Madison River – A Tale of Survival from the Scourge of Whirling Disease
Deemed one of the most abundant trout fisheries in the world, the Yellowstone River has a challenger less than four hours away. Staging a comeback, Montana’s second crown jewel offers great fishing for brown trout and rainbows. Having been ravaged by whirling decease during the 1990’s, Madison loyalists watched the number of rainbows plunge from 3500 a mile down to 500 to 600 per mile. Juvenile populations dropped 90% in a few short years. But newcomers to the river will find no memorial markers with epitaphs lamenting the death of the Madison. The loss has been profound, but the Madison River is still one of the top fisheries in Montana. Browns average 1500 to 1800 per mile with a healthy population of trophies. Early rainbow survivors of whirling disease with resistance to the disease are now the progenitors in this epic tale of survival of the fittest.
The Billings Gazette, July 22, 2009 interviewed Dick Vincent, Whirling-Disease Coordinator for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park on the Madison River rainbow recovery. He said that “rainbows under 10 inches have recovered to pre-whirling disease levels and the population of those larger is about 60 percent of what it was before the disease.” What is not missing from the Madison River today is the opportunity to fish a great brown stream that offers pristine settings and some of the most beautiful water in the world.
The Madison River originates fifteen miles inside the Park from the West Yellowstone Entrance. Just above the National Park Meadow, the Gibbon River joins the Firehole to begin the Madison’s journey for over a 130 miles to Three Forks, where it joins the Gallatin and the Jefferson to form the Missouri River. The river is blocked by two impoundments, Hebgen Lake and Ennis Lake. Although the park section is fished throughout the summer, the best fishing occurs in June during the salmonfly hatch and the green drake hatch. Migratory trout spawn in this section both during the spring and fall. Dry fly purists encounter frustration in this section during the summer months due to normal thermal heating and the discharge of hot water from the Firehole River. For the most part this section is best fished with a nymph as the summer progresses. In the fall this section receives heavy pressure, as anglers anticipate the fall brown spawning runs out of Hebgen Lake. Heavy-duty streamer patterns work best, but fishermen are also successful using nymphs and egg patterns.
Madison River trout are hammered all year long, and they become very educated. Just inside the park boundary, fishermen can take a left on a dirt road to Bakers Hole area if they want some semblance of solitude. With the advent of fall and the anticipation of brown spawning runs, the area becomes quite a popular gathering spot. Regardless of the season, be cautious in disturbing wildlife, especially bears.
Leaving the Park, the Madison takes a short run and enters Hebgen Lake. Hebgen Lake runs 16-miles long and the area provides a number of campgrounds. Most of the arms of the lake offer good fly fishing for float tubers. For camping information contact the Hebgen Lake Ranger District, PO Box 520, West Yellowstone, MT 59758 or call (406) 646-7369. All Hebgen Lake Ranger District fee sites are available to reserve on the recreation reservation system by calling 1-800-280-2267. Hebgen Lake offers seven campgrounds. Rainbow Point Campground and Baker’s Hole campground exclude tent camping because of bear activity. Baker’s Hole Campground is right on the Madison River just above where it joins the Madison Arm of Hebgen Lake. Anglers will find a white stake denoting the Park boundary.
At the outlet of Hebgen Lake, Quake Lake was formed during the 1959 earthquake. Below Quake Lake to the Junction with Highway 87, the scared remnants of the quake make floating this section of the river extremely dangerous, and even experts shun this short section. The junction with Highway 87 begins the mileage markers. Ennis, Montana, is 41 miles downstream.
Spring hatches of baetis and caddis prompt lethargic trout to look upwards. Following these hatches is the much anticipated arrival of Pteronarcys californica, the giant salmon fly. Reaching a length of two inches at maturity, trout gorge themselves on this stonefly. When this hatch dwindles, the arrival of the golden stonefly sustains the spring instinct to regain body mass and strength after a long, cold winter. Although the upper river in the park may run fairly clear, the lower river run-off and the muddy water necessitates using large nymphs such as the Bitch Creek along the shoreline.
In addition to Salmon fly patterns and stimulators, early summer hatches of PMD’s and the scattered hatches of blue-wing olives, as well as prolific hatches of caddis, keep the dry fly angler smiling. Standard attractor patterns work well.
Mayfly hatches and caddis hatches come off in the evening. Mid day fishing should concentrate on terrestrials such as ant and beetle patterns, and, of course, grasshopper patterns, which should be worked close to the banks or over weed beds.
Grasshopper patterns work well into fall, but for the most part streamers work best unless a sporadic Baetis hatch emerges in which case a small Pheasant Tail nymph or a Baetis Sparkle Dun on the surface will do quite well.