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Is the Madison River in Jeopardy?

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Madison River is one of Montana’s most iconic rivers. Many books, magazine articles and videos have been the focus of this famous river. It draws people all over the world to come and wade its waters or float the river though the scenic Madison River Valley. The upper river is nicknamed "the 50 mile riffle" for its shallow, fast moving freestone like water that the wild trout excel in. The lower river is a slow moving tailwater with a slightly different ecosystem but still with a healthy population of wild trout.

So what is the problem? Montana Fish and Wildlife service says that the river is being over used. They confirm that the trout numbers and the river are doing great, but what we have is a "social problem." Too many people enjoying the river. They did an extensive study and in one calendar year and there were 180,000 user days on the Madison River. That includes everyone that was fishing, birdwatching, tubing, etc. A user day, as it has been explained to me, is one individual recreating on the river. So your typical drift boat would count for three user days if there were three people on board. The local public is pointing the finger at the guiding community as being the majority of the problem. In defense, by FWP numbers, guides are responsible for 22,000 user days, which equals less than 13% of the total number of 180,000 user days. This isn't a commercial use problem, this is a problem with loving the river too much by all. If there is going to be a fair and responsible plan, all concerned parties must be willing to give up something. I believe that it's going to be a rocky road trying to reach a reasonable agreement with all the different interests.

Is the river busy? In my opinion, yes. Especially during the peak time of the Salmonfly hatch from the end of June through the first two weeks in July. Boat ramps are packed with both commercial and private boats. Access points have wade anglers up and down the river. Does this take away from the experience? It really depends. If you are looking for solitude and seeing very few other people on the river, this isn't the place during peak months. If you want to experience the Madison, have some great fishing and fish the legendary water, then you should experience the Madison River. In my own opinion, I choose to self regulate. Starting earlier, or later, avoiding the busiest boat ramps, or fishing elsewhere.

So what is the plan? In April 2018 Montana's FWP presented a report to the Fish and Wildlife commission with lots of statistics, options that they thought would reduce commercial use and closures on certain areas to commercial use on the river. You can read the entire report here. When FWP was presented this draft to the commission, many outfitters, special interest groups, fly shop owners and guides were at the meeting to share their thoughts on the proposed plan. The commission decided to reject MT FWP's plan and asked them to go back to the drawing board.

It is now January 2019 and the path to a solution has changed. The commission has picked 10 people from different walks of life to be on a panel to come up with a consensus on how the Madison should be managed. The panel includes outfitters, business owners, in the Madison corridor, special interest groups and members of the public. They will meet many times in the next few months and then send their recommendations to MT FWP. There will be a review of the recommendations and then it will be sent to the commission for rule making by the end of 2019.

There will be a public comment time frame later this year.

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