The lower Madison River is considered to be the Madison River from below Ennis Lake, downstream to the headwaters of the Missouri River. This section of the Madison flows through the Beartrap Wilderness Area in a narrow gorge characterized by some serious whitewater and difficult access. Once the river leaves the Beartrap Canyon, the river dramatically changes character, becoming wider with a seemingly gentle flow all the way to Three Forks, where it joins the Jefferson River and Gallatin River to form the Missouri River.
The river is only 20 minutes from our Bozeman fly shop and works well as a choice for both floating or wading guided fly fishing trips. We offer both full and half-day guided fly fishing trips on the Lower Madison. Notoriously tough to figure out, this is one river in the area where having an experienced guide at your side or on the oars really makes the difference between catching a few fish and having an amazing day. All of our Montana fly fishing guides are on this stretch of the Madison River throughout the year and generally consider it a great choice for both large fish and overall numbers of wild trout most of the year.
Where We Guide on the Lower Madison River
Our focus on fly fishing the lower Madison is on about 15 miles of water between the mouth of Beartrap Canyon and the Greycliff Fishing Access Site. Here, the river is wide, relatively shallow, and full of terrific holding water around weed beds and “buckets” throughout the river. At first glance, the river looks non-descript but our guides know how to read this water exceptionally well and work hard to teach our guests this unique skill as well.
We also fish the lower stretches of the river, closer to the town of Three Forks, when water conditions are appropriate. This section of the Madison River has less fish than the waters just below the Beartrap, but is home to some very large fish and is especially fun to fish with large streamers. It’s rare to see anyone other than the occasional recreational floater down through the lower reaches of the river, so it’s always a nice place to get away from crowds.
When to Fly Fish the Lower Madison
The Lower Madison is a year-round fishery that typically fishes well in a variety of water conditions and stream flows. Because it flows out of Ennis Lake, the river is less affected by the spring runoff than other local rivers like the Yellowstone and Gallatin. The river will typically be in pretty poor shape for 2-3 weeks each year in late May and early June but still remains fishable to some degree. Outside of the spring melt, the river stays in fine shape the rest of the year with a few exceptions as Ennis Lake turns over in the spring and fall.
Once the summer heat arrives and flows coming out of Ennis Lake stabilize - usually sometime in July - the Lower Madison goes through some dramatic daily temperature changes. As water temperatures approach and exceed 70 degrees, trout become physiologically stressed so we start fishing around sunrise and are typically off the water by 2 pm. Also, the warm water temperatures cause the aquatic vegetation to “grow like weeds” which can make fishing difficult at times. If you don’t mind learning how to cope with casting around the weeds and getting on the water while the sun is coming up, the lower Madison is a great choice all year round. This stretch of the river often goes on "Hoot Owl" restrictions for most of July and August which mean that it is open to fishing from midnight to 2 pm. It is often a great choice during this time of year as the angling pressure is minimal and we can be off the water before the summer heat really starts to hit.
Highlights of Fly Fishing the Lower Madison
Winter dry fly fishing on the lower is classic “match the hatch” midge and Baetis dry fly fishing at its best. Give us a few clouds and a wisp of a breeze any day in February or March and we’ll be over on the lower hunting for big head coming up to little dries in skinny water. It’s just one of those things that happen on the lower every year that gets everyone around here excited to get on the water. If the wind is blowing and the insects aren’t out, the nymphing is always great this time of year too.
The Mother’s Day Caddis hatch on the lower Madison is characterized by a mass emergence of insects on a daily basis that usually goes on for a few weeks. Unlike the Yellowstone, this particular stretch of the Madison typically remains fishable throughout the peak periods of the hatch. The dry fly fishing can be amazing on the lower Madison during the hatch, but the best fishing is typically had on warm, cloudy days and during the last few hours of daylight.
Early summer on the lower Madison is the best time of year to find the big browns that live throughout the lower Madison. This is the time of year when water temperatures are ideal to keep the fish feeding throughout the day, water levels keep the larger fish spread out throughout the river, and the weeds are not an issue. We’ll be looking primarily for big Browns in the 20”-25” range this time that are looking for slow moving crayfish and sculpin patterns fished under an indicator.
Many of the big Browns seem to disappear once the heat of the summer gets here, but are found once again as the days get shorter and the nights cooler. Usually, by mid-September, we will be fishing the lower every day with large, lightly weighted streamers over the shallow weed beds in the hope of finding a few large fish. This is always a great time of year to be on the lower Madison and is a great example of what Montana fly fishing can be like during the fall
The Trout of the Lower Madison
As all of the rivers Montana fly fishing rivers that we offer guided trips on, the lower Madison is a wild trout fishery. Wild trout waters are characterized by having a wide range of age classes in the resident fish populations. The overall trout population in the lower Madison has skewed toward Rainbow Trout in the last 2-3 years. The majority of trout we catch day in and day out are in the 14-16” range in both Browns and Rainbows, and it’s not uncommon to hook into a few of each species that are well over 18”. We typically get several Brown Trout a year that are 23-25” to the net on this stretch of river, but that does not happen every day!
Lower Madison River Guided Fly Fishing Trips
Guided Montana fly fishing trips on the Lower Madison are either full or half-day experience, from the boat or wading. The guides provide everything you need with the exception of a Montana fishing license, which is available at our fly shop or online. We meet at the 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 20-30 minutes each way which makes for a great guided fly fishing in Bozeman option if you are on a tight schedule. Give us a call at 877-790-5303 or e-mail us to learn more about this awesome wild trout fishery and our Montana fly fishing vacations.