Several years ago in late April, my friend Andrew and I did a day hike into Beartrap Canyon on the Madison River in Montana to fish. We'd caught a big break on the weather that week and things were about as nice as you could ever hope for in Montana, for that time of year, as we camped and fished or way through the state, on our way to our final destination in Alaska. Anyway, we were picking up a few fish here and there as we worked our way downriver, encountering only a few early season kayakers and not a single other fisherman. We'd probably only gone about a quarter-mile when we came to a big, long, sloping sandstone barrier—slickrock, I believe it is called, that protruded out into the water at the bottom and hung about ten or twelve feet from the surface at the top. I could see fish rising behind a big boulder in the middle of the river on the other side. I walked down to the water's edge hoping to find a way around the thing; I really needed to get at those rising fish, but the water was too deep and fast to even think about it. After sizing up the situation, I decided the only way to get to where I needed to be would be to cross that sandstone slope that was about twenty feet wide. I found a spot where I could climb onto it about thirty feet up from where it dropped off into the river, held the cork grip of my rod in my mouth, got down on all fours, and basically started to belly crawl across the monster. About half-way across, I came to the realization that I had underestimated the slope of the thing, as my boots slipped a bit every now and then on the sandstone and I could rear the water roaring below. I thought about trying to turn around and head back, but realized it would now be impossible to attempt such a dangerous maneuver and from the higher vantage point that I now had, I could actually see those fish holding and rising on the other side, and there were lots of them. I kept inching way across, holding my breath and made it to the other side. I tied on an elk hair caddis and started catching fish, like no tomorrow.
Sometime after my fifth or sixth fish, Andrew yelled from the other side. Apparently, things weren't going as well over there on the fishing front; and although he couldn't actually see me, he could see my flyline and my fly and was witnessing those hookups. I guess it was too much to stand. He wanted to come across and I yelled back instructions about how to get it done. I do distinctly remember that my last words were, "Whatever you do, be careful, it's kinda dangerous, and slick." I walked back up on my side to coach him across, emphasizing the importance of using all fours for traction, that he ignored as he began duck-walking across the slope with his rod in his hand. About midway I heard an, "Oooooh!" and all of a sudden he started heading down the slope, still in a crouch, toward the water, picking up speed as he went. Amazingly, he stayed tucked in that crouch until he reached the end where the rock stretched out over the water, then launched like Jean-Claude Killy going for the gold on the Olympic downhill, still holding on to the rod and landing feet first in the water below. If it hadn't been so scary, it would have been funny. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt and managed to sidestroke a time or two, to a shallow spot where he could stand in the water. I remember a long discussion about how he was going to get back to shore, with me in favor of a short, easy swim—he was already wet—and him insisting that the should jump—saying all the time that he knew he could make it, despite my warnings against a possible dangerous landing. Finally I acquiesced and he let go with a jump landing on the rocks near the shore, badly twisting his ankle. Despite my strong urge to say, "I told you so, " I kept my mouth shut. He was my friend and my fishing partner, and sometimes there's no need to go there and add insult to injury. He managed to make it an hour or so longer with the fishing, until the pain became too much to bear and we crawled back across that rock—on all fours this time, and I helped him back to the parking lot. He hobbled around on that wounded foot for several days later, but he was a trooper and we didn't lose any fishing days. I don't think the swelling went down completely until a few weeks later when we finally reached Alaska.
If you decide to come to the San Juan this week you probably won't have to risk life or limb here to fish, but you are going to have other obstacles to overcome. The fishing is what I would call "tough" right now, about as tough as it gets by San Juan standards. I guess there's any other number of euphemisms I could invoke here; as well, to describe that— like "slow," "a bit off," etc., but I think you get the picture. In my opinion the water is murkier than it has been all winter, and I think, therein lies the problem. Again, I guess I could refer to it as "off color," but that's just parsing words and probably not an accurate presentation of the facts. The flow is around 520 cfs which makes the river very wadeable, boatable, and fishable, despite the fact the water's not very pretty. As far as fishing methods go— it's pretty much nymphing or throwing streamers at this point, since the water clarity along with some very sparse hatches, rules out the dry fly method. For fly choices—red larva, OJs, annelids, Princess nymphs, and eggs, along with buggers and bunny leeches in black, olive and white. Dead-drifting leeches with a brightly colored trailers has been effective, but I haven't heard of anything that has been an actual magic bullet as far as that goes. All said, you're going to catch some fish if you come, just keep your expectations in check and don't expect it to fish like it does at other times when the water is clear, like say, from June to November.
When do I think it will clear up? I don't really know, but if I had to guess, I would say it might clear up some later in April, if we have an extended period of much warmer weather. Until then, it is what it is. As far as flows go, I would think that it will stay in it's present range until early or mid-April, when we could possibly see a bump up to 1,000 cfs, or so in preparation to make room for runoff as the weather starts to warm and the inflow into the lake increases. The big releases to 5,000 cfs are most likely to take place around early May, depending on how soon it begins to warm enough to start the real runoff in the mountains. We should have a better timetable on that by mid-April when the snowpack reaches its peak and the BOR comes out with their release schedule. If you would like to book a guided trip or need more info, give us a call at 505-632-2194.