Early this morning, I fished my favorite spot, the Mini-Madison and did not even wet my net. However, I learned that there’s a much better fisherman than me at the Mini-Madison.
I’ve been fishing the Mini-Madison for almost ten years now. In my book, Heaven on Earth, I wrote about this special fishing hole:
The Mini-Madison truly is a wonderful place and I never know what is going to happen every time I step foot into its magical waters. The more I experience this special spot, the more I realize that encounters [with big fish] are not uncommon. In fact, I expect the unexpected every time I go there.
I also wrote:
In an area that is rapidly developing, it truly is a “last best place,” for it is the only place near home that I know where, in the early morning (or late evening for that matter), I can see the Grand Tetons to the East with a pastel colored sky in the background.
To me, this vision is significant in many ways. First it signifies the wildness of my secret spot in the throes of civilization. On the property adjacent to the river, I have witnessed ducks, geese, countless doves, warrens of rabbits, skittish skunks, windy weasels, Hungarian partridge, and wild ring-neck pheasants. This semi-untamed place has become my haven from the “real world,” not an escape, but to paraphrase Traver, my own “island of reality in a world of dream and shadow.” I go there to find myself and to commune with nature and its Creator.
As you can tell, I love this place dearly. At the time I wrote my book, I thought the fishing at the Mini-Madison would never decline.
For the last three years, however, the Mini-Madison has been extremely tough. The lack of fish has bewildered and frustrated me. For so long, I wondered if I had lost my touch or if the fish had become so educated and wary that they were beyond my skills.
Last year I only caught a total of four fish there. Granted, some of them were true hawgs, but in years’ past, there were times when I caught four fish in one day that were all pushing twenty inches. This year, I have caught a total of five fish from the Mini-Madison, two of which are my very best fish of the year, Bob the Slob and Bad Leroy Brown. So the Mini-Madison still holds that same magic, but she guards her secrets well.
A few years ago, after I finished my book, I observed for the first time on the Mini-Madison a playful, little river otter. I was fishing the King Hole and standing on my usual perch, when he swam up in the rapids below me and stuck his head up with a big smile to observe me. I said out loud, “Hello!” After he had satisfied his curiosity, he rolled and darted downriver. I smiled and did not think much of it. I figured that with this year’s high water, he was a long way from home.
The years that followed have been the toughest years that I have experienced on the Mini-Madison. Except for the handful of fish I mentioned, the holes just seem to be devoid of fish.
Last Wednesday night I went to the Mini-Madison and in the failing light, I noticed as I approached the King Hole, a trail across a small grass and willow and covered island. I thought to myself: This sure looks like a beaver slide. But I have never seen a beaver at the Mini-Madison.
This morning, as I approached the same island in better light, I again observed the trail across the island and noted that it was clearly made by some river animal, maybe an otter. I thoroughly fished all the regular lies, but did not move a single fish, not even in the reliable King Hole.
When I reached what I consider to be the downstream edge of the Mini-Madison, which is below two other willow-lined islands, as I cast a dry fly into a seam where two currents come together, I saw something huge swimming down directly toward me with its head out of the water like a dog. As he came closer, I realized that this was my friend the otter from year’s back. When he got to about ten feet away, I said out loud, “Hello Otter!” At the sound of my voice, he ducked his huge head under the water, and his fat body rolled above the surface like a dolphin. This was the biggest river otter I have ever seen in my life. He was the size of a Labrador Retriever, I kid you not.
With this observation, I quickly realized the source of my Mini-Madison woes. For the last three years, my friend has made the Mini-Madison his home and he has been pounding my fish. Get this, a river otter’s diet consists primarily of crayfish and fish and some report that otters consume about 7 to 30% of their body weight each day. That’s a lot of fish, my friends! By his looks, this lardo has been living high off the hog. My son Tommy and I gave him the nickname, “Fatty Bulger.”
I don’t begrudge Fatty for doing what comes naturally. As a fisherman, I have come to realize that one of the only constants in life is change. Like I said, Fatty is a better fisherman than me at the Mini-Madison and he plays for keeps.