The Upper Madison - Quake Dam to Clute's
Map Size 17" x 72"
Commonly called the “50 Mile Riffle” or the “Upper”, the stretch of the Madison River between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake is the quintessential American trout stream. Any fisher, regardless of age or experience who can make the pilgrimage to this river will be justly rewarded with the ample opportunity to catch quality browns, rainbows and whitefish, in a setting comparable to few places in the world. Like many western trout streams the Madison is a tail-water fishery, meaning that its flows are technically controlled by Hebgen Dam releases. Anyone who has fished this water (especially upstream of the West Fork) can tell you that this is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in the sense that turbidity is greatly reduced and flows, for the most part, remain steady and reliable. A curse in the sense that any surge or sharp reduction in the flows that breaks this artificial consistency can and often will send the fish into two days of fasting. So when your guide says “you should have been here yesterday” there is better than a 50/50 chance that they are telling you the truth.
Ironically the first couple of miles of the “50 Mile Riffle” are no riffle at all, but instead a Class V nightmare of vicious hydraulics, jagged rock and random snags. There are fish here but you’ll need to have 10 pound balls to go chase them. Let me know how that goes. Luckily, for those of us less endowed, this maelstrom of inhospitable water quickly gives way to a natural grade that is the next ±53 miles of dream-like trout fishing.
From Mile 2 to Lyons Bridge, the river is an often gin clear run of braids and large rock holes where trout and whitefish look up, down and all around at an ever changing smorgasbord of nymphs, minnows & and dry flys. Historically this portion of the river has been off limits to fishing from a boat and closed to all fishing from the end of February to the third Saturday in May. As a consequence of the boat restriction, areas of easy walk-in access are often fished hard, whereas large reaches of the river are only fished by a few rafts and the even fewer drift boats that brave these rocky waters. These more remote reaches are some of the most favored waters of those fishermen wanting to get away from the crowds, including a majority of otters, mink, eagles & osprey. From Lyons Bridge to McAtee Bridge the river is historically open to fishing from a boat from the third Saturday in May to the end of February and has numerous very well spaced put-ins and takeouts. With the exception of the low-clearance Shelton Bridge and Kelly Bridge (aka Wolf Creek Bridge) there are very few navigational hazards other than the occasional large rock until you reach Varney Bridge. At Varney Bridge the river becomes more and more braided and unlike upstream, more heavily vegetated. This combination can lead the less experienced oarsman in to traps of shallow channels, irrigation ditches and potentially hazardous snags. However those who know the river know that the braiding and increase in vegetation do nothing but good for the growth and success of large trout.
Beginning at Ennis Bridge the river has been historically open from the third Saturday in May to the end of February and closed at all times to fishing from a boat. This stretch of river, as evidenced by this map, is the most braided and heavily vegetated portion of the Upper. Fish in this stretch enjoy plentiful areas of cover and rich food sources. This area also offers prime spawning grounds for both the river trout and trout migrating up from Ennis Lake. Ennis Lake and the pull to Clutes ramp is the last leg of this epic stretch of river. This is where, whether on the sticks or just kicked back in your seat enjoying the view, visions of the ones you caught and the ones that got away will tug at your mind. Life will slow to the beat of the oars on the water and the only real question in life will become:
"When do we do it again?"