The mighty Madison; Montana's most famous and most fished river. For us an occasional treat and a runoff reliable, use this Madison River fishing guide to plan your trip
The Madison River can be finicky. Use these Madison River fishing tips to get started right, or hire one of our expert guides to be your Madison River fishing guide. We run float trips on the entire Madison and both floats and float & wade trips on the Lower Madison near Bozeman.
Fish populations on the Madison center on rainbow and brown trout. The upper portions of the Upper Madison hold more rainbows than anything else, while closer to Ennis brown trout numbers increase as does the peak size of the fish. Downstream of Ennis Dam, brown trout are probably slightly more common than rainbows, and there’s also an increasing population of native westslope cutthroats centered on the mouth of Cherry Creek, where a successful reintroduction took place around 2010. Whitefish are present throughout the entire Madison, while carp and pike show up on the remote and lightly-fished stretch between Greycliff Access and Three Forks, where the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers come together to form the Missouri River.
The Lower Madison is the more important stretch for both guides and anglers in Livingston, since it’s only about an hour from here. The Upper Madison is more famous and sees heavier fishing pressure, but it makes for a long day at 2+ hours of driving each way depending on the section fished. For this reason, we spend a lot more time on the Lower.
Madison River Flies & Hatches
While there can be some good hatches, particularly in late spring and early summer, the Madison is primarily a nymphing river these days. Stonefly and large attractor nymphs work well when the water is high, whereas smaller, slender mayfly and caddis-type nymphs (and attractors suggestive of these insects) are better when the water is lower and clearer. In general the Upper Madison fishes better with larger flies later into the summer than the Lower Madison, and is the better dry fly fishery. The Lower Madison is notable for its huge populations of crayfish, which generally take the place of stonefly nymphs as the “big bug” in a two-nymph rig.
Upper Madison River Fishing Guide
The Madison River begins at the junction of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers in Yellowstone Park, then flows west before leaving the park just north of West Yellowstone. This stretch is discussed on the Madison River System in YNP page. The river is then backed up by Hebgen Lake, a large reservoir. The lake is an excellent fishery, but it’s also over 3hr from Livingston.
“Between the Lakes”
Next is a short run of excellent pools and runs between Hebgen Dam and natural Earthquake (‘Quake’) Lake, formed by a landslide following a 1959 earthquake. The earthquake and landslide killed 28 people, many of whom are buried under the landslide.
This “between the lakes” stretch is a short tailwater that may only be fished on foot. It is particularly popular in late spring, when large runs of rainbow trout run up from Hebgen to spawn and the stretch right below Hebgen Dam remains clear no matter how much winter snow the area saw. It is also a very good fishery in midwinter, best accessed with snowshoes.
This stretch fishes well with eggs, midges, and San Juan Worms from midwinter through spring. After that, look for caddis hatches.
Again, the problem with this water from Livingston is driving distance: it’s 3hr from here, which is tough to swallow given that there are other, comparably good winter and runoff season fisheries a bit closer.
This stretch is adjacent to US-287. Some is roadside. The rest is easily accessed via a walk from the Campfire Lodge development or from Beaver Creek Campground at the upper end of Quake Lake.
The Wade Section
Immediately downstream of Quake Lake, the Madison runs through a steep, wild section choked in boulders and downed trees. This is the landslide that created the lake. While very difficult to wade, this rough and rugged section can produce some excellent rainbow trout. It is best accessed from US-287 or by parking at the Raynolds Pass Bridge a couple miles downstream, then working upstream.
This upper end of the Madison proper is the beginning of the “50 mile riffle,” which in reality isn’t quite 50 miles but gives an idea of the structure. The water is fast, shallow, and full of boulders.
Down to Lyons Bridge, a distance of about 12mi as the river runs, boating is legal but fishing from the boat is not. As such most non-guided anglers wade-fish. There is abundant access on both sides of the river.
Many a Madison River fishing guide from Ennis and West Yellowstone run some float-wade trips on this stretch. In fact it’s probably the single most popular place in the region to run these trips. We do not run trips on this stretch, however, due to the travel time. It’s still almost 3hr. If you want to float, use a raft rather than a drift boat and be on your toes as far as avoiding rocks and other obstructions.
Upstream of the confluence with the West Fork of the Madison which enters near Lyons Bridge, this stretch fishes very well except for a week or two in late May and early June when Cabin and Beaver Creeks (which feed the Between the Lakes section and Quake Lake, respectively) are running muddy.
Stonefly nymphs, eggs, and midge pupae are top bets in winter and spring. In summer, late evening caddis hatches are the most dependable bet, followed by mayfly hatches a bit later in summer. In late June or early July, the Salmonfly hatch is a very popular event, and probably better here than elsewhere on the Madison. In late summer, the fish can get quite spooky, so small nymphs such as Perdigons are usually the best bet, though there may be some grasshopper and ant fishing as well. In September, fall hatches begin, and streamer fishing improves.
Lyons Bridge to Story Ditch: The Upper Float Section
Fishing from rather than just floating in a boat becomes legal at Lyons Bridge. From here to Story Ditch (actually midway between Story Ditch and Varney Bridge), the Madison remains a fast, rocky river with heavy stonefly, caddis, and mayfly populations. While some anglers wade this stretch, most access is via drift boats except when flows exceed 4000cfs or so. At that level, a couple very low bridges make navigation extremely hazardous upstream from the Palisades access.
This stretch is usually broken into two floats with a small amount of overlap, depending on how slowly the boat travels. Lyons Bridge to Ruby is a full-day float, Lyons to McAtee a very long full-day. Windy Point or Palisades to McAtee or Story Ditch is the second float.
Fishing tactics remain similar to the stretch upstream, with the exception that the river can be muddy for several weeks between roughly May 20 perhaps June 20 depending on snowpack and rainfall, particularly in the West Fork drainage which can bring in lots of mud. The Salmonfly hatch here occurs in the last ten days of June most years, sometimes a week earlier.
This is the uppermost section where YCFF makes sense as your Madison River fishing guide. It’s actually our preferred section of the Madison, since the dry fly fishing is a bit more consistent and the Salmonfly hatch is better than the next stretch. We mostly fish here in late June, when the Lower Madison can be too crowded with “splash and giggle” floaters and the Yellowstone and Boulder aren’t quite ready yet. This water is 2.5hr from Livingston.
Story Ditch to Ennis FAS: The Lower Float Section
Between Story Ditch and Varney Bridge, the Madison begins changing character. The boulders fade (though don’t disappear) and are replaced by lots of wooded islands. This character gets even more common downstream of Varney Bridge and remains dominant down to Ennis FAS, which sits immediately upstream from the US-287 bridge. Downstream of the bridge, the Madison once again becomes a wade-only fishery.
Because it lacks as much obvious structure as the stretch upstream, the best tactics here are to fish streamers and nymphs down the middle of the river, then pull in behind islands to fish the obvious current seams. Where steep, rocky banks intrude, similar tactics as on the upper float section make sense again, including dry-dropper.
The most common floats on this section are from McAtee Bridge to Varney, from Story Ditch to 8-Mile, or from Varney to either Burnt Tree Hole or Ennis.
Wade access is fairly limited on this stretch, but more common near the 8 Mile Ford Access, where the side channels become shallow enough to wade much of the season.
Ennis FAS to Ennis Lake: The Channels
Downstream of Ennis Bridge on US-287, the Madison enters a delta-like maze of braiding channels extending about five miles down to Ennis Lake. While boats are legal for transportation, anglers have to pull over to wade-fish rather than fishing from the boat. Valley Garden Access also provides abundant wade-fishing opportunities.
This stretch can fish similarly to the stretch above, but needing to wade-fish limits tactics to pulling over behind islands and so forth. The channels in this stretch are generally smaller and more numerous than upstream, so they are more wade-friendly anyway.
The fall fishing is notable here. There’s a big influx of pre-spawn brown trout (and some winter-spawning rainbows) from Ennis Lake that can be targeted with nymphs and streamers here starting in early September, though October is better.
Though it is only 2hr from Livingston, and that includes a stop for ice and lunch at the supermarket in Ennis, we seldom fish this stretch as there are better options for float & wade trips closer to us. That said, it is a very popular stretch locally both for guides and anglers.
Lower Madison River Fishing Guide
While much of it resembles the Upper Madison on casual glance, the Lower Madison is a far different river than the Upper.
Ennis Lake is the biggest reason. This reservoir is horribly sited from a fishing perspective. It is essentially a shallow bowl about three miles in diameter that is seldom more than fifteen feet deep. As such the Madison River warms up dramatically here, often emerging from Ennis Dam at 70 degrees in midsummer. While this makes the Lower Madison warmer (as well as clearer) in May, it makes it too warm for trout health to say nothing of fishing quality from sometime in late June or very early July through around Labor Day.
As such, the Lower Madison is strictly a three-season river: we guide on it primarily in May and June, with occasional fall forays. It is also a popular winter fishery. In July and August, leave it to the vast swarms of tubers, kayakers, canoeists, and especially drunk college students.
The Beartrap Canyon
The roughest and most remote portion of the Madison begins at Ennis Dam, where the river enters the Beartrap Canyon. This is a rare low-elevation wilderness area that offers the Lower Madison’s best fishing. Very limited guiding activity occurs here, since only one Madison River fishing guide service (not us, alas) has commercial operating permits to float, and few (again, not us) have wading permits.
For experienced whitewater paddlers, the Beartrap presents an intriguing float option in May and June. Novice rowers need not apply. Kitchen Sink Rapid in particular is a terrifying class-V beast that most boaters rope their boats around. Passengers should always expect to scramble on foot around this rapid, even if the oarsman decides to run it.
For wade-anglers, access is possible from Ennis Dam as well as a trail that heads at the bottom of the canyon on the east side of the river. Pressure is heavy within a mile or so of the trailheads and near the dam (the only non-wilderness portion, and the only stretch where we can guide the Beartrap), but there’s about 8mi of water from trailhead to trailhead. This is a great option for avid hikers and a place where backpackers can stay overnight in late spring before the high country is ready.
This stretch fishes best with nymphs. Stonefly nymphs, San Juan Worms, and crayfish are all good bets. In the winter, midging can be good, and in late spring the caddis hatches can be strong.
Warm Springs to Black’s Ford
Float-fishing begins on the Lower Madison in earnest at Warm Springs, about a mile upstream from the end of the Beartrap Canyon (but downstream from all but one minor rapid). The seven-mile stretch between Warm Springs and Black’s Ford Access holds a high concentration of trout, a good variety of structure, and doesn’t get quite as warm or as weedy as downstream stretches. It’s also easy to float from anything from a drift boat to novelty pool floats. Since it isn’t rough and most casts need not be accurate (at least with nymphs), this is a very beginner-friendly stretch. We run almost all of our Lower Madison River fishing trips on this section because of its quality.
Access for both floating and wading is phenomenal here. There are five developed boat launches, of which four are broad concrete ramps suitable for drift boats. The other is a seldom-used raft slide. Both banks are public over most of this stretch. Numerous dispersed campsites, a developed campground, and lots of islands and side channels invite wading. Both fishing and recreational pressure are very high here, especially when the water gets warm enough for “splash and giggle” floaters in inner tubes around the middle of June. Fishing early and late in the day is a good idea here to get away from the crowds, even though the best dry fly fishing can be around midday (it is very good right at dark, too).
Almost every Madison River fishing guide starts with nymph-fishing here, and we’re no exception. Absent a hatch (and some fall hopper and ant fishing), nymphs are the bread and butter year-round here. For most of the season, some combination of crayfish imitations (like olive Zirdle Bugs), San Juan Worms or Squirmy Wormies, slender mayfly nymphs, and caddis pupae produce best on this water. Some large fish also come while stripping or swinging streamers, but this is a “shoot for the moon” tactic.
Dry fly fishing depends on hatches and is best on cloudy days from mid-May through June. BWO hatches are earlier in spring and fall, and late evening Brown Drake hatches occur in June right at and after sunset. The best daytime hatches in May and June are Mother’s Day Caddis in May and perhaps the first week of June, PMD in June, and a variety of other caddis species in June. When they’re rising, the fish are seldom overly particular, so attractor dry flies like our Coachman Clacka Caddis for most caddisflies or our Purple Hazy Cripple for most mayflies will draw action. Except on the cloudiest days with the heaviest hatches, most rising trout will be small rainbows and cutthroats, so it’s best to fish an unweighted nymph or caddis pupa dropper to interest some larger browns.
Whether wading or floating, fishing dries or subsurface, the key on this stretch of the Madison is finding deeper water. While there are some areas of obvious good structure such as bouldery cliffs and long, deep pools, many areas require finding small holes downstream of weedbeds and other small depressions. Since the entire river is often two feet deep here, a dropoff to four feet counts as a deep hole and will hold almost all the fish, especially if it’s downstream of a weedy riffle full of insects. Only during high water periods (early June in very wet years, especially) can the trout be expected to mostly be tucked tight to the bank as they often are on the Yellowstone.
Warm Springs to Black’s Ford makes a good 3/4-day float trip in the shoulder seasons, while it works great as a float-wade option when flows are under about 4000cfs and it’s possible to get out to wade some good island complex stretches near the midpoint of the float. At high levels, Warm Springs or California Corner to Damselfly is a good half-day float. For full-day floats when flows are normal to high, it’s best to continue down to High Bank (an ad-hoc access where the road comes close to the river on a—you guessed it—high bank) or Greycliff Access.
This is the only stretch of river in our operations area where casual floaters can be more than a minor nuisance. Because it is warm and shallow, large commercial inner tube and kayak operations use this water heavily. The crowds ramp up after Memorial Day and especially around mid-June. Nothing ruins a good day of fishing like getting run into by six or eight inner tubes (two or three just for beer coolers) all tied together and completely out of control. I have been struck by several such conglomerations of jackasses, and even by out-of-control kayakers. One of the kayakers even knocked me away from the takeout at the end of the day and almost made me miss it. Starting early is the best way to shed these crowds, since most run from late morning to late afternoon.
Black’s Ford to Greycliff
At Black’s Ford, the Madison enters a much more homogeneous section and fish populations begin to decline sharply. Wade access gets more difficult due to private land and there are long stretches of weedy, extremely shallow water that hold few fish. The trout concentrate heavily in the few deep holes in this stretch, especially along a few fairly obvious cliffs and below islands within a couple miles of Greycliff.
The same tactics work here as on the section above. The fishing just isn’t as good overall. If wade-fishing, hit this stretch early in the day either at High Bank or at the upstream end of the public land parcel that ends at the Greycliff Fishing Access, before the guide boats get here. If floating for a full-day trip, start at either California Corner or Warm Springs (depending on flow). Fish the area upstream of Black’s Ford hard, then hit the good spots between Black’s and Greycliff. I seldom use High Bank Access, since there is some good water between it and Greycliff I don’t want to miss.
A mile or two above Greycliff Access, the Madison begins splitting into many wooded channels again. It’s important to take the right-hand forks of these channels (except the smallest side channels) to avoid missing Greycliff Access. Some years the main channel goes to the left of a large island above Greycliff and it’s possible to miss the takeouts. There are two ramps at Greycliff, an upper one adjacent to a campground and a lower one at the north end of the parcel. I usually use the upstream takeout unless running a rare half-day float from Damselfly or Black’s Ford. If you’re uncertain about where the accesses are on this stretch, I suggest floating it with a Madison River fishing guide the first time you go.
Greycliff to Three Forks
This is a long stretch of river with limited trout and limited access. Between Greycliff and Milwaukee Bridge (adjacent to I-90), it’s a 16+ mile float without boat access, though there is one wade (or carry-in kayak or canoe) access at Cobblestone FAS at the midpoint. This stretch features many islands and side channels and sees little pressure, either from anglers or casual floaters.
The trout populations are low here, only about 500 per mile, though there are some big brown trout. Carp and pike are also possible. Covering water with streamers and crayfish are the best tactics unless you’re sight-fishing for carp.
Overall, this reach is best for floaters who want privacy, nice scenery, and maybe one or two big trout, rather than serious anglers.
Downstream of Milwaukee Bridge, the Jefferson and shortly thereafter the Gallatin join the Madison to form the Missouri. The next takeout is on the Missouri at Missouri Headwaters State Park just downstream of the Gallatin confluence.