We've been back from our adventure for two weeks now, and just like the trip, time has passed seemingly without notice. We fished hard for 3+ days, hitting the Ranch on the Henry's Fork and the Madison below Quake Lake in equal parts. We were on the river early every day, and fished well past dark before getting back to the lodge for dinner with friends and sharing
stories lies of our day on the water. We may have had some beer, wine and/or other libations, too. We averaged about 4 hours of sleep each night before rising at sun up and starting all over again. Morning temps were in the high 30's, crisp and windless, with the longing sound of bull elk bugling in the distance.
When we touched down in West Yellowstone late in the afternoon, the dry air was 90 degrees and and a stiff breeze carried smoke from area forest fires across the high valley. On the descent we observed 5 different fires; the one pictured here was in the Northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park.
(Click photos to enlarge)
This ribbon of silver is the Madison River in YNP as seen through the haze. The gray area top right center is the town of West Yellowstone, MT.
The Henry's Fork was it's usual moody self, requiring long leaders, well-timed casts, and perfect drifts that mostly had the big rainbows drifting up to inspect our flies and then turning a fin or tail to us before descending into the weeds from whence they came. We did manage to hook a bunch, and even landed those that we managed to keep out of the thick weeds that cover most of the gravel bottom. This in itself is a challenge; if the fish gets into the weeds, it is next to impossible to protect the requisite 6x tippet they are tethered to. It's challenging fishing, but well worth it when you do everything right and land one of the river's good sized, beautiful rainbow trout. We also managed to hook quite a few dinks, that while small, glisten like natures most delicate multi-colored gemstones.
Here Bruce sight casts to a nice rainbow feeding in a narrow gap in the weeds. This is the cliff area of the lower Ranch, where you take turns fishing and alternately sitting atop the 30 foot high cliffs shouting down to the caster as to where they should place their cast........"5 foot longer and 3 feet to the right!" The angler cannot see their quarry due to the high angle of the bright sun and resultant glare, so it's a joint effort between angler and cliff dweller. Shortly after I took this photo, Bruce hooked and landed the 18-19 inch fish we had him working to with a #18 pheasant tail nymph. No fish photo; by the time I got down to the river, Bruce had released the fish so as not to harm it.
And here is the Madison River a mile or so below Quake Lake outlet. Here the gradient is steep and the river big and very powerful, rushing noisily past the angler in a clear, dark blue-green hued freight train of water. The trout here have adapted to the river matching their own strength to that of their environment. Most of the fish in this section are within 5 feet of the bank, making wading unnecessary, which is fortunate because wading is a dangerous proposition here anyway.
I love this river and the valley it courses through; rugged benchland that reaches out on both sides to high mountains that are home to elk, bear, deer, sheep, goat and pronghorn antelope. In the wider benches, large herds of black Angus feed casually on the native grasses. Above, osprey, hawks and harriers glide on afternoon air currents, occasionally diving to take prey from open fields or water. And the river draws an angler to it like none other; it is a sanctuary for the soul, a calming force of nature. Its inhabitants bright and strong, enriched by the waters they inhabit.
On the second day, we fished the morning into early afternoon, and took many rainbows and a few browns from the rocky, shallow eddies as we worked up the river bank. Most of the fish came to small brown serendipity's and pheasant tail nymphs fished just off the bottom. The fish varied in size from young of the year 6 inchers, to a few stocky, hard fighting 15-16 inch fish. A few were lost to the swift currents, poor hook ups, or both. When a 16 inch bow rips off into a 4 foot deep heavy riffle after being hooked, the odds of landing them go out the window. Sometimes you win, other times the fish takes the prize and your fly with it. The smile never leaves your face.
As we fished, a glance up to the west reminded us that there were much bigger forces at work nearby obscuring the sun and creating new habitat for the next generation of forest. The seeds of the indigenous evergreens need the heat of the fire to stimulate germination, and the ashes of prior generations provide nutrients that fuel rapid growth and healthy seedlings.
On the third day of our trip we ventured far into the wilderness - a long drive followed by an even longer walk in a high mountain valley to glacial stream filled with cutthroat trout and grayling. The stream was narrow, cold and bounded by thick willows on both sides. We worked up stream taking turns fishing each of the short deep runs and pools with hoppers and ants. Before being interrupted by an apex predator, we caught some nice cutthroat and a few good sized grayling. Here's a 16 inch grayling Bruce caught just before it was released. Soon after, our day was cut short when a bear made it clear we had ventured a little too far up the river into his willow patch. When it let out a long, deep guttural growl, we turned and calmly but quickly whistled our way downstream never looking back, bear spray at the ready.
We ended the trip by fishing the ranch one last evening. The wind took a vacation and so did the bugs, leaving the trout looking upward but hungry none the less. We stood waist deep in the calm flow the last two hours of light, half hoping for a hatch, our rod braced under our upper arm while we savored the sunset over the Centennial mountains.
Sometimes you don't need to fish to enjoy fishing.