Introduction to the Lower Madison River
The Lower Madison River can be finicky. Use these Lower Madison River fishing tips to get started right, or hire one of our expert guides to be your Lower Madison River fishing guide. We run float trips on the Lower Madison.
The Lower Madison River begins at Warm Springs Fishing Access near the mouth of the Beartrap Canyon, about 30 miles west of Bozeman, Montana. If flows north about 30 miles before joining with the Gallatin and Jefferson to form the Missouri. This section of the Madison is very different from the more-famous “50 Mile Riffle” that runs from Quake Lake to Ennis, upstream of Ennis Lake at the head of the Beartrap Canyon (which is 2+ hours from here and thus more-or-less outside our operations area, though we do run an occasional trip up there). The Lower Madison is low-elevation, fertile, full of crayfish and insects, and finicky. It also gets very warm in midsummer, which is why it’s almost exclusively an April through June fishery for Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing.
Because it’s a low-elevation river downstream of a dam, the Lower Madison never gets too high and muddy to float-fish, though it can get too high for comfortable wading. It also produces excellent insect activity in late May and June while most area rivers are either blown out completely or only fishing well with nymphs. This makes the Lower Madison the best nearby float river from mid-May through late June most years, though it can be a challenging river when the bugs aren’t hatching. These Lower Madison River fishing tips will put you into some fish.
- Location: The lower Madison begins near the mouth of Beartrap Canyon 30 miles west of Bozeman and perhaps five miles east of Norris, Montana, and flows 30 miles north to Three Forks. By far the best fishing and access are on the first half or even first third of this reach.
- Access: Access is spectacular to the best stretch of the Lower Madison, from Warm Springs at the upstream end to Greycliff at the lower end. Most of this stretch features at least one bank that’s public, and the upper 3/5 from Warm Springs to Scott’s Ford is mostly public on both banks. Five boat accesses are also available in this stretch. Access is much worse downstream, but so is the fishing.
- Season: The Lower Madison is not a summer river. High water temperatures that put a mandatory closure on the river at 2:00 in July and August and lots of recreational floaters mean that the time to fish here is before the end of June and after the middle of September. Even winter wade-fishing is good. We exclusively run floats on the Lower Madison, most of them from early May through June.
- Our Favorite Stretch: Our favorite stretch is everybody’s favorite stretch, from Warm Springs to Scott’s Ford. Fish numbers are much higher and access much better on this stretch. While many guides like to float fast and continue on down to Greycliff, when flows are right we like to fish very slowly and pick apart the structure below riffles and islands and poke around in side channels.
- What It Does Best: The Lower Madison can produce TONS of small and medium-sized trout on dry-dropper combinations and shallow nymph rigs in late May and June, even though most pressure consists of deep nymphing for small numbers of big fish.
- Perfect Clients: Anglers coming to the region in late spring who want to float a river near Livingston and who understand that the fishing is sometimes tough.
For Lower Madison River fishing tips, click the button below.
Description and Access
The Lower Madison is broad, shallow, warm, and weedy. While there are a couple small rapids in the two miles below Warm Springs, even canoes can easily negotiate them. The river is usually fairly quick, flowing over broad riffles and that drop off into comparatively deep holes (these holes might only be three feet deep). There are no obstructions or technical areas that a sober boat-handler needs to worry about.
Except for a few deeper rock or rip-rap banks, most structure on this reach of the Madison is subtle and formed by midriver weed beds and adjacent holes, drop-offs below riffles and islands, and somewhat deeper slots in side channels. While it’s possible to catch a few fish by “banging banks” here, it’s much more effective to look for subtle drop-offs at midriver, not least because what good structure there is near the banks gets pounded by shore anglers.
In the upper portions of this reach the Lower Madison is still in the lower reaches of Beartrap Canyon, so the banks are high and rocky, with scattered woods. From the end of the canyon near the Hwy 84 bridge all the way to Three Forks, the river flows through ranch country, with either hay meadows or cottonwood stands on the banks and numerous small islands.
Access on the Lower Madison is probably easier than on any other water we guide, at least down to Scott’s Ford Access where the fishing starts to decline. More than half of the riverbanks are public, with BLM land dominating. Numerous fishing access sites dot the river, most of which have broad concrete boat ramps.
Even in areas without boat ramps, the numerous state and federal established campgrounds and dispersed camping spots mean it’s seldom necessary to walk more than 100 yards from the car if you’re wade fishing. Roads follow both sides of the river throughout the Warm Springs to Scott’s Ford stretch, while from Scott’s Ford to Greycliff there’s a good gravel road on the east bank. Access is far more limited downstream of Greycliff, but so are fish numbers.
As you might deduce from the Lower Maddy’s proximity to Bozeman, excellent access, and warm, shallow water without any dangers, both recreational and fishing traffic is very high here. Twenty to fifty fishing boats per day is average in June, though there’s enough water we usually don’t bother one another. After mid-June recreational floaters really start to intrude on the fishing. Large numbers of inner-tubers who drink heavily and have no control of their craft are particular problems once the weather and water are comfortable. Unless you’re a big fan of the “bikini hatch,” we suggest avoiding this water from the beginning of July (or whenever the Yellowstone clears) until the first aggressive cold snap.
- Rainbow: Rainbow trout make up probably half the trout population in this stretch. Most run 6 to 12 inches, but fish over 20 inches are possible.
- Brown: Brown trout make up probably 30% of the population but a much lower percentage of the catch. Most run 8 to 14 inches, but there are monsters in this water: fish pushing 30 inches are caught every year. Big browns are the target species for most guides since it only takes one fat fish over 20 inches to make a day for clients.
- Westslope Cutthroat: Westslope cutthroat numbers are rapidly increasing on this stretch after a reintroduction effort on tributary Cherry Creek. Westslope numbers are highest within 2mi of the creek mouth, upstream and down. These trout mostly run 6 to 12 inches and love to rise.
- Whitefish: Whitefish numbers are not high on this water due to the warm, shallow nature of the water, though there are some.
- Carp and Northern Pike: Past Greycliff Access, steadily warming water reduces trout numbers and large numbers of carp and a few pike begin showing up. All pike must be killed to protect the trout upstream.
When water is particularly high and off-color, most likely in early June of wet years or for a week or so in May downstream of the Cherry Creek confluence, really the only method to fish here is with San Juan Worms, large nymphs, and crayfish fished under indicators. Otherwise, during the prime May-June season there are two very dissimilar game plans that make sense:
- Stick to big nymphs, streamers, and crayfish, and target the deepest midriver drop-offs to target very small numbers (as in low single digits) of potentially enormous brown trout.
- Fish shallower structure below riffles, islands, side-channels and near-shore areas that aren’t being pounded by bank anglers using shallow nymphing tactics and often-tiny nymphs before hatches start, and dry fly, soft hackle, or dry-dropper tactics when some rising trout are showing themselves. Dry fly opportunities are best on cloudy days in late May and June, or in late evening if the weather is sunny.
A lot of Lower Madison River fishing tips suggest and a majority of guide boats seem to focus on running fast and sticking to midriver fishing targeting larger trout. For this reason, we actually like to run slow here when weather and water conditions allow (aka the water needs to be low enough and clear enough and the skies gray enough). This lets the rampaging horde of guides who all launch between 8:00 and 9:00 like we do get ahead of us and vanish by lunchtime. We then pick apart structure slowly, targeting all the small-medium trout they blew right by. Often the guide will jump out and either hold or walk the boat slowly through good areas, while clients who like to wade fish and have wading boots may jump out and wade fish likely areas while we stand there with the net.
We seldom catch large fish with the above tactic, but we can have great action provided the fish are active near the surface. If they’re scared of the bright sun and/or have to sit deep because the water’s high and green-brown rather than blue-green, the deep-nymphing tactic is the only one that makes sense and fish numbers will be drastically lower, but a big fish or two is in the cards.
If the fish are looking up, a wide range of insects hatch here. BWO and Mother’s Day caddis are most important in May and early June. Thereafter a range of other caddis species start to pop and there may also be PMD, Green and Gray Drakes, and Yellow Sally Stoneflies. The best fishing probably occurs when the various caddis hatch, though.
When the Lower Madison gets too warm and crowded in late June, your best bet is to fish elsewhere. Our Lower Madison River fishing guides move to the Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater for float trips.
Once water cools off in late summer or early fall, some hopper and ant fishing is possible, especially before many other boats start fishing here again. Crowds of recreational floaters decrease through fall, but angling crowds increase. By mid-September, tiny nymphs are the order of the day except when hatches occur. Streamer fishing improves in October and stays good until the weather gets bitter cold, usually no earlier than Thanksgiving. We seldom guide the Lower Madison at this time unless the Yellowstone gets muddy and the Stillwater is too low.
Winter and early spring midge fishing can be very good here from late January onward whenenever it is warm enough to get out. Floating is usually not in the cards, but wade-fishing the deep wintering runs makes a lot of sense. We do usually guide elswhere at this time, because the Yellowstone is generally less finicky and sees less pressure.
- Clouser Crayfish, #10
- Zirdle Bug, #6-10
- Red San Juan Worm, #12
- Glasshead Caddis Pupa, #16
- Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail, #16
- Green Kryptonite Caddis, #16
- Light Olive Perdigon, #18
- Little Green Machine, #18
- Coachman Clacka Caddis, #14
- Purple Hazy Cripple, #16-18