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Fly fishing for trout in Ennis, Montana

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

Trout fishing in Ennis is legendary

Welcome to Ennis where it is all about the trout

The town of Ennis in southwestern Montana has no identity issues – it is a fishing town! Evidence of this is everywhere, from the numerous boat trailers in and around the town to the clientele in the local diner advertising guiding outfitters on their caps or shirts. Even the welcome signage boasts of the huge trout population of the area.

Fishing the Madison River

A central feature of Ennis is the Madison River, which is considered one America’s premier waters for trout fishing, and features in both TU’s Guide to America’s 100 Best Trout Streams and Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die. Many fly anglers consider a float trip down the Madison River as fishing nirvana and the ultimate float trip experience. My fishing companion, Lars, puts it differently: “You can beat the Madison, or it can beat you, but you cannot beat the scenery.”

setting off from Palisades boat launch

Our float trip was with Trout On The Fly, owned by Nate Stevane. My friend Lars hires him every time he is in Ennis to fish the Madison because of the great attention to detail and skill development that Nate imparts to his clients. If there is a flaw to your technique, Nate will pick up on it quickly and set you straight. In my blog posts I regularly point out that I can be a lazy fly caster, and I was reminded early and often regarding my casting and presentation flaws on that float trip with Nate!

the highlight of the float trip was a nice brown caught by Lars

Despite the legendary fame of the Madison, this float trip was anything but epic and it had nothing to do with the guide or the anglers. The day began fair enough with some decent trout and mountain whitefish caught early, but weather conditions were not in our favor. The water had been getting progressively warmer due to consecutive days above 90 degrees and the wind ratcheted up to over 15 mph before lunch. I credit Nate with trying just about every fly in the box to find one that would tempt the fish – local favorites such as the crystal dip, three-dollar dip, Orvis lightning bug and Barry’s emerger were all ignored in succession. According to Lars, the ‘catching’ (or lack thereof) was among the worst he had ever experienced on the Madison.

That day there were numerous other boats floating the Madison - in fact, the volume of floats was such that if we anchored up briefly to fish a promising piece of water, we often had to wait several minutes for 3-4 boats to pass before we could resume downstream. I have since seen reports from other anglers lamenting the pressure on the Madison River as unsustainable for the fishery. Time will tell if the popularity of the epic float trip on the Madison was the real cause of the poor fishing we experienced on that day.

Fishing O'Dell Creek

O'Dell is a perfect spring creek

This pattern of early promise followed by deteriorating conditions due to heat would continue the next day as we fished O’Dell Creek, a tributary of the Madison on the outskirts of Ennis. There are public sections of this water, but we chose to buy a rod fee on a private section associated with Rainbow Valley Lodge, which at $60 per day seemed a bargain for exclusive access for up to four anglers. It took some time to figure out which tandem of flies would attract attention of the browns and rainbows on this water - I went through three different combinations before the beetle + ant tandem started the action.

a nice brown netted on O'Dell Creek

The thing I have learned about small, spring creeks is that the bubble line is your friend, and this was no different on the O’Dell. I started at the extreme end of the private water, wading in the shallows, and casting upstream into the strongest flow along the bank. This current / bubble line acts like a food delivery system not unlike a sushi restaurant where diners are seated around a conveyor belt filled with plates of food passing by. The trout sat on the seams of this flow waiting to pounce on the most interesting of the offerings.

As with the prior day, the morning started with great promise. But as the sun got higher and the temperatures reached in the high 80s to 90s, the fish shut down. This was surprising to me on a spring creek as the water should, by nature, be cooler, but I suspect that a high sun and bluebird skies worked against me, no matter how stealthy I tried to be.

I think I will leave this section of the O'Dell Creek to the moose

If you fish this private section of O’Dell Creek, take care with your footing, especially upstream of the gate entry. Resident beavers have created a series of tunnels close to the bank that represent a hazard if you are not careful. This angler found out the hard way by falling rear end first down a beaver chute and needing a hand from my fishing companion to get out!

Note: I am not being compensated for my mention of Trout on the Fly or Rainbow Valley Lodge. I am simply a satisfied client.

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