Fish, Family and Friends

Week 8: The salmonflies show up on the Madison just as friends and family arrive.

  • By: Steven Spigelmyer

I arrived in Yellowstone just over two months ago, and after snow storms, hail, wind, mucky water and runoff, the fishing is back to what I remember it to be from years past. Clear water abounds, willing fish and a plethora of bugs have once again turned the Yellowstone area into the Mecca of fly-fishing. Streams on the east end of the park have finally become fishable. From Slough Creek to the Yellowstone, the water has once again turned as blue as the sky, and with warmer weather the terrestrial life has become many trout’s favorite choice for lunch. Fishing a hopper/dropper combo on many of these streams will provide action throughout the heat of the day. Although I managed to fish the northeast side of the park for a couple of days, I had friends and family come to visit, and I had to take them to my favorite river. Especially since their were salmonflies flying on the Madison outside the park.

I had witnessed salmonflies before, on the Madison and Firehole inside the park, the Yellowstone River and the Box Canyon of the Henry’s Fork—but the water clarity during each hatch had put fish down. Grabbing a live salmonfly and throwing it on the river would rarely pull any fish up to look at it. The most famous hatch, and by admission my favorite, had been a disappointment so far. Luckily the salmonflies on the Madison outside the park are supposed to be the best of all of these, and yet I had never hit it right or got a chance to fish them before. Last year I worked during the days and by the time I got a few days off, the salmonflies were gone. Low water and bad winters had turned this amazing hatch into something barely worth mentioning, until this year.

While working at Bud Lilly’s last year, I met a lot of great people, and often times I would find myself meeting with many of the customers to go fishing. I still keep in contact with many of these people and my friend Greg, who I met like this, decided he had to make the 14-hour drive from Oregon to come fish these amazing waters. To say he picked a perfect time would be an understatement, because he arrived just as the salmonflies began to come off on sections of the Madison near Hebgen Dam. This hatch of flies couldn’t have happened at a better time because just before they started hatching I had switched from my usual nymph rig to a single PMD in the morning and a Caddis in the afternoon. The fish were already looking up, so when these big bugs arrived I knew it was going to be special.

Greg happens to be a professional whitefish slayer, as the first several days he fished he refused to tie on either a Caddis or a PMD in favor of a King Prince/Girdle Bug nymph rig. With all the trout looking for surface action, he was left to catch what seemed like an endless supply of mountain whitefish. It’s fun to hook them before you know what it is, but after the whitey gives up the fight 30 seconds in, and you have a suckerfish at the end of your line, it gets old pretty quick. So finally on his last day Greg tied on a Rogue Salmonfly, and managed to hook four of the largest trout I have ever seen. I was right there prepared to net each one of them, but Greg’s love of whitefish forced him to release these trout before they were ever landed. He had a perfect whitefish record, why catch a 20-inch trout and mess that up?

Luckily for me Greg was ready to leave and I had seen where he released all these lunkers. After a days rest, and the arrival of my uncles, I knew that I could go hook some big fish on salmonflies. My uncles are the ones who taught me how to fish and fly-fish, so I was hoping I could prove to them that all my stories I had told them for the last two months were true. And with big fish rising to big bugs, it only took a day for them to realize why I was spending my summer in Yellowstone. They each managed to hook large, unsuspecting rainbows and browns alike, but what happened their last day on the Madison was something even I couldn’t expect.

We had fished Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison and the Westfork for several days, and I had managed to land one nice brown that was about 19 inches. So on my uncles' last day in the beautiful Yellowstone area, we decided to go to Westfork again, since I had shown them my favorite run, and just as I had, they fell in love with it. After watching one of my uncles land a few fish on a small PMD, I decided to head up a small channel were I witnessed Greg miss one of the largest trout I have ever seen. Knowing were the trout lay I snatched a salmonfly off a bush and tossed it about three inches off the bank. As he bug swam toward the run I witnessed a monster of a fish suck the bug underneath the water. I quickly threw in two perfect casts with a Rogue Salmonfly, which got no attention. Realizing this fish had already been hooked on a Rogue pattern, I quickly cut it off, and grabbed a Dog-puke Salmonfly off my hat.

Just as I tied on the pattern, one of my uncles was walking up the bank, very close to spooking the monster brown lurking just feet in front of him.“Wait right there” I whispered, and just as my uncle had done when he was teaching me years ago, he told me to be ready, and got on his knees to see if I could manage to land the fish. Then I put some floatant on my fly and threw one bad cast about 18 inches off the bank. Too far off I thought, but I didn’t want to jerk the fly off the water in fear of spooking the fish, so I was going to let it run past the hole. Then, suddenly, I saw the fish move off the bank and come straight toward my fly, engulfing it and turning as I set the hook. It was a monster 22-inch brown trout, and after my uncle netted the fish I let out a huge holler that everyone on the river must of heard.

My uncles have been there from my first trout on small streams in New Mexico, to my largest trout on the Madison. So thanks for teaching me how to fish, who would have thought that landing 6-inch brookies years ago could lead to me being one of the biggest trout bums. And thanks Greg, for being so in love with whitefish that you released huge trout for me to catch later. Fishing is a solitary sport, but the experience of being able to go out with family and friends is priceless. Don’t be afraid to teach your son or daughter, nephew or niece, friend or foe, because maybe one day your advice will leave a lasting impression on a future trout bum.

Steven Spigelmyer studies journalism at the University of Nevada. He's reporting from Yellowstone for us all summer long.