The upper Madison River is perhaps the most famous and highly regarded wild trout stream in the Western US. The river is formed in Yellowstone National Park at the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers, just outside of West Yellowstone, Montana. As the upper Madison River leaves Yellowstone National Park, it flows into Hebgen Lake and then works its way north through the Hebgen Dam and then Quake Lake. The stretch of river between Quake Lake and Ennis, Montana is known as the “50 Mile Riffle” and is typically the portion of the Madison River that people refer to as the "Upper Madison."
As the first river in the west designated catch and release, the Madison River served as the springboard from which MTFWP shifted their fisheries management away from hatcheries in the 1970’s. All of Montana’s trout streams are wild trout fisheries in that their populations are fully self-sustaining.
The upper Madsion river flows through a wide-open valley with the Madison and Gravelly mountains forming dramatic backdrops throughout its course. Reminders of the glacial periods are everywhere you look and the river itself is unlike any other in the world. Classic runs and holes that typical of most western trout streams are not the norm on the upper; here it is literally one big riffle that goes for miles and miles. Holding water is everywhere and there are days when it seems like there is a big fish sitting just behind every boulder in the middle of the river. Floating the upper Madison is a unique Montana fly fishing experience and draws anglers back to the river every year.
The entire upper Madison River is similar in character from the mouth of Quake Lake all the way to where it forms Ennis Lake. There are some differences in the upper and lower sections in terms of bank structure, but the average current speed and depth remain consistent. Our Bozeman fly fishing guides fish the entire stretch of upper Madison River, using the weather and crowds to determine their tactics when heading that way. Whether wading around Raynold’s Pass or floating through the middle portions around MacAtee Bridge, we place avoiding crowds as our top priority on guiding fly fishing trips on the Madison River.
In recent years, the upper Madison has not been fishing as well as in years past largely due to a malfunction of Hebgen Dam in 2008. Since 2008, there has been a change in the amount of surface releases compared to bottom released water from the dam, which has resulted in an overall shift towards higher water temperature in July and August than the historical norms. However, repairs to Hebgen were finally completed in late 2017 and water is now coming out of the bottom of the dam instead of surface realeses. We are expecting the upper Madison River to once again be a great mid-summer fishery in 2018!
The Madison River offers year round fly fishing opportunities throughout the river. It is a great fishery in the spring and fall and realtively uncrowded as well. Mid-summer fishing has steadily been improving the last few years and we are expecting this trend to continue with the repairs to Hebgen Dam now complete. Summer crowds generally disperse throughout the river and our Bozeman fly fishing guides are able work around the crowds by leaving early and avoiding the busiest sections of the river.
As with most of the larger rivers in the area, the Madison River is affected by the spring runoff and is often too high and dirty for fishing at some point each year (mid May-mid June). However, the upper Madison River tends to clear quicker than the Yellowstone or Gallatin rivers, and is typically in decent condition by the first week of June. This varies year to year depending on the winter snow pack and spring moisture, but it is unusual for us to not be guiding on the upper by mid-June at the latest.
April is a great time of year to experience fly fishing the Madison River in solitude while enjoying some of the best fishing of the year. This is when water temperature start to warm, the hatches increase, and the Rainbows are finishing up the spaw. The river is full of life and the fish eat well throughout the day. It’s rare to see another boat on the river this time of year which enables our guides to have their pick of the river when planning the day. We do a lot of trips this time of year where we spend more time fishing while wading, using the boats to get from one spot to the next. Always a great time of year in terms of numbers of nice sized Rainbows and Browns, we highly recommend heading to the area in April to see a side of the upper Madison that few others ever experience.
The Salmonfly hatch on the upper Madison is one of the most well-known hatch events out west for good reason. Masses of the huge insects migrate to the banks in mid-June and makes for one of the most prolific stonefly hatches one will ever experience. When the timing is just right, there can be a week or two of fantastic dry fly fishing with big dries, fished close to the banks. It’s always tough to time just right, but we usually have a pretty good idea of when to expect the hatch by early May every year. Plan on getting on the water early and seeing plenty of other anglers though as this is the most popular time of year to be on the river.
Fall on the upper usually starts in mid-September with colder nights and shorter days serving to ease the summer heat. When we have some clouds, the streamer fishing can be as good as it gets with big Browns rocketing from their holding spots behind large boulders to crush aggressively stripped big bugs. Indian summer days still provide for some opportunities to find fish on the rise to ants, beetles, small mayflies, and even the occasional hopper. The crowds are generally sparser and the landscape becomes alive as the leaves begin to change colors. There is no place like the upper Madison River in October and it’s always near the top of our list when folks are looking for something a little different in terms of a Montana guided fishing adventure.
Like all of the rivers and streams that we offer guided fly fishing trips on in Montana, the upper Madison is a wild trout fishery. As a result, it is common to catch a wide size range of trout on any given day. Anglers can expect to catch primarily Rainbows in the 12-16 inch with a few reaching the 22” mark on the net coming to hand every year. It is not uncommon to catch more Browns than Rainbows on some days and many of the larger trout that come out of the Madison will be over 24”.
Our Bozeman fly shop and fly fishing outfitter offers full day guided fly fishing trips on the Madison River, all year long. Most of our guiding on the upper Madison is from drift boats, with wade fishing opportunities being available throughout the day. Our Montana fly fishing guides provide everything you need with the exception of a Montana fishing licenses, which is available at our Bozeman fly shop or online. We meet at the fly shop in the morning, discuss the options for the day and then head on the way in the guide’s vehicle. The typical drive time is 45-60 minutes each way, so we like to leave early to beat the crowds. Give us a call at 877-790-5303 or e-mail us to learn more about this awesome wild trout fishery.