Madison River: A Busy Place

Kiri – checking out the 50 Mile Riffle

If you’re curious about the neighbors, don’t worry. Your dog will make the introductions.

On a recent weekend we camped on the upper Madison River, south of Ennis. We were lucky to get a campsite, as it turned out, and while my wife and I were busy getting the trailer stabilized, and other details, our Labrador retriever, Kiri, saw a dog at the adjoining campsite and went to say hello, along with other canine rituals.

A moment later, the human segment of the campsite, popped out of his trailer, with a big grin on his face, as Kiri saw the trailer door was open and jumped right in. His truck had Minnesota license plates, so we had an immediate topic of conversation about our home state. He lived in the metropolitan Twin Cities, but was well acquainted with my home country in southeastern Minnesota where, he related, he first learned to fly-fish.

Of course, fly-fishing was our reason to re-visit the upper Madison. Our home waters on the Big Hole might be running low and warm, but the Madison is, as always, a big, cold, fast-running river, the “Fifty-mile riffle,” as many call it. It’s also an intimidating river for wade-fishing. The current is strong and the rocks are like greased bowling balls.

The fishing was challenging that weekend, and while I didn’t get skunked, I didn’t have anything worth bragging about, either. The river can be fickle, of course, as in other visits I’ve talked to campers who tried fly-fishing and caught bragging size fish, even though they barely knew how to tie a fly on their tippet, assuming they even knew what a tippet was. That’s how these things go.

Something that really surprised us was how full the campground was. We’ve camped at this BLM recreation area many times over the years and, typically, if we got there on a Thursday afternoon we’d have our pick of campsites.  This time, the place looked like a small city with all the RVs, tents and boat trailers taking up every available spot.

We chatted with the campground host, who said, “It’s been like this all summer.” He added that he’d been campground host at this spot for the last seven years. “In most years, we might have, at most, 6 or 7 nights a season when we’d be full. This year, I kind of lost track after 40 times…now it’s probably in the 50s. I’m worn out, just keeping toilet paper stocked.” Indeed, the “Campground Full” sign was out at the entrance road every night of that weekend.

Appropriately, this was the same time Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks was debating on what to do with proposals for management of angling pressure on the river, including putting caps on commercial use, much as what we’ve had on the Big Hole River for years. The numbers of guided float trips on the Madison have been increasing in recent years and, in fact, if you’re watching the river, you’re also watching a continual parade of guided drift boats. It’s like salmonfly time on the Big Hole, even in mid-August.

Of course, there are ways to deal with it. Something I’ve learned over the years is, if wade fishing, to work your way upstream from a boat launch point. Assuming you are out at a reasonable time, you’ll have several hours of total solitude before you see boat traffic coming down from an upstream access point.

As for our campground neighbor, in our visits he related his story of coming down with Covid-19 back in February, and being hospitalized for a full two months, including a couple weeks on a respirator. When he finally got off the respirator, he confesses he didn’t even know who he was or where he was.

He’s had a long road back to recovery and is now confident he’ll soon be fully recovered, and gives credit to his background as a long distance runner and a strong heart that kept on going through his illness. 

He also credits his dog for helping him to stay active through recovery.

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