The Upper Madison River

An angler's dream come true.

The Madison River remains one of the premier fly-fishing destinations in the American West. Despite overblown accounts of invasive aquatic species, angling pressure, inconsistent management, and drought, the Madison has managed to remain an amazing fishery. More-than-adequate snowpack this year should all but guarantee plenty of water and elbow room for fish and fishermen this summer.

Access is outstanding along the entire length of the upper Madison—from Hebgen Reservoir to Ennis Lake. Numerous state and federally managed lands dot the river corridor, providing boat launches as well as wade access. This, coupled with Montana’s enlightened stream-access law, allows access to virtually every inch of fishable water on the upper river.

River flows are managed from Hebgen Dam. Repairs on the dam are ongoing and scheduled for completion by mid-summer 2015, returning cooler water temperatures and more stability to seasonal flows. Water levels are kept fairly stable during the bulk of the fishing season. Hebgen is not a power-generating facility, so flows do not vary dramatically due to demand. Spring run-off (generally May and June) and water temperatures can have short-term effects on water levels throughout the spring and summer months. The river fishes well at any stable water level as long as water temperature stays within reasonable parameters, but 1,000-1,200 CFS is an ideal compromise for floating and wade angling.

fly fishing madison river

When to Go
Prior to the runoff there’s a window of opportunity when the water warms and we see our first good hatches—midges and baetis. The weather can be troubling this time of year, but the prepared angler can find some of the best fishing of the season in relative solitude. Most years, high season on the upper Madison runs from late June through October, kicked off by the famous salmonfly hatch. Thick hatches of caddis, golden stones, PMDs, yellow sallys, and myriad other insects continue through early August when we see a shift to more terrestrial insects on the menu.

The fish are fat and happy. Browns and rainbows predominate and there have been some very healthy specimens caught here over the past couple seasons. Whitefish are still relatively scarce, but research is underway to gather clues about this important trout food.

Row vs. Wade
With the various access options, both wade and float fishing are easily accomplished with a high probability of success. Of course, floating the river makes for an amazing experience and with sometimes-localized hatches, covering some water can also be an advantage. That said, the “wade-only” sections of the river, between Quake Lake and Lyons Bridge and again from the Ennis Bridge downstream to Ennis Lake, offer some unique and highly productive opportunities. Fishing the evening hatch until dark at Three Dollar Bridge is an experience every angler should gift themselves.

upper madison fishing landscape

Rules vary between stretches—having an up-to-date regulation book is always a good idea. The entirety of the upper river is catch-and-release for rainbow trout and the majority of it is for browns (with the exception of kids 14 and under who may keep one fish of either species and any size). If you want to keep some fish (and avoid having to study the regs and a map) your best bet is to head downstream a ways and fish the stretch down from Ennis Lake. The river upstream of McAtee Bridge to the Quake Lake outlet is closed to fishing from February 29 to the second Saturday in May to protect spawning grounds for rainbow trout. 

Getting There
Getting to and accessing the upper Madison is a fairly straightforward affair. Just south of I-90, Hwy. 287 follows the river north and south along its length and access is generally gained just a few minutes from the highway. Most out-of-state folks fly into the Bozeman airport, rent a car, and make the 50-minute drive into Ennis. Motels, restaurants, bars, and art galleries abound in the tiny town—a perfect base of operations for an extended Madison exploration.

Mike Lum guides for the Madison River Fishing Company in Ennis.