The Lower Madison - Warm Springs to The Headwaters
Map Size 17" x 72"
The stretch of the Madison River between the Bear Trap Canyon and Missouri River Headwaters State Park is a multi-use stew of fisherman, floaters, campers and general recreationists. For fisherman, timing is everything on this piece of water. Time it wrong and you can find yourself fighting wind, bikinis, warm water, high water, low water, or hordes of other fisherman. Time it right and you the only thing you will be fighting are fish & potential clouds of caddis, salmon flies or mays. For the wade fisherman, fishing on the Lower Madison starts at the Bear Trap Canyon access. From here there are several fishing options both up and downstream that are almost entirely devoid of competition from upstream boat fisherman. Unless you have what it takes to brave the potentially Class IV rapids of the Bear Trap Canyon the only real boat option is from the Warm Springs ramp down to the Headwaters.
From Warm Springs to Grey Cliff the river offers excellent opportunities for hooking large rainbows and browns from the boat or by wading from one of the many pullouts on the river frontage roads. This stretch can be packed with floaters, but as I said, timing is everything here, where late evenings, early mornings, early Spring, and late Fall days can be epic for the fly.
From Grey Cliff Launch to the Milwaukee Launch and onwards to the Headwaters Ramp the river is a different animal. Stream braiding and heavy vegetation are commonplace providing excellent habitat for large trout. Unfortunately this is also the warmest water of the river, and as such, the increased temperature tends to counteract the effects of the enhanced habitat. This results in an almost warm water fishery where you will find the random rainbow, a few large browns, carp and the odd Northern Pike. This float is the longest and the most remote stretch (and possibly the prettiest of the Lower) but it is not for the feint of heart. On this water it takes an almost "Captain Ahab" mentality to find fish meaning - Moby is down there but he ain't going to be easy to catch. Also, weather here, like anywhere on the Madison can go from a 50°f calm & sunny day, to a 25°f, 30 knot, upstream ground blizzard in the blink of an eye. For some reason on this long stretch weather changes seem to be more brutal and seem to come on quicker than anywhere else on the Madison. What this boils down to is: when the weather changes down here you better be prepared because there is nowhere to hide and nothing to do but put your muscle to the sticks and slog it out.
From Milwaukee Launch to the Headwaters Ramp one enters a world of slow moving water where the floodplains of the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin rivers have been competing for dominance for millions of years. Over 100 years ago the railroads joined the fight for dominance over these waters and their failed attempts are still visible in the abandoned grades, bridges and dykes that litter the area. The railroad 'improvements' along with natural flooding and ice damming have carved an almost infinite amount of old channels through this stretch and there have been more than a few people who have spent more time than they planned negotiating these waters. This lowest part of The Lower is the water that Lewis & Clark gazed upon and ventured through some 200+ years ago, where John Colter made is historic escape from the Blackfeet Indians and where before all of them, paleoman had hunted and lived for thousands of years. There are big fish in these waters but they are far and few between and they become almost incidental to all the other wonders of the area.
Perhaps one of the best habitats in the state for riparian wildlife, this almost swamp-like setting is home to a number of species of flora & fauna, including: Snakes, Turtles, Mink, Otter, Moose, Whitetail, Muleys, Ducks, Geese, Turkeys, Pheasant, Song Birds, Butterflies, Morels, etc. In 1957 the State of Montana recognized this as a historical site and established the Missouri River Headwaters State Park on what was then 20 acres of donated land, since then the park has grown to over 500 acres, much of which, lines the eastern bank of the lower stretch of the river.