The Madison River is a bucket list river for most fly fishers. A promise of big trout and a beautiful mountain backdrop with easy-to-read riffles and runs.
With the headwaters at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbons rivers within Yellowstone National Park the river flows through storybook mountain lakes like Hebgen Lake and Earthquake Lake.
The big question to answer is where to go on the Madison River. I consider the upper section to be the best when it comes to wading or a float trip. This area captures what I think is the magic of the Madison.
1. Valley Garden Campground, North of Ennis
This area is mostly float fishing. As the river flows into Ennis Lake, it becomes braided with slower flows. Don’t get the idea you’ll be able to easily wade across this section of water.
Just south of the campground is the little secret spot that has proven to be amazing for me. Called O’Dell Creek, please be respectful as this little honey hole runs through private property.
2. Palisades Campground – A quick fishy float
Just upriver from Palisades Campground about a mile and a half is a boat ramp that provides a perfect short float with a chance to walk back to the put in. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but walking a mile in Montana should be considered a treat.
I’ve written how I enjoy small waters built for canoes. The Madison is big water here, but with a stable canoe, I’ll drop in at the boat ramp and float to Palisades campground. Then walk back to get my vehicle.
Getting a campsite at Palisades is even better. Fishing followed up with chilly out with a campfire with a refreshment in hand, after a grilled steak. Nothing better.
3. Three Dollar Bridge – Park, Wade and Fish
Along 287 is a little Forest Service Road 8381 that provides access at Three Dollar Bridge. This is wading water with a great population of browns. During low water you can sometimes cross the river with extreme caution.
I park in the small lot just north of the bridge a hundred yards or so. At the lot is a trail travels down river a little way which provide good access. I like dropping down off the trail and fishing through the obvious runs and then getting back onto the trail hiking to the next run.
If you need a map to the bridge here’s a link – Three Dollar Bridge Access
If something is hatching go with traditional dry flies like a caddis. Don’t discount nymphs though, so many anglers want to toss dries, but nymphing is usually more productive. Pheasant tails and sparkling caddis pupa have been proven winners.
4. Raynolds Pass – Wading
The bridge spanning the Madison River on Highway 87 provides a perfect spot to park, hike and wade. This spot does get busy so expect folks casting flies along this section. If you’ve got the legs it’s easily possible to walk and fish all the way to Three Dollar Bridge.
Lots of big boulders form pockets itching to have a fly drifted through. A drag free drift is critical, these trout have seen lots of flies and have been learned to recognize a poor presentation.
My plan has always been to show up at 6 pm and hike to a likely spot and wait for a hatch. The best times for me have been from 8 to 10 pm. Caddis and PMDs have proven to be effective. In late summer this is “Hopper” water many bugs
5. Cobblestone Access – Wading Day Trip
South of Three Forks on Madison Road is a perfect area that doesn’t get much fishing pressure, but sees quite a few kayaks and canoes. The river is braided giving you the opportunity to find holding water in and out of the trees.
Across the braids along the west side of the main channel is a deep run that has provided excellent streamer fishing. Look for the structure and cast in front and behind.
In late summer this area is a grasshopper haven. The western winds blow the hoppers off the high banks and get funneled into the many holding runs.
6. Greycliff Campground Miles of Water
Greycliff Campground is a great central location for a weeks worth of tossing flies. If you’ve got a boat, even a canoe you could probably fish even longer.
An angler can hike north for 1/4 mile and south for 1 1/2 miles and step into the river filled with wild rainbows and browns.
My favorite way of fishing this area is to drop my canoe in at the campground and float to Black’s Ford fishing access site. This provides a full day of hard fishing, stopping and fishing the fishes spots.
Guide Tip: Pack an extra travel rod. Accidents happen, For around a $100 you can get a 7-peice 5 weight fly rod with a hard travel case. My pick -> Wild Water Standard 9 Foot, 7-Peice, 5 Weight
Why is the Madison River Perfect for Fly Fishing?
Epic fishing, amazing mountain views and reliable hatches. The Madison Valley does look stark and barren, high plains grasses and long vistas make you question the fertility of the water. But lift a rock out of the water and you’ll see why trout thrive here.
The aquatic life in this water is enormous. All those bugs feed hungry browns and rainbows at an accelerated rate.
Guide Tip: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks maintains a great website with access points. Find the maps HERE https://fwp.mt.gov/fish
More Madison River Fishing Resources
- The USGS maintains multiple stream flow stations on the Madison. The best way to use this data is to research the average flow data for when you’re planning your trip. Then watch the live stream data to compare. You want to fish the river with water flows close to the “Average” historical flows. Here’s a link the the station close to Ennis. Madison River Water Flow Ennis
- Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has a great resource with fishing access point all over the state. Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission
What Kind of Fish Will You Find in the Madison River?
The Madison is predominately a brown trout and rainbow fishery. These are naturally reproducing fish. Montana State manages the river for fishermen. If you search you will find small creeks feeding the river you can find n contain cutthroat and grayling.
Guide Secret: A spot that I’ve fished is on the West Fork of the Madison. Easy to wade, less folks, wild trout….Don’t go this this SPOT <-link
Favorite Flies for the Madison
Stories of huge hatches of salmon flies and golden stone fly are all over the internet, but what makes the Madison great is that reliable hatches mean it’s easy to carry the right flies.
Stonefly in size 8-12
I like a variation to the Stimulator Stonefly with optional rubber legs. These are high floating dries and work perfect with a dropper.
Apply a liberal amount of fly dressing, as the choppy Madison River flows will quickly drown this fly.
Pale Morning Duns (PMD) in size 20
I love PMDs with flash and sparkle. Mostly so I have a chance to see them because tossing dries in a size 20 or smaller requires attention in rougher water like the Madison.
Caddis fly in size 16
With hatches of caddis popping from spring to fall, you’ve got to have these in your fly box. A solid choice is a Elk Hair Caddis that is brown.
I enjoy tying and fishing elk hairs so I always have a variety of sizes in different color ranges in my fly box.
Baetis (BWO) Nymphs in size 14 to 20
I’m not sure where the Pheasant Tail Nymph was invented, but it works. Smaller sizes on the Madison work great. I have a variety of sizes and weights. A simple beadhead works when drifted below a high floating dry.
Hatch Chart for the Madison River
It’s always a good idea to snoop around at a fly shop and get the local intel. Sometimes the trout are keyed into a particular bug and it’s tough to get a take from anything else.
|Fly Name||Size||Start Date||End Date|
|Salmon Fly||4||June 20||July 10|
|Yellow Sally Stone||14||July 5||August 5|
|Elk Hair Caddis||16||April 20||August 15|
|Blue Wing Olives||18||April 1||August 15|
|Trico||20||July 20||September 20|
|Midge (Griffiths Gnat)||20||March 1||November 20|
|Grasshoppers||10||July 15||September 20|
|Black and Red Ants||16||May 15||September 15|
|Mice (Night fishing)||6||July 1||September 30|
Fly Rod and Reel Setup for the Madison River
The trout will come in trophy sizes on the Madison. I recommend a flexible setup, a 6-weight 9-foot fly rod is perfect. If you can find a 10 foot, 6 weight it would even be better.
My recommendation if you’re buying a fly rod to fish Montana Rivers is to get a Sage Foundation Combo. Just add your flies, extra leaders and you could be fishing. What’s even better is the awesome feeling you get when your buddies see you casting a Sage. Check prices and reviews on Amazon with this shortcut link -> Sage Foundation Fly Rod Combo
Guides and Fly Shops
- Montana Angling Co guides on the Madison River. Trusted and reliable let Montana Angling Co show you what Montana fly fishing is all about.
- Madison River Fishing Company located in the center of the Madison River Valley has help fly anglers since 1984. Located in Ennis they will provide the flies, gear and guides to put fish in the net.
- Galloup’s Slide Inn fellow Michigander Kelly Galloup opened a fly shop and RV park on the banks of the Madison River. This is serious fly fishing know how. Eat, Sleep and Fish should be the motto.
heart of Describe and link to a guide and fly shop with a short paragraph for each.
Check this river off your bucket list. Big trout with a combination of wading or floating in some of the most beautiful country in the U.S. The Madison River Valley is an addiction, some many rivers and creeks to explore. This article hasn’t even touched on the incredible creeks called Blaine Creek or the West Branch of the Madison.
If your serious about exploring Montana, read my complete guide with the Best Places to Fly Fish in Montana
Dreaming of Montana Rivers and Mountains?
- Check out my guide with over 20 places to fly fish in Montana. Best Places to Fly Fish in Montana
- Are you looking for where to go on the Madison? I’ve got you covered. -> Where to Fish on the Madison River (Maps Included)
- The mighty Yellowstone has so many places, let me narrow it down for you. Places to Fly Fish on the Yellowstone River
- The Big Hole river is in a beautiful valley with meadows, woods and trophy trout. Best Places to Fly Fish on the Big Hole
- Flies, Flies and More Flies – UMPQUA is the leader in flies for North America. Patterns are developed by the masters – Thanks for picture use.
- I’m blessed to have a buddy that is also a guide. David Knapp of Trout Zone Anglers a special thanks for picture use.
- Google Maps is such a great resource – Google Maps