Insects and other foods the trout should be eating:
1. BWOs (Eastern)
2. Green Sedges (Caddisflies)
3. Cream Cahills
4. Little Yellow Stoneflies (Little Summer Stones)
5. Slate Drakes
6. Little Green Stoneflies
Most available/ Other types of food:
7. Sculpin, Minnows (Streamers)
8. Inch Worm (moth larva)
How To Become A Better Angler - Part 5 - Madison River Salmon
If you have never witnessed a large salmonfly hatch on a western trout stream, you don't
know what your missing. You will probably never see that much food in the form of insects for
trout to eat. When this happens on the Madison River, it's a sight to behold. Just the sight of
all those large bugs flying in the air and on the bushes and rocks along the banks of the
river that's full of large wild rainbow and brown trout will really get you pumped up. You will hit
the water thinking your going to land one large trout after another; however, that's not
always the case.
We were able to catch a huge salmonfly hatch the very first year Angie and I fished in
Yellowstone Country. It was only our third year of fishing almost exclusively with the fly rod.
We, as well as everyone else in West Yellowstone Montana, heard about the big hatch. The
hatch had moved up the river all the way from Ennis a few miles a day for the previous few
days. We spent over a month of our two month long western fly fishing trip in the Yellowstone
area that first year we made the trip.
In the mornings, we would usually fish in the park on the Gallatin River. We were doing very
well there, catching lots trout, mostly cutbows. The only problem was the fish were rarely
large. About the middle of the afternoon we would head down to the Madison River between
the lakes (below Hebgen Lake above Quake Lake) to try to catch some larger trout. The
wading area below and above the famous Three Dollar Bridge was our first stop but it was
lined solid with anglers fishing the Salmonfly hatch. We moved upstream thinking we may find
less anglers but that wasn't the case. The entire river was covered solid with anglers.
I knew very little about the Salmonflies. I carried a truck load of books along with us on
insects to help us learn and identify the insects we were video taping on our trips. This
particular time we hit a bonanza. There were salmonflies along the banks on the rocks, in the
bushes and flying in good numbers. You didn't have to worry about catching them. They
would land on you and crawl around on your shirt and fly vest.
The first afternoon we fished there, I did as everyone else was doing and waded out into the
relatively fast pocket water of the river and fished salmonfly adult and nymph imitations we
purchased in the local fly shops. These were big, size 4 and 6 hook size flies, the largest size
flies I had fished at that point other than streamers. The river is rather wide there but
wadable just about everywhere. The discharge flow rates were suitable enough that you
could wade across the river in several places. There were anglers strung up and down the
river from bank to bank not much more than casting distance apart and in some cases, not
even that far.
After two or three hours of casting the large flies, nymphs and adults, I may have caught a
fish or two, so I changed to a Parachute Adams and ended up catching a couple more
smaller size rainbows. The salmonflies would fly out over the water at times, but 98 percent
of them were along the banks in the bushes. I didn't see any on the water and I didn't see
any trout eating them. The results was it was getting late and I had only caught two or three
trout. We were catching twenty to thirty trout on the Gallatin fishing just over a half day. Not
only was I not catching trout, the dozens of other anglers were not catching any more than I.
The big deal over the salmonfly hatch seemed to be over blown, to say the least.
The sun had set and the bright sun was off the water for the first time that day. I had hoped
that would increase the action but it didn't. Angie was busy video taping the big salmonflies
and getting great shots of them, but not of me catching trout. Feeling a little letdown, I waded
back towards the bank to give it up for the day. When I got within about twenty feet or so of
the bank, I made about my number two-hundred cast with the big nymph up close to the
bank and the leader quickly moved in an odd direction. I set the hook and landed a nice size
brown trout. Naturally, that caused me to keep on trying for a few more minutes and since I
was close to the bank, I continued fishing upstream along the bank. In a few more cast, I
hooked another brown that was almost identical to the first. It was late and I was dead tired
and hungry. I had caught more than I had seen anyone else catch that afternoon and I could
see twenty to thirty anglers fishing up and down the river most anytime.
That night I dug out several books on aquatic insects to read about the salmonflies. I had two
large boxes of books in our room. The first thing I noticed was that these big nymphs crawled
out of the water on the banks to emerge into adults. That made perfect sense because when
I walked back down to the water that afternoon to get Angie to stop video taping the bugs, I
noticed some of the big nymphs in the water near the bank. I had taken my waders off and
couldn't catch them for her to video but I spotted several along the bank in the water. That
night in the motel room, the reason I caught the last two trout ran across my tiny
brain like a flash of lightning. If the salmonfly nymphs were crawling out of the water
during the night, that's where the trout would be looking for them. I knew that if I would have
gotten back in the water, I could have easily picked up some of them. I had picked up several
rocks from the river that day and caught some of the big nymphs for Angie to video. Those
were hidden under the rocks, not in plain sight on the bottom like those I spotted late that
day. It occurred to me that the trout could probably catch and eat all they wanted.
Jumping ahead with the story to explain a little more about it, after fishing many salmonfly
hatches, I know now that's exactly what happens. In fact in situations where they hatch in
large quantities like they do on the Madison River, the trout eat so many they become
gorged on them. There is a lag between the time they first emerge until the time the females
begin to deposit their eggs and this can actually make catching trout difficult at a certain time
frame within the hatch period.
The following day we repeated what we did the day before. We fished the Gallatin River until
about 2:00 PM that day and moved to the same stretch of water between the lakes that
afternoon. It doesn't get dark there in early July until around 9 to 10 o'clock.
I waded out in the river with a nymph tied on and begin to fish upstream along the bank. I
only caught a trout about every hour or so up until about 6:00 PM. I'm guessing at the times
because our video tape logs didn't record that information, but I know I fished around two or
three hours without much action. I stopped to help Angie, who again was video taping the big
Anglers were spaced up and down the river every few yards. Most of the guys appeared to
be avid fly anglers. They were all decked out and all seemed to be able to cast well. Every
one of them, and there were many, were wading out in the river. They were covering
about every spare yard of water from the campground upstream to where the river enters
Quake lake downstream. There was a vehicle parked up and down the little dirt road every
few yards. Every once in a while someone would catch a trout, but it again appeared the
fishing action was very slow.
Sitting on the tailgate of the truck, it hit me. I didn't need to get in the water to fish the banks.
The banks of the Madison in that area aren't lined with trees. There are a few large bushes
but most of the banks are clear except for grass and scrub bushes. Getting in the river seem
to only serve to spook the trout that may be feeding on the stoneflies preparing to crawl out
of the water along the banks.
If you read the first two articles in this series, you know it was all about putting the lure (in the
case of the Little Green Worm) or bait (in the case of the Black Snapper on the Rocks) right
in front of the fish. In this case, armed with the knowledge of what was happening
with the food the trout were eating on the Madison River, it was automatic that I
knew to fish close along the banks of the river. It also seemed appropriate, although
not one angler on the Madison River was doing it, to fish from the bank, rather than wade out
in the river.
Years of fishing my own way, aware of the dangers of being a copy cat, and
refusing to worry about what anyone else was doing automatically situated me up
on the bank casting upstream close to the banks. In fact, within a few minutes of doing
it, it occurred to me that I should stay well away from the bank, casting only the leader, tippet
and big nymph out into the water. That way my fly line wasn't a factor at all. It was strung out
across the grass and rocks along the banks and I was up on the bank several feet from the
water staying as low as I could.
The results of this was that I'm fairly sure I caught more trout than all the twenty or
more anglers in sight caught all put together during the same time span. According
to our video tape logs, that one afternoon I caught 26 trout. Most of them were good size
brown trout. Several were 16 inches and over and a couple of browns were better than 18
inches. There were a few rainbows (log didn't record the number) and one of them measured
17 inches. I have done the same thing many times since and almost always, with very good
When I finished fishing that afternoon, near the same time we quit the day before, we had
company. Anglers were strolling up to the truck every few minutes asking me mostly "what fly
I was using". A few commented about me fishing from the bank and not wading. Not one
angler ask about the reason I was fishing that way. It was mostly, as usual, all about the
fly I was using. To this day, I don't have the slightest clue what the big stonefly nymph I used
is called. It was long before we came up with Perfect Flies and our own imitation of the
Salmonfly nymph and adult.
That area of the Madison consist of fast pocket water and the flows depend on the releases
from Hebgen Lake. Large rocks and boulders are scattered up and down the river
continuously. Late in the day when the sun has set behind the mountains, the combination of
fast water and low light conditions make the particular fly less important than it normally is.
Our Perfect Fly Salmonfly nymph looks almost just like a real ones and is far more effective
than other flies in most situations. The fly is important, but unless the fly is placed fairly
close to the trout feeding on what the fly imitates, none of them are effective.
The problem most anglers have is getting the most important things in the right
Copyright 2012 James Marsh