Each and every year in the Madison Valley there comes a point in time where we throw down our guard and say, “winter is here”. Suddenly as the days become shorter, temperatures plummet, the river becomes vacant and slowly it begins to gorge with ice. Everyone in town exudes a bit of relief after working long summer hours. Fishing guides stow their boats away and either head to the slopes or on to their warm water gigs. And while the conversation among us during the fishing season rarely leaves the realm of ‘trout’, such talk is difficult to come by until we begin to thaw in the spring.
With time to slow down and enjoy everything but trout here in the Madison Valley, we start to reflect on last year’s season. And what a season it was…
For the year-round residents of Ennis, before the boats are taken out of storage and long before our first guests arrive, our season has started. The 2017/2018 winter proved to be one for ages with an unbelievable amount of snow falling here on the valley floor. All that snow down here meant much, much more up in the Gravelly and Madison ranges. Simultaneously, we received encouraging news about the progress of the Hebgen Dam restoration project. The dam was slated to begin releasing water from a lower depth come springtime, which would hopefully result in higher water quality for the 2018 fishing season.
As April approached, few of us had a chance to fish due to extremely cold conditions and a record year of skiing up at Big Sky. One person in particular who missed out on that though (for good reason) was our very own Lodge Manager, Manu. On February 1st, we welcomed our son Kasper MacDuffie Redmond into the world! Boy, what a catch he is! But back to April. Just when we all thought winter was over, the beginning of April saw our highest rate of snow accumulation all winter. It was confirmed, 2018 was going to be an excellent water year for the Madison River.
Come late April, winter had turned to spring. And once the water temperatures climbed out of the 40s, our rainbow trout began their annual ritual of gorging themselves on anything that drifts by them. Our spring fishing weather can either call for t-shirts or Goretex and gloves. You never know what you’re going to get. But if you’re willing to layer up and deal with some more challenging weather then you’re in for a real treat. 2018 was no different. Spring fishing on the upper Madison River….I’ll just leave it at that.
By this time, significant progress had been made under the leadership of the Madison Conservation District to restore the section of Jack Creek that flows through our property. Long ago the banks of the creek were stabilized with old cars and various chunks of scrap metal. Though it looked pretty cool, it wasn’t doing the creek any good and resulted in decreased flows and increased sediment. All of this is bad for fish spawning habitat. Out came that “good ‘ol Montana riprap” and in went some significant bio-engineering and thousands of willows to help stabilize the banks. It must not have been a week after the work was finished that the runoff hit Jack Creek. The timing couldn’t have been better as the old sediment blew out into Madison River and created an entirely new stream.
The beginning of runoff on the upper Madison River started slowly, but it wasn’t long until the river bumped up to a level that made the bridges above Palisades impossible to pass under in a drift boat. Local power company Northwestern Energy decided that this would be the year they’d perform a series of ‘flushing flows’ to clear out sediment in the upper Madison. Once the flows hit their peak we saw a steady decreasing trend in flows and the fish responded as we’d expected. With flows still relatively high, we found the fish stacked up in the slow water. This meant tougher fishing from the boat and better conditions for the wade angler who was willing to attach a bowling ball sized split shot to their leader. If you could get a big stonefly nymph down to them, the fishing was spectacular. Just watch out for the moose.
With the river clearing up and only a few mud plugs left in the tributaries we started to see our caddis and PMDs emerge. These hatches were particularly good right behind the ranch in the Channels section, especially towards the lake where things got really interesting. Talk about fantastic fishing!
Towards the end of June the water would turn crystal clear again and the whole town of Ennis would become sickened with Salmonfly fever. Right on schedule, around June 21, we saw our first wave of bugs move upriver. Early mornings and well placed casts were the ticket before the fish began to prefer the golden stones over the salmonflies. Still though, big foam body dries were the a great choice. The 4th of July rolled about and so did the party of the year in downtown Ennis. Just like the celebrants, the fish entered their salmonfly hangover once the dust from the Ennis Rodeo settled. It only lasted a couple of days and what happened next was truly remarkable. Oh, and we saw another moose.
Come late July you could stop into any bar in Ennis in the late afternoon to find a row of fishing guides (no pun intended) having some after work libations. The mood was nothing short of giddy. “Did you see those moose?!”, asks one of them. “We crushed ’em today!”, exclaimed another. “That Henry’s Fork stonefly, man…” the others said. All of them would agree that this was one of the best dry fly years in a long, long time. Was it the snowpack providing higher flows? Was it the new outflow location of Hebgen Dam putting in cooler, more oxygen rich water? We can only guess at this point.
By the end of July there were very few stoneflies left, aside from the nocturnals. But right on time were the hoppers that kept the dry fly game going. Anglers have had concerns that the hopper fishing isn’t what it used to be. 2018 had those people scratching their heads. Thunder Thighs, Jake’s Trigger Belly, Dave’s Hopper, the Morrish Hopper, and others were turning fish left and right.
Then came the ants. Oh what a flying ant ‘hatch’ it was, especially right here on Jack Creek. On one occasion a guest came back from the creek saying they landed a 20″ fish. “A 20″ fish out of that little thing?” I wondered. I went down there the next evening armed with a 7’6″ 3 wt and Dan Delekta’s black CDC ant. I dabbled the fly in a slow eddy and watched a monster brown trout rise from the depths to inhale it. Sure enough, there are 20″ fish in Jack Creek…and moose.
September came around and we held onto every last dry fly take we could until there came a point that the fish demanded we go subsurface. In early October we started slow stripping streamers when finally some cold fall weather roared in. “It’s too early for winter”, we said. We were correct. The second half of October felt like July again with temperatures in the 80s. By this time the moose were everywhere. Five of them to be exact. It wasn’t uncommon to wake up early in the morning to see the big bull standing outside your room. Check out Ethan Kunard’s video for proof.
We’ve discussed all things Madison River so far, but that’s not all we do at the Madison Valley Ranch. Many of you have had the chance to get to know our Executive Chef Matt Pease over the years. He’s a dry-fly-or-die kind of guy and passionate supporter of all things black and yellow when it comes to Pittsburgh sports. But his food this year was off the charts. From gourmet appetizers to bison prime rib, pork tenderloin, local duck and desserts made entirely from scratch with local ingredients – he’s got a remarkable talent that takes the whole MVR experience to the next level. With help from David and Tay in the kitchen and some perfectly paired wines, Matt served up 5-star meals each and every day of the season. Thank you, Matt!
Another huge thank you goes out to our Assistant Lodge Manager, Zach Whittow. In his second season at MVR, Zach stepped up this year into a management role and supported our wonderful seasonal staff with great enthusiasm and leadership. We couldn’t have done it without Zach’s drive, sense of humor and tips on all things outdoors!
We are also very thankful for our outfitters Chris and Julie Eaton and their crew of top-notch fishing guides that worked hard all season to provide an unforgettable and entertaining fishing experience for all of our guests. Thank you for almost three decades of partnership and for showing up every morning and making it happen!
Finally, the biggest thank you of all goes to you, our guests. Many of you have been returning to the ranch year after year and for some of you it was your first time with us. You are the reason we continue to do our best to provide a memorable time at the ranch and constantly strive to improve ourselves. We understand that you have many choices when it comes to your fishing vacation, and we are truly appreciative of your support.
Looking outside I can see the Madison range covered in snow across the valley. It’s blowing about 40 MPH from the North and there’s a hefty snow drift building in the doorway. Winter is here. But just like summer, it will pass. December 21st marks the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. Other than a couple of trips to lower latitudes and hopefully a whole lot of skiing, we’ll be counting down the days until the ice begins to recede and those hungry rainbows start the whole process over again in April.
So here’s to a great 2018 season at MVR and an even better one in 2019. From our MVR family to yours, happy holidays and tight lines for the new year ahead!