Upper Madison: Legendary Waters

Upper Madison fly fishing

Fishing the 50-mile riffle.

Steeped in lore and western fly-fishing history, the upper Madison River is on every angler’s bucket list. With cold, clean water, breathtaking scenery, eager and healthy trout populations, and lots of available access, it’s no wonder that the Madison continues to be among the most famous trout waters on the planet.

From Madison Junction downstream to where the river exits Yellowstone Park, the Madison is under the authority of the National Park Service, and a special fishing license and specific regulations apply. From the Park boundary, the Madison follows a leisurely course until it reaches Hebgen Lake, the largest of the Madison River impoundments. From here, the Madison flows a short distance to Quake Lake. Below Quake, the river starts what is known as the “50-mile riffle” in its journey downstream to Ennis Lake. The Madison has both the biomass and stable flows of a tailwater, with the variation in insect life and structure of a freestone. It’s quite possibly the perfect trout stream.

The upper Madison is blessed with numerous, well-developed access sites. A combination of FWP and BLM sites are conveniently located about every five river-miles, and are some of the best-developed sites in the state. Lyons Bridge and Palisades are a few favorites for float anglers. Valley Garden near Ennis and Raynolds Pass below Quake Lake are some of the wade-fisherman’s favorites.

Upper Madison fly fishing

Thanks in large part to the controlled release of water from Hebgen Dam, the upper Madison doesn’t see the prolonged spring runoff or the skeleton flows of August that some other rivers face. The water may become discolored and unfishable from snowmelt, but that’s usually short-lived. Summer flows are stable and provide enough water to safely float, but not enough to make wade-fishermen scramble for other areas.

When to Go
When is the best time to fish the Madison? Whenever you can. The Madison, like most rivers in Montana, has predictable hatches and water conditions that make fishing more successful. The highlight of the year is the salmonfly hatch from mid-June until mid-July. These three-inch-long floating T-bones from heaven drive the fish wild and provide the best opportunity to catch a really large fish on a dry. Most years, the Madison is the most heavily-fished river in the state, with the majority of the use coming during the window from mid-June through Labor Day. Even during the busy times, however, the crowds start to clear once you’re past the put-in.

The upper Madison is known the world over for its hard-fighting rainbow and brown trout, as well as mountain whitefish. The rainbow population has rebounded from its lows during the early ’90s and whirling-disease issues, thanks mostly to efforts to protect spawning fish and improvements in river management. Brown trout can be found river-wide and several specimens in excess of 25 inches are caught each season. The mountain whitefish, one of the true natives to the drainage, has come under hard times with populations declining in the past few years. Cutthroat trout, once native and plentiful in the Madison, are now reserved as an oddity with strongholds in many of the feeder creeks.

Upper Madison fly fishing

Row vs. Wade
This is where the Madison really shines. The river has two areas that are off-limits to boat-fishing, to cater to wade-only fishermen. Boats can be used to access the river, but fishing must be done with your feet in the water. The upper wade-only stretch is from the outlet of Quake Lake downstream to Lyons Bridge, and is characterized by fast riffle water and large boulders. The lower wade-only area is from Ennis Bridge downstream to Ennis Lake, known locally as “the channels.” The Valley Garden put-in near Ennis is the only access to this braided, serpentine section of the river.

Refer to the Yellowstone National Park and FWP fishing regulations, as many sections of the Madison have special restrictions.

Getting There
The easiest way to fish the upper Madison from Bozeman is to follow Hwy. 84 to Norris, then take a left and proceed to the fishing hub of Ennis. Stop by one of the fly shops and pick the brains of some local experts, then proceed south on Hwy. 287, which conveniently parallels the Madison for nearly its entire length.

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