October 04, 2010
Three famous rivers -- Montana's Madison, Idaho's Silver Creek, and Wyoming's Miracle Mile of the North Platte -- easily rank among the best trout fisheries in the West. Here's how and where to fish them.
There are some fishing spots that the simple adjective "good" cannot do justice to. It would be akin to saying "Winning the lottery would be good" or "Not getting run over by a truck this morning on your way to work would be good."
Some spots are fantastic, revered, worshipped - legendary. As the Matterhorn is to the climber and Tanzania is to the big-game hunter, these three spots are as close to Shangri-la as any flyfisherman can get.
SILVER CREEK, IDAHO It seems paradoxical that such a small amount of water as that in Silver Creek can make a desert blossom and turn forth fruit. The surrounding southwestern Idaho countryside is dry and bleak, dotted with rocky outcroppings, but along the creek are a lush oasis of green and other signs of life. The best signs to flyfishermen are in the water itself.
Thick with aquatic vegetation, and consequently almost every type of insect imaginable, Silver Creek is the antithesis of a Weight Watchers clinic for rotund trout.
Not only are these fish borderline obese, but they are numerous as well. One estimate puts the trout population in Silver Creek at over 5,000 fish (mainly browns and rainbows) per river mile! So it is not a lack of trout that makes this river challenging but the clear, slow water and the selective nature of the fish themselves.
Fluctuating water conditions add to the challenge of the Miracle Mile, but Kelly Highby has apparently figured it out. Photo by Mike Schoby
Tactics Fly selection can be simultaneously simple and daunting on Silver Creek. The reason trout grow to such large proportions here is because there is more food than at a Sunday picnic of Southern Baptists. Midges, caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies, grasshoppers, ants and beetles all find their way into a trout's maw on this stream, and more often than not it happens in large quantities. Pass the potatoes, Aunt Mae!
When the hatches get going, the water can literally boil with trout gorging on insects. The problem is, while they all may be reading the same book, seldom are they on the same page. Some are feeding on duns, others on emergers, while others may be keying on cripples.
It is this kind of circus that keeps anglers guessing and tippet manufacturers in business. The only sure-fire method I have found is derived from quail hunting. Essentially, fight the urge to flock shoot. Pick out a single trout and watch it. See what it is eating, try to determine if his head is coming all the way out of the water to suck in a helpless dry or if only his back is breaking the surface when he gobbles a struggling nymph. Stalk that individual fish, get in the perfect position and make that one perfect cast - OK, for most of us it is three or four mediocre casts - with the pattern it wants, and if everything goes right, your reel will be belting out a chorus. Odds are, it won't.
If you randomly jump from fish to fish, you never will figure out what they are keying on and will more likely go home discouraged and skunked than sore-armed and elated.
Regulations Regulations for fishing Silver Creek vary by section.
- From U.S. 93 upstream to the bridge at milepost 187.2 on U.S. 20: open for harvest (two trout between 12 and 16 inches) from Memorial Day weekend through Nov. 30. It is closed to harvest Dec. 1 through Feb. 28.
- From milepost 187.2 upstream on U.S. 20 to the Kilpatrick Bridge: catch-and-release only; open from Memorial Day weekend until Nov. 30.
- From Kilpatrick Bridge upstream (including all waters within The Nature Conservancy Silver Creek Preserve property): fly-fishing only; open from Memorial Day weekend to Nov. 30.
- Downstream from U.S. 93: open all year.
MADISON RIVER, MONTANA
Upon college graduation, I was determined to be a trout bum. Living out of my pickup and fishing from first light till after dark was my grand goal in life. Like any worthwhile goal, I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. I bounced around Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon for more time than I now like to admit, fishing at every opportunity. Following the sage advice of a college professor to, "never let classes get in the way of my education," I fished a lot of rivers and caught a lot of trout before the realities of life - bills, insurance, food - caught up with me. But if I could take a few weeks and relive those days, there is no place I would rather park my pickup and throw out my sleeping bag than on the frosty ground along the Madison River above Ennis, Mont.
The entire stretch of the Madison from Hebgen Lake to Three Forks can be great fishing, but of all the stretches I fished, the 10 or so miles from Varney bridge to Ennis is my all-time favorite.
Is this stretch of water that much better than the rest of the river? Probably not. But it is just as good as anywhere else; the float is wonderful, the scenery outstanding.
In talking to Greg Lilly, guide and owner of Greg Lilly's Fly Fishing Services and Healing Waters Fly Fishing Lodge in Twin Bridges, it's evident things have not changed much since I used to ply this stretch of the Madison.
"I have been fishing the Madison for 30 years, and these last couple of years have been the best we have seen in a long while," Lilly said. "The river is pretty much recovered from the effects of whirling disease and there is a healthy population of large, 21- to 23-inch rainbows and browns in the stretch from Varney to Ennis."
The fishing can be as easy or as technical as you want and at the end of the day, there is a sense of homecoming, pulling into Ennis. Any town with a resident population of 1,000 people that has three fly shops and as many saloons, with a 25-foot-tall leaping bronze trout on Main Street feels like home to me. It is the Epicenter of the Rocky Mountain trout world.
Tactics While the insect life is almost as prolific here as it is on Silver Creek, this stretch of the Madison is renowned for is its phenomenal stonefly and caddis hatches. While June and July find the river choked with anglers all vying for a crack at the legendary stonefly hatch, those same insects in nymph form can be fished throughout the season.
On my first trip to the Madison, a September visit a number of years ago, I learned two important lessons.
er fished the river, we stopped by one of the local fly shops and read the "What's Working" board out front. "Terrestrials, caddis and beadhead hare's ears." We had some of the above and bought more. After a full day of churning the water to a foamy froth with nothing but a sore arm to show for it, I dug through my fly box, found a size 6 black Kaufman's Stone, tied it on and was immediately into a nice trout. Another cast, another fish. Soon my partners had begged the last of my stonefly patterns from me and we all caught fish till the last remaining minutes of light.
The next day we went back to the fly shop before hitting the river to buy some more of our "secret" wonders. Imagine our surprise when out of no less than a dozen trays of different stone patterns, all were empty. Evidently, the shop and locals knew what was working, but no one took the time to tell us tourists. Either that or they had an overstock of terrestrials, caddis and beadhead hare's ears!
We tied our own Kaufman's and caught plenty of fish the rest of the week. The two lessons were well learned and never forgotten: Madison trout love stonefly nymphs; and never believe what you read on a tourist fishing board!
The section from Varney Bridge to Ennis is braided with many small islands and makes a perfect day-float. If no hatch is present, fish a heavily weighted stonefly pattern in black, brown or gold (yellow/orange) under a strike indicator along the seams and sides of the islands. At the lee side of each island, pull out and wade-fish the island's tailwater.
While there are not as many fish here as in other stretches of the river, this section seems to have more large browns than most others, with a good mix of nice rainbows thrown in for good measure.
Regulations The Madison, like Silver Creek, has different regulations, depending upon the stretch fished, but the section from Varney to Ennis is open the entire year. Rainbows must be released, but a limit of five browns can be retained with only one over 18 inches.
MIRACLE MILE OF THE NORTH PLATTE, WYOMING Between 1909 and 1951, three dams were built on the upper Platte River in Wyoming as part of the 1902 Reclamation Act. While this legislation was designed to provide ample water for agriculture, in some situations it had a secondary effect of creating world-class tailwater trout fisheries. The North Platte River below Kortes Dam is just such a place.
A typical tailwater fishery, the 5 1/2-mile section of the North Platte has been endeared "The Miracle Mile" and is comprised of everything that intrigues, challenges and often frustrates a trout angler.
Like most tailwaters, the Miracle Mile is no stranger to big trout. Fish in the 2- to 4-pound range are the norm, and they resemble the proverbial "football" shape we've grown to appreciate in the West: small-headed and not much over 22 inches, these fish are so thick you can't encompass them with two hands.
While trophy fish are the norm here, these fish are not mass produced. It's the guessing that makes this river special for me. One fish may be a scrappy 2-pounder, while the next may peel line and make your reel sing like a soprano with a squashed thumb, before rolling, showing you its 10 pounds of salmonid flesh, and then cleanly parting your 6X tippet that never really held him anyway. Experiences like that leave you breathless and shaking, and ready to cast again.
I had heard tales and read about the Miracle Mile for many years, but it was not until this past season that I had the chance to explore its splendor first hand. I was not to be disappointed.
In the several trips I took to this hallowed water, I never failed to catch a good number of fish. As a group, they were some of the hardest-fighting, best-conditioned fish I have ever caught. Overall I caught rainbows and browns to the 5-pound mark, but all the locals could talk about was when the big fish arrive! Large spawners in the teens come up from the lake en masse during the fall (in the case of browns) and the spring (for rainbows). Obviously not a summer trip, but the Miracle Mile is an event definitely worth a mark on your calendar.
Tactics The dry-fly fishing, from what I have seen, is almost non-existent to the point that I fished nymphs here about 99 percent of the time. There is a good population of scuds, cranefly larva and aquatic worms along with the usual fair of mayfly, caddis and stonefly nymphs. But it is the aforementioned three that really seem to produce fish.
To imitate them, bring a good selection of San Juan Worms in green, auburn/red, orange, white and brown, as well as scuds in olive, brown, pale cream and orange.
This river can be as fickle as any Western river, most likely owing to fluctuating water levels that bring about daily changes in tactics. In June 2001, two fishing partners and I fished within the first three miles below the dam. The trout were being selective, but by fishing a double dropper system of red San Juan Worms and orange scuds, we were able to bring many trout to net. Falsely thinking we had it all figured out, we tried the same technique the next time but to no avail.
By searching through our fly boxes and practically trying all the contents therein, we finally began hooking up on large Zonkers, Yellow Yummies (yellow Woolly Buggers with yellow rubber legs), black Night Leeches, and sculpin patterns. The point of this tale is that the conditions - water clarity, time of year, and temperature - were almost identical to the previous trip, but the selected food was entirely different.
This just goes to show that the key to going home satisfied or empty-handed hinges on a well-stocked fly box. Flexibility is the catchphrase on this river, and since facilities are few and far between, it is wise to bring everything you have, as well as a complete tying kit.
Regulations The Miracle Mile is open for fishing all year with no selective-fishery or fly-fishing-only restrictions. The bag limit is two fish per day with only one exceeding 20 inches. The river is closed to night fishing (8 p.m.-6 a.m.) during April.
Your Gear List Wherever you fish in the West, a few common items should be included.
A 9-foot, 5- or 6-weight fly rod will fit most situations. While a bit ham-handed for the lighter work of smaller streams, it suffices as an all-around tool with plenty of backbone should the wind pick up or to address your need to throw heavy nymphs.
I fish a weight-forward floating line about 90 percent of the time but recently have been using a multi-tip line that allows me to easily change to an intermediate or sink tip for select situations.
Bring a large selection of flies and a well-stocked, portable tying kit. You may experience the same situation as I had on the Madison: I found that a Kaufman's Stone couldn't miss, but wh
en I stopped at a fly shop in Ennis to stock up, every stonefly pattern in the place was sold out. Fortunately, I didn't have to just dream of catching those fish. I sat down to tie my own stoneflies and got back on the water!
Finally, bring some lightweight breathable raingear. Matched with neoprene waders and a good-quality hat, you'll stay comfortable in even the worst blow. July is a little early for heavy squalls, but if one does catch you, you can bet it'll be a torrential downpour. Raingear will keep you dry and on the water when other anglers head for home.
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