Montana Fly Fishing 13 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Madison River

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

April 30, 2023

Madison River Yellowstone

The excitement is palpable. You are going to be heading to Montana to spend some time fly fishing and getting back to nature. This state is easily one of the best places in the country to go for great fly fishing.

There is a boundless natural beauty, and many of the rivers offer some of the best fishing you will find anywhere. If you are just now planning your fly fishing trip, you will want to consider which river to fish.

You will find that there are quite a few options that could work well for you all across the state, but one that you surely don’t want to miss is the Madison River.

Below, you will find a guide that will give you the most important information you need to know about this river, where to fish, what to bring with you, etc.

Legendary Fishery

Fly fishing the Madison River with Epic Montana

The Madison River has something of a reputation. It’s known by many anglers to be one of the best trout streams in the country and perhaps the entire world. As such, it is one of the most popular places to book a fly fishing trip.

For a lot of anglers, a fishing trip on the Madison River is a dream come true. Many make annual pilgrimages to the river because it just never gets old.

Whether you are a fan of wade fishing or you like float fishing, there are options along the river that can work well for you.

What Is the Madison River Like?

The Madison rises in Park County in northwestern Wyoming at the confluence of the Firehole River and Gibbon River, a location known as Madison Junction in Yellowstone National Park.

It flows west then north for more than 140 miles through the mountains of southwestern Montana to join the Jefferson and Gallatin rivers. It finally reaches the Missouri River near a small town called Three Forks, Montana.

Fifty Mile Riffle

One of the nicknames of the Madison River is the Fifty Mile Riffle. While this might just seem like a cute name for the Madison River, you will find that it tends to be rather accurate. There truly are about 50 miles of riffles with this river, which makes for some great fishing.

Whether you are to use dry flies, nymphs, or streamers, they can do well on this river. It’s a good option for anglers of just about any skill level.

If you are setting up a trip in southwestern Montana, you will find a lot to enjoy when fly fishing in the Madison River.

Type of Fish in the Madison River

You will find some great fish in the river that are perfect for fly fishermen. As mentioned, this is a trout river, which means there are plenty of rainbow trout and large brown trout to be had.

The Madison River is also home to mountain whitefish.

You will find that unlike some of the other rivers, the Madison is home to some truly impressive, large fish. You may even be fortunate enough to get some trophy browns.

What to Expect at the Madison River?

It wasn’t too long ago that there were issues with Madison River, including whirling disease. However, those days are gone, and today, you will find some of the best wild rainbow trout and brown trout in the state.

The fishing season in Montana is from the third Saturday in May through November 30. However, some areas are catch and release all year long. Always double-check those catch and release locations before you book your trip.

The upper Madison River and the area between the lakes are popular for fly fishing. However, there are times during the summer when parts of the river could be closed off to fishing because of water temperature levels.

How Does the River Flow?

The Madison River runs for about 23 miles through Yellowstone National Park. It eventually leaves near West Yellowstone, and just below that portion of the park, the river heads into Hebgen Lake.

Hebgen Lake is a 14-mile lake that was created by Hebgen Dam. This lake is home to quite a few trout that make their way from the lake to the river and vice versa. After the Madison River leaves the dam, it flows for three miles before it runs into yet another dam at Quake Lake.

Quake Lake has an interesting history, as it is a naturally made dam. In 1959, a 7.1 earthquake caused a mountain to slide into the river, which then created the earthquake lake. The name—Quake Lake—is quite literal.

Right below Quake Lake, the river gets rough for about three miles. There is a lot of whitewater in the area. The quake has made this area steep and rocky, and this is not the type of river that you want to try to float and fish.

Instead, this is for those who enjoy the rapids that are many Class III and Class IV rapids that exist.

The whitewater area ends right around the Highway 87 Bridge. From there the Madison River becomes a bit gentler, but it still flows fast for another 53 miles. This section of the river runs through Madison Valley and past the town of Ennis. This part of the river, because it is far more manageable, is a good option for floating and fishing.

You will find that the landscapes here are stunning, as well. You can see the mountains in the distance, forests, grasses, and a host of wildlife. Of course, you will also have plenty of riffles, pools, and runs along these 50+ miles of the Madison River.

Not long after the river passes through Ennis, it will go into Ennis Lake. This lake is relatively small, being just five miles long. It was created by the Madison Dam.

After the Madison River passes through this dam, it then goes through Bear Trap Canyon. When the river heads through Bear Trap Canyon, you will find that the sides become tall canyon walls, and once again there is a lot of whitewater. This part of the river is not ideal for fishing, but it is popular with whitewater enthusiasts.

The Madison River flows through Bear Trap Canyon for about seven miles before spilling out into the open. Still, there are 31 miles before reaching the confluence with the Missouri River.

During that last stretch of the lower Madison River, you won’t be running into any additional rapids. The stream slows down as it passes through the countryside, and there are some good options for fishing here, too.

The lower Madison River that’s downstream from Madison Dam has quite a few brown trout, and you can hopefully hook some nice trout.

Best Places to Fish the Madison River

Because of the length and the popularity of the Madison River, it’s important to split up the river into various sections when discussing the best places to fish.

The guide will cover the different sections. In each of the sections, we will discuss the best time of the year to fish there, as well as the best flies to use.

Of course before heading out you’ll need a good map. We’ve got you covered there. You can get directions to all the fishing access sites and boat ramps on the Madison River with the DIY Fly Fishing Map.

Madison River Fishing Map

map of fishing access spots on the Madison River in Montana

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

River Origin to Hebgen Lake

This is the section of the Madison River that flows through Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park into Montana.

This section of the river is known for great fly fishing, and it is one of the most popular areas in the country. The streams are in good shape, and the water temps tend not to get too cold, thanks to the nearby geysers and the thermal activity here.

The fish in this area of the stream tends to bite better during the late spring and early summer, and then again in the autumn when things cool down.

June is one of the best months to fly fish here. It also heralds the arrival of caddis hatches and salmon fly hatches. Using similar flies during the first part of June can help you get some nice catches.

When the fall arrives and the temperatures start to drop a bit, you will find that the upper Madison River starts to come alive. It’s at this time of year that you start to see some of the big brown trout begin to move up from Hebgen Lake.

Of course, there is another benefit to heading to the upper Madison River at this time of year. The crowds will be much lower, which means you will not see as many anglers.

If you are going to be heading across Lake Hebgen, then having a boat will make it easier to get across. It’s a 14-mile lake and not one you will want to walk!

Madison River in Yellowstone National Park

The 19 miles of the Madison River in the park, although easily accessible offers technical dry fly and nymph fishing for rainbow and brown trout averaging from ten to fourteen inches, with an occasional 20-incher. Most of the river inside the park resembles a large spring creek and has been called the world’s largest chalkstream.

The Madison River is one of the most famous and recognizable names in western trout fishing. Thousands of anglers from all over the world flock to the Madison to fish its hallowed waters. Trout in the Madison consist mainly of rainbows and browns running in the 10-16 inch range.

The Madison is home to some of the most famous stretches of water in the west. Many pools and runs on the Madison have angler-given names such as The Barns, Beaver Meadows, Grasshopper Bank, Cable Car Run and Baker’s Hole.

Madison River Access in Yellowstone

The West Entrance Road and an abundance of pullouts makes access to the Madison River easy. The road follows the river from its confluence for about 10 miles. Access to the river is then restricted to several gravel roads. It is also possible to hike into the Madison River. The section of river from Seven Mile Bridge and Nine Mile Hole may be closed to protect nesting trumpeter swans. Click on the above map icons for access information and driving directions.

Hebgen Dam to Raynolds Pass Fishing Access Site

All of this section of the river is located in Montana. You will find that this part of the water tends to be rough for the couple of miles before it heads to Quake Lake.

Once you get below Quake Lake, you will find that the Madison River is followed closely by Highway 287. This has some pros and cons.

For starters, it means that you will have easy access to the river due to the proximity of the road and the lodges in the area. However, there will be more fishing pressure in this section of the river.

Whenever access is easy, pressure is higher.

Due to the speed of the water in this area, float fishing is not recommended. Most who are in drift boats or other watercraft will be spending so much time wrangling their boats that they won’t be able to fish.

If you wade fish, though, this is a good area. You can go wade fishing below Hebgen Dam and downstream from Quake Lake. There are some large rainbow and brown trout in this section.

Fishing deep pools with weighted streamers can work to entice these fish. Some of the popular streamers include Muddler Minnows and Zonkers.

Something to keep in mind is that there is no boat fishing allowed from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge. This is nice for wade fishing, as wade anglers often feel as though the streams in Montana are overrun with boats.

Raynolds Pass Fishing Access Site to Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Site

You will find that this section of the river flows fast, as well, and it is closed to float fishing. It is still possible to find some good fly fishing spots in this part of the river, though, but you will want to wait until after the spring runoff.

You can use a range of flies in this area with some good effects. Elk Hair Caddis in sizes 14-16 are good options, particularly if you are fishing during the summer months. Some of the other options to consider include Blue Winged Olive, Pale Morning Dun, Parachute Adams, and March Brown.

Typically, anglers will have better luck with short casts in this section of the river.

One of the other benefits of fishing this section of the river is that the fish here tend not to get spooked as easily as fish in the lower Madison River. This gives you a bit more freedom to make some casting mistakes.

Lyons Bridge FAS to Highway 287 in the Town of Ennis

Along this section of the river, you can again start float fishing if that is your preferred style. This is a great section of the river, but it also has some of the highest fishing pressure.

The first 30 miles of this part of the river are essentially like a long riffle. Even though it might not look like typical trout habitat, this section of the river has some of the best fishing.

It is estimated that there are up to 2,000 fish per mile here, and most of them will be 10” or greater in length.

You can find both brown and rainbow trout here. It’s some of the best dry fly fishing you will find.

The greatest fishing pressure tends to hit this area during the salmon fly hatch. This will generally start in the latter part of June. Heavy fishing tends to continue for about two weeks.

This is when most of the anglers will arrive.

You can use different types of salmon fly hatch imitations to try to get the attention of these fish.

Keep in mind that if the water is too high or cloudy during this time of year, it can put a damper on the fishing with salmon fly hatch imitations. Something you might want to have along with you that can help in those cases would be larger stonefly nymph imitations and attractor patterns.

In this area of the river, when you are fishing later in the year, you can start to use other types of flies.

In late July, grasshopper patterns tend to work quite well on this and other parts of the Madison River. You will typically want to choose hoppers from sizes 4-10.

When late September arrives, it’s time to start fishing for the brown trout in earnest. For these fish, large streamer and attractor patterns tend to work nicely.

Although many anglers choose to float fish in this part of the river downstream from Varney Bridge, there are also some good wading spots. If you like to get out into the water rather than on it, there are plenty of fishing access sites along the river.

You can wade upstream or downstream from those access spots and find some nice hidden spots that won’t have as much fishing pressure.

Highway 287 Access Site to Ennis Lake

Again, you won’t be able to float fish below the Highway 287 Access Site. This is the perfect place for wade fishing.

Even though you are nearing the town of Ennis, you will find that this section of the river tends not to have too much fishing pressure.

You will see that this part of the river looks like traditional trout habitat, too. There are undercut banks, some deeper holes, and areas to hide.

You will find that there are fewer overall fish here, but they tend to be larger. Brown trout are the most populous fish in this section of the lower Madison River.

Of course, this area also happens to be more challenging for anglers. Those who have experience fly fishing will do better on this section of the Madison River than new fly fishermen.

Ennis Lake to Three Forks, MT

There are two sections between Ennis Lake and Three Forks. First, there is Bear Trap Canyon. This section has tall mountains on either side of the river.

The current moves fast and results in a lot of whitewater. Getting access to this part of the river is difficult and not recommended. The terrain is difficult, and bushwhacking will require that you deal with steep trails, snakes, and more.

Lower Madison River

The next section is downstream from Bear Trap Canyon along the lower Madison River. The water slows down once it gets past that first section, making it a good area for wade fishing.

There are rainbow and brown trout in this section, and again, it’s best to fish here during the spring and the fall.  

Madison River Fly Fishing Tips

Fish on the Madison are notoriously picky and hard to catch. Wading the Madison can be difficult on several stretches. The water may look shallow, but often it is deeper than it appears. The water here runs fast and powerful; don’t get yourself into a dangerous situation. The bottom of the Madison between Seven Mile Bridge and Nine Mile Hole is deep silt, making wading dangerous.

The Madison is an early summer and fall river in YNP and offers poor fishing in midsummer in because of high temperatures contributed by the Firehole River.

In the fall, monster brown trout move out of nearby Hebgen Lake to spawn. This is perhaps your best chance to catch huge brown trout. These are usually taken with large streamer patterns. The Madison also contains impressive numbers of mountain whitefish.

Madison River Hatches

Spring runoff usually subsides by late June, but often runs later after a big snow year. A sporadic stonefly hatch starts the dry fly season in late June and early July. Baetis, Pale Morning Duns and Green Drakes also hatch about this time.

Caddis begin hatching in June and continue to hatch in strong numbers until late fall.The Madison is at its best on overcast and rainy days. Fish early and late for the best results.

Tricos show up in August and September, hatching on the quiet stretches of water. Terrestrials such as low-profile hopper patterns work well from July until October.

September sees the arrival of spawning brown trout and fishing is best in cold, wet weather. Streamers like Wooly Buggers and Zonkers work well. Big, weighted nymphs like a Beadhead Prince will produce fish. Spawning browns can be caught until the season’s end after the first Saturday in November.

The best flies for Madison River match the hatch.  When in doubt though, general attractor patterns will do the trick.

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Madison. For larger nymphs and streamers a 9-foot 6-wt with a sink tip fly line makes life easier. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 6X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Real-Time Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Before you head out to fish the Madison River be sure to check the stream conditions.  The USGS stream gauge near West Yellowstone, MT gives you a good idea of the stream conditions inside Yellowstone National Park.

USGS Water-data graph

Fishing Regulations

The Madison River is fly fishing only in Yellowstone National Park. Catch and release all grayling, cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish. Check the Yellowstone fishing regulations for more information regarding the Madison River and seasonal river closures. Montana fishing regulations apply outside the Park.

Trip Planning

Some of the nearest towns to the Madison River include Ennis and West Yellowstone, Montana. There are plenty of places to stay in one of the nearby towns.

However, once you decide which section or sections of the river you want to fish, consider looking for lodges or campgrounds that are as close as possible. This can ensure that you get to your fishing spots as quickly as possible each day.

Visit our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Montana, DIY Guide to the Best Fly in Wyoming, and DIY Guide to Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park for information on fishing other area streams.