River of Many Uses

The lower Madison in spring. 

Spring is a tricky season for the angler: weather is unpredictable, fish are elusive, and stream flows are in constant flux. Finding a waterway worthy of your time and effort can be challenging, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

That said, spring is also an excellent time to fish the lower Madison, before the crowds of summer turn the river into a splash-and-giggle nightmare. From the Ennis Dam, the lower Madison rages through Bear Trap Canyon. Managed by the BLM, Bear Trap is part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area and contains some really nasty whitewater—the Kitchen Sink rapid is for experts only and will eat your lunch if you’re not fully prepared. From Warm Springs down, however, the river slows on its leisurely course to the Missouri.

Float access through Bear Trap is limited to one put-in at the powerhouse on the upper end, and the Warm Springs take-out at the bottom. A trail runs the entire length of the canyon, and adventurous fishermen can hike and fish the whole way down. This is also a great early-season run, but be aware that rattlesnakes and poison ivy are frequently encountered along the trail. From Warm Springs along Hwy. 84 downstream to Black’s Ford, there are access points every few river miles. Once the highway turns away from the river, access is via the gravel road and a few well-spaced public sites. 

During the summer months, higher water temperatures can make for unproductive fishing that’s dangerous to the fish; also, the lower river is prone to algae growth. The good news is the lower river warm ups quicker than the upper in the spring, promoting great fishing. For recreational canoeists, this is also a good way to dial in your skills before the bigger runoff of late spring. On a hot spring day, the flows aren’t so high that you couldn’t drift lazily along the river’s course in an inner tube, but be mindful of high winds that can send you off course. 

When to Go
In the spring, the Mother’s Day caddis hatch is the stuff of legends, usually going off around mid-May. While the climate is generally drier year round, spring is unpredictable when it comes to weather. Following the meteorologists won’t do you any good—be prepared for anything from temps in the 80s to a foot of snow. Whether you’re fishing from the shore or floating, it behooves you to pack an extra layer and some waterproof gear. Also, did I mention that this is serious rattlesnake country? In the spring, the serpents move from their winter dens, usually crossing the Bear Trap trail and the river itself in the search for sunny, warm hillsides. Be aware, especially if you have a canine companion. 

In the lower Madison, rainbows are about 2.5 times more prevalent than browns, but the biggest browns are caught just downstream of Bear Trap. Brown trout grow fat and happy in the calmer pools of the lower river, which boasts a massive crawfish population. 

Fly Fishing Lower Madison River, Montana

Row vs. Wade
With huge whitewater and a long way from help, Bear Trap is best left for experts. Below the canyon, the river widens and makes for both easy floating and wading. A boat is helpful to cover distance and get you from one great hole to the next. With the wide, shallow, and slower nature of the river, an ambitious wade-angler can access almost all the good holes.

Even with its array of uses, the Lower Madison has very generous regulations, though as of early 2020 there is talk of permanent hoot-owl closures (i.e. no fishing after 2pm). Make sure to respect private property and always check the rulebook for any changes. 

Fly Fishing Lower Madison River, Montana

Getting There
Just head west from Bozeman, past Four Corners on Hwy. 84, until you hit the river; continue left on the highway to access Bear Trap Canyon and Warm Springs, or turn right on the gravel road for the lower access points.

John Way is an outfitter and the owner of The Tackle Shop in Ennis.

Image by
Gwen Morgan