Madison River - Trout Fishing Profile

Fishery in Montana
Map of Montana
Excerpted from Trout Fishing Sourcebook by Mark D. Williams

Location: Southwestern Montana.
Section: From the border of Yellowstone National Park to the confluence with the Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers at Three Forks, over 100 miles.
Maps: USGS West Yellowstone, Madison Arm, Targhee Pass, Mount Hebgen, Hebgen Dam, Earthquake Lake, Cliff Lake, Squaw Creek, Granite Mountain, No Man Peak, Bucks Nest, Cameron, Varney, Ennis, Eightmile Creek, Ennis Lake, Bear Trap Creek, Norris NE, Three Forks SE.
Type of stream: Freestone, flowing generally north.
Best seasons to fish: Spring, summer, and fall.
Species to be found: Rainbow and brown trout with quite a number of whitefish.
Stocking/wild status: Wild trout.

Average sizes: There is some debate about the average-size trout caught on the Madison, but it is somewhere between 13 to 17 inches, probably closer to 13. Many go over 17 inches and there are some large fish in the river.

Regulations: From Reynolds Pass Bridge to Varney Bridge, there is catch-and-release, artificial-flies-and-lures-only regulation. There are other regulations along the river on a smaller scale, so check the rulebook.

Well-known areas and places to fish along the river: Unlike many other productive trout fisheries, the Madison lacks many of the usual trout haunts. One noticeable traditional lie the river lacks is the deep pool. There just aren't many deep pools or much stillwater on the rushing Madison River. The banks aren't cluttered with roots or rocks or moss. Still, the angler needs to look for any slower water available, any current seams, behind and in front of boulders, in the back eddies, against the banks, and in the braided channels. And of course, in the riffles, which many fishermen who have dropped a line in the Madison believe is the only type of water on the river. Below Varney Bridge to Ennis Bridge, the river is a little brushier, with a little more cover instream and along the banks. There are some large trout in this stretch and it is a lot less fished. Beartrap Canyon below unproductive Ennis Lake is an undiscovered treat, a stretch filled with treacherous rapids, nice, trouty pocket water, pools, brushy banks, and stretches of slower water. The fishing certainly isn't as good as the river above Ennis Lake, but the canyon is scenic and has some large trout worthy of fishing when the water isn't too warm.

Recommended Equipment

The Madison doesn't demand any particular flyfishing outfit, so if you like to fish a lighter rod, then go right ahead. Anything from a 4 weight to a 7 weight will work on the river, and it is a good idea to have a couple of choices at hand. Sometimes the wind will blow, sometimes you need to drift heavy nymphs and sometimes to delicately cast small flies. You can get by with heavier tippet in the fast water, but to fool them in the slower water, you'll have to gear down to a lighter tippet. Sinking and sink-tip lines have their place on the river, too.

Top fly patterns: The Madison has good, solid hatches of mayfly and caddis throughout the year, and excellent dry fly fishing after runoff. The most famous (read most crowded) time of year to fish a hatch is in late June and early July as anglers chase the salmonfly hatch. If you catch the hatch, and many locals have tried and failed for years, then it is indeed an experience to last a lifetime. The salmonfly are as long as your index finger and as clumsy as a 13-year-old boy. They sputter along in the air, then splash into the stream, when one, maybe two, trout streak from their hidden lies to grab the insect with a heartstopping slash.

They do the same for size 2 Sofa Pillows, and they cause the same cardiac arrest. To imitate these large insects, any number of dressings will suffice, including the Sofa Pillow, Stimulator, Bird's Orange, McSalmonfly, and Madam X, but check in with the local flyshops for their creations to imitate the salmonfly. Anglers need plenty of dry fly variety, from Blue Winged Olive to March Brown to Blue Quill to Pale Morning Dun patterns, typical caddis patterns, all kinds of attractor patterns, and terrestrials. The fly box should also inlcude emergers and nymphs of these hatches, as well as streamers. The water sometimes dictates what flies to use, and other times, it is simply the trout. Typical patterns needed for the river (this is just a smattering of successful flies): Blue Winged Olive, Pale Morning Dun, March Brown, Adams, Adams Parachute, Elk Hair Caddis, Goddard Caddis, Rio Grande King, Royal Wulff, Humpy, Kaufmann's Stimulator, H & L Variant, Midge, Griffith's Gnat, Irresistible, any of a number of hopper patterns, Black Beetle, Black Ant, Muddler Minnow, Spruce Fly, Woolly Worm, Woolly Bugger, Girdle Bug, large stonefly nymphs, Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear, Prince Nymph, Pheasant Tail Nymph, Sparkle pupae, Montana Nymph, Glo Bug, Yuk Bug, and Bitch Creek.

Recommended Techniques

The Madison trout isn't always turned off by awkward presentations, and in fact might investigate the fly for several passes before either sucking it down or being spooked. The water moves along at such a quick clip that they can't afford to be too picky, or the food they see will pass them by. Short, upstream casts are all an angler needs for technique. A long cast will inevitably cross a multitude of cross currents, and the fly will be dragged and swung and will be little more than an ornament on the end of the line. If you are floating the river, you'll probably be casting to the bankside runs, landing flies on the edges of the current, and dropping flies near the few, big instream boulders. Beginning fishers can do well on the river, tossing big attractor dry flies onto riffles, and reasonably expecting to land several 12 to 14 inch trout during the day. To catch the bigger trout, well-seasoned fishermen match the hatches with the smaller flies; fish with nymphs, emergers, and wet flies; or try innovative patterns.

Best access points: Quake Lake, Hebgen Lake, Slide Inn, Lyons Bridge, McAtee Bridge, Varney Bridge, and a host of other public accesses. Highway 287 parallels the river from Yellowstone to Bozeman.

Quality of Angling

Is there presently a western river more popular or more famous than the Madison? The big river supports an amazing number of trout and an even more amazing number of trout fishermen. The Madison River has a variety of characteristics and water types, insect hatches, and moods. One could fish any one-mile section of the river for a year and still not know it fully. Nevertheless, the river has faced some tough times the last two years. Whirling disease has robbed the great river of several classes of rainbow trout. In one stretch, the Madison River lost about 95 percent of its rainbow trout population. Whether or not the Madison recovers from this problem is anybody's guess. Whether or not whirling disease affects the length of the Madison is unknown. There are no known cures for this malady. Most of the river has been affected. The river might recover quickly, for this is a mighty stream.

The river's trout are plentiful and often finicky, sometimes requiring match-the-hatch angling from an increasingly sophisticated fishing crowd. But part of the charm of the river is that in some areas, attractor patterns work better than close imitations. Fat trout respond eagerly to salmonfly patterns as big as pillows when the famous stonefly hatch is on. Beetles, ants, and hoppers thrown against the banks in the meadow sections are deadlier than any other. Large streamers stripped in during fall's spawning run yields trophy brown trout. So the river is many things for many people. If you want it to be gulper stream, head to the Hebgen area. If you want to toss salmonfly patterns to four-pound trout, then get to the river at the end of June and while away the hours chasing the durned hatch.

For trout cover, the Madison has pocket water, riffles, eddies, undercut banks, boulders, underwater structure, side channels, braids, beaver ponds, and more. Typically, the river has movement and is rarely slow, meaning that these fish have lots of well-oxygenated water and resulting energy. Don't be surprised when these trout take enough line off the reel to go into the backing and cause your palms to sweat. The river flows through a wide valley coming out of the park, through ranchlands, and through a canyon with mountain ranges rising up on either side. If you haven't done the Madison, then by all means, do it.

Wadeability/floatability: The river is floatable except for the stretch below Slide Inn all the way to Lyon Bridge and from Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake where no boats are allowed, only wading anglers. Waders should be prepared for the constant pressure exerted on their legs from the heavy current. It pays to be on your toes when wading the river, as some places can be either slippery or tricky. Chest waders with felt soles or cleat soles are recommended. Fishermen can wade between high water marks of the stream but cannot trespass on private land above the line, nor gain access to the river by crossing private land. One of the most popular float areas is that below the confluence of the West Fork of the Madison. The drift boats and rafts qeueing up in the morning at launches is mildly comical with so many people milling around, but this is a big river and can handle all the anglers. Heck, the crowded situations that some anglers suffer from and complain about occur in the summer, but some of the best fishing on the Madison is in the spring and fall. For a great float trip hire a guide to fully explore this great river.

Fly Shops, Guides, and Outfitters of Interest

Far too many to name!

Best Guidebooks

Montana Angling Guide, by Chuck Fothergill and Bob Sterling, Streamstalker Publishing, 1988
The Angler's Guide to Montana, by Michael Sample, Falcon Press, 1992
The Living River, by Charles Brooks, Lyons and Burford, 1984
Fishing Yellowstone Waters, by Charles Brooks, Lyons and Burford, 1984
Knee Deep in Montana's Trout Streams, by John Holt, Pruett Publishing, 1991
River Journal, Madison River, by John Holt, Frank Amato Publications, 1993
Audio: The Madison River, by Craig Mathews and Gary LaFontaine
Fly Patterns of Yellowstone, by Craig Mathews and John Juracek, Lyons and Burford, 1987
Montana Flyfishing Guide, Vol. 1, by John Holt, 1995
Montana Flyfishing Guide, Vol. 2, by John Holt, 1995


In West Yellowstone, Ennis, and Bozeman, there are motels, lodges, cabins, and all kinds of other hostelries, but you had better get reservations before heading that way. It is awfully lonely territory when the crowds have hit, and there is not an empty room within 60 miles. Campgrounds are all around but if you want to camp in Yellowstone National Park, you'll have to get there early in the day and watch until folks leave in midmorning. Campground reservations are a good idea for the area campgrounds. The small towns have a variety of restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations. Prices can be higher than at the pump in Illinois or Georgia, and groceries can be surprisingly expensive.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press and Mark D. Williams. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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