I forgot to have dinner the night I flew to Bozeman from Minneapolis. It was a mistake. With the exception of vending machines, there were no food options open late in the BZN airport. There was nothing open in Big Sky when we got into town at 11pm either. I inhaled two granola bars and two beers before bed. It’s also worth noting that you should not pack granola bars with metallic wrappers in a thermos if you are flying. Ask TSA for the explanation during their very thorough examination of your bag if you are curious.
Our guide asked us to meet him at 7am the next morning. We loaded up on pastries and breakfast sandwiches at a gas station frequented by every construction worker driving up the mountain to work on multi-million dollar ski homes. Always trust the construction worker when it comes to gas station food. That shit saved my life.
Ninety minutes later, we were on the Madison River on the western border of Yellowstone National Park. Nick was our guide for the day. He had a red beard that would draw envy of any Scot, contagious optimism, a chill vibe from growing up in California, and a knack for giving you whatever unsolicited nickname you didn’t know you always wanted. From the second we buckled into his truck, he was all business. Gotta beat the dawn (and other fisherman) to get to his spot on the river and get his clients (Omar and I) into fish. An efficient dude.
The target was browns and rainbows running up the Madison from Hebgen Lake. It was 16 degrees when we crossed into Yellowstone on Highway 191. Everything was covered in hoarfrost from the geothermal river waters. An old man with a distinct cigar beat us to the spot. He lives in Omaha and has a cabin on the park boundary. Living the dream, if you ask me. Nick regularly sees him on the river. They once passively protected their treasured spots but started becoming friendly this season. Now they routinely share the same water, taking shifts rotating spots. And that’s what we did. Omar and I would swing for 15 minutes, catch a fish, then the old man would leave his folding chair and occupy one of our spots while the other sat with Nick.
We pulled out a handful of fish every hour. Browns and rainbows mostly, but a few whitefish–the two former of which were stocked over a century ago while the latter has been here since the river was cut into the mountains. I was in Montana to catch trout, though I take special joy in catching native fish. The smallest fish of the day was a resident rainbow of 12″. All of the lake-living fish we got to net were at least 19″. We lost many, many fish and I’m sure some were bigger than anything we got to the net because that’s what every fisherman says.
I was fishing with my 7/8wt. Winston rod and Redington reel. These lake-run trout could bend the rod like nothing I’ve hooked in the North. It reminded me why it was a good decision to leave the 4wt at home.
We fished the same feature for six hours. Lunch and everything. The plan was to bounce from spot to spot, but when you’re landing 21″ brown after 21″ brown, you don’t move. Hate to admit it, but I was getting antsy. One thing I love about fly fishing is hiking to new areas and exploring new water. Even when I get into a mess of fish at home, I can only sit at that spot for a couple hours before I leave the fish behind and move on.
If we didn’t arrange to spend the day with Nick, we would have spent nine hours with a frosty skunk. We wouldn’t have caught anything. Maybe one of us would have been lucky, but it wouldn’t have looked good. This just reinforced our decision to fish with a guide. If you’re ever going to fish new water outside of your home state without any knowledge of the area or connections with people who fish it regularly, fish with someone like Nick. Almost every fly shop has a guide staff and they’ll devote the day to getting you into whatever fish you’re seeking.
The day will firmly hold a spot as a Top 10 Fishing Day. I got into the biggest trout of my life (so far), ventured into parts of Yellowstone I’ve never seen, learned how to do a proper mend with gusto, ate so many Cheetos, and had a positive outlook the entire time despite falling into the river while failing to set a hook. Montana is a place that’s worth your time.