During the early days of February, the Madison River Fishing Company voyaged to Idaho for a company steelhead excursion. After another brutally cold Montana winter, it seemed only right to get away for a few days and search for warmer weather. We decided to shut down and pack up shop for the first time since the early days of Covid. Thus began our quest to find chromer glory!
The trip started with an early morning wake up call that had us packing our gear in 11° weather, a relatively warm morning for the season I should note. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we attached trailers to trucks and started the 7 hour trek to Idaho. If you’ve ever driven over the Lolo Pass during the cold months of February, you likely know that it can be a bit of a gamble. Large amounts of snowfall, wandering moose, and unpredictable road conditions are only a few of the joyous obstacles that greet you on your departure from civilization. Whether it was dumb luck or a blessing from the steelhead gods, our passage to Idaho was completed without much difficulty.
Of the three vehicles that were brought to Idaho, each had their own unique pre-fishing listening rituals as we ventured down the road. Head honcho Joe & company, consisting of Megan Kusler, Tyler Dimeola, and Bob Hogue, found themselves soaking in the wisdom of legendary author and angler, Tom Mcguane via the Millhouse Podcast. Borden Porter and John Kelley took advantage of the many options that Sirius XM provides. Myself and Nicko Opinsky traversed the winding roads of the Pass listening to one band, and one band only: The Grateful Dead (10/29/1977 and 10/10/1982 for the committed and the curious, although I won’t hold it against you if you’re not).
Following what seemed like an eternity of driving, we arrived at our destination and checked into our hotel with grumbling bellies. After quickly situating ourselves and gathering our surroundings, we moseyed over to Dining On The Edge for cocktails and fine cuisine. Ribeye steaks, prime rib, and even a bit of sturgeon was consumed! After gorging ourselves we retired and awaited the next morning with much anticipation.
Game-time. We stopped by the legendary Red Shed Fly Shop to receive much-needed intel and float advice for the day. Succeeding our consultation with Dale and Poppy, we headed out to fulfill our dreams of massive chrome.
Day 1 consisted of a healthy mix between spey and single hand bobber nymphing. As it turns out, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing while nymphing out of the boats! Our setups consisted of 15’ leaders to a slew of pegged eggs, most of which were soft. The boat of Nicko, Bob and myself started off hot with a whitefish party, all of which were noticeably smaller than what we’ve grown accustomed to on our home river. Doubt quickly settled in as we came to the realization that we may have traveled hundreds of miles to catch a few whitefish. It became apparently obvious: Steelhead fishing is not easy.
After a meeting of the minds and a few masterfully cooked elk brats by celebrity chef, Nicko Opinsky, we rowed on hunting for the fish of a lifetime. It’s easy to convince yourself while steelhead fishing that you’re not catching any fish because they simply aren’t there. I’m borderline positive that we all were sharing this thought, however, that was not the case. We happened to be floating in a mix of gear boats that we’re putting on an absolute clinic. Fish left and right were practically jumping into these boats, all the while we could only find the odd whitefish. We attempted to do what any new oarsman does when they float a new river, track the guide’s line. Even with this information now on our side we were unsuccessful in our endeavor.
There’s a comical aspect that I’ve grown to appreciate after an ass-kicking on the river. Everyone is waiting with rod in hand while the trucks are shuttled back to our location. A certain level of defeat and despair linger accompanied by an introspective quietness. The group seems to show a newfound interest in the rules, regulations, and species signs that we’re already all-too-familiar with. As I try to continually transition into a mature angler, I believe it's important to be thankful for the opportunity to fish that day, and set sight on tomorrow.. But boy did we struggle!
On our second and final day of angling, the group decided it was best to split up and leave the boats at the hotel. Today would be a road hunting mission. Nicko and John headed further up river to test smaller water with nymph rods, Joe and Borden headed down river to try the swing, while Megan, Tyler, Bob and I ventured way down river to swing bigger water. It took my group about an hour to reach our first run of the day before we had a fly in the water. We fished adamantly, searching for a grab to try and change the current course of this trip. Not more than 30 minutes passed when a buzz came across our phones, “Steelhead down”.
Lo and behold, here was Borden holding a beautiful Idaho steelhead with a spey rod tucked under the confines of his arm. Within the first hour of Borden’s spey fishing career, he did what countless others have dedicated years trying to replicate - catching a steelhead on a swung fly. I’ll refrain from repeating the expletives that followed. That photo of Borden holding his fish was the wind in our sails that the group needed. Suddenly rejuvenated, we decided to work our way back up river with full confidence that we could catch a fish.
As the day waned on, we put cast after cast through phenomenal water. Each run that we fished felt like it was the one that was going to make it happen, but happen it did not. Our group had one final run to fish before we would have to say goodbye to our steelhead dreams. Confident, we arrived at our final run with the hopes of a miracle. Just as we began to put our rods into final fishing form, another buzz came across the wavelengths. Who else could it be but Nicko Opinsky, “Bottom of the #$%^ing ninth!”. Nicko and John’s decision to head up river proved fruitful. The successful fly I might add was one that locals told us hasn’t worked on this river in three years!
At this point, our group is looking at eachother with the full understanding that we need a fish. Not long after we each entered the river, Borden and Joe joined us to watch our final casts of the day. I eagerly listened to Borden’s heroic tale of landing his first steelhead while I pressed on making cast after cast. In the midst of Borden’s explanation, what could only be an undeniable grab happens, sending shivers down my spine. I panic as I make eye contact with Borden, my one shot at steelhead glory was stripped away quicker than I could even blink. As I recall, Joe decided that I would likely spend all night fishing this run before leaving after feeling that grab. With the group’s interest in mind, Joe and crew, with the exception of Borden who agreed to stay and fish a bit longer, began to leave the riverside and retire to the trucks.
*Boom - Shake - Boom - Boom - Shake*
“That’s a fish on boys!”
Before the rest of the group could make it back to the truck I found myself hooked up with pure pandemonium happening behind me. Screams, shouts, incoherent chaos all happening as I’m holding on for dear life.
By pure coincidence, John and Nicko decided they would stop by this run to see if any of us were still hanging around, and hanging around we were! After a few more minutes of dancing back and forth with this fish, Borden completed the sacred duties of a net man, closing the final curtain on our show. Extra Innings.
Fighting that fish with the unwavering support of some of my closest friends has me choked up still as I write this. There couldn’t have been a more perfect scenario for landing that steelhead. The final cast, in the final moment, of the final day. An arduous pursuit that culminated in a few moments of fishing nirvana. As anglers, what more can we ask?
Rods - 7 and 8 weight spey rods ranging from 11’9” to 13’9”. 10’ 7 and 8 weight single hand rods. We fished the Sage X Spey, Sage Igniter Spey, Sage Sonic Spey, and a C.F. Burkheimer Spey rod. Our favorite single hand rod was the Sage 10’ 7 weight Sonic.
Reels - Sage Spey Reel and the Sage Spectrum Max were the favorite reels this trip.
Lines - Skagit shooting heads were what we primarily used on the spey rods. Our favorites were the RIO Elite Skagit Max Launch for the rods over 12’6” and the RIO Elite Skagit Max Power on the switch rods. The Scientific Anglers Amplitude Anadro Indicator was our favorite single hand fly line because of how easy it turned over heavy nymph rigs.
Flies - To quote Poppy, “The fly doesn’t matter!”.
Written by Danny Eiden
Danny grew up fishing the Driftless region of Wisconsin focusing on warmwater species, tricking bass, northern pike and muskies with big streamers and poppers. Now a full time resident of the Madison Valley, Danny finds himself fooling Madison River trout and tying up flies while contributing to the MRFC blog.