Brad on the Mad(ison) River

Our writer hooks a fish from the boat of Rick Welle, senior guide at Madison River Outfitters. (Keith Carlson photo)

Preparation enriches Idahoans’ trips to Madison River country

Editors note: In his first submission to Idaho Outdoor Journal , Idaho writer Brad Carlson compares the “setups and techniques” used on his home waters to those needed to succeed on the big, multi-velocity runs of the Madison River near Yellowstone National Park in Montana.

by Brad Carlson

MADISON RIVER, Mont. –The long, hefty rainbow trout got away quickly despite striking my dry fly with a shockingly loud flush. As the first fish I hooked on my latest Madison River trip, it was his duty to inform me that my instinctive method of setting the hook – high and away, gently – wouldn’t work here.

I should have known, since I’ve had the good fortune to fish the Madison in southwest Montana many times since first picking up a fly rod in 1979 at age 13. I’ve spooked, hooked, lost and landed rainbow and brown trout with all manner of equipment and techniques – some of which fell out of favor long ago, only to resurface in the latest retro craze. Dad was always there to help, and to remind me that each day on the Madison brings its own lessons and rewards.

This time, June 27-July 1, we wanted to see how our Madison setups and techniques compare to what we use on our home streams. Dad fishes the Lochsa River in north central Idaho frequently. I gravitate toward the Lower Owyhee River in eastern Oregon and the Malad in south central Idaho, and have limited experience on the South Fork Boise.

Rick Welle, left, and Keith Carlson enjoying success on Madison River. (Brad Carlson photo)
Rick Welle, left, and Keith Carlson enjoying success on Madison River. (Brad Carlson photo)

We benefit from the knowledge of Rick Welle, a longtime friend with whom we have booked Madison drift boat trips since the early 2000s. Welle, senior guide at Madison River Outfitters in West Yellowstone, has worked on the river for more than 35 years.

Due Diligence

On- and off-water preparation at home can pay big dividends on the Madison and elsewhere in the Yellowstone National Park area, where well-schooled trout and tricky conditions challenge experienced anglers who come from all over.

We began getting ready months in advance. Dad tied many flies, including Madison-specific patterns that seem to have increased in number and specificity over the years. He learned some from Welle, who ties full-time in the offseason. I asked anglers in the Boise area how they prepare to fish in the Yellowstone country. I fished some leader rigs associated with the Madison and brushed up fundamentals sure to be tested.

Yearling mule deer at home in the cool Madison River. (Keith Carlson photo.)
Yearling mule deer at home in the cool Madison River. (Keith Carlson photo.)

I also learned a single-hand Spey cast at the urging of Erik Moncada, who works at the Anglers fly shop in Boise. The technique can streamline roll casts from the water’s surface. He likes to use it from a drift boat in many instances.

Moncada said preparation he and a friend put in ahead of a mid-June trip to catch the Salmonfly hatch on the Yellowstone River paid off. They monitored river levels online and by asking experts at local fly shops how daily flows affected anglers. They arrived to ideal conditions on the Yellowstone, and succeeded with some fly patterns they bought locally and some they tied.

Wayne Johnson, who owns Anglers Habitat in Meridian, Idaho, said he once prepared for a trip to eastern Idaho’s Henry’s Fork of the Snake River by getting to know employees at a local fly shop, including when they arrive at the shop and when they get their first updates on insects and fish for the day. He fared much better than he expected on the extremely technical area streams, thanks to local help with fly patterns and leader design.

Leader matters

Hand-tied, multi-segment leaders remain common on the Madison in summer. The river’s great width and multitude of currents from bank to bank often demand a specialized approach. At Slide Inn, where we stayed, proprietor Kelly Galloup’s preferred fast-sinking “drop shot” leader system appears on an instruction sheet alongside no fewer than five other setups for fishing two subsurface nymphs at once. (Galloup’s rig ends with a split shot, secured to a piece of light tippet attached to the bottom fly. Slide Inn fly shop staff helped me with it even before our trip.) Welle said in recent years he’s seen nymph anglers use a number of new leader designs, a few of which even leave off the traditional heavy back section.

The Madison River’s low and mostly uniform depth provides great access for guides and anglers. (Keith Carlson photo)
The Madison River’s low and mostly uniform depth provides great access for guides and anglers. (Keith Carlson photo)

Our nymph rods had leaders with a slightly lighter back section than we used in the past. Welle made additions and alterations for the boat trip, on which smaller-than-usual subsurface patterns seemed most productive. The rig got the flies down as quickly as possible while allowing us to keep control at long distances. (I realized my Owyhee leader works acceptably on that river because the slower current gives nymphs time to sink, but my leader for the deep-and-fast South Fork Boise doesn’t work.) Leaders on our Madison dry-fly rods had heavier tippets than we would fish at home, a nod to the Madison’s roily surface and fast running trout.

Not all seasoned Yellowstone-area anglers use fast-action rods designed to increase line speed and distance. Bob Juola, a Boise resident who builds bamboo fly rods, said many started fishing when medium- and full-flex rods were the norm. These softer rods work well at shorter distances where many fish are caught in the area’s habitat-rich rivers, and they deliver slack-line casts well, he said.

Keith Carlson casts a dry fly within view of one of the Madison River’s famous fence lines. (Brad Carlson photo)
Keith Carlson casts a dry fly within view of one of the Madison River’s famous fence lines. (Brad Carlson photo)

On that first day wade fishing on our own, Dad caught several large fish on dry flies and I recovered from snapping off my first. I recalled the hook-setting move Welle taught my son and me many years earlier: Downstream and firm.

We turned our attention to the upcoming boat trip. Scheduling a guided trip early in your first visit is well worth the cost because it enables you to learn much more, much faster, about a river’s fish, habitat and tested techniques compared to fishing on your own.

Welle got us into fish consistently from boat, bank and gravel bar. He taught me an easier and more effective slack-line cast for dry flies. (On the Owyhee’s slow sections in winter, I get into a two-part, cast-and-mend pattern that’s hard to break when springtime flow increases prompt fish to move into current-adjacent feeding lanes.) Welle put us into ideal wading positions. Mid-river, he got out of the boat countless times to walk it downstream slowly, giving us many shots at prime spots.

After our boat trip, we returned to both spots where we had fished that first full day. I found more productive water after benefiting from Welle’s “guide eyes” earlier.

Madison River Outfitters guide Rick Welle and the author with one of the Madison’s sizable rainbow trout. (Keith Carlson photo)
Madison River Outfitters guide Rick Welle and the author with one of the Madison’s sizable rainbow trout. (Keith Carlson photo)

Homeward bound

Before heading home, we put home-stream leaders back on our nymph lines. Dad set his up for the long, flexible strike indicator that works well in the Lochsa’s varied depths. I reattached a manufactured, one-piece leader that performs in the Owyhee’s vegetation-rich channels. I took one final look at the Madison rig that proved successful on the big water, including the firm, two-piece indicator system Welle uses so effectively in the wavy river.

Looking back, preparing for our Madison River trip well in advance prolonged our enjoyment, improved our fishing and helped us appreciate the lessons our home streams provide. The Owyhee’s tricky currents and frequent insistence on small flies, the Lochsa’s swiftness and the South Fork Boise’s deep spots provided solid experience we tapped in learning more about the world-famous Madison. I can’t wait to return to home waters with renewed enthusiasm and some tuned-up skills.

Brad Carlson is a Boise-area writer.