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“Old Dog, Old Trick”

by Chester Allen
Fly fishing in Yellowstone National Park Madison River

John Juracek photo

This was my second trip through the ultra-famous Barnes Hole 2 on the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. The early October chill and fog had melted under a bright, overhead sun, and two trips of cast, swing and step through the 100-yard-long run proved that the big runner brown and rainbow trout weren’t interested in a beadhead woolly bugger or a Shakey Bealy soft hackle fly.

These flies, swung on a floating line, usually work when the Madison fills up with big runner trout each fall. But that bright, eye-searing sun, after a few days of clouds, rain and snow, had the trout nailed to the rocky bottom of the river. The fish, so aggressive the day before, weren’t interested in moving two or three feet to whack a fly.

I sat at the old picnic table at the head of the run and watched my friend Alex cast and swing his way through the pool. I thought about rigging up with nymphs, split-shot and a big Thingamabobber. Nymphing is the way to hook sun-shy runners, as the big, cranky browns and rainbows trout don’t have to move far to hit a nymph drifting by their noses.

I’m no snob. I fish with nymphs all the time. That said, one of the charms of fishing for Yellowstone National Park’s big fall run of big rainbow and brown trout is that hammering take to a swung fly. That violent, shocking rise — so sudden — tugs me into a different, vivid world for a few fleeting, intense moments.I’m always reluctant to abandon swinging flies in favor of ticking flies on the bottom and watching what is really a bobber. Never mind that I often fish this way when I’m home in Oregon.

So there I was, cooking under an October sun and caught between desire for a big trout on the line — and the unreasonable desire to catch them in a certain way that pleased me the most.

Then another angler stepped into the fast, roiling, boiling water at the head of the run. A short man with white hair under his Bob Jacklin Fly Shop cap and an old-school, oversize vest that bulged out like a overstuffed pillow.

Most anglers — nymphers and swingers alike — start their trip through Barnes 2 where that fast water settles down into a fishy chop by a big boulder. This guy was 100 feet upstream of that point, and he was wading through bouncing standing waves. That rough water piled up the back of his legs, but this new angler set his feet and cast a long line that quartered way upstream and plopped into the white water. Then he threw big mends into his line as it drifted downstream past his spot. Then, as the current caught the line, it swung into a deep, throbbing curve that eventually straightened downstream.

Then he stripped in line like a speeded-up cartoon character running in place.  The guy looked like he was doing some kind of a dance with waving arms, teetering in the current and frenetic loops of line rattling off the tip of the rod.

This fearless angler almost fell twice. I was worried that the current would swamp him and bounce him downstream like a giant strike indicator.

“It’s an easier wade if you come closer to the bank just a few feet,” I yelled.

“It’s okay,” he yelled back with an accent from the Northeast. Boston? New York? It was hard to tell over the rushing, clattering water. “These rocks are just a little slippery.”

I figured the guy was going to spook every fish in the run.

Then he hooked and landed a 20-inch rainbow trout.

I figured he got lucky.

Then he hooked and landed thick, hook-jawed brown trout that vaulted out of that fast water and landed with a cracking smack. It sounded like someone had thrown a side of bacon into the water. While he was playing this fish, the spool shot off his ancient Plueger reel and fell into the river. He waded over to the bank, bent rod throbbing, and began hand-lining in his backing.

I ran downstream and found the spool.

Then he landed the brown — at least 24 inches long and thick. It was the biggest fish I’d seen in a week of fishing over the Madison River’s fall run of very big trout. The guy released it like it was a 10-incher.

“That’s a nice fish,” he said as he put his reel back together.

It was time to humble myself. “Hey, what are you showing those fish?” I said.

“A streamah,” he said.  Then he smiled. “On a fast-sinking sink-tip line,” he said. “I cast upstream and mend a lot so it has time to sink my streamah down to the trout.”

I was delighted and mortified at the same time.  I was happy to learn what this guy was doing, but I couldn’t believe I had never even through about casting a sink-tip line into that heavy water. Thing is, I used to fish a sink-tip line in the heavier water at the head of rocky runs all the time on my home water, Oregon’s Deschutes River — especially on sunny day while fishing for steelhead.

How did I forget that trick? I was just an old dog who had forgotten a pretty simple trick.

That evening I walked into Blue Ribbon Fiies in West Yellowstone and bought a sink-tip line. I bought the line that sank at seven inches per second.

The next afternoon, I rigged up that sink-tip and tied on a two-foot section of 1X tippet. Using a long leader with a sink-tip line defeats the purpose, and trout socked away in roiling, boiling fast water don’t see fly lines or have time to fuss over a short leader.

I waded into some fast water in Beaver Meadows, about a mile downstream of Barnes 2. That fast run also had some slower seams and deeper slicks amid the churning water. I angled my cast upstream and mended like the Tasmanian Devil in a Looney Tunes cartoon. I’m sure I looked like a nutcase.

A nice brown trout slammed my fly on the fourth cast. I almost fell in when I stepped on a slippery rock.

That trout ate a streamah.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Chester Allen, a lifelong fly angler, journalist and author, was the outdoor columnist for The Olympian newspaper in Olympia, WA, for many years. His latest book is "Yellowstone Runners." Allen also is the author of "Fly-Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat." Allen splits his time between Portland, Oregon and Hood River, Oregon, with plenty of trips to Puget Sound and Yellowstone National Park.
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  • KENNETH LANE

    Thanks for the education session–never too old to learn new tricks I say.

  • Ted Racine

    Well ain’t that just a pissah!!!

  • Chuck Stranahan

    Hey… I thought that’s the way you were supposed to fish. You may not need to do it in knock-down force riffle water, but if that’s where you need to stand to get your fly into the strike zone, do it.
    Swinging a streamer moves the fly at mach-times-current speed, shows the fly to the fish butt first as it whips past the lie, makes the fish turn up and out of its lie to swim broadside against the current to chase down the fly – unless you get real lucky and virtually hit him in the mouth with it. Swinging is the least productive way to fish a streamer that I know.
    In general, I like to cast quartering up on an upstream reach, above the lie, let the fly sink as I mend up or down to position the fly on a straight line as I begin the retrieve. Very often the retrieve has to be at current speed plus desired retrieve speed, sometimes at retrieve speed minus current speed – or barely a pull.
    I remember the great Joe Brooks’ streamer fishing axiom: Keep the fly broadside to the fish. The fly that is drifting/swimming in the current as it drifts into the fish broadside is easy prey. That’s what I want it to be.

    • Chester Allen

      Hi Chuck,

      Swinging a streamer can be super effective if:

      The current flow is such that you can mend the line and keep the fly broadside to the fish.

      The fish are really active or territorial, say trout running up the river and preparing to spawn — and you need to cover a lot of water in an organized way.

      I notice more and more anglers casting their streamers — especially big, articulated ones upstream and stripping them downstream really really fast. The fly isn’t broadside to the current, but it is certainly broadside — at least for a second or two — to the fish lying along the bank. This is an exciting way to fish!

      The method you describe is super effective as well. I think I’m going to use that one more often as well….

  • Jimmy Harris

    Great story! Thanks.

  • Ron

    Aaaah the old adage rings true. Have to get down that way sometime and give it a try. Thanks

  • Neal McEwen

    So, which streamah did the trick?

    • Chester Allen

      A size 6 3XL sculpin pattern tied with clipped saddle hackle for the head.

      Tail: Black marabou
      Body: Dark green Cactus chenille
      Wing: Black Marabou with Pearl Krystal Flash
      Head: Three black saddle hackles tied in and wrapped tightly forward. Then I clip and trim the hackle into a sculpin head. I like this because you get the bully-looking sculpin head, but it is not bulky at all, casts well and sinks like a rock. I used about eight turns of lead-free wire under the head.

      • Neal McEwen

        Thanks!