The Madison River offers an amazing diversity of water and can vary significantly in its character as it travels on its course from Yellowstone National Park to the Missouri River. Different sections of the river offer different habitat, scenery, hatches and fishing techniques. In many ways the Madison feels like a completely different river from one location to the next. The variety along this legendary fishery is one of the many factors that makes it one of the most consistent rivers in Montana. Although different sections of the river have their own peak fishing times, there is almost always a location on the Madison that is fishing well nearly every month of the year. The Madison truly offers some of the most diverse and consistent fly fishing in Montana. The Madison flows through one of the most scenic valleys in Montana and is flanked by the towering Madison, Gravelly and Tobacco Root ranges. The impressive scenery, high trout counts, potential for trophy fish and proximity to Yellowstone make this a must fish river for every serious fly fisherman.
Yellowstone National Park to Hebgen Lake
The Madison originates inside of Yellowstone National Park at Madison Junction where the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers join together. Float fishing inside of the park is not permitted so this section of the river is wade fishing only. The elevated temperatures of the Firehole from the thermal influence of hot springs and geysers also extends to the Madison in the park. Fishing during the peak summer season is not as productive as other locations due to the warm water temperatures. The park opens Memorial Day weekend and fishing can be good if the river is not too high from snow melt. Most locals consider October to be the ideal time to target the Madison in the park. During the fall water temperatures are once again cool and large trout from Hebgen Lake enter the river. Each year anglers hook up on some monster trout in this section. Nymphing egg patterns trailed by a baetis nymph is a great technique in the fall. Many fisherman targeting trophy browns also religiously swing large streamers across holding runs hoping to connect with a monster.
Hebgen Lake to Quake Lake
Between Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake the Madison changes dramatically from the river inside of Yellowstone Park. Water flowing out of Hebgen dam is released from the bottom of the lake producing cold water throughout the summer season. This section of the river has a lot of trout and a few bruisers that make their way up from Quake Lake. It is only a few miles long and receives a lot of fishing pressure, especially during runoff when it is still running clear due to the effect of the dam. There are a lot of large rocks and some great riffle run structure on this short stretch making it easier to read than other parts of the Madison. The easy access and visually appealing water make it popular with visiting anglers. Most of our guides prefer to fish this section of the Madison in the shoulder seasons like May and October when the crowds thin.
The “Slide”: Earthquake Lake to Reynolds Pass
The best pocket water on the Madison is found from the exit of the river from Earthquake lake in the boulder strewn remnants of the famous landslide. The steep gradient of the river and the numerous large boulders result in outstanding trout habitat. The trout density is very high in this reach of the river and the large average fish size combined with the swift current produces reel screeching runs on nearly every hookup. The river in this area is difficult to fish until it drops below 1,300 cfs, which is usually just after the peak of high water. When the river finally drops enough to allow some soft pockets of fish holding water the action can be outstanding on large stonefly nymphs and sculpin patterns. Wading in this area is not for the faint of heart and the large bowling ball size boulders combined with fast current is not to be taken lightly. We highly recommend wading staffs in the “Slide”. This stretch is a wade fishing only section of the river and it sees fairly heavy pressure relative to the Madison during July and August when many visiting anglers hit it. We prefer to guide trips in the “Slide” in the early summer and again in the fall when the fish are rested but will occasionally drop in when conditions are prime even during the peak summer months.
Reynolds Pass to Lyons Bridge
The fast pocket water feel of the river continues for about 1 mile after Reynolds Pass before the river begins to transition to the classic large riffles that have made the Madison so famous. From the “big bend” to Lyons bridge the river slows just a bit in its gradient and switches gears from boulder strewn canyon style water to large riffles with numerous islands, large rocks and side channels. This reach of the river continues to be wade fishing only although boats can be used for transportation from one run to the next. Fishing pressure is relatively high from Reynolds Pass to Three Dollar Bridge but drops off from there to Lyons Bridge. Trout counts are still very high on the bottom of this stretch but the upper water is easier to read for visiting anglers and thus attracts more attention. This stretch of the river is one of our favorites during high water since there are only two small tributaries that add sediment below the dam and it is rarely enough to completely dirty the river. We nearly always use boats when guiding this stretch allowing us to hop from one run to the next. We often break this into two floats, each about 3-4 miles in length and simply cherry pick the prime riffles, rocks and side channels.
Lyons Bridge to McAtee Bridge
Float fishing is permitted from Lyons bridge to Ennis and this stretch receives light traffic from wade fisherman but is popular with float fisherman in drift boats and rafts. The West Fork of the Madison enters just above Lyons bridge and can dump in a lot of sediment during high water at the end of May and into early June. Often the east side of the river remains clear for several miles below the West Fork. The river in this stretch offers outstanding trout habitat. Most of the river is fairly shallow and resembles a massive riffle with numerous huge glacial boulders interspersed. Trout counts run very high in this stretch and it is a very consistent fishery. The high catch rates, large trout and amazing scenery make this a popular reach of the river for guides from West Yellowstone, Big Sky and Ennis. A variety of fly fishing techniques are employed at different times of the year including nymphing, dry fly fishing and streamer fishing. Our Madison River Lodge is located right on the banks of this productive section and offers a private boat ramp for ease of access.
McAtee Bridge to Varney Bridge
This is a relatively short stretch of river and many people consider it part of the larger “50 mile riffle” that begins at Lyons Bridge and extends to Varney Bridge. We tend to think of this stretch a lot differently than the water above McAtee. Although the fast and shallow nature of the river persists, the river loses some of its more obvious structure and there are very few large glacial boulders, islands and side channels. Trout counts are also a little lower in this reach. This stretch of the water can be very frustrating to those not familiar with the Madison because the water looks so uniform in character. Upon very careful inspection, however, anglers will begin to notice the subtle changes in depths and current that concentrate fish. Reading this part of the river can take years of practice but the rewards can be huge. Many guides consider the Mac to Varney float to offer some of the best dry fly fishing on the Madison.
Varney Bridge to Ennis
Some of the Madison’s largest browns are caught on the lower end of the float section between Varney Bridge and Ennis. The river gains a lot of character and the large continuous riffle water gives way to long deep runs, multiple channels, steep cut banks and numerous gravel depressions. This portion of the Madison takes a lot of time to learn and fish are heavily concentrated in a relatively small percentage of the river. We like to plan shorter floats on this water enabling us to get out and work some of the most productive water. The gradient below Varney picks up and fishing the large vast runs can be difficult until the water drops enough after runoff to allow for good presentations and easier wading.
Below Ennis Bridge the Madison is closed to float fishing. Public access is only available at the Ennis Bridge in town and the Valley Garden FAS which is 2 miles downstream of Ennis. Below Ennis the river becomes very shallow and branches into numerous braided channels. At higher flows it is very difficult to wade fish. At lower flows in late July and August warm water temperatures can be an issue on hot days, especially in the afternoon. This section of the Madison can change from year to year when large ice flows in the winter act like bulldozers plowing new channels and moving “buckets” of small gravel. Fishing the channels can be very good if you know the water. Much of the river is shallow and offers poor habitat so it pays to only focus on the productive fish holding riffles and runs and skip the rest. The Madison Valley Ranch, one of our partner Montana fly fishing lodges has private access to some of the best water in the channels section!
Bear Trap Canyon
The Madison enters Bear Trap Canyon after exiting Ennis Lake. Bear Trap Canyon extends for 8 miles from the last access point. This is a rugged canyon with a class V rapid that keeps most boaters out. Anglers can hike in from the bottom section from a trailhead near the bottom. Wading can be difficult with the big canyon water and safety is an issue at higher flows. There is a good salmon fly hatch in Bear Trap but it often coincides with high water. On low water years the salmon fly hatch can be outstanding. Other important hatches in Bear Trap include the Mother’s Day Caddis, PMDs and baetis. The canyon is filled with crayfish, so nymphing and streamer fishing is often more productive than dry fly fishing.
The Lower Madison
The Lower Madison extends from the Warm Springs access to Three Forks. Most of the fishing and floating is done from Warm Springs to the Black's Ford or Greycliff fishing access sites. The trout numbers begin to drop off quickly after Greycliff due to warm summer temperatures but there are some large trout on the lower reaches. The entire Lower Madison is a spring and fall fishery. Summer water temperatures get too warm to ethically fish for trout. On most years the best angling is from February to early July and from mid September until December. The Lower is also a good winter fishery when the wind isn’t blowing too hard. The stretch from Warm Springs to Blacks Ford has a lower gradient and is known for its numerous massive weed beds. The best fishing is usually associated with these weed beds and trout hold either on top of or in the many depressions and channels in the weeds. The Lower has some explosive hatches of baetis, PMDs, Yellow Sallies, and caddis. There is also a lot of subsurface food like crayfish so hatching insects don’t always bring trout up. Even when pods of rainbows are on the surface fishing subsurface with crayfish or streamer patterns is often the way to hook the biggest fish.
Fishing the Madison by time of year
Early Spring (March-April)
The spring fishing on the Lower Madison can be some of the best of the season. The Lower Madison warms faster than the upper river and often produces the best fishing. Trout are still concentrated in the deeper and slower water and nymphing egg patterns, worms and crayfish trailed by baetis nymphs can be very productive. The fishing on the Upper Madison can be very good between the lakes when rainbows move in from Quake Lake. Fishing is best in the afternoon on the Upper because of cold morning temps and wade fishing often outproduces float fishing since the fish are concentrated in slow holding water. Nymphing streamers trailed by eggs, San Juan Worms or small mayfly nymphs is more effective than dry fly fishing on most days. Baetis hatches can bring up some fish on cloudy days in the slower side channels or slicks behind rocks.
Late Spring (May)
Fishing really heats up in May on the entire river. The Lower Madison experiences the explosive Mother’s Day Caddis hatch in mid May along with continued baetis and March Brown hatches. The warming water temperatures also produce great nymph fishing and the streamer fishing starts to really heat up. Fish begin spreading out as they become more active and the weed beds become very productive. The Upper Madison also produces great fishing in May. The Upper receives a good Mother’s Day Caddis hatch that starts in mid May. The fishing between the lakes remains good and the water from Quake Lake down to McAtee can be outstanding. Runoff can start early on big snow years and dirty the upper river below the West Fork above Lyons Bridge. Usually the Lower Madison holds out and often has clear water into early June. The Upper Madison above Lyons fishes well even during run off. Fly patterns include San Juan Worms, egg patterns, sculpins and zonkers, caddis pupae, attractor nymphs and baetis emergers.
Run off (Late May-Mid June)
The timing of run off on the Madison changes from year to year depending on the snow pack. Typically run off on the Upper Madison begins around late May and extends until mid to late June. On extreme high water years run off can extend into early July. Run off on the Madison is generally shorter than surrounding rivers and it clears earlier than the Gallatin or Yellowstone. The Lower Madison is more resistant to run off and on most years provides good fishing even during June. The Upper Madison actually fishes very well during the middle of run off upstream of the West Fork near Lyons Bridge. Hebgen Dam releases clear water year round and the two small tributaries (Beaver Creek and Cabin Creek) between Hebgen and Quake Lakes only put enough sediment in the Madison to turn it an “army green” color.
Early Summer (mid June- mid July)
Early summer is an exciting time on the Madison. This time of year the entire river from top to bottom fishes well. The Upper Madison fishes very well when the river first gains about 1 foot of clarity below the West Fork. Some of the biggest fish of the year are caught just as run off subsides. Shortly after run off ends the salmon fly and golden stoneflies hatch. This is the busiest time on the river as many anglers come to chase the famous hatch. These hatches occur in late June or early July. Following the stoneflies the river receives strong hatches of PMDs, caddis and Yellow Sally stoneflies. The aquatic hatch cycle begins to slow down in mid July. During the early summer period trout are mostly keyed in on the different hatches and matching both surface and subsurface insects is very important. The Lower Madison also fishes very well in early summer with strong hatches of Yellow Sallies, caddis and PMDs. On the Lower Madison water temperatures begin rising fast and trout go on a heavy feeding binge just before the daytime water temps begin to get too warm around the fourth of July.
Late Summer early Fall (mid July-mid September)
Once the bulk of the major aquatic hatches run their course the trout in the Upper Madison begin to become more opportunistic. This time of year can produce very good dry fly fishing once the trout begin to key in on terrestrials such as ants and beetles. The early mornings in July and early August can still produce good caddis hatches so starting out with caddis pupa or dries can be productive. Nymphing with large streamers trailed with attractor nymphs also can be very productive. As the water levels drop, trout begin to concentrate in “buckets” where gravel is scoured deeper or around large rocks with depressions on each side. The reservoirs such as Hebgen and Ennis lakes also produce intense hatches of tricos and callibaetis that bring large trout to the surface every morning and afternoon. The Lower Madison is generally too warm during the late summer but occasionally drops to good temperatures during early cold fronts for a day or two.
Fall (mid September - November)
Autumn is an exciting time on the Madison. Large browns begin moving in the river and some trout move out of the reservoirs into the river. The browns are colored up and aggressive and this is a great time of the year to target huge trout. The baetis mayfly appears and can produce good dry fly fishing on cloudy days. Streamer fishing also becomes very productive. On sunny days the hopper fishing can hold out into early October. The Lower Madison is also back in prime shape with good water temperatures. Weather in the fall is often very pleasant and once kids go back to school and the tourist season slows down there are very few people on the water making the fall season and ideal time to target this legendary fishery.
Winter fishing on the Madison can be very productive when the wind isn't howling. The section between Quake Lake and Pine Butte provides good winter opportunities in winter, but below that water temps drop. Ice can render much of the Upper Madison unfishable around Ennis. Some of the best winter fishing is on the Lower Madison. Plan on targeting the deeper and slower runs where the fish hole up during the cold water months. Egg patterns, San Juan worms, crayfish and small mayfly nymphs or midge larva are the go to patterns in the winter months.