The Madison River - Classic Fly Water

The Upper Madison River in Southwest Montana is one of the most fabled trout streams in America and for good reason. Boasting a population of 4000 trout per mile it provides excellent fishing even when conditions are crowded. Browns and rainbows over 16 inches are common, over 20 are not unusual and numerous monsters of 24 inches are caught every year.  This section of river begins it’s 60 mile course at the outflow of Quake Lake where in 1959 an earthquake measuring 7.5 caused a landslide and forever altered the character of the river. From there the river tumbles through cobbled pocket water for about 5 miles then yields to the wide river valley running bank to bank with perfect riffle water. Finally it slows and braids near the town of Ennis providing many deep side channels with undercut banks as it flows towards Ennis Lake.

Rainbow Trout thrive in the cold waters of the Madison
The most common way to fish the river is from a drift boat or raft. Numerous guide services are available in all of the surrounding communities. There are however two sections of river set aside for anglers on foot. The upper portion from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge, about 8 miles, is probably the best dry fly water on the river providing excellent hatches all summer long. The other “walk and wade” section is from the town of Ennis to Ennis Lake and it provides some of the best hopper and streamer fishing.

Though there are many boat ramps, the section from Lyons Bridge to Ennis can be  broken up into 3 basic day long floats; Lyons Bridge to Mcatee Bridge, Mcatee Bridge to Varney Bridge, and Varney Bridge to Ennis. Maps and shuttles services are available at local fly shops. Most sections are easy to row but as the river braids from Varney to the lake some skill and knowledge is will keep you dry.

The start of the summer fishing season on the Upper Madison is dependent upon the amount of snowpack and when the runoff occurs. The last week of June or first week of July gets things started with a bang as a variety of stoneflies begin emerging, large nymphs like the Bitch Creek, Kaufmann’s Stonefly and  Pat's Rubber Leg can produce some hefty catches fished inches off the bank as runoff ends. The hatching of the stoneflies is quite an event on the Upper Madison and generally coincides with the annual Ennis 4th of July Parade. Those lucky enough to get the timing just right will find big rainbows and browns eating patterns like a ChubbyChernobyl, Stimulator and Giant Foam Salmonfly. It’s always good to have lots of different patterns as the river is heavily fished and having a pattern that is different from what others are using can turn refusals into hook ups.

The Hot Springs of Yellowstone are the Headwaters of the Madison
About that same time Caddis also start to emerge and can provide excellent dry fly fishing in the mornings and evenings. A selection of Elk Hair, Goddard and X-Caddis in sizes 12-18 will cover the bases nicely. For those wishing to experience the caddis subsurface the Bead Head Deep Sparkle Pupa and Z–Wing Caddis will work great.  Many evening emerging caddis species are very strong swimmers and can be effectively imitated with soft hackle patterns fished on a swing. Patterns like the March Brown Spider and Soft hacklePartridge Green are excellent.

Although their role on the Madison is relatively minor, the PMD (Pale Morning Dun) mayfly hatch is important and must be prepared for. You’ll find a few selective feeders sipping down PMD’s during the mid-morning hatches from around July 10th through the end of the month. Parachute Adams, Parachute PMD and PMD Cripples are all excellent choices. If you go sub-surface, a Barr’s PMD Emerger and Pheasant Tail Nymph will produce well.
Brown Trout are healthy and happy in the Madison

By mid- August stoneflies are a distant memory and most of the hatches died out.  Grasshoppers needing fresh green grass migrate out pastures of to stream edges, where they often fall into the water and become prey for trout and give new life to dry fly fishing along the Upper Madison.  Fishing two flies in tandem is the most effective method from Mid-August until the first hard freeze of September.   Dave’s Hopper, Rubber Legged Stimulator, Madam X and Fat Albert are all productive patterns. Though they can be fished anywhere along the river, they are at their best fished along deep grassy banks where bead head nymphs can be fished beneath them. A Copper John, Prince Nymph or Red Squirrel nymph are time honored favorites on the Madison.

As school demands the return of students, and bugling bull elk draw hunters into the mountains, fishing pressure ebbs along the Madison. The river's Brown Trout start to think about spawning, they lose their silver sheen in favor of bright yellow, and become very aggressive. This is the time of year that streamer fishermen dream of.  Armed with 7 and 8 weight rods and heavy tippets, they fish in hopes of the biggest most colorful fish of the year. Large patterns fished like a Double Bunny, Trophy Dungeon or DollyLlama will produce vicious often visible strikes until mid-November.

The Madison has been the favored waters of many of our sports greatest legends; it has been a model for wild trout conservation, and remains one of the most productive fisheries today. It’s a stream that every trout angler should experience often.

 Rob Allen






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