All you need to know to smack them.
If you’ve thought about chasing the Madison River’s largest brown trout, at once envisioning yourself in a photo hoisting a five-pound-plus hookjawed male, now is the time to do so—air temperatures in southwest Montana are expected to creep into the mid-to high sixties this week and the Madison’s brown trout are concentrated in some easily accessible places.
Also, you should know that the entire month of November is the best time to fish for aggressive browns, including large, mostly nocturnal fish that typically keep their noses tucked under banks and rootwads and only now come out in the open, forced to do so, of course, by their incessant urge to spawn. That opinion goes against the grain because many anglers and most of the major outdoor publications say September is the time to slay big browns. Over the course of 20 years spent fishing the northern Rockies, I wouldn’t dare trade the brown trout options of November for those in September and I’m not the only big-fish addict who thinks that way.
According to Kelly Galloup, who runs Slide Inn on the banks of the upper Madison, November is the time to stick a pig and the best way to do so is with a streamer while focusing on soft water ranging between two and four-feet deep, often where underwater shelves and ledges create color breaks.
“A lot of people talk about spawners in September but I haven’t seen that on the Madison,” Galloup noted. “In fact I rarely see much activity here (Slide Inn area including that section of the Madison between Hebgen Reservoir and Quake Lake) before the last week of October. In a normal year the last week of October and all of November is when you see the big push. I saw a push of fish here last Thursday and I got three fish over 22 inches one evening.”
Galloup prides himself on streamer patterns and, in fact, he wrote the book on streamers, a popular title called Streamer Flies for Trophy Trout. Galloup is fond of many patterns, but if he had to choose one for fall fishing on the Madison it would be an olive Peanut Envy. If he could get away with it he’d run a Smokewagon minnow behind his first fly.
“I really couldn’t have just one pattern, but if you forced me to choose I’d take the Peanut Envy,” Galloup relented. “I would cast across and upstream at a 15-degree angle and then set the head of the fly slightly downstream. I would keep the rod tip low to the water, pointed slightly downstream, and use a fast, jerk-strip retrieve, especially if the water temperature is 38 degrees or above. I want the fly to come straight across the river to me. I’m looking for players, the fish with way too much testosterone, the fish with Walter Mathau noses and a pissed-off attitude. Those fish will chase a fast fly.
“If the water is colder than 38 degrees I slow the retrieve, ” Galloup noted. “And I do more vertical jigging by methodically lifting the rod up a foot-and-a-half, and then I drop it down. You don’t want to pick up line and let the fly hang there. You want the fly to rise and fall and I accomplish that animation with the rod tip, not by stripping line.”
All right, let’s say you’ve found a good spot on the Madison where the fish are packed and you’ve got the right fly, the right technique and the good fortune to hook into a 24-to 30-inch monster. How the hell are you going to hold him? The answer? With a stout rod and heavy test. In fact, that’s Galloup’s answer to the terminal tackle equation.
“In the fall I fish a nine-foot six-weight rod with a Scientific Anglers 200-grain, full-sink, (KG series) Streamer Express line,” Galloup explained. “I use a short leader consisting of 12 inches of 20-pound test for the butt section and 18 inches of 12-pound Maxima for the leader. I use a figure-eight-style Davey knot to attached the fly. I would advise people to use whatever knot they are comfortable with and can tie easily even with cold hands.”
One thing to note about knots, leaders and large flies, is the damage simple casting can achieve. Punching big flies into the wind, and all the way across a river, one cast after another, exacts a toll on tippet. Make sure to examine your tippet and knots repeatedly while fishing the Madison this month or anywhere else, for that matter, where large fish fin.
“If you don’t retie your knot at least twice every hour you are begging to hook the biggest fish of your life only to hear the tippet go, ‘ping!’” Galloup warned. “There is a lot of impact on a leader and fly from casting, especially if you’re floating in a boat, banging casts repeatedly to both banks. The truly large fish are too big of a treasure to take the chance of losing one if you’re fortunate enough to hook one in the first place.”
To up your odds for a giant fish you’ll want to time your visit with stable weather and you should find that this week. The kiss-of-death, according to Galloup, is to arrive when a stable low-pressure system gives way to high pressure. Ideally, you’re looking for a stable barometer for no fewer than two days and accompanied by overcast conditions. Big browns move best in low-light conditions and that is when they are most surely.
While fishing the Madison between the lakes this fall you may bump into a surprise—oversized rainbows that rip. Galloup, in all of his years spent fishing between the lakes, hasn’t seen these fish before and he senses that they washed out of Hebgen during a major 2008 flood event. These fish are fat as pigs and range to 25 inches.
“I’ve caught three of those rainbows and one was definitely over five pounds,” Galloup noted. “I think they are Eagle Lake rainbows (a fall spawn strain of fish) and their guts are huge. These fish are just like those you catch in the park (Yellowstone) in the fall and it’s very cool. There are big numbers of them, more than I’ve ever seen, and they’re in that area between the lakes.”
Ok, so you awakened on the wrong side of the bed and you’ve got a mean streak. You’re thinking, How can you dare fish for a trout that’s trying to spawn? The answer is, you don’t. In fact, by utilizing streamer tactics anglers can focus on fish that are moving and aggressive. What we’re talking about doing on the Madison is not the Glo-Bug/Pheasant Tail Nymph under an indicator show that you see elsewhere, you know, the method that runs a fly past a fish dozens of times until the angler eventually snags a pig in the dorsal, offers a guilty grin to his buddy and says, “Uh, I didn’t mean to do that.” Meanwile, the trout is fighting for its life when it should be making more trout for you and I to fish for in coming years. You’ve seen that at Beaver Creek, you’ve seen it on upper Clark Fork, you’ve seen it elsewhere, too. You don’t need to see it or do it on the Madison.
“One thing I don’t do is fish redds,” Galloup said. “I fish where trout stage, but that’s often a hundred yards or more below the redds. The big males, which is what I target because I think they are cool looking, typically don’t stay on or near their redds during the day. They’re in a run or hole far below the redd. And again, I’m looking for players, fish that are aggressive and will come after the fly when they first see it. I won’t cast over and over. Listen, if you cast to a fish for 40 minutes, over and over, you’re going to snag him. And that’s bullshit.”
Regarding redds, most people do their best to keep their wading boots out of them. And that’s fine. But, Galloup warns that avoiding the actual redd may not be enough. According to Galloup, a redd is simply a fertilization bucket where egg and sperm mingle before flushing downstream to the tiny cracks and crevasses where eggs actually develop.
“The actual bed is not what you need to worry about,” Galloup insisted. “It’s the area 20 feet below a redd or even farther that you should avoid. So be mindful of spawning areas and try not to walk or cross directly below them. You can see the way a current flows and you can pretty much decide where the eggs drifted to so pay attention or you’ll definitely damage the eggs.”
When it comes down to it, the reason anglers chase fall brown trout is to realize the largest fish of their lives. Angling in November resembles hunting because you’re looking for specific fish and you’re willing to pass on the easy, modest fish in favor of a bigger reward. Try your hand on the Madison or one of the other streams listed below, and see what you might dredge up—could be the largest, meanest, red-spotted brown trout of your life…as long as your tippet holds.
More on Browns
Creek and Wood
Southcentral Idaho’s Silver Creek and Big Wood River offer decent brown trout opps in November, although many of the creek’s browns have already spawned or are currently sitting on beds, which means—unless you have no couth—they’re off limits to anglers. According to John Huber at Ketchum on The Fly, the creek’s rainbows and some browns are chowing down on afternoon Baetis hatches along with a few mahogany duns. Basically, it’s an afternoon show.
If you’re dead-set on brown trout try the Big Wood River for aggressive fish that are traveling out of Magic Reservoir and into river, all the way up to Stanton Crossing. The best fishing, Huber relates, likely would be found between Sheep Bridge and Stanton and those fish are eager to smack Philo Bettos, brown and yellow Woolly Buggers and a variety of sculpin patterns. During the day look for those fish in the mid-depth, mid-speed runs behind gravel bars and benches. During low light morning and evening hours check for them on the gravel flats cruising around and looking for suitable places to spawn. www.ketchumonthefly.com
Because the ‘horn is a tailwater, its brown trout don’t get to ramped up until later this month, typically around Thanksgiving, although Duane Schreiner at Bighorn Fly & Tackle in Fort Smith says anglers are starting to notice a few aggressive, fish most male brown trout.
“I think the peak time to fish browns here is from Thanksgiving until a little after New Year’s,” he offered. “Right now the fish are maybe in pre-spawn mode but it’s a little early. When they do get going the best patterns are streamers in combinations of orange, yellow and red. Basically, you want to throw minnow patterns that are bright and flashy in size 2 and 4 and the Bighorn Bugger, Pumpkin Bugger, and Muddlers are good choices.
“Most guys fish from a boat here and they pound the banks,” Schreiner added. “A lot of the browns will hold in six-to 18 inches of water so you can get away with using a weight-forward floating line, but it’s best to fish a slight-density 15-foot sink-tip with a sink-rate of three to four inches per second.”
No matter which fly you choose to throw or which line you choose to deliver it with, focus attention on the upper 13 miles of the river where trout populations are highest. Expect to catch lots of fish in the 16-to 18-inch range but don’t be surprised if you see a few over 20 inches, especially if you spend multiple days on the water. www.bighornfly.com
South Fork Snake River
If you want to fish the South Fork Snake for its oversized browns, right now through Thanksgiving is the time to do so. According to Jim Hickey at WorldCast Anglers in Victor, Idaho, the South Fork’s browns are colored up, pissed off and smacking a variety of streamers.
“All this month they will be angry,” Hickey said. “In November I really like the upper section of the river between the (Palisades) Dam and the Spring Creek Bridge. The bottom of the river is really good, too, even below Idaho Falls. And that’s where the true giants are—below Idaho Falls. They come out of American Falls (Reservoir) and some of them are 30-inchers, but they don’t stay long in that section so it’s tricky.”
No matter where you choose to fish the river this month bring a supply of size-2 streamers including Hickey’s favorites—the J.J. Special, the Zuddler, Sculpzilla, and the T&A Bunker. You can fish those off floating lines, but a 200-grain sinking line that drops at three or four inches per second is ideal.
“I fish pretty shallow for the big browns, in water that’s maybe 1.5 to two feet deep,” Hickey offered. “I look for breaks created by a sidechannel leaving the main river. Usually there’s a broad gravel area just above the sidechannel and the browns like to hang there. The big gravel bars in the middle of the river are good, too. You want to fish the slow side of those bars in the slick water. Also, at the end of a long run or flat, just before the water dumps into a riffle, I’ll fish the middle of the river in the pillow above the riffle. No matter where you are on the river keep looking for fish—you can spot the big ones.” www.worldcastanglers.com