Madison River

One of the famous fly fishing rivers in the United States, starting in Yellowstone Park where the Gibbon and the Firehole merge, leaving the park at the city of West Yellowstone and then continuing westward to Ennis lake, into Beartrap canyon and onto its confluence with the Jefferson and Galatin Rivers near Three Forks, to form the Missouri river .

In these pages we will give you a comprehensive overview of the entire river system, where to go and what to use-, access and tips on what’s hot and what’s not-, fishing reports, the latest news, and connections for tackle, car rental and other reservations.

We will also deal with other streams in the immediate area in another chapter.

The two cities most directly connected with the Madison are West Yellowstone and Ennis. They are situated at the beginning and the end of the most popular stretch of the river.

The Fish

In this river you will find most major trout species.

Cutthroat trout, Bull Trout (Dolly Varden), Grayling and Brook Trout are native to North America. The first Three are native to Montana, the latter originated in East coast rivers.

Inside the Park Cutthroats are the major species in the Yellowstone river drainage and in Yellowstone Lake. Lake Trout have been mischievously released in Yellowstone Lake and now seriously threaten the Yellowstone cutthroat population. Drastic measures have been proposed to curtail the growth of the Lake trout population, but this may not be enough to save the Yellowstone Cutthroat.

Like Browns, Rainbows were originally imported and most of the US stock was hatchery raised. Unlike in other rivers, Madison Rainbows have been reasonably successful in maintaining themselves through natural reproduction. Lately, the Madison rainbows have been hard hit byWhirlingg disease and their numbers have dwindled

Browns are more adaptable to pollution, raised water temperatures, diseases and fishing pressure. They maintain themselves well, spawn naturally in nearly every reasonable water environment, and can overtake other trout species in marginal streams.

Brook Trout , like Grayling, require clear and cold water and thus can be found in the higher reaches of the river only. Where Brook Trout have been planted or occur naturally in lakes or impoundments, they can grow to large proportions. River Brooks are usually medium to small in size.

Grayling were once found in the river and in Ennis Lake. They have not been seen for a while.

Below we show you pictures of each species as they can be found in the Madison (and other Montana waters). Note that in most Western states Carp* are not considered game fish. However, fly fishing for carp can be great fun.

Sections of the River

The Madison river is more or less naturally divided into three sections. The river within the Yellowstone Park boundaries, – the stretch from the park boundary to Ennis Lake, and the river below Ennis Lake through Beartrap Canyon and onto its confluence with the Gallatin and Jefferson at Three Forks.

Inside Yellowstone Park

The Madison river, formed by the Gibbon and Firehole rivers at Madison junction then flows Westward, leaving the park at West Yellowstone (The West entrance).

Fishing the Madison within the park boundaries requires a special fishing license. (See regulations), obtainable at the entrance booth. Also, park regulations apply.

Fishing the park is a unique experience. The scenery and wildlife add a unique dimension to your fishing.

The West Entrance road follows the river closely. Even where the river is not visible from the road, access is nearby.

At Madison junction campground access is easy, but fishing not very productive because of heavy use by visiting campers. Downstream from the campground, usage drops off sharply. The river still follows the road closely for another 1/2 mile, until it curves away to Big Bend.

Big Bend

The river is like a big meadow stream, smooth and deep with uneven bottom and weed beds for most of its length until it reaches the road again. There are good numbers of fish and the water looks perfect for dry flies. It is, but fishing it requires a lot of skill because of current and depth. Big Bend is just around the corner, a little off the highway, overall the same type of water, but with a long big pool, best fished with nymphs.

Looking back to Big Bend

From Big Bend the river continues back towards the road. Where the lodge pole pine trees commence, the river picks up speed and forms a nice channelled run with a little island in the middle, which can be productive with nymphs. Next you’ll see a riffled faster stretch alongside the road which is not worth much, but the slower stretch following this, can be good. It has undercut banks, channels and islands. From here a long smooth run leads into

Nine Mile Hole

Nine Mile Hole (9 miles up from the entrance), is about a quarter mile long. The large boulders are unique for this area. Because of these boulders and the collected debris, currents swirl in all directions and presenting a fly correctly, is extremely difficult. For that reason, many people fish this stretch with streamers. Between the 2 river curves, – 1/4 mile approximately, the water is different at every rock, log and swirl. The deep channel in the center is impossible to wade in most places. The fish are in the channel.

At the end of the run, below the island, you’ll find some good dry fly water. Stay out of the swampy part at the lower end near the highway bridge.

On the other side of the bridge, is the start of Seven Mile Run. Lots of weed beds, obstructions and logs on the right bank, and generally, good dry fly water. This stretch is about 1 1/4 mile long, below the bridge the river turns sharply. At this bend you’ll find Grasshopper Bank. Below the bend you’ll see an island. The run on the roadside is called Rip Rap Run and good for sizeable trout with nymphs. The entire stretch from there is often called Long Riffles. Except on the upper end, there are not many good holding spots and fish tend to be small.

Above Hole Number One

This long riffle ends in Cable Car Run. The water here is deeper and has more cover for larger fish then the stretch immediately above. Cable Car Run ends in Hole Number One. The majority of trout are in The lower part of Hole #1.

Another riffle leads into Hole Number Two. One can drive up to Hole #2, but there the dirt road ends. Hole Number Three, 1/4 mile below, can only be reached by foot. Downstream from Hole #3 are several more “holes” or deeper runs, all of them good for larger fish and each separated by a short riffle, until one comes to the Beaver Meadows, where the river shallows into deep glides and shallow runs. This continues for about 4 miles. There are channels and islands and swampy or marshy stretches. It’s easy to get lost. The Beaver Meadows area ends in Baker’s Hole. Nowadays this famous spot is a haven for family fishing. It still holds large fish.

After Baker’s Hole the river winds it way to Hebgen Lake. It becomes more an estuary of the lake. This is the area known for the “gulper fishermen”, dedicated specialists who in their float tubes and paddle rafts, ply their trade at dawn and dusk in near secrecy.

Middle Madison


This middle section is the better known of the three river parts we are dealing with. The other sections being the river within Yellowstone Park and the Lower Madison below Ennis Lake.

After the river leaves the Park it enters Hebgen Lake, – a fine fishery in its own right, and after leaving Hebgen Lake, soon enters Quake Lake. Quake Lake was naturally formed in 1959 when an earthquake caused a rock slide, damming the river for 2 days and permanently changing the landscape around this slide area.

Quake Lake is very deep, covering the previous Madison Canyon. Dead trees still show above the surface and make good cover for large fish. It is not easy to fly fish from the bank, spin casting gear is usually more effective because of its farther reach, although the dead trees are a hazard for any jig or lure.

In the “slide area” below Quake Lake, the river is narrow and fast but slows and widens soon thereafter, finding its natural course again. After Lyon’s Bridge the river can be floated. Some years the fishable stretches alternate and one should carefully study the regulations. (You will find particulars under “regulations”).

Highway 287 follows the Madison all the way to Ennis. In many places it is close enough to the river to allow easy access, other areas of the river, – in particular in the stretch from the Slide Area to McAtee Bridge -, are harder to reach.

The character of the Madison for much of its way to Ennis is that of a fast riffles, glides and runs river, lacking deep pools. The banks do not have much brush cover and lack the usual tree falls and debris obstacles one finds in most other rivers. Areas of slow water, back eddies and such are few and far between. Only after Varney does the Madison starts to become braided in places, the banks start to show more brush cover and the river channel becomes more varied and the flow less rushed. Below Ennis the river takes on another appearance, that of a delta with many channels, islands and marshy, brush and reed covered flats.



After the dam at Ennis Lake, the Madison tumbles into Beartrap Canyon. This canyon is better known for its white water rafting then its fishing. Access is difficult, the river fast and the rock walls lining the river do not leave much room for movement along the banks. The river still holds a good trout population and the fish are of better size then in the river below the canyon.

Upper Beartrap Canyon
Beartrap Canyon and the lower river are best fished in the Spring before the water warms up. This part of the river is open year around and often the destination of winter and early spring anglers.

Ennis Lake has been silting up faster then expected, causing most of the game fish population to disappear. It is a quickly dying lake. The shallowness of the lake is such that the water warms quickly, which has caused the lower river to warm also.

The river immediately below Beartrap Canyon, although still having good trout numbers, is getting more and more populated with coarse fish species. In summer the water temperatures are such that fishing for trout is now mostly done in spring and fall, the summer water temperatures too high and the trout too lethargic. Further towards Three Forks the the river becomes even less of a trout fishery, although non trout fishermen find an abundant supply of fish to go after.

Since in these pages, we are mostly concerned with fly fishing for trout, we will leave out the detail information we supplied on the other parts of the river.

How to Get There

Ennis has a private airport but no commercial flights.

West Yellowstone is served by Delta airlines with daily flights during the summer. For detailed flight information and reservations go to our link page. Here you will also find information on car rental agencies and accommodations.

Other flight possibilities are: To Butte, Montana or to Idaho Falls, Idaho, each airport approximately 1 1/2 hrs. drive from your Madison destination.

Road distances:

Idaho Falls-West Yellowstone: 108 miles
Idaho Falls – Island Park: 81 miles.
Ennis- West Yellowstone: 71 miles.
Island Park – West Yellowstone: 27 miles.
Butte – Ennis: 76 miles.