I kept daily logs of catches made on my float trips. The 1980s was the peak of the wild tour/catch and release era on the Madison. Numbers of rainbows and browns reached nearly 10,000 fish per mile in stretches of the upper river. I found this catch tally summary sheet buried in my files and here it its:
“Slow Fishing Days”…that’s curious. I remember that back then a slow day was less than ten fish. For instance, the log shows 5 “slow days” in Aug. of 1985. Back then, I was fishing around 25 days in August, so on 20% of the trips we caught less than ten fish. On good fishing days, it was common to catch 40-50 trout on a float trip, mostly on dries, but to be honest over half of those fish would be small…dinks, tiddlers, twinkies. And the whitefish bite was serious!
The next section of the log is interesting. The “Big Fish Tally” is a summary of larger trout caught on my float trips. My definition of a “big fish” was 16″ or bigger. July was the month with the most large trout caught, probably because the salmon fly hatch fell mostly in that month. On the downside, the numbers show, I only caught 4 fish over 19″ the entire 1986 fishing season.
For sure, the 1980s was the heyday for numbers on the Madison,. Then they took a big hit when Whirling Disease happened in the early 1990s, slowly increasing back into the present, never quite reaching the peak populations of the “good ole days”. As far as big fish goes, the last 10 -12 years on the river have produced bigger fish than we caught in the 1980s.
The chance to catch a really fine trout on a fly rod is like “rolling a wine bottle into a jail cell full of drunks” to quote Lefty Kreh.
So now we have folks everywhere, most of them sober, many of them not, trying to catch the trout of a lifetime.