The Serpent and Unreachable Trout

Posted By on May 23, 2009

Taking a slight departure from my standard haunt I’ve been fishing the Lower Madison lately.

The Madison is one of the most famous fly fishing destinations in the world and for good reason. It’s full of character, with more faces than Lon Chaney and stretching from Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Gallatin and the Jefferson to form the Missouri River. My lack of experience on the Lower stretch of this river is not for lack of want mind you; but I usually either have my daughter in tow or just side on ease and general laziness. However, recently my usual fare has been muddy and high and being alone I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to venture to parts un-fished in pursuit of bigger fish. That’s where the Madison comes in; a welcome departure and a perfect opportunity to broaden my repertoire.

I’ve fished it before a handful of times with minimal success so I figured it’s high time I familiarize myself better with the “50 mile riffle”.

The “Mother’s Day” Caddis hatch has been in full swing lately, with caddis as many as stars in the sky, so for four straight nights I had been fishing what I thought was a cleaver spot. A hidden away bend with difficult access which I was sure held all the hogs that everyone in their drift boats pass by. I have discovered over the years that what I often view as a cleaver spot is only clever to me and usually the spot there are no fish. Such was the case with my secret out of the way bend.

I probably should have realized this a day or two prior as I stood amongst a blanket of caddis that clung to me like I was a willow with no fish feeding, watching a couple of guys on the far bank land fish upon fish. I am apparently either a glutton for punishment or hopelessly hard headed because I continued my foolish pursuit each night to no avail.

Desperate and defeated I mentioned my dilemma to a local fly shop guy who nodded knowingly and seemed to laugh internally at my misfortune as if he had dealt with this sort of idiot before. “Yeah, that used to be a good spot but a couple of seasons ago the river really changed during the runoff.”

“Really?” I said, nonchalantly poking at a few flies in the case not wanting to seem too stupid or inept.

“Yeah, there used to be a great drop-off there where the fish would stack and feed but the high water cut away the upper bank and leveled it off, so now it’s all changed in below that rock.” He continued as if I knew what he was talking about and I scrambled to catch up, constantly searching for a nugget of useful information.

I figured I should say something intelligent but pretty much all that came out was, “Huh… How ‘bout that?”

Perhaps sensing that I was in need of a successful evening and a little guidance he finally divulged a useful tip. “You know… I like to fish that stretch across from there on the other side.”

Oh yeah, I thought. The stretch where I’ve seen a dozen other guys catch fish? I said nothing and opted to play dumb.

He elaborated. “Yeah just park at that boat access and cross the little creek… there’s a trail that will take you along the cliff face. On down from there you’ll find some great runs and some good rocky areas. It’s beautiful back in there.”

It sure is. I thought. I had a camera full of photos of it taken from the other “fishless” side of the river.

Grateful for the information, I bought something I didn’t need and that I would probably hear about later from my wife once she saw the bank statement. I find that I have a vast collection of useless gizmos purchased as courtesy tips for fishing information. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who falls for this ploy.

So, armed with local knowledge I headed off to the “other side”; hopeful that my luck would change.

Luck is a funny thing. It occurs to me now that occasionally luck, the drive to find big fish, and just enough knowledge to be dangerous can sometimes blend together in one glorious casserole of misfortune. However, misfortune never comes at you straight on and from a distance so you can prepare yourself. Instead it coils and strikes from beneath some rock.

I arrived at the boat access, parked, geared up and stood at the river’s edge posing dramatically to survey the biblical like swarm of caddis which appeared like a thick fog just above the surface. You never want to just rush in to fly fishing. You must center yourself properly, analyzing carefully the situation like a painter does his blank canvas. This sets the scene and generally makes you feel at one with the river and the fish that wait within.

Following the fly shop guys advice I eased into the river, crossed the stream and leisurely headed up the trail all the while examining insects and wind direction like some Apache Indian guide. Because of course, that’s part of the process.

The trail was well maintained but narrow and as it rose in elevation above the river it became steeper with one side dropping dramatically 100 feet to the river below and on the other side a crumbly rock face with rose up the mountain side. As I walked up the trail I peered down into the river below only to clearly see feeding trout in a series of pools and shallow runs. Naturally, the only logical thing to do was to find a way to reach those fish because who knows, they could be the only fish in the river. I decided that it wasn’t too steep and that if I dug my boots and wading staff into the crumbling sandstone rubble I might not plummet head over heels to my death. Even if I did… it was a beautiful evening and I would go out it dramatic fly fishing glory. So, down I went in hot pursuit. Luckily it wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined and making it to the bottom in one piece; I carefully placed an Elk Hair Caddis and landed a nice rainbow on the first cast. Satisfied and gloating over my fishing mastery I eased on to the next pool and proceed to pick up two more one after the other.

At this point I had caught three reasonably sized fish in less than a dozen cast and had all but forgot the past three days of frustration and the few times I had contemplated simply lying down in the river and drifting quietly downstream to the sweat release of a watery grave. Yet, now as I looked ahead I could see that my initial plan to remain in the river and work my way upstream was foiled because the cliff jetted sharply into the river and was now a shear face that ended in a deep boiling pool well over my head. With no way past I was forced to turn my attention to the crumbly slope back to the trail. Now skidding down is one thing; but going up is an all together different proposition and with wet wading boots, a bad right arm that I’ve been nursing and my new $1200 rod and reel, was not something I found inviting. But, with a feeding fish just out of reach on the opposite side of that cliff I saw no other choice. Putting my new Winston into my teeth I began to scale the cliff hand over hand until finally was able to drag myself wheezing back onto the trail.

From this new vantage point I could now see that the just out of reach feeding fish I had spotted was the fish I had been hunting. It was a big brown at least 22 inches, lying steady, munching caddis like Pringles in a perfect foam line trailing behind a boulder. Access should be no problem now as once past the cliff I could easily slip back down a gradual slope to make the perfect cast. The sun was setting and it would be the perfect finale to an evening adventure.

I paused on the trail to catch my breath, took a couple of photos from atop the cliff and watched a raft drift by full of scantily clad women; which is common this time of year on the Madison, and then forged on to the task at hand.

Taking only a few steps down the trail I heard a distinct sound that thinking on now, feel unsure I’ve actually ever personally witnessed; but instinctively knew precisely from which it came. Years of ballet training coming back to me as I leaped into the air and executed a Double Rond de jambe en l’air that would make Balanchine proud. I whipped around to see coiled and unhappy a Western Rattlesnake with mouth open wide only inches from where my foot had previously been. Hey, I’ll be honest. I was a little scared because in my haste to retreat I had wacked my rod tip onto the overhanging rocks and had to check to see if I had broken the tip. Luckily I hadn’t and could now turn my attention on the very disturbed and large snake that stood between me and the feeding 23 inch behemoth below.

While surveying the situation and placing a safe distance between me and the Mr. Snake I took a couple of pictures and a video that I’ll share at a later time. I could see that from my current position that there was no way around him and that if I was going to beat the sunset and catch that 24 inch fish he would need to move and that was all there was to it. To one side was a sheer cliff which dropped off into the deep river below and to the other was the steep rock face. I briefly considered that I could somehow hold him off with my wading staff as I passed but became greatly concerned that he might puncture my waders which I can’t afford to replace at this time. That plan seemed impractical and with leaking waders I wouldn’t be able to catch the 25 inch brown that I could still see feeding anyway. After some careful thought and strategy I devised a feasible plan to safely remove the snake; a plan which would not only be safe for me and my waders; but for the snake as well. Because after all I’m a conservation minded angler who cherishes our valuable natural resources. So, with surgical accuracy and the advantage of higher intelligence and an opposable thumb, I pelted him with rocks. Not a particularly graceful solution I admit but I at the time it seemed a plausible approach. The snake was unfazed by my barrage of pebbles. Unfazed, meaning he coiled, hissed and rattled with even more fever than before.

Finally, our 35 minute standoff apparently bored him and he slowly and defiantly slithered across the trail and down into the rocks below. By now of course the sun had almost completely dropped below the horizon and just as I arrived at the river’s edge that 26 inch brown had pushed his chair away, unbutton his trousers, shook his head and gave me only a belch.

Thinking back on it now I wonder if they weren’t in cahoots.


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"Education is not the filling of a pail but a lighting of a fire". W.B. Yeats


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