Stormy Madison River

Perhaps the most storied river in Montana is the Madison River.  Anglers from around the world have made the pilgrimage to visit the Madison because of it’s storied historical significance to Montana Fly Fishing.  The Madison has been a survivor and along the way the river has taught us all many things.   Science, agriculture, hydrology, fishery management and of course the inner workings of fly fishing.

The river flows approximately 180 miles from it’s headwaters inside of Yellowstone National Park to it’s confluence with the Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers near Three Forks Montana.  The confluence of the three rivers form the headwaters of the Missouri River, where Lewis and Clark made their faithful decision on which Fork would lead them to the Pacific Ocean.   The Madison gets it’s start where the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon rivers.  Madison Junction is the official start of the many faces of the Madison River.   There are many drastic changes on the Madison River as it flows down the Madison Valley.  We will start the journey at the headwaters and make our way to the mouth of this great fishery.

Madison Junction to Hebgen Lake:

The Madison in the park is a good fishery that I personally fish exclusively during the fall.  It has

Madison river inside Yellowstone Park

good fishing year round but I am not going to spew about times of the year that I am not familiar with.  The main attraction to the fall fishing is the migration of both Rainbow and Brown trout that spend most of their time foraging around Hebgen lake.  The fish move into the Madison in the fall to spawn.   Most of the fish are heading for the area around Madison Junction to propagate and their movements up the river are very similar to migrating steelhead and salmon.  The migration of fish takes place throughout late September and continues until the park service closes the West Entrance of the park.  Approaching the fish like migrating steelhead brings a lot of opportunities to land a monster.

Hebgen Lake to Lyon’s bridge:

Hebgen Lakes is a world class stillwater fishery in it’s own right, it is famous for “gulpers” that cruise the lakes surface on calm mornings through out the summer looking for trico and calibaetis mayflies that fall dead on the surface.   As the river leaves the tail race of Hebgen dam

Between the Lakes Bow

the Madison takes a drastic change of pace.  The placid waters that lay above the lake turn into a boiling cauldron of fast water that is only interrupted by large rocks.  In 1959 a large Earthquake hit the fault that runs parallel to Hebgen lake and created a landslide that created a lake about a mile down stream of Hebgen lake.  Quake lake was formed when the the mountain flanking the river on it’s southern shore gave way and slide down across the canyon forming an earthen dam that left only a short mile of river between the two lakes.  The section of river provides some great fishing year round and access is very good along most of the mile long stretch.  Wading to the opposite shore can be very treacherous and usually only in a few spots when the water is low.  The river flows into the lake which provides  good stillwater fishing throughout the summer as well.  I have been spooked to spend much time amongst the old trees that are still standing throughout the lake.  It is a very airy sight to see, especially when the commerants migrate into the trees.

The water leaves Quake lake in a tumbling mass of whitewater as it makes it way to the valley floor below.  The river reaches the valley floor in a short mile of river and then the quintessential Madison river begins.  From Hebgen lake to the Lyon’s Bridge is a special regulation section of the river that allows for wade fishing only.  You may see boats float down this section of water but you are only allowed to use the boat as transportation, you have to get out of the boat to fish.   Thus it is very popular with wading fisherman because of the regulation and the ample amount of public land that grants anglers access to about ten miles of prime trout water.   The water is swift through most of the wade stretch with only a few deep slow pools.  Fishing slow pockets near the bank and pocket water in the middle produces most of the fish.  As fast as the water moves this section of river sees a wide array of hatch activity that provides some very good technical dry fly for anglers who like to challenge themselves.   All of the typical insects hatch in this section with many different mayfly hatches throughout the coarse of the spring, summer and fall.  Nymphs and streamers are also very productive on this section of water during both hatch and non hatch periods.   A wide variety of patterns is involved on this section of water and despite the fast water many of the flies that we use are small.

Lyon’s Bridge to  Ennis Montana:

Lyon’s bridge marks the starting point for anglers who wish to float the river and fish from the boat.  It is also the starting point of the infamous “50 mile riffle” that the river is famous for.  The water between Lyon’s and Varney bridge is shallow and fast paced.  The current is broken by

She just Rung the Bell under the Wolf Creek Bridge

numerous boulders and a few deeper runs but most of the river runs only a few feet deep.  The shallow fast water gives the fish plenty of hiding places, but many anglers have a tough time reading the water that is most productive.  Minor changes in depth or speed can produce successful results for those who have learned to read the water.   During the summer months high floating dry flies with a bead head dropper takes the place of indicators and streamers.   When the water is high the fish will be near the banks but as the flows drop the fish move to the middle of the river.   Fishing this section of the Madison is a fast paced adventure that will leave you exhausted by the end of a float.  The fast paced fishing can be very fun and when you hook a nice rainbow you may see the fish head upstream peeling line from the reel.  There are several boat ramps and plenty of decent wade fishing in this section, most floats are fairly long so that you can cover a lot of water.   Once the river reaches Varney bridge the character of the water changes.  The river slows down just a bit and some deep slow runs start to present good places to pull over and spend some time wading.   The river also begins to channel up and provide some nice side channels that can provide some great fishing.   As the river nears the town of Ennis the channels become more numerous as the river braids out across the valley on it’s run to Ennis Lake.

Ennis Bridge to Ennis Dam:

As the river passes beneath the bridge in Ennis anglers in boats must put their rods away and only use the boat for transportation in between wade fishing stops.  There is a good access

Fishing beneath the Ennis Dam

downstream of the Bridge for wading anglers at the Valley Garden fishing access.   This section of river is refered to as the Channels, the number of channels between the Ennis bridge and Ennis lake would provide and angler enough water to fish in a lifetime without choosing the same spot twice.  Floating through this section can be tricky, floaters need to use caution in their selection of which channel to take because a small channel can braid into an even smaller channel before it returns to the main channel of the river.   Fishing in this section is great for anglers who like to wade fish.  If you do float this section of river you need to be prepared for a fairly decent row across Ennis lake to the takeout.  You should choose your days wisely for this float because a windy day in the channels can be a miserable experience to get across the lake.  On a calm day the row across the lake takes about 15 minutes and on a windy day it could take a couple of hours.  The lake itself is a decent fishery with some very technical dry fly fishing during the calibaetis and trico hatches in July and August.   The lake is very shallow and the fish are leery of poor casting.  Your cast need to be long and right on the mark or you will struggle to get a shot at the fish on the lake.

Ennis Dam to the Mouth of Bear Trap Canyon:

The river leaves Ennis lake and flows through the 10 mile long Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness area.   There is about a mile and a half of water that is accessible to wade fisherman directly

In the middle of the Kitchen Sink

below the Ennis dam.   Below the powerhouse there is a mountain goat trail that you can walk in but it does get cliffed out a short distance below the powerhouse.  You can make your way up the steep canyon hills to get around the cliff but you will have to trudge through poison ivy and rattlesnakes to do so.  Floating through the Bear Trap Canyon is a marvelous experience but there is a huge pucker factor with three very major whitewater rapids.   The toughest rapid in the Bear Trap is called the “Kitchen Sink”.  The sink is a solid class 4 rapid which will eventually send even the most experienced oarsman for a nasty swim if you tempt the sink enough times.   There is only one guide service allowed to commercially run the Bear Trap, but personal recreational floats are only required sign in.  Rafts are a must, even though a few have made it through in drift boats.   This is big water with big consequences if something goes wrong.  Wading anglers are best to access the Bear Trap from the trail head located at the mouth of the canyon.  There is a very nice hiking trail that will get you most of the way up the canyon before the trail disappears near the upper end of the canyon.   The fishing in the canyon can be great but there are plenty of things that hikers and anglers need to be aware of before they trek into the canyon.   Rattlesnakes and Bull Snakes both live in the canyon in good numbers so keeping your eyes on the trail while you walk is always a good idea.  There is also a lot of poison Ivy along the trail which can cause a nasty rash to those who walk through the wrong patch of plants.   On occasion there are  a few black bears that inhibit the canyon but they are really not much of an issue most of the time.

Warm Springs to Missouri Headwaters State Park:

This section of the Madison is refereed to by most locals, except for the contingent from West Yellowstone, as the Lower Madison.  The Lower Madison is a good Fall, Winter and Spring fishery.  During the summer months the water below the Ennis dam warms to dangerous levels,  most years hoot owl fishing restrictions are put in place due to the high water temperatures.  The Lower river is also very popular with recreational floaters who float the river in everything from blow up foam pools to inner tubes.  On any July or August weekend you could see

Kissing a Lower Madison Rainbow

thousands of people floating the river and having a good time.  The lower does produce some very large fish during the times when the water temperatures are conducive for fishing.  The unique character of the river bed on the lower harbors a tremendous amount of food for the fish.  The weed beds of the lower are home to insane amounts of Crayfish as well as mottled Sculpins.   These large bites of food give the fish plenty of food to grow.  The lower river has some good hatch activity with midges throughout the winter as well as the same staple of early summer bugs such as caddis, PMD’s and Yellow Sallies.   Nymphing is the preferred method by many anglers who are in search of a large fish.  Dead drifting crayfish and sculpin patterns with small nymphs off the back is the preferred method by most.  Streamer fishing can produce results on cloudy days.  Wade fishing anglers have lots of access to the upper 10 miles of the lower river on roads that parallel both sides of the river.  The river turns north as the highway heads back towards the East and anglers can either float or wade fish the river below Black’s Ford by using two access points at Grey Cliff and Cobblestone.  Floaters need to be prepared to take out at Grey Cliff or to make the 19 mile Journey to Three Forks.  There is no trailer access at the Cobblestone boat ramp so you have to float the 19 mile stretch in one float.    Fishing progressively slows the further downstream you go on the Madison as the fish populations start to dwindle.

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