May 7th is a perfect day for fishing the lower Madison. With a late start and a belly full of Mama Macs, I check out the water: it looks good, a bit off color, a little high and fast, but alright. At the first glimpse of the storm of bugs in the air, we hurry to get the boat in the water. It’s an overcast day and the big, dark March browns look huge against the grey sky. A few decent sized stone flies flutter around, blue wing olives are aplenty, midges crowd the banks, and the famed Mother’s Day Caddis begin to make an appearance. I start out fishing with a double nymph rig, a midge emerger and a loop emerger. The loop emerger is money on this river. Jeremy, on the oars, ties them with a different material for the loop than what they use in the shop and they are one of those indispensable flies that I can’t get enough of.
Unfortunately, I am a Hail Mary dry fly fisher. I see a few decent heads rise, and the nymph rig is out and the dries are on. After seeing about seven good rises I tie on a big mayfly to mimic the March brown with a blue wing trailing behind it. It feels good to throw a dry fly rig, to watch it drift, to wait in anticipation for that big take; it’s the first time this year I’ve fished dries and I’m failing to contain my excitement. When I see a fish come up and check out the blue wing olive, I breathe out and set the hook. A nice rainbow torpedoes through the water and into the air, showing off its spring colors bright, flashy, and feisty. My level of stoke is through the roof—this is why I fish. As I’m keeping my line tight and about to reach for the net I hear ‘Holy F***’ from the oars. (I mean I know this is a nice fish, but it isn’t that nice). I look up across the water just in time to see a semi cruising way too fast through the California Corner, in the wrong lane, heading straight for the river.
For those who are not familiar with the area, the California Corner is the first super sharp turn in the Madison River Canyon that requires you to slow down to 35 mph after cruising around 70 mph all the way from Four Corners. There are three rumble strips that warn you it’s coming, a few yellow signs that also lets you know ‘hey, there is a big turn coming up, you might want to slow down,’ and if you still aren’t going slow enough a flashing sign that reads SLOW DOWN (asshole). And still, people take this turn way too fast, hence the snarky local naming of the ‘California Corner.’
In my moment of panic, I lose the battle with the bow on the end of my line and don’t care much—I think I’m about to watch someone die. The semi (in the lane of oncoming traffic) blasts into the first of the cement retaining wall. They fold like dominos and bounce right back up like those creepy clown punching bags. I’m not breathing. The side of the trailer catches a cement pillar that didn’t quite bounce back and rips the side of the truck open as easily as you pull the top off a can of beans. The truck screeches and screams in defiance. The innards of the trailer gush out like a wound, brown boxes scatter over the highway, down the bank and plop into the river. The driver manages to stop the truck and get it off the road at the nearest pullout. We give him a thumbs up and ask if he is okay from the boat. A string of swearwords and flapping arms through a broken window assures us he is fine; his priorities clearly lie in the costly mistake he just made. I dial 911 in vain, I know I don’t have service. Instead, our concerns shift to the brown boxes bobbing down the river.
‘We have to get them’ I tell Jeremy, my dog Shooter in the back has his ears pinned to his head. ‘What?! Screw the boxes, everyone else is fishing.’ There were a few people on the other bank fishing, but we were the only boat on the water, a rare occurrence for the Madison. If we didn’t do something, who else would? As we took a moment and really let the destruction around us sink in, Jeremy turned the boat around and rowed harder than I have ever seen, downstream. We get to the first box and I reach over the side to grab it, the weight is impressive and I brace myself against the edge of the boat to get it in. As I slop a soggy, water-laden cardboard box onto the bow, I read ‘Enriched Macaroni Product’ stamped in green on the top.
We anchor up in the shallow water below the flock of alien brown ducks bobbing along and await our bounty of gluten. The boat fills up fast and soon we have to pile them up on shore, these things are surprisingly heavy, there’s no way we can finish the float with them in this tiny boat. We grab as many boxes and bags as we can, even a pallet comes rolling down; we spent about two hours out of breath, staked out in the riffles, getting what we can to shore. The flow of macaroni slows and Jeremy decides to fish a hole below the boat and hooks into a nice fish on the previously mentioned loop emerger. We give up the macaroni mission and head downriver, we’re soaked and tired. Luckily, we run into a crew of BLM employees while re-rigging a bit further down. They thank us for grabbing what we could and we let them know where we piled the pasta.
Picturing this situation is pretty humorous, but we were reasonably angry to be hauling soggy boxes of noodles to the shore instead of hooking up with fish. Furthermore, it was a mindless task with plenty of time to wonder: what if the contents of the truck had been different? What if the truck was transporting a toxic substance? What if the fix wasn’t as easy as pulling soaked cardboard filled with noodles out of the river? Could it have been belly-up fish instead of bobbing boxes? Our rivers are more than a precious commodity in Montana, they are a way of life. Perhaps it is time we rethink who is allowed to drive on highways next to these rivers if the water is not given the respect deserved. So slow down and enjoy the Mother’s Day Caddis, and if you see some boxes while you’re out there please pull them out of the river so we don’t have to start tying macaroni flies.