In 48 hours I’ll be very close to being in Montana. We’ll probably be just about done with Idaho’s panhandle, headed East on I-90. The destination, as it is every year at this time: West Yellowstone, MT. The Ho Hum Motel, to be exact. The Firehole River, ultimately. Rather than waste your time writing about what to expect, let me just offer you a few recollections from previous years. It never varies a great deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring or redundant (except for the 14 hour drive).
The weather is always unpredictable when fishing at over 7200 feet in Yellowstone Park. Spring squalls will blow in one minute and we’ll be hunkered down to find a spot out of the driving snow. Then the sun will come out and we’ll be peeling layers. This year, however, it looks predictably bad. No matter- the fish will be gullible. It’s opening day of fishing in the park and the rainbows and browns haven’t seen an imitation bug since last fall. It’s stupid catching, and just what the doctor ordered. Then we’ll hit the Madison near Three Dollar Bridge and all that easy catching will come to an abrupt halt. I’ll get my arse handed to me. So will everyone else. Except Marck.
When I return, I’ll write up my recollections of this year’s trip. It’ll be remarkably similar to years past.
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.
Last year after fishing the Firehole for two days, Marck and I decided to hit the Madison below Quake Lake. Having never before fished this locale, I was excited about the prospects of seeing someplace new. Also, being weary from not catching many of the relatively small fish in the Firehole, I was eager swap the 4 weight for the 6. We knew what we were getting into: High water, little-to-no visibility; streamers fished under indicators, tight to the bank. While I’ve never really enjoyed fishing under a bobber, I was giddy with anticipation to see the heralded waters of Montana’s great Madison River. We arrived at Three Dollar Bridge around 9 AM under mostly clear skies and a steady, but tolerable, breeze. It was beautiful, I’ll grant you that. The mountains rose immediately to the east and the broad valley spread to the west: The kind of scenery you’d expect to see in a Western, as opposed to The Bridges of Madison County (sorry, I’m sure that’s an overused reference). There were only a couple of other rigs in the parking lot, which, given the fact that it was Memorial Day Monday, both surprised and pleased us. As we geared up, we engaged in pleasant conversation with four folks from Bozeman who were planning to fish the opposite bank. The other group was already fishing a short distance upriver of the bridge on the near bank, so we set off upstream in search of some unoccupied water. We didn’t have to go far, and were quickly dangling strange, rubber-legged variations of the woolly bugger into water that resembled glacial runoff.
As one would come to expect when fishing with Marck, he quickly got into fish. Luckily for him, I was always within earshot when he hooked a fish, and dutifully joined him for a quick photo of his catch before returning to my own stretch of dirty water where I proceeded to enjoy the scenery while not catching fish. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did manage to land a fairly large rainbow that had obviously been turning away after balking at my offering. Yes, I’d foul hooked it— which made for a much less satisfying fight. When I reached for the fish, I realized that the foul hooking was only part of the explanation for the lackluster struggle: The bow had large wounds on either side of it’s dorsal fin, likely from the talons of the Osprey that called these waters home. The wounds had allowed for the onset of a fungal infection of some sort, and the fish was faded and lethargic. I felt bad for the old trout, aware that he wasn’t going to make it to see the clear waters of summer. I pondered the idea of putting him out of his misery, and while perhaps the moral thing to do, it would have been technically illegal so I returned him to the water to let nature run its course. Too bad, too, because he was a solid 18 inch fish and given perfect health would have provided future anglers a run for their money…like the fish Marck was catching. Back to that. It seemed that every 12 minutes the wind would carry the familiar sound of pure, unadulterated laughter toward me, and I would again set my rod down, grab my camera and dash to the altogether too familiar scene. It became apparent that the Madison held scores of beautiful, strong, healthy fish, and they were all eager to grab whatever Marck drifted in front of their noses. I felt privileged to be witness to such angling mastery, and happily snapped photo after photo, my memory card filling with images of Marck holding a plethora of dandy trout: Browns and rainbows varying in size from 12- 20 inches. This continued until it was unanimously decided that we’d return to the rig and grab some lunch. Also, the day was heating up and we both wanted to shed some layers. Afterall, we’d been working hard all morning: Marck fighting fish; me running wind sprints. After some beef jerky, power bars and Bud Lite we opted to fish downstream of the bridge. By now the parking lot was empty. Obviously the other anglers had grown weary of not catching fish, and cutting their losses, left the river to me and Marck. Properly nourished and rehydrated, we set off into the warmth of the afternoon, leaving fleece behind. I also left behind my lucky fishing hat, opting instead for a baseball cap. Why I did this I do not know, but it would reveal itself to have been a bad idea. Not that the hat had brought me any great amount of luck earlier in the day, but I had caught a fish (albeit a foul-hooked, fungus-riddled one). It was better than a skunking, and afterall–fishing is about more than just catching.
I’ll spare the details of the afternoon, but suffice it to say I could cut and paste what I’ve already written (without the part about me catching a fish), and that’s how the afternoon played out. I didn’t land a fish for the next 2 hours. Didn’t lose a fish, either. I simply didn’t have as much as a bump. As the afternoon wore on we decided to fish above the bridge on the opposite bank. I stopped briefly to exchange the baseball cap for my lucky fishing hat–it couldn’t hurt. It couldn’t get any worse, and besides–my lucky fishing hat makes me look taller. Immediately above the bridge, Marck pointed to a well worn spot where the earth had been trampled free of vegetation by the millions of anglers who’d been here before. As he prepared to make a short cast, I advised him against it. “Don’t waste your tim—” but my advice was cut short by the bending of his rod. On the other end was a 12 inch brown, picked from behind a rock not 8 feet off the bank. I tried to make myself feel better by commenting on the very modest size of the fish, but it was pointless. I’d have been thrilled to have caught that fish. A short while later I did manage to catch my second fish of the day–this time a 7 inch brown trophy. YES! I had my mojo back! That would be the end of the catching for me on this day, though I seem to recall Marck being fairly preoccupied with a tight line until we called it a day and headed down the road to eat dinner in Ennis. Along the drive I marveled at the beauty of the area and all the photos on my camera’s memory card: Marck with a brown, Marck with a rainbow, yadda yadda yadda.
One might ask, “Hey, Unaccomplished Angler–if it’s so demoralizing to fish with this Marck character, why do you continually subject yourself to such punishment?” Easy: He owns a drift boat.