AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Still Heaven on Earth” is a chapter from my new book, The River of God, which is soon to be published. This chapter is about a few days spent in July of 2012 on the Madison River, which river has become sacred to me. Maybe you can relate.
STILL HEAVEN ON EARTH
By Andrew M. Wayment
On July 3, 2002, my wife and I lost our unborn baby girl when Kristin was seven months pregnant. The days that followed were some of the darkest of my life. Fortunately, the following week my family went on vacation to the Madison River Valley in Montana. To sum it up, this was—by far—the best week of fishing I have ever experienced in my life. But more importantly, during the whole week I felt the overwhelming love of God in this unparalleled place and the experience had a tremendous healing effect upon me. I went on to write the story, “Heaven on Earth,” about this sacred experience, which is featured in my first book, Heaven on Earth: Stories of Fly Fishing: Fun & Faith. Here is the link to the book’s website: www.heavenonearthbook.com.
Since that time, the Madison River has held a special place in my heart and, over the years, I have returned numerous times in hopes of experiencing again the river’s sheer beauty, its bounties, and the feelings that touched my soul during that blessed week. While I have never spent a wasted day on the Madison River, the fishing has never quite lived up to that occasion.
Ten years after this special experience, my family rented my Uncle Don’s cabin in Island Park during the second week of July of 2012, Of course, I planned another pilgrimage to this Mecca. Following are my journal entries for the two mornings that I spent on the Madison River:
Monday, July 9, 2012.
4:50 am rolled around so quickly. While I felt like I had not slept at all, I still was super excited to travel over the Continental Divide to the Madison River. As always, the mist rising off the river at first light appeared simply celestial. Every time I see this valley and its natural beauty, I can’t help but feel grateful.
After parking near the famous $3.00 Bridge, I hiked downstream to where the river divides around a small island. The river was definitely not as high as it was in 2002, but still, there were plenty of pockets and runs not far from the bank. I fished for five minutes before I hooked my first fish, a seventeen-inch brown, which I landed, and took a picture. I worked my way up river and hooked another small brown that promptly got off.
Below the bridge is some excellent holding water where I have hooked numerous fish in the past. The fishing was slower than in 2002, but still decent. I believe I missed the Salmon Fly hatch by a week or so. The empty husks were not as evident on the rocks or willows as before. In a long run I hooked a nice fish that promptly busted me off. That’s what I get for fishing with 5x Tippet on this brawling river, which brings up a new proverb: “A fool and his tippet are soon parted.”
As I had in 2002, I fished on of Rich Osthoff’s Woolly Worms, which I tied with a tungsten bead head to get it down quickly, but I did not get one single bite on that fly. All takers were on the smaller dropper, a tungsten bead-head Pheasant Tail, which departed with my tippet.
Above the bridge, as the sun rose over the Madison Range to the east, tears welled up in my eyes as I reflected on my sacred experience fishing this exact stretch ten years before. This heavenly scene always evokes within me feelings and memories that I treasure. I hooked a nice brownie by the first big rock in the exact same place I caught a fish years before. This fish also got off.
Though I fished hard, I did not catch any other big fish, only a few skippies, on this reach of river that had been so good to me in the past. This certainly was not the quality of fishing I’d had ten years earlier, but I am convinced I had a little help back then. Notwithstanding, just to be at this special place stirred my soul.
After fishing at $3.00 Bridge, I made the obligatory stop at Kelly Galloup’s Slide Inn and bought two of his signature streamers, a Barely Legal, and a Silk Kitty, and—learning from my earlier failure—some 4x tippet. While there, I heard Kelly Galloup say to some other customers, “The river is fishing great. If you can’t catch a fish, let’s just say it’s not the fishes’ fault.” I then wondered if my morning was indicative of my skills as a fisherman.
Based upon a tip from a guy from Henry’s Fork Angler, I decided to try the short stretch of the Madison between Hebgen and Quake Lakes, which I had also first fished that grand week ten years earlier. I heard a person once describe this majestic valley as “The Land Before Time.” Indeed, this valley is pretty dang spectacular and has that primordial feel sans man-eating dinosaurs. Nevertheless, the reports of grizzlies in the area always spook me a little.
After I parked in a pull-out near the river, I immediately observed both Giant Salmon and Golden Stoneflies in the willows along the river and my heart thumped as I contemplated my prospects. It was like the stars had all aligned for me once again, but I only had two hours to fish. With the big bugs everywhere, I decided—based upon the lay of the river—to try a hopper dropper combo, the lead fly being an M.C. Hammer and the point being a little golden stonefly with rubber legs. I fished up through the rocky pools and hooked a few whiteys. The river in this particular stretch does not contain as much good holding water for big trout as $3.00 Bridge.
I soon worked up to a fishy-looking log jam with calmer water below. I easily waded across the river to get below the obstruction and quickly observed the ring of a rise in the slight current flowing from beneath the jam. I cast above it so that the fly could drift into position. A large fish readily rose and sucked in the M.C. Hammer. After setting the hook, my new 4x tippet held and I landed a beautiful seventeen-inch rainbow. I also cast to another likely looking spot and a second fish took the dropper. Two big rainbows back to back changed a decent day to a stellar success. I climbed upon onto the log jam and fished a sweet foam line, but had no takers.
Soon it was time to head for West Yellowstone to meet my wife, kids, and our good friends, Cliff and Sue Warmoth. I was sad to leave this blessed river, but glad for the opportunity to fish again the following morning.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012.
I woke up a 4:30 a.m. and traveled back over Raynold’s Pass and up to the Land Before Time with high hopes for the day. After parking, I again looked into the willows by the road, but did not see the stoneflies as I had before; although, there were still a few around. First thing, I fished the same log jam with no strikes, but caught a huge whitey in the foam pool above the logs.
I then drove down to the end of the road and parked at the parking lot. Seeing this particular stretch of river again brought back memories of fishing this area with my brother-in-law, Eric Bailey, ten years earlier, when we both experienced tremendous success. I fished my way down toward the head of Quake Lake, which in the early morning light is sure eerie with all of the standing dead pines that have stood there since the earthquake that created this natural lake over a half a century ago. I had no takers in this area, and decided to get in the car and drive to another stretch of river below Slide Inn as numerous fishermen began to crowd this length. Apparently, they too had heard rumors that the big bugs were present.
As I drove past a stretch of water I had not yet tried, Kelly Galloup’s statement about, “if you’re not catching fish, it’s not the fishes’ fault,” rang loudly in my ears. It was 7:00 a.m. and I thought to myself: Andy, here’s a beautiful stretch of river, the big bugs are still out, and you have an awesome opportunity to catch big fish on dry flies. Try again!
Unable to argue with sound reason, I pulled over and started hitting the beautiful pocket water and runs before me. I’m so glad I stopped because I started catching fish right then. Of all things, I caught a full-on westslope cutthroat on a dry fly. Before this, I had never caught a cutthroat on the Madison or even knew that they were present. I suspect that the tributaries in this area, Beaver and Cabin Creeks both hold cutthroats in their upper stretches. I took a picture to remember this accomplishment and to prove to others I’m not lying. I also caught numerous whitefish all on nymphs and a scrappy fifteen inch rainbow that put on an acrobatic show. What seemed like a bust, turned into a fun morning of fishing.
With the sun in full force, I fished my way up to the same log jam, but could get no more bites. After this satisfying jaunt, I decided it was time to head downriver past the $3.00 Bridge area to a less popular stretch above the confluence of the West Fork of the Madison River where I had experienced splendid streamer fishing for brown trout in years past.
I opted for Galloup’s Barely Legal Streamer, and excitedly watched a huge brown chase it all the way to the bank twice, but still refused it. I worked my way up to a beautiful lie, pitched the streamer into this fishy pool behind an exposed rock, and watched a huge brown charge at it with a white, open mouth, but he too would not commit. I could not even get a fish to look at Galloup’s Silk Kitty, which figures, given its lame name. While I caught no fish on streamers, it was sure fun to watch those big wary browns chase my flies.
I decided to spend the rest of the day with my wife and kids. Even though the fishing did not equal that of 2002, these two days still were satisfying and special in their own right.
As an outdoorsman, I truly love all of the places that I hunt and fish. After being absent for a time, their familiarity and beauty always make me feel like I’m coming home. While my rivers and coverts are all special, a few take on the aura of sacredness because of the treasured experiences that occurred there. Such places evoke in me a feeling of closeness to Nature and Nature’s God. The Madison River is definitely one such place for me. After all of these years, it is still Heaven on Earth.