It’s been a long time since killing and eating trout was a thing…at least on the Madison River. Nowadays, catch and release is a way of life, especially with the fly fishing crowd, and many rivers have a “no kill” stretch, or “barbless hooks, fly fishing only.” But it wasn’t always that way on the Madison. From the 1940s through 1970s, killing and eating trout was the norm, not the exception. And limits were generous…at one point you could go out and keep a limit of ten trout of any size, browns and/or rainbows. This was the era of the wicker basket, the Arctic Creel, the Bait Cage and the Bob-Bet Bait Box that you wore on your belt… “Just half a turn and there’s your worm.”
I personally knew several of the hard core Ennis bait fishers….they were dedicated and they were good at it.
It meant putting food on the table and they did not mess around. Guys like Bob Armstrong, Ed Clark, Herb Goetz, Louie Chamberlain, Pete Womack, Dick McGuire and others. They knew where to fish and when to fish the Madison. And the best time was during the winter. They chose wintertime for two main reasons: the river was low and easy to wade, and the trout tended to all congregate in one area. The fish liked the slow, deeper pools for winter because they could survive the frigid water temps without fighting the current…perfect bait water.
The same water you see folks Euro nymphing today would have had a worm or bullhead angler in it sixty years ago. A lot of this water was found near Ennis Campground, Burnt Tree or Eight Mile Ford…up higher if the river gorged. The meat fisherman also liked the winter because the tourists were gone. Plus they claimed the meat was firmer. Pete Womack told me after one particularly good day of winter fishing on the Madison, his creel was so heavy “the leather strap put a crease in my shoulder!”
Dick McGuire gave me this photo of a nice winter limit of trout he caught in the Madison…sixteen to twenty inches plus! Yardstick courtesy Gamble Store, Ennis (Shedhorn Sports, today). There’s also a fly rod in the photo…sooo maybe?
Most of these meat specialists used worms but bullheads (sculpins) were the best. Frozen was ok, but live bullheads were the ultimate large trout bait.
The Madison was a hatchery-stocked river back then, so any trout that made it to the winter was usually a decent size. If you caught a little one just chuck it back and try for a bigger one…primitive catch and release! Because meat fishing was so popular on the Madison in the 1960s and 70s, changing over from stocked fish to wild trout was a battle royal! And catch and release meant war! When I started guiding in 1979, shore lunches were still a thing. We had to stop at the lunch spot and clean fish, start the charcoal, dice the onions, wrap the corn on the cob in foil and set up the beer coolers! I have to say the best cook was Johnny France!
Times gradually changed and now the browns and rainbows in the Madison are mostly safe from the grill. Catch and release has become the norm. It’s a good thing…or we would have to change the Ennis sign…
“Pop.11,000,000 people, 660 trout”