American Classics: The Madison River
By Jeff Erickson
When the Lewis and Clark expedition passed the mouth of the Madison at Three Forks in 1805, the river teemed with native westslope cutthroat trout and arctic grayling. Today, introduced rainbows and browns dominate. Photo by Jeff Erickson
On July 27, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition finally reached the Missouri River’s headwaters, by present-day Three Forks, Montana. They camped near the mouth of the Madison River, which they christened after Secretary of State James Madison. Native salmonids they floated over and sometimes caught included westslope cutthroat trout, arctic grayling, and mountain whitefish.
Much has changed since then—including Madison trout species—but blue-ribbon fisheries endure. For decades, the Madison has been the epicenter of Montana fly fishing—including its storied culture and literature—and it remains among the state’s most beloved rivers, drawing fly anglers from across the world. And while there is considerably more human activity now, the Madison Valley remains a wild, spectacular landscape, framed by iconic sage-clad benches and the soaring Gallatin, Madison, and Gravelly Mountains. It is still populated with wolves, grizzly bears, elk, and bighorn sheep. In The Living River, the late fly scholar Charles Brooks fondly declared the Madison “one of the loveliest river valleys anywhere.”
A Venerable Angling History
After Lewis and Clark’s corps skirted the Madison, the first American explorers known to fly fish the Yellowstone region and the upper Madison were members of the 1870 Washburn party—instrumental in establishing the park two years later—who discovered an untrammeled angler’s paradise. Another indication of the river’s extraordinary early fishing—and hints of impending decline—was offered by noted fly-angling writer Edward Hewitt in a description of a 1914 trip to the upper Madison, during which he “competed” with another angler: “When we returned to the [Old Faithful] Inn we laid out both catches on the ground and I found I had been beaten. He had 165 and I had 162.”
This stretch of the Madison River now lies under Quake Lake, which formed in 1959 when a destructive and deadly earthquake caused a landslide that dammed the river. The photographer is unknown, but the print was gifted to Blue Ribbon Flies by the late Donna Spainhower, former postmistress of West Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of Blue Ribbon Flies and John Juracek
When Yellowstone first allowed cars, in 1915, anglers began flocking to the park, increasingly stopping at downstream reaches of the Madison, Gallatin, and Yellowstone en route to the legendary headwaters.
Pre–World War I park visitation exploded from 15,000 annually to 80,000 afterward, and many of these travelers packed fishing gear. With a booming economy, better cars, and improved roads following World War II, the Madison became even more of a destination. Early, funky fly shops helped Ennis and West Yellowstone eventually rank among the West’s quintessential trout towns, places where locals and dudes alike gear up, get expert advice, or book a guide. Fly fishing is still religion in these outposts, and the Madison a shrine where the liturgy occurs.
Angler activity on the Madison skyrocketed in the 1970s, fueled by creative new equipment, flies, and approaches. Gas on the fire was the 1992 film A River Runs Through It, which—although it dealt with Montana’s Blackfoot River—attracted a parade of newcomers to the sport, many of whom wanted to fish the Madison, and look like Brad Pitt or Jason Borger while doing so. But this boom occurred on the precipice of the Madison’s great whirling disease crash, followed by its resurrection.
Changing Fishery, Cutting-Edge Fisheries Management
The experimental stocking of exotic trout in Yellowstone began in 1881, and some hightailed it down the Madison drainage, establishing wild populations. A century ago, Montana also began stocking the lower river. Eventually, browns and rainbows largely supplanted cutthroats, although westslopes still come to net.
This photo shows the Madison River somewhere between Slide Inn and Raynold’s Pass bridge, taken long before the massive 1959 earthquake, which caused a landslide that dammed the river and formed Quake Lake. The photographer is unknown, but the print was gifted to Blue Ribbon Flies by the late Donna Spainhower, former postmistress of West Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of Blue Ribbon Flies and John Juracek
As fishing pressure increased, massive stocking was seen as the panacea to keeping Madison anglers happy. That changed when research by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) biologist Dick Vincent demonstrated that stocking actually reduced trout numbers in Madison control sections. Vincent’s science was the foundation of Montana’s groundbreaking 1974 decision to end stocking in the river, a move that eventually spread across the state and the country. As Vincent told FWP’s Montana Outdoors, “When we quit stocking the Madison, populations of wild trout, both rainbow and brown, just started to explode.” The Madison helped spark America’s wild trout revolution.
Vincent also led research on whirling disease, discovered in the Madison in 1994, which triggered a 90 percent decline in rainbows. Anglers started going elsewhere, and biologists and local businesses went into crisis mode. Over time, Vincent observed that the process of natural selection was resulting in more rainbows with higher resistance, eventually leading to today’s revitalized population: back to pre-1990s numbers, with powerful rainbows still trying to rip the rod from your hand.
Unique, Restless Geology
Key to the Madison’s fecundity are the thermally fed, mineral-rich tributaries in Yellowstone—the legendary Firehole and Gibbon Rivers—jump-starting aquatic productivity. When Hebgen Dam was completed on the upper reaches in 1915, it created tailwater effects in the famed “50-mile riffle” downstream, helping stabilize trout-friendly flows and water temperatures.
One of the most dramatic events in the Madison’s geological and angling history was tragic. Before midnight on August 17, 1959, a catastrophic earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale sent millions of tons of rubble roaring down a Madison Canyon mountainside, damming the river and killing 28 people in a Forest Service campground. Upstream, the tremors created enormous waves that violently sloshed over Hebgen Dam, cracking but not destroying it. According to a 1959 account in the Montana Standard, “Trees were falling all around. Everywhere people were screaming and trying to wade out of the water. I saw one mother. … Her three children were floating down the river.”
The quake altered the Madison fishery and angling. Downstream trout were helplessly stranded in deeper pools until the dam was breached. The slide also replaced a free-flowing stretch with the ghostly, deadfall-punctuated Quake (officially, Earthquake) Lake. Below the reservoir, car-size boulders and other slide debris filled the Madison’s channel, creating a churning white-water sluice down to today’s Galloup’s Slide Inn fishing lodge.
Despite these changes, the Madison’s famed fishery persisted. In 2006, West Yellowstone fly shop owner Bob Jacklin wrestled in a 10-pound brown in the short reach between Quake Lake and Hebgen Dam. Three years earlier, an enormous dead brown trout—estimated at 34 to 36 pounds—was discovered on a Madison bank, likely washed out of Quake Lake.
Home to Expert Anglers and Renowned Writers
Many of our most accomplished anglers plied the Madison. Some lived (or still live) near its banks, studying its moods, devising new fly patterns to fit them; others visited frequently, writing about it evocatively.
Among the latter was Ray Bergman, whose Trout remains a revered treatise since it was first published, in 1938. His colleague, Dan Bailey—more closely associated with Livingston’s Yellowstone River—developed the killer Black and Grizzly Wulff variants while camped on the Madison in 1936. Bailey’s friend Joe Brooks, longtime Outdoor Life fishing editor, wrote extensively about the area. Brooks’s excellent book, Trout Fishing, was a cherished Christmas gift from my grandmother in 1972, and his photo of a 4.5-pound Madison brown was permanently lodged in my impressionable young angler’s imagination.
A major bonus of fishing the Madison is the abundant wildlife in the watershed, including elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears. Photo by Jeff Erickson
Charles Brooks—his experimental fishing in the Madison locale was described in landmark books—offered templates for dredging out jumbo western trout with large, disheveled, heavily weighted flies. In Cowboy Trout, fly-angling historian Paul Schullery shares a story from West Yellowstone fly shop owners Craig Mathews and John Juracek, who said Brooks “used to come into their shop, root through their selection of big flies, and announce, ‘These aren’t ugly enough!’ ”
In 1952, legendary Madison angler Bud Lilly purchased West Yellowstone’s Trout Shop from another Montana fly-fishing hero, George Grant. Lilly seared a distinctly western brand on fly fishing, helping differentiate the sport from its origins in England and the East Coast: more Stetson and less tweed; buggy, B-52-size flies, not delicate Catskill-style ties; and an increasing emphasis on guided float fishing. Lilly was an early and indefatigable advocate for fisheries conservation, including catch-and-release. He also had his eye on fly fishing’s holistic gestalt, not just the technical, commercial, or fish-count aspects. Before his death in 2017, he conveyed this to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “Fly fishing is the total experience … wild country and wild rivers and wild trout. … It’s the opportunity to be in the out-of-doors, to think by yourself and learn.”
Notable contemporary Madison anglers include the intrepid Mathews and ace photographer Juracek. The pair developed many groundbreaking fly patterns from their regional explorations, including the widely used Sparkle Dun series. Among other accomplishments, Mathews collaborated with the late Gary LaFontaine on a popular guidebook, Fly Fishing the Madison. Bozeman fly tier Sylvester Nemes—noted for rekindling interest in soft-hackle patterns—regularly tested his pulsating creations on the Madison. Kelly Galloup, owner of the Slide Inn, invents new streamer patterns that attract large trout and have creative, often slightly off-color names like Peanut Envy, Boogie Man, Sex Dungeon, Stacked Blonde, and Barely Legal.
Finally, there is Ted Leeson, whose 2009 Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley captures decades of joyful summer trips to the river with friends. Howard Frank Mosher put it this way: “Ted Leeson writes about Montana’s Madison Valley the way Thoreau wrote about Walden Pond.”
Groundbreaking Conservation and Recreation Management
The Madison has long been at the forefront of riparian conservation work and river recreation management. The earliest and most significant was the creation of Yellowstone National Park—America’s first—protecting the Madison’s critical headwaters. In addition to state, Bureau of Land Management, and national forest parcels, land trusts have worked diligently in the valley, establishing conservation easements on thousands of acres of ranchland. Additionally, The Trust for Public Land helped purchase the private, popular Three Dollar Bridge site, turning it over to FWP as one of many public fishing access sites lining the river. Restoration work has improved key spawning tributaries, including sinuous O’Dell Spring Creek. Since 2003, the nonprofit Madison River Foundation has coordinated ambitious conservation work in the valley.
The Madison ranks among Montana’s most heavily fished rivers—competing with the Missouri and the Bighorn—and is bedeviled by its own popularity. On the Montana reach south of Ennis, angler days jumped from 50,000 in 1984, to 88,000 in 2012, to 179,000 in 2016. That’s a different scene from the 1930s, when young Bob Lilly fished the river with his father, who would leave if he spotted other anglers. Consequently, the Madison is a crucible for sometimes controversial recreation management strategies. As the popularity of float fishing increased—creating conflicts that former FWP fisheries director Larry Peterman humorously referred to as “row vs. wade”—two sections were established that prohibit boats.
While Montana’s swift, prime reach of the Madison is often called the “50-mile riffle,” stretches of the river upstream, in Yellowstone National Park, offer slick runs and deep pools. In the fall, this stretch is a magnet for spawning browns running upstream from Hebgen Lake. Photo by Jeff Erickson
Other splits FWP grapples with include guided anglers versus do-it-yourselfers, residents versus nonresidents, and anglers versus other recreationists. A plan to limit guides was voted down in April 2018, but crowd management efforts continue. A 2018 survey revealed that nearly 69 percent of upper Madison anglers are not Montana residents—driving some locals away—and half the boats on the busiest float section are guided. Yet, as West Yellowstone fly shop owner Cam Coffin told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “You think about a river that has that many people [who are] still catching fish—that is an amazing place.”
Today’s summer Madison crowds indicate an excellent fishery and the continuing, Mecca-like importance of the river in Montana’s deep fly-fishing culture. During prime season, visitors crowd fly shops, restaurants, and bars in Ennis and West Yellowstone, putting smiles on the faces of local business owners. At the popular late-summer Fly Fishing & Outdoor Festival in Ennis, eager fly anglers test new rods, listen to experts, and talk to guides about floating one of America’s most cherished rivers.
Leeson distills it this way: “Southwest Montana arguably contains the country’s highest density of first-rate trout water; the region is to fly fishing what the Golden Crescent is to opium production, and does a similarly brisk business. The Madison flows through the heart of it, a river with as distinctive a stream signature as any I have seen. It runs shallow for its breadth over a cobbled bed of water-rounded stones, clear and light, a glittering chop of water in endless motion.”
Montana-based writer and photographer Jeff Erickson is a longtime contributor to Northwest Fly Fishing, Southwest Fly Fishing, and Eastern Fly Fishing magazines.