The Tennessee creek was small, the water swift, and channels deep in some areas. Wild rainbows swam in this mostly unknown tributary sourced by a cold underground spring. It was the perfect scenario to try to master Euro-nymphing or French, Czech, Spanish, or Polish – take your pick. My friend Susan Thrasher, founder of Nashville's Music City Fly Girls, had invited me out for a special day on secret water. She gave me a few pointers and waded further upstream. In a few hours, I had landed a couple fish, little rainbow warriors with the colorful circular side prints, stamps of "God's thumbprints."
I practiced getting the feel of the take without an indicator, watching the two-tone neon sighter dip as I held my rod. It was excellent practice for what was to come. Little did I know that in less than a year I would be on much bigger water, angling for larger fish, on a river that flows through Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park and into Montana.
The Madison. Its name alone thrills fly anglers who hunger for western water. When planning my first trip to Yellowstone to celebrate my twin's Ph.D., this river was one of the first "must-see" items on my list. But, I knew seeing it wouldn't be enough. I needed to float it with someone whose fishy advice I could trust.
I scored Josh Berry, a Gallatin River devotee who appreciates the technicality of that wade water but also handles the sticks on the Madison as a core contractor for Gallatin River Guides. Josh is a Euro-nymphing beast. Minutes after launching the ClackaCraft from the Madison's Lyon's Bridge access point, Josh anchored in the swift current just past the bridge. He tagged a split shot on the bottom and double tungsten bead nymphs tied on a tippet ring under a two-tone sighter. Arm raised and elbow crooked for a 90-degree line, Josh gave me my second major lesson in Euro-nymphing. Two sweeps with the line after an oval back swing to downcast, he hooked a beautiful rainbow. Then it was my turn, and ditto, a beautiful bow smacked my fly after a few casts. The take was quick but unmistakable.
Josh remarked that he had the perfect opportunity for me to experiment with Euro-nymphing the whole float if I was willing, something he could rarely do with two clients in the boat. To get the sighter quickly in the water at the right angle, Euro-nymphing requires an oval cast, literally around your back and turned over firmly into the river. It's dicey with an extra body in the boat for obvious reasons.
While anchored, it was manageable. A moving drift boat, however, made the task of "feel" more daunting. As we started down the 12-mile float through the beautiful Montana countryside, Josh tweaked my technique, encouraging me to keep the sighter just above the waterline. If my arm lowered, it should be for a depth change to brush the river bottom. Any bump or dropped sighter otherwise, you set the hook. And by setting the hook, he cautioned me to use my wrist, not the full-on "bass set." While fighting fish in swift water, the goal was to keep them off balance by moving them at left or right angles and move them closer to the net.
For the better part of six hours, this was the technique I used. Several times Josh anchored near massive boulders with deep channels and I dipped flies in time after time. Oh yeah, there were fish, mostly rainbows and whitefish. Several stayed safe when I missed subtle takes. When I missed obvious takes, I heard about it! I'd rather have a vocal guide who is passionate about fishing and reacts like they're at a sporting event because frankly, they are!
Shortly after lunch, we gave my arm a rest and tried the yarn indicator, which is a standard way to fish, right? After less than 30 minutes or so without a single noticeable bump, I was more than ready to Euro-nymph again. It was "fish on" almost immediately.
Big rivers give you more opportunities to hook a fish that will haunt you. I had caught a fair number of rainbows and smaller browns by midday before whitefish took over the afternoon. It was early afternoon when I set my hook on the kind of fish anglers dream about. It was on the reel for about two minutes or so, singing on that thin nymphing leader that burned my hand when the line ripped forward. It was no whitefish. The fish stayed deep and never showed itself. Josh picked up the oars and said we were going to give chase. My adrenalin kicked in! You guessed it - too much tension and bam, I lost it. DANG IT! Josh said some other things. We lamented what we believe was a big brown.
The Madison is a river of high repute and for good reason. Red hued cliffs, swallow nests, nearby mountains, and prairie grasses – it was distinctly Montana. That's why we came. Sometimes fly fishing ain't just about the fish. As we pushed through dark blue water, some chop, and wind, we put about 25 fish in the net. It was more than a decent day. It was a Montana dream.