about that, but better you than me.”



Late November 2014 bison in the snowy Lamar Valley.  There’s much more snow there today!








Yellowstone Valley Zoo: Bighorn Sheep


Most of the people that visit Sweetwater Fly Shop have traveled here for the world-class fly fishing for wild brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout.  But trout are just part of the complete ecosystem that surrounds, and includes, the Yellowstone River near our shop.  Coming from Pennsylvania, I find the Montana wildlife fascinating, and my travels around my new adopted home have allowed me to photograph many of the creatures that live here.

Now I know these shots aren’t up to National Geographic standards (some were shot with my cell phone).  But they’ll give you an idea of the specialness of the Yellowstone River Valley around Livingston and Gardiner.  When I forwarded some of the photos to my family back east, one of my brothers commented that it seemed like there’s a zoo on the side of every road.  So over the next couple days I plan to write a couple of blogs, looking at the different animals along the Yellowstone River zoo.  Today it’s Big Horn Sheep.

Every year in the fall, bighorn sheep descend into the area around Cinnabar, between Gardiner and the Yankee Jim Canyon, to mate on the banks of the Yellowstone River.  I took these shots there in the beginning of December.




Sadly, pneumonia, which is contracted through contact with domesticated sheep, is a great threat to these majestic animals.  There was an outbreak in this exact heard  at the end of 2014, detected not long after I took these photos.  You can read about it here:

and here:

Some animals died, as the stories found in the links above detailed, but many of the sheep survived and are fine.  They’ve passed their genes along to continue the herd in the mountains and hills beside the Yellowstone River Valley, just upstream from Sweetwater Fly Shop.



Guess he’s wondering what I find so interesting



This looks cute but it’s really an act of aggression.  He’s trying to show his dominance by putting his head on the other sheep’s back.  I’ve seen my dogs do this to each other.



Someone’s looking for a fight.


I was only fortunate enough to see the sheep butt horns one time.  It was loud and ferocious.  Here’s a link with a little more bighorn sheep head-butting information:

Make sure you check out the National Geographic You Tube link at the bottom of the page.


More to come tomorrow!




Sun Setting at Mallard’s Rest

Mallard's Rest Pic

Pretty evening view of the Yellowstone yesterday from the Mallard’s Rest access.

February Fishes and Floats


I feel like something significant occurred yesterday; one of those watershed moments that suggests things will be different going forward.  Yesterday I watched a drift boat float by me as I was fishing the Yellowstone. This was the first floating vessel I’ve seen in the river in 2015; the first since 2014’s minus 20 degree “autumn”.  The boat was gracefully gliding down a gentle pool where an ice breaker would have been needed, just to find water, a couple weeks ago.  But that boat wasn’t alone.  I saw other drift boats and rafts, all being launched with the enthusiasm of a spring day.

My boat sightings, though cool, are only a small part of this winter’s story.  We’ve had good fishing on the Yellowstone all winter as parts of the river have remained ice-free.  I’m usually working in the fly shop Monday through Wednesday.  That leaves the 4 other days each week for writing projects, spending time with my wife, household chores, and fishing.  So I’ve been doing a lot of fishing.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I went through all 4 of my weekly days off without at least one riverside trip.

This is my first winter in Montana, and I know it has been unusually mild.  But that’s not how I’ve portrayed things to family and friends back east.  I tell them, “Yeah, they say Paradise Valley is nearly always in the 60’s come winter time.  It’s why the orange trees here get so big (shh…there are no orange trees here).”  I’ve derived a great deal of pleasure from photographing my Toyota’s temperature gauge when it reads 60 degrees or warmer and texting those photos  to eastern family and friends who have been buried in snow and painfully cold temps.

This might make me a bad person, but I’m pretty sure they’ll get even with me sometime.  Though it won’t be in the next 10 days.  The forecast is for temps to reach into the 50’s most of the time.  Yes, this means you should come fishing too.  All of this warm weather might make some nervous about our summer water situation.  After all, it’s winter’s mountain snow that becomes summer’s trout river.  But so far we’re good.  As of today, the gauges tell me that we have 102% snow-pack which contains 109% of the median water volume.

The Yellowstone is now flowing about 1/3 higher than its median.  Some of that flow is due to a mini spring runoff that we’re currently experiencing in winter.  Now I realize that run-off is a dirty word to many springtime fly fishers, but this melt isn’t too bad.  The water is colored, but the fish are cooperative.  I caught 7 rainbows yesterday, beautiful fish, but no real bruisers.  I did have a brief tussle with what I thought was a log, hoped was a giant brown, and turned out to be a tail-hooked sucker.  It was exciting before it suckered.


The fish were eating the same flies they’ve been eating for me all winter–wooly buggers.  But these buggers aren’t the big streamers you traditionally see in fly shop bins.  The ones I’ve been fishing are pretty small; small enough that they’re tied on wet fly hooks, though they do incorporate cone heads in their construction.  In yesterday’s dirty water, brown and black buggers did the trick.  I usually fish these flies in tandem with a short 3 foot leader on a type 6 (sinks 6 to 7 inches per second) sink tip line.  Dark colors like black and brown are more visible in dirty water.  But I’ve had some pretty good afternoons fishing olive, yellow, and white buggers when the water was clear.  I’ve been casting the flies upstream, allowing the line to sink until it’s perpendicular to my body, then slowly twitching or even gently stripping the flies as they swing below me in the current.  Most of the takes occur while the flies are dead drifting, sometimes right after a gentle twitch.

Unlike death and taxes, mild winter weather isn’t something you can be sure will happen.  But with a winter like this, I don’t care if spring ever arrives.  After all, we need the warmth to keep the oranges growing…