Montana Fly Fishing
The Madison River

Madison River

The Madison River : Fly Fishing

Madison River below Hebgen Dam
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This section of the Madison River in Montana between the Hebgen Dam and Raynolds Pass Fishing Access Site has the fastest and most turbulent river flows. Between Hebgen Dam and Quake Lake Inlet, the river flows for less than two miles. Below Quake Lake, the river flows for an additional four miles.

This section of the Madison River closely follows Highway 287. Due to easy road access, fishing pressure can be very heavy, particularly between Hebgen Dam and the inlet to Quake Lake.

The Madison River in this section has extensive whitewater and rapids, particularly between Quake Lake and Raynolds Pass FAS. Deep pools and runs are common, along with a very fast current. Due to the fast current, float fishing is exceptionally difficult, as most float fisherman will likely spend more time hanging onto the boat than actually fly fishing. For the wade angler, a popular method to catch the large rainbows and browns that are found on this section is to use weighted streamers on a sink tip line, dropping them into the deep pools. Popular streamer flies are Muddler Minnows and Zonkers, all in the larger sizes, 2-6.

Currently, fishing from boats from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge FAS is prohibited, providing the wade angler a "refuge" from other sections of the Madison River that can be over-run by float anglers.


Raynolds Pass FAS to Lyons Bridge FAS

The Madison River has a very fast current on this section, and is also closed to float fishing. Although the Madison River has left the mountains behind as it enters the Madison Valley, a steep gradient coupled with a rocky bottom combine to make the current fast and choppy.

Madison River near Cliff Bridge
Photo Use Guidelines

While the water moves quite quickly, excellent fly fishing can be experienced on this section of the Madison River after spring run-off subsides. For the top water angler, an Elk Hair Caddis in sizes 14-16 works extremely well during the summer. Other popular imitations that should be in the top waters fly box include the Blue Winged Olive, the Pale Morning Dun (a must!), the Parachute Adams, and the March Brown.

Since the Madison River is so quick on this section and has a multitude of currents, short casts provide the best technique for fly fishing on top. Longer casts generally will end up resulting in heavily dragged floats - not conducive to good fly fishing.

A piece of good news for the angler fly fishing this section of the Madison River is that the fish are not as spooky as found further downstream. Due to the fast current, the fish on this section have little time to make up their mind about a particular fly, giving an angler some room for error in their presentations. A bad cast, unless it is a really bad one, usually will not spook a feeding trout.


Madison River : Lyons Bridge FAS to Varney Bridge FAS

This stretch of the Madison River, which is open to float fishing, runs for thirty miles and receives the heaviest fishing pressure. The river in this section resembles a never-ending riffle, with little of the standard trout habitat one would expect to find. Few pools, boulder gardens or undercut banks await the angler. But despite the lack of apparent trout habitat, the fishing in this section is perhaps the finest on the river. Current estimates put the number of rainbow trout in this section that are ten inches or greater over 1000 fish per mile. While this number is down from the historic levels seen twenty years ago, the hefty fish population of both rainbow and brown trout can provide some excellent fly fishing.

While this section of the Madison is the most heavily fished portion of the Madison River, by far the heaviest fishing pressure occurs during the Salmon Fly hatch that generally starts in late June, with the prime fishing period running for about two weeks. During this period, anglers flock to the river in droves, hoping to catch the hatch at its prime.

Attempting to be on the Madison River during the hatch is an exercise in luck and good fortune. High, cloudy water can severely reduce the both the hatch and the anglers ability to catch anything. Cold weather also puts a damper on the feeding activity of trout. However, for the angler who likes to fly fish large dry flies and is lucky enough to arrive at the right time, a better river will not be found.

Madison River
Photo Use Guidelines

Large dry flies, in various Salmon Fly imitations, are the flies of choice during the hatch on the Madison River. Countless fly imitations have been created for just this specific hatch. While imitations such as the Sofa Pillow, the Kaufmann Stone and the Montana Stone, in sizes 2-6, all will catch fish and are popular choices, it is highly recommended that any angler lucky enough to hit the hatch stop by a local fly shop to find out what the local fly of choice is for the year.

Unfortunately, high, cloudy water can severely hamper dry fly fishing during the hatch on the Madison River. To help counter this, large stonefly nymph imitations and attractor patterns can also be used during the hatch, bouncing them right along the bottom, particularly near the riverbanks. The trout will not be picky about what a particular fly looks like when fishing sub-surface in murky water. However, due to the murky water, large patterns in sizes from 2-6 that are darkly colored (black is the preferred color) work best. Wolly Buggers are a popular pattern used during this period. Also, generally at least a foot of water clarity is needed to successfully fish in this fashion. Thus, if the Madison River happens to be a moving sea of mud during the hatch, anglers will find more success fishing further upstream where the water is likely to be clearer.

Following the Salmon Fly hatch, this stretch of the Madison River provides some of the best dry fly fishing in the state. Extensive caddis hatches occur during the summer all along this stretch. Popular flies include the Emergent Sparkle Pupa, Elk Hair Caddis, Sparkle Dun, Pale Morning Dun, Parachute Adams and the Green Drake, all in sizes 12-16. Dry fly attractor patterns such as the Royal Wulff and the Humpy also work extremely well.

An angler visiting the Madison Valley for the first time cannot help to notice how open the valley is. Not surprisingly, such a wide-open valley full of grass and ranchland is prime grasshopper territory. Beginning in late July (or once the water has cleared and the air temperature has warmed) and lasting for the rest of the summer, grasshopper patterns work extremely well on the Madison River. Fishing hopper patterns is an excellent way to take large trout during the summer and can provide for killer fly fishing. Float the hoppers both along the banks as well as out in the middle of the river. Hopper sizes should range from 4-10, with pretty much any hopper imitation working just fine.

Beginning in late September, this section of the Madison River provides excellent fishing for brown trout using large streamer and attractor patterns. The Madison River provides little of the normal typical streamer terrain an angler is use to, such as deep holes, around big rocks and by undercut banks. Consequently, streamer fishing on the Madison River during the fall involves casting the streamers right along the banks, even into very shallow water, and retrieving them quickly.

This stretch of Madison Riiver is generally float fished, but can provide excellent fishing for the wade angler. For the angler who will be fly fishing from shore, do not be bashful about wading up or downstream from the various fishing access sites. A walk of only a mile or so will take wade anglers well away from most other fisherman. While any wade angler will still have to deal with a parade of rafts, once the Salmon Fly hatch runs its course by mid July, the number of float fishermen drop significantly.

The bulk of the fly fishing pressure on this stretch occurs during the Salmon Fly hatch. For the visiting angler wishing to avoid the crowds or for the angler who prefers to use standard dry flies, consider visiting this section of the Madison River anytime after mid-July. By late July, the river should run clear, the days should be warm and the Salmon Fly hatch craziness has ended, allowing for great conditions for the dry fly fisherman, especially for those lacking a boat.

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