Fly Fishing Famous Water in Montana
It took three casts to get the distance right. I needed to lay a few S curves into the line as it fell so that the little micro eddies on the surface wouldn’t cause any unnatural drag. My sulphur dun pattern drifted with the current for maybe eight inches before a green nose quietly came up from below and closed on my fly. I lifted the rod tip, and a nineteen inch rainbow exploded out of the water, then took off towards the center of the river taking line off my reel. “Hmmm” I thought to myself. “Maybe this isn’t so bad after all”.
While that might not be the typical thoughts an angler experiences when a big fish takes off with your fly, for me this was the beginning of an experiment that I was kind of dreading. Over the last few years I have developed a serious allergy to crowds, and letting my introversion take over, I began avoiding the most popular waters in favor of seeking out more remote places where I could have the water all to myself. I would still sneak down and fish rivers like the Madison and the Missouri, but only during the off season. Times when I could reasonably expect to not run into many people. This season, I had resolved to get over my fears and go back into the belly of the beast. I would fish some of the more famous stretches of water during the heart of peak season just to answer the question “What would it be like?”
That rainbow was the first of what turned out to be an impressive string of strong fish that came up for my fly on a stretch of the Missouri river near Craig. While I could always see other anglers and drift boats, it was never really difficult to find rising fish to cast to in the morning, and in the afternoon drifting small nymphs over likely spots was just as productive. Each place I fished I definitely had the feeling that on that particular stretch, it was just me and the fish. All on a Saturday in late June!
Next stop was Ennis, and a date with the Madison. Actually I have to confess that I made several trips to the Madison this summer, something kept me coming back, even though this river gets more pressure than any other river in the state! But I digress. My first stop was at the Valley Garden access point below town. I hesitated at the parking lot on seeing a lot of cars and trucks, but stuck to my plan and rigged up. A short walk and I was working my way up one of the many braids that this section is known for. Not another angler in sight! Every bend of the channel seemed to be full of fish. Many were small, but enough weren’t. During one drift I was startled by a commotion as a whitetail doe stood up from the grass next to the stream. She looked at me with an indignant stare as a small fawn poked its head out behind her legs. I actually missed a fish while watching that deer, but I’m not complaining. A moose trotting across the river completed the scene as I made my way back to the truck. Far enough away to not raise any concern, it was a fitting end to a fish filled day.
The following morning my plan was to get to Three Dollar Bridge early enough to beat the crowds, but evidently I either slept in or a bunch of other people had the same plan, as there was a healthy compliment of cars parked on both sides of the bridge. Anglers were in sight up and down the river, but there was a stretch of about 200 yards on the downstream side that was empty, so that’s where I headed. A little pessimistic because of the crowd, I was quickly distracted once I reached my location by some noses coming up along the shore and in the pockets created by some large rocks. There were both caddis flies and mayflies in the air, but judging by the lack of any splashes I went with mayflies. I literally flipped a parachute adams at the first nose just fifteen feet above me. The take was almost instant, and I was into yet another nice rainbow. The day continued about like the previous day, and in fact the day after that. The fish in this section seemed to be bigger. I found myself completely captivated by lots of fish, and a disproportionate share of them were really nice!
The experience brought me back to the 1980’s. The first fish that took me into my backing was a hot rainbow on the Madison. I recalled how as a young adult who grew up on the east coast, the excitement of western fly fishing was like every fishing dream come true. Now here I am, decades and likely thousands of fish later, still feeling that rush of excitement when you realize that the fish that just took your fly is gonna take some line too. These rivers are famous for a reason. Fish numbers and average sizes seem to be as good as they have ever been. Angling pressure is on the upswing, but the fish are holding their own. My repeated visits this summer also made it clear that it was still a lot of fun to fish over water that was so productive.
While the fishing was nothing less than spectacular, there are a few things that you should keep in mind when traveling to these waters. First and foremost is to accept that you will not have solitude. These waters have to be shared, and to the credit of most anglers, it seems that everyone pretty much has the same mindset. The good news is that the rivers are also huge, with plenty of room to spread out. Taking a little time to seek out an empty spot on the river, and the use of some basic courtesy, and everyone seems to be able to get along.
Another point to keep in mind is that casting, presentation, and fly choice can be more important here than in more remote waters. Fish see a lot of flies on these rivers, and if the imitation and the drift aren’t darn near perfection, you will find your offering ignored. My hunch is that some of these fish can even tell you the shop that a particular fly comes from because they see them so often. Even so, good presentations are rewarded with enough frequency to make the day well worth your time.
On the upside, the fish in these waters don’t seem to be nearly as spooky as I have experienced in other places. With tons of food washing down with the current, the fact that they see people floating and wading around them every day seems to have them habituated to humans. They will move away from you as you walk by, but within minutes will resume feeding again. The fact that you see someone fishing in a given spot does not mean the spot has been ruined for the day, or even a few hours. There were times that I moved onto a stretch of water not fifteen minutes after someone else had departed, and had plenty of good action.
Perhaps one of the more counter intuitive approaches to fishing famous water is the concept of not going straight to the most obvious spots. Everyone is going to hit those places, and while sure they hold fish, it's possible that they may be a bit harder to catch. These rivers are full of fish, and I often find myself looking for what I think of as “shoulder water”. I have also heard it referred to as “b” water, or even frog water. These are the places that don’t scream “fish here!” but still have the basic characteristics that meet the requirements of feeding fish. On the Madison, with large stretches of seemingly uniform riffles, the little micro divots or pockets in the current can be great feeding stations for some surprising fish. On the Missouri, pockets of dead water away from the current (and all the other anglers) can hold some beauties. My friend Mark got to see this first hand during a float this summer. A nice cast to the tiniest of dimples in some dead water turned into a 21” rainbow. The key here is to be observant, to look for water away from the obvious spots that might still hold fish, and even try just random casts fishing plane water. Odds are that you will get some pleasant surprises.
As for me, the summer’s experiment has done a lot to help me get over my anxiety of running into people. The fishing is just too good! Turns out that most of the people I have run into wind up being pretty friendly anyway. I still haven’t completely given up my habit of exploring the lesser known streams, that’s just part of my nature. But I am finding that there are more and more days where I want to run down to a river that I just know is going to be full of a bunch of nice trout. Regardless of whether or not there are crowds. Turns out I like great fishing!
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images
Excellent story with some great points. I fished both of these waters this summer and while I also saw a ton of other anglers and boaters, I still was able to catch fish and find some water without trying to battle other anglers. Both the Madison and Missouri lived up to their reputations in my book.
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