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Madison River Montana

  • Fly Fishing Madison River Quake Lake Montana Brown Rainbow Trout
  • Fly Fishing Madison River Quake Lake Montana Brown Rainbow Trout
  • Fly Fishing Madison River Quake Lake Montana Brown Rainbow Trout
  • Fly Fishing Madison River Quake Lake Montana Brown Rainbow Trout

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We publish a monthly newsletter for interesting and informative information focused on Fly Fishing in Southwestern Montana. If you would like to receive our newsletter, please subscribe. Look for the "Join Our Mailing List" form located on most pages of our website. If you have a question regarding Montana fly fishing or would like to schedule a trip, please use the Contact page or give us a call 406-580-6050.

Fishing the Madison River in Montana
A Professional Guide's Perspective

The Madison River stands as a premier destination for avid anglers seeking an unforgettable fly fishing experience.

Nestled amidst the stunning landscapes of Montana, the Madison River will provide a rewarding experience for most all anglers. As a professional fly fishing guide with years of expertise on these pristine waters, I am excited to share insights, tips, and the sheer joy that comes with fishing the Madison River in Montana.

The Madison River: A Fly Fishing Paradise

Diverse Ecosystems

The Madison River boasts a diverse range of ecosystems, from fast-paced riffles to deep, slow pools. This diversity creates an ideal habitat for a variety of trout species, including rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout.

Year-Round Fishing

One of the unique aspects of the Madison River is its year-round fishing opportunities. Regardless of the season, anglers can find success, whether it's the famous salmonfly hatch in summer or the exciting winter midge fishing.

World-Class Hatches

The river is renowned for its prolific hatches, making it a haven for dry fly enthusiasts. From the famed salmonfly hatch to the Blue-winged Olive emergence, the Madison River offers a smorgasbord of insect activity that keeps the trout feeding actively.

The Joy of Guiding on the Madison

As a professional fly fishing guide, introducing anglers to the wonders of the Madison River is both a privilege and a pleasure. Sharing the knowledge of the river's nuances, helping clients refine their casting techniques, and witnessing the excitement when a trophy trout is hooked are all part of the job – a job that feels more like a calling on these pristine waters.


Fishing the Madison River in Montana is an experience that transcends the ordinary. With its stunning scenery, diverse ecosystems, and world-class fishing opportunities, this river is a haven for anglers seeking adventure and tranquility alike. As a professional guide, I encourage all enthusiasts to explore the magic of the Madison, armed with the right knowledge, gear, and a passion for the art of fly fishing.

Geographical Location

Starting in Yellowstone National Park, the Madison River flows north for 183 miles until it reaches the confluence of the Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers between Bozeman and Three Forks, Montana,  making up the headwaters of the Missouri River. We concentrate our fishing from the Raynolds Pass Bridge, about 40 miles south of West Yellowstone, downstream to the confluence of the three rivers. Giving us about 90 miles of Blue Ribbon Fly Fishing to guide. Drive times to the river from Bozeman are generally 30-90 minutes. The Madison Valley from Ennis to West Yellowstone is known for its spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, and wild trout. 

River Characteristics

The Madison River has many different river characteristics. The upper 50 miles of river is relatively shallow, but flows quickly through a bouldery river bed. Many bigger boulders are strewn throughout the river. It is affectionally nicknamed “The 50 Mile Riffle”. Wading is possible, but can be difficult among the bowling ball sized rocks in the stream bed. 

The Lower River, below Ennis dam, the river is more tail water like, slower moving, and where the stream bed is made up of sand and weed beds. This makes for a much more user friendly section if you enjoy wading vs. float fishing.

Both the Upper and Lower Madison have very prolific hatches from the Spring through the Fall. Midges, assorted Mayflies and Caddis, along with many different types of Stoneflies, and terrestrials can be found throughout the Madison River system at different times of year. 

Fishing Quality

There probably hasn’t been a river in Montana that has been written and talked about more than the Madison River. Famous fly fishermen such as Ray Bergman, Charles Brooks, Lee Wulff, Bud Lilly, Bob Jacklin, and Dan Bailey to name a few all loved fly fishing the Madison River. With today’s people population, growing cities and fishing pressure, the river isn’t like in the old days, but it still is very good. The wild population of wild brown and rainbow trout thrive in the Madison Rivers cold water. There isn’t the population of monster trout in the river, like there was in the 60’s and 70’s, but there are still a few. Many of the larger trout are caught in the Spring and Fall when angling pressure is at its lowest. 

Fish Population

The Madison River is a very resilient river. It has made it through whirling disease in the 90’s. Dam failures in the 2021, low water years, and high water years. The population fluctuates year to year, but Montana Fish and Game monitors it closely and say’s there is between 2000-3500 trout per mile in the Upper Madison River year in and year out. Those numbers decline somewhat as you work your way downstream through the Lower Madison. The lower you go, the lower number of trout. This is due to Ennis Lake being rather shallow and heating up the water as it goes into the Lower Madison during the summer. If water temps and flows are good, the Lower Madison is a great place to fish, but many times in the heat of the summer,  Montana Fish and Game limits fishing on the Lower Madison when water temperatures get too stressful for the wild trout.  

Scenic Beauty

The scenery along the Madison River is tough to beat. There are heavily forested areas, areas of high desert like landscape. The Madison River is sandwiched in the middle of two big mountain ranges, the Madison Range, and the Gravelly’s. Many of these peaks are over 10,000 feet tall, and hold snow for a majority of the summer.  There is an abundance of wildlife throughout the valley. You can see Pronghorn, Moose, Deer, Elk, Mountain Goats, Big Horn Sheep and a variety of predatory birds. When fishing on the Madison River it tough to concentrate on your fly with all the beautiful scenery passing by as you float down the river. 

Recreational Activities

Fly fishing is definitely the most popular activity in the Madison valley, but there are many more activities to pursue. Cliff and Wade lake offer a great place to kayak or canoe. There are water sports on Hebgen Lake. Be sure to check out the Earthquake Lake Visitors Center. In 1959 a mountain slid and dammed up the Madison River, trapping people in the area for a significant amount of time. There is great stretch of whitewater from Ennis Dam downstream. The Bear Trap Canyon is for experienced whitewater enthusiasts only. On the Lower Madison, many people enjoy tubing down this the slow shallow tail water in the summer. There are many places to hike or mountain bike in the mountain. Just be sure to be bear aware and always carry bear spray.

Fly Fishing Madison River Montana Brown Rainbow Trout

Map of the Madison River, Montana

The Madison River is 183 miles long. From Yellowstone National Park to Three Forks Montana, it boasts a healthy poplulation of Rainbow and Brown trout throughout the river system.The river was named in July 1805 by Meriwether Lewis at Three Forks. The central fork of the three, it was named for U.S. Secretary of State James Madison, who later succeeded Thomas Jefferson as President in 1809. The western fork, the largest, was named for President Jefferson and the east fork for Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin.

Fly Fishing Madison River Quake Lake Montana Brown Rainbow Trout

Starting inside Yellowstone National park, the Madison river is formed by the Gibbon and Firehole rivers converging. Once it leaves the park it flows into a huge reservoir named Hebgen lake. Hebgen lake can offer great dry fly fishing in the summer months for stillwater enthusiasts. The Madison river picks back up below the dam for a short distance. 

In 1959 a 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked the area causing a giant landslide that formed what is now known as Earthquake lake. The Army Core of Engineers quickly punched a hole through the rubble to release the water.

Fly Fishing Upper Lower Madison River Montana Brown Rainbow Trout

Upper and Lower Madison River, Montana

From this point on to the town off Ennis this 50 miles of the Upper Madison river is known as the 50 mile riffle. The river is relatively shallow as it rolls over a boulder strewn river bottom. This is the most popular section of river hosting a great variety of western hatches year round. The Madison river empties into another reservoir named Ennis Lake below the trout town of Ennis, Montana. This is the last dam on the Madison River before it meets up with the Gallatin River and Jefferson River to form the Missouri River just outside of Bozeman, Montana. The river changes characteristics to more of a tailwater river than the classic freestone river, it is above Ennis. For the next forty miles the river meanders at a slower pace over shallow weed beds. This is a popular area for recreational floating and during peak summer months the lower Madison River can be very populated with coeds and families enjoying the Madison River. Some of the largest trout in the river are located in this section but the numbers of trout are not as dense as in the Upper Madison stretches.

Fly Fishing Nymphs Dries Streamers Madison River Montana Brown Rainbow Trout

The Madison River offers anglers opportunities to use varying techniques

Anglers fishing the Madison River can use various techniques to have success. Everything from throwing big streamers, to small technical dry fly fishing, and everything in between. Many days, you might nymph fish or throw streamers in the morning, then switch over to throwing dries mid afternoon when the hatches are heaviest. Because of the fast currents and shallow nature of the Madison River, you can find fish anywhere from bank to bank. Many days we concentrate on the middle of the river to fish for more unpressured fish. 

Fly Fishing Seasons of the Madison River, Montana


During the winter months we concentrate fishing the lower portion of the Madison river. Within an easy drive to the river, the Madison river can provide great midge hatches and dry fly opportunities when the conditions permit. The Upper river closes to fishing from Quake lake to MacAtee bridge at the end of February. It opens again with the general opener on the third Saturday of May. The lower section of the Upper Madison river above the town of Ennis also predominantly freezes over during the winter months making float fishing impossible.


Spring fishing can be quite good on both upper and lower sections of the Madison River. As the first major hatches of blue winged olives emerge the fish come out of their winter hibernation and actively start feeding on both the dry flies and the nymphs. More and more hatches start to emerge such as the famous "Mother's Day" caddis hatch as the water continues to warm up. Strong baetis hatches (BWO's) are also predominant during this time period and a mixture of nymphing and dry fly fishing is productive.


One of the most famous hatches that bring anglers from all over the river to fish the Madison River is the famed Salmon fly hatch. Generally starting near the end of June to early July the river and foliage comes alive with these 3" insects and the trout gorge themselves until they cannot fit another bug in their mouth. Fishing with these huge dry flies is not only exciting but visually stimulating. Once the hatch has ran its course up river then we start using more terrestrial patterns such as grasshoppers, beetles and ants. Hatches of assorted mayflies and caddis continue through summer months providing ample dry fly opportunities.


As the trees begin to lose their leaves, the brown trout prepare to spawn and become super aggressive. This is prime time streamer fishing on both the Upper and Lower Madison river. Covering as much real estate as possible with big ugly streamers can draw explosive strikes. Many of the largest fish of the season are netted during this time period. If you are willing to put in the work, you have a chance to catch a wild trout of a lifetime.

Fly Fishing Patterns Nymphs Drys Streamers Madison River Montana Brown Rainbow Trout

Fly Resources

There are many appropriate flys to choose from on the Madision River. These three flies are focused around a springtime hatch.

Craven's JuJu Baetis

Most commonly known as Blue winged olives or baetis this small olive mayfly can be found on all our area rivers and streams. The fly is a fairly new pattern being used on the Madison. Craven's juju baetis is a great pattern for tailwaters and slower moving currents. This slender profile fly is a great pattern to fish for difficult trout or to sight nymph with. Without a beadhead, I like to fish this with a dry fly suspending it just under the surface.

BWO Cripple

We tie a lot of these in various colors and sizes. A fairly simple fly to tie this pattern can be adapted for PMD's, Royal Wullf Cripples or any mayfly pattern you want to imitate. We've caught trout on every river we guide with this basic pattern. We believe, that because of the trailing shuck and how it sits low in the water that the trout see this pattern as an easy meal.

Micro Mayfly

The pattern has been in our fly box for many years and is always a steady producer. The micro mayfly is a great pattern when the BWO's are present. It is durable, slightly weighted and a proven winner. We've not only had proven success on our freestone streams like the Madison or Yellowstone but it also has a proven record on tailwaters like the Missouri and Bighorn rivers.

Fly Fishing on the Madison River

How do you fish the Madison River?

Fly fishing on the Madison River is a unique experience. We recommend using a 9-foot 5-weight fly rod for versatility, as it can handle various techniques. Popular methods include nymphing, dry fly fishing, and streamer fishing. The river offers a mix of pocket water, riffles, and deep pools, so adapt your approach based on the conditions and season. Don't forget to match the hatch and use local fly patterns for the best results.

How many fish per mile is the Madison River?

The Madison River boasts an impressive fish population, with an average of approximately 2,000 to 3,000 fish per mile. This river is renowned for its healthy populations of rainbow trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout, and mountain whitefish, making it a prime destination for anglers seeking diverse and abundant fish species.

What is the Madison River known for?

The Madison River is famous for its stunning scenery and world-class fly fishing. Anglers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe flock to this river for its blue-ribbon waters, prolific insect hatches, and the chance to catch trophy-sized trout. It's also known for its challenging fishing conditions, which make it a favorite among experienced anglers looking for a rewarding adventure.

Is the Madison River stocked?

No, the Madison River is not stocked. Its exceptional fish populations are the result of natural reproduction and the river's excellent habitat. This means that you can enjoy an authentic and sustainable fly fishing experience in the Madison River, with the opportunity to catch wild and native trout species.

Stay in touch

We publish a monthly newsletter for interesting and informative information focused on Fly Fishing in Southwestern Montana. If you would like to receive our newsletter, please subscribe. Look for the "Join Our Mailing List" form located on most pages of our website. If you have a question regarding Montana fly fishing or would like to schedule a trip, please use the Contact page or give us a call at 406-580-6050.

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