In my book, Heaven on Earth: Stories of Fly Fishing, Fun & Faith, I wrote about one of my favorite secret fishing spots in Idaho, “The Mini-Madison.” I named it this when I first fished there because it reminded me of my favorite river, the Mighty Madison in Montana, except instead of being a 50 mile riffle, it is only 100 yards long. Over the years, the Mini-Madison has afforded me excellent fishing for alligator browns, chunky rainbows, and beautiful cutthroats. I have been spoiled.
However, for the last couple of years, I have really struggled at this beloved spot. Last year, I only caught five fish at the Mini-Madison. Granted, some of them were real dandies, but in years past, I could expect to catch a twenty-inch fish every time I went there and that was at least once a week throughout the summer. The fish used to hammer big streamers–like the Circus Peanut–with reckless abandon, but lately, they have been hitting short, refusing at the last second, or ignoring them altogether. There have been times when I thought to myself: The fish just aren’t here anymore! And then came last night.
Last week, I fished the Madison River in Montana and, as usual, I stopped by Kelly Galloup’s Slide Inn and picked up some new articulated streamer patterns, an olive and yellow Barely Legal and a brown S. Dungeon. I hoped some new patterns would pull out the stops on those wary Snake River browns which had eluded me for so long. Since my vacation, last night was the first time I could get away for some evening fishing.
Upon reaching the Mini-Madison, I started off with the Barely Legal but only had one strike by a 15 inch brown that hit short avoiding the hook. I tried every likely looking spot believing that there had to be something lurking in the pockets and deeper lies, but I did not see another fish in the lower runs and riffles of the Mini-Madison. I even switched my fly over to the S. Dungeon with no results.
My desire to catch a fish drove me towards some of the swifter, deeper water at the head of the Mini-Madison. I wrote in depth about this particular area in my book. I named the two main holding lies “the Courtyard” and “The King Hole.” You have to cross the heavy current to get to the Courtyard and there are often nice fish in this calmer water behind a series of mostly submerged boulders, but the bigger fish are consistently upstream in the King Hole, a long deep run below a falls and adjacent to a Russian Olive-choked bank. This is big fish water if ever I saw any. In fact, in my book, I wrote about catching two of the biggest browns of my life, “Buster Brown,” and “B.B. King” out of this hole.
So, last night, I braved the heavy current to fish the Courtyard and did not move a single fish. The King Hole looked a little too high for good fishing, but I sent a token cast into marginal water adjacemt to the King Hole only to have it hang up on a rock just below the surface, which was serendipitous for me. With a $6.50 fly at stake, I was not about to let it go. So I waded up to the rocks and freed the fly while standing upon my rocky perch where I have stuck so many nice fish in the past.
I was now in perfect position to fish the King Hole. I cast up near the falls into what I like to call, “the Sweet Spot” and stripped the fly down towards me without any follows. At the foot of the King Hole is a new small log jam and just above it was a piece of calmer water that looked fishy, I cast about five feet above the log jam near the bank and stripped the fly cross-current towards me. All of the sudden, I witnessed a flash, a huge swirl, and something slammed the S. Dungeon so viciously, it hooked itself. To say I was excited is an understatement.
When the monstrous fish realized he was hooked, he flipped up out of the water like a rainbow and I instantly realized this was the biggest brown I have ever had on my line. I shook with adrenalin as my 6 weight rod doubled over. The tug is the drug, my friends!
Having forgotten my net, the gravity of the situation instantly struck me: I have this fish hooked solidly, but how the heck am I going to land him without a net? My mind started reeling with scenarios: I can’t land him in the Courtyard because I’ll never get him close enough to tail him. I can’t take him to the bank on the left because that fish will plow into that big logjam downstream and bust me off. What am I going to do?
As I surveyed the surrounding landscape, I realized that my only chance to land this bruiser was to get him to the grassy bank 75 yards downstream. But to get him there, I would have to maneuver around an obstacle course consisting of a huge log jam and multiple rocky plunge pools. I understood it was a long shot, but I had to try.
To this end, I began to slowly wade through the heavy current directly toward the log jam with fish in tow. My strategy was to try and pull him towards the log jam so that the fish would want to go anywhere but there. It worked. When I climbed up on top the jam, the fish hopped the heavy current to the right of the jam and was quickly below it. First objective accomplished! But the fight was not over. More than once, the brownie tried to burrow beneath a rock below the plunge pools and each time I had to wade right over to and ferret him out of thehole. To my relief it worked.
With my rod doubled over, I slowly backed up to the grassy bank. The only way I could see to land him was to drag him quickly up onto the bank. When I lifted the heavy fish out of the water, however, the hook finally came loose and the fish dropped into the shallow water. In desperation, I lunged, snatched the fish, and threw him onto the grassy bank.
“HOLY COW!!!” I exclaimed as I shook with adrenaline. No question, he was the biggest brown I have ever landed. I quickly placed him back in the water, pulled out my iPhone and began taking photos to commemorate this feat. But the pictures do not do this leviathan justice.
As I contemplated a nickname for this fish, only one made the final cut: “Bad Leroy Brown” after Jim Croce’s song of the same name. Like the song, this trophy fish was badder than old King Kong and meaner than a junkyard dog.
I thought about taking him home to hang on the wall next to Buster Brown, but quickly dismissed the idea. Leroy belongs at the Mini-Madison. I love the thought that a fish of this caliber (or even bigger) still swims these secret waters. Maybe some day our paths will cross again. I sure hope so!