Hank with a lake run brown

Fall Fishing in the Madison Valley

Fall Means Great Fishing on the Madison River

By Hank Kuntzelman

One thing our clients always seem to ask us is when is the best time for Montana Trout Fishing? Our answer every time is “spring and fall”. The Madison Valley is truly a special place in fall. Colors change, fair weather fisherman leave, and best of all the brown trout get after it. Every year the fall brown trout spawn happens. In Late September browns start their annual spawning cycle. Large brown trout run up from lakes to do their business, wreak havoc on baitfish, and head back down to the lake. Some of the most notable lake fisheries around the area that this happens in are Ennis Lake, Earthquake Lake, and Hebgen Lake. The spawning process looks a little different for each fishery however they all have similar characteristics.

Fall is the Time for Big Fish

In Late September the process starts. Fish will start to stack up at the inlet of lakes waiting to make their annual run upstream. Normally, this time of year the water is low. Fish will wait for a rainstorm or any sort of water inflow bump to start their migration. When the fish start their run, they will stay in large pods moving upriver. Sometimes fish can move multiple miles per day upstream. When fish move up, they look for a holding zone. These zones are normally large, deep runs. Lake fish hold in spots that resemble their home (lakes). These holding spots are where fisherman can really target these fish as they are less likely to eat when on the move. Swinging streamers and nymphing these deep runs are the best way to target holding fish. Truly one of the most exciting ways to experience Montana Trout Fishing. Some of our favorite nymph patterns for this are brown/black pats rubber legs, large prince nymphs, October caddis, and orange squirmy worms.

Lake Run Brown Trout

These lake fish are incredibly powerful. Some fish out of Ennis Lake have been tracked all the way up by palisades recreation area. Over 30 river miles traveled! To be able to travel that far upstream fish need to be big and eat a lot of protein. That’s why when these lake fish eat, they are looking for large meals. Stonefly Nymphs, Sculpin, Baitfish, and Worms are some of the favorite meals of a hungry lake fish.

During this time whitefish will be finishing up their spawn. White and natural streamer colors are a great place to start with the influx of whitefish fry being introduced into our river system. Lake fish are also not very particular on presentation.  If you can get your rig in front of the right fish’s mouth it will eat.  One very important thing to do when nymphing or swinging streamers is to finish your drift. Fish from the lake are not used to flows of the river. They are used to their meals not moving and easy to grab. When fishing let your rig drift all the way through and then swing up in the zone giving your fly’s a stationary look. More times than not I am surprised just how many fish I can eat when doing this. While an important tactic to use this time of year it can be successful for all Montana Trout Fishing.

   Watch for Spawning Fish

Lake run browns aren’t the only fish to be aggressive this time of year. Resident river fish will also start their spawning process around this time. While we are unsure how far upstream river fish will go to spawn, we do know that both river and lake fish will target the same type of water to start their spawning process. Shallow gravel bars with a deep bucket behind them serve as perfect breeding grounds for these fish.

When fishing in fall it is extremely important to avoid these gravel bars/shallow areas as we do not want to disturb the natural spawning process. Fisherman can identify these areas by finding patches of cleaned gravel on them. This cleaned gravel where brown trout lay their eggs is called a Redd. They are incredibly delicate and should remain undisturbed throughout most of the year as rainbow trout in our river system will use some of the same Redd’s to spawn in spring. When fishing during spawn times it is even more critical for fly fisherman to be conservationists to the ecosystem. Understanding that the only reason you can fish for these large browns is because of this spawning process is a big deal. Respecting spawning zones and being ethical in your decisions of where to walk, wade, and drop anchor is critical to the health of our fishery and all Montana Trout Fishing in general.

Help is Available

As always, the best way to learn how to fish all our local fisheries is to go on a guided trip with one of our incredible Ennis, Montana Fishing Guides. However, for the DIY fisherman we recommend stopping into a local fly shop for all the best tips, tricks, information and regulations. Fall is a special time here in Montana, let’s do our part to keep it that way by using ethical practices and being stewards of our fisheries enabling us to keep Montana Trout Fishing what it is for generations to come.


Fishing Reports and Trips

  • Fishing Reports

  • Want to know the most up-to-date information to find where the fish are biting? The Tackle Shop Fishing Reports provide you with a comprehensive look at current water conditions, recent hatches and flow data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

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  • Float Trips

  • The Tackle Shop offers a range of full-day and half-day float trips in the Madison River Valley area. The trips are all-inclusive and cover files, rods, reels, waders and boots. Leave your worries behind and let us give you the fly fishing trip of a lifetime.

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  • Walk/Wade Trips

  • Enjoy one of our full-day or half-day walk and wade trips for a more immersive, slower-paced fly fishing experience. The Tackle Shop will cater to your individual needs so you are able to take in the sights and sounds of the best waters in Montana.

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