Three Nights on the Madison

Three Nights on the Madison

Jason Borger | Tuesday, 28 June 2016

​The Madison could be called “America’s River.” For me, the Madison is in many ways a home river. I’ve fished it since earliest childhood and many of my fondest memories and piscatorial lessons have come from its storied waters.


For much of its most-famous 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, though, there are places—behind the rocks, at the tails of islands, in the quiet of overhung back channels—where the river reveals its more intimate side. The quieter sections of the river are often the territory of the tiny: dancing caddis, rising midge pupae and falling spinners. Bigfish 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 noses and 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.

The unyielding currents of the Madison can play the trickster, fooling one into thinking a fish is bigger than it really is. Truly large fish, however, have a certain feel. There is a purposeful, unyielding surge when a big fish moves. Big fish push up-current, then turn and head down and away. Big fish remove line from the reel with a continuity that ignores pressure. Big fish swim like they are shrugging the water from their shoulders..

Big fish also give one the opportunity to practice tippet knots and to learn the art of creative metallurgy as one re-shapes hook bends. Sometimes, though, everything holds together. When it does, you can end up cradling a brown that tapes well on the high side of the 20-inch mark.

Some years back, I spent ten straight days on the banks of the Madison. In that time I had three magical 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 tight window comprising 15 minutes or so. Each night boiled down to walking in, waiting around, casting madly and then walking out.

To better my chances, I fished hatch-tuneddropper system. All three nghts I rigged a size 16caddis as the point fly, with either a size 16 fluorescent spinner or a size 18 trailing-shuck Griffith’s Gnat on the drop.

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. The caddises, midges and rusty spinners showed up about 15 minutes before dusk and the noses started soon thereafter. I went with acaddis and Griffith’s Gnat combo

The first fish to the fly (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 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.

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 the barn and you have the recipe for dented equipment and dented bodies, not to mention dented egos.

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. I had hooked another up-current swimmer. 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 eye opening.

Then, the fish turned, surged and the line began peeling from my reel. The run wasn’t overly fast, just constant. The soft buzzing of the reel’s clicker played an even tune as the fly line/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 ahead. Perhaps we would chance to meet again.

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 willows put me at a promising stretch of water. My father 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, just hoping that the third night would be the charm. Other nights, in other summers, had certainly been kinder. The Madison has never failed to provide me with big fish, especially during the twilight hours. Many times those big fish have been landed, amidst soft night breezes and the flutter of caddis wings. Other times,though, the big fish have become only stories, told to friends and perhaps written down. Three nights on the Madison may not seem like much, but the memories will be with me always.