Madison River Three Dollar Bridge
This week’s Drivel® is intentionally out of sequence. By that I mean that what I’m writing about here, now, happened after what I will write about next week. It’s a trick I learned from George Lucas, who created the Star Wars series and released movies that were not in a chronological order. It worked for George, why not for the Unaccomplished Angler?
We departed West Yellowstone on Monday around 7 AM under cloudy, cold skies that were still spitting snow that had begun 24 hours earlier and hadn’t really let up much. Suffice it to say Sunday had been a bit miserable, and we hoped that down lower in the Madison Valley things would be warmer and drier. We didn’t hold out much hope for the latter, but it was certain to be warmer. After stopping in at Blue Ribbon Flies for our Montana fishing licenses and some intel, we bade fairwell to the Ho Hum and Yellowstone for another year. A few miles down the road we passed by a heard of Tatonkas and their calves, who had to be thinking that recent life in the womb was way better than this.
The westbound drive along Hebgen Lake was made all the more beautiful by the strange phenomenon of parting clouds that revealed blue sky. We rejoiced in the splendor and began to get our hopes up.
Further west, as we dropped into the Quake Lake basin, our hopes were dashed as it began to snow again.
The skies continued to darken as we passed by the Earthquake Slide area, which looked a lot different the previous year.
But as we descended further and the valley began to unfold before us, the skies cleared once again, and the rejoicing resumed.
We turned left and headed down the dirt road toward Three Dollar Bridge. As we rounded a bend what should we see but an empty parking lot! Being that it was Memorial Day, we expected at least a few other rigs. We chalked up the solitude to the bad weather from the day before that was forecast to persist on this day. Insert continued rejoicement here.
The wind saw to it that there was bite in the air, but the weather was much better than anticipated as we geared up. It was dry. It’s always a nice thing when you can gear up without getting rained or snowed upon. After a team photo, we set off upstream to watch Marck catch fish.
And it didn’t take long before he’d hooked his first. Per standard operating procedure I set down my rod and sprinted to
his aid to help him land a nice 17 inch rainbow and snap a photo. History has a way of repeating itself, but I vowed to stop there.
I quickly moved farther upstream away from him. Out of sight and out of earshot. I was not here to photograph Marck’s fish. I was here to catch my own. But not before I had the privilege of photographing Nash’s first Madison fish. Nice fish. Congrats! Damn you, Nash. I retreated further.
There can be no greater beauty than fishing within spitting distance of majestic mountains on a day when the sun is temporarily winning it’s battle against the clouds. I reminded myself that there is more to fishing than catching fish as I basked in the glory of Montana.
Very quickly, however, it became clear that things were not going my way as I had not had a bump all morning. The only time my indicator went down was when my fly snagged on something in some fairly deep, fairly fast water. There seemed no sane way to retrieve the snagged fly, so I gave a gentle tug. Then another not so gentle tug. Finally the leader snapped, leaving my indicator and both flies to rest in a watery grave. Great. Salt in the wound. I sat down to
sulk splice my tippet and added a new Thingamabobber and two flies. I drifted my new setup through the same seam three times. There had to be a fish there. It looked too good. And then it happened- the indicator went down! I set the hook and was immediately met with total, unyielding resistance. It was either Roderick Hawg Brown, or…the same snag I’d just lost my tackle to 5 minutes earlier. It was no brown trout. The emotional wound was gaping at this point, and copious amounts of salt poured in. However, I refused to lose it all this time around so I set my rod down on the bank and gingerly waded a few feet toward the source of the snagged tackle. I was willing to risk a dunking as a matter of saving what little pride I had left, and as I firmly but gently pulled on the leader, something began to give under the force of the river’s current. Gradually the end of a heavy, water-logged stick began to show itself. I pulled ever so steadily until the stick emerged and I was able to grab it. To my delight I was able to retrieve two Thingamabobbers, two Pat’s Stones and two San Juan Worms.
It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless and I celebrated by heading downstream toward the parking lot for lunch. Along the way I ran into Jimmy, Nash, and Marck. They had all caught at least a couple fish already. A short distance down the trail we encountered Stan The Goosemeister, who wore the unmistakable look of Madison River frustroution. He vowed to remain where he was to finish working some nice water while the rest of us returned to the car for lunch, where we ate under sunny skies and moderate temps. It felt good to be dry and warm. A few minutes later we were joined by Stan who wore a fish eating grin. His dedication had paid off as he’d just landed a nice brown. That left only yours truly without the smell of trout on his hands.
After lunch Marck and I crossed the bridge and headed upstream. We leap-frogged each other along the way, which means that I fished below Marck, who would catch a fish. Then I would pass him en route to the next hole and not catch a fish. Then he would pass me and catch a fish. And repeat.
Meanwhile, Nash, Jimmy and Stan fished elsewhere and caught some fish.
After 2.5 more hours of fishing, the unmistakable smell of skunk began to permeate my Gore-tex® outer barrier. The pressure was too much. I decided to withdraw from the one-sided competition and told Marck I was going to start fishing my way back downstream. His plan was to continue moving upstream, catching several more fish for another hour before heading to the rig. As I worked my way back through water that had just been covered effectively by Marck, I acknowledged that it was all in vain—it was astronomically unlikely that I’d catch a fish. The Madison had not been kind to me the previous two years, but I had at least managed one fish on each visit. My chances of equaling that modest goal this year were slim. And then came the first of the two trees.
If one had a dollar for every tree that lines the banks of the Madison River in this area, one would have about three dollars. In other words the banks of the Madison near Three Dollar Bridge are not heavily laden with trees. While there is considerable brushy cover for snagging flies on a bad back cast, the number of actual trees can be counted on one hand. When I came to one of those trees I drifted my fly on the outside edge of a partially submerged log (Exhibit A). Instantly my indicator went down, and instantly I thought the worst. However, this time whatever had snagged my fly actually moved when I set the hook. The result was a 16 inch brown that took the worm. I
relieved some pressure breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that I had upheld my fishing honor by equaling my previous catch rate. The Unaccomplished Angler was BACK, baby!
There was a bit of a skip in my step as I moved downstream another 30 yards to the next tree.
Within 5 minutes, and in view of the tree than had just produced the respectable brown, I was granted a second opportunity to land a fish. With water temps hovering around 44 degrees, neither of these fish were what I would call game fighters. The fish on the Firehole (coming next week), though considerably smaller, put up a much better fight pound for pound. But a thick fish with a muscular tail in heavy water can put up considerable resistance when they don’t want to be caught, and my 6 wt was in no way too much rod for these fish in these waters. After playing the fish carefully, I succeeded in landing the 17 inch rainbow. And there followed considerable rejoicing, even though I was alone.
Forty minutes later I was back at the rig, removing boots and waders and trying not to be too impressed with my angling accomplishments. After all, 2 fish in 7 hours of fishing isn’t exactly impressive. My ego was also kept in check as we compared notes. The tally for the day was:
- Jimmy – 6 hooked, 5 landed: 2 rainbows and one brown in the 14-16” range, one brown in the 16-18” range and one brown approximately 20-13/16”.
- Nash – 5 fish landed: 2 in the 16-18″ range, 1 fish 9-10″, another fish 12-13″ and one 19-20 inch hawg.
- Stan the Goosemeister – 4 hooked, 2 landed: The biggest was 20″ and the second 16″ (which really means they were 16″ and 12″).
- Marck alleges to have landed around 25 fish. I believe most were over 25 inches, and at least two were steelhead.
It rained on us a few times during the day, but nothing that had persisted. The wind had blown off and on, but was nothing to complain about. We reflected on the fact that it had been a good day as we stowed gear for the next leg of our journey which took us to Ennis. We were looking forward to a repeat burger performance at the Roadmaster Grill, however, the Roadmaster had been replaced by the Gravel Bar Grill. While the food was good, we were disappointed because we were jonesin’ for a Kong Burger and to find out how much more weight the owner of the Roadmaster had lost since last year. Guess we’ll never know.
After enjoying our meal we pushed on toward Missoula for lodging – nothing to get too excited about there. It was just a necessary part of the drive home.
On each of the previous two years I came away from Three Dollar Bridge with feelings of self pity for having caught only one fish all day, and deep resentment toward Marck for his uncanny ability to yard fish at nearly every spot. This year my self pity was cut in half, which helped to ease the resentment I harbor toward Marck. And when you’re in Montana, just look around you. Life is good.
And life is too short to carry around ill will toward others, especially when the price of gas demands so much of our negative energy.
We departed West Yellowstone at a very reasonable hour and drove toward the last leg of our Montana Trout Trip: The Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge. It was a beautiful, calm morning as we skirted the shores of Hebgen Lake: the water’s surface was like a giant millpond, and reflected a mostly blue sky. It was a welcome relief to see the sun for the first time on our trip (and for the first time in about 2 months overall). We stopped at the Quake Lake Visitor’s Center for a little tourist activity. It was Memorial Day and the flag flew at half staff. I never knew this before, but prior to 1971 Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. I must not have paid much attention to this for the first 8 years of my life, because I always remember it as Memorial Day. But one can learn something new every day if they’re willing, and I’m always interested in acquiring new knowledge. I have a thirst for anything new and different – you might say that I embrace change (Mrs. UA just spewed coffee on her keyboard after reading this).
While we were taking in the views of Quake Lake and the slide area, we saw a herd of elk, Bighorn sheep and mountain goats on the ridge above the visitor’s center. After having just spent two days in Yellowstone where wildlife sightings are commonplace, it was still pretty cool to see all these critters.
We arrived at Three Dollar Bridge around 9 AM, geared up under mostly sunny skies and dressed according to the balmy weather. It was 57 degrees, which meant the fleece would not be needed for a change (which was a good thing, because over the last few days it had taken on a certain man-musk odor). The wind was light, the river wasn’t horribly high and the water had some clarity (whereas the year before it was much higher and had a visibility of exactly zero). There were 4 other rigs in the parking lot which seemed a bit surprising given the Holiday and all. We expected it to be much busier than that. With our 6 weight rods rigged with Pat’s Stones and San Juan Worm droppers and indicators, we made our way upstream to fish the mighty Madison.
For you history buffs, the Madison was named in July 1805 by Meriwether Lewis (who suffered from manic depression) at Three Forks, where the Madison joins two other rivers to form the Missouri. The Madison was named for then-U.S. Secretary of State James Madison, the 4th President of the United States who is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the nation. The other two forks are, of course, the Jefferson and the Gallatin (named after two other famous dudes from that era). Based on images of Madison, I’m going to suggest that he was a stern, humorless man who rarely, if ever, enjoyed a good laugh. Assuming that to be the case, it was fitting that the Madison River was named after him. After my first visit to fish the river at this location, I had found very little to laugh about. I was fully intending to change that this time around.
Jimmy and Stan had never fished the Madison before, and requested a quick lesson on how to get it done. Given that I had caught 2 fish last year at this location while Marck caught upwards of 15, I deferred to him. While we watched, Marck chucked his tackle into the seam below an upstream rock, and threw in a quick mend. “You want to let it drift right through the seam. Fish will be sitting in the calm water inside the current,” he declared with all the confidence of a Fishy Dude. “The takes will be subtle”, he added, “So every time your indicator dips, set the hoo—“ The take was not subtle, and Marck’s reel sang as the fish took off at warp speed for the fast current. Marck ran down the bank, holding his rod high and tightening the drag on his reel to prevent it from spooling as the fish put distance very quickly between itself and Marck. I’d never seen a trout run that hard and fast, and Marck was close to his backing before he turned the brown and brought it to hand. It was no hog but it was a very respectable fish and a textbook demonstration on how to fish the Madison. It looked easy enough, so we spread out and each began to attempt similar feats of fishing. The river temperature was 44 degrees – plenty warm enough for the trout to be feeding. I was looking forward redeeming myself after a rather lackluster experience the year before.
I fairly quickly got into a smallish rainbow that measured only 12-13 inches (small for this area), but it gave me sense of confidence. A false sense of confidence to be very clear. Jimmy also got into a decent fish quickly, and lost another. I don’t know what fate Stan encountered as he was a good distance below, but I think he wasn’t having much luck. After a couple more hours of fruitless fishing, Jimmy and I decided to make our way downstream to see how Stan and Marck were fairing, and suggest we break for lunch. As we hoarked down sandwiches, we collectively agreed that it felt great to have the sun baking off the moss and mold we’d accumulated over the past three days of fishing. Three out of the four of us also agreed that the Madison was dishing out some punishment, and we wore the despair on our faces. Stan had caught one 8 inch fish in the morning, so between Stan, Jimmy and me, we’d caught less than one third the number of fish Marck had caught. And while we had been out fishing, the parking lot had filled with a dozen vehicles. Anglers were spread out in all directions as far as the eye could see and it was clear that we would have to walk a long way to find unoccupied water. After finishing our lunch we crossed the bridge and headed upriver on the opposite bank.
I had no action on the end of my line for the next hour. I decided that my flies weren’t getting down to where the fish were hiding, so I changed things up a bit by going with a tungsten head Golden Stone up top with a larger San Juan Worm underneath. I was immediately getting down deeper, and consequently hanging up on every rock/branch possible. Being one who openly embraces change, I adapted to the conditions by adjusting the depth of my indicator. I proceeded to hang up much less. I didn’t catch any fish, either, and after another half hour I switched to a rubber-legged woolly bugger and began stripping through some deeper pools. I still wasn’t catching any fish, but at least I was actively engaged in working my fly rather than watching a bobber.
As I hiked upriver to a new spot I passed Stan, who finally had a bend in his rod. “Sweet!” I yelled as I dashed toward him, “I’ll help you land it!” You could see on his face that Stan was a man with rejuvenated hope and faith as he turned the fish toward shore. I was truly happy for Stan as I reached toward the fish. He was going to get a photo op afterall – something to commemorate his day on the great Madison River! As I reached to tail the fish and remove the fly, I proceeded instead to knock the fish loose. Accidentally, mind you. We watched as the pretty brown of about 15 inches sprinted into the current. There was really nothing I could say other than “Sorry, man, I…” I couldn’t even finish the sentence. I thought about punching myself in the gut to save Stan the trouble of having to do so, but realized self abuse was not the way. I dipped my head in shame and walked off to be alone. Words cannot describe the misery I felt. Stan had worked hard for that fish. He wouldn’t get another fish the rest of the day, nor would I. But Marck would. We’d lost track of Jimmy, but we played leap-frog with Marck throughout the rest of the afternoon. At one point Stan stood on the bank taunting watching Marck, who proceeded to catch not one but two more fish in rapid succession. The only bright spot in the day came when Marck stepped into a mud bog and sank up to his knees. Stan and I enjoyed seeing him struggle, but eventually helped him out. It’s not Marck’s fault that we didn’t catch fish.
The sky had begun to cloud up and the wind was bringing in a new supply of rain as we arrived back at the parking lot. Jimmy was already there, and had been for some time. As with Stan and me, the Madison had kicked Jimmy’s ass. Butt rather than stand on the banks of the river and continually absorb the savage beating, he did the smart thing by tapping out early and reducing the damage. We stowed our gear in the back of the Suburban, hoisted a beer to celebrate Marck’s good fortune and drove across Three Dollar Bridge. As we put distance between ourselves and the river named by a depressed explorer for the humorless 4th president of the United States, I could have sworn I heard the ghost of James Madison laughing. Turns out it was just Marck.
Sunday morning we got a 6:30 AM start to the day by grabbing some breakfast at The Three Bears. The food is always reliably good, although it’s hard to go wrong with eggs, hashbrowns and of course bacon. Again, eating was more a habitual thing than a necessary means of survival since the pizza from the night before was still in the process of being digested. But bacon goes good with anything, anytime, regardless of the need. Bacon good. Let there be bacon.
After overloading our bodies with more food we set out through the gates of Yellowstone once again, destined this time for the Firehole River as it flows through Biscuit Basin (mmm…biscuits and gravy. And bacon). This second day was a balmy 33 degrees and windy to start, so while the ambient temperature was only a couple degrees colder than the previous day, the wind did made sure it felt even colder. At least it stayed mostly dry throughout the day.
We dropped in below the foot bridge and staggered ourselves along both sides of the river. Stan always likes to fish right under the bridge. Come to think of it he does resemble a troll, but it’s hard to fault him for it because he always catches fish there. And this year was no exception. I worked a series of riffles below him, and after witnessing fish after fish on the end of his line, I moved a ways downstream. I caught a few fish, and the wind was in my favor so my casting actually felt pretty good for a change. Mark had his sights set on a stretch of water 1/2 mile away and declared his intentions to catch the big brown that he’d caught last year in that same location. It was a monsterous fish (according to Marck) for the Firehole: a 20+ incher that he accurately (allegedly) marked on his rod (or so he says). Jimmy and Erique fished in the same vicinity as me, and as the day wore on the consensus was that everyone was catching fish. Maybe not quite as many as we’d caught the previous day, but fishing was still very good. We ran into another angler who mentioned that the Biscuit Basin area had been closed for a portion of the previous day due to “bear activity”, so it hadn’t likely seen as much fishing pressure as had there been bear inactivity. We saw no bears, though Marck did notice a fresh track in the mud.
I tend to be more concerned with Bison than bears, because a bear isn’t likely going to waste it’s time trying to eat me (not enough meat on my bones to be worth the trouble). Whenever we’re fishing the Firehole there’s always bison activity, and a bison would likely find great sport in tossing my skinny arse into the air and kicking me around in the dirt. At one point we were all working a run near the road when I noticed a bunch of cars had pulled over and tourists were out of their vehicles with cameras pointed toward the river. I assumed they were photographing Marck as he stood in one spot and caught fish after fish (though he never did manage to reunite with the “20+ inch Firehole brown”). Just then a lone bull materialized in the distance. He sauntered along the riverbank past Marck and the others, and made his way slowly upstream. Toward me. I was standing mid channel in a stretch of fairly fast moving water, and my footing was secure as long as I didn’t try to move. I glanced about and formulated a plan of escape in the event that the bull decided to walk across the river right where I was standing. I really had no good options – retreat would be slow in the fast water, and I had no doubt that I’d be swept off my feet if I tried to move quickly. Getting soaked wouldn’t have enhanced the quality of the day at all. Fortunately for me the bull he kept moving along the riverbank, taking his time as he moved upstream.
After the Biscuit Basin Bison was out of sight, the photographers climbed back in their cars and moved on to the next point of interest, of which there is no shortage in this country. However, one photographer decided that of all the unusal things in the park, the Unaccomplished Angler was worth some space on his memory card. I tried to pretend I didn’t see him, but this individual was fairly obvious as he stood in the open with his 800mm zoom lens trained directly on me. Fortunately a rainbow tightened my line and I was able to show my audience how a real live fly angling man sets the hook, plays the fish deftly to hand and releases the fish quickly and efficiently. I puffed up my chest, cocked my lucky fishing hat just a bit to the side and did my best Clint Eastwood squint (from behind polarized sunglasses). Then I quickly proceeded to put a wind-aided tangle in my line. I waded carefully to the bank and sat down to work my way through the bird’s nest. Knowing that my every move was being documented I made short work of the mess, tied on a new section of tippet and a fly, and strode to my previous location to continue my work. However, the paparazzi had fled the scene. Apparently he hadn’t been interested in the “other” side of fly fishing. Just as well.
Late in the day Jimmy and I approached a flat section of river that would be perfect for when the 3 pm hatch of PMD’s started coming off. We sat and waited and watched another fisherman make 200 casts in some nearby water. He was there for the same reason: to fish dries to rising fish. But instead of taking the calm, calculated approach and waiting for bugs to hatch and the fish to turn on, he flogged the water incessantly. He made some friendly conversation about how yesterday he had absolutely slayed the fish on dries, announcing that “I musta caught 6 fish in an hour…say, while you guys are sitting there, do you mind if I fish through this riffle real quickly?” After a while he gave up and hiked back to his car to ice his casting arm. The hatch never really materialized, though we did manage a couple fish on dries. Marck and Erique converged upon the spot where Jimmy and I had been waiting patiently for two hours. While they sat and watched, I tried unsuccessfully to entice a particularly stubborn fish that had been rising in a foam line several feet below us. It was a tough drift that proved too much for me. Fortunately Marck just happened to be shooting some video, so while a fish was not captured, some excellent footage was. Remember: presentation is everything, especially when fishing a size 18 dry on 5x.
With our hopes of an epic hatch dashed, we retreated to the parking lot, broke down our rods and stowed our gear, bidding a fond farewell to the Firehole. Back at the Ho Hum, we showered quickly and went in search of a good steak. We were on the verge of starvation at this point, and were given some good intel that a new restaurant in town served up some fine steaks. I was hankering for ribs, but was advised to go with steak instead. That was a tough sacrifice I was willing to make, and as we entered the Montana Cattle Company, the smell of grilled flesh set the salivary glands into motion. We were seated promptly, and then began The Long Wait. It was 15 minutes before our waitress stopped by our table with 5 glasses of water. Then she vanished again. Over the next 20 minutes a couple of other restaurant employees, in a hurry to get elsewhere, reassured us that “we’ll be right with you!” When nothing happened, the manager showed up at our table and offered some consolation in the form of a couple plates of complimentary buffalo wings (I’m still not sure that they were actually buffalo wings as they tasted remarkably like chicken). Admittedly it was a nice PR gesture and we inhaled the wings, which were good. In another 15 minutes our waitress, wearing the expression of a deer caught in the headlights, apologized profusely and finally took our orders. The Montana Cattle Company may have been established in 1879, but the restaurant in West Yellowstone had only been open for 3 days at the time of our visit. They clearly were not ready for business and were terribly understaffed. Amazingly, while it took forever to get our orders taken, the food arrived in nearly record time. That proved to be not such a good thing because two of the orders were mixed up, and all of the steaks were either under or over-cooked. I’m anything but a restaurant snob, and I will always give the waitstaff the benefit of the doubt. But a chef in a restaurant specializing in cooked cattle should know the difference between medium rare and overcooked boot leather. Oh well. As the manager pointed, it’s really hard to get good help in a town like West Yellowstone, especially on short notice. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give the Montana Cattle Company a chance to prove that they’re worthy of your patronage, but next year I’ll stick to bacon and pizza. And if you’re looking for work in West Yellowstone, they’re hiring multiple positions.
Fortunately the evening didn’t end on that sour note. As we walking back to the Ho Hum I stopped in at the Book Peddler to see if they carried a particular series of titles featuring Olive the Woolly Bugger. The year before I had paid the owner a visit and told her about the books, and she indicated that she would order them. I never know if shop owners actually plan to follow through with their intentions or just offer lip service to get rid of me. I was delighted that they had the first two titles in stock, though they do need to order more copies of Olive Goes for a Wild Ride. Jimmy did a little bit of rearranging to improve their shelf presence.
What with this being our last night in West Yellowstone, a normal younger group of guys would have opted to hit the town and whoop it up: drinkin’, fightin’ and getting tattoos. We opted instead to turn in at a reasonable hour because we had a date with The Madison in the morning. All except Erique, that is – he had to get up at 4 AM to make a 6:30 flight out of Bozeman. He would be home before we even arrived at Three Dollar Bridge.