Hebgen dam trout Madison River

Volunteers and employees of Montana, Fish Wildlife and Parks use electrofishing tools and nets to collect trout and other fish stranded in a channel of the upper Madison River below Hebgen Dam on Wednesday.

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A full fishing closure along the upper Madison River was lifted Friday as flows returned back to normal, but some are still encouraging anglers to voluntarily refrain from fishing in the area.

Staff with Montana Trout Unlimited are urging anglers to avoid fishing the upper Madison River for two months so the river can heal and surviving brown trout eggs can gestate and hatch.

“We won’t know the long term effects of this event for some time,” the organization wrote in a Facebook post. “The river between the lakes took the brunt of these impacts.”

Brian Neilsen, chair of Montana Trout Unlimited, said the fishery went through a lot over the past week, and he hopes anglers will “give it a little more attention by not giving it attention.”

A gate malfunction at Hebgen Dam led to a drastic drop in flows along a portion of the Upper Madison River early Tuesday morning. The sudden change in water levels left some redds, or spawning beds of trout eggs, exposed. Some fish were left stranded on dry land.

According to a U.S. Geological Survey gauge, flows directly below the dam dipped from about 650 to just above 200 cubic feet per second almost instantaneously. While the drop hit the stretch of river between Hebgen and Earthquake lakes hardest, it was more gradual farther downstream.

Crews of volunteers took to the shores of the Madison on Tuesday and Wednesday to find stranded fish and return them to the main channel. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks ordered an emergency fishing closure from Ennis Lake upstream to Hebgen Dam Tuesday evening.

The busted gate component on the dam was fixed just before midnight on Wednesday, and flows have since been restored to the Madison. The fishing closure order was lifted Friday morning.

Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesperson for Montana FWP, said staff felt comfortable with lifting the closure after flows were given time to return. At this point, he’s not aware of any plans to enact further restrictions, though the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission can do so.

Jon Malovich, executive director of the Madison River Foundation, said he highly recommends that anglers give the fishery some time to rest as it comes off of a “multi-day disaster.”

He recommended that anglers wait until at least Monday or Tuesday of next week to start fishing the upper Madison River as a whole, and he suggested that anglers leave sections of the river between Hebgen and Quake lakes alone for weeks or possibly months.

“I’m extremely grateful for the response of our membership and the other folks who came out to protect the river,” Malovich said. He added that he hopes Montana FWP will consider issuing a catch-and-release requirement for the upper river.

Jacobsen said that people who do want to fish the upper Madison River can do a few things to help reduce stress on the fishery.

People should avoid walking in areas with small gravel, as redds tend to be in those areas, he said. People should also land fish as quickly as possible, keep them in the water as much as they can, use barbless hooks and give fish time to recover before releasing them.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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