Written by: Brian McGeehan, Montana Angler Fly Fishing
The Lower Madison–the section of the Madison River below Ennis Dam down to the headwaters of the Missouri–is one of the most reliable float fisheries in southwestern Montana during runoff. Though the river will get high, it only rarely becomes too muddy to fish, making it a good option in May and June when the Yellowstone is blown out. For high water fishing, we focus on the section below the Warm Springs boat ramp, as the water above in Beartrap Canyon contains serious whitewater and is not an option.
Unlike other rivers, the dirtiest water of the year on the Lower typically occurs in April when Ennis Lake turns over. After the water settles, the Lower is fishable most days throughout runoff. While the water may not be crystal clear, you only need about 18 inches of visibility for productive fishing. During the record high water year of 2011, I remember catching trout when the river was so high that we were casting our streamers over the fisherman’s trail along the bank, which was under several feet of water. While this was less than ideal, it just goes to show the prospects for high water fishing during a normal runoff cycle. Here are five tips that will help you score at times like that.
1. Don’t Only Fish the Banks
The natural thing for most fly fisherman to do during high water is to pound the banks. While this works great on many rivers, like the Yellowstone, it is a mistake on the Lower Madison. Sure, there are some very nice banks that you should not pass up. But if you simply drift down the river only fishing banks, you will miss a ton of great holding water. The Lower is sort of a strange trout river in that it is very uniform in depth and speed. This means two things to the angler:
- Fish are found throughout the river, especially in places where variations in depth or current speed occur.
- Fly anglers can present their flies effectively throughout the river. In a fast, deep river like the Yellowstone, you cannot fish some of the river–not so on the Lower.
Even during high water, there are plenty of seams and buckets in the middle of the river that hold fish where you can present your flies. Local knowledge of the river helps immensely here, but even the uninitiated can spot productive locations by scanning for (often subtle) changes in the depth or speed of the water. This leads us directly into. . .
2. Fish Over the Top of Submerged Weed Beds
The Lower contains many weed beds and sand bars. These contain many holes and buckets that allow fish to hide and stay out of the main current. At low water, it is difficult to access these areas because the weeds may be covered by only a few inches of water. It is very tough to get your flies into the small divots where fish hide without getting your flies snagged or running your boat aground. At high water, however, you can float right over the top of the weed beds and suspend your flies just above them. The weed beds also hold one of the preferred snacks of trout on the Lower, crayfish. The high water dislodges food from the weeds, and the fish lie in wait for a meal to be flushed over their head.
Perhaps the only difficult thing here is identifying where the submerged weed beds are located. If you have fished the river at low water, this isn’t an issue as you already know where they are, but the river offers plenty of clues. The biggest thing I look for is a change in water color. Even in fairly dirty water, the dark colored weeds will change the appearance of the water. Color changes are huge when you are reading water, as they often indicate locations that hold trout, such as a change in water depth or bottom substrate. The other thing you can look for is a change in the way the water moves and behaves on the surface. When water is flowing over a relatively smooth surface and then abruptly hits an obstruction, it tends to slow, swirl, boil, etc. Any change you notice on the water’s surface indicates that something is going on underneath, so target these areas.
3. Upsize Your Tackle
One common mistake is using tackle that is too light for the conditions at hand. So much of fly fishing literature and conventional wisdom is focused on light tippets and downsizing and so on that folks ignore the reality of the situation. If there is only two feet of visibility, there is no reason to choose 5X tippet or precise fly patterns. During high water, I want something like a 10-pound-test tippet and flies that present a good profile and contrast against the stained water. A crayfish pattern is a staple on the Lower, as it presents a big, bulky profile that fish can see. San Juan Worms in red or pink are very popular, as well, because the bright colors are easy for fish to see. If you prefer to fish smaller nymphs, choose something with a bright bead or some flash to get the trout’s attention. Red is a popular color on the Lower, so a Copper John is always a good place to start.
Streamer patterns are very popular, as well, either stripped on a sinking line or dead-drifted under a strike indicator. It’s hard to have a pattern that is too big, especially if you are stripping your offering. Flies in the 3- to 5-inch range are considered standard these days, as are 7-weight and 8-weight rods armed with sinking-tip lines to present them. When dead-drifting a streamer under an indicator, I prefer smaller, more traditional streamers and a 6-weight rod–the same setup I would choose when doing any sort of nymphing.
4. Pay Attention to Tributaries
While the water coming out of Ennis Lake is rarely too dirty to fish, there are several tributaries that can contribute a significant amount of mud. You need to be aware of the clarity of these streams in order to properly plan which section you wish to fish. Beartrap Canyon contains only two small streams, so starting at Warm Springs, the farthest-upstream ramp, is the safe bet. The first major tributary is Cherry Creek, located about five miles downstream from Warm Springs. Conveniently, there is a boat ramp located at this confluence, allowing anglers to take out if Cherry Creek is pumping a bunch of mud.
The other option is to continue downstream targeting the opposite (western) side of the Madison, which will not show any influence from the mud for several miles downstream. You can usually make it fairly close, if not all the way, to the Black’s Ford boat ramp until the mud works its way all the way across the river. Just below Black’s Ford is the confluence with Elk Creek, which is another contributor of muddy water. This additional mud makes venturing down to the Greycliff boat ramp risky during high water if you have not previously scouted the clarity on that section.
5. Consider Wade Fishing
One big misconception that some people have is that fish do not feed when the water is dirty. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as fish need to eat to survive regardless of conditions. Water clarity affects fishing because as visibility is reduced, it also reduces the odds that a fish is going to spot, and subsequently eat, your fly. In reduced-visibility scenarios, wade fishing becomes an attractive option because it allows you to present your fly multiple times into likely looking water. When fishing from a boat, you often only get one shot at a specific location, and there is a chance that the trout simply won’t see your fly even if you get a great drift. High water also tends to concentrate fish in certain locations. While this is not as prevalent on the Lower as in most other rivers, you will still usually find multiple fish in prime locations, and wading allows you the chance to catch several.
While there is plenty of public land available to access the Lower for wade fishing, I still prefer using a boat to access wading spots. I like to float-fish the river and then anchor the boat in key spots to allow for multiple drifts. When guiding, I will often get out of the boat and walk it slowly down through a run, allowing my guests to fish the area more thoroughly. When fishing in this manner, one important tip is to add some (or more) split shot to your nymphing rig. When you are float-fishing, you are able to achieve very long drifts, meaning you can get your flies down into the strike zone with relatively less weight. When wade-fishing or fishing from a stationary boat, the length of your drift is only as far as you can cast. This shorter drift distance means that you need to get your flies down quicker, thus adding more weight. The exact amount will depend a myriad of variables, and experimentation is the only way to find out.
Brian McGeehan is owner and outfitter of Montana Angler Fly Fishing, an Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Expedition in Bozeman, Montana.