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Madison River Float or Walk/Wade Fishing (1 or 2 People; up to 8 hours, all inclusive): $550
Ennis Lake Float or Walk/Wade Fishing (1 or 2 People; up to 8 hours, all inclusive): $550
Ennis Lake Fishing
Ennis Lake is nestled in the northernmost portion of the Upper Madison Valley and is a medium sized reservoir that ultimately divides the Upper and Lower Madison Rivers. Located only 6 miles from Ennis, it often gets overlooked by anglers on their way to the popular Upper Madison. However, lurking in its shallow waters are some above average size trout.
A day trip on Ennis Lake in a drift boat is a relaxing option when visiting the Madison Valley for fishing. On the right weather day, sight casting to large rising trout on a glassy lake surface is just what the doctor ordered. We specialize in fishing the lake and try our best to convince every visiting angler to experience it. Ennis Lake’s southernmost area often referred to as the “flats” is about as close as an angler is going to get to bone fishing in Montana. With an average depth of only 8 feet across the entire lake, the flats are even shallower offering the sight casting angler many opportunities to get out of the boat and stalk cruising fish among the edges of weed beds.
With the help of a trolling motor on a drift boat, we can quickly reach productive areas of the flats. A popular alternative for visiting anglers is to spend the morning on Ennis Lake fishing from the boat or wading the flats for rising fish, then jumping over to the Upper Madison for an afternoon of fishing the river. The best of both worlds.
For a more detailed explanation of what Ennis Lake is like to fish, including details surrounding hatches and tactics we employ, read on below.
And now for your Ennis Lake Moment of Zen:
Now let's get down to business. For fly fishing, it is best to divide the lake into three zones. Those are: the north zone (deeper), the south zone (shallower), and the estuary zone where the river meets the Lake.
The deeper north zone of Ennis Lake is where I suspect many trout go during winter when the south zone is solid ice from top to bottom. The north zone is on average 10 or more feet deeper than the south zone. Once ice is out on Ennis Lake, I find trout cruising the banks along this deeper zone. For the spin angler, this deeper north zone is more attractive, as you lose far fewer lures and spinners to weeds and debris. The fly angler will have much success with the standard bobber rig and chironomids hung at various depths.
The shallower southern zone is where most fly anglers are found. There are many portions of this zone where anglers can get out of their boats and wade the “flats” of Ennis Lake stalking cruising or rising fish. Most of this southern zone is 3 feet deep or less, mid summer. Trout are easily spotted in this zone, making for a sight fishing bonanza, whether that’s leading fish with nymphs like pheasant tails and chironomids, or placing an adam’s dry fly in their path. However, it can be very easy to find yourself “chasing” cruising fish by constantly wading, rowing, or motoring your boat in pursuit of fish. A more successful strategy involves picking a spot on the lake where there are multiple lanes of open water between weed beds and parking yourself and waiting for the fish to come to you. It’s a much sneakier strategy, and your constantly getting fresh fish coming to you unsuspecting.
The third zone is what I refer to as the estuary. Estuaries are typically described in saltwater terms, but the principle is the same on Ennis Lake. Here I’m referring to the zone where the Madison begins to slow in flow and extending out into the lake where barely noticeable flow is present. Sometimes in spring this zone is quite large with rising lake levels, and in late summer it can be quite short. It’s a very productive zone. During rain events massive amounts of worms may flow into the lake where trout lie in wait. Or, during a hot summer the slightly cooler temps and flow attract fish. The slight flow of river typically has fine gravel present under the surface lending it well to aquatic insects that prefer slower currents (e.g., PMDs and BWOs). The fly angler will also enjoy these conditions, where presenting small dry flies and maintaining longer drifts is possible with slow gentle currents. Swinging streamers and soft hackles, even with spey gear, is very enjoyable in this zone.
Ennis Lake is home to some prolific hatches. This nutrient-rich lake receives flow from the Madison River from 6 different main channels across its southern shore. There are also several tributaries along its east, west, and north shores, but their influence pales in comparison to the Madison.
The nutrients from the Madison provide an aquatic assortment of insects for Ennis Lake trout. The feeding sound that trout make when taking naturals on or near the surface produces an audible gulp noise, hence the term “Gulpers.” The major insects the trout feed on are Midges, Tricos and Callibaetis. There can be mayfly spinners by the millions depending on winter lake levels and summer temperatures. Having fished all over the west, I consider Ennis Lake to be one of the top dry fly lakes in the country (up there with Hebgen), but due to its proximity to other legendary regional waters, including those inside Yellowstone National Park, it often gets overlooked.
There are many factors to consider when fly fishing Ennis Lake. As with any large body of water, check out the wind forecast the day you plan to fish. The earlier it is in the season, the more likely the wind will be a factor. For most lakes, you want a calm overcast day. With Ennis, this is also desirable however during sunny, summer, calm days, the lake is alive with mayfly spinners. Many times the wind doesn’t kick up until noon or shortly thereafter, making for opportunities to fish the lake in the morning and getting off before things get sporty
Now we’ll chat about equipment and techniques necessary to put success in your favor when stalking gulpers.
The standard 9 to 9 ½’ 4-5 WT fly rod is ideal for a day of dry fly fishing on Ennis Lake. The more feel to the rod the better. Think Winston feel. Dry fly fishing on a lake is a different beast altogether from dry fly fishing on a river. For example, there’s no current to dictate which direction fish are feeding. They also are constantly on the move searching for food and avoiding predators. For this reason, fishing dries on Ennis Lake requires more accuracy than on the river, and it requires it NOW or that target is gone. Due to this requirement, common angling mistakes on lakes are too much false casting and not leading the fish enough.
I don’t make much of a fuss over reel types on the lake, but I do think large arbor reels with a weight forward line are the best. Line pickup speed is important when casting dries longer distances. Nowadays, however, most reels are large arbor.
As far as leaders go, your standard 9’ tapered leader will certainly do, but if you want real delicate presentations without disturbing fish, a 12-15’ tapered leader.
There are three primary aquatic insect hatches on Ennis Lake proper. Those are Chironomids (Midges), Tricos, and Callibaetis. There are other hatches that are at times very productive too, but are hatches on the Madison that get carried into the lake. For example, springtime PMDs on the lower reaches of the Madison get slowly carried into the estuarial zone and cause trout in the lake to go bonkers. However, here we’re talking about hatches originating in Stillwater and what most anglers associate with lake fishing.
Many folks get intimidated by Midges. There so tiny! Think of Midges in terms of their importance to springtime diets of lake trout though. Huge! That goes for all three stages: Pupa, Emerger, Dry. The Chironomid pupa of a Midge is a major influence beginning in mid-May. The early season midges will be a size 12 to 14 and the fish will school up in more open water gorging on overcast days. When the Madison starts to get a little off color and high from runoff, Midge fishing gets more difficult due to the turbid water. Luckily, runoff doesn’t typically last long on the Madison. These early open water Chironomid gorging fish are aggressive and fun to fish. They’re also not quite as selective as later in the year. Generally speaking, the Chironomid hatch will last through July with each brood gradually getting smaller until they reach a sizes nobody want to try and stick a tippet end through and eye of the hook.
Word typically starts spreading around at the sound of the first “gulp” on Ennis lake. Usually this happens by July 4th. The daily occurrence of a Trico hatch on Ennis Lake will make Ennis Lake look like raindrops are hitting the surface on a sunny day, there are so many trout rising and gulping down Trico spinners. For a solid three months, these slow crusing trout will be on the prowl for Tricos.
Tricos are similarly very tiny bugs. So, when choosing a Trico patters at one of the local shops, look for ones that have a white or other colored tuft of visible synthetic material above the fly in a post so that you can easily see it on the water. When casting to cruising trout during the Trico hatch it’s important to try and not cast too close to them. Fish on the lake are easily spooked. If you lay an appropriately sized Trico pattern down within a couple of feet of a trout, they’ll find you.
Because Tricos are around for so long in the summer and due to the calm nature of the lake during the thickest hatches, size of your imitation is most important here. Trout have plenty of time to size up your fly, so make sure it’s a close representation of the natural.
The Callibaetis hatch is what I call the main event on Ennis Lake. There are four stages of this main event: nymph, emerger, dun, spinner. The Callibaetis makes its first appearance of the year in early June typically. During this early stage of the hatch, the emerger phase is most important. Think pheasant tail and adams emergers. Early Callibaetis will start out around a size #14 and hatch almost daily through mid-September reliably. As summer progresses and late July arrives, the spinner phase of the Callibaetis hatch is a sight to behold. Zillions of them. And the trout are all well aware.
I used to carry all sorts of nymph patterns for Callibaetis on Ennis Lake. That was until I realized that all I needed was various sizes of a pheasant tail. I still haven’t found a pattern, and probably never will, that will outperform the pheasant tail for Callibaetis nymph imitations on Ennis Lake. For the emerger stage, there’s a pattern locally called the gay baetis. Not real sure where the name comes from, but it comes in olive and pink flavors with a little CDC to keep it in the surface film. They’re deadly. For duns and spinners, again I’ve simplified my tactics. I keep size #14 and #16 purple haze and adams with me at all times. I make sure they have white posts so I can see them easily. Oftentimes I’ll fish a gay baetis trailed off the purple haze.
It always amazes me when mid summer arrives, it’s hot out on the river, inevitably fishing reports from folks will be gloomy. Meanwhile on Ennis Lake, there’s a daily show of spectacular dry fly fishing to be had only 6 miles from Ennis during these hot dry days.