New Water

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“It’s higher than Monday,” Matt said from his place behind the oars. “I can’t believe how many bugs are out today. On Monday we still had snow.”

I grinned. “They’re hatching just for me, right?”

Matt chuckled and pushed off the bank, his four-year-old son pointing at the bugs in the air and shouting – correctly – “Dad, look, it’s caddis!”

A four-year-old correctly identifying the caddis among the menagerie of mayflies and stoneflies hovering just above the surface of the Madison River impressed the hell outta me. Matt gestured to the bank where I saw a fish rising, so I turned and cast against a strong headwind to the wary trout.

spencer on the madison river

I’d never fished the Madison River before, and on this trip we were floating below Ennis Lake. The upper section was blown out but the lower Madison was still fishable, even if, as Matt said, the water was higher than earlier in the week.

The sun hung at our backs and the wind blew bugs in the cracks between our faces and sunglasses. My buddy Blair stood in the back of the boat as we worked the flat, choppy riffles the Madison is famous for.

It’s easy to let a new river intimidate you.

Lord knows I felt out of my comfort zone the first time I fished the Frying Pan River but after enough time on the water you realize that every river is essentially the same. Tailwaters vary only in how selective the trout are due to insane pressure, and in rare cases like the Pan, bugs specific just to that water.

Now, the Madison certainly could intimidate upon first glance, especially for anyone who hasn’t fished a river larger than the A-Section of the Green below Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Below Ennis Lake the Madison is a seemingly endless riffle, the high water accentuating the pockets along the bank. Figuring out where the fish might be, though, is the trick. How do you pick a bit of river to fish when it all looks so good?

I’d spent most of the day doing just that – casting to each piece of enticing water in the hopes I’d lure a good trout to my dry fly. Blair and I had fished all day. This drift in Matt’s boat was the last leg of a day full of the most incredible caddis hatch I’ve ever seen in my life.

blair on the madison river

And all day the fish had resolutely ignored the bugs on top of the water in favor of nymphs and emergers. Blair managed a few on soft hackles and I was happy for the three 5-inch rainbows I’d caught earlier. They saved my day from being a skunk.

We both caught fish on the float, though they were as unremarkable as far as fish go.

That evening in Bozeman, Blair and I pored over maps and tried to guess which blue lines would be blue the next morning. Montana isn’t immune from this year’s spring runoff, and apparently Blair and I made our trip a week too late.

The next morning we hunted down the few leads we had, but everything was too muddy to fish. In a last-ditch effort, Blair made a call to Kelly Galloup’s shop on the Upper Madison River. The longer Blair stayed on the phone, the wider his smile grew.

I had the car going south before he hung up.

The Upper Madison, from Three Dollar Bridge up to Quake Lake, was high – but clear. Blessedly, impressively clear. As if adding a cherry on top of this, the storm clouds to the south rolled in closer and it started to rain.

madison river

We finished the day with more than enough fish to make us both smile, and as Blair headed home to Idaho Falls and I drove back to Bozeman, I couldn’t help but watch the Madison and think of its unspoken potential.

New water entices anglers for many reasons, but the most common has to be the unknown. Sure, you know if a river has brown or cutthroat trout, and you probably have an idea of the bugs in the water. But each turn hides a new opportunity, each hookset connects to a potential trophy, and the untapped potential of the next hole reminds you why new water so often lures you out of your comfort zone.

Spencer is a fly fishing writer, novelist, outdoors columnist, and sports writer from Utah. He’s the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum and a regular contributor to national and local fly fishing publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant