100 Best: Madison River
Location: Southwest Montana
Type of stream: Freestone (er… Tailwater)
Angling methods: Fly, Spin
Species: Browns, Rainbows
Supporting Services: Ennis, West Yellowstone
Short take: The one and only Madison
Handicapped Access: None
Closest TU Chapter: Madison—Gallatin
Even though most of the Madison flows through Montana, the mileage in Yellowstone National Park can’t be ignored. It begins at the where the Gibbon River meets the Firehole and runs through the park for about a dozen miles toward West Yellowstone. This is splendid water for browns and rainbows. Laminar pools flow like spring creeks through broad meadows favored by moose and elk in the fall. Braids around islands undermine grassy banks. Turn holes hold lunkers that know better than to show themselves unless salmon flies are hatching in June.
US Route 20, surfeit with pull-offs, shadows this section of river from Madison Campground to the west entrance to the park. Fish this section of the Madison when the park’s season opens on Memorial Day. In late June, it may be swollen with snow melt. As summer progresses geothermal springs begin to warm the river and fish feed less aggressively. When flows are particularly low and warm, the park will close this section. Fall brings browns up from Hegben Lake to spawn. This is a marvelous time to be on the Madison and in Yellowstone.
Just outside West Yellowstone, the Madison enters Hegben Lake and just below the dam it becomes a tailwater and moves rapidly into Quake Lake. From the lake’s outflow 12 miles down to Lyons Bridge, the river falls under catch and release, artificials only regs. Though closed to drift boats, fishing pressure is heavy because this mileage runs close to U.S. 287 and access is easy and ample.
Below Lyon Bridge the Madison’s gradient lessens. Flowing over a stable, cobbly bottom at about five miles per hour, the river bends slightly in its ancient channel but it never meanders. About 16 miles further downstream, at McAtee Bridge, the river becomes open to year ‘round angling.
When most anglers think of the Madison they concentrate on the river from Quake Lake down to Ennis. Yet the 42 miles of the river to the mouth offers interesting fly fishing of a very different sort. Want to throw Dahlberg Divers for northern pike? This is just the place to do it. Four boat launch ramps provide access to the lower river.