Fly Fishing the Madison River

There is hardly a fly fisherman around who hasn’t heard of the Madison. Its name is synonymous with fly fishing itself. Without a doubt, this is one of the most famous fly fishing rivers in the world.

With its beginnings in Yellowstone Park, the Madison is formed at Madison Junction by the union of the Firehole. Because of the hot springs and geysers that flow into these two rivers, the Madison is warmer than many other waters in the area.


the Madison River in Yellowstone Park


In Yellowstone Park, the season opens the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and generally runs thru the first weekend in November. This corner of the Park fishes well early in the season and offers fishing when many rivers in the area are filled with runoff silt. While the water can be high, it gets less discolored than other drainages in the general area.

Even though the Yellowstone stretches of the Madison aren’t open early and late in the year, there are a number of stretches that are, so the Madison really has year round fishing options. The Hebgen to Quake Lake, McAtee to Ennis, and below Ennis Dam sections have year round seasons. Some of the other Montana sections are only closed from March to June.

The Madison contains primarily rainbows, browns and a lot of whitefish. Average fish are 10-16 inches, but browns over 20 inches show up with some frequency, primarily in the fall when they become most active. Fortunately, after the whirling disease problems of the nineties, juvenile rainbows are now back in good numbers.

This river changes somewhat throughout its length, but it contains more riffle water than any other type. The Madison is interesting water: it is a tailwater with spring creek influences, but a freestone look. While superficially it looks like #10 Royal Wulff water, small nymphs and match the hatch dries can be critical to success. From Hebgen Lake to Ennis it is primarily riffle water and boulder runs with a fairly constant speed and depth. It may look all the same superficially, but to be successful, you need to break the water down into parts and look for pockets that offer a little more cover.

Fly choice for the Madison need not be very complex. Many of the flies you use there will be useful in other streams in the area. As with most places, fly choice depends on the time of the year, river stretch and hatches which are occurring.

Depending on weather, January, February and March offer nymph and midge fishing. April is a mixed bag, with nymph fishing and some fishing with midges and Blue Wing Olives. Serendipity style larvae, Pheasant Tails, Sparkle Duns, Griffith's Gnats and small parachutes are all productive. In late April and May you will find BWOs and some caddis; depending on the location, the Mothers Day Caddis hatch can be quite impressive.

June and early July will have an abundance of caddis, Pale Morning Duns and some stones. The upper section, from the Firehole down, section has many meadows, with beautiful surroundings and lots of wildlife. Due the thermal influence of the Firehole, fishing on the upper river can slow mid-summer. Just after leaving Yellowstone Park the Madison enters Hebgen Lake, where it gains water from several other small rivers and becomes a tailwater.

At the tail end of the high water season the famous salmon fly hatch starts. These big bugs bring large trout to the surface and this hatch is the most famous hatch on the sections where it leaves the park.

During the summer, the evening hours with cooler temperatures and lower light levels have hatches which offer the best fishing. Streamer fishing can also be very good in the mornings and evenings. Double Bunnies, Kiwis and large sculpin imitations are your best bet.

The section below Ennis Lake can be very good for caddis. As an added bonus this area remains fairly clear during runoff. The Madison below Quake Lake will be off-color and high due to runoff from early May to mid June.

In July and August hoppers and attractor patterns with a beadhead dropper are your best choices. There are many species of caddis including Brachycentrus and Rhyacophila , which makes a Krystal Flash Caddis with a green or brown body (free living larvae) and Glass House Caddis (cased larvae) important flies to have in your arsenal. JD Sparkle Caddis, X Caddis and LaFontaine Sparkle Caddis are productive topwater caddis. Pale Morning Duns and summer Baetis are the most significant summer mayflies.

For many fly fishermen, fall is the magic time on the Madison. This is the time when the brown trout become most active. The Park section above Hebgen is one of the most popular for the fall brown trout run, but good fishing can be found throughout the river. Spruce Flies, JJ Specials, Kiwis and Bunnies are among the best streamers for the Madison.