At Parks’ Fly Shop, we mostly float the Yellowstone River. We do offer Montana float fishing trips on three other rivers, though: the Lower Madison, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers. The Lower Madison is our go-to float river in late May and June when the Yellowstone is muddy, Boulder River float fishing trips are possible in early May, June, and July, and the Stillwater is a great option from July into September and sometimes through the fall. In this next series of blog posts, Walter will discuss our float fishing trips on these rivers.
This is the second entry in this series, covering Lower Madison River float fishing trips. The first entry covered the Boulder River.
Introduction to Lower Madison River Float Fishing Trips
- Season: Late April through late June or early July, whenever water temperatures exceed 70 degrees, and again in September and October after things cool off again.
- The Fishing: Nymphing dominates. We either dredge deep with crayfish and dropper nymphs in the deepest holes, or run very shallow with caddis pupae and mayfly nymphs. Some dry-dropper fishing is possible, particularly during caddis hatches.
- The Fish: The fish have a split population here. There are a few monster rainbows and browns, plus a whole lot of 6-12″ rainbows, browns, and westslope cutthroats.
- The Boat: Since this is a gentle stretch of river with great boat ramps, all fishing on the Lower Madison is via drift boat
The key thing to note about the Lower Madison is this: it is clear (enough) to float in May and June, when all other area float rivers are too high to fish. In fact, it often sees its best fishing (including heavy hatches) when everything else is blown out and in the trees. As such, virtually all of our trips on the Lower Madison take place in May and June, when it is at its best and everything else is at its worst. If you book a float trip for the latter half of May or the first three weeks of June, odds are it take place here except during drought years or unusual cold snaps.
Our Lower Madison River float fishing trips take place from Warm Springs Access at the bottom of Beartrap Canyon down to the Madison’s junction with the Jefferson and Gallatin to form the Missouri at Three Forks. The vast majority of trips take place on the upper portion of this stretch. Full-days run between Warm Springs and Black’s Ford or Warm Springs and Grey Cliff accesses, depending on water flows, while half-days run from Warm Springs to Damselfly.
Because it’s wide, slow, shallow, gentle, and usually demands short-range nymphing tactics, the Lower Madison is an excellent choice for beginner clients, while also offering enough to interest experienced clients.
The Lower Madison River is located around 30 minutes west of Bozeman, Montana, making for a two-hour drive from Gardiner, Montana. All of our guides who work on the lower Madison are based in Livingston, Montana, about 1hr from the Lower Madison. If you are staying in Gardiner or Livingston (or between the two towns), expect to meet your guide in Livingston.
Madison River trips require additional commercial licensing beyond the standard Montana or YNP commercial use authorizations. Our Lower Madison River Float Fishing trips operate under Walter Wiese’s permit, #297. Note that Lower Madison River float fishing trips are limited.
Introduction to the Lower Madison River
The Lower Madison River begins at Warm Springs Access near Norris, Montana, where the Madison emerges from Beartrap Canyon. The river runs generally north from this point through public and private meadowlands before ending at Three Forks.
Unlike the upper Madison, which is at its best in high summer, the Lower Madison is best in May and June and is terrible in midsummer. The dominant factor why this is the case is Ennis Dam located a few miles upstream. This dam slows the runoff and clears out the river, moderating flows in the late spring and early summer. This is a good deed done by the dam. The bad deed is that Ennis Lake is shallow, only eight or ten feet deep, which means that instead of acting as a cooling factor like most reservoirs, it instead acts like a heat trap. The water coming out of the dam routinely pushes 70 degrees in July and August. Downstream, below the deep and shady Beartrap Canyon (where we do not have and cannot get permits to float), the wide, shallow Lower Madison routinely runs in the high 70s in midsummer and is therefore always closed to fishing from 2pm to midnight from July 15 through August 15. Really, it should close July 4 and remain closed until September 1.
The Lower Madison is wide, shallow, and weedy, often running 100 yards wide but no more than 2-3 feet deep all the way across. Most of the time the river runs as shallow riffles and runs, with occasional larger pools and a few almost-rapids. The faster, deeper water is primarily found between Warm Springs Access and Canaday Access, as the canyon walls fall away. Occasional islands are present throughout the Lower Madison, but there are more from near Greycliff Access on down.
The shallow, riffly, weedy nature of the Lower Madison make for massive insect populations, but limited good holding water. Except for the obvious runs and riprapped banks, the best structure throughout this stretch is composed of midriver “buckets” where winter ice and odd currents dig out holes, often immediately downstream of weed beds. These holes hold almost all larger brown trout. Particularly during high water periods, numerous rainbow and cutthroat trout (the latter found mostly within a mile or so of the confluence with Cherry Creek) can be found near the banks as on other Montana float rivers, though these are typically smaller fish.
Important insects on the Lower Madison include several species of caddis (various species from May through early July), especially the olive-brown Mother’s day caddis which hatches in May and early June, Yellow Sally stoneflies, PMD (June-July), BWO (April-May and October-November), and Gray and Green Drake (June) mayflies. Unlike most waters in the area, crayfish are abundant here as well, so instead of a large nymph or streamer, we’ll often fish a crayfish imitation in conjunction with a smaller nymph, especially when shooting for big fish rather than numbers. Aquatic and terrestrial worms are often present in the river, especially during high water periods, so San Juan Worms are also good bets.
Besides the warm water, the other obstacle on the lower Madison is the crowds. There can be vast numbers of guide boats on the water here, and once the water warms into the mid-60s, typically in mid-June, hordes of recreational floaters descend, many of whom think nothing of floating right over where anglers happen to be fishing. Both issues argue for an early start to get ahead of the crowds.
Fishing the Lower Madison River
Three main tactics dominate on the Lower Madison, depending on weather/water conditions and whether we’re shooting for big fish or numbers. These are:
- Fishing the deepest structure with crayfish-nymph combos: This tactic is how we target the largest fish at any time, though overall trout numbers will be low. It’s also the most consistent tactic during high water.
- Fishing shallower buckets and the shoreline with “short leash” nymph tactics: In this tactic, we fish two smaller nymphs, often only a couple feet below our bobber, and target shallower structure near the shore or in shallow midriver buckets. We may also stop and wade-fish shallow side channels when using this technique. This typically produces the most trout, but size will be small except when it’s cloudy and the fish are quite active. Often this tactic transitions over to the next one when the fish are rising well.
- Fishing double-dry or dry-dropper combinations in shallower buckets, side channels, and near the shore: This tactic is most like our preferred techniques elsewhere. It is most effective during heavy insect emergences or occasionally during hopper time in late August and early September when the water is cool enough. Cloudy weather is required to produce trout over about 12 inches with this tactic. When using this tactic, we’ll often stop the boat since good numbers of rising fish can be spot-specific. Your guide may have you get out of the boat to wade-fish or simply walk the boat slowly through good spots.
The first two tactics above are much more likely for beginner and novice anglers, while advanced anglers fishing in late May and June are more likely to get some dry fly fishing in. With anglers willing to wade, we may do some “wet fly swing” fishing during caddis hatches, while in late April and early May and in the fall we may have advanced anglers strip big streamers on our Lower Madison River float fishing trips.