Exiting Montana…

…Without winning the big fish lottery, AKA, fishing the Madison River in the Fall for lake-run browns and rainbows. This year, I picked a losing ticket. I caught a few nice average fish, but nothing special. Last year wasn’t great, but it felt better than this year. A guy I chatted with at Barnes Hole on my last swing through the Park said as much, “The last two years have sucked.”

He was also timed out and making his last swing. I had just made my last pass swinging a Bakers Hole Bugger and a soft hackle, without a bump. I told him I was debating or not whether to make another pass with a bobber and a pink worm. “You always have to make at least one dirty run”, he offered. I laughed, then I made a dirty run.

He was ahead of me, tossing a two-handed spey setup, and he hooked one small fish on his last pass. I rigged up with a egg/worm combo and a tiny BWO nymph. And I did get a fish on the last run! The first whitey, I think, of my whole Fall run. Which is exceptional, because usually the river is thick with them.

I hope the past two seasons have been a fluctuation, and not a permanent result of climate change. I caught plenty of nice browns out of the lake during the summer, so they haven’t disappeared. They just don’t seem to have been in the river at the same time as me.

It’s hard to declare an end when you feel like you’ve missed the prize. I imagine it is how a gambler feels leaving the casino after a long bender, with empty pockets. I feel a bit like I did when I left the Smith River in California without a steelhead, after three months of swinging flies through every river from Eureka to Crescent City. (Though I did get one modest fish from the Klamath.) Sure, the Madison produced more fish than that trip, but brown trout are not supposed to be “the fish of a thousand casts”, like steelhead.

The fish of a thousand casts, 2017, Klamath River, CA.
The Smith River steelhead I wanted to catch. (This one was dead on the bank where I found it.)

In 2019, I spent six months on the Texas coast trying to sight fish for reds, and at the end, I did get a couple of great fish under perfect conditions. But they were a long time coming. Leaving the Texas coast, I didn’t feel like I’d lost, but I didn’t feel like a winner either. At least I learned a lot.

I left Montana via the road through Yellowstone, aiming to check out a few boondocking spots around Jackson Hole that I haven’t been to before. The first one is right on the upper Snake River, south of Yellowstone and north of Grand Teton. Last year, I fished a stretch of the Snake just south of the park boundary after departing the Madison and got a few nice fish. Same deal as the Madison, fall run spawning browns heading upstream from Jackson Lake.

I’ve been coming to the Jackson area for a few years now and this stretch of Forest Service land was off my radar until I bumped across it on Campendium. I expect that in season, it is really difficult to grab one of these free sites right on the water, but this time of year there are open spots. It has weird Verizon cell service, where my data is fantastic, downloading at over 40 Mbps, but the voice signal is terrible.

Camp #1 is at the edge of an old burn scar… the view opposite is better.

I fished in the afternoon and walked upstream where I found a great looking run, a long and deep pool fed from a gravel shelf drop-off. It looked juicy, like for sure I was going to pull multiple fish out of it in a half hour.

When I stepped in above the shelf, I spooked a fish in shin-deep water and saw its large shadow scoot down into the pool. A great sign. I swung a streamer/wet fly combo through and was surprised to get no bumps. I switched rods to the floating line setup and took off the bobber to swing through the shallow riffle where I spooked the shadowy fish, but still no interest. I had on a heavy pink worm anchor fly with a size 20 BWO emerger trailer, and I let it swing slowly down into the deep bank-side eddy, where it was grabbed hard.

It was a pretty nice brown, and it ate the little BWO. It ran me in a few circles, threatening to wrap around my legs before I got it netted. I figured my instincts were good and there would be more fish coming soon, but I was wrong. I saw a few splashy rises, and I saw one brown jump clear out of the water in the slow outside bend. I figured they were acting aggressively in the pre-spawn warmup games, so I tied on a big white streamer and ripped it through from the bank, but no takers appeared.

I tried a variety of other flies and methods through the run, but had no more takes, sad to say. I moved downstream to try a few other pools that looked great, but the sun was departing and it got cold quickly.

The Teton range, south from the Snake River on Grassy Lake Rd.

There is no snow forecast for a few days, so I may stick around a little longer. I want to spend at least a day in Jackson Hole proper, probably at the popular overlook by the Triangle X Ranch. There was an unbelievable sunset view over the valley last year. Then I’ve got to beat feet to somewhere warm.

The Triangle X Ranch below the Tetons, October 22, 2020

Here’s a few of the fish from my Bakers Hole Memory Lane…

  • Bakers Hole Brown Trout
  • Bakers Hole Brown #2
  • A Bakers Hole Witefish
  • Whitey #2
  • 2018 Rainbow
  • 2018 Rainbow #2
  • Disappointed
  • 2020 Brown
  • 2020 Rainbow
  • 2020 Rainbow #2
  • Another 2020 'Bow

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