You sit there thinking about how hot it is outside, how many sunflower seeds you’ve chewed up and how cold the water would be if you fell in. All the while, nature goes by like the passing wind. Tiny caddis hatch off the river’s edge, an osprey makes a high pass on a fish, and minnows scurry in all directions from a casting shadow.

This is Montana; big sky country; the treasure state.

We all know the state for its cowboys, fishing and skiing, which draws in thousands of visitors. 

A more popular and well-known region of Montana is the southwest portion of the state. This area spans from the entrances of Yellowstone Park up to Bozeman and Montana State University, along with the Big Sky ski area, and all the other small towns in between.

Greg Fester

Greg Fester

Southwest Montana is a fly fisherman’s paradise. Brown and rainbow trout spawn and thrive in the cold waters of a vast landscape, which ranges from high plains to steep mountains. The source of these fishing spots depends on the runoff of snowpack from the surrounding mountains.

My father, family friends and I have been taking summer trips up to the Madison River area for years now. We typically stay in the classic western-style riverside houses, with Native American or fishing themed décor, a full deck with a view to the river, and enough land around you to shoot off a bottle rocket or two. We also rent a big a comfortable Suburban, that way all 12 fishing rods we bring can rest securely inside.

Why Montana?

Over the years, I have seen differences in the fishing and popularity in Montana fly fishing. Summer is always a busy time of year in Montana, because of the warm weather, the open skies and the great small towns, restaurants and adventure sports. The snow is gone for good and the heat is there to stay.

People are more and more drawn to fly fishing due to its challenging yet exhilarating nature. Many will argue that the work it takes to imitate a trout’s favorite foods is more rewarding than blindly casting for them, and Montana’s world-famous fisheries reward all that hard work. The payoff comes in the form of big 23-inch browns on the Madison.

Greg Fester

Greg Fester

The Madison River Valley

The Madison River is the premier destination for fly fishermen wanting to experience the true nature of Montana fly fishing.

This river is the reason why Southwest Montana is a popular angling area. Flowing out of Wyoming from Yellowstone Park, the Madison makes its way up Montana, ultimately meeting up with the Missouri River.

While many see more beauty in casting into the small streams in the area, I see the most value in fishing the Madison. More specifically, using a drift boat on the Madison. When you fly fish out of a drift boat, you cover a vast amount of water in only a few hours time. Fishing techniques vary here because a lot of the times its streamers with dropper nymphs attached, and a bright indicator up top. With double the chance of catching a fish, you are more than likely to strike it rich if the fishing is on.

Greg Fester

Greg Fester

There are two main sections of the river: the upper and the lower. The upper is the more popular and pressured stretch that flows out of Wyoming, through Hebgen Lake, then all the way up to Ennis Lake. I’ve spent a majority of my time fishing here with family and friends.

We’ve experienced the highs and lows of fishing this stretch. We’ve had one day, a year ago, of catching a combined 120 plus fish between four people. We’ve also seen the fishing turned off due to unusually high water flows during the summer. That year, the Madison was chocolate-milk brown for miles on end.

Fishing the Upper Madison

What makes the upper Madison River so appealing is its originality. It is the quintessential Montana fly fishing destination. As you drive down to the waters, your car will rattle over the dirt roads, small hatches of mayflies will be visible in the air and you will inevitably come across the local guides throwing up a friendly wave.

Greg Fester

Greg Fester

The upper Madison’s fishing performance really depends upon the conditions and time of year. It is a very popular stretch and loaded with guides, drift boats and wading fishermen during the summer. My advice is to start early. Montana can get very hot during the summer, so starting before 8 AM will give you enough time to not only beat the crowds but also get in some fishing when its cooler out.

My second piece of advice is to hire a guide through an outfitter or guide service company. It does not matter if you are very experienced or very inexperienced. Guides will take you to the best fishing spots, teach you the essential techniques and ensure that you will catch some monster-sized fish. Exceptional guides will definitely make the trip more worth your time. Montana Trout Stalkers, located in Ennis, is the premier destination for guided fly fishing trips on the Madison. Their storefront is right on the main street, it is loaded with top-of-the-line fly fishing equipment and apparel, and the employees are friendly and helpful. Not only are they available to get you a guided trip, they also can help you select the most optimal fly patterns.

U.S. Route 287 — From Texas to Montana

The stretch of water running parallel to Route 287 and north towards Ennis is spectacular. The Madison River Valley is sparsely populated, home to just the residents of Ennis and Cameron. It’s this remoteness that makes the valley even more special. While driving you’ll see pronghorn antelope in the distance, grazing the farm fields. Stark mountains with small streaks of snow up top provide a backdrop to the Madison River. A bald eagle may be found flying above the river.

At some point on the road, you’ll probably pass by two highly recommended bar/grills. The Grizzly Bar is right above the Madison, but it is located in a more remote area with no major town close by. This classic dive has gone upscale from the days that my dad first starting going. It has a full bar and plenty of gourmet offerings, such as prime cut stakes and Cajun pasta.

If you’re driving north up 287, you’ll have to slow down into the town of Ennis. The other recommended place is the Gravel Bar, which is right in downtown. This is a hot spot for the local fly fishing guides grabbing a brew with friends right after getting off the river. They have solid menu items as well.

Fishing the Lower Madison

If you decide to spend your time on the lower Madison River during the summer, expect bikini hatches. When the water gets nearly too warm to fish, the anglers move out and the tubers float in from all directions in their bathing suits and sunglasses. The one summer I fished the lower Madison was during a particularly rainy couple of weeks. Thunderstorms rolled in, and next thing we knew, we had to pull the drift boats out of the water and hold tight on the bank. Lightning tore through the sky no more than a mile away. It was close enough to feel the heat. Good thing we were holding graphite rods.

Aside from tourists floating the river or thunderstorms right on top of your head, you can actually get into some pretty good fishing. Patterns may change depending on season or location on the lower, but sticking to the classics will never hurt. My suggestion is if you’re unfamiliar with fishing conditions on the lower, visit the local fly fishing shop where experts can get you set up with the ideal patterns/tips.

Upper or lower, the Madison continues to prove what she’s worth, holding beautiful brown and rainbow trout for miles and miles. Whether it’s catching them on dries, streamers or nymphs, the experience is unforgettable. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and those who see beauty in fly fishing for trout will fall in love with the Madison River. Make Southwest Montana your next fly fishing destination.

Greg Fester

Greg Fester

Greg May
About the Author

When he's not interning at the Gunn&Hook world headquarters in Fort Worth, Greg is either attending class at TCU or wetting a line in Montana.