Fly Fishing The Madison River

Mountains in Every Direction

As I passed the interpretive sign at the top of Norris Hill, I wonder what it must have been like for travelers on the Bozeman Trail who must have surely marveled at the Madison Valley with its towering peaks, the distinct terraces formed from ices ages past, and the clear flowing river that divides the valley.

Heading south, my elevation drops and Ennis Lake, sparkling in the late June sun, appears.  On this day, the sky is as clear as it gets, and the tallest mountains of the snow-capped Centennial range some 90 miles away, are visible in the far distance.

Feels Like Home

Fishing the Madison River every year is like a homecoming for us. Over the years we’ve been blessed with an increasing number of friends who either live in the valley or reside here seasonally.

Fishing is the main attraction here, but the wildlife, the alpenglow, cowboys, the mountains, and the people make the Madison Valley a truly special place.

Dark spotted rainbow trout on the Madison River

Dark spotted rainbow trout on the Madison River

Angler below Lyons Bridge on the Madison River in Montana

Angler Wading Downstream from Lyons Bridge

The Madison River Begins

The Madison is formed in Yellowstone National Park as the Firehole and Gibbon join at Madison Junction. Then, the river courses it’s way north, then west to Hebgen Lake. A dam regulates the flow and the river spills from the bottom of the dam into the canyon.

In August of 1959, an earthquake rocked this area and caused a landslide at the western end of the canyon. Millions of tons of dirt and boulders crashed into the tight valley below stopping the river flow and killing 19 who were camped at the undeveloped end of the Rock Creek Campground.

This tragic event is how Earthquake Lake was formed in the late summer of that year. The flowing Madison River formed a lake in the debris-blocked canyon. The dead standing trees in the lake are a reminder of nature’s indiscriminate powers.

Fifty Mile Riffle

For the focus of this article, I’ll share with you our knowledge of the Madison from the outlet of Quake Lake to the Inlet of Ennis Lake. Also known as the 50 Mile Riffle, this section of the Madison River is known for plentiful fish and big trout.

Blue Ribbon Trout Stream

The Madison River is designated a Blue Ribbon Trout Stream. With 2900 – 3500 fish per mile, it’s no wonder anglers flock to these renown waters. Here you will find brown trout and rainbows; cutthroats in the Park.

Map

Map of the Madison Valley

Hatches

There are many hatches on the Madison River but none as famous as the Salmonfly. The big bugs appear in mid to late June. The water warms enough for the bugs to emerge and the fish start looking up at the surface and feeding on top.

Golden Stone, Pale Morning Duns, Caddis, Baetis, Tricos, Yellow Sallies, Green Drakes and midges provide trout meals April to October. Be sure to stop in at a local shop for the up-to-date report.

Choosing a fly on the Madison River

Selecting the Right Fly

Yellow Sally Stonefly Nymph on the Madison River

Yellow Sally Stonefly

Fishing Access

The Madison has lots of fishing access sites on both state land and BLM land.

No Fishing From a Boat

From the Slide to Lyons Bridge, and from the 287 Highway Bridge in Ennis to Ennis Lake, float fishing is prohibited. Fishing must be done by wading. If you float these section of the river, get out of the watercraft before casting a line.

Fishing from a boat is allowed downstream from Lyon’s Bridge to the highway bridge in Ennis, just downstream from the Ennis Fishing Access.

The Slide to Raynolds Pass

While there is no actual fishing access above the Raynolds pass Fishing Access, getting into the river is not hard. The river comes close to Highway 287 and there is an interpretive sign for the 1959 earthquake where you can park. from here you can access upstream to Quake Lake and downstream for a little way too.

Going upstream, it leads you into the ‘slide’ area. Here is where the Madison River finally broke free from the newly formed Earthquake Lake and rushed out of the canyon forming new a river channel. Dead standing trees defy the whitewater that rushes by. You’ll need no waders to fish this stretch – the river is far too swift to step in.

Years ago, a guide explained how to fish the ‘slide’. “Get a good drift with a double nymph rig. Fish within a foot of shore in the soft water. Use no strike indicator. Just when the drift looks perfect, set the hook.” Hard to imagine, but man, did this work great!

At Raynold Pass Fishing access, you can follow the well-worn path upstream on both sides of the river and fish for huge brown trout that lurk in these waters. Just look at the photos on Slide Inn’s website for proof!

Three Dollar Bridge

Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison River

Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison River

Perhaps one of the most famous fishing accesses there is, the Three Dollar Bridge on the Madison. Take Cliff Lake Road off Highway 287.  Access the river upstream or down on both sides of Three Dollar Bridge.

Named for the sign a landowner placed on the property requiring a $3 per day use fee to park and access the river, the land was purchased with matching funds from the public, corporate donors such as Orvis, and Montana FWP.  Today the land is held by the Trust For Public Lands that permanently protects 4 miles of river frontage. Three Dollar Bridge is 40 miles south of Ennis.

West Fork Bridge

Access the Madison River where the West Fork joins the main stem. There is good access for wade fishing.

Lyons Bridge

Turn by the Rest Area on Highway 287 to get to Lyons Bridge. There is ample parking for boat trailers. There is no fishing from a boat above the bridge. If you are floating, be sure no rods in the water until you get under the bridge. This is really fishy water here so be ready to cast downstream of the bridge. This is a popular float so do not expect solitude. In my opinion, the views of the mountains are the best here. Lyons Bridge is 33 miles south of Ennis.

Windy Point

As the name suggests, the wind can be a challenge here. The boat launch is good here and you are not far from the Palisades. Launch here for a longer day float to McAtee. Access is located approximately 28 miles south of Ennis, off US Highway 287.

Palisades

One of my favorites floats is Lyons to Palisades. The palisades tower above the launch, very picturesque. Great launch with lots of parking. There is camping as well. Access is located approximately 27 miles south of Ennis, off US Highway 287. The river braids a bit here giving opportunities for wade fishing.

Ruby Creek

The Ruby Creek Campground and Boat Launch are located near herds of elk. Look for elk in early winter through late spring here. This area is more sheltered from the relentless southern winds that can howl some days so if you are thinking about dry camping, this would be a great spot. There is a really nice overlook just about a mile past the campground if you are wanting to take some nice photos. Take the road to the McAtee Fishing Access off US Highway 287.

McAtee

the McAtee Fishing Access is located approximately 19 miles south of Ennis. Turn off US Highway 287 to access this launch by the bridge. Floating from McAtee to Varney Bridge is a full day float. The river is pretty straight forward in this stretch.

Storey DitchStorey Ditch Fishing Access Sign

Just 16 miles south of Ennis, just off US 287, you’ll find Storey Ditch. Another great option for making a longer or shorter float.

Varney Bridge

the Varney Bridge Fishing Access is located approximately 10 miles south of Ennis. Take US Highway 287 south of Ennis to Varney Road or pick up Varney Road from MT 287 (the road to Virginia City). This picturesque spot has spots to camp under trees. The river begins to braid more downstream of the Varney Bridge. Varney to Ennis is a full day float.

8 Mile

If you love photography, here is another great spot. The high bench over the river has parking while the launch puts you right into good, fishy braided water. Take Varney Road to the access. Fish to town for a half day float or go to Valley Garden for a half float, half wade day.

Burnt Tree Hole

Access the Burnt Tree Hole launch off Varney Road, just downstream from 8 Mile, float from here to do a shorter float to Valley Garden for a half float, half wade day.

Ennis

Also known as “town” when floating from Varney Bridge to town. There are campsites and decent places to wade fish. Just downstream is the 287 Highway Bridge. At that point, fishing from a boat is not allowed until Ennis Lake. From here, the Madison River braids through meadow and bushes all the way to the lake.

Valley Garden

Take the road to Jeffers to get to the Valley Garden Fishing Access. There are campsites available and a boat launch. Downstream is Ennis Lake. If you start a float here, you’ll need to take out at one of the boat launches on the lake. Beware, the lake can fetch up on windy days . There is no fishing from a boat until you are in the lake.

Wade fishing is good here. You’ll find numerous paths made by anglers to fishy spots. This is a great spot to fish at the end of the day as the valley is wide here and daylight is long.

Buy A Map

Fishing the River

We have always fished the river with a hard boat, and most guides do too. A raft with easily work here. And fishing the river from a kickboat or kayak is a good option.

The river during normal summer flows, in my opinion, is fairly easy to row. Hidden boulders and braids that run shallow without warning, are the challenges. There are no crazy rapids, diversion dams that span the river, or falls.

Wading

While you certainly can wade the river in a lot of places, I’d stick with the water below the Slide to Lyons Bridge, the Valley Garden area, and the water immediately near fishing accesses. The river flows through private ranch land and folks really like anglers to stay at or below the high water mark. Much of the river is lined with bushes which makes staying below the high water mark and wading tough.

Burnt Tree Hole Fishing Access

Burnt Tree Hole Fishing Access

Take out at the Valley Garden fishing access in Jeffers

Taking out at the Valley Garden Fishing Access in Jeffers

Protecting the Madison River

The fishing pressure on the Madison River has risen quite a bit in the last decade. After recovering from a bout with whirling disease in more than 20 years ago,  anglers fish the river in record numbers.

Last winter a conservation group made proposals which would have limited river access.  The proposals would have really hurt a lot of folks who make a living on the river. Local legend Randy Brown wrote extensively on the subject and it’s worth a read.

While a crowded river is something no one likes, it is no wonder the river is busy due to the high fish population and amazing scenery. If you come to the area to fish and find it overcrowded, no worries, there are lots of quieter options nearby. Keep reading.

Mule Deer walking along the Madison River

Mule Deer Grazes Along The River’s Edge

Local Experts

Ennis, Montana is a trout town. So if you need some tippet, flies, or to hire a guide, you’re in luck. There are three shops in the downtown; The Tackle Shop, Trout Stalkers, and the Madison River Fishing Company. The Rainbow Valley Lodge has a shop too – O’Dell Creek Fly Shop. But the big fly shop is located in Cameron, right on the highway. Beartooth Fly Fishing has quite a selection of everything, wow.

Nearby Fly Fishing Waters

I could go on and on here. Wow, there is so much good to fish. Lakes filled with huge trout, remote, alpine lakes in amazing places, a spring creek, and nearby blue ribbon trout water.

  • Ennis Lake
  • Hebgen Lake
  • O’Dell Spring Creek
  • Cliff and Wade Lake
  • Sure Shot Lakes
  • The Ruby River
  • North Fork of the Madison
  • Yellowstone Park Waters

Madison River Stream Flow

USGS Water-data graph for the Madison River near Cameron, Montana

Drinking Salmonfly Honey Rye The Hard Way

Silver Creek Preserve in Picabo Idaho - The Nature Conservancy

Flies That Worked For Us

It’s always wise to check in with the local experts. Here’s what we used during our trip from June 25 to July 2, 2019.

  • 14 Gray CDC Caddis
  • Foam Salmonfly
  • Cat Puke
  • Lightning Bug
  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Pheasant Tail

Memorable Moments

With the exception of a pair of rambunctous Brittanys knocking the drain plug loose just after Lyon’s Bridge, it seemed like we were off on a normal Madison River float trip.

Unlike the pastorial flows of the Upper Connecticut River in New Hampshire where I once guided, the Madison River often has hidden obsticles just beneath the surface which are often topped with patches of paint and gel coat.

River flows were normal for the date and an easy row was expected. Then the rains came. Somewhere above Windy Point, I chose a river-left braid. As we approached its entrance, I noticed a boat and two anglers wading in the channel. A last minute descision had me digging furiously to go to the right side of the island. The rain pelting the water’s surface made it difficult to see subsurface structure and depth.

I decided to slide the boat between a large boulder and the island. In a heartbeat, we ran out of water. The bow ran up on a rock and the current spun the boat hard against a glacial boulder. Lisa leapt from the boat, pulling the stern upstream and around the rock.

With memories of turning and seeing the water just an inch below the starboard gunwale, we continued downstream.

I turned to my rain drentched friend, Barney, and quipped “Like the boat says, fear no rock”. To which Lisa replied “Yeah, but you should watch out for the damn boulders.”

The Necessities

Our picks for fishing information, food, and places to camp.

Ennis, Montana

I love Ennis. I find myself going through the real estate listings on every visit. The busy downtown is fun to visit with the gift shops, fly shops, art galleries, and fun bars.

It’s the friendliness of its residents that is also attractive to us. So often you are greeted with a smile in stores, on the street, or on the water.

And it is clear – Ennis is a fishing town. In the center of town, a statue of an angler hooking a trout stands in a traffic island ensuring it will not go unseen.

Here you are just 70 miles from Yellowstone. Just over the Madison Range is Big Sky, Montana’s biggest ski area. Yet when you are here in this welcoming community you feel less like a tourist and more like a friend.

ExtraBelow Hebgen on the Madison River

This would not be complete without mentioning a very special stretch of the Madison River between Hebgen and Quake Lake. This short section begins at the dam and flows through the scenic canyon to Quake Lake.

Wading is the best approach. A well-worn fisherman’s path along the river lead to some great spots. The Campfire Lodge sits on the banks. We have camped with our family here and love it. And they have one of the best breakfast around.

Have your bear spray handy. This is bear country.

Cabin Creek enters the river at Campfire Lodge and fishing is always great near the spot. Beaver Creek brings cold water just ahead of Quake Lake.

The section near the highway sees lots of anglers. For fewer crowds, turn in towards Campfire Lodge and bear right on the forest service road. The gravel road ends and a path begins for river access.

Side Trips

Fishing is fun, but in such a special part of the world, it’s good to take a day or two and look around. Here you’ll find America’s oldest national park, ghost towns, hiking trails, and amazing mountain scenery.

Catching Rainbow Trout on the Madison River in Montana

Madison River Rundown

MADISON RIVER STATS
RIVER TYPE TAILWATER
LENGTH 183 MILES
LOCATION MONTANA / WYOMING
ORIGIN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

The Firehole and Gibbon Rivers Form the Madison

TERMINUS MISSOURI RIVER

The Madison joins the Jefferson and the Gallatin to form the Missouri

SPECIES BROWN TROUT, RAINBOW TROUT, WHITEFISH
SEASON / REGULATIONS SEE MONTANA FISH AND WILDLIFE
BUY LICENSE ONLINE MONTANA LICENSES ONLINE
WEATHER ACCU-WEATHER

Fishing Guidebooks

Go with knowledge! We keep guidebooks in the camper and the state atlas in all of our rigs. If you’re serious about fishing, here’s our recommended reading for this water.

*The link takes you to Amazon where you can read more about the titles and purchase the guidebooks if you choose. We do receive a small portion of the sale for providing the link which helps to support this site. We appreciate your support!

Flyfisher’s Guide to Montana
Flyfisher’s Guide to Southwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes
Montana Road & Recreation Atlas
See More Photos From Our Trip

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