Chasing Bugs on the Madison

When I started my fly fishing adventure in 2015, I did not have any particular goals or targets in mind, beyond spending time on some iconic waters of the West.  In total that year I fished 57 distinct bodies of water, including the visit to Florida at the end.

I’ve stumbled across seasonal highlights without having planned it, such as when the big browns are running up the Madison river into Yellowstone in October.  Last year I lucked into the grayling spawning run in a high elevation Colorado reservoir, which was an amazing event with spectacularly easy to catch fish! Big fun.

I managed to get myself onto Pyramid Lake in Nevada for the Fall inshore feeding run of big Lahontan cutthroats, which was a success. And in the most targeted event of my travels, I dedicated three months to winter steelhead in Northern California, which was mostly a bust.

Now I’ve found myself on one of the most storied rivers of the West, during the biggest hatch event of the year… the salmon fly hatch on the Madison in Montana. I was very lucky on the first day, the 3rd of July, as I found the freshly hatched three inch long stoneflies crawling through the willows and grass along the water. A storm was coming, and I watched two bugs in  row get blown onto the water and get demolished by a big fish six inches from the bank!

Madison River Salmon Fly
The bug that puts the tug in the drug.

There was a guy just below throwing a nymph rig, and I pointed out the rising fish to him. He declined to target it and kept on tossing his bobber! I could not believe it, and I stepped in below after he had moved on. I could not get that fish to eat, but a little farther upstream, as the wind was howling at my back, a very substantial fish smashed my giant black foam fly and took off downstream.  I fiddled with the drag on my cheap Cabelas reel and went too loose, causing a free-spool and the resulting mess, and the fish was off. Aaarrgh, anguish! That was fantastic, lets do it again!

I was able to land two great big rainbows in the next hour, one that ate my top fly and one that ate the size 4 Pat’s Rubber-legs I hung below it. But I was also able to watch a salmon fly emerging from its nymphal exoskeleton on the edge of the water, something I had never experienced. Most stoneflies emerge at night, and I’ve only ever been witness to their empty shells on the riverside stones. It was quite a thing to see.

Big Fly
Three inches of black foam and elk hair.

Now I’ve been chasing another day like that for almost a week, without success. The bugs are still here, crawling about the willows and grass, but the fish are not interested in them. I’ve tried several radically different patterns, but found success only with much smaller golden stones, which aren’t anything special. I want that extraordinary smashing eat of a huge fly! My compromise fly that worked yesterday is a size 8 Improved Sofa Pillow, which is neato, but a little too much like a regular Stimulator.

Salmon Flies
Top: KG’s Booty Shaker, size huge; middle: unnamed size 4; bottom right: unnamed size 6; bottom left: Improved Sofa Pillow, size 8.

I went to the experts and I talked to Kelly Galloup at his shop, the Slide Inn, only a mile or so up the road from my camp here at Raynolds Pass. I told him that I’d seen many more salmon flies last evening than in the previous few and asked, was that because they hatched in multiple broods? He told me that it is only because they are active at night and my lucky afternoon was the exception, not the rule. The best chance to get a trout to eat a big salmon fly is to go out after dark. How do you see your fly to know if it’s been taken? “You don’t need to see it, you will hear it”, he said!

So last night I rummaged through my stuff and found batteries for my little LED cap light, made sure my flashlight was charged up and headed out onto the water at 8:30. Sunset was around nine, and it was easy to see the big elk hair wing of my fly until almost ten. But I had no takers. Some swipes, a few drive-bys, no eats. So I downsized. I tried different patterns, but to no effect. I was standing below a seam that had at least four fish enthusiastically eating something off the top, but they did not want my stonefly. I changed the trailing fly a couple of times until I found the little caddis that they wanted,  and I got two nice fish out of that seam in the dark. Nice fish but not the fish I wanted.

Nighttime Brown
After dark caddis eater. Why won’t you eat that bug that’s 1500 calories?

Galloup said the salmon flies will probably remain around for another week. All I can do is keep on trying, be ready with the big bugs for the chance event that turns the fish on again. It beats working.





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