Madison River Fishing

If you enjoy fly fishing, you don’t want to miss a trip to the Madison River. Known as one of the best fly fishing destinations in the west, the Madison offers amazing fishing and beautiful scenery. Madison River contains a plentiful supply of rainbow and brown trout, especially in the area upstream from Ennis. And if you’re looking for some lunkers, there’s no better fishery. Madison browns are prolific and big.

You’ll find plenty of access points to put in float fish. There are also plenty of state and federally managed lands along the river where you’ll find some excellent opportunities to fish from shore. The river is great fish by boat when flows are high, and offers some the best wade fishing as flows subside.

Madison River Sections

Madison river is made up of several distinct sections. Each section offers a unique fishery and unique fishing experience.

Yellowstone Park to Hebgen Lake

Total distance: 22 miles

The Madison starts in Yellowstone National Park at Madison Junction (Firehole and Gibbon Rivers confluence). Fish season opens on Memorial Day weekend. Only wade-fishing is permitted inside the park. October is the best time to fish the Madison section in Yellowstone as large browns from Hebgen Lake migrate upstream into the park. One of the best techniques for fishing trout during the fall is nymphing an egg pattern trailed by a baetis nymph. Fishing streamers work well for targeting larger brown trout.

Top fishing spots and access points:

Hebgen Lake to Quake Lake

Total distance: 2 miles

The Madison river from Hebgen Lake Dam to Quake Lake (“Between the Lakes”) remains relatively cool even during the warmer summer months. The water temperature hovers between 40 and 45 degrees all year. This section of the Madison has high trout concentrations, with a good number of trophy catches. Being only few miles long, with easy access, and great fishing this section of the Madison experiences high fishing pressure. Some anglers prefer to fish this stretch of the Madison when crowds are thin during May and October.

Rainbow trout are the most prolific fish on the “Between the Lakes” section the Upper Madison. Very few numbers of Browns make it to this 2 mile stretch during fall runs. For Browns, you’ll want to fish the fall runs upstream of Hebgen Lake. However, the few Browns that do inhabit waters below Hebgen Dam tend to be a bit bigger. This stretch of the river is best wade fished or fished from shore given the strong current and whitewater.

Top fishing spots and access points:

  • Hebgen Lake Dam – Just below the dam you’ll find decent populations of larger trout
  • Cabin Creek – Below Cabin Creek rainbows migrate and spawn between February and March.
  • Cabin Creek to Quake Lake – Boulder strewn runs ideal for nymph fishing. Target the slack water behind boulders.
Quake Lake to Reynolds Pass

Total distance: 3.5 miles

If you’re looking for the best stretch of trout fishing water on the Madison, head to the section between Quake Lake and Reynolds Pass. The steep gradient and large rocks make for superb trout habitat. You’ll find giant browns (18″-23″) and healthy rainbows hiding behind many of the bolders. Keep your presentation natural, don’t overdo it, and you’ll net some lunkers.

We recommend fishing with large stonefly nymphs and sculpin patterns around the soft pockets of holding water for best results. Larger streamers, including Zonkers, on a sink tip line are also popular. Trout will also take caddis and PMD’s. Just be careful around these waters, since they are fast moving and there are plenty of hidden rocks just beneath the surface. The fishing pressure in this section of the Madison river is highest in July and August.

Raynolds Pass to Lyons Bridge

Total distance: 9.5 miles

This section of Madison is wade fishing only. Fishing pressure is high from Reynolds pass to Three Dollar Bridge, but drops off for the remainder of the stretch to Lyons Bridge. Trout are plentiful throughout this stretch of the river, but anglers tend to focus on the upper section since the water is easier to read.

The best fishing along this stretch of the Madison occurs when flows subside after spring run off. Dry fly anglers report success fishing Elk Hair Caddis, BWOs and Pale Morning Dun patterns in the 14-16 range. March Brown imitations and Parachute Adams are two more ringers. Short casts tend to be more productive for fly fishing as longer casts result in flies and line getting dragged by the current.

Top fishing spots and access points:

Lyon’s Bridge to McAtee Bridge

Total distance: 16.5 miles

From Lyons Bridge to McAtee Bridge, float fishing is allowed. This section of Madison is popular for anglers fishing from drift boat. Wade fishing is less popular here. Trout concentrations are high throughout this stretch of the Madison river. For best results when fishing this stretch, we recommend fishing streamers, nymphing, and dry fly fishing.

There are four popular float routes along this section of the Madison that put in at Lyons Bridge.

McAtee Bridge to Varney Bridge

Total distance: 11.5 miles

The stretch of river beween McAtee Bridge to Varney Bridge can be characterized as a long shallow riffle. You’ll find trout scattered throughout this stretch of the Madison mostly concentrated in runs, which can be challenging to pinpoint. As you get closer to Varney Bridge there a few good fishing spots next to the large cottonwoods (can’t miss them) where you’ll net some lunkers if you’re patient.

During the summer months the Madison from McAtee to Varney offers some great dry fly fishing. The best approach is to fish the seams along the currents, eddies, and “bucket” water that forms behind the boulders. You’ll find trout holding here in the calmer water waiting to snag a meal from the passing current.

Varney Bridge to Ennis

Total distance: 8.6 miles

Many of Madison’s larger brown trout are found between Varney Bridge and Ennis. These Browns are packed into a relatively small area at the lower end of this stretch near Ennis. It can be challenging to find Browns along this stretch of the Madison, but they’re there. With a little persistence, and good presentation, you’ll find them. And once you do, you’ll start landing bites.

Varney Bridge to Ennis is characterized by longer runs, deeper channels, undercut banks, and a bunch of side channels. This stretch of the Madison is good for float fishing, wading, or a combination of the two. When flows are high, anglers are best off float fishing as wading can be a bit challenging. Recommended flow levels for floating the Madison are 1,000 to 3,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). For wading, CFS flows at the bottom end of this figure or lower are recommended.

Popular access points and float routes along this section of the Madison include:

For some decent wade fishing, try the shallow, braided channels along the riffles and runs. A fair number of anglers will float this section of the Madison and anchor from time to time to wade fish some of the more productive runs and side channels.

Bear Trap Canyon

Total distance: 11 miles

After exiting Ennis Lake, the Madison enters Bear Trap Canyon. This eleven-mile long stretch that runs from the dam to Warm Springs Boat Launch is too dangerous to float for most boaters. Every year the Bear Trap Canyon section of the Lower Madison River typically has a solid salmon fly hatch, along with the Mother’s Day Caddis, Baetis and Pale Morning Duns. Streamer fishing and nymphing are your best options along this stretch of the Madison.

Anglers who want to boat Bear Trap Canyon will often put in at the Beartrap Canyon Boat Launch and take out at the BLM Warm Springs Boat Launch 8 miles downstream. The Trap Canyon Recreation trail follows the river upstream about 4 miles and provides excellent access for shore fishing.

Lower Madison River

Total distance: 21 miles

The Lower Madison branches away from Warm Spring’s access and continues 20 miles north toward Three Forks passing through Blacks Ford, Greycliff, and Cobblestone fishing access sites. This section can get warm during the summer but some larger trout may remain in the lower reaches of the river.

The best fishing in the Lower Madison River occurs from February to early July, and from mid-September until December. Winter fishing is good here as long as the wind is not too cold for anglers. For best fishing results, target the edges of massive weed beds, and around the depressions and channels. Nymphing and fishing streamers subsurface with crayfish or streamer patterns is most productive.

Madison River Fish Species

There are several species of fish that inhabit the Madison River. The most common sport fish include brown and rainbow trout.