Iconic to Southwest Montana, the Madison River originates in Yellowstone National Park – where the Firehole and Gibbon come together. Flowing from the park and into Hebgen Lake reservoir, the Madison River becomes affectionately known as the “Upper” once leaving Hebgen Lake. A little over 50 river miles from Hebgen Lake to Ennis Lake, The Upper Madison offers a wide variety of opportunities for the fly angler. Below you will find an in-depth look at river sections, fishing seasons, lodging, and more.
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The Upper Madison
The upper Madison River is perhaps the most famous and highly regarded wild trout stream in the Western US. The river is formed in Yellowstone National Park at the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers, just outside of West Yellowstone, Montana. As the upper Madison River leaves Yellowstone National Park, it flows into Hebgen Lake and then works north through the Hebgen Dam and Quake Lake. The stretch of river between Quake Lake and Ennis, Montana is known as the “50 Mile Riffle” and is typically the portion of the Madison River that people call the “Upper Madison.”
As the first river in the west designated catch and release, the Madison River served as the springboard from which MTFWP shifted their fisheries management away from hatcheries in the 1970s. All of Montana’s trout streams are wild trout fisheries in that their populations are fully self-sustaining.
The upper Madison river flows through a wide-open valley with the Madison and Gravelly mountains forming dramatic backdrops throughout its course. Reminders of the glacial periods are everywhere, and the river is unlike any other in the world. Classic runs and holes that are typical of most western trout streams are not the norms on the upper; here, it is literally one big riffle that goes for miles and miles. Holding water is everywhere, and there are days when it seems like there is a big fish sitting just behind every boulder in the middle of the river. Floating the upper Madison is a unique Montana fly fishing experience and draws anglers back to the river every year.
When to Fly Fish the Upper Madison
The Madison River offers year-round fly fishing opportunities throughout the river. It is a great fishery in the spring and fall and relatively uncrowded as well. Mid-summer fishing has steadily been improving the last few years and we are expecting this trend to continue with the repairs to Hebgen Dam now complete.
As with most of the larger rivers in the area, the Madison River is affected by the spring runoff and is often too high and dirty for fishing at some point each year (mid-May-mid June). However, the upper Madison River tends to clear quicker than the Yellowstone or Gallatin rivers and is typically in decent condition by the first week of June. This varies year to year depending on the winter snowpack and spring moisture.
Highlights of Fly Fishing the Upper Madison
April is an excellent time of year to experience fly fishing the Madison River in solitude while enjoying some of the best fishing of the year. This is when the water temperature starts to warm, the hatches increase, and the rainbow trout finish up the spawn. The river is full of life, and the fish eat well throughout the day. It’s rare to see another boat on the river this time of year. We do a lot of trips this time of year where we spend more time fishing while wading, using the boats to get from one spot to the next. Always a great time of year in terms of the number of nice-sized Rainbows and Browns, we highly recommend heading to the area in April to see a side of the upper Madison that few others ever experience.
For good reason, the Salmonfly hatch on the upper Madison is one of the most well-known hatch events out west. Masses of the huge insects migrate to the banks in mid-June and make for one of the most prolific stoneflies hatches one will ever experience. When the timing is just right, there can be a week or two of fantastic dry fly fishing with big dries fished close to the banks. It’s always tough to time just right, but we usually have a pretty good idea of when to expect the hatch by early May every year. Plan on getting on the water early and seeing plenty of other anglers, though as this is the most popular time of year to be on the river.
Fall on the upper usually starts in mid-September, with colder nights and shorter days serving to ease the summer heat. When we have some clouds, the streamer fishing can be as good as it gets, with big Browns rocketing from their holding spots behind large boulders to crush aggressively stripped big bugs. Indian summer days still provide for some opportunities to find fish on the rise to ants, beetles, small mayflies, and even the occasional hopper. The crowds are generally sparser, and the landscape becomes alive as the leaves begin to change colors.
Sections of the Upper Madison
The Slide: Quake Lake to Reynolds Pass
Flowing out of Quake lake, the Madison begins flowing at a steep and boulder-strewn pitch. High oxygen content water, abundant insect life, and cold water create excellent trout conditions, and the fish per mile numbers reflect the quality of this section of Madison River. Tough (almost impossible) to fish in high water, we recommend fishing this section once flows are below 1,400 CFC (Below 1300 CFS is ideal). Euro nymphing tactics with large stonefly patterns and small flashy nymphs are productive year-round, and streamer fisherman finds success on a variety of sculpin patterns fished behind the boulders. It should be noted that wading in this section is not for the faint of heart. Sturdy wading boots that are studded are just short of required in this fast-moving water.
Peak times for this section are mid to late June through September. However, summer pressure is a constant, and you’ll rarely have the river to yourself – especially in the middle of the day. Fishing early or late will provide you the best opportunity to enjoy the river alone or with a few other dedicated anglers.
Reynolds Pass to Lyons Bridge
The Madison begins to lose gradient not long after Reynolds Pass and becomes the classic 50-mile riffle that anglers are most familiar with. Still part of the “wade only” section, boats are permitted here, but fishing from the boat is not allowed. Using your boat as transport will allow you to cherry-pick the best riffles and effectively fish this section. High water rarely slows this section down, and water clarity stays consistent enough to fish when most area rivers are blown out and unfishable.
Due to the inability to fish from a boat in this section of The Madison, angling pressure is much lighter here than in many other river sections – especially in prime summer fishing months. We recommend this area if you’re looking to escape the crowds but still looking to experience the fantastic dry fly fishery.
Lyons Bridge to McAtee Bridge
Below Lyons Bridge, fishing from a boat is permitted. With this change in regulation, so does the boat traffic. Anticipate high boat numbers and minimal wade anglers. With that said, the trout numbers are high, and this section fishes all year consistently. You’ll also find no shortage of guide traffic as many guides from Bozeman, Ennis, and Big Sky call this section home for a large portion of the fishing season. We recommend that anglers should fish first thing in the morning or sleep in and do an afternoon float. Not only are boat numbers essentially none, but the fishing is also typically the best of the day with active insect hatches.
Yellow Dog pro tip: Don’t be afraid to fish in the middle of the river here… there are trout dispersed throughout the entire section!
McAtee to Varney
A short section of the river that is unique enough to warrant us talking about it here: the Madison loses gradient in this section yet still maintains the constant “riffle” appearance. The apparent structure is minimal, and it takes a keen eye to effectively “read” the water in this section. Once you learn where the fish are, however, you’ll begin to pick this section apart very effectively. Dry fly fishing will prove just how many fish are in this section, with spectacular caddis and PMD opportunities in the summer months.
Varney to Ennis
Below Varvey Bridge, the Madison begins to form a character of its own. Multiple side channels, deep undercut banks, and long slow runs are favorite two-handed rod anglers. This section is prime brown trout territory, and you’ll find the largest browns of the river system here. The wading becomes a bit easier here, and you can spend a lifetime learning all the side channels and runs!
Ennis to Ennis Lake (The Channels)
This section marks the second piece of the Madison that is closed to float fishing. You can take a boat through the river but cannot fish out of it. With minimal public access, this section of the river sees what some will argue as the slightest pressure on the entire river system. Similar to the Mac to Varney section, the water here can be a little difficult to read, but once you identify the holding water and the gravel “buckets,” you can often find fish stacked in these and will eagerly eat a well-presented fly.
The Lower Madison
The lower Madison River is considered to be the Madison River from below Ennis Lake, downstream to the headwaters of the Missouri River. This section of the Madison flows through the Bear Trap Wilderness Area in a narrow gorge characterized by some serious whitewater and difficult access. Once the river leaves the Bear Trap Canyon, it dramatically changes character, becoming wider with a seemingly gentle flow all the way to Three Forks, where it joins the Jefferson River and Gallatin River to form the Missouri River.
The river is only 20 minutes from our Bozeman fly shop and works well for both floating and wading guided fly fishing trips. We offer both full and half-day guided fly fishing trips on the Lower Madison. Notoriously tough to figure out, this is one river in the area where having an experienced guide at your side or on the oars really makes the difference between catching a few fish and having a fantastic day.
When to Fly FIsh the Lower madison
The Lower Madison is a year-round fishery that typically fishes well in various water conditions and stream flows. Because it flows out of Ennis Lake, the river is less affected by the spring runoff than other local rivers like the Yellowstone and Gallatin. The river will typically be in pretty poor shape for 2-3 weeks each year in late May and early June but still remains fishable to some degree. Outside of the spring melt, the river stays in fine shape the rest of the year with a few exceptions, as Ennis Lake turns over in the spring and fall.
Once the summer heat arrives and flows coming out of Ennis Lake stabilize – usually sometime in July – the Lower Madison goes through some dramatic daily temperature changes. As water temperatures approach and exceed 70 degrees, trout become physiologically stressed, so we start fishing around sunrise and are typically off the water by 2 pm. Also, the warm water temperatures cause the aquatic vegetation to “grow like weeds,” which can sometimes make fishing challenging. If you don’t mind learning how to cope with casting around the weeds and getting on the water while the sun is coming up, the lower Madison is a great choice all year round. This stretch of the river often goes on “Hoot Owl” restrictions for most of July and August, which means it is open to fishing from midnight to 2 pm. It is often a great choice during this time of year as the angling pressure is minimal, and we can be off the water before the summer heat really starts to hit.
Highlights of Fishing the Lower Madison
Winter dry fly fishing on the lower is classic “match the hatch” midge and Baetis dry fly fishing at its best. Give us a few clouds and a wisp of a breeze any day in February or March, and we’ll be over on the lower hunting for big head coming up to little dries in skinny water. It’s just one of those things that happen on the lower every year that gets everyone around here excited to get on the water. If the wind is blowing and the insects aren’t out, the nymphing is always great this time of year too.
The Mother’s Day Caddis hatch on the lower Madison is characterized by a mass emergence of insects daily that usually goes on for a few weeks. Unlike the Yellowstone, this particular stretch of the Madison typically remains fishable throughout the peak periods of the hatch. The dry fly fishing can be excellent on the lower Madison during the hatch, but the best fishing is typically had on warm, cloudy days and during the last few hours of daylight.
Early summer on the lower Madison is the best time of year to find the big browns that live throughout the lower Madison. This is the time of year when water temperatures are ideal for keeping the fish feeding throughout the day, water levels keep the larger fish spread out throughout the river, and the weeds are not an issue. We’ll be looking primarily for big Browns in the 20”-25” range this time that are looking for slow-moving crayfish and sculpin patterns fished under an indicator.
Many of the big Browns seem to disappear once the heat of the summer gets here but are found once again as the days get shorter and the nights cooler. Usually, by mid-September, we will be fishing the lower every day with large, lightly weighted streamers over the shallow weed beds in the hope of finding a few large fish. This is always a great time of year to be on the lower Madison and is a great example of what Montana fly fishing can be like during the fall.
Sections of the Lower Madison
Bear Trap Canyon
Leaving Ennis Lake begins the Bear Trap Canyon section, and the steep rocky cliffs, fast gradient, and difficult wading will make you feel like you’re in a different world than the river upstream. With only two public access points, anglers that put on the boot miles are rewarded with a river void of people yet full of hungry trout. Wading in spots can be pretty precarious, and sturdy wading boots with studs and wading staffs are recommended. The river also boasts a large population of crayfish that the fish are keyed in all year. Dead drift nymphing, twitch, or swinging crayfish imitations is always a go-to here.
The Lower Madison
The last section of the Madison before its confluence with the Missouri River is what locals call “The Lower.” Providing a shoulder season fishery, The Lower gets too warm in the summer months to safely and ethically fish for trout. Prime months here are March through late June and again from mid-September to November. With the wind isn’t howling, you will find incredible BWO hatches in the winter months. Coinciding with Mothers Day, The Lower will receive what some will call blanket caddis hatches – hatches so thick a buff is required to keep the bugs out of your ears, nose, and mouth. It can be quite a spectacle when you hit it just right! Below the Greycliff fishing access, trout numbers begin to dwindle due to more extended periods of warm water, but the size of these fish, on average, can be trophy quality. Fishing this low is not a numbers game, but it can give up the fish of the season for the lucky angler putting the time in.
Seasons on the Madison River
All rivers fish best during certain seasons, and the Madison River is no exception. Considered to be a year-round fishery, you can experience various hatches, scenery, and even fishing techniques given the time of year you decide to fish. The Madison fishes consistently with nymphs, dry flies, or streamers from fast riffles, undercut banks, or deep and slow pools.
Spring brings pre-spawn rainbow trout in the river that moves up from Ennis Lake to perform their yearly ritual. You can find some of the largest and feistiest fish of the year during March and April. Runoff tends to be short and sweet on the Madison, which rarely affects fishing for more than a week or two. Once the water begins to warm, the annual caddis hatch in early to mid-May kicks off the dry fly season, signaling an end to the long Montana spring. The wind is no stranger to the Madison valley in the spring months, and the stray snow squall can appear out of nowhere. It’s best to pack accordingly with an insulated jacket, waders, beanie, and gloves.
It’s important to note that early spring means it’s time for the rainbow trout spawning season. You will find redds on almost all of the shallow gravel bars throughout the river system. It’s best to keep an eye out for this and to avoid it to the best of your ability at all times. Please leave these fish alone and continue the yearly ritual of producing trout for years to come.
As water temps continue to rise, bug and hatch activity increases exponentially. Caddis continue to be a staple food source for trout, and the PMD’s begin to make their appearance in mid to late June. Salmon flies steal the show on the Madison in late June or early July (water temp dependent) – bringing the largest fish in the river to eat your dry fly. Casting these large flies against the bank from a Mckenzie-style drift boat is undoubtedly the most popular form of summer transport on the Madison – especially when searching for fish with these large stonefly dries. However, to truly take advantage of the incredible dry fly fishing, getting out of the boat and wading the banks is the ticket. Be sure to wear sturdy wading boots and even use a wading staff – the boulders of the Madison are pretty unforgiving!
By September, the large stoneflies have completed their yearly flights, the caddis are dwindling daily, and the summer crowds of anglers are headed back home for the winter. This leaves the Madison valley quiet, and the brown trout hungry as the water temps drop. Fish know a long winter is coming, and they are ready to pack on the calories. Blue Wing Olives (BWO’s) make their appearance on the upper river on cloudy and calm days – sometimes in blanket hatches. This will bring every fish in the river up and feed on these bugs. Fall is also the time to search out that trophy brown trout with streamers. Large, dark, and articulated streamers fished on an intermediate sinking line can bring you the fish of the year. Colored up and ready for winter, some might argue these are the prettiest fish of the year too! With the change of seasons comes the change in weather too. Be prepared for all four seasons when in the Madison valley during the fall. From the mid 70’s and sunny to sideways snow or sheets of rain. Wading and insulated jackets are required, and even a spare set of clothes in a dry bag isn’t a bad idea.
Certainly, the quietest months on the Madison river system, November through February, find blowing snow, shelf ice, and (if the stars align) blanket hatches of midges. Finding the slowest and deepest runs in the river will provide active fish on small, slender-bodied nymphs. Take your time here and remember that fish are lethargic and will not move far for food, and keep in mind – once you find one trout, the odds are high, you’ll find many more.
When the stars align, and the wind dies down, and the clouds come in, be prepared with small tippets and even smaller flies. Keep a close eye on the banks and look for subtle rises. The Lower sections of the Madison throughout Bear Trap canyon to the Greycliff fishing access provides consistent midge fishing throughout the winter. The areas around Reynold Pass to Lyons Bridge give the most consistent midge fishing on the upper stretches of The Madison.
Popular Madison River Flies
- Sparkle Duns (size 12-20)
- X Caddis (size 10-20)
- Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Stone (size 4-12)
- Chubby Chernobyl (size 4-14)
- Amy’s Ant (size 10-14)
- Pink/Black Morrish Hopper (size 8-12)
- Sweetgrass Hopper (size 8-12)
- Rusty Spinner (size 12-20)
- Film Critic (size 14-18)
- Two Bit Hooker (size 12-18)
- 3 Dollar Dip (size 12-18)
- Pheasant Tail (size 12-20)
- Pat’s Rubber Legs (size 6-14)
- Red Copper John (size 12-18)
- Zebra Midge (size 14-18)
- Galloup’s Barely Legal – olive/white (size 4)
- Galloup’s Dungeon – olive, black, white, yellow (size 4-6)
- Home Invader – black, white, olive, yellow (size 6)
- Bow River Bugger (size 4-6)
- Sparkle Minnow Sculpin (size 4-8)
The Madison Valley is an hour away for the Yellow Dog crew and The Lower is no more than 30 minutes. We’ve spent many days fishing this body of water and we’ve spent years curating a list of premium lodges that offer the finest lodging in the entire valley. We’ve also partnered with some of the area’s finest outfitters to offer day trips – the perfect way to spend 8 hours on the waters that we’re fortunate enough to call home.
Gallatin River Lodge – Located just 10 minutes west of Bozeman, Montana sits the Gallatin River Lodge. Residing on 350 acres, the wildlife is abundant and the views of the surrounding mountain ranges are stunning. Boasting suite rooms with jacuzzi tubs to double-occupancy rooms in the “Trout Lodge.” GRL also features a full bar and extensive wine list along with an in-house executive chef that creates Montana-inspired meals every night.
Twenty minutes from The Lower and approximately one hour from The Upper, GRL sits in the heart of trout country. Depending on the time of year, your guide will know not only what portion of The Madison to fish but they will know what section to focus on. Not to worry if you have a non-fishing partner or want to take a day off yourself, non-angling activities abound in the Gallatin Valley. We’re happy to help provide a list of things to do and the team at GRL will assist as well.
Madison Double R – Calling the Madison Valley home, MDR sits just upstream of Varney Bridge – right on the banks of The Madson. Surrounded by the Madison Range and Gravelly Range, you’ll experience stunning 360° views while enjoying your after-fishing cocktail from the full bar. MDR also features a private pond that is steps away from the lodge – perfect for scratching that late-night fishing itch or when you need one last bend in the fly rod. The lodge also boasts a 1,000 sq. ft workout facility complete with all the amenities you’ll find at your home gym. Traveling with non-angling guests or want to take a day off? Not to worry. MDR will happily assist you in lining up activities in the Madison Valley and further.
Madison Valley Ranch – Residing on the banks of “The Channels” section of The Madison, sit Madison Valley Ranch. Just three miles north of Ennis, you’ll find yourself surrounded by snow-capped peaks, wildlife, and hungry trout that call The Madison home. A wide range of lodging options are available and we’re certain they offer a room type that is fit for you during your stay. Head chef, Scott Warren, will be sure to provide a culinary experience that is rarely found elsewhere. Featuring locally sourced ingredients and focusing on Montana cuisine, you’ll leave the table full each night and the open bar is ready to provide you with a nightcap before retiring to your room.
Unmatched in diversity of fishable water, it’s easy to see why The Madison is a favorite for us here at Yellow Dog. With its ability to cater to anglers of all skills and knowledge levels, trout in ample numbers are to be had.
Other Nearby Rivers:
– The Yellowstone River
– Jefferson River
– Gallatin River