Guide to Fly Fishing the Madison River Drainage, including the Gibbon and Firehole

Introduction to the Madison River Drainage

After the Lamar, the Madison drainage is the other great system of dry fly rivers in the Yellowstone area, aided by fly fishing only regulations for most of the water inside Yellowstone Park and artificials-only regulations many other areas. The Madison is formed by the confluence of the Gibbon and the Firehole, with the Firehole providing probably 65% of the Madison's flow. All three rivers offer excellent opportunities to match dense hatches, while the Firehole and Gibbon inside the park also feature some water suitable for attractor dry fly fishing, as does the Madison outside the Park. Of these rivers, the Firehole and Madison inside the Park are limited to fly fishing only, while the Gibbon above its major falls is open to lure fishing and limited to fly fishing below.

Like the Lamar drainage, the Madison drainage primarily consists of meadow streams, but unlike the Lamar there's a great deal of weed growth in the Madison system. This is due to the huge amount of hot spring and geyser discharge into these rivers. These hot springs fertilize the water, always a positive, but they also warm it greatly, meaning these rivers are poor choices for midsummer fishing. On the other hand, they are our best option for consistent dry fly fishing in October and really the only option at the beginning of the Park season. Outside the Park, the Madison cools below Hebgen Dam and is famous for summer fishing down to Ennis Lake. Below this lake, it again grows too warm in the summer.

In addition to excellent dry fly fishing, the Madison, lower Gibbon, and lower Firehole receive fall-run brown trout and some rainbows. The best fishing for these brutes is in October and the few days in November before the end of the park season. The Madison outside the Park, both immediately above Hebgen Lake and above Ennis Lake, also receive fall-run browns, and these runs are available after the park closes.

Except in the headwaters of the Gibbon, crowds are generally thick everywhere in the Madison drainage, especially since the Madison system provides the closest fishing to West Yellowstone, where it sometimes seems like every building is a fly shop or hotel. The tabs below include entries for each river in the Madison system, with two entries for the Madison since it fishes like two different rivers above and below Hebgen Lake.

Also note: the park water in the Madison drainage is sometimes closed in midsummer due to the aforementioned warm water. Keep an eye on our Fishing Report for more info. You should be fishing the Lamar drainage, Gallatin drainage, or Yellowstone drainage in this timeframe, anyway.

Madison River: Headwaters to Hebgen Lake

Introduction

Unlike the more famous "50 Mile Riffle" below Quake Lake, which is just downstream from Quake Lake, the upper Madison in Yellowstone Park is a generally slow, often weedy river that's home to picky browns and rainbows and, in the fall, big run-up fish from Hebgen Lake. It is often crowded, and is a difficult river to fish, particularly in the prime dry fly water from the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon that forms the Madison down to 7 Mile Bridge and in the prime runner water from just inside the park boundary downstream to Hebgen Lake. The Madison features a gentle gradient over most of its course from its head to Hebgen Lake, and heavy hatches of several mayfly and caddis species due to the mineral-rich geothermal waters which essentially turn it into a spring creek in this section.

Description and Access

In its best reaches inside Yellowstone Park, the Madison flows in long glides and pools, with many microcurrents and long trailing strands of aquatic plants. There is also a short stretch of canyon water where boulders span the streambed and current picks up, and a long run of shallow riffles close to West Yellowstone. All of this is right alongside the road. Just before leaving the Park the Madison turns northwest, away from the road, and there is a series of good pools known as the Barns Pools. They can be accessed from a dirt road on the north side of the highway just before reaching the West Entrance of the Park from the east. Below the Barns Pools and extending on down to Hebgen Lake is the Baker's Hole water, accessed by hiking from Baker's Hole Campground north of West Yellowstone. Both the Barns Pools and the Baker's Hole pools hold few fish over most of the year, but in the fall they are the first stop for trout running up from Hebgen Lake.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Rainbow Abundant throughout. Some increase in numbers and size occurs during the fall run.
Brown Abundant throughout, but big fish are more common during the fall spawning run.
Whitefish Abundant throughout.

The Madison is another one of our rivers that is not suited for beginners. It's not really suited for anglers of low to intermediate skill, either, with the nearby Gibbon Canyon a much better option. For experts, the Madison offers technical dry fly fishing for rainbows and browns averaging from ten to fourteen inches, with an occasional 20-incher. To catch any of them, you need stealth, precision casting, excellent line control, and a fly that matches the insect that is hatching. Prime hatches include Pale Morning Duns, Blue-winged Olives, and a speckled tan and olive caddis (Bracycentrus, the same bug that hatches pre-runoff in the Yellowstone as the Mother's Day caddis). Emerger patterns, cripples, and other specialized creations are often necessary, and long, fine leaders help you deal with the complicated currents that seem to be trying to mess up your drift on purpose. The Madison becomes fishable sometime between the beginning of the park season and the 15th of June, usually around the 1st-5th. This section of river has a short and fractured emergence of Salmonflies and Golden Stones, sometime around the 15th of June.

When nothing is hatching, nymphing with precise hatch-matching mayfly or caddis patterns like Serendipities, Pheasant Tails, and Copper Johns is a good bet, as is swinging wet flies through the faster sections. In early fall, terrestrials are an excellent option.

The Madison is a very poor bet in midsummer, though it remains cooler than the Firehole, especially close to the west gate. Still, it usually breaks 70 degrees in July and early August. At this time, go elsewhere. Fishing picks up again in September and October, when significant numbers of browns and rainbows enter the river from Hebgen Lake. Some of these are enormous. We guided a guy a few years ago who had taken a 29-incher the previous season, for example, though 16-20 inches is more likely. Fishing for these brutes is considerably different than fishing for residents. Streamers, irritators, and large nymphs are the tickets. Fall crowds are intense, especially in late October. Follow the etiquette if targeting runners in the famous Barns Pools: start at the top of the run, take a step down after every cast, and at the bottom of the run step out and go back to the top, getting in line behind other anglers.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
x? x? X x?     x? x? X X X X

Upper Madison Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Pale Morning Dun x X X X                
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)               x x X X X
Spring BWO (Olive Baetis) x x                    
Tricos             x x        
Caddis, Tan (Hydropsyche)     X X                
Caddis, Ginger (Nectopsyche)     x x x x x x        
Caddis, Other     x x x x x x x      
Golden Stonefly   x x                  
Salmonfly   x x                  
Midges                 x x x x
Terrestrials         x x x X X x    
Other Trout Foods May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Streamers X X x         x x X X X
Attractor Nymphs X X X x x x x X X X X X
Wet Flies and Soft Hackles x X X x x x x X X X X X
"Aggravators" x           x X X X X X
Egg Flies and San Juan Worms x           x x x X X X

Upper Madison Top Flies
Sparkle Dun PMD, #16
Sparkle Dun BWO, #18
Tan X-Caddis, #16</p>
Glasshead PT Soft Hackle, #14-16
Bead, Hare, and Copper, #12
Black and Olive Woolly Bugger, #2-6
BH Pheasant Tail, #16-20
Minch's Black Stone, #4-8
Minch's Golden Stone, #8
Chartreuse Copper John, #16-18 (try in October...)


Madison River: Hebgen Lake to Three Forks

Introduction

Please note that this section of the Madison is 2-3 hours from our shop by car. As such, it doesn't make sense to fish it as a day trip from Gardiner. We discuss it here only for completeness' sake. Elsewhere in this guide we push our services for waters close to Gardiner, because we don't think it makes sense to fish a water close to one shop with a distant shop. By the same token, you should fish this section of the Madison with an outfitter out of West Yellowstone, Ennis, or Bozeman. The only reason to fish it with us is because you like us and want our company with you on the water.

The Madison below Hebgen Lake can be divided into three sections: the short section between Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake, the section between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake, and the section below Ennis Lake. The stretch between Hebgen and Quake is a quasi-tailwater that's best-known for its spring fishing, since much of it remains clear of spring runoff. Between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake is the famous 50 Mile Riffle, which is home to hard-fighting rainbows and lots of anglers, as well as easy access and good stonefly and caddis hatches. Below Ennis Lake, the Beartrap Canyon provided rugged wilderness fishing followed by a low-elevation tailwater widely known for its spring fishing, the propensity of its trout to eat crayfish, and the hordes of summer innertubers that shut the fishing off even before the river gets too warm to fish in this stretch, in late June, due to warm water coming out of Ennis Lake.

Description and Access

The stretch from Hebgen to Quake can be accessed via US Highway 287 or via trails from the Campfire Lodge property and Quake Lake itself. This stretch generally flows in long riffles and pools, and can be quite powerful. Often crowded, its primary interest to most anglers is its resistance to runoff, since the runoff settles in Hebgen Lake and the small creeks that enter the river in the Hebgen-Quake stretch must be really filthy to muddy the river enough to hurt the fishing.

From Quake Lake to Ennis, Hwy 287 continues to provide access, as do various bridges and roads on the "back" side of the river. From Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge, fishing from boats is prohibited (though they can be used for transportation). From Lyons to Ennis Bridge, fishing from boats is allowed and driftboats are the primary means of accessing the river. From Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake, the "Braids" section, fishing from boats is again prohibited.

Below Ennis Lake, the Madison flows in the Beartrap Canyon, a portion of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, and can be accessed only by hiking trail. Downstream of the Beartrap, the river is again paralleled by various roads, though again fishing from a driftboat is again preferred due to long stretches of private land that make access difficult.

The water character just below Quake Lake is chaotic, with heavy rapids and pocket water. From roughly Reynolds Pass Bridge down to Ennis Bridge, the river is a mixture of riffles, runs, and pocket water, with few serious rapids. Large boulders in the middle of the river are obvious structure, but bankside rocks and logs also provide good fish habitat. The Braids below Ennis Bridge are a stretch where the river splits into numerous channels which resemble small meadow streams in character. Even if it were not legally required, fishing this section would be best on foot. The Beartrap Canyon below Ennis Lake is heavy whitewater and cannot be floated save by experienced rowers, and only in rafts. From the bottom of the Beartrap down to the confluence of the Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson at Three Forks, the river is primarily gentle, with some riffles but few heavy rapids. Large patches of weeds create structure.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Rainbow Abundant throughout.
Brown Abundant throughout.
Whitefish Abundant throughout.

Between the lakes, the Madison sees heavy pressure and the fish are spooky. The best flies are usually small nymphs such as Serendipities and small San Juan Worms. Some midge activity is possible, but nymphing is typically the best bet. When the river is somewhat dirty in the spring, stonefly nymphs and larger Bead, Hare, & Copper nymphs are also a good bet.

The Fifty Mile Riffle between Quake and Ennis Lakes offers many angling opportunities. This section is typically blown out with spring runoff from mid-late May until mid-June. In the float section, a stonefly nymph/beadhead nymph combo is probably the most popular bet, but attractor dry/dropper combos and hoppers (in season) are also popular. As the season progresses, smaller and more precise nymphs, including slim non-bead mayflies, are often needed. These smaller nymphs are typically the better bets in the wade fishing section, though stoneflies are a good choice immediately ahead of the hatch. Good mayfly and caddis hatches are hallmarks of this section. In the spring it's BWO, March Browns, and Mother's Day Caddis. The spring caddis do not hatch so heavily on the Madison as on the Yellowstone, but the hatch is more consistent since the Madison does not blow out so quickly in the spring as the Yellowstone. Typically late evening (the last hour or so of dayling) tan caddis hatches are present in July and early August, with Epeorus and Pale Morning Dun mayflies also likely in the summer. In the fall it's BWO, while in the winter and early spring midges are the top ticket.

The Beartrap Canyon is somewhat unusual in that it is brawling canyon water that fishes poorly if at all in mid-late summer, the best time for the other canyon water in our area. Stonefly nymphs and San Juan Worms are probably the top bets here. Since Ennis Lake is shallow, spring runoff is about as bad here as it is above the lake.

The lower Madison is a generally flat and technical low-elevation tailwater. Small, bright beadheads are usually the most consistent flies, but this section of the river is unusual in that crayfish imitations probably work best for its larger trout. Good BWO and Mother's Day caddis abound here in the spring. From mid-June through mid-September, this section of the river is both too crowded with recreational floaters and too warm to fish at all, and it is frequently closed


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
  Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May June July Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Hebgen-Quake x? x? X X x X x x X X X x?
Quake-McAtee x? x? Closed til 3rd Sat in May X X x x X x? x?
McAtee-Ennis Lake x? x? x? X x? x? X X X X x? x?
Below Ennis Lake x? x? X X x? X     x? X X x?

Madison Outside YNP Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May June July Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Pale Morning Dun     x X X x x          
Spring BWO   x X X x              
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)             x X X x x  
March Brown     x X x              
Western Green Drake       x x x x          
Epeorus           x X X        
Heptagenia             x x x      
Caddis, Various       x X X X x        
Golden Stonefly           X X x        
Salmonfly           X X          
Yellow Sally Stone           x X x        
Midges x X X x x x x x x x X x
Terrestrials             x X X      
Other Trout Foods Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May June July Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Attractor Dries       x x   X X x x    
Attractor Nymphs X X X X x x x x X X X X
Stonefly Nymphs     x x X X X x x x x  
Streamers x x X X X x x x X X X x

Madison Outside YNP Top Flies
Matt's Black "Brooks" Stone, #6
Matt's Golden Stone, #8
Serendipity, #14-18
Beadhead Prince, #16
Love Bunny, #4 & #4
Tan X-Caddis, #14-18
Tan Iris or Clacka Caddis, #16
Peacock Clacka Caddis, #14-16
Gould's Half Down Salmonfly, #6
Purple Haze, #16-18

Firehole River

Introduction

The Firehole is probably the strangest trout river on Earth. Originally fishless above its falls only a mile upstream from its junction with the Gibbon (where the Madison begins), the Firehole now hosts great populations of rainbows and browns. Most are fairly small, but they're shaped like footballs and take dries well. While fishing for them, the angler needs to keep an eye out for hot springs, geysers going off nearby, bison and elk crossing the stream, and other wonders only possible in Yellowstone.

The Firehole can crack eighty degrees in midsummer, at which point all its trout over eight inches long head for cold tributaries. Fish somewhere else from the 10th of July at the latest until early September at the earliest. More commonly, the Firehole is shot from the beginning of July through Labor Day. Check our Fishing Report for the latest updates on water temperature. Note that the river is frequently closed due to high water temperatures during drought years.

Description and Access

The Firehole begins as a tiny mountain creek at fishless Madison Lake on the Continental Divide. A bitter cold small stream populated only with brookies in its upper reaches, the Firehole transforms out of sight of anglers, in the closed zone near Upper Geyser Basin -better known for one of its geysers, Old Faithful. When fishing begins again at the Biscuit Basin bridge, the Firehole has doubled in size and warmed drastically due to all the hot water pouring into it, and it is now an insect factory. The trout have changed, too. Now rainbows predominate, with almost as many browns. Brookies from above and Yellowstone cutts that have wandered down from the Little Firehole are as rare as hen's teeth. The Firehole flows in a series of riffles, long, slow pools, and glides from the Biscuit Basin bridge all the way to the Firehole Picnic Area, and there are sporadic hot springs and smaller geysers most of the way. At the picnic area the river widens and begins to flow over ledges of lava rock and geyser deposit in what look like riffles from the road. Anglers here look like they're walking on water, since the "riffles" are only an inch or two deep in most places. Except for breaks in the ledges where the water is much deeper, this is poor habitat. Next the Firehole leaps over Firehole Cascade into Firehole Canyon, which is generally deep and slow until you reach Firehole Falls. Below the falls is a series of pools and stretches of pocket water that runs about another mile, to the confluence with the Gibbon. Large trout enter this stretch in the fall, and you can frequently see them battering themselves against the falls as they try to climb it. Catching them is harder.

Access is easy, the only problems being the hot springs you need to avoid stepping in and the herds of bison that sometimes trap you in the river. They are no joke: I've been pursued (not quite chased) by a young bull that I'd stopped 75 yards from, 50 yards more than the Park people say is safe. More people are hurt by bison than bears, by a long shot. The river generally parallels the Madison-Old Faithful road, sometimes closely, sometimes a couple miles away. The Fountain Flats Drive and walking trail offer access to the stretch far from the main road.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Rainbow Abundant throughout.
Brown Abundant throughout. Most of the larger fish (over 12") in the Firehole are browns.
Cutthroat Some in tributary Little Firehole. Once in a blue moon you'll catch one near the confluence.
Brook Abundant above the Old Faithful closure, extremely rare or absent below.
Whitefish Absent above Firehole Falls, common below.

The Firehole is a great fishery for anglers of all skill levels, but only in spring and fall. I have had beginning anglers catch 15 fish from it in a few hours, mostly by having them swing wet flies in the riffles to simulate emerging and egg-laying caddis, while their more-experienced partner targeted spookier trout a short distance upstream selectively picking off Blue-winged Olives. Trout will sometimes chase a Trude (a caddis again), nymphs and soft hackles work well when there's nothing on top, and there's a short but fun Salmonfly hatch in the canyon, but what we really look for on this river are hatches of mayflies and caddis. Blue-winged Olives and Pale Morning Duns are the most important mayflies, there are a handful of Green Drakes, and this is the place for Nectopsyche caddis, as well as others. Hatches are usually very dense and the fish can be quite selective, but usually only one bug at a time is hatching or falling, which makes fly selection less an irritant than it can be on the Upper Yellowstone or Slough Creek. If there's no hatch, fishing can be tough no matter how good you are.

Fish size is odd. Most Firehole trout only live a year or two, burning their candles at both ends with high metabolic rates caused by the warm water and high chemical loads from minerals in the hot spring water. Even if it were legal to keep fish, you wouldn't want to eat them because of these chemicals. The mineral load is so high that huge amounts of dirty white foam forms, which have at times caused ignorant visitors to decry the "laundry detergent" in the river. Anyway, Most Firehole trout are only 8-12 inches long, but they're full of vigor. Any larger fish you catch have learned to spend two months a year in the cold tributaries, where they're very difficult to catch. Once in a great while you'll see a monster, either in the Firehole itself or in one of the tribs. In the summer of 2005 I saw a rainbow I estimate at 25 inches in the Little Firehole. Full of anticipation, I cast my fifteen-foot leader and #20 Pheasant Tail. The fish chuckled softly and drifted down to the bottom among the weeds, and appeared to dematerialize as though he were beaming up to the Enterprise.

In the fall, the river below the falls is host to large numbers of spawner browns and 'bows. It's a tough stretch to fish, however, because the water character makes presentation difficult. The Gibbon, Madison, Lewis, Yellowstone, and Gardner are all better bets for runners, in my book.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
X X X x       x? X X X X

Firehole River Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Pale Morning Dun x X X x                
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)                 x X X  
Spring BWO X x                    
Ginger Caddis (Nectopsyche) x X X x       x X x x  
Tan Caddis (Hydropsyche) x X x x                
Gray Caddis x x x           x x    
Little Dark Caddis   x x x                
Amber Caddis   x x                  
Golden Stonefly x x x                  
Salmonfly x x x                  
Little Olive Stone   x x                  
Midges                   x x x
Damselflies   x x                  
Other Trout Foods May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Attractor Dries x X x           x x    
Attractor Nymphs X X x           X X X X
Stonefly Nymphs x x x           x x x x
Streamers and "Aggravators" X x             x x X X
Wet Flies and Soft Hackles X X X           X X x x

Firehole River Top Flies
PMD Sparkle Dun, #16-20
BWO Sparkle Dun, #18-22
BWO Emerger, #18-22
Flashback Pheasant Tail, #18-22
Matt's "Brooks" Black Stone, #6
Wiese's Glasshead Soft Hackle PT, #14-16
Wiese's Palmered CDC Nectopsyche, #14
Rust Shimmer Nymph, #16-18
Partridge Caddis, #14-18
UV Pearl and Partridge Soft Hackle, #14

Gibbon River

Introduction

The Gibbon acts like about twelve different rivers over the course of its run through Yellowstone Park. In its headwaters it is home to rainbow trout and a few grayling, far back in a burned-over forest where people seldom go. It tumbles over a falls and into a meadow, and suddenly the rainbows are gone and brook trout hold sway. It first becomes visible from the road here. Then it's over another falls and back into trees. Browns are added to the mix below this falls, and after another meadow and almost doubling in size behind Norris Geyser Basin, they predominate through another meadow, another cascade, yet one more meadow, and a great stretch of pocket water. Then it's over yet one more waterfall and through a run of mixed pocket water and riffle-pool water in the trees where rainbows and browns duke it out for supremacy and monsters swim in the fall, all to end in another short meadow where the Firehole and Gibbon join to form the Madison.

Below the last falls, Gibbon Falls, the Gibbon is fly fishing only, like the Firehole and Madison. Despite being called a river, it is a small stream for most of its course, and is not tough to cross except in the deepest of its meadow pools and in the canyon section above and below Gibbon Falls, the bottommost falls.

Description and Access

As noted above, the Gibbon is a crazy river. Its upper reaches are small water and miles from the road, about four miles from the road where it leaves its head at Grebe Lake, to be precise. It first passes under the road a mile below Upper Gibbon Falls, the top of the brookie water, and is first paralleled by the Virginia Cascades Road, which gives a view of its second falls. At Norris Campground it begins to mature as a trout stream, and a few larger browns join the myriad small brook trout and handful of grayling, all in a pretty meadow. Norris Geyser Basin warms the river, and below this point browns are more common than brookies. Rainbows are about gone. From just below Norris, in Elk Park, the Gibbon is no more than a mile from the road, and usually much less.

Elk Park, Gibbon Meadow, and Junction Meadow hold the largest resident fish for the remainder of the Gibbon's course. The largest are in Gibbon Meadows. These are slow, sand-bottomed meadows as complicated to fish as anything on the upper Yellowstone or Slough's Lower Meadow. Between Gibbon Meadow and Gibbon Falls are five miles of great pocket water where beginner to intermediate anglers can have a blast provided they're surefooted. This section of the river is either right next to the road, primarily in its upper end, or down a nasty slope from the road that's plastered with burned snags and new growth. This section was formerly likewise next to the road, but the 2009-2010 road realignment put the road on the other side of a ridge from the river, which makes this an intriguing early season pseudo-backcountry bet. The lower portion of the canyon is generally 100-500 yards from the road, often through lodgepole snags, but getting to it is usually a matter of following game tracks or strolling over to the creek.

The Gibbon is not as influenced by hot spring outflow as the Firehole and consequently the Madion, and much of the water upstream of Norris is worth fishing, unlike the stretch of the Firehole above Old Faithful. This makes it a better bet in midsummer than the other streams in the Madison drainage.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Rainbow Abundant from Grebe Lake to Upper Falls, fading from uncommon to absent from there down to Gibbon Falls, abundant again below Gibbon Falls.
Brown Rare to common above Norris, abundant below Norris.
Brook Absent above Upper Falls, abundant Upper Falls to Norris, shading from uncommon to absent below Norris.
Grayling Uncommon from Grebe Lake down to Norris or perhaps a little farther. Note that grayling are the predominant fish in Grebe Lake.
Whitefish Absent above Gibbon Falls, uncommon below.

As befits its diverse character, the Gibbon provides a very wide range of fisheries. At one time perch were even stocked in it! In general the Gibbon is a better summer river than the others in the Madison drainage (though it is not as good as the drainages further north and east: the Lamar, Gardner, and Yellowstone), and has more water friendly for beginners. On the flipside, Gibbon Meadow and Elk Park are Experts Only water, and even the experts can have trouble there, especially if the Brown Drakes aren't hatching.

Beginner water is especially found from Norris Campground upstream. Here there are more brook trout and the stream is smaller, making it kid-friendly. The brookies are minuscule, averaging maybe seven inches, and even this is generous. There are some decent browns below Virginia Cascades, however, and what seems to be a small population of fluvial (stream-dwelling) grayling. The biologists aren't sure, but every time I fish the stretch between Norris and Virginia Cascades I catch several grayling, too many for all of them to be coming down from Grebe and Wolf Lakes, where they're abundant. This is especially true since I seldom catch one from Virginia Cascades to the Upper Falls. The Virginia Cascade-Upper Falls stretch is home to even smaller brookies, but seemingly infinite numbers of them. Again, this is great for kids. For all of this water, a #16 Coachman Trude, an Elk Hair Caddis, or, if you're really desperate, a Prince is the only fly you'll need.

From Upper Falls to Wolf Lake is an interesting stretch of water. This is high elevation country and the river is now only 10-15 feet wide, but it's fairly flat and there are occasional hatches. Rainbows live here, along with some grayling, and they're much less numerous and therefore bigger than the brookies, averaging closer to nine inches and going thirteen or fourteen on occasion. They're also gorgeous. As near as I can figure, this stretch of the Gibbon was only stocked once and left to run wild afterwards. In any case, the trout are deeply colored for rainbows, and some of them seem to have more black "spot" than background color.

Below Norris the Gibbon changes radically. As mentioned, matching a hatch is the key in Elk Park and Gibbon Meadows. From here down the Gibbon also can turn off in midsummer, though it's never as bad as the Firehole. Check our Fishing Report. Fish here can be of any size, but the ones you're after are usually 14-20 inches, with some a touch bigger. As noted, they're spooky and smart, so even a fourteen-incher deserves a victory whoop.

Just downstream of Gibbon Meadows the fishing changes again, switching suddenly to pocket water. This is great water for novices, since the fish in it look up well and usually respond to a good cast. It's a lot of fun for anyone, when fishing a light rod and dry flies. A "trophy" fish here can reach fifteen inches, but 6-10 is more common. Hatches can be good in this stretch, with caddis and medium-sized stoneflies dominating. In mid-June keep an eye out for the Golden Stones and the olive-green stonefly I've seen bring fish only here. They look for #12-14 Olive Stimulators when this insect is around, and Trude/Prince dry/dropper combos when they're not. There are a few Salmonflies, but the hatch is fragmentary at best and I don't worry about it.

The area below Gibbon Falls can fish well, but it is primarily home to small fish that have not yet migrated to Hebgen Lake. This changes in September and October, when migrants arrive. The Gibbon has some excellent streamer water in this stretch, making it a good place to try for a big fish when fall is firmly in place.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
  May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Grebe Lake to Norris     x? x? X X X X x?      
Below Norris   x? X x?       x? X X X X

Gibbon River Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Pale Morning Dun   x X X     x x        
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)                 X X x  
Brown Drake     X X                
Western Green Drake     X X   x x          
Tan Caddis (Hydropsyche)           x X x        
Ginger Caddis (Nectopsyche)                        
Yellow Sally Stone   x x x                
Little Olive Stone   x X x                
Salmonfly     x                  
Golden Stonefly     x                  
Terrestrials               x x x    
Other Trout Foods May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Attractor Dries   X X X X X X X X x    
Attractor Nymphs   X X         x X X X X
Stonefly Nymphs   x x           x x X X
Streamers and "Aggravators"   x             x X X X

Gibbon River Top Flies
PMD Sparkledun, #16
Coachman Trude, #12-16
Peacock Caddis, #16
Beadhead Prince, #16
Olive Stimulator, #14
Wiese's Four Feather, #16
Parachute Adams, #12-18
Gray Foam Drake, #12-14
Minch Stone, Black, #4
Wiese's PT-Bugger, #4

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