July 1, 2010

Madison River, Montana

Montana. I say it out loud and a panorama of golden hills, bouldery rivers, and wild fish unrolls in my brain. I know I'm romanticizing and it's marked like any land inhabited by twenty-first century humans. But it feels undomesticated -- as if the humans suddenly disappeared, Montana would quickly revert to looking like it did five hundred years ago. I've only been there twice, and it already feels like part of my internal landscape. Immediately after returning I was already figuring out when I could go back. This trip included three-ish days of fly-fishing; end of May is full runoff, but the Madison is fishable year-round. There were a couple of golden afternoons Friday and Sunday at various spots on the Madison, punctuated with vigorous cloudbursts, and a full day float on Saturday.

Picture a pinata full of weather; every half-hour or so someone gives it a good hard whack, and something else tumbles out. When Maile and I met our guide Tim at 8 am, it was about 35 and snowing, big fat flakes which continued much of the way to our put-in at McAtee Bridge. The snow stopped, the sun broke out briefly, and the wind kicked up; we zipped and cinched our layers, rigged up double nymphs, and got in the boat. We started finding fish within 10 minutes, and continued all day, Tim putting us into the sweet spots. Browns and rainbows, all of them big-shouldered, and one whitefish, which was brown and pink all at once.

The nicest fish I caught was a rainbow hen, strong and wild; she took my dropper nymph and some feet of line, and she was off. The river pulled us all downstream together, Tim finding the boat a way among the rocks and instructing me. I wasn't so much fighting the fish as following her lead with my rod; people talk about taking apart a piece of water when they fish it, breaking it down. The fish took apart the water, diving behind boulders, running in the shallows, until we came to a spot where we could land her. She was strong, glowing silver-pink, about eighteen brawny inches long. This was the one fish picture I wanted for the day, but the fish slipped out of my hands while I was admiring her, dove under the boat, and was gone. This as it should be; the fish had plenty of energy left, and reminded me that even though I temporarily outsmarted her, the river was her native element. I snapped a shot of this lovely small brown trout later in the day. We kept going, the hills and clouds and eleven miles of water unscrolled; snow, rain, wind, and sun, twenty or so wild Montana trout, and at day's end, a stop for drinks to warm up. Perfect day.

The postscript was going to be Monday on the upper Big Hole, continuing my quest for the fluvial Arctic grayling in their only lower-48 location, but the river was completely blown out and snow was dumping everywhere above 5500 feet. The chances of catching anything, much less a grayling, were extremely slim; the chances of getting my rental car stuck somewhere I didn't want to be were slightly greater. I took an hour or so at a Starbucks in Butte to consider my options, then headed west towards Missoula, briefly stopping to look at the Little Blackfoot, which was running up into the willows on the banks. I ended up driving over to Rock Creek, and fishing there for the few hours before sunset. It was running high and wild too, curtains of rain and mist drawn over the hills around, with the last few rays of sun occasionally touching the gray with gold. No fish, and no surprise. Nobody else was fishing, and the air had the heavy chill of rain that might turn into snow that night or might have been snow the night before. I took off my waders and boots in the dusk, and headed into Missoula.