|The Madison River in Montana
a guided trip through Bud Lilly's Trout Shop
West Yellowstone, Montana
Summer mornings come very early in West Yellowstone, Montana...well at least early compared to where we spend the bulk of our year. We spend most of the year near San Francisco, CA and compared to West Yellowstone, it's in a different latitude and time zone (in more ways than one). Summertime in West will find the sun starting to show it's color at about 5:00 in the morning. This year, the sun would wake up our new puppy, "forcing" us to go outside to look at the beautiful start of each day.
This particular trip, we witnessed fog on Hebgen Lake. Our cabin sits along side of the lake. We are pretty familiar with the Lake as the cabin has been part of the family for nearly 70 years. Fog is not unusual, but this year it seemed particularly photogenic.
The dog in the photo is "The" puppy. I remind her that she is a rare creature that has an entire state named after her. Her fancy-dancy name is: Her Highness Queen Madison Montana de Oro. She is 100% American Brittany...and has all the personality of a good Brit to prove it. Her first "find" when we got to Montana this year was a dried Bison Pie...mighty tasty...pine pitch was right after that...chipmunks were next. We named her Montana and then felt a little guilty that all of the "papered" dogs had those fancy names...so we added onto her name so she could feel good about herself. The vet bills are enough, I really don't need any "Doggy Shrink" bills to go along with them...and no she did not go fishing with us.
I had been getting stream reports from Bud Lilly's for the past several weeks. Reading all I could about the changing conditions was giving me some hope that I might see a fish or two. I was looking forward to the new experiences.
From the cabin, it's about 8 miles back into the wonderful town of West Yellowstone, Montana. I know the drive well and make it nearly everyday...or at least someone from the family does...out the gravel covered forest road and down Highway 20 (or 287 depending on your preferences) back into town. The vehicle is covered with bug splat (evidenced by the photo to the left) and dust and that's the way I like it. There is no mistaking me for a tourist with that much dust and other "stuff" on the vehicle...well that's not complete true. With only about 1000 people in the town...you're either a local or you're not...and with the exception of the summer residents (our family being one of that group)...the rest are tourists. Now usually that might mean a bad thing...but in West Yellowstone, tourists get great treatment and can feel right at home...so while I make fun of tourists and therefore wanting the dust on my car, the dust is really there because I would have to wash it off everyday (twice) to have it be somewhat dust free...it's really that dusty out on some of the forest roads.
This morning was special for me. I had booked a trip through Bud Lilly's Trout Shop...two trips in fact...guided fishing trips on two days back to back (I must have been crazy when I dreamed this plan up). Why Bud Lilly's? Well I've been shopping for my fishing gear in that shop for over 30 years. I'm a loyalist and they have always been good to me.
You've got to love a shop that has a dog as the greeter. I know...some of you shop at Wal-Mart and think it's a good thing to be greeted at the door by a person with a smile...some of you shop at Kmart and probably go nutz over the "attention Kmart shoppers" announcements coming at you from somewhere in space...but to be greeted by a dog is way cool for me. Bud Lill'y's doesn't have just one dog...they have two. Smudge (a Springer Spaniel) and Trico (a Black Cocker)...they take 1/2 day shifts each day. You wouldn't want to work the dogs too much would ya?
Way back, before Smudge and Trico, there was a dog named Luke. Luke was a Springer Spaniel...friendly as all get out...slept a lot in the shop and had a fan club. And when your dog has groupies...you need to produce a t-shirt and Luke had his own. One of these days I'll take a PIC of my Luke t-shirt. Nobody in my family has the guts to throw it out, and it "shrunk" too much for me to wear it (yeah, right).
While I have always had great service in Bud Lilly's I did have some reservations about this trip...not about the service. I had never been on a guided fishing experience and had never been on a drift boat...never fished on the Madison River below the dams...there were a lot of first time experience jitters floating around in my head.
Dick Greene, who along with Barbara Klesel, owns Bud Lill'ys Trout Shop booked my trips a couple of months before my actual arrival. It was easy to do over the phone ( 1-800-854-9559 ). I was asked a couple of questions (what type of fishing, did I have preferences...those sorts of things)...he didn't flinch when I hesitated about my level of experience (amateurish). I made arrangements to come in during the first part of my stay in the area to iron out a couple of detail (like getting a fishing license for the State) and making some choices about lunch (hey...it's important). I also reiterated my desired location...although fishing in Yellowstone Park would have been a "sexy" thing to do...I just wanted to catch fish.
On the morning of the first day (remember...I booked two days back to back) I showed up to meet "JR," my guide for the trip(s). My appreciation for JR's skills would become stronger through the entire experience...his quiet first impression didn't do him justice...it was only later that his performance as a guide screamed and shouted. JR and Dick spoke in a kind of code as they made arrangements for the boat launch and retrieval...I didn't even figure out what they were talking about until later in the day. JR loaded the gear (and the lunch) in the back of his truck.
I locked my car and he drove, drift boat in tow, to the launch site something like 40 minutes from town...beyond Hebgen and Quake Lakes to a State provided launch site, the Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Site, located on the legendary Madison River.
It's a very beautiful drive down the Madison system. You cross over a couple of the tributaries along the way...Grayling Creek...Duck Creek...I had already driven by the South Fork of the Madison on my way into town (we call it the "Little Madison").
You pass by the famous earthquake sights and past the Dam...down past Quake Lake with it's eary dark water punctured by the steely gray dead trees...down through the slide area created by the earthquake of 1959. (more quake info) You then pass by the wading only section of the Madison before you get to the put-in site for our trip.
There is a "pit toilet" at the site...for the brave. There is an area to rig the boats and a parking lot off a bit from the river...and it you think from the photos that it's a mad-house...not this day. I did hear that it can get crazy if really busy. There are some "rules" of etiquette which most of the folks follow. So one might see it as an orderly chaos.
As it turns out, there is also some etiquette on the river itself. We never cast through another's lane and steered clear of all boats and waders. Apparently this is not always the case.
I was going to use my own rod (Sage VPS 590-4) and reel (Bauer JM2...purchased at Bud Lillys by the way). However,if I didn't have my own hardware I could have made arrangements through the shop for appropriate gear (which might be a good idea under some local conditions...like wind or big fish). All the terminal tackle for the trip is included in the package. I didn't have to know what was hitting, biting, taking, slamming, sucking or rising too...all the flies are provided and JR had a whole big bunch.
Prepping the boat for launch was easy (for me)...launching was easy (for me)...rigging the rod was a snap (for me)...parking was simple too (again...for me). JR did everything...I got to stand there and take a few PICs, eat my Granola Bars and Diet Coke for breakfast...and be fascinated by the process of the morning.
We were not alone. We arrived to find 3 or 4 other boats getting ready to launch and 6-7 already in the parking lot and it was only 8:45 in the morning. What are these folks thinking? Can the fishing really be that big of a deal?
As we were coming in the loop to launch the boat, JR told me that the day before there was a line to launch and people were quite heated during the process. He was pleased to have a light turn-out this "late" in the day.
I am competitive by nature. I know I can't be the best at everything I try, but I certainly don't want to be the worst. The first order of business was to size up the competition and see where I thought I might fit in. Some very experienced looking folks...name brand gear and obviously rigging their own rods...I'm not there I think to myself...and some tourists (or at least dressed like tourists)...I'm thinking that this may be their first experience at this type of thing also. I feel better already. JR rigged two rods...mine and his (which he later told me was in case I broke mine)...backed the boat into the water, unleashed the beast and told me to stand there (which I politely did)...he drove off to park and walked back to hold the boat which His Highness (me) got into...in hops JR and he tells me that he will give some instruction (thank you very much) on the other side of the first bridge...about 25 yards down river.
He pushed off gently and we we rocked about 30 feet past the bridge and JR released the "anchor" and gave me the "Chuck and Dunk" lesson. We were going to spend nearly all of our time slack line nymphing (the hoity-toity fish with dry flies...hunters fish with nymphs). The rig is a nymph with a nymph dropper all under a strike indicator. I was using a 5 weight line, so long casts with the two weighted nymphs and two split shots...lit up with the fuzzy indicator was like casting Christmas Tree ornaments...hence the "Chuck" part of the technique. It was more like throwing than casting. One does not need to cast long...just in the right direction...and JR told me to cast about 90 degree off the side of the boat. Just after the "Chuck" comes the "Dunk"...a big mend in the line to get the nymphs to sink and to keep the flies dead drifting...no drag. A couple of times we had drifts that were greater than 100 yards long...mending as we went. Long dead drifts usually ended up with a fish. The entire day was spent Chucking and Dunking...oh yeah...and catching fish...as crude as the technique sounds it works and works well. It's a common technique used in many places.
You see, JR really didn't tell me the whole story and didn't explain exactly how the program was going to work. I was busy Chucking and he was busying reminding me about the Dunking...while rowing the boat...steering me into the lanes of fish water and slow enough to let the flies stay attractive to the fish. It wasn't so much about me and my frustrating casting ability...JR made the day(s) successful with great placement. If JR had been less skilled he wouldn't have put me in the best places nor in some cases making up for someone with less than "a tight loop" in my backcast...he knew pretty quickly just how far off the target he could put the boat (or in my case how close he needed to be).
Over the course of the day, there may have been as many as 100 boats on the section of the river we were floating down...we didn't see but a dozen or so. Not seeing the 100 boats (JR talked about days with 300 on the section) was great...they all float down at about the same rate.
There were a variety of boats on the water...square ended prams...a few blow up models...a few solo ventures in the form of inflatable prams...but by far the majority of the units were "drift boats." The majority of the vessels would have worked fine, but the nature of the water...it's rate of flow and the need to "dead drift" made the solo-operator-fisherperson prams a little impractical for the bulk of the water. Those folks' best bet was to exit the vessel at some of the shallow edges and fish back into the water. Their fishing time was greatly diminished by the choice of vessel (sounds like I'm an expert...and I'm not...but it was pretty obvious).
At first I was concerned about the pressure on the fishery. Sure...2000+ fish per mile and I was worried. I only wanted to catch a few. Well the few didn't take that long...15 minutes or so into the trip I landed my first Trout...and then another and then Whitefish and more of the same. The Whitefish/Trout ratio was something in the 3:1 ratio...not bad and the 15-16 inch Whitefish will take line off the spool if they are in fast water down river from the boat (a mistake). JR changed the fly menu a couple of times...well he changed one fly rather regularly as one fly was getting all the action. Most of the time I didn't even care what fly was on the line. I know that we went through some various caddis patterns and a couple of Hare's Ear variations...but what was on the line and what will be on the line next time (like tomorrow when Yellow Sallies worked better) are probably not the same...JR knew what he was thinking was our best bet so I let him take care of that...and next time I do a trip like this I will let the guide make the same decisions...for once I was thinking.
This day was going well. I hooked and landed Browns, Rainbows and Whitefish. Before lunch I had caught a few rocks, a twig and a willow. JR was polite and told me I was going fine. I made a few errors in landing fish and vowed to work on that. What would be the point of traveling 1800+ miles not to try to get better. The uptakes were not particularly subtle, but I did miss a few strikes. I didn't want that to happen...I felt like I was letting JR down and well...some of the strikes were because I was letting my mind drift (in a drift boat no less...ha ha).
I chose to sit down all day rather than stand in the knee locks and to cast standing. Not a bad choice considering the sunny weather, but it is a little harder to cast all that far. I was probably only able to cast 75 percent of normal, but that is plenty.
By lunch I had landed about 15 fish or so...I was already very happy. Lunch was a very hearty sandwich from a local Deli in town ( Ernie's Deli )...fruit, drink, chips, even a cookie. We ate in the boat (my choice) and watched the water go by.
After lunch we hit a few more fish before a lull of about an hour...then more fish until the take out spot for the boat.
It was a beautiful day...sunny...no wind...no thunder storms and 30 fish to boat...50+ on line. Trout to 16 inches...both Browns and Rainbow. JR said, "The River had been good to us." I believed him. I didn't expect what we were given...but I was thankful we had received.
A couple of mistakes were made that first day. I didn't think that I would need a sunblock...stupid me. As I sit here now, some two weeks after the trip, the backs of my hands and the tops of my ears are looking pretty scaly from the peeling sunburns. A hat was good, but the long billed ball cap was not the right choice...no ear protection. But with every silly decision, some good decisions were also made. I used a great pair of sunglasses from Action Optics...polarized of course. I also took my Canon Digital XT and got some pretty good PICs along the way. I think I could have gotten some pretty nifty shots with a pocket digital unit, but I like my XT, even with it's bulk. It did take a bit of time to take the PICs, and after a while I stopped...there didn't seem to be a need to take a photo of every fish that was coming into the net (oK...I got a little cocky and jaded).
I became so focused on the fishing aspect of the day that I didn't notice the third take out for the boat...JR hadn't planned on taking out there anyway...but I didn't even see it. The last stretch is known to be home to some larger Browns, but the sunny day kept them out of the shallows and probably waiting for dusk. We still caught some very respectable fish...not the 18s and 20s I was now getting greedy for...but still landing the 12 and 14s. All the fish are robust, strong and colorful. The use of barbless hooks made the release part of the "catch and release" much easier.
A little honesty in this chronicle would be a refreshing part of any fish story. I did catch some smaller fish...5 in the 6-7 inch class. But that is not a very large number considering the number of fish boated and considering the few larger ones that got off. There were a couple of times that I wished I was more skilled.
Taking the boat out of the river was at another State maintained location...17 miles from the start of the trip. Like the start, there was order to the system and all of the participants knew the process.
Again...like during the beginning of the day...the unrigging of the rods and gear and boat were all easy (for me)...JR was a machine and did it all. I don't think it took 15 minutes to get the boat to the edge of the water and for JR to get the truck, back it up, haul out and unrig the gear.
He drove back to town as we talked about everything from soup to nutz...and several times he asked where I wanted to go for day two...I really was a pig...a fish hog...a glutton...and in my own selfish way I decided to go back down the same stretch of water...and agreed to an earlier start the next day (what was I thinking). There are never two days on the Madison (or any water for that matter) that are alike...and we had had great weather and conditions and a 30 fish day. My decision to repeat the day may backfire.
Backfire or not, I was glowing from the first day...my extremely sunburned ears and grin on the face must have told the story when I walked into the cabin that evening. It had been a superlative day...JR, Dick and the Bud Lilly experience had made my first day on the Madison truly fabulous...and my fears about my novice casting abilities were laid to rest...Chuck and Dunk made me look like I knew what I was doing (well...sort of).
I sat at the dinner table trying to relay the excitement of the day to my wife and her parents. It's one of those days when you really had to be there to completely understand. I finished my dinner and then worked on sending out a few emails to friends (with PICS of the day) and felt the rocking of the boat as I sat in my chair. The rocking was so pronounced that I twice asked my wife it the cabin was moving (remember that Hebgen is famous earthquake country)...she assured me that the cabin was not moving. Sort of cool to be rocked to sleep by the motion of the boat from hours earlier.
I'm back home as I write down these memories and have been adding to them as I think of little details. But I want to point out something that is very cool. I don't fish nearly enough, but I do get to a number of different types of fisheries...lakes, ponds, small streams...catch and release fisheries like the Madison are a rare treat for me. One unfortunate sight at many locations is litter and trash and wads of monofiliment. This was not my experience on the Madison. No sunken beer cans, no cars on the sides of the river banks, no washing machines staring back at us...and no litter. For whatever reason the environment was in great shape. This is a real credit to all the folks from all around the globe that come to this magical region to hook and release them...and an additional credit for people of Montana who support and provide this magical place for folks like me.
|Copyrighted 2006, J. Atchison, Spotted Dog Productions|