Madison Valley Ranch

Madison Valley Ranch

Having Montana's Madison in the backyard is pretty hard to beat

  • By: Paul Guernsey
Although Montana fishing guides come in all shapes and sizes, occasionally you'll get one who actually looks like a cowboy. That's the way Chris Eaton struck me the first time I fished with him. He was a tall, lean guy with a big moustache and a cowboy hat, and not even the pink shirt he was wearing for the benefit of the TV cameras there to film us detracted much from that overall impression.

In fact, it's likely that his rugged appearance was one of the main reasons the TV people picked him in the first place to row my distinctly un-cowboy-looking butt down the Madison River-though it was far from being the only reason. In addition to guiding, Chris manages Madison Valley Ranch, one of the finest fishing lodges on the Madison, and the place where we were staying. By "we" I mean myself and the two-man camera crew, plus the host from a cable TV hunting and fishing show. I was along primarily to fill the rear seat in Chris' drift boat while the cameras were rolling.

We were scheduled to fish, film and do some on-camera chewing of the fat for three solid days. The plan was to talk about how the Madison had bounced back pretty well from the ravages of whirling disease (it has), and then to provide living proof of the river's relative health in the form of some fat rainbows posed before the lens, as well as to talk about some fishing gear that the host was interested in discussing.

However exciting the final product might look, when you're on a project like this, you are not fishing so much as "making TV." For one thing, you've got a camera crew constantly "suggesting" that you do this or that, including making casts that have no purpose other than to look pretty for the folks at home. In addition, each fish you catch, even if it is not particularly large, must be celebrated with the exuberance of a national holiday. And finally, you not only must "banter"-not an easy thing for me under the best of circumstances-but you must attempt to banter coherently. My usual on-stream repertoire of monosyllabic grunts and curses interspersed with occasional explosions of self-mocking laughter just wouldn't cut it on a gig like this.

Instead, I kept hearing myself gush like a second-grade teacher during show-and-tell: "Ooooh! Would you just look at the colors on this fine rainbow trout! Golly, isn't she special! Isn't the Madison River just a special place!"

My pals, the camera guys, assured me that, while I might say a bunch of less-than-brilliant things, it wouldn't matter in the long run, since they'd be able to cut out the worst of it in the editing room.

Chris Eaton, on the other hand, was the epitome of cowboy cool through the whole thing. He was wired for sound just like I was, but rather than tripping over his own tongue, he was juggling several complicated jobs at the same time, and doing them all with grace: He was talking, very articulately, about the challenges that have faced the Madison River, as well as the rewards of fishing it; he was rowing the drift boat; he was rigging leaders and flies for the host and me; and he was getting us into fish.

We fished and filmed the entire time in the vicinity of Ennis, one of the West's most famous fly-fishing towns, and the place near where Madison Valley Ranch is located. On that first day, we drifted the section from Story Ditch to Eight Mile Ford, and the rainbow fishing was so good that I was able to lose myself in it for minutes at a time despite the fact that there was always a camera pointing at me from an accompanying drift boat. Our largest fish of the day was a terrifically healthy-looking rainbow of about 19 inches. Of course, the host and I spent a good while hovering over this fish, making the appropriate noises of over-the-top appreciation.

That night we kicked back at the spacious, log-built lodge, ate a fine meal prepared by the lodge's chef, and talked about the fishing and hunting adventures that the camera guys had been on. We also talked to the other lodge guests about the fishing they'd had that day on some of the other rivers within driving distance of the lodge: the Beaverhead, the Big Hole, the Gallatin and the Ruby. It quickly became clear that the Madison wasn't the only river that was fishing well.

My room that night was spacious, comfortable and extremely quiet, and I slept like a dead man.

The next day we wade-fished in the Channels section just above Ennis. (Regulations allow driftboat anglers to float through this seven-mile-long stretch, but they must leave the boat to fish it.) This is the section of the Madison that flows behind Madison Valley Ranch itself, which makes it convenient for Ranch guests who haven't had their fill of fishing to walk down after dinner and fish through the evening on their own. Or, if they've had enough of river fishing, they can tease the plentiful rainbows in the two-acre pond that sits right outside the Ranch's front door.

We saw few other anglers in the Channels section, perhaps because of the wade-fishing-only rule, and by then not only had I begun to get used to the cameras, but we had another great day of catching. How great was it? Well, by late afternoon the host and the camera crew decided they already had enough material to complete not one, but two separate television shows, and that the three of them would go home the next day rather than fish and film for a third day.

And, as much as I had enjoyed their company, that was fine with me. The early wrap freed Chris and me to spend that last day fishing on our own, without the bright clothing, and without the cameras in our faces. I was intrigued with that beautiful Channels section of the Madison; not only do I prefer wade fishing, but I enjoyed the braided character of the river in that stretch. So that was where Chris and I fished, nymphing mostly, and we did OK-though oddly enough, we did nowhere near as well as we had on either of the previous days.

It didn't matter, though; regardless of whether you're hooking a lot of fish, a day on the Madison is pretty hard to beat.

For further information on Madison Valley Ranch, contact Chris Eaton at 800-755-3474; www.madisonvalleyranch.com.