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The Madison River, Yellowstone  at Cabela's

The Madison River, Yellowstone

Author: Steve Cook

The summer of 1988 was one of drought and fire in the Rocky Mountains, and Yellowstone, in particular, experienced the full force of nature's regenerative cycle. Extremely dry conditions, careless humans, lightning and relentless winds created one of the worst fire seasons in living memory.

The summer of 1988 was one of drought and fire in the Rocky Mountains, and Yellowstone, in particular, experienced the full force of nature's regenerative cycle. Extremely dry conditions, careless humans, lightning and relentless winds created one of the worst fire seasons in living memory. Before the fires were finally extinguished in late fall, they would burn nearly 800,000 of the 2.2 million acres in Yellowstone National Park. More than 25,000 firefighters, including the U.S. Army and Marines, would stand on the fire lines and defend the park against the ravenous flames, yet the implacable forces of nature would beat them back into retreat time and time again.
The Madison's early morning mist can wash an angler's cares away. (Photo: Mark Williams)
There were 13 named fires in the Yellowstone region that summer - and the North Fork fire was one of the largest. It started just outside the boundary of the park, and quickly grew into a wind-driven monster that roared through tinder-dry lodgepole stands along the Madison River. It defied the efforts of firefighters to contain it and would eventually threaten both West Yellowstone and Old Faithful. Ten years after that scorching season, a drive along the Madison draws your eyes toward the thin, bare trunks of charred trees outlined against the horizon. Yet in the circle of life, the end of one thing often marks the beginning of another. Down closer to the ground, young lodgepole pines have begun to grow up, a result of seeds being released by the fire's heat.

While the fires brought about a marked change in the landscape along the banks of the Madison, it had little effect on the river or its trout. It still holds good numbers of resident rainbow and brown trout that average around 12 inches, with some larger fish reaching 18 inches or more. The trophy fish that the Madison is renowned for make their home in Hebgen Lake. They move up into the park waters of the Madison when the frost paints the leaves with the rich colors of fall and the first snows settle on the Yellowstone Plateau. These lake fish can be very large, running from 16 to 20 inches, but some will exceed 2 feet. Their bright spawning colors seem to mimic the fall foliage, and many a winter fish story has described battles won or lost against these powerful migratory fish.

Specific Regulations and Fees

The Madison River (not including the tributaries):
  • Restricted to fly fishing only (artificial flies only may be used to attract and catch fish regardless of the type of rod or line).
  • Anglers may keep two brown trout under 13 inches.
  • Catch-and-release only for rainbow and grayling.

    In the steep and rocky sections of the river, like the Barns Pools, there are good populations of salmonflies and other small stoneflies. Sofa pillows and large attractor dry flies work well on top, and streamers and large rubber-leg nymphs are effective underneath. Smaller nymphs will take fish, but you may catch several whitefish for every trout. A large dry fly with a bead-head dropper is a good way to cover the water in search of fish when there are no active risers. Short, stiff leaders will turn over the big flies in the wind and place them accurately against the banks. Try 7-1/2-foot 3x leaders while the tippet to the nymph can be stepped down to 4x.

    Trico and pale morning dun hatches will take place on slower stretches of the river; adjust your tactics to these conditions. Use leaders of nine to 12 feet tapered down to 5x or 6x. When fish are keyed on the small mayflies, your best presentations will be downstream or slightly down and across.

    The evening caddis hatches can occur up and down the length of the river in both slow and riffled water. Fish smaller, more realistic patterns in the slow sections, like parachute caddis or CDC elk-hair caddis. Traditional elk-hair caddis and Goddards caddis will float better in the faster water. Soft-hackle caddis pupae will take fish on the swing, and this technique simplifies drifts while increasing the percentage of fish hooked.

    When the big fish start to move up from the lake, it is time to dig out your warm clothes and head for the Madison above Hebgen Lake. Blaine Heaps of Bud Lilly's Trout Shop has been guiding out of West Yellowstone for nearly 20 years and has several suggestions for anglers who want to chase these big lake fish. Most fly fishers will do well nymphing with big rubber-legs tied to a nine-foot 3x leader, or add size 6 to 8 prince nymphs on a 4x dropper. Look for fish at the bottoms of riffles as they come into pools or the edges of the deep undercut banks.
  • While the Madison's resident fish average 12 inches, some do get considerably larger. (Photo: Mark Williams)
    Good casters may want to try stripping big weighted streamers on a 10-foot sink-tip line. Streamer leaders of six-foot 2x will straighten out on the cast and let you "put the wood to 'em" when you hook up. Try big (#4-8) zonkers, spruce flies and woolly buggers. If you have a spey rod that doesn't get enough use, bring it to the Madison in the fall. Fish soft-hackle prince nymphs or similar flies (#6-8) on a traditional swing, with nine- to 10-foot leaders tapered down to 3x - and be prepared for some vicious strikes. Blaine recommends either parking at Bakers Hole and fishing upstream, coming out to a car at the Cardiac Hill Access or starting at Cardiac and fishing up to Barns Pools.
    Hatch Chart/Availability            
    Blue-winged olives            
    Pale morning duns                
    Green drakes                  
    Little yellow sallys                  
    InsectsSuggested Fly Patterns
    MidgesGriffith's gnats (#16-22), grizzly midges (#16-22), midge pupae, black, cream and red (#20-26), bead-head midges, black, red and brown (#16-18), midge emergers, black and peacock (#20-26)
    Blue-winged olivesparachute Adams (#16-20), thorax BWOs (#16-20), olive comparaduns (#16-20), sparkle duns, olive (#16-20), Quigley cripples, olive (#16-20), CDC emergers, olive (#16-20), pheasant tails (#16-20), hare's ears (#16-20), bead-head pheasant tails (#16-20), bead-head hare's ears (#16-20)
    Pale morning dunsthorax PMDs (#14-18), cream parachutes (#14-18), cream comparaduns (#14-18), Quigley cripples, cream (#14-18), rusty spinners (#14-18), CDC emergers, cream (#14-18), pheasant tails (#14-18), bead-head pheasant tails (#14-18)
    Green drakesgreen drake Wulffs (#10-12), olive paradrakes (#10-12), olive comparaduns (#10-12), Quigley cripples, olive (#10-12), soft-hackle emergers, olive (#10-12), CDC emergers, olive (#10-14), hare's ears, olive (#10-14), zug bugs (#10-14)
    Tricostrico spinners (#18-22), CDC tricos (#18-22), parachute Adams (#18-22)
    Little yellow sallysyellow stimulators (#14-18), yellow sallys (#14-18), red fox squirrel nymphs (#16-18)
    Salmonfliessofa pillows (#6-10), Mac Salmons (#6-10), orange stimulators (#6-10), rubber-legs, black (#6-10), bitch creek nymphs (#6-10), Brook's stone nymphs (#6-10)
    Caddisflieselk-hair caddis (#16-18), partridge caddis (#16-18), CDC elk-hair caddis (#16-18), sparkle caddis (#16-18), parachute caddis (#16-18), soft-hackle caddis pupae (#16-18)
    TerrestrialsDave's hoppers (#10-12), Dave's crickets (#10-12), fur ants, black (#16-20), CDC ants, black (#16-18), flying ants (#16-20), deer-hair beetles, black (#14-18), hi-vis foam beetles (#14-18)
    Streamersolive, copper and gold zonkers (#4-8), spruce flies, light and dark (#4-8), articulated leeches, black, olive and purple (#4-8), woolly buggers, black and olive (#4-8), woolhead sculpins, black and olive (#4-8)
    How To Get There
    If you come to fish the Madison in Yellowstone National Park, West Yellowstone provides the best base of operations, particularly in the last few weeks of the season when many of the park's facilities shut down for the winter. For anglers flying in from out of the region, there is regular air service into West Yellowstone from June 1 to September 30. Idaho Falls and Bozeman are a two-hour plus drive from West Yellowstone and have year-round air service.

    To reach the Madison from West Yellowstone, enter the park on West Entrance Road. Drive east and the Madison will soon come into view. From Idaho Falls, find your way to US 20 and drive northeast about 110 miles to the West Entrance at West Yellowstone. If you are driving from Bozeman, point your vehicle south on US 191. You will reach West Yellowstone in a little over 80 miles.

    Yellowstone National Park's West Entrance Road follows the Madison for the first 13 miles of its course. Anglers can stroll to the confluence from the Madison Junction picnic area, or there are many turnouts that will take you right to the river's edge. The river turns north about one mile from the park entrance, and an unmarked dirt road will take anglers to the renowned Cable Car Run and Barns Pools. This road is the first road going north after you enter the park, about 1/2 mile east of the West Entrance. It is about one mile to the upper access and 1-1/2 miles to the lower.
    Charred memories of the 1988 Yellowstone fires linger a dozen years later.
    The Mount Haynes Overlook has a handicap-accessible wooden walkway and fishing platform that is well-placed on fairly good water, giving people with limited mobility a good chance to catch a Madison River trout. There are also two handicap-accessible campsites at Bakers Hole Campground, and a good gravel trail to a small wooden fishing platform.

    If you would like to get away from the traffic on the main road, Riverside Drive will give you an extra measure of quiet. The Gneiss Creek Trail on the north side of the Seven Mile Bridge will give you access to almost a mile of the far bank of the river. If it is true solitude you are looking for, then hike down the river from the Barns Pools access or come up from Bakers Hole. Be aware that Bakers Hole campground is just outside Yellowstone National Park, and you will need a Montana license to fish west of the park boundary. As the river twists and turns through here, crossing the boundary several times, it is wise to carry both licenses if you intend fishing this area. The Cardiac Hill Trail is not much of a trail, but it is only 1/2 mile to the river midway between Bakers Hole and Barns Pools. Park by the boulders and follow the old two-track over the edge of the hill to the park boundary. The trail is faint and hard to follow from here to the river, so it may be easier to use it to walk down to the Madison and fish your way up to the Barns Pools.

    Wading the Madison is not particularly challenging; however, it is a large, powerful river that can take even the most experienced angler for a swim. Some stretches have abrupt drops and boulders that can be obscured by weed beds, and there are fallen trees that can trip the unwary. The stretch between Seven Mile Bridge and Nine Mile Hole has a soft and treacherous bottom and is best avoided. A portion of the river upstream from the bridge is normally closed for trumpeter swan nesting in spring and early summer.

    Check river flows on the web

    When To Go
    The Madison in the park may fish well on Yellowstone's opening day (the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend), but bad weather and high water can make things difficult. The best fishing at this time is usually underneath - bring your streamers and big rubber-legged nymphs. The fish will begin to look up when the salmonflies hatch in late June or early July, and once they have gotten a taste for the big bugs, they will remember them for several weeks.

    Good fishing continues into the summer until the water warms up, which can begin in July during low water years. During the hot days of summer, you may want to shift your attention to other waters or confine your efforts to early mornings or the late-evening caddis hatch. Water can begin to cool in August, just in time for the great trico hatch that can last through September. In October, the air has a bite to it and the colors have begun to turn. Big browns begin to move up out of Hebgen Lake, and sizeable rainbows follow to feed on their eggs. This is the fly fisher's best chance of the year to catch a trophy fish in the Madison. The memory of a giant brown trout will help ease the pain of a long, cold winter.

    If you prefer to stay outside of the park, then West Yellowstone is your best bet. This low-key tourist town has a wide choice of accommodations, campgrounds, restaurants and shopping. For a complete listing of West Yellowstone lodging and attractions, visit its web site at


    Gallatin National Forest
    For more information, contact the Hebgen Lake Ranger District at (406) 823-6961.

  • Bakers Hole Campground

    Yellowstone National Park
    For camping reservations at Yellowstone National Park, contact:

    AmFac Parks and Resorts
    P.O. Box 165
    Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
    Phone number/s: (307) 344-7311
    Web site:
    Online reservations:

  • Grant Village
  • Madison

    National Park Service
    first-come, first-served basis

  • Lewis Lake


    Yellowstone National Park
    For lodging reservations, contact:

    AmFac Parks and Resorts
    P.O. Box 165
    Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
    Phone number/s: (307) 344-7311
    Fax: (307) 344-7456
    Web site:
    Online reservations:

  • Grant Village
  • Lake Lodge Cabins
  • Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins
  • Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins
  • Old Faithful Snow Lodge

    West Yellowstone
    Comfort Inn
    638 Madison Ave.
    West Yellowstone, MT 59758
    Phone number/s: (406) 646-4212,
    toll-free (888) 264-2466
    Web site:

    Pine Shadows Motel
    530 Gibbon Ave.
    West Yellowstone, MT 59758
    Phone number/s: (406) 646-7541,
    toll-free (800) 624-5291

    Yellowstone Inn and Cabins
    601 US 20
    West Yellowstone, MT 59758
    Phone number/s: (406) 646-7633,
    toll-free (800) 858-9224

    Taken from Rocky Mountain Fly-Fishing by Steve Cook
    Steve Cook's new guidebook is filled with practical information about how to fish the blue ribbon waters of the American West. Complete with maps and hatch charts, the book focuses on the best of the best - the classic waters around Yellowstone and the quality waters throughout Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. The author is a professional guide who has spent years helping people learn to catch fish on these very rivers and lakes.

    — Your complete source for more Cabela's News, and updated hunting and fishing articles.