Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Lower Madison: Downstream of the big riffle

(originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Northwest Fly Fishing magazine)

Just downstream of one of the most famous stretches of fly-fishing water in the world lies a secret stretch of trout-filled opportunity, yearning to be fished... Okay, it's far from a secret, but it's more akin to the Corn Palace than Las Vegas in terms of worldwide popularity. This is not what most anglers think of when they hear of the Madison River. The stretch most often associated with the Madison is known as the Upper Madison, from Hebgen Dam (or nearby Quake Lake) to Ennis Lake - the famed 50-mile riffle (usually ranked #1 or #2 in statewide fishing pressure). But downstream of that is a 40-mile section that avoids headlines and keeps local anglers fishing year round.
   The Lower Madison starts at Ennis Dam below Ennis Lake and runs downstream of Three Forks where it joins the Jefferson River to give birth to the Missouri. It spans about 100 feet across, averages about three feet deep and usually stabilizes around 1,300 cubic feet per second. It ranked #11 among fisheries in statewide fishing pressure the last time the survey was published (2007).
   It is a special place pocked with fishy buckets, fierce hatches and nostalgic reflections - many anglers and rowers have honed their techniques on these waves. With its own beauty, the Lower Madison continually produces fish – sometimes large – and is as reliable a year-round fishery as you'll find.
   Certain holes are good for at least a half-dozen cookie-cutter 12-inch rainbows nearly every outing, and with a little experience, every trip can yield a 16-inch trout. Those who commit to streamers can catch their 20-plus-inch trophy here, and those who commit to the dry can likely have at least minimal success, every day of the year. And if the stars align, anglers might catch a half-dozen 20-inch trophies on dries (hey, it's possible). 
   Bozemanites often note how lucky they are to live 45 minutes from such a place, but it's not without complication. Wind, warm water, weeds, rattlesnakes, and overuse plague this section, at least seasonally.
   Wind is the ultimate nemesis of the lower Madison angler. It's almost always breezy, usually gusty, and sometimes tornadic. A north wind offers the most protection, but a south wind can absolutely rip (you'll want to make a note of that). Other directions will likely be very windy, too. 
   It rarely runs gin clear, and the springtime Ennis Lake “turnover” is one of the rare times the Lower might be too muddy to fish.
   These hurdles, however, are of minor consequence when fishing the Lower Madison.
   The Lower Madison can be divided into three sections: Bear Trap Canyon (the uppermost 10 miles); Warm Springs to Black's Ford (the middle 7 miles); and Black's Ford to the mouth (the lower 24 miles).
Click here to purchase a Madison River fishing map.

Bear Trap Canyon

Bear Trap Canyon is a 6,347-acre chunk of the BLM-managed Lee Metcalf Wilderness that surrounds the uppermost 10 miles of the Lower Madison. It fishes well almost anytime the water's not too warm, which occurs each summer after a hand full of 90-degree days.
   The water directly below the dam to the powerhouse is one of the most stable trouteries in the area. It's almost always decent, usually great, and sometimes, completely bananas. From the dam to the powerhouse, the flow is significantly smaller as much of the river is diverted through a pipe to get to the powerhouse. This smaller flow sometimes simplifies the fishing. During runoff when flows above the powerhouse hits 2,000 cfs, the water gets green and the temperature often hovers around the magical 59-degree mark. This pushes the prime trout to the sides where they get stacked in the soft edges, creating one of the best times to fish anywhere, ever. One early June day, I witnessed a friend land roughly 30 trout in about 45 minutes from one hole (including an arctic grayling, but more on that later). This is the only time you'll see more stringers and fillet knives than fly anglers, which is a shame because the fly angling is fantastic.
   Winter is arguably the best time to hike the canyon, both for fishing and acreage per capita. The entire Lower Madison is in an area known as a little "banana belt", that does not get the snow or extreme cold of the land in a 30-mile radius. Little pink stuff under indicators will usually yield fish, and it's not uncommon to find trout rising to midges winter-round. Crayfish, Foxy Red Clousers, Shrimp Cocktails and Hare's Ears are my go-to flies for the canyon in winter.
   Ask around for holes like Clay's hole, rainbow bend, the rock garden, the first big bend, and the stretch up from Warm Springs, which is accessed via an under-utilized trail that provides access to the opposite bank from the main trail. There are places, at times, that an angler could cross the river, but those places are few and only exist in lower flows. To avoid such perils, hike up from Warm Springs.
   Access to all but the top and bottom requires a hike along the Bear Trap Canyon National Recreation Trail (roads get you to the top and bottom). Its 1,500-foot canyon walls make it very scenic, and it's arguably the fishiest bit.
   Most anglers hike upstream from the trailhead at the end of Bear Trap Road, off of Norris Road/Highway 84. Access is unlimited here, and it does get a fair bit of foot-traffic from both anglers and others. The rock gardens along the initial straightaway are most heavily fished spots - getting around the corner earns elbow room and often better fishing. The trail continues all the way to just below the power house about 8 miles upstream, and angler density thins as you go (through-hiking from top to bottom was closed after 9/11 to protect the power source from potential intruders).
   A campsite is located about three miles from the trailhead near Bear Trap Creek, and dispersed camping is allowed throughout the wilderness section provided you're not within 200 feet of a water source, which can be tricky.
   Bear Trap Canyon is rarely floated as there are a couple significant rapids mid-canyon. Should you make that questionable decision, a word of caution: Bear Trap's Kitchen Sink rapid (Class IV-V, about 3.5 miles down from the launch) is a wicked thrasher known to sink boats and beat up floaters, and it's not the only rapid in this area. Hard-sided boats are not the way to attempt these hazards. If you insist, the launch is located at the powerhouse, accessed via the road to Ennis Dam from McAllister. Hug your family, get right with god and wear a helmet. 
Below the dam, on a Foxy Red Clouser. 
   Many snakes, including the rare rattler, slither these parts during summer. Being that this is the most-often hiked section, keep an eye on the trail and your dogs on leashes.
   As previously mentioned, arctic grayling are sometimes caught here, especially near the dam (browns and rainbows being the dominant catch). A small remnant population from recent stockings (Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks stocked grayling in the Lower Madison from 2001 to 2006 at Headwaters State Park) has persevered, barely. Prior to completion of the original Ennis Dam (AKA Madison Dam) in 1901 and the introduction of brown and rainbow trout, grayling thrived here. Old hands tell stories of schools of forlorn grayling pressed up against the dam, hoping to migrate upstream. Cutbows and chubs are also extremely rare catches in Bear Trap Canyon (and rumors of catfish).
   A 2012 fireworks-caused wildfire took out much of the hillside greenery and subjected the river to mudslides for a spell, but no noticeable impact remains.
   If you're going to fish the Lower Madison on foot, Bear Trap Canyon is often the best bet.
Click here to purchase a Bear Trap Canyon fishing map.

"Float the Lower?"

Anglers looking to float should head to the Warm Springs to Black's Ford Fishing Access Site section, which is the middle 7-mile stretch. Fishing remains excellent here, with almost all of this stretch being public land. There are many roadside BLM pay campsites throughout this stretch, with full campgrounds at Trapper Springs and Red Cliff.
   This is where you'll find the "buckets" (visible boulder-sized craters in the riverbed), and knowing how to fish them is crucial. Get your flies to the bottom as soon as possible, by whatever means necessary; nymphing is usually preferred. Some buckets are simply gaps in the weeds. While they can be fruitful, these buckets are much more difficult to fish, as they're abrupt and small - getting your flies down into them is infinitely frustrating.
   Floating this section is notoriously simple. It's where most Bozeman-area neophyte rowers head to get behind the sticks. It's a slow, flat float and nearly impossible to get into any danger. There are boat ramps at Warm Springs Creek Day Use Area (the take-out for the Bear Trap Canyon Float), California Corner (hand-launch only), Canaday Bridge (an 1800s-era toll ford), Damselfly Fishing Access Site (at the mouth of Cherry Creek), and Black's Ford Fishing Access Site. The first three are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and the last two are Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks sites. All have adequate parking, decent ramps, and rustic bathrooms.
   Spey anglers often enjoy this section's long runs, though some swing fishers prefer the downstream section. A marabou spider or small streamer works well.
   I've found this to be the hatchiest section, with some of the most intense emergences in the area. For example, a little-known brown drake hatch happens every late June. It can be extremely isolated, and doesn't always garner every trout's attention, but is a grandiose spectacle in and of itself. Other hatches include tremendous baetis and Mother's Day caddis blooms, pale morning duns, callibaetis, midges, salmonflies, golden stones, skwalas, summer caddis and other myriad bugs. Hopper fishing is possible here, though not often good. Also fish crayfish, scuds, sowbugs, worms, eggs, and streamers.
   Wade fishing is possible here, too. Roads border both sides of this section, and most of it is public. Some of my favorite wading spots are the bank just downstream from Warm Springs (especially when bugs are out), the big east-bank scree field along the road, and the highway turn-out upstream of Canaday Bridge.
   My biggest Lower Madison River trout came in this stretch - a bruiser of almost 21 inches. Just out of the gates at Warms Springs in the middle of the river, fishing a heavy white streamer on a sinking line in the weed buckets, I was taken for a long, rewarding ride. Bigger fish are regularly recorded.
Buh-lee dat.
   One rare nonnative forage-source might explain why the fish are a bit pudgier here: Idaho russet potatoes. Bear with me... In the spring of 2008, we noticed potatoes collecting in the river buckets between California Corner and Canaday (you're in good company with your skepticism). And no matter the hatch, the fish would. not. rise. They were fat and happy. We surmised that the highway-closing wreck from a couple of weeks prior must have been a local farm truck that tipped on the 35 mile-per-hour curve. The fishing eventually returned to normal, and we never did try to match that hatch.
   The other kind of tubers also occupy this stretch from June into September - party floaters. This is also usually when the water warms and weeds grow, so most anglers leave the river to the inebriates this time of year. If you choose to share the river, you might consider sticking to mornings - it doesn't take many 90-degree days to jump the water temps to over 70 degrees.
Cutthroat return?

The Lower Lower

The bit from Black's Ford Fishing Access Site to the mouth of the Madison River offers the proverbial road less travelled. This is the typical "fewer but bigger" arena, with the truly huge being rare. The average fish might be around 15 inches down here, but the fish numbers drop off quickly after Grey Cliff Fishing Access Site. Between Black's Ford and Grey Cliff, certain buckets usually hold great trout numbers.
The grey cliffs.
  Four fishing access sites populate this 24-mile trek: Grey Cliff, Cobblestone, and Milwaukee and a new site about 2.25 miles down from Black's Ford at the bottom end of Grey Cliff's property. The new site offers a parking lot and wade access to the upper extremity of the Grey Cliff Fishing Access Site - anglers may now hike the entire Grey Cliff property - about 4.5 river miles. Wade fishing is limited more or less to the access sites as it's isolated and private, so floating is the most popular way to see this water.
   From Black's Ford to Grey Cliff's boat ramps is about four miles, and from Grey Cliff to Milwaukee Fishing Access Site at Interstate 90 is about 16.  Since there is no boat ramp at Cobblestone, most anglers pick one of those two floats to avoid a 20-mile burden.
   Most anglers toss streamers here, in hopes of catching the monster, but nymphing worms and crayfish is also productive.
   Floating is still pretty easy here, although there are some decisions about which channels to take, and dragging is common at average flows.
   Once you get near Cobblestone, the river becomes braided and spread out. By all means explore the side channels, but not for too long lest you get behind schedule. You might want to peruse a satellite view before launching, though the routes tend to be pretty obvious once you arrive on site. If the flows are high, it can actually be a quick trip. We did the 16-mile float in about seven hours one May day (at 4,350 cfs), with plenty of stopping.
   Many snakes live in this section, but most are bull or garter, some upwards of four feet.
   While the action here is almost always slower, this length offers a quiet, enjoyable escape with the hope of a 25-incher. 

Darlington Ditch

Darlington (or Darlinton) Ditch is an interesting fishery that serves as a microcosm of Montana flyfishing. Throughout its lifetime, it has been the subject of habitat enhancement, fish stocking, invasive species, access issues, and tremendous trout fishing.
   Darlington is a ditch/tributary of the lower Madison. It is fueled with water via a headgate in summer, but has year-round flow via groundwater, making it unclear whether it is a natural spring creek or manmade ditch (similar to the Bitteroot's Mitchell Slough). The Gallatin Conservation District ruled that it was a ditch by law and not subject to the stream access law, which means it's off limits to anglers. That said, it is legal and accepted for anglers to fish the public stretch within Cobblestone Fishing Access Site boundaries - a rare exception to that law. Fishing Darlington is illegal off the Cobblestone property.
   It is rumored to hold big brown trout, and has proven to hold small brook trout.
   Over the years, multiple fish-habitat enhancement projects have changed the look of Darlington. For years, a perfect sine wave of Trout Unlimited-constructed S-curves meandered through Cobblestone, but the fish didn't take very well. So in 2014, the ditch was again manipulated to make more natural bends and fishy features. It now feels fishier to me, but time will tell if the historically excellent fishing returns. 
   The New Zealand Mud Snail has also penetrated Darlington, but thanks to removal efforts Montana FWP, the signs have been taken down. Regardless, check, clean and dry. Whirling disease has also been found in the Madison River, and who knows what transmittable affliction has yet to be identified.
The Lower Madison is a staple fishery for nearly all Bozeman-area anglers that any area would be proud of. While it may not always be less busy or more fishy than upriver, it's an under-the-radar option that offers separate but equal beauty and excellent fishing.

Hook: Tiemco #2457 or Dai Riki #135 size 16
Head: 3/32-inch beadhead
Thread: Pink or fluorescent orange 6/0
Tail: Fluorescent pink Darlon (I substitute Angora goat hair)
Body: Pink thread with optional wrapped clear tubing
Wingcase: Rainey's Wing Ribbon (or scud back or tinsel or flash)
Thorax: Shrimp Pink UV Ice Dub