Dear Diary, a Madison Update

Sometimes things just don’t go the way you expect them to. A couple of days ago, I thought everything was coming together nicely for my last days on the Madison river in 2021. The following day however, saw no fish. Not for me, and not for the dozens of other anglers lined up to take a swing through Barnes Hole.

I only took one pass through and got no bumps at all, apart from the rock that ate a pair of flies.

So I decided to explore upstream, where I haven’t fished before. Just upstream from Barnes Hole #1, just around the corner in fact, is another run called “cable car”, I think. There is an old concrete foundation on the bank with a steel cable stay, and there were four anglers stepping through the run. One guy gave me some intel on what was upstream, “Not a lot of good water, but some guys swear by it.” he said.

Upstream from Barnes Hole

He was right, there was not much fishy looking water. It was mostly a shin-deep riffle from bank to bank, with only a few small deeper slots here and there. I walked as far as the gauge station, about a mile upstream. There was one slot near the bank that looked deep enough that maybe it held fish, so I slipped and slid down through the snow and made about 20 casts, with no result.

When I walked back to the #1 run, there were way too many people in the water to consider waiting to fish. Eight guys in 150 yards? There wasn’t enough daylight left to go to another spot, so I decided to just bail for the day.

Yesterday I went downstream, closer to the lake, on the theory that nobody was catching at Barnes Hole because the fish were still lower in the river. More than one guy said Bakers Hole had better reports, and I went to the highway bridge to fish the upstream stretch where I had good luck last year. The sun was bright and warm, not a cloud in the sky. I left my jacket unzipped as I swung my rig through the first run, with no result except losing more flies to the snags scattered here and there.

There is a junction upstream where several braids come together and form a series of deep slots, the next fishy spot on this stretch. I swung the Bakers Hole Bugger and Grouse + Pink combo through a slot that produced on another trip, but got no bumps. On the last swing to the end of the pool, I thought I was snagged when I lifted the rod, but it was a rainbow that stealth-ate the pink fly. Not a bruiser, but a pretty fish, and big enough to be a lake runner.

I fished the rest of the junction and only lost more flies on the bottom. Further upstream there is a bend pool with a gravel shelf, another spot that held lots of fish a couple of years ago. Too small a pool to swing really, I switched over to the bobber setup with an egg sucking worm and a Serendipity. Nothing. Well, I had one small fish eat a fly but spit it out before I could get the hook into it. I tried another pair of flies with no interest.

The lower part of the bend is swing-able, and I made a couple of passes with different flies, but no grabs. The sun was getting low and I decided to head back to the start for another pass before dark. As I was walking past the tailout of the unproductive pool, I thought, “Hell, one more shot” and I cast the bobber rig to the center of the deep slot. Snagged again, damn. But again, it was a stealth rainbow and a better fish than the last one.

I tried one more shot at the same spot but was snagged again, for real this time and broke off another two flies.

The last run of the day near the parking spot passed with two more flies lost mid stream. I think I lost eight or ten flies across the afternoon. At least the sun setting over the snowy Madison Range was a lovely sight to end the day.

This afternoon is the last shot, unless I decide to stick around for a few more days. The Rainbow Point campground has a loop open for the late season and it isn’t too far from the water. The forecast is good through the week, with bad weather coming again next weekend. I’ll have to be out of Montana by then for sure.

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