Fly Fishing the Lower Madison River
The lower Madison River is considered to be the stretches below or downstream of Ennis Lake. Ennis Lake was formed in 1901 by the creation of the Madison Dam which sets juts inside the mouth of the Beartrap Canyon. The reservoir is relatively shallow and warms relatively quickly during the long days of summer. The lower Madison stretches that is baffling to many anglers is the stretch of river between the Warm Springs fishing Access site and Black’s Ford, both of which are located roadside along Highway 84.
Warm Springs fishing access site is located at the bottom of the Beartrap Canyon, approximately 7 miles below Ennis Dam. The river is wide and gentle in appearance between Warm Springs and Black’s Ford. Much of the rivers character in this stretch is created by ice gorging in the winter and weed-bed development in the summer. Absent are the classic tales of narrow riffles, fast runs, and deep pools, Therefore, identifying productive holding water can be the most difficult aspect of fly fishing the lower Madison River.
Public access is permitted on both sides of the river between Warm Springs and Black’s Ford. Boat and recreational launches are only allowed, however, at the designated boat ramps (Warm Springs, Canaday, Damselfly, & Black’s Ford) and hand-launch zones as marked. Accessibility makes the lower Madison a great choice form may local anglers and river recreationalist alike.
In terms of the fly fishing on this stretch of the river, anglers that understand how to read the holding water here catch most of the fish. The water between Warm Springs and Canaday is often considered to be the best as there are deeper runs around the weed-beds, a few mid-river “rock gardens,” and long glides of mixed depth. We find that this fishes best early and late in the day with seasonal hatches which include Midges, Blue-Winged Olives, and Pale-Morning Duns bringing fish to the surface mid-day as well.
The river between Canaday and Damselfly can be the most productive in terms of trout numbers and average size. The structure here is more difficult to read than elsewhere with an emphasis on productive water being found near “buckets” that are created by moving ice jams in the winter and spring. These buckets create small depressions in the river-bottom which provide shelter from overhead predators and productive current seams. A handful of islands here also provide some nice holding water along the edges, tops, and bottoms.
As we make our way downstream of Damselfly fishing access site, the river straightens out and closely follows the highway to Black’s Ford. There is a small group of islands just above Black’s Ford which can make for some nice wade fishing opportunities early on summer days. Outside of these islands, most of the productive water here is along the roadside rip-rap and mid-river weed-beds. Surprisingly enough, this is where some of the largest Brown Trout are found on our guided fly fishing trips on the lower Madison River.
Fly recommendations are always at the top of the list for many anglers that stop in our Bozeman fly shop on their way to the lower Madison. Although it is technically a tailwater fishery, the aquatic invertebrate population here is much more different than the typical, cold-water tailwater such as the Bighorn or Missouri rivers in this region. Midges, Caddis, Mayflies, and Stoneflies make up the hatching insects and have varying degrees of importance throughout the year. Crayfish, Sculpins, and even Bullheads are very important to the trout on the lower Madison and often are the lead fly choices on our standard nymph rigs for the river.
The dry fly angler can expect to find rising trout throughout the year between February and early November throughout the lower Madison. Midges start off the year, followed by BWO’s in April, Caddis in late April, Stoneflies in mid-May, and the PMD’s throughout June. The summer dry fly fishing is usually best on a variety of attractor patterns like small hoppers, Royal Wullfs, and Purple Hazes fished early in the day. The classic “Match the Hatch” style of dry fly fishing is best around the Midge, Mayfly and Caddis hatches during the spring and fall times of year.
The “patented” streamer drag may have been invented here, but definitely perfected by fly fishing guides in the 90’s and early 2000’s. This technique of fly fishing is simply dragging a large, lightly weighted sculpin or crayfish under and indicator rather than stripping or attempting to dead-drift the flies. Feeding trout that are in the skinny water found throughout this stretch of the river will move a long way to chase a slow, dragging baitfish pattern in the spring and especially in the early summer. Traditional streamer fishing on floating lines can be productive as well, especially in the pre-summer months.
The shallow nature of Ennis Lake, can have dramatic effects on the water temperature here for most of the summer. Fly-fishing should be limited to the morning hours for most of July and August as daytime water temperatures often exceed 70 throughout the summer. Our Bozeman fly fishing guides generally start to look elsewhere soon after Father’s Day weekend.
Recreational river traffic is busy along this stretch of the river during the warmer times of year as well. Expect to see a wide range of river users actively enjoying this resource from early June on through September. The savvy angler understands that an early start is the key to avoiding the crowds of recreational river users on the lower Madison River. If you plan to put your boat on around 9 am on a July weekend, expect to spend the day surrounded by masses of folks floating in rafts, tubes, and various forms of modern-day pool toys!
The lower Madison River is consistently one of our favorite fly fishing destinations in the Bozeman area. Solid numbers of Rainbow and Brown Trout, coupled with a close proximity to town, make this river a local gem. Swing through our Bozeman fly shop on your way to the river before your next trip for the latest reports and best fly selection in Bozeman. Book one of our guides for a day or two of lower Madison River fly fishing to help learn the intricacies of this local river.