August is an extremely popular time to visit and flyfish the Madison River. The Madison can fish well during all 12 months of the year, and each month sees a different set of challenges for fishermen to solve. During August, those challenges can include warm, sunny weather, fishing pressure, and in years of lean snowpack, low water. Fortunately, these are all things that anglers can overcome and have some great days out on the river. One of the things that I enjoy most about fishing the Madison, as well as fishing in general, is the dynamic nature of the sport. You can’t fish the same way in January as you did in June and expect optimal results. The ever changing conditions on the river and chess match between angler and trout is what keeps me coming back to the river day after day, year after year. Let’s take a look at some things that you can do to maximize your success on the Madison during August.
Tip #1: Get On The Water Early
As a guide, one of the challenges I face during late summer is convincing my guests that it is in fact worth it to wake up at 5 AM on their vacation in order to be the first boat on the water. While this is a bit of an exaggeration, it is very important to try and get out on the water early in the day during August for two reasons: Water temperature and fishing pressure.
As cold blooded creatures, a trout’s metabolism is directly tied to water temperatures. Their metabolism is thought to be at its peak somewhere in the mid 50 degree range. On many days during the year, the water temperature is never in the mid 50’s, so trout tend to feed most actively during the time of day when water temps are closest to the optimal range. During winter and spring, this occurs during the heat of the day when water temps creep up into the 40’s. During late summer, this will be in the morning when water temperatures are at their lowest point, usually around 60 degrees on the Madison River. This isn’t to say that you can’t catch fish in the afternoon, but morning fishing is almost always more productive. I usually suggest to my guests that we try to hit the water early and eat a late lunch, ensuring that we have our flies in the water when feeding is at its peak.
The other reason to get up early is tied to fishing pressure on the river. The Madison is a world renowned fishery, and can get pretty busy in August. It is, however, what many refer to as “Montana Crowded”, meaning that it is still nowhere near as crowded as many streams on the East Coast or close to major metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to be the first to fish a particular stretch of water. The simple fact is that the more flies a fish sees and the more boats that pass overhead, the more wary that fish is likely to be. Wary doesn’t mean impossible to catch, but I like to tilt the odds in my favor as much as possible.
Tip #2: Fish Streamers
When most anglers think of streamer fishing, they think of the gray, drizzly days of fall or the “Green is Good” conditions of spring. However, late summer presents a great opportunity to fish streamers on the Madison. The reason for this is that the aquatic insect population available for fish to feed on is at a very low level, so trout turn to other sources for food. During June and July, there are a tremendous amount of Stoneflies, Caddis, and Mayflies hatching and present in the river. The trout are able to gorge on an endless buffet of nymphs underwater, so there is little need or urgency to chase small fish around for a meal. While there are Caddis and Stonefly nymphs in the river year round, they are much fewer in number and less accessible during August, so fish are forced to look for other sources of food. One such source is terrestrial insects, and many anglers enjoy casting hoppers and ants during this time period. The other obvious choice is small fish, and here is where streamers come into play. As the hatches of early summer wane, streamers become one of my go to strategies.
While I thoroughly enjoy stripping streamers on a sinking line, I typically fish streamers on the Madison as part of a standard nymphing rig. The current on the Madison is fast and turbulent enough to impart plenty of action on your fly when presented in a dead-drift manner. I use a strike indicator and the same leader I would when nymphing. I will also drop a small beadhead nymph as a dropper off my streamer in the same manner that you would set up a double nymph rig. The entire presentation is exactly the same as when nymphing, i’m simply letting the current and fly do all the work instead of actively imparting action onto the fly. Because of this, I like to choose fly patterns with a bunny fur tail that has plenty of undulation in the water. The Madison has a robust population of Sculpins, so I usually choose patterns that mimic these small fish. As members of the Darter family, sculpins have wide, flat heads with very prominent pectoral fins, so look for patterns with a bulky profile up front that will push around a lot of water.
Tip #3: Downsize Your Tackle
One of the interesting aspects of the Madison is that although it looks like a freestone stream, it is actually a tailwater. It is a sort of a hybrid fishery in that it retains some characteristics of both types of fisheries. It’s large stonefly population resembles a freestone, as you are not going to be throwing a big #4 Girdle Bug out on the Missouri or Bighorn. It also lacks the scud and sowbug population found in many tailwaters. It does, however, have very clear water, abundant small aquatic life, and at times, picky fish. I feel that often times anglers ignore the tailwater factor on the Madison and do not employ the light tippets and small flies common on other Montana tailwaters. While this isn’t a big deal in June or July, as fishing pressure increases, water levels drop, and hatches wane during late summer, it becomes important. During August, I often employ 4x and 5x tippet and choose nymphs in the #16 to #20 range. My nymphing rig this time of year epitomizes the hybrid nature of the river, as it is often a big #4 Sculpin trailed by a tiny #18 Lightning Bug or other midge/mayfly imitation.
The one caveat to understand about this concept is that the further upstream you go towards Quake Lake, the more the river behaves as a tailwater and vice versa. Up around the Slide and Lyons Bridge, the river demands finer tippet and smaller flies. The river here has a higher fish population, more pressure, and a greater food base. Downstream towards Varney Bridge and Ennis, the river changes character with frequent braids, islands, and willow lined banks. Here the river fishes more like a freestone, and you can usually get away with heavier tippet and larger flys than you would fish upstream. However, it’s still a good idea to dial things back a bit in August after the fish have seen so many flies throughout the summer.
Tip #4: Revamp Your Fly Selection
As discussed above in the Streamers section, the aquatic food base available to the trout diminishes significantly during late summer. While fishing with streamers is one specific response to this occurrence, it should dictate your overall fly selection strategy as well.
For the dry fly angler, terrestrial insects should be your go to. When most fly anglers hear “terrestrials” they immediately think of hoppers, and indeed you can have some good hopper fishing on the Madison at times. However, fishing with smaller terrestrials, especially ants, can often be more productive. The trout see an enormous amount of hopper imitations each season, so they tend to be a bit more suspicious. Hatches of flying ants can also occur during August, and the fish can get really keyed in on these bugs. I will often employ a double dry rig with a hopper as my lead fly and an ant as the dropper. The larger hopper pattern acts as an indicator of sorts as it helps you to see your ant, and you just never know when a big brown will appear out of the depths and crush your hopper. A sleeper terrestrial hatch to look for in early August is the spruce moth. Look for the moths to hatch in the mornings up around Lyons Bridge where the river is lined with evergreen trees. You can match this hatch with a caddis pattern, but I prefer a more specific spruce moth pattern and there are many variations available at local fly shops.
For the nymph fisherman, there are two ways to look at things during August. One strategy is to choose small, bright, attractor style nymphs that don’t imitate one specific bug but are designed to get the fish’s attention. Examples of this would be a Lightning Bug, Copper John, or Rainbow Warrior. The other strategy is to imitate the food that is in the river year round. Due to the life cycles of the species, there are always caddis larva and stonefly nymphs in the river. While trout will not be keyed in on either bug the way they are when the big hatches are going off, they are accustomed to feeding on caddis and stoneflies throughout the year. Every day can be different, so my normal nymphing program during August will include a variety a flies in each category in order to figure out what is working best on that particular stretch of river.