As the namesake of a famous scout and horseman of the Old West, Cody, Wyo., has everything a visitor would expect. There’s a world-class western museum dedicated to the memory of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, nightly rodeos during the summer months, and superb hunting in the mountains west of town.
I don’t remember Buffalo Bill being immortalized as a trout fisherman, but the northwestern Wyoming stomping ground that bears his name on nearly every landmark would have been an excellent place for the scout to nab a trout. Not just one, but a hefty handful of notable fishing waters can be found less than an hour’s drive away from Cody. Trophy lakes, montane rivers, swine-sized rainbows and diminutive brookies — you name it. There’s enough variety in terrain and trout to keep a full-time angler happy in northwest Wyoming for several lifetimes.
Fly fishing from a float tube in Luce Lake in northwest Wyoming.
For those set upon a high-class angling experience within biking distance from town, the Cody-based fisherman will first want to work the waters of East Newton Lake. To find the shoreline of this fish-rich prairie pond, peddle north from town on Highway 120 for three miles. Turn left on Cottonwood Drive (CR 7WC) and pump it another mile and a half.
Searching For A Rod-Buster
Managed as a trophy water, East Newton can keep you casting for a rod-buster all day. Rainbows are the dominant species in the lake, primarily because the heavy East Newton hens produce brood stock for many of the Cowboy State’s stocking programs. However, Ron McKnight, regional fisheries supervisor, points out that “there’s some browns in there, big brooks in there and some splake.”
Like most trophy trout waters in the West, East Newton’s fish get their size as a result of harvest-prohibitive creel and tackle restrictions. Anglers are limited to artificial lures and flies on the lake. In addition to tackle restrictions, anglers at East Newton are only allowed to keep one fish, which must exceed 20 inches in length.
Fly-casters comprise the bulk of the pressure East Newton trout see each year, but spin-fishermen find good success on the lake as well, especially in the spring. Referring to spin-fishermen, McKnight observes that, “they do catch fish on Mepps, Panther Martins and other things, but anything that really emulates a minnow tends to be more successful.”
Try Minnow-like Lures
McKnight feels that the predatory nature of the large trout make them especially vulnerable to minnow look-alikes or offerings that might bear some resemblance to them. Large Thomas Cyclone spoons (start with silver and gold), Krocodiles, and 3-inch to 4-inch minnow plugs are all good choices. Rapalas are available to mimic both brown and rainbow trout fingerlings — either pattern is effective on East Newton.
In normal years, the bite picks up in April, a little after ice-out, and remains good until the hot weather rolls in. In Cody country, that might mean any time from late May to early July. East Newton is mediocre in mid-summer, but picks up again when water temperatures drop in the fall. Those casting for one of the lakes bunker-bustin’ browns or brutish brookies should focus their efforts in mid-September to late-October when the autumn spawning trout become most aggressive (and colorful).
You won’t find much company on Luce Lake, East Newton’s northern cousin, but if you’re hankering for solitude and catch and release fishing for fightin’ length rainbows, it’s a superb place to be. To find the lake, motor up Highway 120 north of Cody for about 18 miles. Take a hard right onto the gravel of CR 7RP (a county road) and drive about 5 miles to Hogan Reservoir. There’s a toilet and parking area at Hogan, and to find the biggish rainbows, go through the gate and hike south for a little less than one-half mile.
Try Luce Lake
In my mind, it’s a little presumptuous to call the short stroll to Luce a, “hike.” However, the daunting prospects of the 15-minute walk (if you’re slow) steers most anglers to another shoreline. Once, while buying my annual fishing license in a Cody sporting goods store, I asked the kindly salesperson about the fishing in the area. Her knowledgeable reply about the water conditions and hatches on the Shoshone forks made an immediate impression, so I pressed further.
“How’s the fishing on Luce Lake,” I queried innocently. “I’m really not sure,” she sheepishly confessed. “Not many people fish there … you have to hike to the lake, you know.”
Maybe it’s a good thing that Luce has an undeserved, “tough access” reputation with the locals. I fished the lake twice last season and only saw one other angler that wasn’t with me. The first excursion occurred in mid-May when a big, strong friend and myself lugged a 15-foot canoe from the parking area to the lake.
At the water, my son Micah thought we should immediately hop into the boat and start fishing. I tried to explain the canoeing sequence: rig up poles, stow gear in the boat, don personal floatation devices and strap in the child’s seat. Finally, I gave up, tied a snap swivel and silver spoon on the end of Micah’s line and told him to go fish.
A Rainbow Of Smiles
Midway through the canoe preparation, the nemesis struck again. “Dad, I got one, I got one,” Micah shrieked from just down the shore. Turning, I saw my son jerking furiously on his pint-sized Ugly Stik and spinning the handle of the reel with wild abandon.
“I think you’ve just got a snag,” I chuckled. “No, Dad, it’s pulling, it’s pulling.” Sure enough, it was. I tightened the drag slightly on his reel and then watched with deep parental pride as my sweating 6-year-old coaxed his first rainbow trout close enough for me to net. How do you explain to a child that 18-inch trout usually don’t come that easily?
Six weeks later, I was again at Luce Lake … in exclusively adult company. Two fly-fishers, who also are my friends, packed float tubes along and promised me lots of nice fishing photos. For a long one-half-hour, I cruised up and down the lake, waiting for the “near certain” photo op. Finally, I gave up and launched my own belly boat.
My fly rod was home, as usual, but I’d brought along a 5-foot ultralight. After working an assortment of spoons, spinners, jigs, and minnow plugs, I eventually hit paydirt with a fire-tiger Berkely “Frenzy” crankbait. A few flutters of the flippers brought me bumping against Eric’s float tube. I passed the rod over, back-kicked away and snapped the promised photos as he carefully landed and released my fat ‘bow.
If you plan to hit Luce in its prime, fish early and fish late, both in the season and the day. As the sun went down on our canoe trip, our floating minnow plugs picked up a fish about every 10 minutes, a catch rate that easily quadrupled the late afternoon’s production. Fly fishermen with a Luce Lake fetish favor the late hours, also, finding the hottest action on dry flies fished just before dark.
A True Western Gem
Cody country anglers seeking a stream fishing experience find action on the North Fork of the Shoshone River that’s as hot as the local lakes. The North Fork is a true western gem: abundant trout, eye-arresting vistas and a backcountry air that’s unusual on waters within shouting distance of a bustling mountain by-way. (Highway 14, 16, 20 — call it whichever you want — parallels the river west of Cody.)
Shore fishing the upper Clark’s Fork River pays off with a rainbow trout.
In terms of sheer variety, the North Fork is tough to top, at least for trout fishermen. There’s still a robust population of native Yellowstone cutthroats in the stream, reams of rainbows and the resulting hybrids. Brown trout also lurk under the shaded banks along with a few brook trout and a handful of meddling mackinaw that come skulking up from Buffalo Bill Reservoir.
The river is closed to fishing from April 1 to June 30 from Newton Creek to Gibbs Bridge (just up river from Buffalo Bill Reservoir). Some years, the opener is a bust as well. McKnight describes the North Fork as, “a really big watershed that gets high and off-color, sometimes into July.”
After the runoff, the trout turn on to the mayflies, stoneflies, midges and caddis that labor to complete the cycle of life. The North Fork special, a beadhead nymph developed by Tim Wade, a local fishing guide, is the pet pattern of North Fork aficionados.
Fish The Cover
Traditional spinning gear also takes trout, but McKnight cautions anglers to avoid what he sees as the most cardinal error of spin fisherman on the river. “A lot of guys don’t want to lose tackle,” McKnight observes. “They’ll cast downstream or away from cover to avoid losing a lure.”
However, unless you get your lure down deep, the only thing you’ll catch is a sore arm. McKnight advises spin fishermen to cast upstream or at an angle, put the spinner or whatever else they’re fishing as close as they can to undercut banks, logjams or other types of stream cover, and make a slow retrieve to keep the bait near the bottom. You’ll surely lose more tackle by following McKnight’s advice, but you’ll surely catch more trout, too.
If you fish the North Fork of the Shoshone or other area waters, there’s one lure you’re certain not to lose. That’s the lure of clean water, unspoiled scenery and the wildlife that thrive in the habitat best preserved by human stewards. Once snagged by Cody country trout, you’ll never escape the hook.
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