Fire & Ice

Even subzero temperatures can't stop the furious shotgunning and superb trout fising along the Madison River.

Late fall is my favorite time to be in the Madison River country of Montana. The big browns spawn through October into early November and, like the rainbows, are willing to eat past Thanksgiving. Ducks and geese are flying, big-game seasons are in and few, if any, anglers are on the rivers. Even in November it’s normal for the daytime temperatures to be comfortably in the 40s, which I consider perfect weather. But not on this trip. Following a hot, bright autumn, the jet stream has suddenly ushered in winter in the second week of November. South of Ennis, yellow grasses bristle through a skiff of snow on the floodplain of the Madison. There is snow in the junipers and sagebrush and it is snowing steadily. Below the Gravelly Range, to our right, the river runs olive drab in the late-day light and soon darkens to indigo. Moments after the sun drops, the sky behind the Gravellies flares pink and the river lights up a strange aquamarine; it reminds me of the green flashes you sometimes see on the coasts at sundown.

In a coppice of cottonwoods hard by the Madison River, 34 miles south of Ennis, sits the Old Kirby Place. We come to it in the dark, clomping through snow and cold to the wood porch. With the cabin windows glowing warmly and a wreath of pungent wood smoke in the air, we feel like we’re entering a scene from a Christmas card. The lodge and bunkhouse were built in the 1880s and, in the main, the structures are original. Walter Kannon and his pal Jack, both from Long Island, N.Y., visited here in the mid 1980s to hunt elk, and Walt decided he had to have the place as his own small lodge. That happened in 1989. Now from predawn to lights-out Walter slides seamlessly between roles as head chef, valley historian, vocal virtuoso and evening raconteur. The pine dining table groans with food and drink as we unlace our boots. The Round Oak stove throbs with blessed heat and soon we are mapping plans for tomorrow.

A small group of friends and colleagues, we have come for the late fishing and some waterfowl gunning. We’ll also be conducting an interesting experiment. Folks from the Filson Company, which eschews synthetic wonder materials in its outdoor clothing, are putting their natural-fiber wares to the test. The weather this trip looks to be brutal, and it will be interesting to see how the wool weaves and waxed cottons fare versus the nylons and polys.

Canadas Everywhere
In the predawn dark, the snow now stopped, we lie on our backs among decoys in a goose field near Ennis. Guide Gary Evans has arranged the hunt. We cover ourselves with bale straw, blanketing our legs and bodies with it and with scoops of snow. At first light, the blowing snow skims across the stubble like sand on a windswept beach. Shooting light comes, but the Canadas are talking and flying by to another field. One of our party pleads masterfully on his call for a long time and finally coaxes them in. The big Canadas come like B-2 bombers, intimidating in their size, hovering and soft-honking their commitment before dropping in. To my right, fellow outdoor writer Mike Gaddis yells, “Take ’em.”

We do our sit-ups, happy that our bodies work in the cold, and we shoot. The big-winged symmetry of a moment ago is now a chaos of ricocheting motion and flaring forms. Two geese fold. Before we can retrieve them another group is on us, and then another. We hit, miss, and then three mallards flash close and we drop them. Just once, Mike and I make a pretty double on geese. The shooting is steady; then it slows and stops. It is growing colder, and while lying on our backs, Mike and I are fighting the battle of the bladder. “I’ve never been so miserable and so happy at the same time,” he says. “Do we dare get up?”

Jump-shooting mallards and geese is another option we can’t let pass. There is public land around Odell Spring Creek, and private land to which our guides have access. In the early morni, we walk the river, put the sneak on birds at bends and, as a bonus, watch some fine whitetails that we jump. In the cold, our wader boots soon build high with ice and snow, forcing periodic scrape-downs to avoid a turned ankle. We will have yet another morning for waterfowl, but I am hot to fish the big river now, which runs lonely with few anglers along its banks.

Big Browns, Numerous Rainbows
On a noon lunch break at the Bear Claw Saloon just outside Ennis, Gary Evans talks about the Madison River. Despite the well-publicized whirling disease attack on rainbow trout in the ’90s, the 2000 season has been his best year for numbers of fish. The high water of ’98 helped flush and dilute the infection just as fry were emerging. Survival was far better than it had been.

Wading downstream of the popular Varney Bridge stretch, we’re alone. The bottom is slick cobbles and head-sized rocks. There is wind. For flyfishermen, nymphs and indicators have been working. The streamer fishing has not been good, but I still want to try fish imitations, and do, using spinning gear. A mini plug and then a small Thomas Fighting Fish spoon score on highly colored browns. It is a short, late-day session but we’ll have more. My hands are now wet and freezing and photographer Dusan Smetana takes pity when we return to the access; he shares his Slovakian brandy.

The following day our target is the water between Hebgon and Quake Lake, the latter formed in the 1959 earthquake that buried 28 persons and moved summerhouses downstream. Walking the bank we pass four of those cabins, then a fifth. In the 40-plus years since the disaster, some of the houses have sat relatively unmolested. “It’s a bit weird,” says Gary. “You go in and everything is still waiting; the table is set, the coffee pot on the stove.” In the hollow of the river valley we are better sheltered from the wind. We rig tandem-style with four BB shot ahead of a Prince Nymph, then a single tiny shot at the nose of an egg-imitating Glo Bug at the leader’s end. That weight will stop the egg from wiggling excessively in current. An inexpensive snip of yarn strike indicator knotted on the leader completes the setup. There is some concern whether the new nine-foot Sage XP, a fly rod I brought to try, can handle the lobbing that this rig requires. It is soon evident that the tough little stick will do just fine. It’s the iced-up guides that give us fits. Even the waxy “anti-freeze” that we bought earlier in Bozeman doesn’t help.

To navigate the swift, slick-bottomed river we need to pair up, linking arms, to harness the greater stability of four legs. In a side channel called the Honeypot, upstream casting soon gives me a rainbow on the Glo Bug, then a larger one on the Prince. A seam divides the fast and slow water in the main river farther downstream and I see a boil where the currents meet. The casts are longer here, but the little rod handles it well, and the Prince Nymph grabs a yet larger rainbow. I’m happy to warm my fingers and give Dusan my rod. He promptly hooks a nice brown. Naturally, I tell him to go back to his cameras, grab back my rod?and happily catch a brown for myself.

As Good, and Cold, As It Gets
If you hang out long enough at the Ennis Town Pump gas station and convenience store, most of the valley’s characters will pass by. We are waiting here for a ride after a shoot on what has proved the coldest morning yet. Pickups are pulling in with good bull elk. Two mountain men in a camel-dung-colored compact truck, its bumper held on with clothesline, have two elk. A warm coffee cup is helping my fingers, which have been frostbitten by temperatures to minus 10. But it is wings I’m remembering vividly, not the cold, and I cannot stop mentally rerunning the images.

False dawn: Mike Gaddis and I feel like Washington crossing the Delaware in guide Eric Shore’s drift boat. The Madison is like lead, ice slush pushing by thick and steady. “This ice will build up into big plates and pileups,” says Eric. “The river leaves its banks and spreads over fields and when you get a warm shot it’ll break loose and the water will drop. You find trout in the fields.”

We target a blind on a little side channel and pool near Odell Creek. Eric’s Chesapeake, Teal, shivers with excitement. The dove gray sky turns ivory; our feet are instantly numb. We are nearly set up when two greenheads hiss in. We miss and I can’t believe it. Excuses flow. Soon a flight of geese comes from behind and we scramble to get into position. I dust one. We regroup and Eric begins talking about permit fishing, about anything warm, and suddenly a pair of mallards spills in. Mike shoots one of them; the other turns off and then incredibly comes back and I hit it. Teal is happy. And then everything is flying.

There are high swans and flights of ducks coming from downriver, and dawn is washing the sky pink, green and blue. A little flag of cloud turns crimson above the high, snow-patterned mountains. Over the yellow field stubble, dark silhouettes of waterfowl pass across a shimmering, climbing sun. There’s no other place I’d rather be. Who cares about the cold?

Back at the Town Pump, my fingertips feel as though they’ve been coated in epoxy and I decide to pass on the afternoon’s fishing. Of course it warms, the temperature climbing above 20 degrees. Twenty seems to be the magic number. Mike lands at least 20 fish, his largest hitting 20 inches, and there were two he never saw, fish that took him downriver, wrapped around boulders and broke off.

Ah well, you make decisions, one of mine being to get back here in late autumn to do it all again.
e Madison is like lead, ice slush pushing by thick and steady. “This ice will build up into big plates and pileups,” says Eric. “The river leaves its banks and spreads over fields and when you get a warm shot it’ll break loose and the water will drop. You find trout in the fields.”

We target a blind on a little side channel and pool near Odell Creek. Eric’s Chesapeake, Teal, shivers with excitement. The dove gray sky turns ivory; our feet are instantly numb. We are nearly set up when two greenheads hiss in. We miss and I can’t believe it. Excuses flow. Soon a flight of geese comes from behind and we scramble to get into position. I dust one. We regroup and Eric begins talking about permit fishing, about anything warm, and suddenly a pair of mallards spills in. Mike shoots one of them; the other turns off and then incredibly comes back and I hit it. Teal is happy. And then everything is flying.

There are high swans and flights of ducks coming from downriver, and dawn is washing the sky pink, green and blue. A little flag of cloud turns crimson above the high, snow-patterned mountains. Over the yellow field stubble, dark silhouettes of waterfowl pass across a shimmering, climbing sun. There’s no other place I’d rather be. Who cares about the cold?

Back at the Town Pump, my fingertips feel as though they’ve been coated in epoxy and I decide to pass on the afternoon’s fishing. Of course it warms, the temperature climbing above 20 degrees. Twenty seems to be the magic number. Mike lands at least 20 fish, his largest hitting 20 inches, and there were two he never saw, fish that took him downriver, wrapped around boulders and broke off.

Ah well, you make decisions, one of mine being to get back here in late autumn to do it all again.