Being Better

In the first of two parts, Peter shares his notes after spending August in Montana.

I’ve just returned from a 4 week flyfishing holiday in Montana and I want to share with you some of the lessons I learnt.

I first fished Montana 14 years ago, and since then I’ve had 8 trips to fish the same waters at the same time of the year. That’s very unlike me – I usually like to work something out and then move on to a different place with different fish, different bugs, and so on.

I guess that’s partly because I still haven’t worked out the ‘Gulpers’ at Hebgen Lake and I will need to go back there at least a few more times! Even then, there’s no guarantees I will be any more successful. Fishing can be like that, especially at Hebgen.

But let me fill you in a little about the lie of the land in the part of Montana I visit, and the type of fishing I like to do there.


August in Montana is the height of summer, and because of the state’s continental climate, the weather is always exactly what the weather app on my phone predicts it will be. This is such a novel idea, especially when you live on the small southerly island of Tasmania, with distinctly maritime (and variable) weather.

In a 4-week period, we lost just one day of fishing to bad weather when it rained heavily all day. Otherwise, each day was a carbon copy of the previous one.

You needed a light sweater for your 6am walk, but by the time you reached the coffee shop at 7am, the sweater was off. The temperature peaked at about 30 degrees by noon, and it stayed that way until about 7pm. Every day.

The wind was non-existent in the mornings, and then at about 1:30 – 2 pm you would feel a light zephyr that would likely end the Gulper fishing at Hebgen. Every day.

The beginnings of an afternoon breeze on Hebgen Lake signals the end of the Gulper fishing. (More about this next issue.)

The sun shone constantly with rarely more than 50% light cloud. Every day.

If you come from Tasmania, it’s hard to believe weather like this can exist. I often felt like I was dry fly fishing for trout in Townsville!

There is a downside to this beautiful warm weather. Whilst the lakes continue to fish really well through the heat of the summer, some of the rivers can become too warm. The local Fisheries Department monitors the river temperatures on a daily basis. If the temperatures reach 21.7 degrees C or 71 degrees F for 3 consecutive days, then they will shut off the river fishing after 2 pm to protect trout from stress if hooked. (The fishing is mostly catch & release in the rivers.) This is known as a ‘Hoot Owl’ restriction. It is very often in place in August on the mid and lower Maddison River, as well as many other famed Montana rivers. As a result, guides come from near and far to fish the colder tailwater section below Hebgen Lake. This can put a lot of pressure on an already over-loved river.

Flyfishing culture

In my experiences flyfishing many places around the world, there is nowhere else like Montana. There is such a strong sense of flyfishing culture. I could give many examples. The local bar we drink at too often is called ‘The Gravel Bar’.  There also has to be more drift boats per capita in this area than in any other place on the planet. Most everyone looks like a flyfisher – and they usually are. Fishing hats and Columbia and Simms shirts abound. Polaroids and clippers hang around most people’s necks. Every second truck has a 4 fly rod tube mounted on its roof rack. The tiny town we stay in has just two coffee shops but three fly shops. Guys ride past on quad bikes and side by sides with their girlfriends, both wearing Simms waders and boots. I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture. There is something very cool about fitting into this culture while on holiday.

The Madison Valley

Big sky – and corresponding August weather.

The Native American Indians call the area we’re fishing ‘Big Sky Country’, for good reason. The mountain ranges are high – 11,000 feet plus – and the valleys are wide, very wide. Even in the height of summer, there is still some of the winter snowpack lingering on the higher peaks.

The rivers nestle into the valleys more or less in the middle of the ranges, and there are often as many as four pretty well treeless, high and wide benches, between the river’s edge and the mountains. These benches indicate that in the past, the river was often not where it is now.

The hillsides are covered in pine trees with plenty of space between them and relatively clear undergrowth. So, unlike the Australian bush, it invites you to walk within it… where you might find bears, cougars, wolves, bison, elk and coyotes. Humans are certainly not the apex predator here, and deep down, you can feel this as you walk with rod in hand and bear spray on your belt.

This is a very pretty and interesting environment. If you are here in summer, and with a fly rod (or a motorbike for that matter) I can’t imagine you would ever want to be anywhere else.

Madison River above Hebgen

The Madison River is the main river in the area we are fishing. It runs out of the Yellowstone National Park, beginning at the confluence of the Firehole and the Gibbon rivers. Both these rivers come from the centre of Yellowstone’s geothermal area and are high in temperature (an important positive during the Arctic-like winter); plus rich in sulphur, calcium carbonate and other minerals, which all creates the perfect bug habitat.

There is a natural fertility to this river which I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s clean and clear and just keeps producing dozens of different types of trout food in huge quantities all season long. Within Yellowstone Park there is exceptional wade fishing, and no drift boats are allowed.

Madison below Hebgen

The 50 mile section of the Madison between Hebgen Lake and Ennis Lake has to be the prettiest and longest riffle of wadable or driftable water I’ve ever seen. It’s like a flyfishing Disneyland! This stretch of river is loaded with naturally-spawned fish, both browns and rainbows. Surveys show there are about 3500 trout per mile.

There are always countless wading anglers fishing this section, and judging by the number of guides towing drift boats past our coffee shop each morning, there must be somewhere between 100 and 200 drift boats floating this section of river every day.

Drift boat hatch.

The guides are also angling – they’re all angling for a tip and a big one at that. Mostly, it is the number of fish the clients catch that dictates the size of the tip. It’s a numbers game for the entire boat. Sadly.

It seems the best way for less skilled anglers to catch a lot of fish, is to fish a bright-coloured ‘bobber’ indicator (sometimes the size of a ping pong ball) and a couple of weighted nymphs trailing behind that. Casting is not necessary, nor is it really desired. An occasional lob overhead and to the opposite side of the boat is all that is needed. The pull of the bobber often hooks the fish.

Bobber practice.

After Ennis Lake, the Maddison flows on down to the Missouri river. From there the Missouri flows to the Mississippi, and finally, a little bit of Madison water enters the Gulf of Mexico, having travelled virtually the north-south length of the 48 states.

So, the Madison is certainly an amazing river. However, for me, the real deal is Hebgen Lake and the Gulpers. More about this remarkable fishery next issue.