Slinging on the Madison in the 1970s.
By Brian O’Keefe
I think it was ‘round 1978, I was doing a solo trip to Montana after guiding steelhead on the North Umpqua River in Oregon. Thousands of casts and a handful of landed steelhead would make anyone want to embark on a Montana “walk-about.” Around that time, the strike detector thing was just getting started and as a dry fly guy who occasionally threw streamers the thought of adding a bobber to the line or leader—where the hell does it go anyway, I wondered—was just a bit over the top.
On a nice stretch below Slide Inn on the Madison River, I walked the bank in search of risers. In the 70’s, a hatch was not necessary to fish dries. Not much was going on and I contemplated the strike indicator from a purely technical point of view. The concept seemed to make sense. My buddies and I thought that nymph fishing was OK, not taboo, but definitely a last resort (I still hold that credo) and as I approached a run with several large boulders I rigged up my first strike detector.
I didn’t own a true, commercial strike detector (no one used the term, indicator, back then). So I tied on a huge salmonfly dry, my own over-dressed version of a Sofa Pillow for rough water on the Deschutes. I added six feet of 4X tippet and tied on a weighted Zug Bug. Back then, I fished an Orvis Osprey rod, which was a nine and half foot number six, medium flex and quite powerful. I really liked it and it made me look cool with the old timers. I also owned a ten foot number five Scott Power-Ply that I bought from Scott founder Harry Wilson. I was guiding, but he still charged me full bore. Whatever rod I used that day escapes me, but it didn’t matter—that big salmonfly and a long chunk of 4X, plus the detector, cast like shit.
The big, mid-stream rocks in this stretch of the river were the size of Mini Coopers and typical of the Madison. There was a lot of current and the hydraulics made for a difficult drift with any fly. I was flailing away with my new setup and working my way into the boulders when I saw a couple guys who not only stepped among the slippery rocks with grace, but also looked like they just stepped out of an Orvis catalog, and I mean head to toe. Graceful casters, well heeled, voted for Nixon. I sported a bit of an afro back then and was more than happy to wet wade in May. I, to them, had just stepped out of MADD Magazine.
Back then I could throw a nice loop and I was rather proud of it and prone to show off at times. But this nymph rig was killing me. The harder I tried the worse it cast. Then, along the side of a big rock, the salmonfly submerged leaving behind a meteor trail of air bubbles. I stared at it and then the salmonfly popped back up. Far out. I cast there again, and this time when the big, dry fly went snorkeling I set the hook. Wow, what a cool sensation. My long, soft rod was bucking to the pressure of a rather large fish. The guys upriver noticed and maybe I detected one of them shaking his head. I beached the fish. A whitefish, and a big one. Oh well, I was experimenting and a three-pound whitefish in the Madison is a tough hombre. Around those rocks my new fangled strike detector worked some serious magic. I caught fish after fish. Note, that I have yet to use the word trout.
My scotch-drinking friends upriver had had enough. With the overfilled vests and neat Stetson hats, they waded ashore and drove downriver. I was a little giddy from the experience, a character flaw I have yet to shake, but what the heck.
Soon I left and drove to the Grizzly Bar for lunch. A big splurge back then. I’d brought a single cassette tape for my travels from Oregon—Eric Clapton. I had it pumping as I drove to the bar and today I can still lip-synch and air-guitar that album word-for-word. Eric was layin’ it down as I pulled into the gravel parking lot and wouldn’t you know it, the upstream dudes were there, too. No biggy. I sat down and ordered a great burger and made mental notes about the whole strike detector thing.
Halfway through my lunch one of the jealous and slightly pissed spectators came over and said, “A couple of those were big fish. What was the hot fly?”
With a cool, matter of fact, it happens every day style that I was trying out for the first time, I replied, “Actually, I was experimenting with a new thing called a strike detector and caught everything on a Zug Bug and they were all whitefish.” Awkward moment of silence. Then from the millionaire, “Miss, put his lunch on my tab. And son, welcome to Montana.”
Note: Many thanks to Brian O’Keefe who gave permission to reprint this article on Angler’s Tonic. Originally, O’Keefe penned this for Tight Lines, an annual magazine I founded in 2003. Free Lunch reads just as well here as it did there. Check out O’Keefe’s most recent project, Catch Magazine.