Fishing on the Ides of March

Flyfishing, if judged by photos on magazine covers, is about the search for big fish. If you examine it a little closer, those fish may be the end object of the search, but to get to that point it’s more about the search for the tiny. Bugs that is.

Western trout streams become a magnet for travelers in early summer for one of the biggest bugs around, the salmon fly, that big stonefly that occasionally makes big trout lose all sense of caution while they seek out this juicy chunk of protein.

Those hatches are fun while they last, but after just a few days it’s all over. For a regular diet, trout don’t often get those t-bone and prime rib dinners. It’s more often about getting lots and lots of hors d’oeuvres. In late summer, tricos are that delicate little munchie. In early spring, when it’s still too early for the first mayfly hatches, midges sometimes get the trout into a feeding frame of mind.

The trick is to be on the river when it happens, as well as having the right flies, plus the luck to have some trout pick out your feeble imitation from the thousands of the genuine article that fill the air and water’s surface.

The lower Madison River is one of those trout streams where midges are a mainstay of the trout diet, though there’s still that trick of being there when the action happens.
Joining me in that search last week was Joe DeGraw, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. He was in Butte during spring break. Something about dating a Butte girl, meeting parents, and other complicated issues leading to a request, several weeks earlier, “Would you consider taking him fishing?”

The early morning was frosty, but there was a forecast for a warm afternoon. Almost amazingly, there were only gentle breezes coming down the Beartrap Canyon, and when we took a closer look at the river, we could see bunches of midges along the edge of the current. What we didn’t see was signs of fish feeding on them.

But, we’d come to fish and that’s what we did, though it wasn’t exactly fast action. After trying a couple different spots, Joe had picked up a couple rainbows with a pheasant tail nymph. That was a couple more fish than I had seen.

In mid-afternoon I suggested we try yet another spot, one where I’d had midge action in other years. It turned out to be a good hunch. There’s a stretch of water with several submerged rocks in a line that give fish a break from the currents and forms feeding lanes. On taking a closer look, fish were rising, picking off those tiny insects from the water’s surface.

So, we’d finally found the right place at the right time. The next challenge is to see if the trout could pick out our imitation bugs and decide it looked like lunch.
Even if the fish think the fly is the real thing, another angler challenge is to spot whether one of those splashy rises is from a trout coming up to the fake fly or to the real thing. It’s hard telling how many rises I missed, but several took one of half a dozen imitations that I threw at them to make the afternoon a success.

Angling success is, of course, highly subjective. Sometimes, just avoiding stumbling and drowning in icy March waters makes the day a success. If that’s the minimum criterion, then our day was a roaring success. We avoided icy stumbles, we picked up a little color from the bright spring sunshine to replace that winter pallor, and we each caught some active rainbow trout. All in all, we had a great day, certainly a better day than Julius Caesar had on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. The Ides of March on the Madison River was way better.

Now, whether Joe wins the hand of the Butte girl remains to be seen. On the other hand I have a return invitation to try the North Platte River in Wyoming.