Montana fly fishing adventure
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.
(One may have gathered from the title that this is the second in a two-part series. In order to fully enjoy Part II, one must first read Part I. That being said, even then one may not enjoy Part II)
Over the course of two days the Firehole produced for us in typical fashion: solid numbers of willing browns and rainbows, most in the 10” – 12” range, but a couple slightly larger. At one point I saw Marck headed upstream from where we’d just come and asked where he was going. He’d apparently seen but not landed a big brown in a nice hole the previous year, and was going back to see about sealing the deal. Right, whatever. An hour or so later he returned, smiling. When he announced that he had caught the brown and it was BIG, I called Bison shit. He maintains that he caught the fish. I suggest the altitude was getting to him. Nearly all the fish were enticed by dead drifting a magical nymph pattern that I would tell you about, except for the fact that I would not be invited again on this trip if I did. I will tell you that this secret weapon can be found at either Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop or Blue Ribbon Flies or Arricks’s Fly Shop or Jacklin’s Fly Shop or West Yellowstone Fly Shop or Madison River Outfitters in West Yellowstone, but only at one of them. 99% of the fishing was subsurface without an indicator, which makes it a little easier to tolerate nymphing. We encountered one impressive BWO hatch during which only a couple fish were caught. Too much of a good thing proved to be the case, and with literally a gazillion real bugs hatching, our imitations were largely overlooked (mighta been due to less-than-perfect presentation, too). Still, it was amazing to see browns rising every few feet in a stretch of water that had hardly yielded a fish just a few hours earlier in the day. But considering the Firehole was running higher than average for this time of year, I had nothing to complain about, other than a couple of nearly sleepless nights as Stan’s roommate. Mother Nature threw everything at us, from driving snow to sunbreaks and everything in between. It’s always unpredictable fishing at 8000 feet in the Rockies during late Spring.
Ready for the next leg of our journey, which hopefully would involve some bigger fish, we departed the comforts of the Ho Hum motel in West Yellowstone at 5:30 AM in order to be at the Rock Creek Mercantile by 10 o’clock – the time designated for meeting up with our guides for the day. Two full days of wade fishing and perhaps 4 total hours of sound sleep had left me a bit loopy, but it was nothing that a cup of Joe and the promise of fishing the infamous Rock Creek wouldn’t cure. A stop at the golden arches in West Yellowstone for a quick hit of caffeine turned into a skunk, as the coffee machine was broken. This was not the way to begin a day that required a 4 hour drive, and the lack of java did little to lift the spirits and puffy eyelids on board the Soccer Mom Express. I volunteered to take the wheel for this first leg, knowing that at this early hour of the morning there would be few cars on the road and I could drive in a relative state of shame-free anonymity. Aside from a bull moose galloping alongside the road, I don’t recall seeing another living creature until we pulled into Big Sky for coffee. That’s not to say that there weren’t other vehicles on the road, but the lack of caffeine insured that the senses remained dull and I don’t recall seeing anything other than the moose, who glanced sideways at us in a manner that bespoke his thoughts: “Nice mini van.”
Properly revived by the ample supply of coffee acquired in Big Sky, we made excellent time heading westbound on I-90. We pulled into the Rock Creek Mercantile with 15 minutes to spare and were greeted by proprietor Doug Perisco, who was hard at work in his chair on the porch with a good cigar. The first order of business was to check into the cabins that we’d be staying in that night. In our excitement to arrive at Rock Creek, we had failed to draw the straws which would assign sleeping arrangements for that night. I watched as Stan carried his duffel bag toward the entrance to The Small Cabin. I quickly grabbed my stuff and sprinted toward The Big Cabin. After having bunked with Stan for the previous two nights I was looking forward to getting at least one night of decent sleep while on this trip. Survival of the fleetest of foot – my decisive action would have made Darwin proud. Marck was right on my heels, and as soon as we’d secured our lodging or the night, we shared a moment of silence in honor of our friend Nash, who would be bunking with The Goosemaster.
We geared up quickly and drove with our guides some 15+ miles up Rock Creek. The river was running high, as we knew it would be, and nobody to speak of had really been fishing the Creek recently. Everyone else was waiting for the salmonfly hatch to start, which could happen at any time (though it would not happen for another few days). Still, our guides assured us the fish were ready to eat, and we strung up our rods with white and yellow bead-headed variations of the woolly bugger. We boarded two rafts that would carry us downstream at a very quick pace and began pounding the banks with our flies.
I was sharing the raft with Stan (he doesn’t snore while fishing), and we got into fish shortly after the put-in. As soon as the heavily weighted flies hit the bank, we were instructed to give a quick tug and a good mend to allow them to settle into the water. We were drifting fast, which didn’t allow the fish more than a split second to see the flies and make a decision to strike. It took a few attempts and a couple of lost flies before I got the hang of this “Runnin & Gunnin” style of fishing. To describe the day as a combination of whitewater rafting and fishing would be inaccurate only because the water was less white and more the same color as the coffee with creme I’d enjoyed so much a few hours earlier. But it was a thrill to bounce through large waves while chucking flies. Soon we were hooking up at a regular rate with 12-15 inch browns , and an occasional rainbow. Stan hooked a small bull trout, and shortly thereafter I caught a bigger one – not very big by most standards, but being my first bull trout I was thrilled. And yes, I’m sure it was a bull trout.
It was halfway through our float when our guide proclaimed that a Rock Creek grand slam wasn’t out of the relm of possibilities. The grand slam of trout fishing is when an accomplished angler has a banner day on the water, and successfully catches, in a 24 hour period, each of the trout species known to reside in those particular waters. In this case that entails rainbow, cutthroat, brown, bull and brook trout (even though a bull and Brookie are, as we all know, technically chars). Rock Creek is one of the better rivers that afford the chance of hitting a grand slam, and while I never even pondered such a milestone, I was just happy to have caught a few fish. Even though we had yet to catch a cutthroat, we knew the river had a good supply of them. The likelihood of catching a Brookie seemed unlikely until Stan caught a Brookie. Now the reality of the Grand Slam seemed well within our reaches. I knew I wasn’t going to be honored with the achievement, but simply witnessing the act was good enough for me. Stan was standing at bat with the bases loaded, and all he needed was to connect with the right pitch. I became a Stan fan, and cheered him on with every cast. For a while I even kept my line off the water so as to give him room to work his magic. The problem was that by now we were in the lower stretches of the river, and the cutthroat tended to be higher up. Still, each cast carried with it tremendous hope, and you could feel the tension in the air. We were still having fun, mind you, but the mood aboard our raft had taken on an intense focus. Fish continued to hit Stan’s fly, but the fish were not the coveted cutthroats we sought. I managed to land a cuttbow, but that didn’t count (and besides, it was not I who was in the running for the grand slam). The catching slowed significantly during the last hour of the day, and unfortunately as we reached our take-out, the game winning cutthroat trout evaded us. There would be no Grand Slam for Stan the Man, but we raised a beer and toasted a great day on a great river that provided us with great angling excitement. Between the two of us we had probably landed 30 fish, and we’d each hooked up with a couple species which we had not previously caught. Our day on Rock Creek topped off another great Montana fishing adventure.
The report from Nash and Marck’s raft was that they had brought over 50 trout to the net: Browns, rainbows and a whole bunch of cutthroat which they’d caught in the first 2 hours of the day.
And in case you’re wondering, yes – I did enjoy my last night by sleeping peacefully. At dawn I awoke to the sound of a large bird, and immediately assumed it was just geese in the cabin next door. Poking my head out the door I realized that what I’d heard was not a gaggle, but rather a gobble. I’d already filled my turkey tag back in Washington that year, so I went back to bed for another hour.