I got a phone call one afternoon awhile back and it was an old buddy of mine I met up on the Henry’s Fork a few years ago and he said he’d be on the Henry’s Fork in mid-July and wanted to know if I wanted to meet him up there for some fishing. Without even checking my calendar or thinking about it I told him I’ll be there. I know the Madison River is only about 30 minutes from there and when I asked if we could do the Madison River the reply I got back was also as quick, “You betcha”. For me the Madison River is a special place and a fly fishing Mecca that calls to me every fishing season.
The Madison River is a large river with its head waters in Yellowstone National Park. In the park the confluence of the Firehole River and the Gibbons River form the Madison River. The fishing can be outstanding in the park but the section of river I love is the tailwater section from Quake Lake all the way to Ennis. This section of the river is known as the “50 mile riffle” and I think that is why I like it so much. Many Montana and Idaho rivers that are as large as the Madison River have long stretches of identical water. Not the Madison, it’s “50 mile riffle” offers the fly angler action and challenge every twenty feet.
The “Maddy” hasn’t been without its share of controversy or problems over the last few years and I’ve seen some of them first hand. The Madison River flows into and out of one large and one small reservoir and can suffer from the effects of bad management of those reservoirs downstream. Just like most tailwater rivers the Madison River can suffer some pretty drastic flow changes during drought years which of course effect the fishing. I remember one year, in mid-June, my friend Bill and I drove the six hour trip to the river only to find that someone had dropped the flow from 1000 cfs to 270 cfs. Now for most anglers that could be a good thing but when you’ve just towed a drift boat across Idaho so you can float the river can be a little disappointing. Fortunately the “Maddy” was good to us and we managed to fish from the bank with pleasing success.
In years past whirling disease has been a plague on many Northwest rivers and the Madison River had its bout with the dreaded disease like the rest. When I first started hearing about how the “Maddy” was being affected I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach. Not my “Maddy”, any other river I can deal with but not the Madison. There has been quite a few years since that happened and the river has recovered nicely but whirling disease will continue to plague our Western waters for at least a generation.
The Madison River is one of the few things in life that turn out better than advertised. My first exposure to the Madison River was as a young boy watching Curt Gowdy on Wild World of Sports fishing the Madison River on Television. I spent the next twenty five years reading about various fishing adventures either drifting for large rainbows or fishing from shore hunting for big browns. Later on in the Eighties and Nineties, with the proliferation of trout fishing videos and television shows, I started to get a good picture in my mind what the Madison River was all about. By then I knew enough about it to put it to the top of my bucket list. Time has a way of dulling the memory of favorite places or in my case fishing fantacies, in particular the Madison River. Frankly there a many things more important to a young man than fishing some childhood fishing fantasy and I just kind of left the Madison River off to the side until I could get my timing right in life.
My old neighbor and good friend Sean is a Montana native and had just returned home with his family from his family reunion in Ennis Montana. As soon as he said Ennis my ears perked up and when he finally stopped talking about all the mushy stuff I asked him how the fishing was. Sean spent the next hour, as only Sean can, telling me about his fishing adventures along the Madison River. What made the stories exciting for me was his mother had given him as a birthday gift a guided float trip down the river. So I got a detailed travel report about his float trip down the river. Later that week Sean and I met up again and started planning for a fishing trip to the Mighty Madison.
On the drive to the river I my thoughts were not far from the river of my childhood fantasies. What was the view of the river going to look like? What was the water going to look like? What is the “50 mile riffle”? And so on. Once I passed the Henry’s Fork it didn’t take too much time to arrive at the Madison River. As I drove over a slight rise the river came into view at Raynolds Bridge. Yea it was 50 miles of riffle starting right there. We pulled off the Hwy and drove down to the parking lot and river access.
We arrived around 2:30 in the afternoon; any insect activity we were hoping to see was negligible. So out came the nymph rods, waders and stone fly rigs. For a river as popular as the Madison you would think the first parking lot on the river would be crowded with anglers but to our surprise we were the only fly fishermen on that section of river. The Madison was better than I had ever imagined, there was underwater structure like I had never seen before. Rocks, boulders and logs create a multitude of fishing opportunities for an old nymph guy like me. Reading the water becomes less of a concept and more of an absolute necessity.
The Madison River is a destination river for many fly anglers coast to coast and there are a lot of people who make their living on these people and count on them coming to fly fish the Madison. The Madison river like most destination rivers is right smack in the middle of a large valley where it collects streams and creeks from its head waters to Its final destination, the Missouri River. One of the major knocks on the Madison is that it draws crowds of anglers and you can at times find it hard to fish good water. For the 25 years I’ve been fishing the Madison I’ve never had any problem finding good water to fish and I have been there during the most crowed times.
A big and long river like the Madison can carry a lot of anglers whereas a small to medium river that may be hard to access can bend under the pressure of too many anglers. If drift boating is your game then there is not a better river in the Northwest that performs for the drift boat or raft anglers with all the riffles and runs like the Maddy. Much of what I read about, watched on TV, or was told about the Madison River was like reading a fairy tale; it just didn’t seem like reality until I made my first visit.
It wasn’t long before I was into my first Madison River brown trout. Of all places there is a large rock half way out into the river that forms two more, of which there are many, seams that could be reached by careful wading. My cast of nymphs landed right where I aimed, along the inside seam and after a drift of about ten feet I was on to my first of many in the years to come, Madison River brown trout. After a brief fight I had a good sized buck brown in my hands. I knew at that point a new love had entered my life. The Madison River is a tough river with the cliché definition of “50 Miles of Riffle” that pretty well describes its nature.
What I like most about the Maddy is the quality of water. It’s a tailwater river flowing out of two reservoirs at a constant temperature that lends its self to a fantastic biomass base that helps to provide nutrients and safety to many underwater creatures that trout love to gorge on. Along with having a rich aquatic insect life the river runs clear and clean adding to the allure that brings fly anglers from all over the country. At first glance, the Madison looks wide and fast but in fact it’s shallow and fairly easy to wade. The advantage of wading the Madison over other large trout rivers is you are able to wade out into the river and turn around and fish the banks like you where fishing from a drift boat.
The Madison River has just about everything for the fly angler. The river twist and turns yet has long straight stretches. If pocket water is your game the river is one giant pocket water section and any angler can find sections that offer exciting pocket water action. If you are into matching the hatch dry fly action them look no further. The Madison is renowned for its afternoon and evening caddis hatches that can last all summer. Along with caddis flies the Maddy offers all the famous mayfly action you could ask from a river. But by and by the river really has a home for the nymph and streamer angler. If I had to choose just one river in which to nymph fish the Madison would be my first choice. The Madison offers so many islands, braids and cut banks that are perfect for the average nymph angler.
When It comes to nymph fishing I’m an old “High sticker” from the Sixties and the Madison River is the perfect river for that type of nymphing. Before going to the Madison, or any river for that matter, I do my homework and pretty much know what’s happening as far as insect activity and when I arrive at the Madison I just don’t grab my nymph rod and go to work. On the contrary I usually take the time to study the river. I’m looking for any current hatches that might be in progress or any insects that might be grouped in the brush along the banks. I’m also interested in what’s going on outside the river such as are there any grass hoppers around and I’m looking at other anglers who are already on the river and trying to make out what they are doing. Back at the parking, if I can, I’ll ask some fly anglers who might have just got off the river for some tidbit of information that might help me. After all the data has entered my mind I make a quick strategy on how I’m going to fish for the present.
I may have come to the conclusion that nymph fishing the river is the best strategy and I’ll prepare myself for that. I like to use a large weighted stonefly or rubber leg that I will then drop with a bead head baetis to start then make any adjustments as the day unfolds. What I have learned from years of fishing the Madison is that strategy and fishing in general can change in a heartbeat and a good fly angler will be ready to make changes at the drop of a hat. I may, twenty minutes into fishing, notice a stone fly has landed on my shirt or I’ve just witnessed a hopper blown into the river and inhaled by a large brown. That’s the kind of monkey wrench that might get thrown in to catch you off guard. Then again timing is almost everything on the Maddy.
I’ve been lucky enough over the years to fish a lot of the great trout rivers of the West and have seen my share of great caddis hatches during this time. But day in and day out none of these rivers come close to the consistency of the caddis hatches on the Madison River. The caddis invasion usually begins sometime in June and will last until the end of September. It’s a funny thing on the Madison River you can judge when the caddis hatch starts by not seeing it begin on the river but by seeing it begin in the campgrounds. Most campgrounds on the Madison are quiet and void of anglers during the day. You could set off a bomb in the campground and no one would be around to duck. However around 3 pm anglers start to return after a long day of fishing to relax, cook up some dinner or repair tippets and gear. But around 6 pm anglers begin to rustle around either waking up or cleaning up some the afternoon dishes. Eventually you can see them gear up in waders and vest and begin last minute fly changes on their fly rods and then it’s to their cars and off they go to their favorite section to wait on the evening caddis hatch. It’s at this time that you better get ready to fish until dark because the caddis hatch is going to happen and you won’t get back to camp until “O dark thirty.”
Sometimes after a rather slow day of catching I think that these trout are just saving themselves for the evening chow. Consistency is the key word here; I’m talking about a caddis hatch that I’ve been known to drive all the way across Montana just to get to the Madison in time for the “Hatch”. Recently I met two anglers from Phoenix Arizona who agreed to meet me at a location on the Madison just to fish the evening caddis hatch. I was fishing on the Henry’s Fork and made the quick trip to the Maddy in time to drive up and see my two fishing buddies already out on the river plying their trade. As I geared up for the evening I had a ring side view and while I was getting ready both guys had bent rods and judging from the yells and laughs I knew I was into a typical Madison River caddis hatch. When I finally made my way down to the river to fish Todd was into a rather larger brown. I set my fly rod down to help with the net and was able to net up a beautiful 18 inch Maddy Brown. As I was working my way back to the bank Charlie whooped that he was into one, so instead of heading back to my rod I made my way down to him to pull a net job on his trout. Well that’s pretty much how the evening went for me, my new title as net boy was well deserved. I must have netted at least 30 trout that evening.
When the caddis are coming off on the Madison It’s critical if you want a lot of action to have the right flies for the job. Having learned that the Madison River is having great evening caddis hatches and having a fly box full of Elk Hair caddis is not going to guarantee you a great night of dry fly action. Caddis fly adults in general spend very little time if any on the water so having a box full of Elk Hair caddis is not what you need during a Madison River caddis hatch or any caddis hatch as far as that goes. What is appropriate is a good selection of Caddis emergers in both green, brown and tan bodies in sizes 16 and 18. Trout really key in on the caddis emerging from the river bottom and will pick them of in the surface film of the river one after the other.
I found, for new anglers to the hatch, a good approach for you is to set up your fly rod with an Elk Hair caddis dropped by either one or two caddis emergers. Having the adult caddis, represented by the Elk Hair, may give you the advantage of eliciting a trigger strike and using the Elk Hair as a strike indicator for your emerger tied on behind as a dropper. By using the Elk Hair as a strike indicator you will know exactly where your emergers are and know that any obvious rise near my strike indicator commands me to set the hook. A gentle rise of my rod tip will either set the hook or set myself up for another cast. The next important step is to make the appropriate presentation. What’s important here is your cast must be upstream and well mended to eliminate any drag so as to allow a drag free float to where you see fish rising. A good reach cast will put your flies right where they should be.
The closer you get to Ennis the river seems to settle down to a gentler riffle than it does downstream from Quake Lake. From Varney Bridge to Eight Mile Ford is my favorite section to drift boat fish. It’s the perfect float for both the dry fly anger and the nymph angler. With its many braids, channels and islands the river abounds with ample opportunity to get out of the boat and really work fishy sections of the river. Of course when you’re floating a river like the Madison you can get out of the boat and fish the river where very few bank fishermen get the chance.
There are many great fly fishing rivers in our wonderful country and some of these river may be your favorite river or like me years ago, you have always thought of fly fishing there. The “Maddy” is one river that will never disappoint you, she will always be there for you, she will always give you pleasure and if you listen real hard she will even talk to you. I love the “Maddy” and I always look forward to my return to her.