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The mist rose and swirled in the cold predawn twilight giving an otherworldly feeling to the scene. The mist is tinged with the smell of sulphur and somewhere in the fog shrouded meadows across the river a bull elk bugled, the high pitched whistle added to the ethereal feeling of the moment.
At Junction Pool in Yellowstone National Park, where the Firehole and the Gibbon Rivers merge their two flows together, the Madison River is born. Full blown at birth it flows through meadows lush with grass, a fitting place for bugling elk on this fall morning.
Currents mix and swirl, and along the undercut banks brown trout gently rise to sip in the delicate mayflies that carpet the surface in the early morning light. An angler, wrapped in layers of wool and down to ward off the chill, waits and watches the scene unfolding before him. Fingers, stiffened by the cold, worked to affix a small artificial to his leader. Finally the knot was finished and snugged firm into place and the angler slowly stripped line from his reel; the click of the pawl seemed almost shrill in the still morning air. The shaft of bamboo flexed and line uncurled in a graceful curve and unfurled slowly behind the angler. The rod stopped and then, after an almost imperceptible paused, snapped forward sending line and leader toward the target; an almost indiscernible dimple just inches from the bank. Like a gossamer bit of fluff the fly settled on the surface and after a short float it was intercepted by a rising trout. The angler raised the rod and the hook struck home and an angry brown trout rolled to the surface and then explode in a series of rolling leaps. Moments later 20 inches of glistening gold with dime sized red spots struggled in the mesh of the angler's net. The barbless hook was quickly removed from the gristle in the corner of the jaw, and the angler held the fish gently in the current until it shot away into the deep.
The Madison exits Yellowstone National Park entering Montana just north of West Yellowstone and its flow is immediately stilled behind a manmade dam. On an early September morning clouds of tiny black and white mayflies rose and fell, shifting like columns of smoke as the early morning breeze flowed over the glassy surface of the lake. In a small back bay a mat of floating logs bobbed gently over a gravel covered bottom. Trout cruised along the edge of the floating logs, gulping down the tiny mayflies with gulps that were clearly audible in the early morning stillness. Three eager anglers moved cautiously along the shoreline, rods poised, with tiny black Trico imitations affixed to delicate tapered leaders. The shifting logs presented an immediate problem and the slightest unnatural vibration sent the gulping trout streaking away to the safety of deeper water. No trout would feel the prick of a hook today.
After exiting the lake the Madison tumbles through a short canyon before encountering another impediment, but this time it is a naturally caused impoundment. Quake Lake is an eerie place; formed by a violent earth movement in 1959 that sent an entire mountainside sliding down into the Madison and creating a 6 mile long lake. Dead trees rise above the quiet dark water, and in the early fall the lake is often wreathed in fog given this somewhat foreboding place an even eerier feeling. On this early fall morning the fog is mixed with the first snow of the season and the anglers push on down the valley.
It's a cold raw day, more like November than early September, snow coats the peaks of the Madison Range, and it appears that Montana may be in line for an early winter. It would be a better day for hunting than fishing, and each of the access sites are devoid of anglers. The fishing above Lyon Bridge is slow with the best catch is a large whitefish. The wind begins to blow and the snow is increasing as the anglers pull into McAttee Bridge road. The anglers' park at the Ruby Creek Campground as the grass on the benches begins to turn white and even a down jacket struggles to ward off the cold. Fingers are numb, noses drip, and the prospects are bleak. A Bitch-creek nymph, wrapped with 10 or 12 turns of heavy lead wire, bounces along the bottom between two large boulders. The leader hesitates and tightens, the rod bows and a heavy rainbow takes to the air. It turns out to be the only trout of the day but it pushes the scale close to 3 pounds.
The mist still rises above the confluence of the Gibbon and the Firehole Rivers where the Madison River is born. In the cool September morning the Elk still bugle, and along the shores of Hebgen Lake tiny black and white mayflies still attract the attention of cruising trout. The benches along the Madison below Quake Lake now have summer homes perched on their brow, but the first snows of winter still turn them white, and the ancestors of those browns and rainbows that still haunt my memories from those many years ago still live in its crystalline waters.
These are some memories from a time that is now as buried in the mists of time as that meadow along the Madison. Two of the three anglers have crossed over that river that separates this world from the one that is beyond our sight. Like Norman, I am the only one that remains. We shared a moment in time, a time that is now long ago.