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Madison River Fly Fishing

Montana’s Madison River is More Than a Long Riffle


With a famous stretch known as the “50-mile riffle,” it’s easy to see why some might think Madison River fly fishing lacks diversity.

After all, that stretch between ‘Quake Lake and Ennis Lake feels like one never-ending riffle when you’re floating it. But in all reality, a fishery the size of Montana's Madison, one that’s received the Blue Ribbon designation, nonetheless, has to be diverse to survive the fly fishing pressures (not to mention whirling disease) of today and continue churning out trophy sized trout on a regular basis.

Madison's Diverse Trout

The Madison is diverse enough to support healthy populations of rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout.

It’s also tame enough to be fished by driftboat or by wading much of the year thanks to the “50-mile riffle” below ‘Quake Lake (also known as Earthquake lake as it was formed after a massive, earthquake-caused landslide).

The Madison swells with runoff in mid- to late May through mid-June before conditions usually calm in time for the salmonfly hatch over the second half of June. This is when some of the biggest fish on the Madison come out to play, smashing giant stoneflies through early July.

After the Fourth of July holiday, anglers start turning to traditional dry flies and popular Madison caddis fly patterns.

In August, the terrestrials come into play, with ‘hopper patterns and attractors ruling the day. Streamers and beadhead nymphs are also good for getting down where the deep dwellers are located. Chucking streamers and nymphs is also an effective tactic throughout the fall.

Be sure to check current rules and regulations as the Madison River is a big, complicated river that has been broken up into a number of regulated sections by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. You can check out the rules at: http://fwp.mt.gov/fishing/regulations/

Where to Fish on the Madison

As far as the makeup of the Madison, the best fly fishing takes place below ’Quake Lake, although the river can be fished all the way upstream past Hebgen Lake on into Yellowstone National Park where the Firehole and Gibbon rivers meet.

Immediately below ‘Quake Lake the river tumbles over some massive boulders and drops, which is a little sketchy unless you’re accustomed to deep nymphing.

The famed “50-mile riffle” doesn’t technically start until Raynolds Pass Bridge, when the river begins to chill out and eases its way all the way down to Ennis.

The stretch below Ennis Lake makes up the Lower Madison, where it begins a wild ride through Bear Trap Canyon before calming down for the more fishable 30-mile stretch to Three Forks.

Like some of the other slower sections of fine trout waters in Montana, this stretch can get hit hard in the late summer, especially in down years in terms of rainfall. If flows become too low, stick to the upper river and leave the remaining populations of trout be. They’ve already had their bouts with whirling disease in the 1990s and don’t need any additional stress.

Because the whirling disease took such a toll on the rainbow trout population in the 90s, the brown trout population has remained strong on the lower river.

Madison Brown Trout

When fishing for browns on the lower river, remember brownies are extremely territorial, preferring deep-water pools and riffles.

Brown trout take traditional trout dries, nymphs and streamers, although it’s always a good idea to start off focusing on the subsurface bite when searching for browns.

Think beadhead nymphs and streamers when going after these brutes.

Speaking of monster browns, if you’re looking for trophy brown trout lake fishing around the Upper Madison, Wade Lake is just a hop skip and a jump away from where ‘Quake Lake drains into the Madison.

Montana’s state record brown trout was landed at Wade Lake, a 29-pound beast landed by E.H. Peck Bacon in 1966.

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