Overview: The Madison is, in many people's
opinion, Montana's river of superlatives, with a list including highest
trout density, most consistent action, best dry fly fishing, and the most
spectacular scenery. Not surprisingly, this southwestern Montana jewel
is also the second most heavily used river fishery in the state, growing
more popular annually.
Key species: Rainbow trout, brown trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, whitefish, and Arctic grayling.
Use: The section from Hebgen Dam to Ennis Lake ranks 4th statewide and only the Missouri River below Holter Dam receives more river fishing pressure. From Ennis Lake down to the mouth it ranks 18th statewide for angling pressure. The Upper section gets the least pressure but is still heavily used by Montana standards, ranking 35th statewide.
Key flies and lures: Flies-Bitch Creek Nymphs, Girdle Bugs, Yuk Bugs, Parachute Adams, bead-head Pheasant Tail, Sofa Pillow, Bird's Stonefly, Elk Hair Caddis, Royal Wulffs, hoppers, Woolly Buggers, and Marabou Streamers. Lures-Rooster Tail Spinners; gold, silver and black lures; and black Daredevles. Bait-hoppers and worms. Be sure to check current regulations on bait restrictions.
The fishing: The Madison River heads at the junction of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers in Yellowstone National Park. (This book covers the park section of the river in the Yellowstone Park chapter.) From here, it flows for over 100 miles to its confluence with the Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers at Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks. The Montana section of the Madison begins just inside the park boundary. After a few meandering miles, the river collects in Hebgen Lake, a sprawling reservoir created by a Montana Power Company dam built in 1916. Only 2 miles downstream from the Hebgen spillway, the Madison is again confined. Quake Lake, a striking testimony to the continued geologic unrest of the Yellowstone Plateau, was formed on an August night in 1959, when a major earthquake shook loose a mountainside of rock across the river. This natural dam has since been civilized, courtesy of the Corps of Engineers, and is now operated for flood control.
Public access to the upper Madison is generally excellent, as U.S. Highway 287 parallels the river from Hebgen Lake to Ennis. Where the road borders the river, you can simply park at a pulloff and start fishing. At other places, the river can be as much as 3 miles from the highway, so the angler should use one of the many public access points along the way. Lyon Bridge just below the West Fork; BLM's Palisades and Ruby Creek campgrounds; McAtee Bridge; and FWP's fishing access sites at Varney Bridge, Eight Mile Hole, Burnt Tree Ford, Ennis Bridge, and Valley Garden near Ennis provide an excellent south-to-north chain of access sites for floaters and waders.
Access to the lower Madison is very good from the mouth of Beartrap Canyon for the next 5 miles downstream. The canyon itself can be reached by trail, starting from the mouth or from the powerhouse below Ennis Lake. The final 18 miles of the lower Madison are surrounded by private land, with public access provided about 6-miles by the Grey Cliff and Cobblestone fishing access sites and by the U.S. Highway 10 bridge near the river's mouth. Floating anglers should be forewarned that taking a boat out at Cobblestone requires a trek of about 100 yards over two levees and across a shallow canal. A map of the entire river and details for floaters are found in the pamphlet, Montana Afloat #15, the Madison River.
Just below Quake Lake, the Madison turns from its westward course and begins a 50-mile run due north to Ennis Lake. The upper Madison, as this section is termed, flows between willow-lined banks, bordered on either side by miles-wide grassy "benches" so flat that many tourists think they were leveled by man. Above the benches to the west rise the jagged 10,000-foot peaks of the Madison Range; to the east are the timbered slopes of the Gravelly Range. In The Living River, angler supreme Charles Brooks aptly describes the upper Madison as "one of the loveliest river valleys anywhere."
The flow characteristics of the upper Madison are almost as distinctive as the scenery. Through nearly its entire course, the river is broad, rapid, and shallow, a veritable "fifty-mile riffle," as it has so often been described. Gravel and cobbles compose the substrate, and occasional boulders rise above the water surface. The upper Madison is primarily a single channel from Quake Lake down to Varney Bridge, but between the bridge and Ennis Lake, the river braids freely, undercutting banks and separating scores of cottonwood-dotted islands. Riffles still dominate the flow in this "channels" section of the river.
Three miles north of the town of Ennis, the upper Madison empties into Ennis Lake, the product of another Montana Power Company dam. Ennis Dam is the dividing line between the upper and lower Madison.
From the outlet of Ennis Lake, the lower Madison roars through the rugged Beartrap Canyon Wilderness Area. The 7-mile canyon is one of the most challenging whitewater stretches in Montana, with powerful runs and rapids over 6 feet high. At the mouth of the canyon, the river broadens and slows for its final 30-mile journey. The river continues northward, lined by dense willow thickets and productive pastureland. The 105-foot-high Grey Cliffs form a distinctive border to the middle reaches of the lower Madison.
The Madison's fame and exceptional fishery stem to a large degree from the river's role as a living laboratory for wild trout management. In 1968, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) initiated a two-year project to assess the effects of its artificial stocking program on trout populations in the upper Madison. The results of this pioneering research led to the revolutionary but inescapable conclusion: The addition of thousands of hatchery-reared trout each spring was actually reducing the number of fish in the river. Fisheries researcher Dick Vincent reasoned that the influx of hatchery fish was displacing the resident population from the limited number of holding areas in the Madison, but the hatchery fish were unable to survive more than a short time in the demanding river environment.
The fallout from this study raided on rivers throughout Montana; in less than a decade, most rivers and streams in the state had been converted to wild trout management (natural reproduction only) with spectacular improvements in the quality of trout fishery.
For the Madison, elimination of stocking was only the first of a series of steps designed to bring the river to its fishery potential. The second item to be addressed was harvest. Creel surveys and population censuses indicated that anglers were keeping so many of the larger trout that, despite good reproduction, only small fish remained. The average fish size had dropped to about 10 inches, a sorry state of affairs for a river with the exceptional water quality, habitat, and food supply of the Madison.
Backed by mountains of Dick Vincent's data and scores of sportsmen demanding the restoration of quality fishing, the Montana Fish and Game Commission designated the 30 miles of the upper Madison from Quake Lake to Varney Bridge as a "catch-and-release" section for artificial flies and lures only. The results have been remarkable. Total trout populations have more than doubled since the advent of the special regulations in 1977. Numbers of 13- to 18-inch fish have risen even more sharply, and are now estimated at more than 800 per mile.
The success of the catch-and-release regulations has created a new problem on the Madison, namely, "handling mortality." Vincent documented this occurrence by comparing trout populations in the catch-and-release section to those in a research area of the Madison, which had been closed to fishing for five years. Populations in the closed section were about 20 percent higher than in the catch-and-release area, indicating that many of the trout handled by anglers were not surviving after release. Biologists now recommend that fish be brought to net or hand quickly, not played to exhaustion. A tired fish will have extreme difficulty regaining its equilibrium in the swift Madison current, especially when the water is at summer temperatures. If a fish has been played out, it should be held upright in calm water and moved back and forth gently until it has recovered its strength. The cavalier "fish drop" release so commonly seen may prove a deathblow to trout in the rushing waters of the Madison River.
After dealing with wild trout management, catch-and-release regulations, and handling mortality, you might think Dick Vincent and his crew would rest on their research laurels. Hardly. "Species management" is the next phase on the Madison, as biologists attempt to adjust harvest regulations in the river below Varney Bridge to increase the number of rainbow trout. Whirling disease was discovered in Madison rainbow trout and it is feared that it will enter other major fisheries connected to the Missouri River drainage. Because of the particular vulnerability of rainbow trout to whirling disease, special regulations may be in effect. Check current regulations.
Surprisingly, the years of protective regulations
have not resulted in great numbers of trophy trout in the upper Madison.
Even in the section which had been closed to fishing, biologists report
relatively few trout longer than
18 inches. The shortage of fish over 3 pounds, particularly rainbow, probably results from the cold water temperatures, short growing season, and, for rainbow, lack of a major food source. Browns, which readily become fish-eaters, will continue to grow even after reaching 16 inches, while rainbow tend to maintain this size once it's attained. Another factor may be that the large population of trout and even greater number of whitefish are simply dividing the food resource between too many mouths. Below Varney Bridge, where brushy banks and slower channels provide better brown trout habitat, trout up to 4 pounds are not uncommon.
The special regulations have brought the upper Madison close to its potential for producing trout. It hosts an exceptional number of 1- to 2-pound fish, offering the knowledgeable angler the opportunity to experience a forty- or fifty-fish day. As Dick Vincent wrote, "At times, catch rates on the upper Madison can average about three fish an hour. That's fantastic fishing, especially when you consider how many novices are included in that figure." The lower Madison, on the other hand, is far from its potential as a fishery. Trout fishing here suffers from "thermal pollution," a fancy way of saying the river just gets too darn warm.
During the summer, daily maximum water temperatures over 70 degrees Fahrenheit are the rule in the lower river. At these temperatures, trout feeding and angling success can come to a screeching halt. Temperatures over 80 degrees have caused local fish kills in the lower Madison. Trout growth rates are well below normal levels, and veteran anglers report that numbers of fish over 3 pounds are only a fraction of what they used to be.
The thermal problem stems from Ennis Dam and its reservoir, Ennis Lake. Since dam construction in 1900, the lake has silted into an average depth of 9 feet, about half its original depth. During summer, the shallow reservoir acts like a 6-square-mile solar collector. Upon discharge at Ennis Dam, Madison waters have warmed by about 8 degrees. Montana officials are now evaluating the feasibility of various engineering options to channel the flow quickly through the reservoir and thus alleviate the summer warming problem. A successful resolution of the lower Madison temperature problem could readily transform the lower Madison into one of the best trout fisheries in the nation.
Despite temperature problems, the lower Madison still holds a very respectable trout population-in fact, trout numbers can equal those in the Varney Bridge section of the upper river. The key for the angler is to fish when the temperature conditions are conducive to trout activity. In general, this means the months of April to June and again in late September to November.
Most early season fishing on both the upper and lower Madison is done from rubber rafts or drift boats, as high-water conditions make wading difficult. Float fishing is restricted in some sections of the river, so check current regulations before starting a trip. The Madison is floatable year-round, although the late summer flows can occasionally cause some bottom bouncing.
After the water drops, wading becomes feasible, and the best spots can be found between Varney Bridge and Ennis Lake. The exceptional number of channels at the Valley Garden fishing access site near Ennis, for example, provides a great opportunity for the walking angler to find a private place to fish.
Ennis Lake also harbors a rebounding population of grayling. A recent FWP study determined that these grayling may be a native, fluvial strain, one of two remaining populations in the state. To protect this unique resource, fishing for grayling is catch-and-release only for the entire length of the Madison.
Strategies: For most anglers, the annual fishing agenda on the upper Madison begins in May prior to spring runoff. At this time, the fish are concentrating on the black, 2-inch-long nymphs of Pteronarcys californica. This large stonefly, known as the salmon fly for the orange color of the winged adult, is abundant in the riverbottom cobbles. Large Bitch Creek nymphs, Yuk bugs, Girdle bugs, and similar heavily weighted, rubber-legged concoctions in sizes 2 to 6 are the most reliable patterns. These flies should be worked right against the banks-just where the trout are waiting for the clumsy crawling naturals that stack up along the shoreline before emerging.
The float angler should cast slightly downstream to allow the fly to sink before it begins to drag behind the boat. An upstream mend of the belly of the fly line will extend the dragfree drift, and the quick movement of the fly will often entice a strike. As soon as the fly does drag, pick it up carefully and cast again. If this technique brings a few results, test your patience and drift a big nymph along the bottom about 10 to 20 feet from the shore.
The wade angler should quarter his cast upstream, allowing the fly to sink in the swift current and dead drift along the bank. As the water warms through the spring, the fish will also chase gold, silver, and black spinners; again, cast right against the bank in the pre-hatch period.
Runoff flows typically last from late May through June. Fishing can remain good during the high-water period if the river retains at least 1 or 2 feet of visibility. Forget the days when the river has risen more than about 6 inches in a twenty-four-hour period. The West Fork of the Madison is a major sediment producer, and at times the angler can find fishable water upstream from the confluence.
Adult salmon flies begin to emerge around July 1 in the channels just above Ennis, and the hatch works its way upstream for the next three weeks. Fly fishers from across the nation converge on the Madison in the hopes of catching many and large fish on the big dry salmon fly patterns. Sometimes this scenario plays out; at other times, fishing is only fair or poor in the face of high, turbid water or trout already gorged on naturals. Persistence is the key during the hatch. An angler who puts in long days of floating has the best chance to have those magical few hours when virtually all the 2- and 3-pounders go on a feeding frenzy.
A number of salmon fly patterns are effective, and it's a good idea to have both tight-silhouetted patterns (like the Sofa Pillow or Bird's stonefly) and bushy patterns (like the fluttering stone or other well-hackled elk hair ties). Alter your tactics frequently during the day, and don't be timid about switching to nymphs or wet patterns if the dries won't produce.
Dry fly action on the upper Madison is remarkably good from the end of the high water through the summer. The clear, shallow, fast water probably accounts for the willingness of trout to work the surface. Even inexperienced fly fishers can find some action on most afternoons. The consistent success of a variety of attractor patterns-especially the gaudy Royal Wulff-belies the purist's match-the-hatch credo on the upper Madison.
Despite the relative ease of dry fly fishing on the upper Madison, the ability to cast to the right spots will make a tremendous difference in the number of fish taken. Reading the water is the key-even though at first glance the famed 50-mile riffle may seem indecipherable.
"Look for a change in speed or a change in depth," advises Bud Lilly, founder of the famous Trout Shop in West Yellowstone. "If you can identify a feeding station where the trout don't have to work so hard, that's where they'll be." These stations can be along the banks, on the edges of the faster runs, behind visible or submerged boulders, or in small gravel depressions. A good pair of polarized sunglasses is a necessity for reading the streambottom subtleties of the upper Madison.
The famed Madison caddis hatch is the bread and butter of summer fishing.
Light brown caddis in sizes 10 to 14 hatch throughout July and August; clouds of the moth-like adults can be seen along the shore line willows, particularly on warm evenings. Elk hair caddis, Humpies, Royal Trudes, and Royal Wulffs are the top dry fly producers, while hare's ears and other soft hackle patterns will take trout feeding on the emerging caddis pupae just under the water surface.
By late August, terrestrials dominate the trout diet. A trout creeled on the upper Madison (below the catch-and-release boundary at Varney Bridge, of course) is likely to have ants, grasshoppers, bees, spiders, and half a dozen different species of beetles in its stomach. The message here is opportunism both on the part of the trout, which will take nearly anything, and on the part of the angler, who should select a visible, high-floating attractor pattern in size 12 or smaller. Royal Wulffs are the favored pattern; their white, upright wings provide excellent visibility in the surface glare and chop. For the sharp-eyed angler, a size 12-14 parachute Adams can also turn the trick when the attractors don't.
By early September, the grassy edges of the upper Madison are jumping with grasshoppers, many of which are deposited in the river channel by the afternoon winds. Trout take greedy advantage of this "wind fall," and anglers do likewise. Any of the standard hopper patterns will bring enthusiastic strikes; many of the fish that strike will also be in the 14-to 18-inch class. A Muddler fished just under the surface can also be very effective.
The grasshopper period coincides with the highest floating pressure and the lowest water levels. These are prime conditions for boats or wading anglers to spook fish from their bank holding areas. Anglers might do well to try some of the mid-river holding areas behind boulders in addition to the typical bank spots.
Fall in the upper Madison Valley brings subfreezing nights and a sharp decline in surface insect activity. Trout begin keying in on aquatic nymphs and sculpins. Black or olive Wooly Buggers, dark Marabou streamers, and brown sculpin imitations all can be effective stream patterns, while nymphs will also produce well. Fall is a good time for the lure angler as well, because fish are no longer looking to the surface for food.
Anglers interested in working hard for big autumn browns might consider the section of the Madison above Hebgen Lake and on into Yellowstone Park. A good spawning run leaves Hebgen in October, and deeply laced streamers and nymphs will take fish.
Even winter can provide some good fishing on the upper Madison for the angler willing to brave the cold temperatures and work weighted black nymphs along the streambottom. The trout might be a bit sluggish in the near-freezing water, but they will feed, as will scores of the more cold-adapted whitefish.
With the many attractions of the upper Madison now firmly in mind, an angler should also consider a few cautions. The strong summer afternoon winds in the valley can make casting-and even floating-extremely difficult. Use a heavier rod to counter the wind. The heavy current and slippery cobbles will limit the range of the angler on foot, especially during high water or where the river flows into a single channel. To avoid slipping, try felt-bottomed waders. Finally, the summer angler needs a tolerance for crowds. During a typical summer day, as many as forty guided drift boats from Ennis and West Yellowstone, along with a good number of private trips, will float the catch-and-release section. The bank angler may see a flotilla pass before him, while the floating angler will be sandwiched between "dudes" flailing the water. Most of the guide boats put in between 10 and 11 a.m.
On the lower Madison, the basic tactic for early season (March through June) success is to cast large, dark, rubber-legged nymphs tight to the banks. As in the upper river, trout are looking for the natural salmon fly nymphs getting ready to emerge during high water. Spinners, along with streamers giving the impression of a darting sculpin or crayfish, are also effective. Bait anglers focus on the deep runs and occasional holes along the cliff faces or beneath the cut banks. Dead-drifted salmon fly nymphs are the most effective bait throughout the year on the lower Madison.
The dry fly fisher on the lower Madison has his heyday in April and early May, when a thick mid-day caddis hatch blankets the smooth-flowing portion of the river just below the mouth of Beartrap Canyon. Typically, water temperatures are ideal, and trout rise freely to the naturals and to size 12 elk hair caddis imitations.
The salmon fly hatch on the lower Madison is sporadic, as nymph populations have been decimated by the warm summer water temperatures. Some dry fly action is possible, but most anglers continue to work the weighted nymphs along the banks. Again, high roily water can interfere with salmon fly fishing.
The hatch in Beartrap Canyon is more consistent and can provide good dry fly fishing. The turbulent waters of the canyon, however, are a radical change from the rest of the river, and the angler must adjust his tactics. Floating is restricted to the expert oarsman, and during highest flows, the canyon can be impassable. The angler on foot should ignore the midstream torrent and work the back eddies, bank edges, and spots behind or in front of boulders instead. A well-hackled elk-hair pattern is best suited to imitate the dry salmon fly in the rushing canyon waters.
The lower Madison has generally warmed by late June, and at this point, trout activity tapers off. Thick mats of green algae carpet the streambottom and wave in the current, making it almost impossible to fish with bait, spinners, or weighted nymphs. Dry caddis patterns can still provide some morning and evening action if the weather remains cool. During July and August, however, the knowledgeable anglers head for the upper river, conceding the lower Madison to the inner tube set.
Cool temperatures can put the trout on the feed again by the end of September, and fishing can remain good into November. Dark streamers and spinners are the best producers in the fall.
The area between Hebgen Lake and Yellowstone Park contains three of the most important tributary fisheries to the upper Madison. The South Fork of the Madison is a clear narrow stream meandering through brush fields and meadows just outside of West Yellowstone. The undercut banks and deep holes of this stream do hold some very large brown trout, but getting in a good cast without spooking the fish is a tremendous challenge.
Grayling Creek and Duck Creek are shallow, willow-lined streams holding good numbers of brookies, cutthroat, and rainbow, a few grayling, and occasional large spawning browns moving up from Hebgen Lake in the fall.
From Quake Lake to Ennis, the West Fork of the Madison is the most productive tributary fishery to the upper Madison. The West Fork's lower section is the classic free-stone mountain stream, with good fishing for rainbow averaging about 12 inches. Further upstream, the West Fork becomes a meandering, silt-bottomed stream with many beaver ponds and pan-sized trout. The West Fork is paralleled by a Forest Service gravel road and is readily accessible.
The dedicated dry fly fisher on the lower Madison might want to try Darlington Spring Creek (also called Darlington Ditch), a crystal clear stream flowing within an irrigation levee through Cobblestone fishing access site. Darlington has been improved greatly through a stream rehabilitation program by the Bozeman-area chapter of Trout Unlimited; the stream now offers good dry fly fishing for wary browns under a catch-and-release regulation.