Floating the "Real" Madison

Floating the "Real" Madison

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Sinay, Ken

The Madison River has roughly 76 miles of commonly floated river, with a variety of floating options and experiences, offering something for everyone. While often simply described as “upper Madison” and “lower Madison,” with Ennis Reservoir acting as the dividing line, the Madison River is, in reality, much more complex.

From Quake Lake downstream to Varney Bridge Fishing Access Site (FAS) there are lots of fish (roughly 4,500 catchable-size fish per mile)—but also lots of fishermen. From Varney Bridge to Ennis FAS, the fish numbers drop by roughly one-third, but the fisherfolk continue to bloom. Below Ennis Reservoir is a third segment: the famed Beartrap Canyon, featuring several whitewater rapids. It’s impressive that below this “risky” portion, the river becomes sedate for the next seven miles. Popular with “party” floaters, this region is used more to catch rays on a hot day than to catch fish. 

This leads to the final (and my favorite) portion: the “real” lower Madison. With few fish due to the warm water discharge of Ennis Reservoir, no whitewater, and few access points, this stretch of river typically has fewer people and makes for a peaceful spring float. Consider this: upstream of Greycliff FAS and all the way to Quake Lake, there will be well over 3,500 outfitted boat launches in a typical summer season. Below Greycliff, there will be about 40. 

At about 16 to 19 miles, it’s a long float. And the further downstream you go, and the more braided the river gets, the slower the water moves—so give yourself a full day to float it. And did I mention the “braiding?” While the Madison does have dams, the reservoirs can only hold so much. High spring flows are common and flooding is frequent, resulting in plenty of islands, shoreline, and wildlife-watching opportunities. But there are also many channels, and trying to determine which is the most efficient can be tricky. You may meet a fork in the river, take it, and then encounter another, take that one, and then another, and before you know it, you can be looking for the deep water as you watch the sun head toward the horizon! Be sure to start early enough to enjoy the adventure.

So if you seek fishing or playful thrills, go upstream—but if you’d like to find your own river space, head on down to the “real” Madison. 

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