Crowded Madison River

An angler lands a rainbow trout while fishing on the upper Madison River below Quake Lake near Ennis. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks compiled survey data to get a sense of the crowding situation on the river.

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Most of the anglers on the upper Madison River aren’t from Montana. About half the boats downstream of Lyons Bridge are guides. People are still catching a lot of fish, but there are also a lot of people who aren’t so thrilled with the overall experience of searching for trout on one of the country’s most iconic streams.

Those are just some of the findings in a new report from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that compiled survey data to get a sense of the crowding situation on the Madison River between Hebgen Dam and Ennis Dam, a 54-mile piece of river best known as the upper Madison.

The comprehensive report, released this week, comes months after the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission torpedoed an FWP proposal for rules limiting outfitters on the Madison. The commission voted to form a negotiated rulemaking committee to draft new rules for the river by mid-April of next year. At its meeting on Monday, the commission will name the committee members.

FWP biologists collected responses to a mail-in survey, three years of on-the-ground creel surveys and remote-sensor camera data from one of the stream’s most popular boat ramps. It gives a sense of where the river’s anglers are coming from and how satisfied they are with the river.

The upper Madison is among the most famous fly-fishing destinations in the country, and one of the most popular in Montana — FWP estimates it sustained 180,000 angler days in 2017.

Many people agree that it’s already too crowded, but many of the anglers surveyed were still happy with their experience on the stream, particularly non-residents who hadn’t fished there before. But the report also showed that long-term anglers are fishing it less often or at different times of year.

“All these queries and studies are because of complaints from the public,” said Dave Moser, an FWP biologist. “There is a segment of the public that is quite dissatisfied with the situation. There’s plenty of anglers that are satisfied. That’s kind of the social issue. I obviously, as a biologist, have concerns about the fishery with that level of pressure.”

Biologists worry about how much pressure the system can handle before the trout population takes a hit. Catch rates and trout population data suggest it hasn’t happened yet, which impresses Moser and FWP regional fisheries manager Travis Horton. But they also worry the pressure could eventually have an impact, even with most anglers releasing what they catch.

“There could very well be a red-line out there where there’s a population level effect,” Horton said.

The data showed that most of the anglers who visit the river are from out of state — almost 69 percent. About 18 percent of interviewees in the creel survey were from Gallatin County, and a little more than 5 percent were from Madison County. Horton added that the growth of Gallatin County has certainly contributed to the increased pressure.

The data also showed the distribution of some of the fishing pressure. Many non-resident anglers without guides were reported to be fishing between Hebgen Dam and Lyons Bridge, a wade-only section. Downstream of the bridge, where fishing from boats is allowed, about 50 percent of the boats were commercial guides.

Cam Coffin, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, said that percentage surprised him. He expected the proportion of guides on the lower stretch to be higher.

“That tells me to some degree that it’s not outfitters that are the only problem there,” Coffin said.

He has been around West Yellowstone his entire life, and he’s been guiding since his late teens. He said the number of people fishing the river has certainly increased, and that some limits on outfitter use seem inevitable. He added that he hopes any rules that come forth will consider the impacts of non-commercial users, too.

He’s also in awe of the river’s resilience.

“You think about a river that has that many people (who are) still catching fish,” Coffin said, “that is an amazing place.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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