Ron got off the phone with his buddy George and said, “What do you think about fishing Hebgen Lake and the Madison River over Labor Day?” I said, “Sure! … now … where’s Hebgen Lake?”
Ahhh, West Yellowstone – I have fallen in love. We camped for only four days, but I could have stayed a lifetime.
We left Butte around 7 a.m. and were on Hebgen Lake by 11:00. We immediately spotted a bald eagle standing tall and proud along the lake’s edge amongst the pine forests and purple mountain majesty. The sun twinkled on the early afternoon ripples in the water. And life was good.
A flotilla of coots swam tranquilly in the middle of the lake but took flight as we motored past. Canada geese honked overhead.
We found our friend George in his aluminum boat and gave him a half dozen black leech flies he’d requested. He had been fishing since early morning but had boated no fish. With the wind picking up, he decided to call it a day.
Ron and I motored around the Madison Arm of the lake and to several coves in the main body of water. As an afternoon squall blew in and white-caps appeared on parts of the lake, we toughed it out until at least two fish were landed – a huge white fish and a four-inch Utah chub. Ron two, Tracy zero.
We headed to shore, disturbing another flock of fish-eaters – this time grebes and pelicans.
We planned to be on the water at sunrise, but we launched around 8:30 a.m. We were camping on the east side of the lake at Rainbow Point Campground, so we put in at Rainbow Bay in the Grayling Arm of the lake. The dock loomed invitingly in the still, quiet water under a cloud-laden sky. Perfect fishing conditions! As the sun peeked through what appeared to be eyes in the clouds, we cruised the unchartered waters looking for possible fish habitat. Much of the bottom was covered with thick weed-beds, and we had been advised that the fish often feed along these edges. It was a slow, cold day. I caught my first Hebgen fish – a Utah chub. At least it was a bit larger than the one Ron caught the day before! Ron finally landed the first Hebgen trout – a healthy 16-inch brown. Once again, around 11:30 the wind began to pick up. We stopped in for a cup of coffee at the marina and headed back to camp.
Since the afternoon was young, we drove in to the town of West Yellowstone. Feeling somewhat lackadaisical, we opted to go sit in the IMAX theatre, eat popcorn and candy, and watch “Yellowstone” on the giant screen. Our next order of the day was to find somewhere to watch the Montana Grizzly game that night against Cal-Poly. We sat in creature comfort that evening in the Buffalo Bar watching one heck of a game – unfortunately, the Grizzlies lost by one point.
Because ol’ Hebgen was not giving generously of her trout, Ron and I decided to wade fish the Madison River on Sunday. We drove below the Hebgen dam, past Quake Lake and the 1959 landslide, and we fished from the bank above Lyon’s bridge. Ron caught a couple of pretty rainbows, but I was struggling.
Ever in search of better fishing, we took the truck back up river and waded a portion between Hebgen and Quake Lakes near Campfire Lodge Resort. We were having no luck with our two-nymph rigs when a few Utah guys showed up spin-casting with worms and whooping it up big time. Ron asked if I wanted to change out to a big pink worm, and I said heck yeah, they’re my favorite! Bingo, that was the ticket. Almost immediately Ron hooked into a big Cutthroat, but the bugger flipped his tail hard and got off. Ron re-cast to the same spot, and boom! landed a bright rainbow. Then another and another. I was getting disheartened. Finally, just before calling it quits, I hooked into a big ‘bow. I reeled it in to shallow water, Ron got a hand on it, but then he spit out my rubber worm and headed to the middle of the river! Back to camp we went, to eat microwaved casserole in the camper and listen to a Louis L’Amour audio book until we both fell asleep around 8 p.m.
We had wanted to fish Hebgen on this, our last evening, but we were just too tired. A good reason to return, I think!
We slept in and did not get on the lake until about 9:30 a.m. Most beautiful day yet – cool temps, no wind, blue skies – glorious. The weatherman had said it was going to be cold and wet, but that did not happen.
Ron had previously seen a family of canoers doing well on the west side of the main body, so we headed that way. There they were again in a big red canoe slaying the trout. Dad would hook into a fish and hand the fly rod to one of his two kids to reel in. Mom was in a little yellow kayak landing her own fish. We motored over, a respectable distance from them, and let the drift fishing begin.
In a moment of pure peace and quiet, I asked Ron to take my picture. I handed him the camera, and he placed his reel under his booted foot. As he took the camera, I saw his strike indicator go down and yelled, “Oh! Fish!” He looked at me quizzically just before the trout leaped in the air. I remember looking down to make sure we weren’t going to lose the Winston fly rod, and happily the reel was still seated snugly under his foot. I grabbed the camera, Ron grabbed the fly rod, and a feisty rainbow was brought to the boat.
After drifting and motoring back to our “spot” a number of times, we finally decided to anchor. We’d cast and twitch, pull in and re-cast. By this time we had abandoned our initial leech with nymph dropper set up for straight two-nymph rigs. Ron landed another rainbow. We were planning to fish until around 11:30 when typically the winds blow in. But as the Good Lord would have it, come noon Hebgen was still calm and basking in sunshine. We had neglected to put on sunblock, but the Vitamin D felt heavenly – and, after all, we reasoned, we were about to go into another one of Butte’s long, cold winters.
As time ticked on and we thought about the three-hour drive home and work the next day, we began the “one more cast” routine. And thank goodness we did! Fifteen minutes before we called ‘er quits, I finally landed a Hebgen trout – possibly the largest fish of the trip – a handsome 18-inch brown.
Four days was not nearly long enough to enjoy this country. Next year we hope to spend a week or two in the area. I’d like to fish some of the smaller streams within Yellowstone Park, as well as the Firehole River. And of course Hebgen Lake and the Madison River. But Quake Lake? That one’s a bit macabre for us.