Written by: John McKinnie
We were headed to the Madison on a blustery January day. We departed the ranch around 8 a.m. with the temperatures hovering around 5 degrees. As we drove through the Gallatin Canyon south of Big Sky, we spotted a group of elk and peered through the fog coming off the river into the bright sun and blue sky. Heading through the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park, I watched the temperature on my truck thermometer plummet down to 8 degrees below zero.
Despite the temperatures, we were excited about getting over to the Madison and being able to spend a day on the river in January. The road opened up into the scenic Madison Valley, temperatures finally started to climb into double digits, and the bluebird sky was set off by the snow-capped peaks in the distance.
The fishing started out a little slow, but finally the sun started to warm the water temperatures enough for the fish to begin feeding. Once we found the right holding water, plenty of healthy rainbow trout were more than willing to take a well presented Rubber Legs or emerging-midge imitation. By mid-afternoon, it was a comfortable 25-30 degrees, and the cooperative fish helped to off-set any thoughts of being cold.
The next month is one of my favorite times of year to hit the Upper Madison, before the section between Earthquake Lake and McAtee Bridge closes for the spring on March 1st. If conditions are good, you can get opportunities to fish dry flies to pods of rainbows and browns that are feeding on midges on the surface. You get the chance to throw dry flies in February on only a few rivers in the West, and luckily the Madison is one of them.
If you cannot get to the Madison, the Gallatin remains a consistent winter option. Find the deep holes and runs on the Gallatin, and you will almost always find a couple of fish willing to take your nymph rig!