Sensible people stay inside when it’s 30 degrees and snowing. Especially on the last Saturday of September.
After all, it’s college football season, and why not cuddle up to the warm glow of the television?
But this last Saturday in September was in Yellowstone National Park, where once-sensible anglers pray for crummy weather. Rain, cold and snow turbocharge the Madison River’s run of big rainbow and brown trout from Hebgen Lake. Sunny, warm days put on the brakes.
I’m addicted to fall fly fishing in Yellowstone — especially when a 20-inch trout slams my swung fly and shows me my backing. In fact, I’m in Yellowstone right now.
Each year, I pack up the truck and spend 3.5 weeks chasing Yellowstone’s amazing trout. This yearly walkabout is the best part of my fish-addled year. I wrote about one Yellowstone walkabout in my book, “Yellowstone Runners.” Much of my fishing is on the Madison in the park, but I do wander to other waters. Yellowstone is crammed with great fly fishing rivers and creeks.
But it’s hard to stay away from the Madison when the weather gets wet and cold. Winter is always lurking in Yellowstone, as this is high country. Snow is always possible — even in September.
So, I was delighted to wake up this past Saturday to rain and snow flurries. I bundled up the best cold-weather clothes that Mountain Hardware sells — and headed for a favorite run on the Madison. I hoped that a seven-point bull elk with a nasty attitude wasn’t there with his harem of cow elk.
I was in luck. The big bull was screeching violence at a smaller male a couple of miles downstream. The cows were just grazing.
Sticky, wet snow blurred my glasses as I tied a size 6 Barnes Hole Bugger to a 2X tippet. Just as I was about to step into the run, a couple toting cameras and tripods walked down the path.
“Where are the elk?” The woman said.
“I saw him a couple miles downstream — near Seven Mile Bridge,” I said. “He’s arguing with a teenager.”
Teenage bull elk — corroded with frustrated lust — take a beating from the big bulls.
“I can’t believe anyone would go fishing in this weather,” the woman said.
“I can’t believe anyone would go out in this weather to take photos of rutting elk,” I said.
We all laughed. And why not? Snow was blowing in our faces, and Yellowstone’s beauty was all around us.
“Can I take a couple shots of you being crazy in the river?” she said.
“Sure,” I said. “But don’t expect fireworks.”
Runner brown and rainbow trout move up the Madison quickly, and yesterday’s hotspot can be today’s skunking.
My fingers started turning numb as I waded into position. I like to cast and watch the line swing downstream in the current. When the fly is dangling directly below me, I take a step downstream and cast the fly at the 45-degree angle to the current. In this way, you can show your fly to most of the fish in the run.
This is called swinging, and it’s been the classic way to flyfish for Northwest steelhead and Atlantic Salmon for eons. Runner trout act a lot like steelhead.
I kept casting and stepping down the run. I got lost in the rhythm of it all — cast, swing, step over and over again.
The strike was a shock.
My fly was swinging in the current, and I was watching the gentle curve of my line in the clear, green water.
Then the line went tight, and a fish boiled in the current. I was frozen for a second. The electric moment of a big trout whacking a swung fly always overloads my senses. Luckily, doing nothing is usually a good move when a fish hits a swung fly. Doing a conventional “dry fly” hook set will often yank the hook out of the fish’s mouth.
The best move is to do nothing for a second, which allows the fish to turn in the current and just about hook itself in the corner of the mouth.
I pivoted my rod toward the bank, and line buzzed off the reel. Lots of line. The trout jumped into the air. For just a second, it looked like it was swimming into the falling snow.
A big rainbow. A really big rainbow.
I stumbled toward the bankside water to follow the fish. Then I tripped on a submerged rock and fell into the river. I lurched to my feet and followed the fish. I don’t remember feeling cold or wet.
After a few minutes of jumps and runs, the rainbow trout — thick and bright and so perfect — was in the weedy shallows. I kneeled in the water, grabbed my waterproof camera and took a couple of quick shots of the fish resting on a weedbed. Then I pulled out the barbless hook. The trout rocked away.
I sat back on my heels and remembered that crushing strike and the jump for the sky. Snow pelted my face.
“You are crazy,” the woman said.
“I can’t believe you two are still here,” I said. “But I am crazy.”
“But that was beautiful,” she said.
“Yes, it was, “ I said.