2021 Madison River Fishing Recap

by | Jan 4, 2022 | 0 comments

We fished the Madison throughout the Winter of 2021, often hitting the Wade Stretch around Raynold’s Pass, taking the stroll into $3 Bridge from the highway, poking around Lyon Bridge or Palisades.  For us, winter fishing is more of a chance to get outside for a few hours and enjoy the sunshine’s warmth than it is about catching a pile of trout. We like to find rising trout, whenever possible, but knotting on a stonefly and a zebra always seems to bed the rod when no heads are found.  The Madison began to wake up in early April with trout chasing dead drifted streamers and well-placed nymphs in all the likely spots.  We ran some guide trips throughout April on Madison as the weather proved to be worthy of spending the day outside.  April and early May do offer some great fishing, but the weather is a gamble, that’s for sure.  For those willing to give it a shot, go for it! We love the early season here in Big Sky Country. 

May rolled in and with it came the realization of a low snow pack winter (86% SWE in early May) and less than ideal conditions for the Madison were on the way. NWE dropped flows for most of the month as they nervously tried to fill Hebgen Lake.  In late May, snow from the heavens opened up and gave us a much-needed shot of moisture, little did we know that was going to be the last moisture we saw for nearly the next eight weeks.  June came in with beautiful weather, long days and some pretty solid fishing on the Madison. Flows stayed low and the river greened up  and then went in and out of shape for the first two weeks. By mid-June we knew all too well that the river would come alive much earlier than normal; the river below Quake was clear and fishing well. We had caddis hatches in the afternoons and dry dropper set ups were the norm.  By the end of June we saw a bump in flows but the tributaries began to drop sooner than expected, there had been hardly any moisture fall from the skies in over a month. Salmonflies showed up but conditions were less than ideal as the banks were showing dry topped rocks and there was not enough water to really get the big bugs hatching. Fortunately, the caddis and PMD hatches kept things interesting.  By the end of June, Hebgen was not full and needed nearly two feet of water to get there.  With flows bumping up, we knew that Hebgen would not be filled. 

In early July, our guides began meeting their anglers early to get a jump on things and take advantage of the lower tributary flows (the coldest water comes in from the tribs) and warming water temps on the Madison River.  July stayed dry and we hardly saw a drop of moisture. We sat the staff down and made a push to keep all the fish wet for trout pics while on guide trips and our own personal fishing. Thankfully, NWE kept the flows running above normal during the entire month of July helping to insulate the river from the warmer than normal air temperatures, lack of rain, and bright sunshine. The fishing held up through July and the caddis kept coming.  The dry dropper rig provided for solid angling throughout the entire month, a micro chubby and a tungsten beadhead was the name of the game. The Goose Lake fire began in mid-July around Cliff and Wade lakes and smoke filled the Madison Valley for the next few weeks. On July 21st, the Madison went under Hoot Owl Closure meaning that all fishing had to over by 2pm each day. We noted in our weekly fishing report that significant rain fell during the week of July 22nd, we hadn’t seen a drop since that late May snowstorm. That rain continued for several days and help to contain the Goose Lake Fire which petered out around the first of August.  The river flows on the Madison continued to run big and Hoot Owl was the norm; meeting early and fishing until 2pm was the game.  The caddis hatches finally waned, but the ant and hopper fishing filled in the blanks with enough epeorous mayflies to keep the trout looking up.  Rain continued each day during the first couple weeks of August and on August 17 the Hoot Owl restrictions on the Madison River were lifted. We decided to keep meeting our guide clients early, ending the day around 4pm for the rest of August. The hopper fishing of season’s past was not in the books for 2021; I think the lack of rain in June and July didn’t bode well for the growth of the grasshopper populations in the Madison Valley. By late August, flows on the Madison began to drop, a lot of water had been released from Hebgen Lake, which fortunately is there to help mitigate low flows and lack of moisture (both from snowpack from the past winter and the rains from the summer).  Angling with a single Jojo’s Royal Ant or a Lighting Legs Hopper brought trout to the surface for the remainder of August. For those willing to walk and wade the Madison, the upper reaches of the river, above Lyon bridge, fished quite a bit better than the float stretch.  Most likely, that has something to do with the number of tributaries in the upper river. Even though the tribs were low this past summer, they still provided cooler water and, trout like cold water. 

River flows during the month of September were up and down, changing a little bit each week.  Overnight air temps were pretty cold but summer-like weather came and went. The best fishing was subsurface with Rhyacophila caddis (free-drifting olive caddis) and streamers.  By mid-September, summer was definitely over here in West Yellowstone but it never really got that cold. We had some snow arrive around the third week but saw some super nice weather arrive for the last week of the month. Puffy jackets, long undies, gore-tex, Blue Winged Olives, and well-packed streamer boxes were on the menu during September. Morning temps on the Madison in late September and through October are generally cold and make for a slow start to the day. We spent a fair amount of time walk wading the Madison above Lyon Bridge or taking our time from Lyons to Palisades and letting the day warm up.  We didn’t fish that much November, opting out to let the brown trout quietly do their thing. Overall, the Madison fished well early and the was hit and miss from the middle of July on through the rest of the season.