Fall Madness
On Montana’s Madison River
A fall storm. Temperatures dropping to minus-four degrees. Piles of snow on the ground. What better time to target a personal best brown trout?
By Brian Irwin

Near the end of my first day spent fishing Montana’s Madison River, I could see lenticular clouds stacking on the distant peaks. This could only mean one thing: a fall storm would hit within 48 hours.

The next day I rolled out of bed at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky. I had a private cabin, and the fire in the stove was dying. As its last embers faded, I slid on waders and took a pull of coffee from a thermos that a flannel-clad ranch-hand delivered to my porch at 5:30 a.m. Then I geared up.

A guide and I drove toward the Madison, then hiked down to Hebgen Lake’s outflow, where water gushed from a dam. Casting into the froth yielded five strikes. In clear water, I could see these fish were possibly 25-inches long or longer. Nothing landed though. So we continued downstream, fishing “between the lakes,” hoping to find a giant brown. We didn’t accomplish that task, but we did find a nice by-catch of fat rainbows and a few whitefish.

As expected, fall weather crashed into Montana that night, bringing with it ankle-deep fluffy snow, howling winds and a drop in the air pressure. My guide that day was Brian McGeehan, who owns Montana Angler in Bozeman. A humble, astute soul, McGeehan thought wisely that the only viable option would be a spring creek, so we slipped away to the Paradise Valley and fished its private creeks. I enjoyed the creeks, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking, I came to Montana to catch a big brown and my time is running out.

The next morning there was fresh snow on the ground and the temperature was minus-four. Not ideal conditions to say the least. But we decided to head out anyway, another push to catch the big brown. Yellowstone National Park is known for these fish in autumn, and an area called Baker’s Hole is one of the best places to find them.

But Bakers Hole gets pressure. Don’t bother visiting it in summer, or even on a nice fall day. Instead, wait until the gods crush you with miserable conditions. This pushes all but the hardiest anglers away. This is the time to fish Bakers. The entire run consists of a few deep meanders flanked by 50-foot-high sand cuts into the banks. Brown trout love that water.

We found only one car in the lot that morning and quickly walked to the first bend. I fished for a few hours and although I came up dry, my focus at that point wasn’t catching fish. I’m a photographer, too, and it’s easy to get distracted, even from fly fishing, when a snow-blasted setting under cobalt skies throws itself in your lap.

My guide on this day, Neil Laskowski, cast a nearly frozen line into the pools. Steam drifted over the river. Two bison walked by. As I raced to change my lens, those giants strolled away into the pines. I laid down the camera and spent a full two minutes staring at my surroundings. Two river otters slithered through the currents, then crested a hill in front of us. They slid down the hill, frolicked in the water and swam away. Two bald eagles soared overhead.

As I knelt down to fire some images of snowflakes, tracks and the crispy river grass, I heard Neil shout. “Brian… this fish . . . I think he’s big… thought you might be interested . . . .”

I thrashed downstream, carrying my camera equipment, and by the time I reached Neil, the fish was just coming to hand. There was no wind. The noon sun was high in the sky. The fish had a large streamer in its jaw. Then, with a pop of the hook, the giant fish was back in the Madison. Neil had his fish.

But I was not satisfied. I’d been treated well at Lone Mountain, spending each day on the water, each night at the Ranch’s opulent private cabins. Fire roared at the foot of my bed. A record player put me to sleep after a meal of bison at LM’s on-property restaurant, The Horne and Cantle. But not enough browns for me.

On my final day, Laskowski told me he knew how to send me out with a bang. So we hit the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park. The Firehole runs warm. In summer, the fish become complacent, as if in a jacuzzi. But when the air temperature dips into the single digits, they appreciate the soothing warmth, basking in a blend of cold mountain water and geothermal runoff. That combination makes the browns feisty.

The day passed fast. In two hours the sun would fall. We crunched our way up the shore of the river, keeping a watchful eye out for holes in the ground, geothermal vents. Trout were carving up the surface, feeding on blue-wing olives and midges.

I cast relentlessly into a series of pools, taking a golden 12-inch fish from each. Neil caught three times my haul. After landing my last brown, which was no longer than 10 inches, I headed down the shoreline and back to the car. My trip was ending without having landed a gigantic trout. But Neil got one. And it only took a couple minutes of reflection to understand that fishing Montana isn’t all about catching a trophy-size trout. It’s about wild, open wilderness, just off the beaten path.

Lodging and guides: Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky is the most comfortable base location. Lone Mountain can arrange guides. Packages from $225pp/per day, all inclusive.

Brian Irwin
Brian Irwin is a freelance writer, photographer, and family physician with credits in numerous national newspapers and magazines. He holds a certificate of travel health from the International Society of Travel Medicine, teaches for Dartmouth’s Wilderness Medicine Fellowship, and he’s a medical director for two ski patrols and a swiftwater rescue team. He lives in North Conway, New Hampshire.