“Oooh man!!” Wading wet in the South Fork is true torture. It always took me about ½ hour to get used to it enough to actually stay in the water. When I’d first step in (an act of will in itself), I could wade about one minute and then my ankles hurt too much and the need to water a willow was unbearable so I’d get out of the river as quickly as I could and warm up a little.
Why go through all this? Well, first, the South Fork of the Madison River is only about two miles west of West Yellowstone, Montana, where I grew up. So, it was an easy bicycle ride to good fishable waters.
Second, although the majority of the fish in the South Fork were 10-12” cutthroats or brookies, the occasional BIG brown trout would detonate on my fly and I would have a small chance to land a really good fish. Usually, they would be too big to handle and would wrap my line around the root system under the bank and then break off; leaving me with a badly snagged line and cold ankles.
The South Fork is a winding, willow-lined and swampy stream which flows from springs far back on the Madison Plateau to Hebgen Lake. Through the upper part of the river, the mosquitoes swarm in wait for unsuspecting fishermen and they drink repellant for pleasure! The water is so clear the you may think you are stepping into a couple of feet of water and go in clear over your waders! The undercut banks can be ten or twelve feet deep while most of the water is shallow enough to wear hip boots.
The water is often glassy smooth and so clear that you can’t tell where the air stops and the water starts. Often, you can see big fish but never catch them for as soon as your line touches the water they spook and disappear under the bank somewhere.
This is water that just cries out for dry fly fishing. I’ve caught fish on wets here but not often as I rarely fish wet on the south Fork. Royal Wullf flies, Adams and Goofus Bugs are my main flies on this water.
I spent many hours fishing the South Fork. Even today, in a vain effort to recapture my youth, I go out on the South Fork and try to fool one of the big browns I know are there.
The South Fork is also a great place to see wildlife. I spent a few hours in a tree once, watching a cow moose stomp around and call me names. I still see moose out here once in a while. Elk and deer are common too.
One time, when I was about 13 years old, I walked around a clump of willows and came face to face with a Sandhill Crane. It was a little taller than I was and, just as I saw it, out came that “beautiful, melodious cry” for which the Sandhill’s are famous. Now, as they are flying overhead or far off on the creek, their cry is a pretty, haunting trill. Ten feet away, it is an earsplitting, soul searing fire siren! I’d almost have rather had the moose back!
Looking back on those days from the comfortable living room of middle age, I really wish I’d taken more pictures to share with my family and friends. But, I never thought about it back then so the many things I saw are only saved in my own memory. I guess that’s the best place for them anyway.
The good news is that the whole area around there is almost exactly the same as it was when I was a kid. It’s all forest service land so there hasn’t been any road-building or development. It’s almost like stepping back in time when I go back down there for a few days. If you want to know what the South Fork area was like in the 60s and 70s, just go for a walk down there today. The grass and willows still smell the same, the water still flows past and is still as cold as ever. The fish are still there and just as hard to catch.
If you stop in one of the many fly shops in the area, you’ll probably have a hard time finding someone who can tell you much about the South Fork or the aptly named “Mosquito Gulch” areas. All the guiding and heavy fishing is done on the Madison, the Park Waters or the Henry’s Fork. And, rightly so as those waters have the best fish and their reputations are well earned.
Bob Jacklin can help you as he’s been around the area longer than any of them and still remembers the obscure waters. Craig Matthews probably has a clue also. I used to work at Jacklin’s Fly Shop though, so I’m prejudiced.
I still like to fish the South Fork, even with the difficulties and limited results, because I like the time travel aspect. I can pretend I’m 13 again, with no responsibilities, no job to go back to and no bills to pay.
When I get a chance to go down to West Yellowstone, the South Fork of the Madison is where you will find me.