Three Nights on the Madison

What follows is a re-working of a piece that I wrote some years ago about what I often think of as my “home” river. If you have ever fished the Madison, I hope that some of the words below bring to mind memories of your own moments along its storied banks.

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The Madison could be called “America’s Trout Stream.” For much of its length, the Madison is a fairly brawling river, with boulders, rapids and blue-water runs defining its character. Despite the river’s seemingly rough persona, however, there are places—behind the rocks, at the tails of islands, in the quiet of overhung back channels—that the river reveals its more intimate side.

When many anglers think of the Madison, they envision fat stonefly nymphs, weighted woolly buggers, bristly stimulators, and other flies with shoulders and an attitude. Such meat and potatoes imitations are an intelligent and viable way to fish the Madison. But the more secretive sections of the river are often the territory of the tiny: dancing caddis, rising midge pupae and falling spinners. Big fish feed on such minutiae.

More than once I have watched my fly disappear under noses that belied much larger, unseen bodies. More than once I have stumbled down-current after those bodies, fueled by “hook-up” adrenaline and trying not to turn an ankle. More than once I have been left standing under the ancient gaze of early-twilight stars, wistfully reeling in a limp fly line and a de-fanged leader.

In 2000, I spent ten straight days on the banks of the Madison. In that time I had three nights on the river that, for me, defined much of what the Madison, and indeed, the Rocky Mountain West, is all about.

My nights on the Madison were the time of the black and tan caddises and the rusty spinners. Every evening, the insects would emerge from their hiding places and congregate over and on the water. The real action happened in a sliver of time just before dark. Each night boiled down to walking in, waiting around, casting madly and then walking out.

Night One The first of my three nights was spent in the waters near Raynold’s Pass bridge. The water there can be deceptive—anglers often stand where they should be fishing. Ironically it is that same thin water that has twice been my undoing while wading. Twice in two years, I took my dip in the same side-channel—the same current tongue even—on the Madison. That same side channel had my attention again on that first night.

The caddises, midges and rusty spinners showed up about 15 minutes before dusk and the noses started soon thereafter. I tied on a 3D Caddis as the point fly and a small Trailing Shuck Griffith’s Gnat as the dropper. The complex currents dictated a Puddle Mend and some educated guess-work in terms of fly placement.

The first fish to the Gnat was a plump rainbow of about 15 inches. It fought beyond its size and bode well for the rest of the short evening. The second fish took the caddis, fought hard and gave me back a hook with a bent-over point. The next fish took the caddis, felt the tug of the line, and bolted up-current through the rocks and riffles. It was not a small fish. I could feel the undulations of the fish’s body working against the strain of the rod, and then the line went slack. No explanation—just gone.

A few minutes later, my caddis was intercepted by another nose. The fish sprinted and zig-zagged as I spun line onto the reel and began to work the rod. The fish surged hard toward the rocks, so I applied all the pressure that I dared. The line suddenly jerked back toward me. I thought the fish had pulled free of the fly or sliced the tippet. Then, the line went taut again, with the fish racing past me. Stuggling to contain the slack, I finally brought the brown to hand at the lower end of the pool. The 3D Caddis and the trout had indeed parted ways—the gape on the caddis’s hook had opened up. However, the tiny Griffith’s Gnat had saved me by catching the brown on the outside of the lower jaw when the caddis slipped loose. The closeness of the two flies in the dropper system had given me an unintended benefit.

The evening closed with two more fish, both healthy rainbows, but neither above the 20-inch mark. My chance for the big fish had come and gone in the opening moments. I would have to try again some other night on the Madison.

Night Two My next two nights were spent plying the deep pocket water in the vicinity of Three-Dollar bridge. The water around Three-Dollar is populated by an inordinate number of boulders, many of which are placed so as to make wading as difficult as possible. Drop the sun behind the mountains and the navigation over, around and occasionally under the boulders becomes even more interesting. Add a big rainbow running for Ennis and you have the recipe for dented equipment and dented bodies, not to mention dented egos.

Three-Dollar sees some real angling traffic, and as a result, a hike is often in order to find some open water that looks right. The spongy, spring-riddled ground that is a trademark of Three-Dollar did its best to make my two nights of walking mucky and odorous.

After pushing through the thickets and muck, my breathable waders were anything but. The fish were there, though, and eager for the fly. Like the water around Raynold’s, the Three-Dollar currents demanded some trick casting. Puddle and reach mends were the order of the evenings. The same dropper system that worked its double-fly magic on the upstream section worked at Three-Dollar, too. A fluorescent Twinkle-Wing Spinner took the drop position.

On the first night, I waded into position behind a half-sunken log. With water up to my hips, I wasn’t going anywhere fast. When my spinner disappeared under the nose I had been watching, I knew that the “20-plus” brown I had come to find had suddenly been found. Once I got better footing and wound the slack on the reel, I began to work the trout. Amazingly, the fish stayed close, fighting in the small pool from which it had been hooked. I saw the tip of the brown’s tail surface, and the distance between that terminal portion of anatomy and where the tippet entered the water was enough to get my heart pumping anew.

Then the fish turned, surged slightly, and headed away. The soft buzzing of the reel’s clicker played an even tune as the backing knot ticked through the guides and I heaved myself onto the bank to give chase. A hundred feet of shoreline later found me reeling in slack and shaking my head at an opened hook gape.

The night certainly didn’t end there. Three nice fish came to my tandem flies in the remaining few minutes of the presentation window. One brown fought with surprising vigor, racing around the pool and charging downstream. As I released the eager trout, I thought about its future—and mine. That somewhat modest fish would be formidable a summer or two later. Perhaps, just perhaps, we would chance to meet again…

Night Three There can be amazing amounts of food coming down the currents of the Madison, and it’s not unusual for a fish to rise very near your fly. When you are blinded by twilight, it is easy to both strike against nothing and to find yourself surprisingly connected when you lift the rod to make a cast. That was what happened to me on the third night.

A long slog through the bogs and willows put me at a promising stretch of water. My father, Gary, was with me, and we planned a fast, hopscotch-style approach to fishing the magnum-sized pockets. The spinner took a smallish rainbow almost immediately, and then the fishing got weird. Fish were either an on/off proposition, or they rose near the fly and I confidently set the hook on air. My father was experiencing the same.

No matter how long you fish, there will always be a bit of mystery at one time or another. This was one of those times Finally I solidly hooked a fish — I was likely as surprised as it was. My caddis had sunk and I had lost track of the leader. Fearing I’d miss yet another take, I lifted to cast and found myself attached to muscle. An indicator and suspended fly may have been the way to go from the start.

In any case, the fish wasted no time in shooting out into the main current and heading for the parking lot. Alternating between boulder hopping and waist-deep wading, I got the fish under control and in the lee of a pocket. I was not to lose this fish to opened hooks or any other mishap. Expecting a big brown, perhaps the 20-inch fish I’d wanted, I glided the trout to hand.

There, in the fading twilight, was the culmination of my short night’s fishing: a 17-inch rainbow (and fairly skinny 17-inch rainbow at that). I wasn’t really disappointed in that fish, I was just hoping that the third night would be the charm. It was not to be.

So those were my three nights on the Madison. They may not seem like much, but they have stuck with me all these years. Great rivers and great places do that to you, staying in your memories season after season. Such places also call you back, time and time again, and I look forward to all memories of the Madison yet to come…

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