Away from the Grind

Fishing for Fossils near Fossil Butte, WY

by Roger Ludwig

Over the holiday weekend we went fishing near Kemmerer, WY. At Fossil Lake. 

But Fossil Lake dried up 50 million years ago. 

The fish? Herring and bass. Dead, flattened, buried and fossilized. Pressed between layers of limestone like flowers in a book.

Fishing in rock, yet fishing it was. Our rod and reel? Hammer and chisel of spring steel. 

Technique? You steady a flat rock on edge, align the chisel, tap carefully here and there, and….split. Just a bite–a bit of fish imprint. So there are fish in here! Tap again.

Fishing in rock has fishing’s addictive urge. I’ll get one on the next cast, the next split. It pays off often enough to keep you hooked, amped and in the game. Just one more!

The prize? Those brown or orange skeletal outlines in smooth tawny limestone. You’ve seen them in stores selling “all things Wyoming” for $25 to $50. Or even $100 for one holding several fish or a really big one.

The catch at the private quarry we had chosen was good, Warfield Fossil Safari. There are a couple of other quarries as well that allow fossil fishing for a fee.

Jim Bridger, the old mountain man famed for tall tales said of Yellowstone, there are “peetrified birds a sittin’ on peetrified trees a singin’ peetrified songs in the peetrified air.” Here were peetrified fish swimin’ in the peetrified lake surfacing to a peetrified cast. 

Fossil Butte National Monument

A visit to Fossil Butte, Wyoming’s second and largely unknown National Monument, gave us a clear picture of what was going on here 50 million years ago. 

Established in 1972, it protects a small but especially scenic section of the Fossil Lake treasure and offers interpretive trails and a fine visitor center where pages of the area’s ancient history are opened to view.

We go to our parks and monuments for moments of awe, usually to be lost in the bigness of nature’s grandeur. The awe is here, too, but it takes a little imagination. This is a place we can get lost in time, the long history of life on our ancient earth and our tiny moment on it.

A national treasure, the fossil record here preserves a complete Cenozoic ecosystem, plants, fish, insects, reptiles like crocodiles and turtles. There are rare mammals—tiny horses and bats. The detail of their preservation is astounding.

Time travel is aided by a beautiful diorama which, if you screen out the surrounding distractions, allows you to stand in the lake of this tropical, 50 million year old world.

Fossil Butte itself is beautiful in its way. The rock rises tall and long from the sage, mostly rounded but with exposed cliffs, under a big sky. It is up on those cliffs, fifty or so feet from the top, that the fossils are found.

A trail leads up to an old quarry where the rock layers are open to the eye. Interpretive signs help explain what we are seeing.

Another trail and a scenic drive lets visitors take in the glory of our current time. Hidden aspen groves, spring wild flowers, secretive deer. We especially enjoyed the drive to the butte’s top with long vistas to other ridges and bluffs with the distant Uinta Mountains a band of white along the horizon.

Fossil Quarries

There is no fossil fishing on the Monument of course. For that we headed to one of several private quarries that have opened the rich rock layers for amateur and professional searchers. To do that they bulldoze the overburden away, leaving a platform upon which to fish and stacks of rock, either loose or in the cliff face, to fish in.

The owner of Fossil Safari treated us well. For $30 per hour he demonstrated the technique, loaned us tools and was available to help. We could take home any we wished, unless we happened upon something exceedingly rare. All we needed were some stout gloves, snacks and plenty of drinking water. This is dusty work.
In two to three hours two of us “caught” about a dozen “keepers.” And we came away with a profound appreciation of the work involved in fossil hunting and preservation.

Budding dinosaur hunters love this experience, discovering “dinosaur fish” of real quality on their own. Chipping next to us were Dan LeFever and his nine year old daughter Iona, visiting from Pocatello, Idaho. She was proud to have bested her dad, bringing in the biggest of their day.

Preparing the fish plaques for display takes some work. A Skill saw with a masonry blade is needed to cut them down to size. Then a coating of Elmer’s Glue mixed with water locks the fossil details in. Finish with a spray of satin polyurethane. The quarry guides will give you the skinny. 

When you go….

Fossil Butte National Monument is nine miles west of Kemmerer on US 30, about a five hour drive from Cheyenne. Admission to the grounds and visitor center is absolutely free.

There is no camping or trailer space there but Kemmerer has all you need with a variety of motels and RV sites. You’ll find some good restaurants. We enjoyed a delicious Mexican breakfast at Adimiah’s, 1012 Pine Avenue.

I’m aware of three quarries open for prospecting. Their rates vary as do the distance and ease of getting to them. Look into Warfield’s Fossil Safari at (307) 883-2445, Ulrich’s at (307) 877-6466 and Promiseland (307) 877-3641. Some will not accept credit cards. 

“Fishing” at the quarries is dusty work. Don’t forget to bring work gloves for handling the rock, drinking water, snacks, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses. The sites are at 7,400 feet in elevation with cool morning temperatures, getting hot to very hot on summer afternoons.

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