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.