The New Montana Madison River
February 27, 2013
One thing I've noticed through my years of writing about trout water is that every time the quality of fishing declines on a famous river, it eventually rebounds and produces some excellent fishing a few years before the angling masses catch on.
In recent years, no river fell harder than southwest Montana's Madison and, perhaps, no river took longer to be rediscovered. After whirling disease was discovered in the Madison in the mid- to late-1990s, the number of visiting anglers dropped off. Locals who fished the river during that time enjoyed some awesome fishing for an increasing number of browns and a few survivalist rainbows, and they experienced a level of solitude no one will likely see again. A dozen fish a day. Two-dozen fish a day. Three-dozen fish a day, with a few specimens stretching to 20 inches or more. No boat-launch lines. No flaring tempers. No refusals. Just pure gluttony
By 2001 the word was out that the Madison never really died and, in record numbers, anglers from everywhere inked their reservations to fish the "50-mile riffle," eager to rekindle their relationships with an old, generous friend. During the 2001 season, more than 86,000 angler days were recorded on the upper river between Hebgen Dam and Ennis Lake—the highest (at that time) ever recorded. In 2003, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks documented more than 119,000 angler days in the Hebgen Lake to Ennis Lake stretch alone! Overall, the river hosted more than 190,000 angler days, making the Madison the most heavily fished river in the state, far exceeding the region's other big-name streams.
Aside from the outstanding fishing, another relatively recent development is also contributing to the Madison's hordes of anglers. A few years ago, outfitter and nonresident angler restrictions were placed on the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers and many anglers and outfitters moved, in part or in whole, to the Madison. Today, the Madison is regarded as the ticket and the most dependable trout stream in a trout-infested, tri-state portion of the country dubbed the Golden Triangle.
Anglers come from everywhere, not just neighboring waters, to fish the river. They are bailing out on their local streams where extended drought has cauterized trout production. The Madison, which is regulated by two major dams and fed by snowpack in and around Yellowstone National Park, maintained decent flows through the drought, setting it apart from nearly every western trout stream. In addition, the rainbow trout population, which crashed in the mid- to late-'90s due to whirling disease and erratic flows, has rebounded, and the outlook for reproduction and survival is optimistic.
You can't blame anglers for their enthusiasm. The Madison's wild rainbow and brown trout average 12 to 15 inches and often stretch beyond 17 inches. They are abundant and are the kind of fish we love—solid, well fed trout that eat dry flies and nymphs with abandon and fight valiantly in the river's eager current, occasionally taking us to our backing. The river offers all types of water and angling challenges, and it fishes well year-round.
The Madison is nothing less than a grade-A, first-rate trout stream, a place trout bums call home, and a stream that serious trout anglers should rank high on their hit list.
Where and When
The Madison hosts in the neighborhood of 800 browns and 500 rainbows per mile (and perhaps more) in its upper reaches between Hebgen Lake and Ennis. Downstream, in the Bear Trap/Warm Springs stretch that twists from Ennis Dam to Black's Ford, biologists say there are 1,600 trout per mile, an equal mix of rainbows and browns. Downstream from Black's Ford the numbers thin to about 500 trout a mile, but some very large trout, especially browns, live there.
Whirling disease remains in the entire system, and biologists say infection rates in sentinel fish (which are contained in "test" cages) are equal to what they saw in the mid- and late-'90s when the parasite clobbered the rainbow population and pushed anglers away from the Madison in droves. But the fish are coping with the disease, although a steady decline in the number of rainbows and browns older than two years has been noted on the upper river since 1999. Overall, however, anglers seem satisfied with the numbers and size of the fish they are catching.
For several reasons, fishing the Madison these days is more complex than it used to be, chiefly because brown trout proliferated when rainbows declined, and studies show that brown trout are more difficult to catch than rainbows. Additionally, all species of fish are seeing more boats and artificial flies floating overhead than ever before.
Despite angling pressure, anyone with a little desire can find an open piece of water. Most people book trips on the river with visions of McKenzie-style drift boats dancing in their heads. The most heavily fished section of the river runs from Lyons Bridge to Ennis Bridge. Above Lyons Bridge and below Ennis Bridge the river is restricted to wade fishing only. Fewer anglers cast a line on those sections simply because most anglers want the drift-boat experience, and guides find it easier for clients to fish from a boat than sliding across the Madison's slick rocks. If you choose to fish the wade-only areas, you'll find fewer people and good fish.
On the upper wade-only stretches, including the run between Hebgen and Quake lakes and from the Quake Lake outlet to Lyons Bridge, rainbows dominate, although plenty of browns come to the net, too.
Technically called the Hebgen to Quake stretch, most anglers refer to that short reach as "between the lakes." Hebgen and Quake lakes influence that stretch significantly. Fish flow out of Hebgen through the dam and supplement the fishery. In addition, large rainbows and browns move out of Quake Lake in spring and fall and provide shots at some truly large trout. I've taken fish in that area up to 26 inches long, and larger specimens are caught. Hatches there mirror the rest of the river.
Another place to wade on the Madison is upstream of Hebgen Lake in Yellowstone National Park. A Yellowstone fishing permit is required. Anglers find excellent fishing in the park during spring and fall when rainbows and browns move out of Hebgen and into the river. During summer, portions of the Madison in the park warm severely and some seasons mandate emergency fishing closures. Other years, anglers are allowed to fish through the season. When that is the case, fly fishers find decent action in the cool morning and evening hours. Hopper fishing during July and August is often red-hot. There are other hatches to focus on, too. Look for early-season caddis, followed by salmonflies, PMDs, and Green Drakes in June and July. Baetis and Trico hatches arrive in August and September. Baetis may continue through the park's season closure of November 3. Tricos typically fade in late September.
On the lower wade-only stretch running from Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake, anglers find an appealing mix of rainbows and browns. Overall, rainbows dominate upstream from Varney Bridge. From Varney to Ennis Lake, brown trout are most abundant.
In addition, anglers seeking solitude can float Bear Trap Canyon below Ennis Lake, though it's a trip for skilled oarsmen only, especially at the Kitchen Sink Rapids. The Kitchen Sink is a natural feature that chews up rafts and occasionally drowns people. It shouldn't be taken for granted.
For those opposed to floating, Bear Trap Canyon Trail parallels this section from Ennis Dam to the mouth of the canyon near the Warm Springs access site. The trail follows the river for nine miles, offering access from either end. There are a few campsites along this route so anglers can stay overnight and test the waters. Deep pools, pocketwater, and tasty runs are abundant. Rainbows and browns grow to 5 pounds or more. Excellent hatches, including the noted Salmonfly hatch in June, bring some of those fish to the top. But be careful. Snakes and bears are often seen along that route—another reason angling pressure is often light in Bear Trap Canyon.
If the canyon doesn't offer the type of experience you're looking for, you can avoid most of the angling pressure, even in the stretch between Hebgen Lake and Ennis Lake, by fishing early or late in the day or by fishing the early or late seasons. Most vacationing anglers indulge in a hearty breakfast or a steak dinner after a good day on the water. Pass on evening drinks or get out of bed extra early to fish before the hoards hit the water. Staying out late and casting caddis next to the willows while the crowds call it quits means you'll often find good trout rising and some solitude.
To avoid crowds, I fish the Madison from February to May, prior to runoff. At that time, fishing is mostly subsurface with Glo Bugs, Flashback Pheasant Tails, Hare's Ears, sculpins, Woolly Buggers, Lightning Bugs, Prince Nymphs, and Serendipities. From McAtee Bridge to Ennis Bridge, anglers find lots of big rainbows and a few browns. Unfortunately, the browns may run a little thin at that time, but the rainbows can be enormous—3- and 4-pound fish are not uncommon.
I start fishing the river again in mid-September when the weather cools and the vacation season ends. In September, October, and November, many anglers exchange their rods for rifles and shotguns and are in the hills chasing big game and upland birds.
Fall is a great time to be on the Madison. Whether you catch fish or not, the colors and migrating waterfowl make any trip a rewarding experience. In addition, Madison brown trout get aggressive as they prepare to spawn. I've caught my largest Madison browns in October and November. Fall browns are solid, with bright-yellow coloration and crimson spots that seem to levitate above their sides. They smack a variety of patterns including Prince Nymphs, Glo Bugs, Yuk Bugs, Flashback Pheasant Tails, Egg-sucking Leeches, sculpins, and Krystal Buggers. Particular stretches of the river, such as between Hebgen Dam and Quake Lake, where anglers target big browns moving up from Quake Lake, are crowded at times, but the rest of the river is fairly tame. If you want real solitude, fish the river on a windy, snowy day, but be prepared to build a warm fire afterward.
You can't escape the wind in the Madison Valley. When I was looking for a place to buy a home, I looked hard at Livingston, Montana, but locals said, "This would be the greatest place in the world, but the wind is a killer." So I moved to Ennis and soon after realized that if Livingston is the windiest place in Montana, the town of Ennis and the Madison Valley is a close second. The wind makes stiff 5-weight rods and matching weight-forward lines the ideal choices here.
Something that hasn't changed about the Madison after the whirling-disease scare is that the river has a wide range of aquatic and terrestrial insects to match.
The action begins in March and April with Baetis mayflies. Some of the best Baetis hatches occur on the lower river from Ennis Dam through Bear Trap Canyon and all the way downstream to the Cobblestone fishing access site. The area around Slide Inn and Raynolds Pass Bridge on the upper river also offers fantastic Baetis when it opens in May. The area from Lyons Bridge upstream, past Slide Inn, to the Quake Lake outlet, which typically runs clear, is an excellent place to be in May and June when other portions of the river are muddy. Weather on the entire river during May and June is unpredictable. To be safe, bring appropriate cold-weather gear and something warm to drink.
Another early-season emergence worth noting is the Mother's Day Caddis hatch, which, depending on the weather, may appear anytime between late March and early May. Especially on the lower river, below Bear Trap Canyon, millions of Brachycentrus caddis fill the air and crawl on the bankside brush, and you can see trout snouts parting the water. Anglers should try a variety of imitations—including Elk-hair Caddis, Goddard Caddis, and Trudes—to take fish. Don't expect solitude during this hatch, but expect browns and rainbows to 18 inches or larger.
During nonhatch periods, try streamers such as Zonkers, Woolly Buggers, and crayfish imitations to catch some of the river's largest browns. If you're an angler interested in large trout and not matching hatches, stick with big streamers and work the deep pools, logjams, and cut banks. Large fish exist throughout the river, with an abundance of big browns between Varney Bridge and Ennis Lake. Fish deep early or late in the day or at night. Ten-pound, salmon-size trout aren't out of the question.
Salmonflies hatch on the Madison sometime in June on the lower river and move upstream through Bear Trap Canyon before popping on the upper Madison above Ennis. The Salmonfly hatch is a great show, even though pressure on the river during that event is phenomenal.
To illustrate the amount of pressure during this hatch, Connie Diede, who runs Meadowlark Shuttles, ran 93 shuttles on the upper river between Lyons Bridge and Ennis Lake on June 21, 2003, her best single-day day total in history. That mark bested the 84 shuttles she ran the day before. Just three days later, on June 26, she ran 86 shuttles. During the first two weeks of July she ran an average of 65 shuttles a day. And Diede's statistics don't include anglers who ran their own shuttles or the number of vehicles shuttled by competing operations.
In June, July, and August anglers may see Golden Stones, a myriad of caddis species, Pale Morning Duns, Yellow Sallies, Green Drakes, perhaps a few Tricos, and Flavs. On most occasions, anglers who work specific runs and holes can pick off individual fish on dry flies and emergers all day long.
In late July, August, and September, terrestrials take over. Big fish rise to hopper, ant, and beetle imitations. When fishing terrestrial patterns, it pays to fish a dropper rig. Good droppers include Hare's Ears, Flashback Pheasant Tails, Serendipities, Prince Nymphs, Lightning Bugs, and Copper Johns.
During the fall, Baetis return to the scene and excellent hatches are found on the lower river, from the mouth of Bear Trap to the Cobblestone access site. Wade fishing in that stretch is ideal due to a soft bottom and carpets of grass that keep you from slipping.
Baetis are abundant on the upper river at that time from Lyons Bridge upstream to Quake Lake. The entire upper river and the Bear Trap Canyon are difficult to wade. The rocks are fish-slime slick; felt-bottomed, studded wading boots are a must.
Overall, the new Madison isn't much different than the old Madison, except it's 2005 and not 1950. There are more anglers, more guides, more people, and more attitude on the river than ever before. These days, with recreation time at a minimum and science and technology at our fingertips, there is a trend to base the success of a day on the number of big fish brought to the net. That is a mistake when fishing the Madison. The Madison Valley is one of the most dramatic landscapes in the West, and just visiting and viewing the valley, including its main town of Ennis, is an important part of any trip to the area. Anglers should take in the entire scene.
In Ennis, the talk of the town is fly fishing. Ennis may be the most fly-fishing-saturated town in the West. It probably tops the list in per capita drift-boat ownership. And, it's a place you ought to throw a line as soon as you can. Whenever I wade into the Madison and study my surroundings—the broad valley, the fertile river, and the towering snowcapped peaks—I often feel like there's no better place to be, even though there are a few extra anglers on the water these days.
Greg Thomas is the Fly Fisherman western editor and the author of five books. He lives in Ennis, Montana.