Fishing regulation changes for 2016 have opened up some great new options for anglers on the Madison River. Previously, much of the river was closed between the end of February and the 3rd Saturday in May. Now, the entire river from Hebgen Lake to the Missouri River, nearly 100 miles of productive trout water, is open year round. Let’s take a look at the new options now open to anglers after the regulation changes.
Quake Lake to Lyon’s Bridge
Known locally as “the Slide” or “the wade section”, this 13 mile stretch of the Madison is restricted to wade fishing only. The river here is very swift and boulder strewn. The trout hide in the softer water behind boulders and along the shore. This section fishes very well most of the year, so an additional 2.5 months of fishing is an exciting development. Hebgen and Quake Lakes buffer this section from runoff to a large degree, making it a very reliable option in the spring.
The Slide is known for its midge dry fly fishing in late Winter, and this action will now be available to anglers in March and April. The Rainbows tend to pod up in the slow, slick water and are usually caught by stalking them from shore. Patterns like Griffith’s Gnat and Matt’s Midge are good choices. 5X tippet is usually required for such small flies, typically in the #18-#22 range.
As March gives way to April, the midge hatches will slow down and the spring Baetis hatches will start to ramp up. This hatch is a bit more angler friendly, with flies like a parachute BWO in #16 or #18 being a good choice. The Baetis will hatch best on cloudy days with no wind, but you should be able to find some scattered pockets of rising fish even on sunny days.
The nymph fishing should be outstanding throughout the spring season, especially as the river begins to rise and warm in late April into May. The stonefly nymphs start to get very active and the higher water begins to concentrate trout in the slower buckets. Catch rates can be off the charts at times. Various stonefly nymphs like the 20 Incher and Pat’s Rubberlegs will be go to flies, with a small baetis or midge nymph dropped off the back to complete the rig. In the past, opening day here could be a bit crowded, but the new regulations should really help spread out the fishing pressure. The most popular access points in this section are at the bridge at Raynold’s Pass and the fabled $3 Bridge. From here, wade anglers can set out up or downstream on either side of the river. This area is a mix of public and private land, so make sure you abide by Montana’s stream access law and stay below the high water mark.
Lyon’s Bridge to McAtee Bridge
Float fishing on the Madison begins at Lyon’s Bridge, and the new regulations have opened up the 17 miles from Lyon’s Bridge to McAtee Bridge for year round fishing. This is exciting news for float anglers, as this opens up several different options for floats. In addition to Lyon’s and McAtee, this section also includes boat ramps at Windy Point, Palisades, and Ruby Creek, giving anglers plenty of choices. Because of the very high numbers of trout here, this part of the river can be pretty busy during the high summer, but floaters should be able to enjoy it in relative solitude during the new spring fishing window.
Nymphing and streamer fishing will be very productive methods here in the float section during the springtime. As with elsewhere on the Madison, stonefly nymphs in a variety of colors and sizes are always a good bet. You will want a smaller dropper behind your stonefly, and I like a small mayfly or midge in a #16 or some kind of Caddis larva in a #14. Flies that fit this billing include the Zebra Midge, Pheasant Tail, Micro May, and $3 Dip. For streamers, sculpins like a #4 Sculpzilla or baitfish patterns like a #6 Zonker are good choices. You will want to strip them fairly slow, or even dead drift them under a strike indicator, when water temperatures and cold. As temperatures warm up later in the day or later in the spring, quick strips with larger, articulated patterns become more and more effective.
The Madison does have one significant tributary, the West Fork of the Madison, that enters in this stretch. The West Fork can pump some off color water into the Madison at times, but this will be more of a concern later on in May.
Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake
The final stretch impacted by the regulations change is the “Channels” stretch of the river from the town of Ennis down to the lake. Like the Slide, only wade fishing is allowed here. Boats may be used for transportation, but anglers must get out and wade before doing any fishing. The river here is heavily braided, with a vast array of islands and side channels. It can certainly be confusing for first time visitors. Because of its proximity to Ennis Lake, large, lake dwelling fish move in and out of this stretch of river periodically throughout the year. During spring, many of the lake’s Rainbows will be up in the river to spawn. You should not target fish that are on the spawning beds, known as “Redds”, but pre and post spawn fish are fair game. There are pretty good numbers of resident fish in this section, as well.
Nymphing the deeper holes will the the best way to target the larger lake fish that are not actively spawning. Be sure to adjust your leader length and amount of split shot so that your flies are getting down into the strike zone. With water temperatures in the 40’s for much of the spring, the fish are not going to move very far to take the fly. As with the rest of the river, stonefly nymphs are going to be a very reliable producer in this section. Other productive flies will be “junk food” such as eggs and worms, and various mayfly and caddis larva.
Public access is somewhat limited in this stretch; the Valley Garden access site and boat ramp is a short distance below town and has some good wade fishing opportunities. If you float below Valley Garden, you will have to take out on Ennis Lake at the Clute’s Landing boat ramp. Depending on exactly where you enter the lake, it’s about a 1 mile row across the lake to the ramp. You will definitely want to check the wind forecast before embarking on a float below Valley Garden.
In addition to the newly opened water, anglers will still have access to all of the water that was open during the spring in previous years. This includes the Upper Madison between McAtee Bridge and Ennis Bridge, as well as the entire Lower Madison, the stretch below Ennis Lake. The Lower fishes extremely well during the spring, and we run quite a few guide trips on that stretch each year. The short stretch between Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake is very productive in the spring as well. Much like in the Channels, large Rainbows from Quake move into the Madison and are accessible to anglers. We are very excited about the new opportunities on the Madison this year. They will offer us some great fishing and catching, as well as serving to spread fishermen out even more, enhancing the feel of solitude out on the river.