Runaway Trout

In its course from Earthquake Lake to Raynolds Pass Bridge, the Madison is a mercurial, ever changing being. One year it is divided into a series of polite, quick little waters that encourage the wading angler on every cast. Another year it is a solitary channel of pure, raw power. There is no room for wading error, and no encouragement to the probings of the fly fisher. This year was a year of the beast. The water charged ahead with all the seriousness that it could muster, fly fisher’s take note and take care. But even in such a state, it surrendered fish to those bold enough to search its depths.

The race of the water was interrupted by an enormous stone, hugging tightly to the bottom, with its head just beneath the raw and ragged surface. It looked like a spot where a big fish could hold out of the torrent and find a continual flow of calories. My cast dropped into the slow water just behind the boulder, and almost instantly jerked tight. The fish turned and bolted away, down river, like a runaway steam engine It was not a spot where one could simply wade swiftly after a fleeing trout, and I struggled to get my footing as I sought the bank. The fish never slowed in its race to freedom, and before I could manage the short 25 feet back to solid footing, it was already in the backing.

I was fortunate that the spool held 100 yards of 30-pound gel spun. I climbed the low bank and began running after the surging fish, reeling as fast as my attention would allow-the bank was peppered with small willows that had been neatly sharpened by beavers, and the possibility of a fall onto such natural punji sticks was high. There was no recourse but to stay on track, reel, and hold the rod high. The leader terminated in 4X, holding 2, size 16 flies, and any real pressure on my part, trying to draw the raging fish back upcurrent, would have been folly.

I finally emerged into a meadow section, where walking became far less risky, and I could increase the speed of reeling. The fly line was completely out of sight, and below me the river made a strong turn to the left. The turn was filled with boulders and timbers washed in during the spring’s high flows. There was nothing I could do but follow the fleeing fish, breathing a bit hard, holding the rod high, and trying to regain as all the line possible.

My friend, Henry Kanemoto, who was fishing with me, ran along, and we exchanged thoughts on the fish.

“It could be fouled hooked,” Henry noted, “or maybe it’s a huge whitefish.”

“That’s certainly possible,” I gasped back. “I’ve caught big whitefish here before.”

And on we ran. I waded across a slough, and stumbled into the boulder-racked corner. Another angler was there, and he motioned me to come on through. The backing looped around behind a large rock a couple of feet from shore, and as I pulled it free I noted the deep hole gouged there by the currents. I stumbled up onto the low edge and ran on. The backing wove its way downstream from boulder to boulder, but fortunately slipped free each time I lifted the rod. The fish ran on. A mid stream log lay across the main channel, and from my position I couldn’t see if the backing was under it or running free in the currents.

I just kept the rod high to clear as much line as possible and moved on. Of course the line ran under the log, should I have expected less? Not only did it run under the long, but it was obviously caught on it. Had I run and stumbled 700 yards down current only to lose the fish, unseen, to this obstruction? The currents were too deep and strong to wade even a few feet out from shore, so I reeled the line tight and shoved the rod out and as deep as possible in the hope that the rushing water would create enough pressure on the line to free it. Sweeping the rod tip downstream, I felt the backing pop free of its hold on the log. Again I was reeling to recover line.

Suddenly I could see the fly line, and I reeled as swiftly as possible, gauging the tension against the tippet created by the push of the water. The fly line came onto the reel, and suddenly everything felt slack. A knot jumped up in my stomach. Had the fish managed to tear free while I struggled after it? Then suddenly the line came tight again, and I felt the pulse of a living thing. The leader hit the tip top, and it was evident that the fish was holding in a deep slot up tight to the bank.

Then, there it was. Not the huge, hooked jaw behemoth that I had hoped for, but rather a 17-inch brown, foul hooked in the back, immediately in front of its tail. Henry and I both laughed.

“That’s certainly the best fight I ever got from a 17-inch brown, or maybe any brown” I noted, happy to have wrestled the match to a successful conclusion, while secretly wishing it had been so much bigger.

It was not the runaway freight train that I had envisioned, merely a small caboose tearing off at light speed on a steep incline. Still, ….

A morning early on Montana's Madison.

Seventeen inches of Olympic quality brown trout.


  1. Great story! I was hoping for a runaway freight train too. Great job getting that fish back!