Great Destination Streams
The Madison River
A Fifty Mile Riffle, Or Tailwater In Disguise?
Copyright 2013 James Marsh
After leaving Hebgen Lake, the Madison River flows for about three miles before reaching Quake Lake. Quake Lake was built
by Mother Nature in 1959. A large earthquake caused the side of a mountain to slide off into the Madison River creating another
lake appropriately called Quake Lake. As soon as the lake filled with water, it flowed over the top of the natural earth/rock dam
and the Madison River continued to flow it almost the exact manner it does today.
The stretch of water between the lakes, as it's called, is a popular fly fishing destination. It's only about a mile and a half long
but it is well worth fishing. It's open to fishing year-round. The "between the lakes" section of the Madison can be accessed off
Highway #67 at the Cabin Creek Campground exit.
The first three miles of the river below Quake Lake is a fast, wild, raging section of water that's very dangerous and in places,
impossible to wade. Huge boulders exist in this section of the stream, creating some very fast, pocket water that's best fished
from the banks. It is narrow in this section and there are some Class III and IV rapids. Below this three mile long section, the river
settles down to mostly riffles with some runs and some pocket water. Fishing from boats from Quake Lake all the way
downstream to the Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Point is prohibited. This is great for wading anglers because most of the other
sections of the Madison River has heavy drift boat traffic from float trips, especially during the prime season. The section below
the three mile section of white water begins the famous "Fifty Mile Riffle". The river flows for 53 miles from Quake Lake to Ennis
Lake located at Ennis, Montana, and with the exception of the first three miles, most of the river consist of riffles. The "Fifty Mile
Riffle" offers some of the finest trout fishing opportunities found anywhere in the World.
The current is usually fairly strong in this section of the river below the white water section. It consist of pocket water in some
areas but with long sections of fast water riffles mixed in. This section is prime water for the wading angler. Both nymph fishing
and dry fly fishing is productive in this section.
You will find some large boulders in the river in some areas but for the most part, it flows over a cobble bottom without plunges,
rapids, fast runs and deep, slow moving pools. There's a few places downstream where the river slows down a little and splits
around some islands in the main stream. If you arrived on the river from a downstream location, and you never looked at a map,
unless someone told you, you probably would never realize you were fishing a tailwater. It often appears and acts more like a
freestone stream than a tailwater.
Most of the drift boat fishing takes place from the Lyons Bridge Access to the Varney Bridge Access. This thirty-mile long
section represents the ideal drifts and is very popular with the guides. During the prime season it can become crowded with drift
boats. The busiest time of the year in this section is during the famous Madison River Salmonfly hatch. It starts in late June and
last for two to three weeks but never in any one location. The hatch moves upstream daily during this period of time.
After the big Salmonfly hatch, the river actually becomes a better place to fish in our opinion. It provides consistent dry fly
fishing as well as an opportunity to catch large browns on streamers all summer long. Caddis hatches and several species of
mayflies keep the action continuing into the Fall. The wide open Madison Valley is surrounded by grass. This is ranch country
and grass hoppers are plentiful along the banks of the Madison. That, along with daily high winds, make late summer and early
fall a good time to fish imitations of terrestrials. Don't think of this section as only being good for drift boat fishing. The wading
angler can also catch plenty of trout. There are plenty of access sites and a little effort to hike up or downstream is often very
You will find far less anglers fishing from the Varney Bridge Access downstream to the Highway #287 Access Site in Ennis than
the sections of the Madison upstream of there. It's about the same type of water but with far less pressure. There are less
riffles and the river begins to show a slightly different character. The currents are slightly slower. There are less rainbow trout
but the browns found in this section are probably larger than the ones upstream. Both floating and wading is allowed in this
section. Downstream of Varney Bridge, the Madison flows into two separate channels. This is ideal situation for the wading
angler to catch some very large brown trout.
Downstream of the Highway #287 Access, fishing from drift boats is no longer allowed. The current becomes even slower but
fishing pressure just about ceases to exist. It isn't due to a lack of fish. This section probably holds the largest brown trout in the
Madison River. There's some aquatic vegetation in the river. There's undercut banks and other places the brown trout can hide
and feed that doesn't exist upstream. This section of the Madison River does get some attention during the Fall months of the
year. Large brown trout migrate out of Ennis Lake upstream to spawn. The trout are huge and will readily take large streamers.
This isn't the end of the great Madison River. It flows into Ennis Lake and yet another fine tailwater exist below that but it is the
end of the "Fifty Mile Riffle", or tailwater in disguise.
Premiere Issue August 2013
he first time I fished the Madison River was near its beginning below the confluence of the famous Firehole River and
the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park. The Madison in the park is one thing but a completely different thing
below the first dam downstream about thirty miles below Hebgen Lake. It starts out different from most other western
rivers and remains different for most others for its entire 183 mile length. It is so different, many anglers fishing it outside of
Yellowstone National Park never realize they are fishing a tailwater.
It just doesn't have the appearance of a typical tailwater. It looks more like a freestone stream. If you were blindfolded and taken
there to fish, only when you become aware the flows changed without it raining anywhere in Montana or Wyoming, would you
realize something was wrong. I won't embarrass the author or magazine that published it, but I remember reading a feature
article on the Madison River, outside Yellowstone park about the tailwater section, where it was referred to several times as a
The section of the river above Ennis, Montana, is
more often called the Fifty Mile Riffle and for a good
reason - it is. It is as good of a dry fly fishing stretch
of water as any. During the summer months, you
can catch trout on early morning spinner falls, Pale
morning duns, hatching as their name implies, and a
multitude of varying aquatic insects, depending on
the time of month, that hatch for most of the
afternoon. Later in the afternoon and late evening
you can continue the dry fly action imitating a
multitude of different species of caddisflies. This isn't
to say a nymph won't catch trout in the Madison. Tie
on a stonefly or mayfly nymph imitation and you may
catch a trophy size brown or rainbow trout. The
bottom line is, if you enjoy fly fishing for trout, you
will be very hard pressed to find a better water to
fish anywhere in the World. The only complaint you
may have is that during the Salmonfly hatch the
Madison River is famous for, you may find you have
to walk a ways to find much solitude.
At one time the Madison had a whirling disease
problem but anyone fishing the river lately would
have a difficult time believing it. The river has a very
good population of rainbows and of course, the
brown trout were not affected by it. Both species
exist in good numbers along with plenty of Rocky
The Madison River's Fifty Mile Riffle is a true
tailwater and like any tailwater, the discharges from
the dam can make a huge difference in the fishing
opportunities. If the authorities regulating the dam
don't consider the well being of the trout in
regulating the flows, it can have a huge effect on
the trout's well being. In the case of Hebgen Dam,
PPL Utilities owns and operates the dam and from
the fish perspective, does a darn good job of it.
During the fishing season, you can expect the flows
to be regulated in such a manner as it can be fished
without problems most days of the entire Montana
Between The Lakes
Three Dollar Bridge
James Marsh with a Madison Brown
Angie Marsh Fishing The Madison