As we’ve done since 2009, part of the annual Firehole Ranger pilgrimage is a stop along the way back west to visit the fish of the Madison River near Three Dollar Bridge. Prior to arriving this year, if I had a dollar for every fish I’d caught on the Madison at Three Dollar Bridge, I’d have $4. That’s right: 5 years, 4 fish. Which means exactly what it looks like it means: The Madison is not kind to me. My best year was in 2011 when I managed to scratch out 2 fish. Marck is the only one who truly thrives on this river this time of year and quite frankly I feel a mutiny is in order. In two short years Morris seems to be have quickly found some love in the Madison, but he just does what Marck does, so Morris doesn’t count. We could drive a short distance south to Island Park, Idaho, and fish the salmonfly hatch on the the Henry’s Fork. I’m pretty sure we’d all enjoy increased catching if we went just about anywhere other than the Madison.
At least this year, even if the fishing turned out to be poor, the weather was unseasonably good. Or, maybe it was seasonably good. We’re usually there as week earlier and the weather tends be rather hit-and-miss. The mountains had less snow than they normally do, which is not to suggest that the snowpack had been light: it hadn’t. But the melt came early and fast, as evidenced by the all the rivers in the vicinity and the Madison itself. It was running as high as we’d seen it before, and it was off-color. That being said, it had come down and cleared a bit in the 3 days since we’d driven past on our way to West Yellowstone. Despite unsavory appearances we knew there were fish in the river that needed to eat. Convincing them to take our offerings would be the challenge.
Despite my past issues with the Madison, I approached the day with a ‘can-do’ attitude: whatever had happened in the past was water under the bridge. With an outlook as sunny as the day, Jimmy and I headed upstream about 3/4 of a mile and began fishing down. Marck, Morris and Nash crossed the bridge and headed upriver on the opposite bank. Goose set up operations downstream a ways nearest the bridge. With the river flows being what they were, the fish would likely be tucked in tight to the bank, which meant fishing right in front of our toes—no casting, per se. Just flipping out some line, mending, mending, mending and watching the indicator for any subtle shift in position. And mending. Rigged with an indicator above a Turd (Pat’s Rubber Legs) with an MK Flies Hula Worm (it may have many unofficial names) dropper, I proceeded to work slots of water broken by large boulders.
I’d done this many times before: watch the indicator for any subtle change in position, micro mend repeatedly and —BAM! Well, perhaps not quite a violent take, but I had a fish on: a 12-ish inch brown with very little fight in him due to the icy run-off, but a fish nonetheless. An early fish, too, as I’d only been fishing for 10 minutes. Normally the early fish gets the worm, but this one took the Turd. This gave cause for hope and enthusiasm.
As I angled on I noted that Jimmy had gotten into an early fish as well. I stepped methodically downstream, doing more of the same that had gotten me into the first fish. When I happened to take my eyes off my indicator to look around I could see Marck with a fish on (no surprise there). Morris, who was following close behind Marck like an abandoned puppy, also enjoyed a bent rod. I had no idea where Nash was, but assumed he was into fish as well. While Goose finds the Madison equally as frustrating as I do, he always catches at least one fish and I was confident that he would do so. A sense of calm swept over me as I considered the very real likelihood that everyone would avoid a skunk on this day.
Over and over I’ve tried to decipher the secret code needed to crack the Madison’s vault. We all fish it the same way, every year, and the results are that Marck always catches WAY more fish than anyone else. I usually catch the fewest. What advantage does Marck have that I, and the others, don’t? Besides a much higher view of the water, and cologne that smells like Powerbait, nothing comes quickly to mind. What does he do that I don’t? I’d determined that he sets the hook EVERY time the indicator shifts position, whereas I have a tendency to dismiss subtle movements as shifting currents, and sticks. I decided on this day that I would consider every movement of the indicator to be a fish, and set the hook incessantly. The result was another fish shortly after the first fish. This one was a much more respectably-sized rainbow that had been lying in a seam a few feet off the bank, right where a trout should have been. It took the Hula Worm and gave a much better fight.
Two fish! To what did I owe my good fortunes?! I’d equaled my best day on the Madison and had only been on the water for 30 minutes. As I proceeded to fish downstream, I did so with a certain confidence I’d never had before on this river. To say that I had a swagger would be a stretch—after years of demoralizing hardship, one does not develop a swagger so quickly. But things were going my way: not only was I catching fish, but I wasn’t losing flies on the countless snags! My confidence skyrocketed. On my next drift I hooked a fish that immediately ran toward the fast current and peeled line before snapping me off. I rationalized that it was OK to lose flies that way. Certainly that would have been the best fish of the day—perhaps the best fish ever caught by any of the Firehole Rangers on the Madison. I had plenty of Turds left in the fly box, and 4 more Hula Worms. I needn’t worry about running out of ammunition.
I did continue to catch fish, but nothing to write home about. On the Madison a 12 inch fish seems a bit like a Participant’s Ribbon, and while I was grateful to have caught 6 fish by the time I broke for lunch, only two fish (both rainbows) approached the 16 inch mark; the others were more diminutive browns that would have been right at home in the Firehole where 10-12 inchers are all the rage. During our lunch break Jimmy reported that he’d caught a few fish and Goose groused about having scratched out just a couple. After lunch I crossed the bridge and headed upstream along the opposite bank. I ran into Marck, who was returning from a morning of slaying fish. He asked what I’d been using and I showed him the Hula Worms. He asked if I might spare him one. Of course I obliged—I still had 3 left.
As I began the task of trying to continue the good fortune of the morning, I rapidly began a downward spiral. The section I was fishing tends to fish better because it has more structure. It also tends to steal more flies because it has more structure. At one point I decided to step into the river to see about retrieving a snagged rig, and as I set foot into the water I spooked a good sized fish out of the hole and was unable to retrieve the flies. Salt in the wound. It wasn’t long before I’d lost the last of my Hula Worms. Any confidence I may have had quickly eroded like a clay bank being eaten away by a river’s raging torrent. My attitude plummeted as I seemed incapable of doing anything right. I did hook into a fish that quickly dispatched of me. This time I was unable to rationalize that loosing more flies—even this way—was acceptable. After that I cursed to anyone within earshot, reeled in my flyless leader and began to hike back to the parking lot. Along the way I stopped to watch an Osprey returning to its nest after an unsuccessful go at fishing. Misery loves company.
As I walked the meandering mile back to where I knew a cooler of cold PBR awaited. The weather had heated to the point where ‘breathable waders’ proved to be an oxymoron. I was not only defeated, I was hot, sweaty and defeated. Trudging through the sagebrush I reflected on the day that had been so good in the morning, and so filled with despair in the afternoon. I’d caught more fish than ever before on the Madison, but I was also reminded of just how cruel she can be. I decided to take the moral high road and remember the good while forsaking the bad.
And next year I vote for the Henry’s Fork instead.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series, sort of. You don’t have to read part one or part three if you don’t want to.
The annual trip to Yellowstone is in the books, and while there’s much that I could write about the trip, hardly anyone reads the Drivel®. Conversely, nearly everyone likes pictures. So, rather than hunker down and scribe a plethora of words that will fall on deaf eyes, I’ve made the decision to tell about this year’s trip mostly in photos, with little emphasis on words. So, with the promise of many photos, let’s begin with a few words:
We fished a week later than we normally do. Turns out that was a good thing because opening weekend found the Firehole high and the fishing tough. Just ask Goose. He was there on opening weekend. He worked hard for 5 fish. He was also with us a week later, and he didn’t work very hard for a hell of a lot more than 5 fish. Overall the catching may have been a bit off the normal pace, but it wasn’t anything to complain about.
We arrived at the Ho Hum in West Yellowstone under sunny skies and warm temperatures. We held a meeting to discuss our plans.
We also saw some cats. We always see cats.
On Day One we were the only people in the parking lot at Midway Geyser Basin with intentions to fish. There was one other car. I’m not sure what their intentions were, but they weren’t there to fish. Usually the parking lot is choked with cars and tours buses: many there to tour; many there to fish. We geared up as it began to rain lightly. It often rains. But at least it wasn’t cold. It’s often cold.
As the rain picked up, we took refuge under a tree and continued the gearing up process.
As we always do, we posed for a group photo before mounting our assault on the fish of the Firehole.
We heard thunder approaching as we began our forced march. As we neared the river, the thunder neared us. There was lightning. We decided that waving graphite sticks in the air wasn’t perhaps a wise thing to do in Yellowstone when an electrical storm is brewing. Marck is usually very brave. He was not so brave this time. He retreated. We followed him.
We waited out the storm in the confines of Mrs. Morris’ minivan. It was the picture of manliness: Five Rangers in a minivan, seeking shelter from the raging storm. The storm passed within a few minutes, which was a good thing. Five men in a minivan after having consumed a breakfast at McDonald’s is not often a pleasant thing. We were relieved when it was safe to go outside.
Shortly thereafter we were on the water, and into fish.
As the day wore on, the weather improved. The fishing continued to be something nobody would complain about.
Goose was happy to note that the fishing had improved greatly over the previous weekend.
Marck, who was not brave when it came to the thunder and lightning earlier in the day, bravely fished past a bachelor group of bison.
By mid day, the weather was downright pleasant and anyone who had failed to apply sunscreen that morning would come to regret it.
We enjoyed the remainder of the day as we fished down to Fountain Flat Drive.
We did see a few anglers as Day One droned on, but that’s to be expected as we neared our termination point at Fountain Flat Drive. All in all we had most of the river to ourselves. Back at the Ho Hum we held a meeting to talk of the fish caught on Day One, and made plans for Day Two. It rained a bit, which came as no surprise.
On Day Two we hiked in from Fountain Flat Drive. We were the only fishermen in the parking lot. Only one other car was there and it belonged to a young couple who, based on their appearances as they walked toward their parked car, had spent the night in the woods. They were carrying blankets and a tarp and little else other than the clothes on their backs: no tents, no backpacks. We speculated as to what it must have been like to spend the night in the wilderness, in the rain, amidst perhaps a large herd of bison. Someone must have lost a bet. We hiked upriver to our fishing destination, giving a wide berth to a large heard of Bison cows with their calves.
There were more Bison this year it seemed. Besides the large, aforementioned herd, we also saw a lively group of young bulls trotting and kicking up their heels. The small groups of old bulls never act this way. Oh, to be young again.
We caught more fish, but it was considerably slower than the first day. It always is. We got off the water early and did the tourist thing for a short while, stopping to see what most of the people in the park come to see in the Midway Geyser Basin: Excelsior Geyser Crater. It’s pretty impressive. It discharges 4,000 to 4,500 gallons of boiling water into the Firehole each minute. That’s a lot.
Not surprisingly, Excelsior Geyser is a main attraction and there were no fewer than several busloads of Asian tourists present. Morris posed for a nice photo with one group of young tourists who came to see a geyser and got their picture taken with a geezer.
Tourists must stay on the boardwalk for fear of damaging the fragile thermal crust, or worse: falling through the fragile thermal crust.
One of the many tourists dropped the lens cap to his camera off the boardwalk. There ensued much chaos that included yelling and blame-placing, although in a language I did not understand. Scorn and panic are a universal language. Fortunately nobody was harmed and the lens cap was retrieved.
That about wrapped up the Firehole for 2014. The next morning we would leave for our next stop along the way: The Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge.
Until next year…
My family has had a place on the shores of Hood Canal since I was 4. It was the summer of 1967 and at that time I was a bit too young to do much fishing, but gradually over the years I branched out with friends who lived there year around and we dabbled in much the way that kids will dabble with fishing: We’d dunk worms under bobbers in the many lakes that dot the hills around the area, and catch diminutive trout fry in the nearby creek (looking back I’m quite sure they were juvenile steelhead and we unknowingly aided in the decimation of the once-robust runs of wild fish). In the salt water we’d drag spinning lures for Shorthorn Sculpin at low tide (we always called them “bullheads” and I still do). When the tide was high we’d use chunks of mussels on a hook dangled at the end of a length of monofilament for small perch (which we called “poagies”) that milled around the pilings of a local community dock. Hand-lining those 4 inch bruisers was great sport.
I was around 11 or 12 when I learned to fly fish. It was a friend of my dad’s—Lloyd Lewis—who was responsible for introducing my brother and I to the fly. Lloyd was a
passionate gonzo trout fisherman, and at one time was President of the Overlake Fly Fishing Club. He enjoyed coming to Hood Canal to fish for sea run cutthroat (coastal cutthroat) trout. I recall that he had a blue Ford camper van with a Port-a-Bote strapped to the side. He’d assemble the folding vessel, mount an electric motor on it and troll the shoreline on an incoming tide. I don’t remember any fish specifically, but the catching was apparently quite good because he came back for more of the same on more than one occasion. Since my family spent a great deal of time at Hood Canal while I was growing up I would certainly do a lot of sea run cutthroat fishing over the years, or so I may have assumed when I was 12 years old.
Gradually cars, girls and countless other distractions took precedent over fly fishing, or any type of fishing for that matter. As a teenager and into my early twenties I was much more interested in waterskiing than fishing and spent my Hood Canal aquatic time pursuing that endeavor. When I became
a responsible an adult, life got busy and it was many years before I picked up a fly rod again. When I did, I was all-in, and I became gradually more and more financially distraught for my addiction. However, despite having become consumed by fly fishing, I never did go after those sea run cutthroat at Hood Canal. More time was spent fishing inland rivers far away from the salt, and truth be told, I visited Hood Canal less and less over the years. However, due to a recent turn of events I find myself now responsible for the family cabin, and have been spending more time there, enjoying the simple place of my youth. As of even more recently, I decided to finally go after those sea run cutts, again.
When I packed for our Memorial Day weekend visit to the cabin I wasn’t planning to wet a line in the salt. I did stow my 4 weight rod in the truck so I could steal away a few hours and visit my buddy’s ponds that are filled with trout. It’s something I enjoy doing about once a year, and the fish can be surprisingly finicky so it’s not quite like shooting fish in a barrel. The ponds are teeming with cutthroat and rainbows, stocked many years ago and fairing quite well. But at the end of the day they are pond fish, and while they do get by on natural food for much of the year, they also receive the occasional feed pellet welfare handout. Not quite wild fish. It was my intent to visit these pond monkies until a conversation with a neighbor changed my mind. He’d been catching some nice sea run cutts on spinning gear: some at low tide and a few at high tide. One was caught right in front of our floating dock. This got me to thinking that perhaps I’d forego my visit to the pond in the woods and try my hand at the salty wild fish. And so after drinking my second cup of coffee on the front deck while watching the tide water recede, I decided to strap on my aging sandals—the crusty, decaying ones that remain at the cabin year-round, and head out. I strung up my rod and grabbed a couple simple streamers. I also grabbed my hemostats and my camera, hoping with little confidence that I’d need either or both. Mrs. UA offered a sarcastically encouraging “Good luck, Opie!” as I trudged a short distance across the muddy tide flats to a spot where a small creek dumps into The River.
The River flows from the low hills through a long gradual valley and enters Hood Canal, forming an estuary where the salt water reaches at high tide. Downstream of the estuary, The River’s channel continues out into the tide flats and only at the low tide mark does the river channel eventually vanish. Even at low tide, the water in the river’s channel is a bit brackish: part salt, part fresh. At low tide the mudflats are a popular stalking ground for Great Blue Herons; at high tide it’s not uncommon to see the occasional Harbor Seal chasing an unknown source of protein. Historically The River was a natal stream for salmon and steelhead: The steelhead are long gone, and the only small runs of Coho and Chum salmon return today.
As I approached my chosen spot, I chased a merganser off its hunting grounds. The bird’s presence was either a good thing, or a bad thing: Good, in that it meant there were bait fish and possibly chum fry, which meant there may also be larger fishy predators present; Bad, in that the bird’s presence may have spooked all fish out of the vicinity. Armed with a size 12 black bead headed Woolly Bugger, my fist cast swung into the gentle current of the river. It was mid morning under an overcast sky and the water was murky: visibility being perhaps a foot or two at best.
On my first cast the fish slammed my fly with authority and and tried to run. I gave it a bit of line as it lept from the water no fewer than three times before I brought it in: a silver-sided, heavily-spotted, 12 inch sea run cutthroat. It was missing the vibrant throat slashes common to other species of cutthroat, but there was no mistaking what it was. From the distant front porch of the cabin, Mrs. UA could see the action as it unfolded. She yelled something to me across the flats, and although I couldn’t make out exactly what she said, I’m sure it was something like, “You actually caught a fish!” I’ll admit, I was surprised myself.
A few minutes later I landed a smaller cutt of about 8 inches, and repeated the same shortly thereafter. A half hour into my day I hooked a fish that meant business. It hammered the Woolly Bugger like a small freight train and turned downstream toward the salt water, peeling a fair amount of line and jumping a couple of times. I pinched down on the line to apply the the brakes and as I did so I felt felt several violent head shakes. The fish was strong and bent my 4 weight nearly in half. Fortunately I had 3x tippet so I didn’t have to be too careful. I did have a barbless hook, however, so I couldn’t be too careless. The fish was a solid 16″ and as beautiful as the others before it. There would be a 3 more smaller fish for a total of 6 within a span of only 45 minutes. I was delighted with my angling prowess. The Bald Eagle in the tree above me was not—and screeched its outrage at my having not successfully harvested what would have made for a nice meal or two. The eagle flew off in disgust as I secured my fly and headed back to the cabin. Despite the slippery mud, there was an unmistakable skip in my step.
If you ask Mrs. UA, I was probably insufferable the rest of the day. After toiling about the cabin yard for several hours, we found ourselves once again sitting on the deck, drinking something other than coffee at this point, and staring out at the incoming tide. Still brimming with confidence from the morning’s angling success, I reached for my rod, donned my crusty sandals, and grabbed my hemostats and camera (certain that I would need them this time), and made my way to the water’s edge. The tide was coming in fast and there was more water in the chancel now than there had been earlier in the morning. The water was warmer, too, as is often the case when the exposed tide flats heat up under the sun of the day.
The incoming tide also tends to bring with it considerable debris such as floating wads of seaweed and eelgrass, which collect on fishing line and fishing hooks with great ease. The day had cleared and there was considerable glare on the water so I opted for a heavier fly this time, tying on a tungsten conehead olive Woolly Bugger. The first cast did not bring with it the same result as it had earlier in the day. Nor did the second or third. As I glanced over my shoulder I could make out the distant form of Mrs. UA, perched in her red plastic throne on the deck, gesturing as if to say, “Not so easy this time is it, Mr. Big Shot Angler?” I waved, grumbled, stripped line and recast.
On the 5th cast or so—although who was really counting—I struck pay dirt. The heavy fish grabbed the fly and was immediately pissed-off at its decision to have done so. It jumped once, but spent most of its time under water, pulling. Headshakes were felt down to the cork and the fish ran at will, taking more line than I’ve had a trout take, ever. I was fairly sure I’d see my backing and probably would have save for the fact that the fish was swimming against the incoming tide, which worked in my favor. I was able finally to turn the fish with a doubled-over rod, wishing I’d had my 6 weight instead of the out-gunned 4. It took a while to finally subdue the silver bullet, but when I had it to hand I was surprised that it wasn’t larger than it was: another 15-16 inch fish. Pound for pound it easily fought harder than any fish I’ve caught.
A few more casts yielded no more takes and I doubted I could improve upon the last fish so I skipped back to the cabin, under the watchful and still disapproving eye of the eagle who’d come back to watch me release more perfectly good food.
On the many rivers I’ve fished over the years, across and beyond the state and hundreds of miles from home, rarely have I encountered as many hard-fighting fish. Sometimes the best fishing is right under your nose. In my case it only took 40 years to realize this.