Wildlife including grazing elk, water fowl,
moose and grizzlies are often seen. Despite lying well above
6,000 feet, the Madison is quite warm here, often reaching
temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or more. This is due
to the influx of hot water from geysers and hot springs that
pour into the Firehole. This region is essentially a giant volcanic
caldera holding the largest concentration of thermal features in
the world. Their influence is not lost on the Madison. Riffles,
deep holes, and dark, mossy, glassy-surfaced runs mark the
water in Yellowstone. The water is nutrient-rich and was called
the "largest chalkstream in the world" by the late Charles Brooks,
who dearly loved the river. Browns, rainbow, cutthroat and
From the park boundary the Madison flows through an open, airy
valley surrounded by timbered mountains. Hebgen and Quake lakes
dominate the river. Below Quake Lake is Slide Inn, a section of
strong current, fast runs, whitewater and powerful eddies that races
through a widening canyon. From here the Madison breaks free of
its mountainous confines and begins what is often referred to as the
"fifty-mile riffle" as the river bubbles and splashes over rock and
gravel all the way down to Varney Bridge. This is the part of the
Madison that most fly fishers know and have either floated or waded.
The valley is spacious, sage brush bench land with the Madison
Mountains erupting skyward on the east and the Gravellys on the
west. Highway 287 parallels the river as it cuts through prime cattle
country. Rainbows and browns are the quarry, but the native
mountain whitefish is the dominate species in terms of overall
Below Varney Bridge the river slows its pace and begins to braid and
wander. Small islands surrounded by deep channels hold some of the
largest trout in the river. Undercut banks are more common and
provide an abundance of brown trout cover. Ennis Lake, formed
by a dam built by Montana Power Company in the 1930's, is usually
too shallow and silted in to offer significant habitat for trout.
From Ennis Lake the river flows for seven miles through the Beartrap
Canyon Wilderness Unit and for 28 miles to the Missouri. The
Beartrap section is remote and wild and the fishing can be quite
good in this whitewater. [This is also a section well populated
with rattlesnakes and lush poison ivy.] The influx of warm water
dumped from Ennis Lake eventually takes a toll on the fishery in
this part of the river. While good numbers of rainbows and
browns are present, their growth rate is slowed by the adverse
conditions. Fishing in the summer is poor at best and fish kills
are common. Large fields of hay and alfalfa grow well in this
intensively managed and irrigated valley.
To generalize about any river can create misconceptions, but the
following figures give some idea of the Madison in general. The
average flow after runoff in Yellowstone Park is between 300 and
400 cubic feet per second (cfs). Below Hebgen Dam this figure
rises to 750 cfs and below Ennis Dam the rate is about 1,100 cfs.
The average length of a trout is 16 inches with browns running
around 17 inches and rainbows closer to 14 inches. These fish
weigh between one and two pounds and are about four years old.
From spring creek sophistication, to stillwater stalking, onto
fast-paced riffle-run action, the Madison has something for trout
fishers of all disciplines. Each stretch of water creates its own
variables, angling problems and rewards.
Colter's Hell Is An Angling Paradise
In Yellowstone Park, the Madison drops an average of about 10 feet
per mile. In some stretches this gradient is considerably less and in
other, more riffled sections the fall is higher. Ten feet is not much,
especially in a land where streams plummet out of the mountains to
distant valley floors at rates of hundreds of feet per mile. Just the
same, the 10 foot average is sufficient when coupled with abundant
sources of water from tributaries and springs to create a current
strong enough to replenish itself with high levels of oxygen and
also powerful enough to gouge out excellent holding areas along
banks and in the streambed.
The Madison River in Yellowstone National Park is at once a popular
stretch that receives a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, and
also a wild, unspoiled river flowing for nearly a dozen air miles
through pristine mountain meadows and untouched lodgepole
pine forest. To many, this stretch of water is among the most
challenging and enjoyable in North America. Just about every
"big name" in freshwater fly fishing has cast over the rising
browns and rainbows of the Madison.
From the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers at Madison
Junction until the river exits the park north of West Yellowstone,
thousands of trout hold in the deep, wide, sweeping runs and riffles
that flow through a stream-course that is largely the same today as
it was nearly two hundred years ago when mountain man and trapper
John Colter first stumbled upon the bizarre natural wonders of this
While there has never been definite confirmation that Colter was
indeed the first white man ever to set eyes on Yellowstone, a large
body of circumstantial evidence indicated that this was the case.
Accepted western mythology has it that Colter came through the
area sometime during the winter of 1807-08 while scouting territory
for a fur trader. Returning to what passed for civilization at that
time, Colter regaled his peers over glasses of bad whiskey with
stories of rugged mountains, huge sapphire blue lakes and valley
floors studded with mud pots, erratic geysers, steaming hot springs
and other features of surreal madness. Stunned by this apparently
out-of-control fit of hyperbolic imagination, his listeners christened
the fantasy landscape Colter's Hell.
Most of the river in Yellowstone does resemble a chalk stream as
Brooks suggests. Just below the Madison Junction campground
the river is overrun with anglers of all skill levels using every
conceivable method from mid-June through Labor Day. Yet just
a few hundred feet below the congestion the crowds vanish and
solitude returns. The Madison is a meadow stream in this stretch,
as it is for much of its length in the park, flowing over a relatively
consistent substrata. Despite the calm, glassy appearance of the
surface, the water is moving along nicely. Not as fast as say the
Beaverhead which can race along at eight miles per hour, but
swiftly enough - over five miles an hour - that mending fly line
is a constant process.
There are numerous variations in current speed causing weed beds
and uneven spots in the streambed. Drag-free drifts are crucial on
this part of the river. The smallest deviation from a natural float
will put a trout down. For this reason most of the campground
anglers experience little, if any, success. There are not many
species of aquatic insects and most of them are small. The
Madison is much more a micro-habitat river than most streams
in the region. An angler must be constantly aware of the shift
from one insect to another as he works his way up or down
Matching the hatch is not difficult and compound hatches do not play
an important part in fly selection either in the park or the rest of the
river. The key is to keep pace with the change in species (or stage
of hatching), often in stretches of 100 yards or less. Pale Morning
Duns (PMDs) and Blue-Winged Olives (BWOs) handle the
Ephemerella lacustris and baetis mayflies that
are dominate in this water. The PMD's hold up into early July
and the baetis hold forth after the first frosts of fall, sometimes
around August 20. Elk Hair Caddis and Colorado Kings cover
the Brachycentrus and many other species
Aside from the fact that the river can sometimes be quite warm
in the summer (slowing feeding activity), the major problem facing
the fly fisher is the short duration of the hatches, which rarely last
long enough for the bigger trout to key into the activity. Evening
hatches of caddis provide the most "reliable" action in July and
August, but plan on using tippets of 5X or less. Both dragon and
damsel fly nymphs are steady producers on the river in Yellowstone.
Patterns like Kaufmann's Damsel Nymph or Polly's Green Damsel,
dredged along the bottom of open areas or through channels
between the weeds, always take good trout. These two ties use
marabou. Their pulsing action seems to be more enticing to
trout than some of the sparser patterns. Gossamer line [leader]
is a necessity. [For the FLIES for the Madison click
Once the river leaves Yellowstone Park, the change in character is
immediate as such transitions can manifest themselves from a
riverine perspective. With few exceptions the country opens up,
widening and expanding the horizon. The section from Baker's
Hole to Slide Inn consists of a stretch of river running into Hebgen
Lake then another section that connects Hebgen with Quake Lake.
In the spring, rainbows move up from Hebgen into the river. Craig
Mathews of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone refers to this
run as being steelhead-like in nature.
Hebgen Lake is often given credit for being the cradle of "gulper"
fishing - when trout feed on the surface literally gulping clumps
of midges or individual caddis and mayflies. This is
float tube-and-fins action that has attracted a fervent crowd
of a addicts who can think of no better way to spend their lives.
You need at least a nine-foot five-weight rod to handle the casting,
though rarely more than 30 to 40 feet of line are thrown upon the
water from the low-level position afforded by a float tube. Trout
will come within a few feet of anglers in float tubes, which present
a non-threatening silhouette in the water. These gulpers are often
huge trout well over five pounds.
The Salmon Fly Hatch
What makes this part of the river [Lyon Bridge to Varney Bridge]
famous is the salmonfly hatch which kicks into high gear normally
around the end of June and bursts into full-tilt craziness through
the first two weeks of July. Estimates suggest that 80 percent of
the 90,000 angler days on the Madison occur in this brief period
of halcyon fly-fishing madness.
The two-inch nymphs and huge, clumsy, winged adults drive the
trout into a feeding orgy that also translates into remarkable
fishing. . . The hatch always moves upriver and many anglers
frantically try to find the "head" of the activity, the spot where
the salmonflies are hitting the air in a stream-wide front that
advances inexorably upstream. This may seem like a profitably
strategy, but in reality much of the best fishing is well ahead of
this, with those working nymphs along the bottom, toward the
shore taking plenty of trout. The fish in these areas are not yet
satiated with insect protein and the action can be tremendous.
Here is also where drifting the big dries down along the banks
can be a heart-stopping experience. If luck and timing (key
elements in so many joyous pursuits) are with you, large, greedy
trout may actually chase your fly in twos and threes and
fours - a wild, manic, wonderful time.
In truth, only one in four years provides ideal conditions for the
salmonfly hatch. High water, cold weather or extreme wind can all
do a voodoo number on the happy occasion. Working the large
nymphs can ameliorate the water condition dilemma to some extent,
but there is little one can do about the weather. Cold weather delays
or sharply reduces the hatch. A good breeze whisks the clumsy
flies to distant lands.
If there is one complaint about the river it is that the fishing is
sometimes crowded in the summer . . . While this is true in some
instances, the majority of the people on the river respect the rights
to solitude of others. The number of angler days on the Madison
has actually declined slightly in recent years. Those that do work
the river are more skilled and also more aware of streamside etiquette,
creating a better atmosphere for everyone. Fishing early in the
morning or towards evening alleviates some of this congestion.
Coming to the Madison in the spring or fall also avoids the crowds.
Anyone who takes fly fishing seriously should spend at least a few
days on the Madison. The sight of a silvery rainbow as it leaps clear
of the river, sunlight glistening from the spray with the gray-green
sage flats rolling towards distant mountains under a crisp blue
sky is the stuff of western fly fishing at its very best. ~ John Holt
For a MAP of the Madison, click
For the FLIES for the Madison, click
To ORDER the Madison direct from the publisher, click
Credits: From Madison, part of the River
Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications.
We greatly appreciate use permission.