Trip Report: Adventures on Montana’s Madison River with Tenkara USA

On February 8, 2024
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I’ll be honest: I don’t usually plan on fly fishing in Montana in February. Maybe 15-20 years ago, but I can be a real homebody in winter.

This year has been a bit different. It’s been much warmer than usual, and many enjoyable days have been outside. Couple this with social media posts from friends in the area getting out and catching fish (on dry flies even), and I decided to head to the Madison River below Bear Trap Canyon. 

In the Bozeman area, we refer to this stretch as the “Lower” Madison, but the folks in West Yellowstone use that moniker for anything below Hebgen Lake. It’s a vast and open stretch of the river and not the kind of water one might immediately associate with tenkara. The holding water is not as clearly defined as in a pocket water environment, but the fish remain. I did consider taking a Western rod, but I just wanted to grab my essential tenkara gear and go.

When I got to the Madison and hopped out of my Jeep to look at the water, a few fish rose sporadically. This was in line with the reports from my friends, and I was excited to be able to target visible fish. That always helps my confidence, and it’s just plain more fun, whether you’re fishing a dry fly on the surface or a sakasa fly just under. I’ve done very well with our Takayama kebari in this situation before.

Unfortunately, not long after I spotted those feeding fish, the wind started to kick up. It wasn’t horrible by lower Madison standards, but it did put enough chop on the water that the fish went down. I checked out a couple more spots to see if I could find a nook or cranny of protected water where the fish would still rise, but no luck. If I were going to catch fish, I would have to search the subsurface. This was technically my first trip of the year, and it was February, so I’d take what I could get. 

I grabbed my Satoki rod, which has become my go-to for big water fishing with a chance of chubby fish. It’s also my favorite when I may be throwing a bit more than an unweighted wet fly. Usually, if fish aren’t on the surface this time of year, they’re on the bottom, and it’s more effective to hit them on the nose with something than ask them to move up in the water column. This meant fishing a weighted fly down deep. It’s not my favorite tactic, but I really wanted to catch my first fish of the year. I rigged up with a 13′ level line and a bead head nymph, and I attached a strike indicator as the wind would make fishing with a high rod tip difficult. I also used a bit more tippet to make it easier for the fly to sink deeply, about 5 feet of 4x tippet. I will sometimes use a tiny split shot, but a bead head will often get the fly down far enough, thanks to the excellent line control of a long tenkara rod. 

On big, flat water like the Lower Madison, the holding lies aren’t usually as easy to spot as a big pool behind a rock in a mountain stream. We look for “buckets,” usually depressions in the stream that create current breaks for the fish to hold in. These buckets typically look like a dark patch of water where the surface current slows if you look closely. It’s hard to capture them in photography, especially for me, but once you see a couple, they get easier to spot. The trick to fishing them is to make your cast upstream into the shallower water above the bucket. The current will usually grab the fly and pull it down into the deep part of the bucket without using much weight. It’s the same idea as the plunging technique in more traditional tenkara.

The first bucket I waded out to was one I hadn’t fished. I made my first cast just above the darker water and let my fly drift through, then a little farther into it, trying to visualize covering the bottom of the hole thoroughly. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I was “cheating” and still not catching anything. I decided to try another Lower Madison standard, a small lightning bug. After a few casts, my indicator wiggled in an “un-caused by the bottom” like way, and I raised up on the rod tip. I was tight to a small brown who put up an excellent fight on the Satoki, but I quickly had him close and the tippet in hand. At this point, the fish popped off the barbless hook. I kind of wanted a picture of my first fish of the year, but the water was still pretty cold, so I was okay with the fish getting off without any handling. After that, the bucket turned off. I’m not sure if it was me, the fly, the fish, or the fish gods, but there weren’t any more takers on to another bucket.

I decided to head to an area my friend Bob had recommended. Bob is semi-retired (he builds beautiful bamboo western fly rods), fishes more than anyone I know, and is an excellent fisherman. I don’t take his recommendations lightly. But the area in question was past some islands we like to fish and was very open water. It looks more like water for a Spey rod, but a bucket is a bucket. So long as I could get close enough, I knew my trusty Satoki would allow some great drifts.

Tenkara fishing in the winter

I waded out into the open water. Rather than one bucket, there’s more of a chain of them in this stretch. It’s fun to work through them, and usually, one will be more productive than the others, although which one can change with the day. A few casts into the fist bucket, and my indicator showed a take. I lifted the rod and felt a fish. It was a great fight, but when I got it close to the surface, I saw that the fish was foul-hooked. This may be my most minor favorite aspect of indicator nymph fishing. There is no other method where I see more fish come in fouled. I always fish barbless, which makes for less harm on the fish (and less on me when a gust of wind drives a weighted nymph into my neck), but I still hate it. Luckily, I got the fish to hand quickly, and the fly popped right out of the fish’s back with minimal damage. 

I got no more strikes from that spot, so I moved up a bit. Still no takers, I tried another winter favorite on the Madison, a Crimson Annelid with a metallic thorax. A few people call it a beadhead San Juan Worm. It’s not pretty, but fish eat worms. It’s not my fault. Not long after the change, another fish was on. It was a little rainbow, fair hooked, and quickly released. After removing it, I noticed the sun was going behind the mountains, and it was getting colder out, especially on my wet hands. A front was also rolling in, but I wasn’t ready to quit yet. A few more casts, and I was into a fat rainbow. It even gave me a few jumps, which I wasn’t expecting in the cold water. It wasn’t a giant fish, but a very healthy one. Besides the jumps, it was using the room in the open water to run and doing a great job of using the current against me. I was glad to have the extra backbone provided by the Satoki and very happy to bring it to hand. I got a quick picture with my phone before releasing the fish. I had felt rusty all day, and taking photos was no exception, but it was nice to have a picture of my first nice rainbow of the year to look at when the weather turned cold again.

My first rainbow of the year

The wind continued to pick up, and the temperature dropped more. I felt guilty about leaving; it seemed like I just got there, but when I looked at my phone, I realized I’d been out for about three hours. That’s three hours more fishing than most February’s for me. I waded out of the river and leaned against my Jeep to watch the river. Perhaps the wind would die down, and the fish would start rising. Once I was satisfied that wouldn’t happen, I de-wadered and headed home. It wasn’t exactly fast fishing, but it was a charming day for this time of year, and I’m glad my tenkara gear wasn’t too buried for me to make a quick trip to the river. I hope there are a few more before Spring. Who knows, maybe I’ll become a die-hard winter fisherman again.

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