Montana is filled with a variety of different rivers, spring creeks and lakes. The diversity of fishing is staggering and the complexity and variety only increases as we consider different times of year as each fishery changes dramatically in how and where the fish are found over the course of the year. Because of the variety of different fisheries there is almost always a "hot spot" during any given week of the season. One of our favorite times of the season is early June which is often overlooked by many anglers since it is in between the spring hatches of April and May and the early summer hatches of late June and July. Some rivers also become too high and dirty to fish as our snow pack melts out with warming temperatures. Early June fishing, however, can often produce some of the highest catch rates of the season and often with few other anglers to compete with. In early June we focus on spring creeks, spring fed rivers like the Firehole, lakes and several large rivers that have some lakes to protect them from run off. The Madison River is one of our go to June fisheries due to several lakes and dams that regulate flows. Early June fishing is a different animal and requires a different set of strategies vs. later in the summer. Specific locations, techniques, and flies are needed to be successful this time of year. The reward can be great fishing during a period of time that many anglers write off as unproductive.
Key #1- Finding Fishable Water
The biggest key to success for fishing during runoff is finding water that is low and clear enough to fish effectively. The Madison is rather unique in that it flows through a series of 3 lakes, one natural and two man-made. The lakes act as catchment systems for silty and dirty water, allowing sediments to settle and mix with clear water. The water below each dam will generally run clear enough to fish, at least until the first major tributary is encountered.
The furthest lake upstream is Hebgen Lake, and the water always runs clear below Hebgen Dam. Unfortunately, the first tributary, Cabin Creek, is encountered about a mile downstream. If Cabin Creek is not too dirty, there is another 1.5 miles of productive water down to the head of Quake Lake.
Below Quake Lake, the Madison enters a section of river known as “The Slide”. The Slide is fishable throughout runoff most years and is restricted to wade fishing only, though a boat may be used to shuttle anglers from run to run. The Slide offers nearly 10 miles of water before a major tributary, the West Fork of the Madison, enters the river. While the float section below the West Fork confluence will occasionally be fishable during early June, it should not be counted on until later in the month.
The final body of water is Ennis Lake, located about 50 miles downstream from Quake Lake. There is good access for wade fishing just below Ennis Dam, and this section fishes well virtually year round. Below this short wade section is Beartrap Canyon, which is best avoided during high water. Below the canyon, the river spills out into the valley and good fishing can be had between the Warm Springs boat ramp and the Cherry Creek confluence. This 5 mile run is a nice float, and offers plenty of wade access as well. The section of river below Ennis Dam is locally referred to as the “Lower Madison”.
Key #2- Finding the Fish
During high water, the fish tend to be very concentrated. The swift currents push them into the slower water and if you can locate them, you can be very successful without having to move long distances from spot to spot. On most rivers, the high water tends to push the fish into the softer water along the banks. While this is true on the Madison to a degree, the Madison also features many large boulders that break the surface throughout the river. These boulders allow fish to hide behind them in the soft water and ambush prey as it is flushed by in the current. These boulders are key features wherever they are found, but are particularly prominent in “The Slide” section.
The Lower Madison takes on a different character, with a slower current and very few large boulders. The key features here in early June are the many sand bars and weed beds in the river. While these may be nearly exposed later in the year, high water allows the fish to move into these fertile areas to forage for food. They also contain many holes and depressions that act as current breaks for the fish. Thus, fishing over the top of these areas can be very productive, as fish can dart out from cover to grab your fly.
Key #3- Getting Your Fly in Front of the Fish
Nymphing is by far the most effective technique during early June. The fish have chosen their lies carefully, and are unwilling to fight the current to move very far to intercept food. The water clarity often limits visibility down to only a few feet, further limiting the range at which fish will feed. Therefore, it is critical that you present your fly in a manner that gets it very close to the fish. The fish will typically be very close to the bottom, so if you are not bumping the bottom and getting snagged occasionally, you need to add more split shot, choose heavier flies, or lengthen the space between your strike indicator or flies.
It’s also important to fish a run very carefully and thoroughly before moving on. Since the fish are not willing to move very far, you can’t simply toss a cast or two and then assume that no hungry fish occupy that spot. A few inches in one direction or the other can make all the difference, as can getting your fly just a bit deeper. If you have identified water that appears productive, give it plenty of trial and error before moving on.
Key #4- Choose the Right Fly
Fortunately, this is the easiest part of fishing the Madison during early June. For your top nymph, choose a medium sized stonefly nymph, around a #6. I like darker colors during the early season, as the Salmonfly nymphs are becoming more active in preparation to hatch later on in the month. The exact pattern doesn’t really matter as long as you have confidence in it. For your dropper, you can be a bit more creative. One option is to choose a “junk” fly like a San Juan Worm in red or pink. Another would be to go with a fly that could imitate a large caddis or small stonefly, like a Mega Prince, 20 Incher, or North Fork Special. The final option would be to simply use another big stonefly, perhaps of a different color, as your dropper. Fishing the correct water and getting your fly down to the fish are both much more critical than fly selection, so choose something that presents a good profile and is visible to the trout and fish it with confidence.
For anglers targeting high catch rates and larger fish late spring and early summer can be as good as it gets. Fly Fishers using their tried and true mid summer techniques will go home frustrated but savvy anglers that understand where fish are and how they are feeding can experience great success. The Madison along with several other Montana tailwaters rarely dissappoint in early June.