Section of the Madison River: Yellowstone Park to Bozeman

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Section of the Madison River: Yellowstone Park to Bozeman

From the confluence of the Gibbon-Firehole to Quake Lake

            This stretch begins in Yellowstone Park and flows for about 12 miles before it enters into Hebgen Lake. Be sure to check the regulations as the fishing season on this stretch is different than in Montana. This water typically opens to fishing in late-May. At that point hatches of BWOs and caddis will provide consistent fishing to good sized fish. Access is easy in Yellowstone Park and for the mile or so of river in Montana before the rivers becomes Hebgen Lake. Salmonflies also provide ample food for trout, and exciting fishing for anglers, one this stretch in June.

            Areas such as Baker’s Hole, Barns Hole, and Seven Mile Bridge all offer a little different type of water and brand of fishing. If you want to get away from some of the crowds that fish close to the roads, park near the River Trail Trailhead in the town of West Yellowstone and hike for not quite a mile before you get to the river. It is possible someone else wander down from the road, but the classis rule of most anglers fish 20 minutes from the nearest road is very accurate in Yellowstone.

            The water from the Park Boundary, near the Highway 191 bridge, downstream is in Montana and doesn’t require a YNP permit. There is not a lot of water in this stretch that is flowing before the river becomes Hebgen Lake, but what water there is meanders peacefully and provides some challenging dry fly fishing. In the height of summer the evening caddis will provide wading anglers ample fishing opportunities. 

Less than eight miles from West Yellowstone the Highway 191 bridge crosses the Madison. The river here is a classis meadow stream with willow-lined banks, long lazy bends, and slow moving currents. In the heat of summer when midday fishing is not ideal, this stretch of the Madison will offer evening action that is tough to beat—and it is close to West Yellowstone. Whether you live in West Yellowstone or are vacationing with the family and want to get in an hour or so of fishing, these few miles of river, both upstream and downstream of the bridge serve up caddis in the evening with happy to fish chasing the insects.

            Fishing Hebgen Lake is not necessarily a sought after pastime of most fly fishers. However, die hard anglers will fish near shore with personal floating crafts such as float tubes, belly boats, and pontoons. “Gulpers” provide the main angling action for Hebgen Lake anglers and most of this activity occurs in the late spring and fall when rainbows and brown trout are cruising the shallows along shore or at the mouths of Grayling Creek, Canyon Creek, the South Fork of the Madison, and a few other tributary creeks.

            The short run of river between Hebgen and Quake, locally known as “between the Lakes” is not known for producing high numbers of fish, but it can produce the occasional trophy, as rainbows and browns from Quake Lake will move into the river to spawn. This short stretch is wade-fishing only.

From Quake Lake to Ennis Lake

This stretch of the Madison is the famous water you hear so much about. Characterized as the 50-mile riffle, the river tumbles from the outlet or Quake Lake to mouth of Beartrap Canyon at the outlet of Ennis Lake. Although the water appears the same for this entire stretch, a local outfitter or guide will tell you that is the farthest thing from the truth.

            Angler fishing this stretch will fined willow-lined banks, pockets created by large boulders left by the glaciers, and plenty of seams and eddy lines to drop a fly. The bottom is medium to small sized rocks and fine pebbles, creating substantial habitat for a variety of aquatic life. Combine the cold, oxygenated water with a high quantity and quality of food and the Madison is the water from Quake to Ennis is world-class.

            Beginning from the outlet of Quake Lake anglers will find a nice mix of rainbow and brown trout, whitefish, and the occasional westslope cutthroat trout. This stretch of the river has several different sections with special regulations—some reaches are open year-round, others are not; some reaches are artificials only, others are not;  and etc. Be sure to check current regulations before beginning fishing any water between Quake Lake and Ennis.

            Hatches of Blue Winged Olives are prolific in the spring and fall, caddis and stoneflies dominate the fishes diets through the summer, and a hopper-nymph rig is sure to turn some fish when other hatches has subsided.

            From Lyons Bride to Ennis Lake is by far one of the most heavily floated stretches on the Madison, if not Montana. This is due in large part to the great fishing, but restrictions on neighboring rivers like the Big Hole and Beaverhead has pushed anglers over to the Madison as well. Pick any random three days in late June and you can expect the local shuttle drivers to do more than 60 shuttles a day for a short timeframe! And this doesn’t include folks who run their own shuttles or wade fished. But, and it is a big but, this is during the peak of the salmon fly hatch and the start of the golden stonefly hatches.

            Keep in mind the Madison is a large river with flows averaging 1,500 CFS and higher and Lyons to Ennis is about 40 miles of water, so despite the high number of shuttles there is still plenty of room to fish. After July 1 the numbers drop considerably as the Yellowstone becomes fishable and the Bozeman-area anglers and outfitters have another river to fish.

            The water from Lyons to Varney is mostly the same straight-running riffle water. Anglers can find some nice banks and rocky ledges around the Palisades and the South Madison access. There are a few side-channels and deeper pools in this run, but it is not until the river passes under Varney Bridge does it take on a little different character than the swift, boulder pockets and riffles from upstream of Varney. The saying around the angling-mecca of Ennis you can tell if anglers were above Varney because they come into the bar shouting—having to shout all day because the fast riffles, combined with wind that is so common upstream of Varney, are so loud anglers must yell at each to communicate.

            The river below Varney Bridge takes on a much different feel than above the bridge. Here the river deepens in places and also braids into several side channels, making it both a blessing and a curse. The deeper pockets can make it a little more difficult to find exactly where the fish may be at a given time, but the side channels allow for more structure and seams thus making it easier to pick out place trout will hold.

            In most places the river is lined with cottonwoods, making it a little less windy, but in this valley wind is as much a part of life as sunshine is on the beach. In the fall this stretch is one of the prettiest in the state with changing cottonwoods and the peaks of the Tobacco Roots, Gravellys, and Gallatins lighted dusted with snow.

            From Ennis to Ennis Lake is wade-fishing only and a good place to get away from the crowds, although reading the water and access is not the easiest. There is one access, Valley Garden below the Highway 287 bridge, but the multitude of side-channels make angling below town an adventure. For strong anglers who like walk a bit this is fun water to fish.

From Ennis Lake to the headwater of the Missouri

As mentioned above the water directly below Ennis Lake and through the Beartrap Canyon is not to be taken lightly. Yes, there are plenty of big fish in the canyon and hiking anglers can access this water by using the Beartrap Canyon Trail on the eastside of the river. The trailhead is accessed from Highway 84, between Bozeman and Norris. For intrepid anglers this is a fun hike with some great fishing, especially in April, May, and June.

            For floating anglers the water from the dam to Warm Springs access contains several rapids, the main one being Kitchen Sink which will wreck havoc on inexperience boaters and is even a challenge for exceptional boaters. Avoid this canyon stretch unless you are floating with a hired professional.

            In the canyon anglers will find fast, pocket water lined with great banks and the occasional diagonal riffle. For a truly exciting hiking and angling experience walk the Beartrap Canyon Trail just before the salmonfly hatch and fish weighted nymphs very tight to the banks—you should catch some big brown trout chowing nymphs before the main hatch. Plus be on the lookout for rattlesnakes that time of year as they are on hunt for newborn moles, mice, and other small critters.

            Below the Warm Springs access floating anglers will find several access points from here down to the headwaters near Three Forks. Nearly all of the floating occurs between Warm Springs and Cobblestone access. Despite this area having higher fish numbers, nearly 1500 fish per mile, than the river above Ennis, many locals and outfitters leave the water below Beartrap from July to mid-Septmber because of warm water temperatures.

            Ennis Lake has filled in with sediment since the dam was built in 1900 that the average depth is under 9 feet. In the intense summer sun the water in the lake heats up to temperatures harmful to trout. Despite being in a canyon and the swiftness of the currents, the water below Beartrap Dam to the headwaters becomes to warm to regularly find actively feeding trout. Perhaps one day the powers-that-be will remove or divert water. If and when this ever happens, the fishing through the canyon all the way to the headwaters would be world-class.

            The spring hatches of caddis and BWOs on this stretch are prolific and there is a certain cult-following who love this piece of water in March, April, and May. Again in late September and October the BWOs hatch, not nearly as intense as the spring, but still in strong enough numbers to provide ample dry fly fishing. With salmonflies and a very healthy population of crawfish this stretch has plenty of food for big trout—and there are lots of them.

            From the Black’s Ford access down to the headwaters the trout numbers drop dramatically and there are few fish and they are far between. However, every year a few diehard anglers report brown trout in the 25-inch-plus ranch coming from a deep hole below Black’s Ford.

            Water from the Interstate 90 bridge and down to the confluence of the Jefferson and Gallatin (all three combine to make the Missouri) is a collection of braids, deep bends, and a few riffles. Floating this water requires local knowledge and the main channels change from year to year. Anglers in this stretch will find solitude, but not a lot of trout.

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