Some rivers seem to be specifically designed for fly fishing. Around every bend there’s a great pool or seam. The casting lanes are open and the fish count is high. All of that and more is found on the Madison River in Montana. Fly fishing the Madison River should be a bucket list item for every angler.
The Madison River is a blue-ribbon trout stream. It was one of the first rivers I fished when I made my initial voyage out West. Since I was inexperienced at the time, I thought this was what every Western river looked like. It wasn’t until I spent more summers out West that I realized how amazing the Madison truly is.
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Fly Fishing the Madison River: Why Go?
If you’re interested in seeing all that fly fishing has to offer, you can find it on the Madison. If you love fishing pools, you’ll have them. If you want to fish riffles, there’s over 50 miles of them to fish. The list goes on and on. It’s truly a remarkable body of water.
There are 3,000 fish per mile in this 140 mile stretch of water. On top of it all, you’ll be fishing in some of the prettiest scenery you’ve ever seen. The entire experience feels somewhat like a movie. You won’t soon forget it!
Species for Madison River Fly Fishing
The Madison River has only one native trout species, but over the years there have been several other types introduced into the river. The river itself is managed as a wild fishery, and there’s no stocking schedule. It’s amazing how well these fish reproduce.
Westslope Cutthroat Trout
The “westy” is perhaps the prized possession of the Madison River. This is the only native trout species in the river and it continues to repopulate well. If you’re fishing the Madison, this should be one of the main species you target.
They’re beautiful fish and are great fighters. A spot I like a lot for targeting westies is below Quake Lake in the midst of 50 miles of riffles. If you aren’t interested in the technical demands of this style of fishing, you can also find them in Bear Trap Canyon.
Fish for these with Salmonflies, Goldenstones, PMDs and terrestrials. They love to look at the surface when they’re feeding!
Brown trout are some of the biggest fish in the Madison. Since they’re so versatile, they can withstand some of the warmer summer water temperatures. I’ve found brown trout upwards of 20 inches in the Madison. If you land any trout in the Madison, browns are your best bet.
A great spot to fish for these is through Bear Trap Canyon. This is where the fish seem to be the most receptive. Be sure you take along your Buggers, Prince Nymphs and an assortment of Salmonflies. Quite a bit of the canyon is pocket water and pools. It’s an awesome experience.
Rainbow trout are another common species found throughout the Madison. These fish love cold water. As a result, you won’t find them in the 50 mile riffle in the middle of the summer. They’ll be in the deeper pools throughout the Canyon and just below the lakes.
When I’m going after rainbow trout on the Madison, I bring my 4 or 5-weight along with my nymphs and dries. Rainbows will voraciously feed on the surface. BWOs are great to use early in the season, and make sure you have Salmonflies ready come late summer.
I’ve caught plenty of rainbow trout between 14 and 16 inches. They’re especially beautiful in the Madison River due to the great health of these fish.
Brook trout have also been introduced into the Madison River. These are my personal favorite fish to target. Their colors are exceptionally beautiful, and they fight extremely well if you can find any with size.
Since these fish need such specific conditions, you often find them between 8 and 12 inches. Be equipped with Pheasant Tail Nymphs, PMDs and Golden Stoneflies. These will be the most productive flies for these fish. Look for them in the midst of the canyon, but especially target them in the riffles.
Best Spots for Fly Fishing the Madison River
The Madison River is filled with wonderful spots to fish. There really are no spots on the river that don’t hold fish. Depending on how much effort you’d like to put in, you can find seclusion and go fishing in areas that not many anglers venture into.
Within Yellowstone National Park
The Madison River begins in Yellowstone National Park. While this is only a three or so mile stretch of water, it has some amazing fishing. You can start fishing this portion in late May once the park season begins.
The best time to fish the Madison in Yellowstone is late June when the runoff season has concluded. You can use flies that you’d likely use on every other portion of this river. The caddis and salmonfly hatches are the top priorities, but Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails will be the most successful flies.
Below Reynolds Pass Fishing Access
This portion of the river is meant for those willing to put in the work. The current is fast and conditions aren’t always ideal, but the fishing can be spectacular. Many anglers don’t want to fish this portion because it isn’t the “traditional” fly fishing water that you can find on the rest of the river.
Bring your 4 or 5-weight along with a mix of dry and wet flies. Buggers, Minnows and heavier Copper John patterns will work great in this portion. Fish don’t have much time to make up their mind about hitting a fly, so this is a fun spot for those less confident anglers.
This area can be found right off of Highway 287, so access is quite easy. Remember that landowners in Montana own up to the high water mark.
Below Hebgen Dam
Unlike the portion of the river in Yellowstone National Park, this portion is located all in Montana, so you don’t have to worry about purchasing multiple fishing licenses. The river flows for about six miles before it reaches the Reynolds Pass Fishing Access.
Again, this bit of river is located right along Highway 287, so anglers short on time or worried about fishing access can spend time on this portion of the river. Be sure that you fish here once the runoff is fully complete. This portion of the river during runoff is very difficult to fish.
You will likely spend your time fishing from the bank. If you’re confident about fishing pocket water or dead drifting heavy flies, this will be a great portion of the river for you.
I’ve pulled out some massive fish from this portion of the river due to the high amount of food and cooler water temperatures. Bring that weight forward line and take advantage of some quality streamer fishing. Woolly Buggers, Sex Dungeons and Muddler Minnows will be your best bet.
Make sure you match the color of the water with your fly. The darker the water, the darker the fly, and vice versa. This is a great portion to hit if it’s an overcast day.
Below Lyons Bridge Fishing Access
Yes, this is the most popular portion of the Madison River. This section has quite a few fly fishing lodges located near it, so it receives quite a bit of pressure. As a result, anglers should be sure to get there early and claim their spots.
It’s about a 40-mile portion of the river, and the majority of it are riffles. These riffles can be deceiving to a novice angler. By the looks of them, you wouldn’t think there were any fish near this portion of the river.
There are, however, around 2000 to 2500 fish per mile. These fish can survive in just a few inches of water. As soon as the salmonfly hatch happens in late June, you’ll realize that’s true. Fish are constantly surfacing in an effort to grab one of them.
Depending on the clarity of the water, you may have to focus subsurface for a while. Large patterns in size 2 to 6 are going to be your best bet, and Dark Buggers are an excellent choice. Dead drift them along the bottom and wait for one of those large fish to pick it up!
Bear Trap Canyon
This is my favorite portion of the Madison River. Access is a challenge because it requires some extensive hiking over somewhat dangerous terrain. If you choose to fish the Bear Trap, you must be in decent physical condition and also have to be willing to deal with heartbreak.
The river moves fast through the canyon, but if you can find the feeding patterns, you’ll be surprised at the massive fish you can land. This portion of the river doesn’t require you to be an artist with your fly rod.
The canyon really asks you to be more of a lumberjack. You have to fight your way through difficult terrain and make short, choppy casts to land fish. Heavy streamers with sinking lines will land you the most fish. You’ll need them to get down and deep as fast as you can.
The fights with these large fish in this portion of the river are spectacular. You’ll find yourself scrambling and fighting for good footing. It’s an adventure unlike any other!
Best Flies for the Madison River
The Madison River is best known for its salmonfly hatch, but dozens of other patterns will work great. The versatility of this river is what makes it special.
Pat’s Rubber Legs
To no one’s surprise, a Pat’s Rubber Legs or a stonefly nymph pattern is a great choice for the Madison. You can fish these year-round on the Madison River.
There are always nymphs crawling around on the bottom. In the spring, use dark colors in size 4 or 6. The heavy runoff requires some extra weight and dark colors.
As the season continues, you can be more creative in your size and color choices. Check with the local fly shops to see what’s working!
Early in the season, Pheasant Tail nymphs work great. They’re a solid imitation of the BWO and land a nice amount of fish around April and May. Fish these anywhere between size 14 and 18.
Make sure you fish these on cloudy days or as the trailer on a dry-dropper rig. Early spring fishing on the Madison is wonderful! Make sure you time it before the runoff season truly begins.
The Tan-X Caddis was one of the first flies recommended to me when I was asking around for intel on the Madison River. It’s nowhere near a complicated pattern, but the fish can’t seem to resist it. I fish this anywhere between size 14-18 in the midst of a hatch.
Whenever you see a rise, throw this fly in that direction. Make sure to not complicate things when you’re fishing with dry flies! The fish are looking up, so wherever you see one break the surface, go ahead and throw it that way.
The big fish lovers know how important Buggers are to your success. The most important thing to remember with these flies is to match the color of the water and don’t overextend your casts.
If you’re fishing in cloudy water, make sure you’re using a black or dark green pattern. A Woolly Bugger will be the most appealing for the fish. Also, since it’s a heavier fly, anglers are often tempted to make too long casts. Take it easy and pick and choose spots within 25-30 feet.
The Chubby Chernobyl is one of the best fly patterns on planet Earth. You can use this right at the end of June or throughout July. The fish have a hard time turning this fly down!
I almost always use it as the dry in my dry-dropper rig. It’s able to withstand a nice amount of weight from a heavier nymph.
Madison River Fly Fishing Season
The Madison River is best fished in April and May as well as late June through October. Do your best to avoid runoff season. You’ll struggle to catch fish and leave with a sour taste in your mouth.
Madison River Fly Fishing Report
I was fortunate enough to fish the Madison during the salmonfly hatch this past year. As always, it was a spectacular time and the fish were especially hungry. I fished the portion below Lyons Bridge as well as a bit in the Bear Trap Canyon.
Spend your time fishing in the early mornings and evenings!
The Madison River is held in high regard, and rightfully so. It’s difficult for rivers to always live up to its expectations, but the Madison seems to come through every year. It’ll give you a full fly fishing experience and then some.
My trips to the Madison River have been a large part of making Montana one of my absolute favorite fly fishing states. The water has lots of variety, the scenery is spectacular, and the fish are hungry!
Pack up the car and see all that the West has to offer. You’ll leave with a newfound appreciation for the river and further your fly fishing obsession.
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