By John Schilling - February 2020
As an annual ritual, at the end of the first Sunday in November Yellowstone National Park closes it’s rivers to fishing and we close the fly shop for the winter. Oh, we’re still here working all winter (at least myself and Brad). But it’s also a time when we can finally exhale and relax a little bit after a long busy summer. We even get a little free time to fish the Upper Madison and other rivers such as the Missouri, Blackfoot, Rock Creek and the Bitterroot before the deep freeze comes.
Gone are the hectic days of getting guide trips out every morning. Hectic but wonderful. I love greeting our clients every morning and seeing their big smiles as they look forward to a great day on the water with our guides. The guides have dispersed with some leaving the area for other jobs or fishing vacations or staying here to work for the winter. Some will wait for the park to open again in December and be snowmobile guides, some will work as trail groomers and others will work at Big Sky. Also gone are all the tourists. At the end of that first Sunday in November, it’s as if someone turned the light switch off for West Yellowstone. It is indeed a quiet time in the shop.
Our fly bins have been counted. A necessary evil and certainly time-consuming. It’s not a lot of fun counting each individual fly but it’s what prepares us for our next springs fly order. All of the remaining gear and clothing have also been inventoried. Throughout the winter we are preparing orders for the next spring.
My favorite thing that happens after we close the fly shop and the temperature drops is that Brad and I move our desks to the front of the shop next to the woodstove. I love coming into the fly shop every morning and firing up the woodstove. Nothing feels better than the warmth of the fire and hearing the crackling of the flames. My dog Tex prefers to lay on the ledge in front of the large picture window at the front of the shop. We both get to watch the snowmobiles zip up and down the street and occasionally are entertained watching a tourist try to negotiate their car through the snowy streets.
Another thing we do is book guide trips for the next season. It’s nice to re-connect with repeat clients who we haven’t seen for several months now. Some of our clients have been taking guide trips with us for over 30 years and feel like family. Also, it’s great to book trips with those that have never fished with us before. Some are experienced fly fishers and some have never held a fly rod before. As you explain how our trips go you can hear the excitement in their voices and feel their anticipation to get here for their guide trip. Summer still feels distant.
I do love winter in West Yellowstone. I love the snow (which you better if you chose to live in West Yellowstone). I love going cross country skiing, snowshoeing and riding the snowmobile. I live about 100 yards from my favorite cross country trail into Yellowstone National Park. The Riverside Trail takes me right down to the Madison River and the Barns Holes (some of you may be familiar with the Barns Holes). I look at the Barns runs with longing. How I wish I could cast a fly into these wonderful runs right now. But it will have to wait until spring.
Ultimately what I love the most is fly fishing on the Madison River, yes even in the dead of winter. It may take post-holing through waist-deep snow, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, taking the snowmobile to get to the river or very possible all four modes of transportation. But it’s worth it as you are pretty much guaranteed to have the river to yourself. Most of the winter I’m usually nymphing or chucking small streamers. However, around the beginning of February, the midge hatch begins. I love stalking risers and dry fly fishing with small midges. It feels like you can almost smell springtime.
Even though I may be dry fly fishing with midges, I know that spring is several months away and that we’re going to have snow until late May. So what do I do to pass time? I monitor the streamflows and snowpack of our rivers and mountain ranges. I peer into these reports as if they are a crystal ball. Trying to predict what our rivers will look like during spring run-off, summer, and fall and how the fly fishing will be.
As we move into April we begin to get the fly shop ready to open. We’re cleaning and organizing what inventory we have left from last fall. The guides and shop staff are starting to roll back into town. Anticipation for a new season mounts. The new inventory begins to arrive. We are training new staff as we move into May. But through it all, all of us are out on the rivers outside the park fishing.
Before we know it, it is Memorial Day Weekend. Yellowstone National Park opens for fishing. Remember that light switch I mentioned earlier? Well, the light switch has been turned back on. Fly fishermen and tourists flood our quiet winter town. And so begins another wonderful summer.
John is beginning his 5th season with Madison River Outfitters. When not in the fly shop you'll find him out on one of the local rivers.
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