The 50-Mile riffle.
That’s the upper Madison River, a rich part of Montana’s fly-fishing heritage. When people come from around the world to go fishing in Montana, chances are good that the Madison River will be part of the trip.
Taking it a step further, chances are that many of those visitors will be taking a guided float-fishing trip on the river. Guided fishing on the upper Madison River is a rapidly growing part of river use. The numbers of guided trips on the river doubled from 2010 (5,338 outfitted trips) to 2017 (11,224 outfitted trips).
Interestingly, the numbers of outfitted anglers is relatively small, accounting for just 9.5 percent of anglers on the river in 2017. The total numbers of anglers on the Madison in 2017 was about 207,000.
I’ll concede that wrapping our head around all these statistics is a challenge, but surveys indicate that there is a lot of dissatisfaction among both resident and non-resident anglers with the volume of float fishing on the Madison. We occasionally camp and fish on the upper Madison and you can rarely look across the river during daytime hours without seeing drift boats going by.
Studies show that the majority (about 62 percent) of floating traffic on the Madison is by outfitters and guides. The numbers of boats causes congestion on the river, plus congestion and waiting lines at launch sites. Wade anglers don’t seem to be a factor in crowding issues.
People who regularly recreate on the upper Madison are well aware of congestion problems and how guided float fishing seems to be taking over the river.
In the last few years, various study groups have been formulated to study the problems on the river and to come up with a recreation plan, possibly something similar to what we’ve had on the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers for the last 20 years. In 2004 I served on a committee to review and recommend changes to the first plan. By and large we left it alone. After some 20 years, most big Hole and Beaverhead anglers, outfitters and guides are, by and large, used to the plan and satisfied with the modest restrictions it places on commercialized recreation.
On the Madison, however, groups have met and thrown up their hands in frustration and given up, most recently a few weeks ago.
At the May 8 membership meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, president Mark Thompson announced that the TU Chapter submitted a proposal for a Madison River recreation plan to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. While a committee of TU leaders drafted most of the plan, leaders of the Skyline Sportsmen Association of Butte, Anaconda Sportsmen’s Association of Anaconda, and Public Lands/Waters Access Association also signed on to the plan.
In introducing the proposal, Thompson said the TU board agreed to develop a plan as the outfitters groups resisted any plan to limit their growth, and people in Ennis also opposed limits, and in general, don’t admit there’s a problem.
Essentially, the proposal would cap outfitted use at 2018 levels. Second, they recommend establishing six reaches on the river, from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake. Outfitters could use the entire river on Sundays and Mondays, but on Tuesdays through Saturdays, one of five stretches would be closed to commercial use, giving non-commercial users a day of respite on each stretch.
The proposal does not affect the lower Madison, downstream from Ennis Lake, as there doesn’t seem to be the pressure that the upper river gets though the proposal doesn’t object to a lower river plan.
The recommendation notes that while there is a lot of angling pressure, the river is still a healthy fishery. The quality of the experience, relaxation and absence of crowding, however, are factors that are less than satisfactory.
The proposal has been sent to Martha Williams, director of MTFWP and to each of the Fish & Wildlife Commissioners.
It remains to be seen what will happen to this proposal, but I think the leaders of the George Grant Chapter deserve a shout-out for a proactive approach to the problem.