Montana | "You ever been?" by J. Doering
Talk to any fly fisherman worth his salt around the Northwest or abroad and eventually the talk will gravitate towards the statement,
"You ever been to Montana? Man, let me tell you..."
Their eyes will glaze over and a wistful smile comes to their lips. The person in question will mount a story so full of scenic grandeur you can practically taste that mountain air. Tall tales of trout rising at dusk, massive mountain ranges so close you feel like you can reach out and touch them.
The bison roaming the fields, antelope grazing in huge pastures, and the unlimited opportunities to fish your absolute face off. As the tale winds down from sunsets that take your breath away to rustic diners you start to formulate a plan to get your backside there and experience it! Thus begins my tale of Montana.
A friend of mine, Jared Cady of BigSky Anglers over in West Yellowstone, Montana, has been guiding there since nearly post-high school years. He and I fish together a ton for winter steelhead and salmon in Washington State where he owns and operates his company, GetEmDry guide service.
For years he has told me, "You need to get here and experience this man, it is nothing short of spectacular."
This past year I decided to bite the bullet and do it. I called up some close friends thinking I was going to have to sell it a bit, I mean these guys are steelhead fisherman. I didn’t think, "ugh yeah so we are going to drive 12 hours to catch maybe an 18-inch fish," would be such a great pitch.
So I was rehearsing the “You ever been to Montana? Man let me tell you...” pitch as I dialed. No sooner did I get, "So I’m going to Montana do you..." out when the response came "Yesss yesss when!? Can we leave now!?"
We packed and left a few weeks later, with the drift boat in tow.
Twelve hours in a car with two other guys can change you mentally, longterm. Weird conversations and bad gas station food can have adverse effects on your mind and body.
I’ll give the ole boy behind the counter right outside Bozeman credit, he didn’t bat an eye when three grown men came running into the station wild-eyed yelling, "Where’s the bathroom!?" I am 90% sure we are no longer welcome there.
Eventually, we came unharmed and still coherent to Jared’s house in West Yellowstone. We settled in and right away whipped out our fly rods and were casting away in the yard looking like starry-eyed rookies on that first morning you ever went steelheading.
Most of the trip I was doing my best impression of an old woman fighting off a bee with a broom with my fly rod. But man we sure felt cool slinging them around. Not sure how we fell asleep so excited but we did. The next morning we were up and off to experience one of the most amazing fisheries I have seen yet.
The rest of the trip was a blur and much too long to detail in one article. I'll hit some of the high points and summarize the trip so you can do the same thing should you desire.
First off I would like to say that Montana (here it comes "You ever been to Montana? Man, let me tell you...") is surreal. Every bend in the river, every sunrise, every morning, noon, and sunset you are just blown away by the scenery.
It literally looks like you are stepping right into a page of National Geographic, all the time. You keep looking around while you are fishing just star-struck. Yes, it really is that beautiful. Antelope everywhere, bison in the National Park itself, deer, elk, bighorn sheep. It truly is amazing. It never gets old. The winding rivers over grass plains, steam vents, spectacular—you could write novels about the wildlife you see it is so abundant. Bring lots of memory cards for your cameras.
Every morning we got up around 7:00 a.m., cooked breakfast, chatted, hooked the boat up, chatted some more, packed, and then wandered to the Fly Shop (Big Sky Anglers Fly Shop) right in West Yellowstone. Don’t be in a hurry. Trout bite all day.
Yes, early morning and dusk hours are best. But honestly not worth getting up at the butt crack of dawn for like steelhead/salmon fishing. Keep in mind you can fish in the summer months until darn near 10:30 p.m. with enough light to catch ‘em. So getting on the water by 9:00 a.m. isn't really losing fishing time.
The fishing is just flat out ridiculous.
If you can get your dry fly 3-inches from the bank or indicator tight to shore you are going to do well. We had a streak where we got a bite every cast for nine casts one afternoon. It is that good. I hear the average 5,000 fish per mile info get thrown out a lot. During the dusk hours, you can believe it. Rising fish everywhere.
Jared taught me an indicator trick that is just dirtier than heck but it will whoop ‘em good. Two large salmon Corkies spaced 4-inches apart on the upper part of your leader allow you to see what your drift is doing.
Mend upstream or downstream to “fix” how it fishes, keeping the Corkies always perpendicular to the bank so your drift isn’t dragging or speeding up too much.
It is quite literally bobber fishing with a fly rod. Doesn’t get any easier. You can adjust depth quickly, and it is pretty easy to just flop out there to keep fishing. It ain’t pretty but it fishes well. I tied up one stonefly pattern with a nymph “dropper.” Caught a lot of bigger fish on the tiniest dang nymph patterns you ever saw. Blew my mind.
Dry fly fishing. Wow.
The first time you see a trout come up and smash your fly on the surface you will scream like a little school girl. Your buddy comes crashing through the bushes with the camera like a charging bison thinking you hooked the Moby Brown to find that the fish was no longer than your big toe.
They sip it. They smash it.
They fake like they are going to hit it just to make your lower unit pucker up. It is just too much fun to even explain. Use whatever floatant you want to keep the fly dry. Re-apply the second you see that you can’t keep your fly floating on the surface. Or cast it into the trees so you have to tie on a new one like I did.
I also liked using two dry flies in tandem. One bigger like a salmonfly with a caddis “dropper” tied 12 inches off the hook bend of the first fly. It is also an excellent way to lose $5 into the trees instead of $2.50.
Flick those bugs within two to four inches of the bank and make sure they stay nice and dry. What a Blast!
I just got goosebumps thinking about it! We couldn’t even stop when we would get to the takeout, just beached the boat and kept fishing until we couldn’t see our flies on the water anymore.
You can be a total "fly" moron like myself and still have an absolute blast.
I can’t say enough about Big Sky Anglers. Just a wealth of knowledge. What to do, where to go, what to use. All with a smile which had to be frustrating with a “non-bugger” like myself. When talking with the shop guys at one point in the fly shop he literally went from English to this foreign language vaguely sounding like English.
"Well are you nymphing? What kind of hatch are you trying to match? Caddis hatch is going on so I would try the Missing Link myself or maybe a Green Drake if you see them on the river."
I leaned over to my friend and said, "I think he is trying to communicate with us but I’ll be damned if I know what he is trying to say. "After a good laugh, he explained what he meant, grabbed a dozen flies for us, and gave us the whole rundown. It was that easy. Not to mention the Fly Shop itself is just awesome! Great gear, pictures, tying gear, sunglasses, hats, everything! literally a one-stop shop.
We fished the Madison River all six days.
We floated every day. Armed with Jared Cady’s expert tutelage on where to fish and what floats to do we did well for ourselves. For anyone looking to do it, I recommend bringing your fiberglass drift boat and doing the same!
The launches/takeouts are easily found on a map you can get at Big Sky Anglers.
They will advise you which float they think you should do, the shuttle service they use, and even what to fish! It doesn’t get easier. If you row fairly often then there is nothing challenging about rowing the Madison. Just stay away from the exposed boulders and you'll be fine. Do not bring an aluminum boat. You will bang and clatter the whole way. No one in Montana even owns an aluminum boat.
Check your regulations. You can purchase your licenses at the fly shop for Montana. You have a few options for buying a certain amount of days. Some of the Madison is “No Fishing from a Floating Device” and other parts are okay to fish from the boat. Check to be sure where you can and can’t fish from the boat.
Word to the wise, at 7,000 feet the sun is a little more gnarly in West Yellowstone. If the wind isn’t blowing enough you also will become an Old Country Buffet to some of the most cold-blooded killer mosquitos I have ever encountered.
We couldn’t figure out why everyone was wearing full-sleeved shirts and long pants. Here we were, no shirt, shorts, cold beer in hand—armed with sunscreen we thought we had it handled! Negative.
At the end of the second day my friend Dan literally looked like Patient Zero. He was covered in lumps and tumors that had morphed into Picaso-esque welts from scratching the bites. Matched with his class 5 sunburn in the shape of his tank top it was quite a sight. At one point fishing an island we saw him have some sort of breakdown on the far side with cursing and flailing becoming running and yelling.
When we showed up at Jared’s house that night after fishing he took one look at us and said, "What the heck happened to you guys?"
Lesson learned. By day three bug spray was hanging from lanyards from our necks, but the psychological damage had been done. For days afterward we would randomly start slapping phantom mosquitos we thought we were feeling on our legs and arms. You are laughing, I can tell. It wasn’t funny. Now? Pretty funny.
We did get to fish with Jared Cady the last day and he really showed us the program. He knew every nook and cranny. "Been catching a 20-plus-inch brown here almost every trip. Right...There ...Set!" Rinse and repeat. I suggest booking a trip with him if you visit.
There are great spots to eat right there in West Yellowstone and great little bars to hit on the way back from fishing too. Again I would ask Big Sky Anglers any or all questions and they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. You can reach Big Sky Anglers bigskyanglers.com; or 406-646-7801.
Someone asked me yesterday about my favorite fisheries. I looked him dead in the eye and said, "You ever been to Montana? Man, let me tell you..."
- written by Jerid Doering