Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Featured Photo: Northern Lights in Tennessee

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Madison River Streamer Mania

After chasing native cutthroat on the Yellowstone River, we headed west to a new base camp at Madison Campground. The next several days were spent on various secret brown trout streams. Later on I’ll share some stories about the fish we caught during that time. The high point of the trip was fishing the Madison River outside the park.

During our days chasing browns, we both had our shots at big fish but neither of us had landed anything over 18 inches. You won’t often find me complaining about catching plenty of fish up to 18 inches, but on these big trips my expectations are a little higher. My buddy Joe and I were both hoping to catch a fish of at least 20 inches on the trip and were specifically hoping for a brown trout. I had never fished the Madison outside the park so I was looking forward to seeing some new water.

We rolled out of our sleeping bags early on Thursday morning and headed to West Yellowstone. After a stop at McDonald's for breakfast, we went to Blue Ribbon Flies to pick up our Montana fishing licenses. At this point we discovered that a short term license was good for two days instead of one so we would have the option of fishing the Madison two days if you wanted to. The guys at the shop helped us out with a map of the area showing major access points and we were on our way.

We stopped by the Quake Visitor Center on the way to fish and read about the tragedy that occurred. Quake Lake will eventually be just a riverbed again once the forces of erosion of completed their work, but at the present it is a good fishery in its own right. We wanted to fish the river further downstream though and headed on after a brief stop.

Our first stop was at the Raynold’s Pass bridge. The friendly guy at Blue Ribbon Flies had told us that it was a good spot to start out so we quickly rigged up and started fishing up. We had only been there a few minutes before Joe had hooked up. His first fish turned out to be a rather nice whitefish. Over the next couple of hours we fished steadily upstream, leapfrogging as we went. Both of us caught whitefish along with a few trout. My first Madison River trout was a chunky rainbow that was around 17 inches and it came on a soft hackle caddis emerger.

By the time we had fished up to the Slide Inn, we were both tired and ready to take a lunch break. Walking back down to the car gave us time to decide what to do for the rest of the afternoon. We agreed that while fishing was decent, it definitely was nothing to brag about. Every time I fish new water, I enjoy figuring out the best strategy. Careful observation of the fish themselves as well as the insects hatching will significantly shorten the learning curve on a new stream. So far neither of us had unlocked the secrets of the Madison.

After picking up the car, we drove back up to the Slide Inn to see if we could meet Kelly Galloup and also maybe buy a few flies. Luckily, he was running the shop that day so we hung around awhile to pick up a little wisdom along with a few flies. Joe bought a few streamers and I bought “Modern Streamers For Trophy Trout.” I had wanted to buy the book for awhile and it was the perfect opportunity to get it autographed at the same time. Heading back to the river, we decided to try another popular access point.

Again, we started fishing upstream. Joe tied on a streamer and I stuck with my double nymph rig for a bit longer. Before long Joe started getting excited. After hearing a couple loud exclamations I stopped long enough to inquire about the reason for his excitement. As it turned out he was flashing some big fish. I’ve fished with Joe long enough to know that it takes a good fish to get him excited. I was wondering what exactly was going on so I decided to shadow him for a few minutes. Sure enough, the next good spot he threw in resulted in a big brown charging the streamer and swirling around it before disappearing back to the depths. Something was definitely going on with the streamers.

I hung in there a little longer with my nymphs after I spotted a nice brown out feeding. On the 7th or 8th cast I saw my indicator twitch and the battle was on. Several hard runs later, the fish came to the net and posed for a quick picture. I now had my first Madison brown trout and it was a nice fish. Moving up the river, I was spooking enough big fish and hearing Joe’s excitement enough to know that we had a good shot at a 20 inch fish.

We continued on up the stream, passing several other fishermen and giving each of them a wide enough birth so they wouldn’t feel crowded. Finally we were upstream of all the other fishermen. It was about this time that the first caddis started making an appearance. Shortly after, the Epeorus showed up, and the fishing just got better and better. Joe stuck with his streamers hoping for a monster, but I was satisfied with casting dries to fish that averaged 16-18 inches. A #16 Light Cahill Parachute was close enough in color to the lighter colored mayflies, and the fish obviously didn’t know the difference. I hooked several and missed some that would have been pushing 20 inches or better. We were far from the car at this point and decided it would be best to head back downstream and fish close by as it got dark.

After watching me catch several fish, Joe was finally convinced to tie on a dry and caught a few that way…still no monsters though. When it was too dark to see our flies, we headed back to the vehicle for the drive to camp. On the way we discussed the all important question of where to fish the next day. Enough big fish had shown themselves to convince us both to drive back over again.

The next day started a little later. We were both exhausted from getting back to camp so late and just didn’t make it out of bed as early as we wanted. Thankfully we made it back over to the Madison before it was too late in the morning. I was still trying to wake up completely and settled on a leisurely streamside breakfast. Joe on the other hand was hardcore and immediately hit the water. I knew he was headed to the spots where we spotted good fish on the previous day and hoped that he would nail that good fish that he had been dreaming about.

As I finished breakfast, I started getting the urge to hurry. It is amazing what some good food will do for a person. Additionally, I started getting a nagging feeling that I was missing out on something special. At this point I made a decision that would pay huge dividends throughout the rest of the day. I had been afraid to carry my DSLR on the Madison my first day since I was unsure what the wading conditions were like. Common sense dictated that it was not a good idea to carry it at all but for some reason I took it anyway.

Starting up the river in search of Joe, I got the feeling that he might have a good fish. When I saw him leaning over the water with his net I started hurrying. As I got closer I hollered, “Do you have a good fish?” His reply in the affirmative motivated me to hurry even more and soon I was admiring a beautiful 20 inch brown. Joe was definitely glad that I had my nice camera with me and posed for a couple of shots before releasing the beauty.

After seeing his fish, I didn’t even bother fishing nymphs. We had stopped by Galloup’s shop again and I had purchased a few streamers myself. Cutting back my leader, I added some 2X fluorocarbon tippet and tied on a heavily weighted streamer. We were both fishing without the benefit of sinking lines and had to fish patterns with a lot of weight.

I headed upstream and we started our routine of leapfrogging our way up. After passing Joe up for the second or third time, I walked slowly toward the bank only to see a large fish spook out towards the middle. Wanting to kick myself for ruining a perfect opportunity, I decided to cast anyway. On the 4th cast, a dark shadow materialized behind the streamer. Thankfully, my normal streamer reaction did not kick in. In other words, I kept up the retrieve instead of staring in awe. The fish kept following until it was in no more than a foot of water. Just when I thought the fish was going to give up, it charged forward and inhaled the streamer.

Immediately I felt the power of a nice fish trying to run. Despite the heavy tippet I was still scared. Too much pressure could rip the fly out, but too little would result in the fish running downstream through a rapid. I hollered to Joe and he was soon on the scene to provide net assistance. Setting up just downstream from where I was, he waited for the right moment to move in. Finally the fish started to tire, and Joe got in the water. As the fish got closer, I lifted the rod tip high and kept the fish’s head up while Joe netted it. Right as he got the net under the fish and I released tension the fly fell out. Thankfully it was already captured.

We went through the picture taking process again except this time I was the one lifting the fish with a cheesy grin on my face. After releasing the fish, I took a few minutes to let it all sink in. Too often I don’t appreciate each fish enough. This time I sat down on a rock and enjoyed the beauty of the stream, the day and the rest of my surroundings. I’m truly blessed to travel to the places I do and experience all the great moments that make up each trip.

Throughout the rest of the day, we both hooked more fish on the streamers. As the case normally is with streamers, the fishing was all about quality over quantity. Late in the day we switched back to dries for the evening hatch but the fishing was only marginal compared to the previous evening. Finally we decided to call it a day, wrapping up the trip on a good note.

Catching larger fish on streamers is addicting. As soon as I got back home, I purchased a lot of tying materials for streamers and plan on fishing them consistently this winter. The opportunity to catch large fish is definitely better if you are throwing meat and potatoes instead of appetizers, at least in most situations. The trip to Yellowstone opened up a whole new world of fishing techniques and that is not just limited to streamers. When I travel, I am forced to experiment. On my home waters, I tend to return again and again to time proven techniques. Of course they catch fish, but innovation is the key to increasing one’s success. I can’t wait to apply some of the lessons learned out west on the wild browns of the Appalachians in east Tennessee.


  1. Hi David. Those are some nice looking Browns and the color on the Rainbow is magnificent. Sounds like another great trip. Great Sunset picture too. Tight Lines.


  2. troutking9:26 PM

    The guys (and women) at Blue Ribbon Flies are the best.

  3. Great post. I will now have a hard time sleeping tonight as I dream of charging browns.

  4. Those browns were pretty sweet. Nice trip report

  5. Anonymous7:18 AM

    Streamers, I think I may try that! Nice fish Dude, very nice fish!

    David P.

  6. Fabulous trip and as usual great pics. I love the sunset.

  7. Hey David, great photos, and great fishing from the sounds of it. This is the first time I've posted a comment here, although I've enjoyed your entries for a bit now, and it's always a pleasure to read up on your trips (I recognize you from the Little River Outfitters site as well). I'm in the process of setting up a fly fishing blog myself, focusing mostly on Arizona trout streams (particularly Oak Creek); sites like yours motivate me to get it up and running...

    I can relate with fishing streamers--they are pretty fun to fish, not to mention effective, especially on the bigger guys. It can be a blast to watch a predatory trout charge after and inhale a pattern, and I feel like casting streamers, of all the techniques of fly fishing, potentially involves the most action imparted to the fly by the angler--a challenging and rewarding way of fishing.

    Keep up the great posts, tight lines, Iain