Yellowstone Fly Fishing Tips: fly fishing the madison river, madison river fishing guide, fly fishing gibbon river, fly fishing firehole river,

Introduction to Fly Fishing the Madison River Drainage

Note: Only the portion of the Madison River Drainage within Yellowstone Park and immediately downstream (to Hebgen Lake just west of the park boundary) is covered on this page. For the Madison below Hebgen Lake, visit the Other Rivers page. The Madison beyond Hebgen Lake is simply too far from Parks' Fly Shop for our shop to make sense as a base of operations.

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 outside it. The Madison is formed by the confluence of the Firehole and the Gibbon Rivers, 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 and beyond the scope of this guide (see the Other Waters page for more on this stretch of the Madison 2.5+ hours from here). 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.

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, though in the Madison in particular there can be a few fish as early as the end of August. 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 rougher and headwaters portions of the Gibbon and Firehole, 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 within Yellowstone Park, with two entries for the Madison within Yellowstone Park since it fishes quite differently near its formation at Madison Junction and downstream, near Hebgen Lake just west of the park boundary.

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.


Firehole River

Introduction

The Firehole is probably the strangest trout river on Earth, due to the myriad natural wonders that surround it, including Old Faithful and a sizable fraction of the world's other geysers and hot springs. 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, particularly in the famous section between the closure surrounding Old Faithful and the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin and the beginning of the Firehole Canyon. Most of these trout 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 Old Faithful. The closure runs from the bridge upstream (south) of Old Faithful to the bridge just upstream of Biscuit Basin. When fishing begins again, 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. This is the best portion of the Firehole, and the most famous portion. 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 to the small-fish water upstream of Old Faithful ranges from an easy hike to a desperately challenging scramble down steep canyon walls. Upstream of Kepler Cascade, the river (really a mountain creek here) is paralleled by the Lone Star Geyser trail, one of the few in the park where bicycles are legal. At the cascade, the river plunges into a vertical-walled canyon that is very physical to access save at its downstream end, the bridge that marks the upstream end of the Old Faithful closure.

Access to the portion downstream of the Old Faithful closure 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 within a few feet, sometimes a mile or so away. The Fountain Flats Drive and walking trail offer access to most sections that are far from the main road.

Note that footing even in the pretty sections of the Firehole right next to the road is not as easy as it looks. The bottom is typically firm and not slippery except where it's composed of weedbeds and silt, but it is very uneven, with sudden ups and downs that may not be easy to see. Take short steps here, basically shuffling your feet, to be sure you're keeping your feet on solid rock rather than stepping into a bottomless hole. I hope it goes without saying to avoid the hot springs. There are clear buffalo and angler tracks that skirt geothermal hazards on safe ground.

Angling

Angling Quality
Angling quality by season on the Firehole River
The Fish
  • Rainbow: Rainbow trout are the predominant trout in the Firehole from Biscuit Basin down and are possible from Kepler Cascade to the Old Faithful closure. Most run 6 to 12 inches, but huge ones are present (and very hard to catch). Downstream of Firehole Falls, fish to 24+ inches are possible in the fall.
  • Brown: Brown trout are almost as common as rainbows downstream from Biscuit Basin and are likewise possible from Kepler Cascade to the Old Faithful closure. They tend to run 8-14 inches but can get huge even in the meadow stretches. Richard Parks' personal biggest brown came from Biscuit Basin. Downstream of Firehole Falls very large fish are possible in the fall. Most of these runners average 16-20 inches, but fish exceeding eight pounds are conceivable. Some of these browns winter over and hang out in the lower Firehole until mid-June.
  • Brook: Brookies are the only fish in the Firehole above Kepler Cascade and are the most common fish downstream to the Old Faithful closure. Downstream of Biscuit Basin, they are rare to absent except in tributary streams.
  • Whitefish: Whitefish are found only below Firehole Falls and are not common.
The Fishing

The Firehole is a great fishery for anglers of all skill levels, but only in spring and fall, and only if they are okay with sometimes intense crowding. 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 adult caddis. Swinging soft hackles is the single most consistent technique on this river for anglers of all skill levels, due to the fact that there are huge numbers of caddis in this river and its structure is ideally-suited to this technique, being composed of long riffles and runs less than waist deep.

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 and there are a handful of Green Drakes. The mayflies are most important before the middle of June, with BWO returning in late September and continuing to hatch through the fall.

This is the place for Nectopsyche (White Miller) caddis. They are the single most important hatch on this river, and are usually present in at least small numbers every day from late May or early June through September, and even into early October. They even hatch during the summer heat, when the Firehole is not a suitable fishery. There are other caddis here as well, with late May and early June Olive caddis the most important.

Hatches are usually very dense on the Firehole 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. In particular, bright, sunny days in late June or the fall are very, very tough. Probably your best bet is nymphing the deepest rock ledges you can find using slender mayfly nymphs that get down fast. Any fish will be a victory in such conditions.

Pay close attention to your stream thermometer here. Water temperatures can exceed 70 degrees by June 10 in dry years, and routinely do so in the afternoons by June 20. We do most of our fishing here in the morning except on cold autumn days, or right at the beginning of the season.

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 6-12 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 moderate numbers of spawner browns and 'bows that continue on up from the Madison. 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.

Hatch Chart
Hatch chart for the Firehole River

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Glasshead Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail, #14-16
  2. White Miller Soft Hackle, #14
  3. Tan Nick's Soft Hackle, #14-16
  4. Blonde CDC and Elk Caddis, #14
  5. White Miller Cripple, #16
  6. PMD Sparkle Dun, #14-20
  7. BWO Sparkle Dun, #18-24
  8. Purple Hazy Cripple, #16-20
  9. Rust Shimmer Nymph, #16-18
  10. Flashback Pheasant Tail, #16-20

Gibbon River

Introduction

The Gibbon River is a medium-sized, approachable stream that shares some similarities with the Firehole but offers less-crowded fishing and much better attractor dry fly fishing. It also has a couple meadow sections that offer chances at huge but very challenging browns. Its headwaters, once home to rainbow and brook trout as well as grayling, are currently fishless from Grebe Lake down to Virginia Cascades. A different strain of grayling and westslope cutthroat are slated to be reintroduced here to help these threatened fish recover. Overall, the predominant fish in the Gibbon now are brown trout, though there are a few rainbow and brook trout and even a handful of stream-dwelling grayling.

At the moment, two waterfalls and a geyser basin are the most important landmarks on the Gibbon. Below Virginia Cascades, the river is now open to fishing down to its confluence with the Firehole. A few miles downstream, Norris Geyser Basin adds a considerable amount of warm water to the mix and makes for chances at larger trout, but also hurts summer fishing. Midway down the Gibbon River Canyon, Gibbon Falls divides fish populations in the canyon, with almost all small to medium-sized browns above to a mix of rainbows and browns below, most of which are small, but with some run-up fish from Hebgen Lake down the Madison River west of the park boundary.

Description and Access

The Gibbon is either meadow water or fast-flowing canyon water, and the transitions between the two are often quite abrupt. Where the stream is first paralleled by a road, the Virginia Cascades Road, it is down in a canyon. Scramble down the (steep) hill to fish below the waterfall. Above the falls is currently fishless and closed. From Virginia Cascade to Norris Campground, the streams is either in sparse woods or in marshy meadow. Near the road and campground, this water receives a lot of pressure. The best stretches are away from the road a bit, but be careful of sinking into the marsh, particularly in June. At Norris Campground the river 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. The geyser basin stretch is the most remote portion of the Gibbon save for the closed headwaters, requiring a short hike up or down the stream around the west side of the geyser basin. There are small numbers of rainbows throughout this stretch, but not many. 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 four miles of great pocket water where novice to intermediate anglers can have a blast provided they're surefooted. The bottom is generally firm, with few weeds, but currents can be fast and the banks are uneven. 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. Access this section away from the road from the bridge downstream of Gibbon Falls or where the road leaves the stream at a long pullout at the upstream end.

Downstream of Gibbon Falls, the river remains fast-flowing but riffle-pool water begins to dominate over the heavier water above the falls. This 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. Again, footing is sometimes questionable.

In the last 3/4 of a mile or so before joining the Firehole to form the Madison, the Gibbon slows further, becoming a meadow stream once again, though this lower, Junction Meadow (or National Park Meadow) never gets so slow as Elk Park or Gibbon Meadows above the canyon.

Overall, the heaviest pressure on the Gibbon occurs where the river is closest to the road near Norris Campground and in Elk Park and Gibbon Meadow. Frankly, these anglers probably don't catch many fish as they are usually hucking spinners in the middle of the day. Walk a bit for better but still challenging fishing in these areas. The canyon sections, especially up towards Virginia Cascades, produce smaller fish but more of them and see less pressure. Below Gibbon Falls, spring pressure is usually low but fall pressure is high, due to the chance at larger run-up trout from Hebgen Lake.

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

Angling Quality
Angling Quality by Season on the Gibbon River
The Fish
  • Brown: Brown trout are the most common fish in the Gibbon overall and comprise over 90% of the population between Elk Park and Gibbon Falls. In faster sections, they average 8 to 12 inches and reach 15 inches. In slower sections particularly below Norris Geyser Basin, they average 12 to 18 inches and can reach 22 inches. Downstream of Gibbon Falls, very large fish averaging 16-20 inches are the main quarry from Labor Day through autumn, and a few remain into mid-June in cool/wet years.
  • Rainbow: Formerly the predominant fish from Grebe Lake to Little Gibbon Falls, this stretch was poisoned in 2017 in preparation to introduce westslope cutthroat. Now, a few rainbows are present from Virginia Cascade to Norris Geyser Basin and beyond, and about 30% of the fish below Gibbon Falls are rainbows. They average 6 to 12 inches, but large fall-run fish are present below the falls.
  • Brook: Brookies were formerly the dominant trout from Little Gibbon Falls to Norris Geyser Basin. They are now present only from Virginia Cascade to Norris. Most will be 8 inches or smaller. A 10-incher would be a trophy.
  • Whitefish: Present but not common below Gibbon Falls.
  • Grayling: Formerly present but not common above Norris Geyser Basin, but the dominant fish in Grebe and Wolf Lake at the Gibbon's headwaters. Now they are found only in small numbers from Virginia Cascade to Norris. After restoration, they should be common or dominant upstream of Virginia Cascade. Do not expect fishable numbers here until 2022 or so.
  • Westslope cutthroat: Not present before 2018 at the earliest. They will likely be dominant from Little Gibbon Falls to Virginia Cascade and present/common down to Norris after 2022.
The Fishing

Once an excellent choice for beginners above Virginia Cascades, the Gibbon is now a poor choice for total rookies. Novices and intermediates might love it, however.

For this type of angler as well as anyone who likes fast-water fishing, the Gibbon Canyon is a great choice. It becomes fishable as early as opening day in dry years, but more commonly during the first few days of June. At first, nymphing is the best tactic, but once the water drops enough that some offshore rocks are exposed, dry/dropper combos work well through June and usually into early July (in the mornings). This is action fishing for 6-12" browns, with an occasional bigger one possible near Gibbon Meadows. The best water for this is between Gibbon Meadows and Tuff Cliffs Picnic Area below the falls. July and August are usually tough. There is some good fishing in the canyon in early fall, but the focus shifts to pursuing large run-up fish below the falls. Nymph the deep slots with stonefly nymphs and egg patterns, or cover water in the pools and runs closer to Madison Junction.

The meadows become fishable a bit later than the canyons, simply because their banks don't offer as much slow cover when the water's still high. Below Norris Geyser Basin, the best fishing is in late June and perhaps the first week of July. Earlier, cover water with Woolly Buggers. After the water drops, midmorning or late evening hatches are the best bets here. Green, Gray, and Brown Drakes are the most likely insects to prompt the large (12-18" common) brown trout that call Elk Park and Gibbon Meadows home. These are very challenging fish not suited to anyone but advanced anglers.

Above Norris Geyser Basin, skip the area immediately opposite Norris Campground. It receives extremely heavy pressure out of proportion to its trout. Otherwise, it's best in late June and July, once the meadows dry. In the flat meadow areas, match Green Drake, small stonefly, caddis, and PMD hatches. In the faster water close to Virginia Cascades, fish attractor dry/dropper combos and cover a lot of water. The closer you get to Virginia Cascades, the better this water is for beginners and novices, but the rougher and more challenging it is to access. Some larger browns and brookies may run up to the cascade in the fall, but not many.

Hatch Chart
Hatch Chart for the Gibbon River

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Coachman Trude, #12-16
  2. BH Prince, #12-16
  3. 20-Incher, #10-12
  4. Bead, Hare, and Copper, #12-14
  5. Olive Stimulator, #14-16
  6. Gray Foam Drake, #14
  7. PMD Sparkle Dun, #16-18
  8. Black Woolly Bugger, #4-10
  9. Olive Woolly Bugger, #4-10
  10. Synth Double Wing, #10-12

Madison River: Madison Junction to Riverside Drive

Introduction

Headwaters of one of the world’s most famous trout rivers, the section of the Madison from its source at the junction of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers down to Riverside Drive, a distance of a bit less than ten miles, provides good dry fly fishing for resident rainbow and brown trout in a large, spring creek-like setting, along with some faster water that’s great for fishing wet flies, all with easy roadside access. While the average trout during the early season is spooky but not huge, a few large fish are present throughout the year and lots of big fall-migrant rainbows and browns from Hebgen Lake are present late in the year.

This section of the Madison receives heavy pressure from experienced anglers, holds spooky fish, and is seldom more than about a hundred yards from the road, so it’s not for inexperienced anglers or those desiring solitude. That said, it’s great for those who wish to test their wits against spooky rising trout. It’s particularly good in mid-June, but a poor choice in July and August when it gets too warm.

Description and Access

Through most of this reach, the Madison is a broad river flowing between grassy banks, with the structure composed primarily of long, slow-moving pools with occasional riffles. In the short Madison Canyon, large boulders and some broken water join the equation, but this is still not a raging torrent.

Access to this section of the Madison is a no-brainer. It is generally right next to the road. Where it's not, it's accessible via short stub roads or from the vicinity of the Madison Campground. For the most part, wading is easy. The major hazards are sudden holes, weed beds, and in the short Madison Canyon, uneven footing and fast water.

Note that there is a short section of closed water immediately upstream of the one bridge crossing in this section. Check the regulations for details.

Angling

Angling Quality
Angling Quality by Season on the Madison River from Madison Junction to Riverside Drive
The Fish
  • Rainbow: Rainbow are the most common resident trout in this stretch of the Madison and also run up from Hebgen Lake in the fall. Residents average 10 to 15 inches while run-up fish average 16-20 inches and can reach 24+ inches.
  • Brown: Browns are also very common, and run about the same size as rainbows. The September-November fall-run brown fishing here is not as good as it is in the next section downstream, but it is almost as good and less crowded. These fish average 16-20 inches and fish in the 8lb class are caught every year.
  • Whitefish: Whitefish are present but not super common in this stretch. They average 10-14 inches.
  • Other: Westslope cutthroat, brook trout, and grayling are all conceivable here, but unlikely even after cutthroat and grayling populations in the upper Gibbon become established. This water is just too warm.
The Fishing

The Madison becomes fishable sometime between the beginning of the park season and the 15th of June, usually around the 1st-5th. At this time it is tea-colored and fast-flowing, with the best tactics being fishing streamers near Madison Junction and below 7-Mile Bridge and stonefly nymphs in the Madison Canyon. This is a good option for bigger fish right at the beginning of the season, but otherwise isn't great.

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, once the water drops, 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 few Olive caddis and Tan caddis. This section of river also has a short and fractured emergence of Salmonflies and Golden Stones, sometime around the 15th of June. For the other insects, 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.

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. 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. This stretch of the Madison is not as crowded as the stretch closer to the west gate, though it's also harder to fish. Streamers are an excellent bet, as are large wet flies. More and more anglers are using light switch and spey rods to make this easier. Don't leave your dry fly rod at home, however. This stretch sees good BWO hatches even in late fall.

Hatch Chart
Hatch Chart for the Madison River from Madison Junction to Riverside Drive

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Glasshead Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail, #14-16
  2. White Miller Cripple, #16
  3. PMD Sparkle Dun, #14-20
  4. BWO Sparkle Dun, #18-24
  5. Purple Hazy Cripple, #16-20
  6. Tan Caddis Cripple, #16
  7. Olive Woolly Bugger, #4-6
  8. Brown Girdle Bug, #4-6
  9. Rust Shimmer Nymph, #16-18
  10. Flashback Pheasant Tail, #16-20

Madison River: Riverside Drive to Hebgen Lake

Introduction

This stretch of the Madison is perhaps Yellowstone Park’s most famous piece of water for large trout. It is certainly the most famous piece of water for large fall-run brown trout. For the most part this fame is well-deserved. There’s nowhere else in Yellowstone that turns out more brown and rainbow trout in the 16-20 inch range and nowhere else that has such potential for turning out true trophies, fish exceeding 24 inches.

There are downsides to this stretch of water to go with the big fish. First, it’s only a good place to fish in the fall, and it gets better and better the nastier the weather gets. Second, this is one place in Yellowstone Park that you’ll never fish alone. The big fish potential of this stretch of river has been known for many decades and there’s a dedicated cadre of very good anglers who fish here every year, along with lots of guided parties, novices who are figuratively wading in way too deep, and the author of this guide.

Note: This section of the Madison begins in Yellowstone Park, but a large chunk of it between the area known as the Barns Pools (turnoff just inside the park's West Gate) and Baker's Hole Campground north of West Yellowstone straddles the park boundary, with each bend maybe in and maybe out of the park. It's best to have licenses to fish both jurisdictions if you fish here.

Description and Access

Between 7-Mile Bridge and the entrance to Riverside Drive, the Madison River gradually gets wide, shallow, and fast. Most of this water is less than knee-deep and offers poor fishing for six-inch trout.

Just east of the West Entrance Station, a gravel road cuts north. Follow this road to Barns Pool #1 and #2, the most-famous water in this stretch. From here to Baker's Hole Campground and beyond down to Hebgen Lake, the river flows in endless curves, most with a turbulent run at the top followed by a long pool that's waist-deep to eight or so feet deep. In each of these run/pool combinations, large run-up trout pause in their spawning runs to rest. They're targeted by a dedicated following of anglers.

Access is from either the Barns Pool Road noted above (it is not signed) or from the Baker's Hole Campground just north of West Yellowstone. Numerous angler's paths follow the river. The least-crowded pools are in the middle of the reach, a mile or so from either end, but when the run is on heavy from mid-September through the close of the park season, you'll see anglers everywhere.

The river can be fast and deep in this reach, but the bottom is usually firm. Just beware of sudden holes and try not to walk in silty patches.

Angling

Angling Quality
Angling quality by season on the Madion River from Riverside Drive to Hebgen Lake
The Fish
  • Brown: While only a handful are present through the bulk of the season, brown trout are the most important fish here for one reason: the fall run. This section of the Madison sees the most famous brown trout run in the region from late August or early September through the close of the park season. Even far from the road this stretch will be fairly crowded with anglers pursuing these fish that average 16-20 inches but routinely reach trophy size.
  • Rainbow: A few small 'bows are present throughout the season, but the fall run is the focus. The rainbows that either spawn in the Madison in the winter or follow the browns average 16-20 inches.
  • Whitefish: Whitefish are actually the major resident fish here. They average 14 to 18 inches. They still aren't all that common during the summer months.
  • Other: Westslope cutthroat, brook trout, and grayling are all conceivable here, but unlikely even after cutthroat and grayling populations in the upper Gibbon become established. This water is just too warm.
The Fishing

This is entirely a fall fishery targeting fall-run browns and smaller numbers of run-up rainbows. Don't bother before about August 20. Before this, only fingerlings and whitefish are likely to eat your fly. The fishing is best from mid-September onward, and it stays good (and crowded) all the way until the end of the Yellowstone Park season, and for the short section outside Yellowstone Park even a few weeks after.

It's also almost entirely a subsurface fishery. Once in a great while a runner will eat a BWO or October Caddis dry, but this is rare. Most fish come on nymph combinations: a stonefly or similar "junk bug" with a smaller attractor nymph or egg pattern on a dropper. Large steelhead-style wet flies and streamers also work well. They don't draw as many fish, but will usually bring more-savage strikes and perhaps larger fish.

Beside the restricted fly choices, there's also a restrictive way of fishing here, particularly when there are other anglers present. Here's the etiquette. Start in at the top of a run, make a cast or at most two, then take a big step down and repeat the process. When you catch a fish or get to the bottom of the run, back on and walk back to the top and start over. This "rotation" is a longtime tradition that ensures everybody gets a chance. There are many anglers who no longer follow it, unfortunately even including guides. This rotation is most common at the Barns Pools and near Baker's Hole. If there are no other anglers present, you can obviously fish how you like.

The best fall-run fishing here is before 10AM or after about 5:30PM, or on cloudy days, but if you keep at it you can do okay even on sunny days, particularly in October.

Hatch Chart
Hatch chart for the Madion River from Riverside Drive to Hebgen Lake

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Brown Girdle Bug, #4-6
  2. Minch's Golden Stone, #4-8
  3. Bitch Creek, #4-6
  4. 20-Incher, #8-12
  5. Bead, Hare, and Copper, #10-14
  6. Pink Egg Pattern, #14-16
  7. Shakey Beeley, #10
  8. October Caddis Pupa, #10
  9. Soft Hackle Streamer, #6-8
  10. Black and Orange Woolly Bugger, #4-6

Parks' Fly Shop

PO Box 196 or 202 Second Street South

Gardiner, MT 59030

Phone: (406) 848-7314

Current Hours: 9AM-5PM Daily, 10AM-4PM Sundays, Occasional Closures

E-Mail the Shop (General Inquiries)

E-Mail Walter (Guided Trip Questions)

E-Mail Richard

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