December’s Fly Fishing Miracle on the Bear Trap

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. From our picture window I could see a dozen or more houses decorated with Christmas lights. Our house was perched on a hill overlooking the north floor of Montana’s Gallatin Valley. The valley floor was dusted with an inch of snow.

Inside our house, the tree was decorated, and the sound of Karen Carpenter singing, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” filled our living room. Christmas was seven days away.

Shiver Me Timbers

But all I wanted to do was to go fly fishing.

It had been two months since the last time I had cast a fly on the water, and I was itching to spend some time on the river. Tomorrow was going to be in the high thirties, and I could take off work a couple hours early.

So away from the window I flew like a flash, tore open my duffel bag where my fly gear was stashed. I got everything ready for the next day. When I retired for the night and nestled all snug in my bed, visions of rainbow trout danced in my head.

The next afternoon, I left work early at two o’clock and arrived at the mouth of the Bear Trap Canyon an hour later. My plan was to park at the Warm Springs fishing access and walk up the Madison River about three-quarters of a mile to a run where some decent sized trout always seemed to lurk.

But the visions that danced in my head the night before had not included the gale force wind that I felt as I opened up my door. No wonder mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot. Every other fly fisher had the sense to stay home and tie flies. I was angry at the wind, but I was too stubborn to give in.

Fly Fishing Miracle

After I lost my zest for hiking three quarters of a mile, it occurred to me that I could fish the elbow of a bend in the river that jutted up against the parking lot.

I had never fished it before. That, too, was due to stubbornness. I refuse to fish water that is so accessible. But with the howling wind whipping around the falling snowflakes, I was in no mood to be true to my mantra: “Always walk at least a mile before you start fishing.” Besides no one in their right mind would have fished this elbow during the last few days of blustery weather.

I tied on a beadhead prince nymph and dropped a little copper behind it. For the next few minutes, I got into a consistent rhythm: cast, shiver, mend, shiver, retrieve, shiver, complain. Then, suddenly, I saw a happy sight for tear-stained eyes (from the cold wind).

My strike indicator disappeared.

For the next minute, I felt that old familiar feeling of a fish on the end of the line. It turned out to be a 14-inch rainbow, which looked surprisingly plump for the time of year. I wouldn’t call that catch a true Christmas miracle. But I would call it a small (and cold) fly fishing miracle on the Bear Trap a few days before Christmas.

After I released it the fish, my shivering increased.

It was bone-cold, the sun now below the mountain. I began the long walk back to my truck — all fifteen steps. When I returned home an hour later, I stood at our picture window and looked out over the Gallatin Valley. Beyond the houses dotted with Christmas lights, I could see faintly the gap in the distant hills where the Madison River emerged from the Bear Trap Canyon. It was almost dark, and I was thankful for the light and warmth of home.

But I was also thankful for those fifteen minutes on the river that lifted my spirits. Now I was ready for Christmas.

5 Ways to Be a Conservationist While Fly Fishing

conservationist while fly fishing

Whenever you set out for the river with fly rod in hand, don’t forget to bring along your conservation hat. It’s important to be think and act like a conservationist while fly fishing.

Here are five ways to be a conservationist while fly fishing:

1. Pick up after others (and yourself).

Not long ago, I fly fished the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon. It was a gorgeous October morning, with a light fog hanging over the surface of the river. I could see ducks gliding in the water as well as the glow of the morning sun trying to burn through the mist.

It was perfect, except for the crushed Miller Lite cans and the empty Oreo package along the river’s edge.

Before I left the area, I stuffed the aluminum cans and the plastic package into my fly vest. I don’t expect a conservation medal, but a thousand little acts like this (if we can all do this on a regular basis) can help beautify and protect the rivers in which we fish.

It goes without saying that you should pack out your own trash—wrappers, beverage containers, even the old leaders you’ve removed.

Don’t be that gal or that guy.

2. Land your fish quickly and release it slowly.

My friends complain that it takes me forever to get ready to fly fish. I suppose that’s true. There is a fly rod to assemble, waders to don, fly boxes to arrange, and so on. But when it comes to landing fish, I try to get down to business and haul them in as quickly as possible. The longer a fly fisher plays a fish, the less chance it has to survive. So make quick work of it.

But once you have the fish in your net or hand, slow down. Gently hold the fish in the water, letting it recover and get its bearings. Take whatever time is needed. When the fish is ready to go, you’ll know it!

3. Obey every fishing regulation.

Personally, I’m not big on barbless hooks. But when I’m in Yellowstone National Park, I follow the regulations which require me to use barbless hooks. The reason I carry a small pair of pliers to crimp the barbs on my hooks is not because I’m afraid of getting caught. It’s just that we can’t afford to have every angler doing what is right in their eyes.

So to be a conservationist while fly fishing, use lead-free flies and non-toxic split shot when the regulations require them. Don’t fish in closed areas. And read the regulations before you cast a line on the water.

4. Stay off the redds.

When you fish in the spring when the rainbows and cutthroats are spawning, keep off of the redds — that is, the spawning beds. The same is true for fall fishing when the brown trout are spawning. The females create these redds, or nests, by using their tails to turn over rocks. A typical nest is often the size of a couple throw rugs placed end to end. You’ll be able to spot a redd by its clean, shiny gravel.

I’m not opposed to fishing near a redd (although some fly fishers are). But I’m careful to avoid wading where I see or even suspect a spawn bed.

5. Give fish a break during low water and high temps.

This is typically an issue in the ‘dog days’ of August.

The combination of low water and high temperatures on rivers like the Lower Madison in Montana can make it stressful for trout. If you happen to land one in such conditions, you put its survival at great risk. So pay attention to river flows and water temperature. In some cases, it’s “safe” to fish early mornings as long as you’re off the water by 11 a.m. I use trusted fly shops as my source when I’m trying to decide whether or not to fish a particular river or stretch of it.

Conservation happens one fly fisher at a time.

10 Reasons to Fly Fish the Yellowstone Ecosystem

If life was only about fly fishing, then the move was foolish. In May of 2006, I did something that makes no sense at all for a fly fisher. I moved my family from Montana’s Gallatin Valley to Libertyville, Illinois, a community thirty-eight miles north of downtown Chicago. In many respects, Libertyville reminds me of Bozeman, Montana. It is a wonderful community in which to live. But I had compelling reasons to make the move, and I haven’t regretted it. Still, though you can take the fly fisher out of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, you can’t take the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem out of the fly fisher.

I return to fly fish the Yellowstone area once or twice every year since I’ve moved. Here are my top ten reasons to cancel all your other vacation plans and fly fish the Yellowstone ecosystem.

1. Your choice of blue-ribbon waters

There’s the Yellowstone, the Madison, and the Gallatin. In Yellowstone National Park (YNP), you have the Lamar, Slough Creek, and the Firehole (in addition to the Madison and the Yellowstone).

2. The meal at the end of the day.

You can wrap up your day with a tender cut of steak at Sir Scott’s Oasis in Manhattan or The Rib and Chop House in Livingston. Or, if you want to go with pizza, there’s Colombos in Bozeman.

3. The spectacular scenery.

Nothing compares with the majestic, snow-capped Absarokee-Beartooth Mountains that tower over the Yellowstone River as it flows through Paradise Valley.

4. Bio-diversity.

You can fly fish big rivers, small streams, spring creeks (in Paradise Valley), and even lakes (like Henry’s Lake or Yellowstone Lake in YNP).

5. Ample access.

Thanks to a good supply of public fishing accesses and Montana’s “streamside access law,” you can fish for miles on any of the big rivers without fear of being kicked off by a landowner or arrested by a game warden.

6. Three-season success.

The fishing can be superb in three out of the four seasons. Spring and fall can be as good or better than summer. I’ve caught fish in all twelve months of the year, but winter is slow.

7. The prolific hatches.

From the fabled Mother’s Day Caddis hatch to the sure and steady Blue Winged Olive (BWO) and Pale Morning Dun (PMD) hatches, the trout can become ravenous. Don’t forget hoppers in August.

8. Wildlife sightings.

You’ve got to be careful here, but you’ll have a chance to see everything from bald eagles to sandhill cranes to wolves to deer to grizzly bears. If you fish the Madison inside YNP in the fall, you may get to hear one of nature’s most stirring sounds … the bugle of a bull elk.

9. World class guides and fly shops.

The guides in the fly shops in Bozeman, Livingston, Gardiner, and West Yellowstone all know their stuff. You can get helpful tips and reliable information from them. Better yet, you can book a day float trip or a wade trip.

10. The chance to fish for Yellowstone Cutthroats.

It’s worth fishing the Yellowstone River inside Yellowstone National Park just to encounter these beautiful fish. Some of the bigger cutthroat I’ve caught in the Park have been as fat as footballs.

So what are you waiting for? I hope to see you soon on a river somewhere near Bozeman. Just don’t get too close. I like a little solitude. But please wave at me from across the river.

Episode 1: My Best Day on the River

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Best day on the river – it’s almost impossible to reduce all the great days to only one. In this inaugural episode of “Guys and a River,” we discuss our best day ever fly fishing. Of course, the day involves catching trout. But it’s always much more than that. If you watch fly fishing videos or read the literature, you may begin to think that every day on the water should be a banner day. Most days are not. But that just makes the great days on the river all the more enjoyable. And all the more memorable.


Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

Describe one of your best days ever on the river? What made it so special? Why is it burned in your memory?

By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

Other Similar Episodes

    One Fine Morning on the Little Jordan

    One Fine Evening on Wisel Creek

    One Fine Day on Canfield Creek

    One Fine Day on the Blue River

    One Fine Day on Willow Creek

    One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Day 1)

    One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Day 2)

    One Fine Day on the Madison River

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