All About Fly Fishing!

Great Montana Rivers (Part III)

The Gallatin, Madison and the Jefferson Rivers are recovering from whirling diseased trout to once again become a great fly fishery. Doc Knoll continues his series on the great rivers of Montana.
By Doc Knoll

About two hundred years ago a couple of rock and row stars, by the name of Lewis and Clark, left "the east" and wound up scratching their heads (and other places) while they contemplated which fork of the river they should take on their journey to reach the Pacific. Like future government workers I'm certain their decision took several days and they finally settled on the western most fork. After all, they were traveling west (and since they worked for the government the decision must have been a little harder for them.) That takes me to where this momentous decision was made. The two explorers were standing somewhere in present day Three Forks, Montana. They, and their contingent of adventurers, had rowed up the Missouri River to reach its headwaters.

The reason I'm about to group these next three rivers together is because they all merge at this historical location. But, just as a point of reference, I'm certain some guy named Walking on Knuckles knew the area well... some 10,000 years earlier. I think he called it Pulatt-shh (for the sound of a rock being thrown on the water.) However, his name and the names of his descendants were passed over to become the land named what it is today.

The Gallatin (named after the Secretary of State for the time) the Madison (named after my hometown in NJ.... No, I'm just kidding... he was also a President.) And the Jefferson rivers (another President) all serve to drain southwest Montana.

Is the fishing good here in these waters? Yes it is. And, since the fish have rebounded from a bout of whirling disease things are getting better every year. Whirling disease? What the heck is that? Well just to get away from writing a synopsis about these rivers I'm going to tell you.

Can you remember when you were a kid... did you ever hook a fish and just as you were landing the little sucker the line broke in your hand? Then, did you quickly tie the line to the fish's tail (causing the fish to bend a little) and then throw it back in the creek??? Come on... did you? You can remember how it kicked and spun around in circles as it "whirled" in the water. Can you remember how your friend Jimmy either rolled on the ground laughing or looked at you like you were an ogre...

Well... I didn't do that either. (Let me stop laughing and I'll continue.) Okay, I'm back.. I want to tell you.... some people really have no sense of humor.

So anyway, this frightful description is real close to what happens to the spine of a fish that has become infected with a parasitic worm that causes this affliction called Whirling Disease. When the fish swims it looks like Polio 101 out on a walk. Sure, some of the fish manage to survive a little while... but something (usually with talons) snatches them from life itself. That's fine also.... because starvation (especially when you can see food but cannot catch it) must be a very miserable way to go.

Through time and specific conditions the strong fish survived and naturally developed some kind of resistance or tolerance. (It's remarkable how Mother Nature does these things.) Now these same waters are generating a new crop of fish that are beginning to rival their forefathers in both size and number. (And that's good.)

The Jefferson River

This river is the least fished of the three. I would imagine simply for the reason it is furthest from a large population source (Bozeman, Mt.) Its waters come from The Beaverhead and the Big Hole Rivers (where they merge at Twin Bridges, Mt.) The river itself is set in a very 'western" area with splendid views and wildlife to captivate any visitor. The fish are good size and plentiful too.

Although the river has a fairly good population of insect hatches (with mayflies ranking high on this list) I often wind up throwing sculpin patterns as I seek the fish on this river. Muddlers, black sculpin and streamers of all kinds will score well on the "Jeff."

Access is obtainable in many locations and since it is fairly remote any access normally will suffice since the fishing pressure is off. If you want to float the Jeff then my only suggestion would be to check out both areas that you select as your access and egress. The reason being... sometimes an access is very difficult to retrieve a drift boat from (because of washout cuts). And while you are here in this area be certain to waste a few hours at the Lewis and Clark caverns. I often take visitors (who come to my place) to this state sponsored cave. In the heat of summer, it is a constant 58 degrees and quite refreshing.

This is one river I would definitely recommend to anyone wanting to fish late and sleep under the stars. And, one last thing for the die-hards... Big zonkers and buggers fished at night will yield a bunch of black background photos of some very large trout and you with a very big smile.

The Madison River

The Madison starts in on the west side of Yellowstone National Park and travels north to Three Forks. The fishing on this river, especially while in the Park is great. However, anglers commonly pass it up as they speed by on their way to some more distant waterway. Don't speed past it. Stop and wet a line. (This section is along side the road from West Yellowstone to Madison Junction. You should watch for a small access road called Riverside Drive.)

Once this river leaves the Park it begins to course its way through a series of lakes and canyons. Again this is some prime water to fish. Nymphing the pools, near Quake lake has become a favorite pastime for several visitors to my shop. They keep inviting me to go and they guarantee twenty- inchers. But, I figure I have them here near my home and quake Lake is a few hours from my place. Then again one thing is certain, if these guys say your gonna get into some fish you better believe them. They do know their stuff.

As the Madison enters the valley in which the town of Ennis lies, the river takes on a new look. For the next thirty miles or so the river is one gigantic riffle. Nothing really changes for that distance and to fish it.... well, just wade in and start tossin' a fly. Felt soled waders are a must. (I think I've said that in every story I've ever written about fishing the West... so go get some or better yet stop by and I'll cut you a deal on some felt soled hip waders.)

Fly patterns are easy to predict for the visiting angler. Nymphs, usually size #14, are most always eaten. Midges, #20, in May work well. Parachute flies or even hi-visibility flies (they have a hot orange or pink parachute) are used with great success and since much of this water is riffle you can see them as they bob down the waterway. Terrestrials, especially ants, are what I use when on this water. Other anglers who frequent the Madison will swear by #12 stimulators and other attractor patterns (red humpies). These are very easy to see and do take fish with much success. Naturally there are hatches of caddis and mayflies so be prepared to throw a few of these flies as needed. Many of the "old time" guides fish flies in the #4-6 range. They believe big flies get big fish and they may have a point.

As far as what else may be needed on the Madison ... bring a lunch. You will most likely be a great distance from any store that can supply your hunger with sustenance. Oh yeah... if you come to this river in August... fish dead center and in the middle of the river.

The Gallatin River

This river also starts in the Northwest corner of the Yellowstone Park and runs through a very long and narrow canyon (along highway 191) until it emerges in the Gallatin Valley just west of Bozeman, Montana.

While in the Park the Gallatin is just a creek. Three big steps will get you to the other side. However don't pass this one up. Some fun days have been had in the willow area (just as it leaves the Park.) Fish with whatever you want to fish with... except don't over due it on large size (#16 and 18 dries will take most fish.)

Nymphers should be using #14 or #16 hooks with flashbacks being high on my list. Here on the upper Gallatin the fish have been hungry all winter. As summer approaches and gets into full swing, the fish will eat nearly anything that someone will throw their way. It doesn't really sound too challenging but this is the way it is. (Hint: Catch one or maybe two fish in each hole and move on. The next hole will be better and if your wondering ...the fish do get proportionally bigger as the river gathers speed and volume.

Near the town of Big Sky, Montana the Gallatin gives up its creek appearance and becomes a " good stream." The royal wulff accounts for an awful lot of fish from this point north until the river connects with the Missouri River. So tie some up #16's. It is the best overall size.
Once the Gallatin comes out of the mountains and slips through the valley floor the river becomes slightly different. The holes are deeper and longer but the royal wulff still is the leading fish taker. Caddis and Mayfly patterns will work and since this section of river is near a population source (Bozeman) it is fished steadily (but not necessarily hard.)

I have a lot of customers who buy flies from me at the Bozeman Farmer's Market every Saturday... There, among the Bozemanites, I sell loads of beadheaded wooly buggers and big zonker patterns. These are usually fished as the sun is sinking in the west and the big browns are beginning to seek out larger food items. Did I ever tell you about the feeding habits of the brown trout???

Okay, I'll add this to the article since it may help some of you... The brown trout eats all kinds of things and once it reaches fourteen or fifteen inches small bugs, "just don't do it anymore." (Sure on occasion they will suck something down but by in large the browns want sustenance in the form of minnows, big leeches, mice or maybe an itty-bitty duckling.

Normally they prowl the shallows for these items at night but... (Here's the tip) As the sun dips below the horizon, in that waning light, the brown's eye retinas or cones (I get them mixed up) are much better at collecting light (and thus vision) then a minnow's own capability. Therefore, if you fish during this period of the day, there is a greater chance of catching something bigger then you ever dreamed of catching. The only disadvantage is the photo (with flash) will have a black background... Oh, life is so tough!