The Madison River: From Yellowstone to the Headwaters of the Missouri: A Montana Masterpiece

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The Madison River: From Yellowstone to the Headwaters of the Missouri: A Montana Masterpiece

Madison River

Border of Yellowstone Park to Headwaters of the Missouri, 120 miles.

Favorite Stretch: Lyons Bridge to McAtee Bridge.

Seasons: Year-round.

Prime Hatches: Caddis, salmonflies, tricos.


If ever a river defined a state, the Madison could do Montana justice. The sheer length of the Madison’s fishable waters is close to 130 miles, which compares to Montana’s size as a state. The diversity of water on the Madison is an appropriate analogy to the massive abundance of trout water found in Montana--from meandering pools just outside of Yellowstone National Park to the 60-mile long riffle-run stretch between Quake Lake and Ennis to the gnarly whitewater in the Beartrap Canyon and finally the lower elevation bends and braids of the river before it joins the Jefferson and the Gallatin to form the Missouri, the Madison’s course is much like all of Montana’s waters combined.


Most of the angling on the Madison occurs downstream of Quake Lake until Ennis and then there is about 15 miles of river west of Bozeman, near Beartrap Canyon that receives quite a few anglers during spring, early summer, and fall. The months of June and July are the busiest on the Madison, but that is because of remarkable caddis and salmonfly hatches. The river is home to very healthy, and numerous, populations of rainbow, brown, and Weststlope cutthroat trout and the less targeted Rocky Mountain Whitefish.


The Madison is created where the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers join on the west slope of Yellowstone National Park. The river flows for about twelve miles before it enters in Montana. Once in Montana the river is a high-country meadow stream where anglers can find whitefish, rainbow and brown trout, and plenty of deer, elk, moose, bison, and perhaps a beer or two as angling companions. Access is fairly easy for these first few miles, however floating is prohibited which helps keep the intimacy of this water intact. Like most of the Madison, the scenery along this upper run is breathtaking as the peaks of the Gallatin Range and Yellowstone’s high plateau provide a backdrop good enough to keep your mind off of the fishing.


Nearly all of the river for this first dozen or so miles from the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole lies in Yellowstone National Park. Anglers must have a Yellowstone National Park fishing permit. They can be obtained at nearly all of the shops listed at the end of this chapter.


The prime time for the Madison in the Park, the first dozen or so miles below the Gibbon and the Firehole, is the fall months. Anglers with a knack, and gluttony, for throwing large Woolly Buggers and streamers and willingness to put up with snow and freezing rain, may catch some big trout. When the mercury drops well below freezing, fall spawning rainbows and brown trout move out of Hebgen Lake and into the Madison. Local anglers even think the fish start to move at temps less than 40 degrees. This can happen as early at mid-September in most years. Local knowledge, and perhaps hiring a guide, will certainly increase your odds of hooking up with these late season biggies.


The river is hardly outside of Yellowstone before it becomes an arm of Hebgen Lake. Hebgen is best known for what people call the “gulpers.” “Gulpers” are a local termed referring to Hebgen’s large trout that cruise the surface picking off callibeatis, hoppers, Blue Winged Olives, and damselflies. Gulpers are most often in the late spring months of May and June, however, an experience Hebgen Lake angler will most likely find rising trout any day of the angling season.


Once out of Hebgen Lake the river flows through a narrow forested canyon with  a few smaller tributary streams, Cabin and Beaver Creeks. Bob Jacklin, a long-time West Yellowstone fly fishing outfitter caught a 30-plus-inch fish on this stretch a few years back—proof that angler need not overlook any stretch of water on the Madison. These few miles of water, as proven by Jacklin, can hold some large trout moving up from Quake Lake.


Once the river tumbles out of Quake Lake it takes on the character most people think of when the Madison comes to mind—long riffles dotted with boulders and a backdrop of craggy, snowcapped peaks. It is these 60 or so miles that bear the responsibility of the Madison’s fame.


Anglers new to the Madison will feel the character of the river looks the same from the Raynolds Pass bridge all the way to Ennis—one long riffle with much else. And, most outfitters and guides will agree. However, the Madison’s currents, and where fish amongst them, have thousands of subtle variations and anglers need to spend some time on the river to have continued success.


Most floating anglers drift the water from Lyons Bridge to Ennis, and use the various access points in between. Below the town of Ennis the river the river braids into several channels and floating is not allowed by current regulations between Ennis and Ennis Lake. Ennis Lake is created by the Beartrap dam (there is a powerhouse there as well to generate power for local utilities) and the lake is so shallow that in the heat of summer the water warms up so much that the fishing below the lake is harmed due to warm water. But what harms the fishing in summer helps in the spring and fall months.


Below Beartrap dam the river takes on a series of several rapids—none of which are advised to float without the use of a professional whitewater outfitter. It is not until the river exits the canyon does it become floatable again and access is easily had. From the mouth of the Beartrap canyon onto the confluence with the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin the Madison is a shallow, silt-bottomed river layered with weed beds and dwindling trout numbers at the river gets closer to Three Forks.


Bozeman, Butte, and West Yellowstone (with seasonal service) are the nearest airports. Ennis is arguably the epicenter of the Madison’s fly fishing community, however because the river runs for nearly 120 miles there are lots of options for places to eat, drink, sleep, and fuel up the rig.           


The seasons on the Madison are unlike any other. Because the river has three distinct sections, the river above Quake Lake, the river below Quake Lake, and the river below Ennis Lake, anglers can find feeding fish and clear water nearly every day of the year.


Runoff on the entire river occurs in mid and late May and can last well into June. However, because of the lakes the river doesn’t normally experience a violent runoff and muddy water like most freestone rivers in Montana. So how does an angler know if the water is clear or not? Local knowledge is the best way, as it often the case with Montana fishing. A shop in Bozeman may now what the river looks like below Beartrap Canyon and a shop in Ennis is going to know what the river looks like at McAtee bridge. A few phone calls or booking a local outfitter will ensure you a fishing the most fishable water during the typical runoff period.

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