From an overhead view the Madison River would appear as a shallow, one-tire skid mark a hundred yards wide at the bottom of the Madison Valley. Starting below Quake Lake it slips and slides a bit on its course to the town of Ennis and there veers ever so slightly toward the east where it comes to its end at the Missouri Headwaters State Park. Throughout this journey the skid mark maintains a very consistent width and depth as it slides down the very consistent incline of the valley. The one exception to this description takes place near Ennis where the channel divides and braids around mid-stream islands both above and below town. The water can be deeper in some places here, averaging to four feet with the deepest hole up to six feet.
The eighty mile journey the river has taken between the lake and the Missouri is rarely detained by traditional impediments such as sharp bends, deep pools, formidable boulders, rock walls and downed timber. The river bottom is essentially flat from bank to bank. The riparian character is primarily range grass and sage, with occasional areas of willow adding a different challenge to consider when casting to the banks.
When floating, the current moves the boat at a remarkably consistent pace, averaging about five miles per hour; when wading, one is surprised at the pressure against the legs. The river contains no rapids as such except through the seven miles of the Bear Trap Canyon Primitive Area below Ennis Lake where rapids are substantial and not recommended for floaters, but the steady push of water on your waders tells you the river has a destination and intends to reach it without delay. The cobble under your feet will be from one to four inches in diameter in most areas which is comfortable to the foot but they also can be very slippery, so attentive wading is advised. Felt soles are a must and if you feel more secure in stream cleats, by all means wear them.
To both sides of the river the banks rise to flat benches covered with range grass and small rocks which seem to preclude agriculture in most areas. Both flanks consist of private ranch land extending up to the base of the mountains in the Beaverhead National Forest. To the east of the river is the Madison Range with peaks near eleven thousand feet. Generally the base areas show just range grass or hay meadows with occasional herds of grazing cattle, while the upper elevations are spotted with a variety of individual evergreen trees and random splashes of dense timber. Rising to the west are the lower, more
rounded hills of the Gravelly Range and to the north, the jagged Tobacco Root Mountains.
Because the Madison is born at the confluence of two rivers that are trout streams in their own right, the Gibbon River and the Firehole River, it is a productively fishable river for its entire length. As the river leaves Yellowstone National Park it has actually been within the border of Montana for about three miles and at this point flows but a short distance before entering the Madison Arm of sizeable Hebgen Lake.
Madison River at the Channels
After leaving Hebgen Dam it again flows a short distance in a definite river channel before entering the much smaller Quake Lake. Upon leaving Quake Lake it tumbles a short distance over rubble caused run to Ennis Lake and finally makes a free-flowing sprint to its mouth at the Missouri River. The river has been flowing down this same general path for an estimated two million years.
Overall the river flows for approximately 120 miles. The stretch from Quake Lake to Ennis is by no stretch of the imagination a classic piece of trout water. It’s commonly referred to as “one big riffle,” the “fifty mile riffle” or “the world’s longest riffle” due to its totally restrained character. The bouncy surface is a significant reason why the Madison is a wonderful river for beginners to fish. The trout are usually not shy and when a fly passes through their window of vision, they must “take it or leave it” as the river’s speed will quickly take the morsel out of range. Its character also makes it more forgiving o a bad cast than slower, more flat water might be.
Access to the river is quite good for most of its total length. Because the roads are not immediately adjacent to the river bank you can’t just stop the car and step into the water as is possible along some rivers situated in narrow, less agricultural valleys. There are, however, fourteen formal access points between Quake and Ennis Lakes; some are little more than boat ramps, others provide tables, water and toilet facilities.
For a discussion of fishing the Madison, we’ll break the river into two sections. The upper river is the water above Ennis Lake, the lower river includes the reaches below the lake. In both areas the fishing is generally considered best in spring and fall. During the summer after the run-off the lower river warms to dangerous temperatures due to extreme temperatures rises in Ennis Lake. The lake was created in 1900 and has been a depository for run-off sediments since that time. The average depth now is considered to be less than ten feet, causing water temperatures to rise to over eighty degrees under the intense summer sun. Above the lake, summer water temperatures reach levels to sixty-five degrees, not high enough to discourage feeding by resident trout populations. The most active feeding occurs in the morning and evening hours and it is during these times that anglers find the most rewarding fishing. Also, those who are in the river at these times will gratefully encounter less boat traffic.
As with any wadable river, the angler will normally feel some degree of frustration if he is limited only to wading because of the relatively short distance he can cover in a day’s time. The floater, conversely, will often feel he moves too briskly down a river, not giving all the fish in a likely area the privilege of viewing the delectable fraud he so diligently presents. The compromise is to float-fish the good water then park the boat and wade-fish when exceptionally appealing targets come into view. Most craft on the Madison are of the drift boat variety, although a raft is a perfectly acceptable form of transportation.
Throughout the year the fly fisherman would do well to use a nine-foot, six-weight rod for most of his fishing, particularly from a boat, as the total gamut of conditions and situations can be encountered in the course of a day. A four- or five-weight can certainly be used on special occasions, such as when dry fly fishing on a calm evening. An eight-weight is none too heavy when the wind roars up the valley or when you want to throw large streamers or big, weighted nymphs. The spin fisherman will feel comfortable using his 5-1/2 to 7 foot rod capable of throwing lures up to 1/4 oz. with 6 to 8 pound test line. With the catch-and-release areas of the river being popular, many spin fishermen use a float and a fly instead of traditional lures. Favorite spinners here are the Panther Martin and Mepps. Gold blades are preferred and black bodies with yellow or orange spots work well throughout the year.
Resident fish in the Madison include browns, rainbows, cutthroats, cutt-bow hybrids and whitefish. In the upper river, particularly above Varney Bridge, the rainbow was once the most prevalent species, perhaps eighty percent, with the browns, cutts and hybrids making up the balance. The invasion of Whirling Disease has virtually reversed these proportions and there is now only a small percentage of rainbows. Below Ennis Lake, browns continue to comprise about eighty percent of the population. Whitefish are found throughout the entire river.
The Madison has been in the forefront of regulation experimentation in Montana for several years and progressive changes in the rules continue to improve a previously abused fishery. Back in the 1930’s and 1940’s the limit was twenty-five fish per day and anglers then would expect to hook five pound fish at each outing. The Madison was renowned for large fish, and plenty of them. Such fame, as would be expected, attracted more and more fishermen, which meant more and more killing of these sizeable fish and through the years the limit went to twenty and fifteen and ten and five and now, wisely, the regulations state that a portion of the river is set aside for sport fishing only, mandating catch-and-release techniques. We applaud such a policy, for we recognize it to be the most meaningful manner in which to preserve and eventually improve a heavily used resource. Because the regulations in Montana are progressive and are frequently changed to benefit the fish, the angler should read them before fishing any given stretch of any river. Maybe in the not-too-distant future we’ll again enjoy the thrill of anticipation knowing we have a reasonable chance of hooking a five pounder. At the present, the average Madison fish will measure ten to fifteen inches. A twenty incher in the upper reaches is considered a very respectable trout. A slightly larger average can be expected from the channels above Ennis to the mouth at the Missouri River.
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