I’m a pretty lucky guy. In June I did a wonderful trip to Alaska for salmon, and last week I headed out to Ennis, Montana for 4 days of drift fishing on the Madison River, one of the top 10 trout rivers in the U.S. according to people I talked to out there.
This was a totally new but fantastic experience for me, having never been anywhere near that part of the West before, and having never done any drifting whatsoever. I basically picked my destination lodge at random, checking out ads in fly fishing magazines and looking on the web. I chose the Madison River Lodge, a small outfit that takes up to 12 at one time and provides a full package including accommodation, food, guides and boats (the guides all seem to own their own driftboats) plus an on site stream and pond. The latter is in case you haven?t had enough after a whole day on the Madison itself.
The lodge is endorsed by Orvis, so that gave me some confidence in the quality of what I was getting into.
The Madison is by Ontario standards a big, brawling river, and boasts a brown and rainbow population that is estimated to be between 2000 and 3000 fish (over 6?) per mile of river.
I know they check that every year, because one day we ran into a Fish & Game crew doing a survey. They were ?shocking? part of the river to get a count and check on the health and growth rates of the trout. We chatted with them awhile about all that stuff, particularly about the river?s comeback from a bout of whirling disease that affected the rainbows a few years back. Montana stopped all stocking in 1976, so the river only holds wild fish.
This section, which is 28 or so miles long, is referred to as the Upper Madison and is all Catch and Release. It is about 50-60 yards wide mostly, and the crystal clear water runs about 1000 cubic feet per second most of the year (about 28 m3/sec compared to the Grand at about 5 m3/sec). The locals refer to it as ?one long riffle?, and truly it is. It?s very tough to wade, so almost everyone drifts it in Clackacraft drift boats.
Here are two pics of sections that are pretty representative:
It?s fairly shallow for the most part, but it does twist and turn through some magnificent terrain that takes your breath away at times. It features numerous rapid-like runs as well as deep cut holes along the bends and around large boulders.
This pic shows a stretch called the Pallisades. It?s a spot where years ago Indians (mostly Crow and Blackfoot) would drive buffalo herds off the cliff to their death below, then go down and butcher them up. World?s largest open air abattoir I guess!
Elevation here is about 5000? above sea level, and the nearby peaks are just over 10,000?. The river originates about 90 miles south in Yellowstone National Park and eventually joins the Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers and flows into the Missouri and thence the Mississippi River. Most of the time the wind was howling, that being the result I guess of it being a river valley sandwiched between two mountain ranges.
Okay, on to the fishing!
In summer there are hatches of most of the common bugs that we know and love. One they have in June that we don?t is the Salmonfly, a big Stonefly type bug that apparently makes for some pretty good action on both nymphs and dries.
Here?s a pic of a nymph I found, about 2? long for goodness sake. That?s my little finger in there for size comparison.
The late summer brings hoppers, but the weather had been cold when I got there so they were done. Pretty much what we did was cast a streamer plus dropper rig along the banks and into any fishy looking water we saw. The streamers were Zonkers, Muddlers and Sculpins. Big and bushy. The droppers were mostly Copper Johns, Lightning Bugs (basically a Copper John with the abdomen and wing case of silver Mylar), Pheasant Tails and Princes, size 14-18.
Here?s a pic of a boat drifting by me one day.
The routine was like this. The guide would pick me up about 8 and we?d head to the river. He?d stop at one of the local fly shops and sign up for the shuttle service, which would come pick up his truck where we put in that day, and deliver it to our planned take out point down river, usually about 12 miles or so. Being by myself, I basically had a personal guide. Usually it?s two to a boat. The drift usually took us until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. We?d stop along the way for box lunch, and were often in the midst of some of the local wildlife. There were deer and antelope everywhere you looked, and here?s a pic of a small herd of the latter I took just as we beached for lunch one day. Out there, EVERYBODY hunts in the fall.
The style of fishing is referred to locally as ?chuck & duck?, being a big weighted streamer plus dropper cast repeatedly to the banks and good looking holes and runs as we careen down the current in a sort of organized chaos trying to avoid rocks and boulders while keeping the boat moving the same speed as the current. The line is either stripped or dead drifted, one working best at times, then the other. Go figure!
These guys are really good at moving the boat into the best possible positions for the caster. They totally earn their pay!!
When the trout hit, you know it. Because the boat is moving downstream at the speed of the river, usually bouncing around like a rubber ball, when you hook up it?s bedlam. The trout almost always head back up river, so the guide has to hit the brakes in a hurry, by dropping the anchor and back rowing like mad! Then of course they invariably head across then down, so you both have to be ready for anything. Quite the exhilarating thrill!
Here?s a nice brownie that ate a Zonker:
Although I got a number of 10-12? fish, they were mostly in the 14-20? range, and very beefy as you can see here in this rainbow that ate one of my Partridge & Orange soft hackles:
The first two days I was there it was up to 70 or so during the day, but then a front came in, temps dropped to the high 30?s F, and day 3 was poor fishing. My last day was pretty good though, and I landed maybe a dozen browns and one or two bows from 15? up to 20?. This is a pic of my last fish of the trip, caught almost at the end of our 12 mile drift in a raging thunderstorm with hail lightning going off all around us. A bit of heaven!
I lost 3 browns over the 4 days that were over the 20? mark, all by the hook pulling out. One I saw jump twice, and he was a hog. Fooled him with a #18 Flashback PT, and he had me well into my backing before wrapping the line around a rock and getting off. The other two similarly were off the small hooks before I could do much with them. The current moves so fast, that when they run you have to have both hands off the wheel or they?re gone. It took me some time to get used to that, so now I just have to figure out a way to get back there next year????.hmmmmm!