If fly wranglers were gossips, the “Blue Ribbon” Madison River would likely be their primary object of attention. Arguably it’s the most talked over, written up and frequented river ... morein the entire state of Montana – and that’s saying something. What’s more, no one has anything bad to say about it and that’s for a good reason. There’s nothing bad to say. Its scenic journey begins in Yellowstone National Park at the convergence of the Gibbon and Firehole rivers and continues for 19 miles through parkland. Within the Park, fishing rules apply: no live bait and sorry to disappoint, but it’s catch and release only. Once outside the Park the river meanders past working ranches, stately conifer forests and cottonwood lined banks, interrupted by riffles and quiet runs that contain large rainbow and trophy brown trout. Flowing alongside Yellowstone’s West entrance road, the river enters the Hebgen Lake, created by Hebgen dam, until it reaches Quake Lake, a bit downstream from the dam. At this point the river is commonly called either the Upper Madison or the Lower Madison, although in fact, they are one and the same.
Upper Madison – Quake Lake to Ennis Lake
Directly below Quake Lake the river roars into 5 long miles of Class V whitewater with steep gradients and large boulders along the way. As the rapids decline, the magic begins. For the next 53 miles, often referred to as the 50 Mile Riffle, the cold river runs north and the fish jump high. Annual runs of spawning trout make their way from Hebgen Lake, rainbows in the spring and browns in the fall. Known the world over for its “hard fighting” trout, it’s not unusual to pull a 25” brown from these upper waters. In deference to the purists and fly-fishing enthusiasts, it’s wading only from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge. Boats may be used to access the river, but if you’re going to fish, your feet must be on the riverbed. Fortunately, the Hegman releases water throughout the year, leveling its flows and relieving it of spring runoff issues and summer shrinkage.
Lower Madison – Ennis Lakes to Three Forks
A short section of the river between Ennis Dam and the power station maintain relatively low water levels and provide wonderful opportunities for wading. Past the power station the river regains its muscle and for 7 miles winds through Bear Trap Canyon. Hiking trails offer the only entry, great for those that like to walk and seek the solitude of a designated wilderness area. Floating is permitted but requires a lengthy shuttle and the ability to work through Class III-IV whitewater. Once out of the canyon the river flows in shallow riffles until it reaches Three Forks and joins the Missouri. From Warm Springs to Greycliff, the river is easily accessible for drifters and wading.