A river showdown.
Two of Montana’s most iconic rivers may share a mountain range as their headwaters, but in terms of the adjacent culture, they couldn’t be more different. From chaps and reins on Main Street in Ennis, to pad Thai and private clubs in Big Sky, the Madison and Gallatin rivers are the epitome of a Montana sibling rivalry. In fly fishing, competition is usually frowned upon, but not when we’re talking about A-list celebrities vying for the title of Bozeman’s most loved trout river. Here’s what happens when the Madison and Gallatin go toe-to-toe.
Since it only takes one fish on the hook to put a bend in the rod, we needn’t get too caught up in fish counts. It’s simple: the more fish a river has, the higher the odds of catching one. Over the past ten years, the Madison and Gallatin Rivers have both averaged around 3,000 trout per mile.
They may have similar headcounts, but mass is another story. With average fish sizes pushing 14 inches and the potential for a 24-incher on any given day, the Madison tips the scale.
Gallatin Canyon is beautiful, with its forested walls and backdrop of the Spanish Peaks and Bridgers. But with heavily-trafficked Hwy. 191 sharing the canyon, fishing the Gallatin can be distracting. Not so on the Madison, and horizon views of the Sphinx, Lone Peak, and the Taylor-Hilgards tip the tiara to the west.
The table with the cool kids is usually the fullest, right? Because the Madison is beautiful and full of big fish, it attracts the crowds. And, talk to the hand if you even think the lower Madison on a summer day is worth fishing—you’ll probably see more ex-Tinder dates than you will anglers. The Gallatin begins in the heart of some of Yellowstone National Park’s most rugged backcountry. For anglers willing to park the car, pack a sandwich, and take a walk, solitude is easy to find—just stay away from the section in Gallatin Canyon.
Whether you care how you catch your fish or not—soulless double-nymphing below a strike indicator or snobbish match-the-hatch dry-fly fishing—both rivers are home to abundant hatches of stoneflies, mayflies, caddis, and terrestrials. If you care more about Instagram posts than actually fishing, burn a bunch of gas and drive to the Missouri.
Both rivers begin in Yellowstone National Park and flow through an abundance of public land. But because Gallatin Canyon features some of the best fishing on the river and most of this is in Custer-Gallatin National Forest, access is as easy to come by as rod racks on SUVs or black labs in Outbacks.
The Madison is world-famous as a float-fishing river, and boasts Beartrap Canyon with the infamous Kitchen Sink. But the Gallatin was where Brad Pitt stood on the rock and shadow-casted for the first time. This one can go either way.
Both rivers were titled by Lewis & Clark—the Madison for James Madison, fourth president and co-writer of the U.S. Constitution. The Gallatin was named after a Swiss-born American diplomat, Albert Gallatin. The choice is simple: born-and-bred ‘Meri-can over across-the-pond Euro elitist.
Even with the same number of trout per mile, the Gallatin’s wild trout just seem more eager to eat marginally presented flies. Maybe that’s because the Madison—both the upper and lower—sees a lot more traffic.
The Madison has some of the best fly shops in Montana and is home to a few famous owners—Kelly Galloup at the Slide Inn and Dan Delekta at Beartooth Fly Shop. Ever heard of the Sex Dungeon or the Lil’ Spanker? If not, stop scrolling and actually read something for once. Fly shops on the Gallatin are steeped in local knowledge and some of the oldest in the state. Check out Gallatin River Guides—they’ve been on the river since 1984 and know it as well as anyone.
Score: 3 to 3.
As disappointing as it is fitting, the truth is that we ourselves don’t know which is better. The only way to find out for yourself is to give both of them a whirl. Happy fishing.