An angler’s playground.
Depending on the season, the lower stretch of the Madison River is either a quiet, meandering trout stream, or a trailer-park booze carnival. Mid-summer Macarena aside, the lower Madison is a testament to the perfectly imperfect concept of multiple-use public lands and water. Upstream from Warm Springs Fishing Access Site is Bear Trap Canyon, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The Bear Trap is home to some of the gnarliest whitewater in the state. (The Kitchen Sink rapid in particular has been known to test even the most experienced river runner, and should not be tried without expert guidance and proper preparation.) But downstream from Warm Springs, the river warms and slows considerably, offering plenty of fishing opportunity as it winds its way to the headwaters of the Missouri.
Watercraft access to Bear Trap Canyon is limited to a singular put-in at the powerhouse just downstream of the Ennis dam, and take-out at the Warm Springs on the downstream end. For adventurous anglers, a trail runs the entire length of the canyon and anyone willing to put in the foot miles will be rewarded with some quality angling. Downstream from Warm Springs, several access points parallel Hwy. 84 every few river-miles to Black’s Ford Fishing Access Site. At Black’s Ford, the highway veers away from the river, and river access is via the gravel Madison Road. From this point, access spots grow fewer and farther apart as the river flows toward Three Forks.
From the first week of July to the second week of September, the average high-water temperature on this latter portion of the Madison can make fishing unproductive. The good news for anglers, however, is that this section of the river tends to warm quicker in the early season and maintain warmer temperatures into the late season, making for good fishing during those weeks when other rivers are overly cold or iced up.
When to Go
During the warmer mid-summer weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the river from Warm Springs to Black’s Ford is jammed with every conceivable floating contrivance known to man. Experienced anglers know to stay far away from this section during the hot season. In addition to taking up parking spaces and blighting the landscape, the crowds overly stress the fish, and this stretch is best left alone until cooler conditions arrive in the fall. After the heavy summer traffic subsides, the air and water temperatures are more conducive to insect activity and hungry fish.
There is some magical resilience to the fish that dwell in the lower Madison. Despite mid-summer water temperatures that sometimes reach levels lethal to most trout––and a drastic spike in uric acid levels during splash-’n’-giggle season––these fish are still thriving. Rainbow and brown trout, as well as native mountain whitefish, are all present in this section of river, browns being the most prolific. Some of the largest brown trout in the Madison River system can be found just downstream of Bear Trap. Here, quality habitat and a tremendous population of crayfish enable the fish to grow to an impressive size.
Row vs. Wade
The boat-swallowing rapids of Bear Trap are best left to professional paddlers and whitewater experts. Downstream from the canyon, the river slows and widens considerably, making for easy floating, rowing, and wading. A boat or raft is a great means to cover water and navigate from one sweet spot to the next. Due to the wide, slow, shallow conditions on this section of river, and the abundance of access points, any wading angler can access all but a few of the productive runs and holes.
Despite the mind-boggling array of recreational uses on the lower Madison, regulations tend to be very generous. A seasonal hoot-owl closure, however, is in effect on this portion of river between July 15 and August 15, closing the river to fishing from 2pm to midnight daily. As always, respect private property and double-check current regulations before setting foot in the water.
Point your fishing rig toward the setting sun. Head west out of Four Corners on Hwy. 84; you can’t miss the river. Veer left to access the Bear Trap area or turn right at Black’s Ford to access the river’s lower portions.
Kurt Dehmer owns Durty Kurty’s Guide Service in Bozeman.