Description: Montana's most famous fishing river, the rapid-flowing Madison cuts a beautiful swath through a broad valley, passing by lush meadows and broken timber.
Vital statistics: 133 miles long (including 23 reservoir miles) from the Wyoming border to its juncture with the Jefferson River to form the Missouri River near Three Forks.
Level of difficulty: All Class I except for two sections (below Quake Lake and Bear Trap Canyon) that have difficult rapids.
Flow: Annual mean flow: 1,753 cfs downstream from Ennis Lake. Usually floatable all year. In dry years, Varney to Ennis Lake can be marginal because the river braids extensively. Bear Trap Canyon may be unfloatable at peak flows (over 3,000 cfs). Minimum Bear Trap flows are 1,000 to 1,200 cfs. Below Ennis Lake floating is best below 4,500 cfs.
Hazards: Fast water with frequent rocks in the upper river. Low bridges with debris around the pilings, logjams, snags, and a diversion dam below Varney. Bear Trap Canyon and the difficult water below Quake Lake.
Where the crowd goes: For anglers, Lyons Bridge to Ennis. For whitewater enthusiasts, the Bear Trap Canyon. For inner-tubers, Warm Springs to Greycliff.
Avoiding the scene: Ennis to Ennis Lake on the upper Madison (though it's all crowded in the summer). Greycliff to Headwaters State Park on the lower river.
Inside tip: Fish the often-neglected lower
river in spring and fall when water temperatures are cool. Whirling disease
has hurt fishing on the upper river, which is predominantly a rainbow fishery,
but hasn't had a big impact on the lower river where brown trout are more
USFS: Gallatin (West), Beaverhead Interagency Travel Plan (East)
USGS: Ashton-ID, Bozeman-MT
Maps:BLM: #43 (Bozeman), #44 (Ennis), #45 (Hebgen Lake), Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Visitor's Guide
River rules: No motors over 10 horsepower anywhere. No motors in Bear Trap Canyon. No floating in Yellowstone National Park. Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge and Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake are closed to fishing from boats. Check ever-changing fishing regulations. No float camping. Fire pans and self-registration required in Bear Trap Canyon.
For more information: Yellowstone Raft Company, Big Sky; Madison River Fishing Company, Ennis; The Tackle Shop, Ennis; FWP, Bozeman; BLM, Dillon.
The paddling: Anyone who reads outdoor magazines knows that for many Americans, trout fishing is synonymous with Joe and his pal driving out from New Jersey to catch hook-jawed brown trout on Montana's Madison River. It's the fisherman's equivalent of a trip to Mecca. The folklore lives on, and the beautiful Madison is probably Montana's most famous river.
The Madison River's popularity is well founded. Originating from pristine sources high in Yellowstone National Park, the Madison flows gin-clear and undisturbed through lush meadows and broken timber. Within the park, elk and bison graze along the shores, and trumpeter swans dip their graceful necks underwater to reach vegetation. It's a "Peaceable Kingdom" setting. The only down side is that the park gets extremely crowded in the summer. As mentioned above, floating the Madison within the boundaries of the park is prohibited.
Two dams and a natural lake check the flow of the river outside of Yellowstone Park. First comes Hebgen Dam, which backs up the Madison to within 2 miles of the park boundary. A few miles below Hebgen Dam comes Quake Lake, a small lake formed by a major earthquake and subsequent landslide in 1959. Then, some 60 miles downstream lies the Madison Dam, a small hydropower project built around the turn of the century. The Madison Dam forms Ennis Reservoir and marks the artificial distinction between the upper and lower river.
Floating on the upper Madison usually begins about 4 miles downstream from Quake Lake at Raynolds Pass Fishing Access. The 4-mile section immediately below Quake Lake is extremely dangerous because of fast water, big drops and sharp, jagged rocks. The sharp rocks are remnants of the 1959 earthquake, and even thrill-seekers tend to avoid this whitewater. It should be good floating in a few hundred years, once the fast-flowing waters round off these sharp edges.
Most of the 40-mile stretch between Quake Lake and Varney Bridge flows swiftly but at a very uniform depth. The river gushes in a wide, shallow channel averaging about 3 or 4 feet deep, and resembles a long, continuous riffle. Occasional large boulders present the only hazard for floaters. The cannonball-sized rocks that blanket the bottom of the river have a slick coating of algae that results in treacherous footing. Practiced beginners in rafts or canoes can handle this section, but watch out for those rocks!
The river winds through highly scenic country, with the lofty Madison Range to the east and the sage-covered foothills of the Gravelly Mountains to the west. Access is excellent and much of the land bordering the river is publicly owned. There are numerous picnic areas, campgrounds, and fishing access sites.
The section of river from Varney Bridge to Ennis Lake braids into several channels where logjams and downed trees are common. Beginners should stay clear. Low summer flows may require floaters to drag their crafts over sandbars. The section of river from Ennis Bridge to the lake is an excellent area to view wildlife. Look for deer, moose, mink, and beaver, as well as raptors and shorebirds. Several great blue heron rookeries can be found as well. Keep in mind that fishing from a boat in this section is prohibited, although floating is fine.
Floating pressure on the upper river is quite high. Recreational studies reveal a 500% increase in angler pressure over the past three decades. The upper river now supports over 60,000 anglers annually. Dozens of professional outfitters offer guide service on this upper section, and it's very popular with tourists and out-of-state anglers. The large number of floaters has created a conflict between float anglers and bank anglers, and that's why some sections have been closed to fishing from boats.
The upper Madison has received a great deal of national attention in recent years because of whirling disease, an infectious fish microbe that in the early to mid-nineties reduced rainbow trout populations by as much as 90 percent. Be sure to check current fishing regulations.
The lower Madison (below Ennis Lake) isn't nearly as popular as the upper section. While this part of the river was once one of the most productive trout streams in Montana, thermal problems have affected the fishery.
Fisheries biologists have learned that during the hot summer months, Ennis Lake acts as a giant solar collector, and its water temperature sometimes gets as high as 85 degrees F. Since the lake has filled in with silt and become very shallow, it has no thermocline (a natural dividing point between warm and cold water). All of the lake water gets warm, then flows over the dam and heats up the river downstream. Since trout do best with cold water temperatures, their growth rates have been dramatically affected below Ennis Dam. Fish numbers remain fairly good (more than 3,000 fish per mile) until Greycliff Fishing Access. In addition, plant and insect life has changed.
While all this is of grave concern to trout anglers, swimmers and inner-tubers certainly don't mind the warm water temperatures. Consequently, during the heat of summer, the lower river near Montana Highway 84 has become a popular recreation site.
Floating on the lower river can begin right below the dam, though not for everyone. Below the dam lies the rugged, inaccessible Bear Trap Canyon, which has some outstanding rapids. The Bureau of Land Management currently manages this 9-mile section of the river known as the Bear Trap Canyon Recreation Area. It encompasses 36,700 acres and is a designated wilderness.
The Bear Trap has a few hazards other than tough whitewater. Rattlesnakes inhabit the canyon, and if you believe all the stories, they're more common than earthworms. Ticks are numerous in the spring. Poison ivy awaits you. Still want to go? Grizzly bears occasionally make an appearance as well.
The Bureau of Land Management has published an excellent map of the river and the Bear Trap Canyon called the Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Visitor's Guide. It has an excellent topographic map as well as photos of the approaches to the four major rapids. It's available free of charge by writing to the Bureau of Land Management.
After the Madison exits the Bear Trap Canyon, it's pretty tame. Once the river leaves MT 84, access is limited and the river is more remote. Access points at Greycliff, Cobblestone (no boat ramp, walk-in access only), and Three Forks occur in about equal intervals in the 24-mile section from the MT 84 bridge to the headwaters of the Missouri.
The lower sections of the Madison are quite isolated and can have excellent fishing in spring and fall. Hundred-foot gray cliffs tower over the river, and many vantage points offer spectacular views of the Spanish Peaks. Because of high winds that stir up mud in Ennis Lake, the lower Madison sometimes gets dirty even at non-runoff times.
Since fishing is the main attraction on the Madison, it's only fair to tell why. Fisheries biologists, who survey the river regularly, report that sections of the river contain as many as 2,000 brown trout per mile. These fish are wild-they're not raised in a hatchery-and average about a pound each. And while whirling disease has hit rainbow trout hard (down from 3,000 per mile to about 500 per mile), it has had only minimal impacts on brown trout. For those who think big, biologists occasionally capture fish in the 5 to 7 pound range when doing fish surveys.
The Madison salmon fly hatch usually occurs on the upper river in late June. During this time, incredible numbers of large stoneflies buzz through the air like miniature helicopters, and the fish go wild. So do the anglers, and the river gets so thoroughly flailed that there's foam all the way to Three Forks.