After spending about 10 minutes under the overturned raft that we had propped up between two boulders as a temporary shelter, the hailstorm eased and we crawled out to inspect the cloudy sky for any sign of blue relief.
Instead, we saw more black clouds with distant lightning flashing and the wind continued its steady roar upstream, making paddling the raft downstream an exercise in exhaustion.
This was my introduction to the Madison River below Quake Lake in southwest Montana’s Madison Valley. I had never explored this upper stretch of the Madison, despite — or maybe because of — its legendary status among fly anglers.
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The 183-mile long Madison River begins in Yellowstone National Park at the junction of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers. From there it flows peacefully through 23 miles of the park before entering Montana and creating Hebgen Lake. Just downstream, Quake Lake was formed in the deadly 7.5-magnitude earthquake of 1959, which dumped so much rock into the Madison River that it was nearly completely blocked until the Army Corps of Engineers created a spillway amid the rubble.
The top spot on the Madison for fly anglers is from Lyons Bridge downstream to the small town of Ennis. Continuing downstream, Ennis Lake is popular with recreational boaters and the Beartrap Canyon, below the Ennis Dam, is some of the best remote whitewater in the state. Below the Beartrap the river turns into a popular innertube floating section known for its “bikini hatch.”
From about Greycliff fishing access downstream to the river’s confluence with the Gallatin and Jefferson to form the Missouri River, north of the town of Three Forks, the Madison sees much less use — partly because the shallow water below Beartrap heats up in the summer, often resulting in fishing closures.
Many boulders remain in the river directly below Quake Lake, creating a mile-long whitewater section for experts only. From the Quake Lake outlet about 14 miles downstream to Lyons Bridge, wading anglers have exclusive access to the water. Anglers can still float the upper section — although even at 1,500 cubic feet per second like we experienced that’s a rock-dodging task — they just can’t fish from their boat.
We launched at Raynold’s Pass fishing access site, the first big site on the upper river, located where Montana 87 crosses the stream on the way to Henry’s Lake in Idaho. The plan was to make a short float with lots of stops to fish along the way, with the option to enjoy a shore dinner to enable us to fish into the evening caddis hatch.
Dinner would not include fresh fish, as this same upper section is catch-and-release only, unless the angler is 14 or younger, in which case they can keep one fish of any size. This section also is closed to bait fishing and is only open the third Saturday in May through the end of February to protect spawning rainbow trout.
FISH ON, OR NOT
My friend is a solid fly angler and always catches fish. So it was no surprise that he hooked three trout just past the Raynold’s Pass access site.
He was tossing a large, black foam beetle pattern that had lots of girdle-material legs, some flash on its back along with an orange high-visibility dot. My theory was that it looked enough like a salmonfly, and we were close enough to the hatch, that maybe the trout were getting primed for the annual fly fest.
My friend kindly gave me a second beetle fly that he had, but I couldn’t hook a fish and only got a few lookers, while he continued to reel in a selection of strong-fighting browns and rainbows ranging from about 14 to 18 inches. Frustrated, I picked up his spinning rod and caught a brown trout on the first cast.
On the second day of fishing the upper Madison, I was getting lots of strikes on big royal stimulators and similar flies, but I kept breaking off the fish or fly. This was a way for the fish to tell me that I needed to buy some new tippet material. At least, that’s what I hoped the problem was — a technical failure rather than an angler malfunction. For my self-esteem’s sake, that distinction means a lot.
Even if I was breaking off fish, it was hard to overlook the beauty of the area. Scattered clouds would alternately spotlight and then dim the high Madison Mountain Range. At our feet, crowds of orange Indian paintbrush mixed in with the occasional patch of wild purple irises in a riot of spring color.
And, surprisingly, on a weekday the crowd of fellow anglers was fairly thin, especially the farther we walked away from the fishing access sites. That search for solitude was why I had launched the raft on the first day, a decision I came to regret when the wind came up, followed by heavy rain and then the pelting hail.
Two miles short of our take-out point we pulled to shore again and it was decided it would be faster to walk to the car than weave the raft back and forth across the river at the mercy of the wind’s switching directions, making the raft look like it was being rowed by a crew of drunken sailors.
Since it was my raft and my car at the takeout, it was only fair that I be the one to walk. Cars, mostly from Idaho and Washington, along with loud tractor-trailer rigs whizzed past.
Although I tried to look humble and distraught as it rained again, no humanitarian took pity and pulled over to give me a ride. Such rejection was probably the penalty for wanting to be alone on the Madison River.