Marker Fly

The Madison River often gives up its fish with some reluctance, like a small child not wanting to share candies but being encouraged to do so by a watchful parent. At least that’s the idea that one often gets when fishing under a bright sun—as is often the case in Montana’s summer. But nightfall brings out a totally different disposition, for its then that the river’s big fish begin to feed with serious attention. Often, as happened this year, there will be enormous numbers of caddis adults dancing over the streamside plants, mayflies spinning over the water, midges swarming in the shadows, and perhaps aquatic moths in the nearby vegetation.

The big fish slide out of hiding and into the quiet of the secret river—the waters that are often slow and may be waist deep or more, crowded tight to the bank, and perhaps sheltering in the lee of a boulder or lying downstream of a fallen log or clump of soil. The fish are, in fact, so close to the bank that I often don’t even bother with wading gear, slipping along the shoreline in sneakers, or sitting on shoreside boulders and watching very closely for the rises of big fish in the secret river. Their rises are not the quick splashes of the little ones, nor the slightly sucking rise of a whitefish. They are the classic “snouting” rise. The big nose pokes out quietly and delicately, barely causing a disturbance in the film.

If I have an observation post that looks into the west, the last rays of the setting sun will turn the silver to pewter, and I am able to spot every disturbance of the surface with ease. I can also readily spot my fly as it drifts down; flies as small and as low in the film as a size 16 Iris Caddis. But this was not such a night. I was facing east, with dark waters lying before me. I sat on a comfortably shape granite boulder, low to the water, and watched the film carefully. Only small fish rose in the first slot of the secret river that I was watching, so I moved up and found another granite stool that I could perch on and watch the next small flat. I’d just settled when a nose poked out immediately ahead of a big rock that was wedged in the current. The fish was obviously holding in the hydraulic cushion just ahead of the stone.

I didn’t cast, just yet, but waited to see if others were holding in the mini-pool. I’d only waited a minute or two and then another nose poked out. A few minutes later and I had counted four nice fish feeding in the small piece of flat water, none of them more than four feet from shore. I unhooked the size 16, Iris Caddis and pulled out only a couple of feet of line. The first fish was so close that I only had to cast the leader. The Iris Caddis wasn’t alone on the end of the line. I’d terminated the leader in 3X and tied on a big size 8 Stimulator. To that, tractor/trailer fashion, I had added 15 inches of 4X and knotted on the Iris Caddis. It’s a trick that I’ve used many times, fishing in the gloaming of evening or drifting a tiny imitation in rough water. The big Stimulator was my “Marker Fly”; I could see it easily on the dark surface, and it would give me something that my eye could follow. Any rise in the vicinity would be my cue to strike.

On the third cast, the fish in the hydraulic cushion sucked in the little caddis imitation, and I quickly tightened and pulled the fish down and out of the tiny pool. It ran out into the heavy currents and moved off downstream. I followed swiftly, hopping from boulder to boulder. Then, to my surprise, the fish bolted off back upstream and into the very lie from which I’d pulled him. I drew him out again, got him down current, and forced him to shore with constant side pressure from the 5-weight rod. The flash froze his image in the lapping waters tight to the bank. I release him quickly, and he was off like a shot.

Back in the little pocket, right at its top end, a very nice nose eased gently above the surface and sank back out of sight. I moved forward behind a clump of grass and crouched next to a large stone. Again, all I had to cast was the leader, and I flicked it onto the surface with and quick wrist cast. This guy was a bit more picky than the first one, but after a dozen or so floats, he slurped in the little imitation. From the first, it was obvious that this was a bigger fish, and it fought accordingly. Running down stream with him, I slipped off a rock and got a wet foot, but it was quickly dismissed as I move swiftly onward, not wanting the fish to get below me.

Constant pressure from the little rod eventually drew the fish into the shallows, and the tape showed him at 20 inches. I fumbled with the camera in the dark, trying to get the fish into a good pose, and the hook slipped free. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. The fish shot off into the dark waters with a single, powerful sweep of its tail.

No matter, there were two more in the pocket above, awaiting my return. And yes, there they were rising as if on cue. I moved up and flicked a cast to the first fish. On about the fifth cast, I caught the leader on a bush behind me a broke off the caddis. It was over. The rod was the only gear that I had brought along. No matter, it had been a very productive evening, and I headed back to the motorhome as the stars began switching on in Montana’s Big Sky.

Evening along the Madison; note the waters of the secret river.

A night brown frozen in the shallows by the camera's flash.


  1. Matthew says:

    Gosh, just realized you and I were fishing the Madison the same days. If only I would have known. Just to watch you fish from a distance would have made the trip a greater memory.