Hell or High Water? Day Three: The Madison

This is Part 3, preceded by Part 1 and Part 2 (it’s a sequential thing).

Before departing West Yellowstone, the Rangers each handed our cash to Marck as it had been decided that he would be the one to settle up our lodging bill. He took a series of big, deep breaths and, choking back the tears, he bravely entered the office. After a minute—but what undoubtedly felt like eternity to him—Marck emerged, disoriented and gasping for air; his clothes smelling of ammonia. And thus we bade farewell for another year.

Next up: My favorite river, the Madison.

What's wrong, Marck—cat got your tongue?

What’s wrong, Marck—cat got your tongue?

The Madison, looking upstream toward Three Dollar Bridge

The Madison, looking upstream toward Three Dollar Bridge

Picture this: Standing on the river bank. High-sticking a Pat’s Stone with some version of a San Juan Worm dropper. Watching the three foam indicators intently; waiting, hoping for a twitch that might be a fish but is more than likely a snag that will snap off your dropper. That’s the game on the Cornhole Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge this time of year.

Runoff was in full swing and the river was, not unexpectedly, as high and dirty as ever. Some would consider these conditions to be unfishable. And yet, I had a confident swagger—or perhaps a false sense of confidence—as we geared up in the parking lot. We were not alone. Far from it on this first Sunday in June, with no fewer than 10 other rigs already there; some would leave and others were arrive during the day. One guy was returning from a morning of apparently catching fish, and as he walked past us he declared with a wide grin on his face, “There’s lots of fish to be caught, boys!”

“Good to hear!” I said, politely, holding back the urge to target his Adam’s Apple with an arc-hand strike.

Our customary team photo was not taken this year, just as it was not taken the previous day on the Firehole. Hadn’t we learned from our mistake by breaking with tradition? Oh, well.

The skies were mostly blue and the forecast called for temperatures near 80F—not a day for waders—so sunscreen (and bug spray) were in order. Last year the weather had been similarly nice, and I’d had my best day on the Madison ever, landing 7 fish. Of course the river was much lower last year, but after several years of catching just a couple, or no fish at all, I felt like I had finally cracked the Madison nut. I didn’t expect to light it up this year, but I had a strong feeling that I’d come tight to at least a couple fish.

I would be wrong.

On lean years I can expect to at least have some company in my misery: Goose. But even he caught a fish this year. Marck and Morris got into a lot of fish by crossing the bridge and going for a long hike upriver. They’re assholes They certainly can’t be faulted for putting in the effort, but even on years when I’ve made the same, long jaunt, it hasn’t paid off. One year I did manage a couple fish by taking the long journey over the river and upstream, but this style of fishing isn’t even close to my favorite way of spending a day and I wasn’t keen on putting in the great effort for a couple fish. Jimmy and I instead moved on downstream, covering mostly the same water. He caught a couple. Nash had opted to stay on the near side of the river and hike upstream a ways. He also got into a few fish.


Jimmy applies Powerbait to inspects his worm.

I did not.

I loath the Madison Cornhole Madison and the feeling is, apparently, mutual. I wanted nothing more than to wash my hands of the vile place and move on to the next, and final, river of our trip. I also wanted to wash my boots in the new cleaning station provided. The instructions were simple:

  1. Wet Your Boots
  2. Brush Your Boots
  3. Rinse Your Boots

There is a brush supplied for second step of the task, but one key, missing ingredient was water needed for steps one and three. Granted the river is only a short distance away, but carting river water up the hill to the boot cleaning station, one empty beer can at a time, would take all day. And using the river water to wash one’s boots probably isn’t what the powers-that-be had in mind when they installed the cleaning station. I suppose one could supply a gallon or two of their own fresh, clean water…if they knew in advance that it was required. Apparently nobody did, as I saw not a single person use the cleaning station all day. It is a noble, but flawed, concept.

Boot cleaning station. A noble concept, except that it requires water and there is no water. I saw nobody using it all day.

Boot cleaning station: Just Add Water.

The day had become quite hot, and as clouds moved in the humidity increased. The combination of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray made for a not-so-fresh feeling. I longed a shower to wash away the smell of the skunking, which stank worse than the office at the Ho Hum.

Good riddance, Three Dollar Bridge. Onward, to Twin Bridges for the last leg of our journey. It couldn’t get much worse, or could it?

A beautiful setting in which to not catch fish.

There’s more to fishing than just catching fish. A beautiful setting in which to not catch fish.

Hell or High Water? Day Two: The Firehole

If you missed Part 1, you may want to read it first. Then again…

Typically we arrive in West Yellowstone with plenty of time left in the day to purchase our National Park fishing permits and a few flies. For some strange reason, Arrick’s Fly Shop wasn’t open when we arrived at 1 AM (WTH?) so we had to wait until 7 AM the next morning to take care of that business. Given that we hadn’t eaten a huge meal in more than 9 hours, we were absolutely famished by the time we stopped in at the Three Bears (not the Three Bears in Lincoln, FYI) for a hearty breakfast before entering the park. There was more tourist traffic than we typically encounter and, as one can imagine, the backup was long as vehicles waited patiently for the morning bison commute to thin out. Goose took his wingman role seriously and stayed awake the entire time during the perilous drive.

This cow wasn't much larger than her calf #babymama

This roadside cow wasn’t much larger than her calf #babymama

We finally arrived at Midway Geyser Basin and were lucky to find a couple of parking spots. Tourists buzzed all around the area as we geared up; some were curious foreigners who found what we were doing to be of great amusement. One fellow, who appeared to be a non-foreign tourist, walked past us with what was likely his wife and in-laws and a gaggle of small, raucous children who had recently consumed a breakfast of sugar. With shoulders slumped and an expression of defeat on his face, he glanced forlornly in our direction and muttered softly, “Man, I’m jealous of you guys…” I felt empathy for the guy, and nearly felt guilty for the good fortune of having to not concern myself with anything but catching a plethora of fish for the next several hours.

Guest Ranger Billy

Guest Ranger Billy, early enough in the day that he still had hope.

One thing that has become customary for the Firehole Rangers is the taking of an annual team photo before heading out to ply the waters of our namesake river. It was decided that we would skip that this year, for some reason that I believe was due to our late start and eagerness to get on the water. Whatever the case may have been, it was a break with tradition, and not something I’m sure we’ll ever do again. It should be noted that we were also joined by a guest on this day as Morris had invited his former boss, a man named Billy (not his real name, and not Busdriver Billy from the day before) to accompany us on the Firehole.  Billy lives in Bozeman and had never fished the Firehole. No doubt he had heard tales of how incredible the fishing can be—and usually is—on the Firehole. I’m sure he had a skip in his step as we hiked off across the plain toward the river, passing  swans and a lone bison bull.

A lone bull along the Firehole

A lone bull along the Firehole River.

When we got to the river’s edge it was immediately clear that the water was running as high as I’d ever seen it. The Firehole is never always dark and tea colored when we fish it, and this year it was even darker. And the fish would prove to be AWOL for a considerable while. On a good year, the first fish comes on the first or second cast of the day. On a slow year, like last year (read here), it may take 30 minutes before the first fish is enticed to the fly. This year it was at least an hour before I had so much as a bump, and even longer until I came tight to my first fish—a ten inch brown—something that didn’t happen until after I had added a piece of tungsten split shot.

I took a temperature reading of the river and it was only 44° F. Compare that to other years when the temperature is well into the 50’s and one begins to partially understand why the fishing was slow: the trouts were sluggish and disinclined to chase down a swung bug, only grabbing at one when it hit them on the nose. Adding the split shot helped somewhat, but the hookups continued to be few and far between. I tried different flies (something I rarely, if ever, have to do on the Firehole) and ended up being mildly surprised at the results: one rainbow and another brown, neither bigger than 10 inches.

Tundra Swans along the Firehole River.

When I shot this photo of a pair of Tundra Swans, they outnumbered the fish by two.

By mid day, having caught only 3 fish, I once again shoved my thermometer into the Firehole: 98.6° F 48° F. Later in the afternoon, after entering a section of the river where there’s a lot of thermal activity (which adds considerable hot water to the Firehole) the temperature topped out at 50° F. The catching never really picked up and by the time I called it a day, the tally was 6 fish: all browns save for one rainbow, and nothing over 10 inches.

Marck samples the waters of the Firehole.

Marck searches the Firehole for his next fish.

Nash, searching for a fish on the Firehole.

Nash, searches for a fish on the Firehole, as a lone bull cheers him on.

Jimmy looks into the Firehole and wonders where all the fish went...

Jimmy gazes out across the Firehole, wondering where all the fish went…

Even the thermal activity along the Firehole wasn't enough to heat up the catching.

Even the thermal activity along the Firehole wasn’t enough to heat up the catching.

Firehole Rangers 2017

Marck and his kids, taken at the end of the day instead of when it should have been taken. This may have jinxed us.

When the Rangers reassembled at the end of the day it wasn’t surprising that Marck had once again come out on top of the fish count, although he was well off his typical pace of 278 fish. The other Rangers also experienced very slow catch rates, with nearly everyone in the single digits (Goose may have topped out over 10 because he’d gotten more sleep than anyone else the night before). Unfortunately for our guest Ranger, the Firehole did not put out the welcome mat and he limped home with vastly different impression of the river than I did after my first time.

I’m always the first to admit that there’s more to fishing than just catching fish, an expression coined by someone who didn’t catch (m)any fish that day. But the last 3 years have seen the Firehole fishing much more poorly than all the years prior to that. Pulling UA blog data from the previous years, I was shocked at the results: in 2015 I caught 3 fish; in 2016, 12 fish. Add to that the 2017 count of 6 and it’s beginning to sound a lot like a Dr. Seuss book.


That evening we consumed way too much food, and ample drink, at Wild West Pizzeria in West Yellowstone. We talked of the day and what tomorrow would hold. In the morning we would depart for the Cornhole Madison River and we promised Guest Ranger Billy that the Madison would be high and off color; that fish would be caught, but it wouldn’t be as easy as it had been on the Firehole. We then spent our second, and final, night at the Ho Hum.

Guest Posts & Sponsored Content


I’m posting this because I have been receiving a lot of  emails from people who offer basically the same thing. Occasionally I reply to their emails, telling them that I provide all content on my ad-free site, but most of the time I just hit the delete button. A week later I can always expect to receive a follow-up email inquiring as to whether or not I received their email.

To paraphrase a typical solicitation:

Hi UA,

I’m (insert name) and I write a blog called (insert blog name here). I’ve been reading your blog and I must say, you are not only a very handsome mann, but also very powerful. I really enjoy your awesome articles.

I’m writing to you because I am interesting in providing a guest article I’ve written titled, (insert article title here). I think it will be a great fit for your readers. I’m happy to also write something completely new if you prefer. Oh, and my article will be chock full of sponsored links, too. We’ll both get rich!

Please let me know—I look forward to hearing back from you!

Best regards,

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If these folks really do read my articles (and my hunch is that they do not), they’ll see this one. And if not, I can simply paste a link to this notice in a reply to their email.

As you were.


Hell or High Water? Day One: The Missouri

So as not to keep you in suspense, I’ll get right to the matter of our annual pilgrimage to the Firehole River: High Water.

We shouldn’t have been—and we weren’t—too surprised that we ran into plenty of high water this year. After all, it’s that time of year. Runoff, meltoff, whatever you want to call it, we encountered it. In some past years we’ve gotten lucky and found waters that were fishable despite the time of year, but this year was a big water year thanks to a big snow winter. Our first barometer for Montana river conditions is the Clark Fork, which we first encounter at St. Regis, MT. It’s as if the Clark Fork welcomes us back to Montana, and offers us a glimpse as to what we should expect everywhere. It’s nearly always big and brown, but this year the Clark Fork was bigger and browner.

Our first destination was the booming metropolis of Lincoln, Montana, where we spent the first night at the Three Bears Motel (not to be confused with the Three Bears Motel in West Yellowstone, where we often eat but do not stay). It’s worth mentioning that the rooms were small and quite tidy: perhaps the cleanest motel I’ve stayed in. So if you find yourself passing through Lincoln, Montana, and you need a place to crash for the night, instead of continuing down the road and risking a crash encounter with one of Montana’s many nocturnal big game animals, do not hesitate to stay at the Three Bears Motel.

Happy Hour on the porch of the Three Bears Motel

Goose and Jimmy enjoying Happy Hour on the porch of the Three Bears Motel.

The day had been pretty nice, but a storm was rolling in from the south. While we were enjoying the last of the nice weather, sitting on the porch outside our rooms, Jay Dixon (our outfitter for the next day), pulled into the parking lot with his drift boat in tow. He was en route to the Missouri and, knowing we were staying in Lincoln, happened to see a group of guys that he assumed were the Firehole Rangers. There aren’t many folks in Lincoln, and since we undoubtedly stuck out like sore thumbs, his assumption was a safe one.  As the clouds won out over blue sky, Jay proceeded to tell us a bit about the next day’s planned float trip. He informed us that the Missouri below Holter Dam had been holding at around 8500 CFS, so it should fish well. He also mentioned that there was a w#nd warning for the next day. No matter, the w#nd is not an uncommon thing on the Missouri, so we all rested easy (except for Nash, who bunked with Goose) that night before getting up early the next morning to meet with our guides. As Jay drove off the rain arrived en force.

A mild, Montana afternoon storm

Just a gentle, Montana afternoon shower.

The Missouri hadn’t our first choice, but because of hellish high water everywhere, it was our only choice. We had originally wanted to fish the Blackfoot—a river none of us have ever been on—but it was milk chocolate in color, as expected. But the Missouri is certainly no consolation prize, as we discovered 3 years earlier (which I wrote about here: Missouri Loves Company). Anglers flock to the Missouri every year like flies to a rump roast. And for good reason: it’s like a ginormous spring creek chock full of trout. Mostly big, strong trout.

Prewitt Creek Inn & Fly Shop

Prewitt Creek Inn & Fly Shop.

Despite that it had rained throughout the night before, when we pulled into the Prewitt Creek Fly Shop at 9 am the next morning the sky was blue, with a few broken clouds moving overhead at a rather brisk clip (when I say ‘brisk’ I’m being kind). The wind advisory had called for mild w#nds that would build throughout the day. If that had been the case, I would have hated to see what the w#nd would have been like later in the day because it was already ripping. That didn’t do much for our spirits because fishing in the w#nd isn’t much fun, and can in fact be dangerous on the big water of the Missouri.

Lewis and Clark were here.

Lewis and Clark were here 211 and 212 years ago.

But, like Lewis and Clark 211 years before us, our flotilla set off down the Missouri. Now, some of you may be saying, “Wait just a damn minute: Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri through this area in 1805, so that would be 212 years ago, not 211 as stated. UA sucks at math.” And if you said that you would be correct on all accounts. But read carefully what I wrote: “…our flotilla set off down the Missouri.” It was in 1806 that the Corps of Discovery floated down the Missouri on their return trip from the west coast. So, suck it, Trebek. I was write.

Marck and I first met Jay Dixon of Dixon Adventures in 2011 when we fished the Bitterroot with him (reported on here: Bittersweet Montana). We’d had a great time with Jay on the Bitterroot and Marck and I were looking forward to fishing with him again. Goose and Nash fished with “Antelope Pete*” while Jimmy and Morris took their seats with “Busdriver Billy*” (*Guide names altered to protect their identities). With a very strong w#nd at our backs, we pushed off, armed with double nymph rigs. Since I’ve already probably undoubtedly lost most of my small list of readers already, lets jump to some highlights of the day, and photos:

  • The fierce w#nd would actually lessen as the day wore on (counter to the forecast), and did not dash our hopes of a fine day on the water.
  • While catching was on the slow side, we did get into some strong Missouri fish. Marck and I had probably 10-12 fish to our boat, which was probably about the same for the other boats.
  • All but two of our fish were caught on nymphs. I managed one big brown on a PMD dry and Marck enticed one on a streamer.
  • It was a long day covering many—approximately 12—miles of river. We were nearly the only three boats on this lower stretch of the Missouri; a nice change of scenery from the boat show upriver closer to the booming troutopolis of Craig, MT. It’s always nice to see some new country. The float took us through a rugged canyon where the Missouri actually resembled a rushing river in some places before unfolding into a vast expanse of open country where the river resumed its flat, broad nature.
  • We would not need the rain jackets that we brought along just in case. In Montana, one never knows what to expect from Ma Nature.
Nash and Goose early in the day. A still photo does not due justice to how quickly the air was moving.

Nash and Goose early in the day. A still photo does not due justice to how quickly the air was moving.

Jay Dixon and Marck, with a nice Missouri brown

Jay Dixon and Marck, with a nice Missouri brown.

Jimmy and Morris in a boat on the Missouri.

Jimmy and Morris in a boat on the Mighty Missouri.

Mission Accomplished: Missouri brown on a dry

Mission Accomplished: Missouri brown on a dry. Rock on, and Eat a Peach.

Big water and big sky on the Mighty MO.

Big water and big sky, but not big w#nd, on the Mighty MO.

Jimmy admires the fish handling skills of Antelope Pete

Jimmy admires the fish handling skills of guide, Antelope Pete.

Bus Driver Billy approves of Nash's nice brown

Busdriver Billy approves of Nash’s nice brown.

The Firehole Rangers

The Firehole Rangers: Morris, Marck, Goose, UA, Jimmy, Nash.

The dirtiest, err, most attractive worm pattern ever (which we didn't get to fish).

The dirtiest most attractive worm pattern ever (which we didn’t have get to fish).

Iconic Tower Rock on the Missouri

Iconic Tower Rock on the Missouri, significant in the Lewis and Clark expedition,

Morris does something while Jimmy lands a fish.

Morris does something while Jimmy lands a fish.

Jimmy hooks up with a takeout fish to close out the day.

Jimmy hooks up with a takeout fish to close out the day, while Morris does something else.

When w got off the water at 8PM we still had a 4 hour drive to West Yellowstone (not including a 1 hour stop for dinner in Helena). Following a chance encounter with Applebees—that left us with full bellies and heavy eyelids—we would be driving for another 3 hours in the dark, through daunting game country. With Jimmy behind the wheel, and Goose appointed as his wingman, I worthlessly occupied the back seat. It should be noted that when driving through Montana at night, there is no more important role than that of the wingman, whose job it is to keep the driver engaged and alert; and to be a second set of eyes. Goose was perhaps not the best man for the job as he was asleep before we’d reached the outskirts of Helena. It should also be noted that we were the ‘mine sweeper’ vehicle, with the other Ranger transport following close behind. Fortunately both vehicles would arrive, front bumpers intact, at the Ho Hum Motel in West Yellowstone at 1AM. After a few brief hours of shut-eye, the Rangers would begin the next day on our namesake river, the Firehole.


The High Cost of Low Livin’


I wasn’t going to write anything about this, but then decided I had to, thanks to a really nice piece written by Mike Sepelak over at Mike’s Gone Fishin’: Sometimes I Feel

Duane Allman in 1971, and barely a year later, bassist Barry Oakley.

Two huge, crushing blows to a band that was just finding their sound. But the Allman Brothers Band found a way out and played on through the years, anchored the entire time by Gregg Allman’s iconic voice and Hammond B3. There were some highs and probably as many—if not more—lows during the years that followed the tragedies of 1971 and ’72, but they did produce some good albums after that—most notably perhaps, Brothers and Sisters.

Due to heavy drug and alcohol abuse, they also produced some albums that weren’t up to par, and in 1976 the band split up. They got back together briefly after that, but disbanded again in 1982. In 1989 the Allman Brothers regrouped, and despite more turbulent times that included original member Dickey Betts leaving the band, they soldiered on. It was during the 90’s that Gregg Allman finally got sober and clean, and it showed in the quality of the music, which only got better up until their final show in 2014.

I was too young to appreciate their music early on, but as I became a teenager in the late 70’s, with summers spent working in the woods with a bunch of older, stoner-hippies (terms of endearment), I was indoctrinated into the sound of the Allman Brothers Band. I would have to say that since then, if there was one band whose vinyl, cassettes, and CD’s I listened to most, it was the brothers from Jacksonville, Florida. Despite that referring to their music as “Southern Rock” is not really an accurate description, the Allman Brothers Band is often labeled as such. It’s best to save that label for Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, Molly Hatchett, 38 Special, and others—all bands that I also really like. Southern blues-rock is a better way to think of the Allman Brothers’ music—it’s on a different level from other bands that are all lumped into the Southern Rock category. Everything about the Allman Brothers’ sound is what I love most in music: heavy emphasis on guitars that scream, but not gratuitously so. Songs with less singing and more emphasis on the instrumental. Songs that build and go on for extended periods, allowing for plenty of time to get lost in air guitar solos.

I imagine that most people casually know who the Allman Brothers Band are thanks to Dickey Betts’ Ramblin’ Man, which became a chart hit and put them in the forefront of the mainstream audience. The problem with that is, Ramblin’ Man is perhaps the least Allman Brothers sounding song of all. It’s a fine song, but if that’s what you think of when you hear the band’s name, you’re missing out. Many would say that their earliest stuff was their best, and it’s hard to argue with that because their first few albums featured the original lineup. The band’s first live album, At Fillmore East, is absolutely iconic. The Brothers have always been at their finest when live, and this album is a must-have in order to fully appreciate that.

What many folks don’t realize is that the Allman Brothers Band put out a tremendous album in 2003—an album that, when I first heard it, really rekindled a flame for me. Hittin’ the Note is a must-have because it shows that the band was once again at their very best, after decades of turmoil and personal and professional lows. While certainly not the original lineup, one can imagine that the original Brothers would have been proud of where this latest album had taken the group. I was fortunate to see them in concert in 2009 with my old stoner-hippy boss. It was the only time I got to see the Brothers. How I wish I’d been able to make a trip to New York City to see them during one of their many sold-out runs at the Beacon Theater…

Fittingly, it was my old stoner-hippy boss who sent me a text last Saturday that said, “Damn. Brother Gregg Allman died.” That hit hard.

Drummer Butch Trucks in January, and now just 4 months later, Gregg Allman. 2017 has been a rough year.

He lived hard and that took a toll. But Gregg had gotten it together and was living right, continuing to make great music, both with his own band as well as with the Allman Brothers right up until their farewell concert in 2014. One can’t help but listen to The High Cost of Low Living and think that it was more than just words.

“It’s a high cost of low livin’
Ain’t it high time? You turn yourself around
Yeah, the high cost of low livin’
It’s bound to put you six feet in the ground.”

Rest in Peace, Brother Gregg. Thanks for the music.