Madison River, Montana

All great rivers display a variety of personalities as they tumble, wind and drift their ways downhill. Habitat, stream flow, water quality, species distribution and fish numbers all combine to present a changing fly fishing scenario for the angler. Solutions gleaned on a headwaters stretch may have only limited application just a few miles downstream.

Baker's Hole

The Madison is exceptional and it offers myriad challenges that even the most observant and skillful among us will never fully solve. You can learn much about the water in just one week, but a lifetime spent working the Madison will be only a beginning.

The Madison begins where the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers join in Yellowstone National Park. [For a MAP of the Madison, click here.] From this point until its juncture with the Jefferson and Gallatin rivers forming the Missouri River between Three Forks and Trident, the Madison flows mainly north for 140 miles through virtually every type of habitat and climate found in Montana - volcanic, mountainous, sedimentary, agrarian, high plains. The section of the river in the park wanders through lodgepole pine forest and mountain meadows.
Angler getting too close to bull elk in October

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 whitefish predominate.

Quake Lake, caused by the earthquake

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 numbers.

Below Quake Lake in April

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.

Deep undercut banks provide trout protection

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.

Nice Brown

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.

Winter on 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 region.

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.

One of many!

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 river.

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 of caddis.

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 here.]

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.

Mist from hot spring, early morning

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.

Salmonfly and imitation

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.

Madison River

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 here.
For the FLIES for the Madison, click here.
To ORDER the Madison direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Madison, part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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