About 70 percent of Madison River anglers are non-residents who have not fished the river more than a year. Most anglers come from just three states, California, Utah and Colorado. (File photo)The rise in fishing pressure is measured in this graph. (FWP)Angler satisfaction is measures in this graph. (FWP)

Changes could be coming to Madison River

Report says fishing pressure up, angler satisfaction down

MADISON COUNTY – “The economy of Montana is surely benefitting from the resilience of the upper Madison River; the question is then – at what point will angler pressure impact the health of trout and whitefish populations in the upper Madison River,” asks a report recently released by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) department’s Region 3 Fisheries, in Bozeman.

In a nutshell, the “Angler Satisfaction, Demographic, and Creel Surveys-Upper Madison River, 2015 – 2017” report, issued by FWP to NorthWestern Energy (because they paid for it), says:  

• There’s been an increase in fishing pressure on the upper Madison.

• There have been big changes in angler satisfaction with the Madison River.

• The majority of people fishing the upper Madison River are non-residents.

• Anglers are increasingly dissatisfied with the number of anglers on the river and angler traffic at the river access sites. 

• Still, FWP maintains, most anglers have a positive view of their angling experiences on the river.

All of these things have the potential to impact Madison County in big ways, so let’s take a closer look at the report and what it might mean for those whose lives intertwine with the river – and that’s just about anyone who lives or works in the area.


The report

“Throughout its length,” the report begins, “the Madison River provides diverse recreational opportunities for many types of users in a relatively pristine, natural setting, that is rich in historical significance. Not surprisingly, the Madison is very popular with resident and non-residents alike. The river is also very important to local economies, providing jobs related to tourism, including a significant amount of commercial angling outfitting on the river itself.”

The report declares the upper Madison River to be an “iconic fishing destination” for trout anglers worldwide – this measured by fishing pressure surveys that show the Madison is one of the most heavily fished rivers in Montana.

To gather the hard numbers for the report, FWP did several things:

The agency tracked boat traffic using remote sensing cameras from 2015 to 2017. 

In 2016, FWP did a mail survey of Madison anglers. 

In 2017, the agency conducted a creel survey to identify and describe the Madison’s angler population, their perceptions and their catch rates by species and location. Creel surveys are done in person with anglers actually fishing the river.

FWP went to great lengths to get a good feel for angler demographics and responses in the creel survey. The survey was conducted from March 13 to December 11, 2017, both early and late in the day, and on three weekdays and one day each weekend at randomly selected sites of river access. Wading anglers and boating anglers were interviewed, but only if they’d fished for at least an hour.

A thumbnail sketch of some of the most significant creel survey findings show this:


Fish populations

• The bottom line on the Madison is, was and probably always will be “how’s the fishing.” The 2017 creel survey showed that anglers caught .62 rainbow trout, .38 brown trout, and 0.24 whitefish per hour, rates that have not varied all that much since 1977 and 1981 creel surveys, according to FWP. During the mid-1990s, catch rates fell due to whirling disease taking a heavy toll on rainbows.

• FWP says the upper Madison has between 2,000 and 3,500 rainbows greater than 6 inches long per mile – some 121,500 individual trout – and between 1,700 and 3,000 browns of the same size per mile. 

• Rainbow catch rates peaked early (March and April) and late (November and December). Summer fishing rates for ‘bows were down to .52 per hour.

• Catch rates for brown trout were similar across the seasons, about .38 fish per hour.

• Boat and wade anglers fared about the same when it came to catching fish; although wade anglers had a bit of an edge spring and fall targeting rainbows, especially early, when fish that survived the winter in the Madison retained some of their latent naiveté.

• Catch rates for guided or unguided anglers showed some disparity, with guided anglers catching 8 percent more rainbows, 9 percent more browns, and 13 more whitefish.


Angler demographics

• About 70 percent of anglers interviewed were non-residents with 21 percent coming from just three states: California, Utah and Colorado. 

• Among Montana residents fishing the river, Gallatin County anglers represented 18 percent of interviews conducted and only 5.4 percent were Madison County residents.

• More than 25 percent of people interviewed had not fished the Madison River more than one year.

• FWP estimates angler days (fishing pressure) every other year. The upper Madison, from Hebgen Dam to Ennis Reservoir, has shown a steep and linear increase in fishing pressure the last seven years. Along with this came growing dissatisfaction with “social conditions.”

• What’s important to anglers?  Scenic values, 44 percent; fishing partners, 24 percent; catching a lot of fish, 21 percent; other factors, 5 percent.

• Most of the non-resident, non-commercial use of the river is between Hebgen Dam and Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Sites (FAS), where fishing from a boat is prohibited.

• During the survey, about half the use on the float fish section of the river (Lyons FAS to Ennis FAS) was from commercial users.

• Wade vs. boat fishing -- The entire upstream reach of the river, from Lyons Bridge to Hebgen Dam, is designated as wade fishing only by FWP. This has been interpreted to mean that boats can access wade sections if anglers don’t fish from the boat, and that creates some conflicts between wade and boat anglers that access. The survey found that the bulk of boat fishing took place downstream of Lyons Bridge, yet 25 percent of anglers interviewed at Pine Butte, a wade FAS, were boat anglers. At Valley Garden FAS, another wade only section, 32 percent were boat anglers.


A quality experience?

• While 70 percent of respondents indicate the quality of fishing is either neutral, acceptable or very acceptable, satisfaction levels are declining in some categories: Some 55 percent of those surveyed said the number of people float fishing between Lyons Bridge and Ennis was either unacceptable or very unacceptable. Similar levels of dissatisfaction were observed when people rated the number of people and vehicles at river access points. 

• The upper Madison sees few trout creeled since catch-and-release became “the cultural norm.” However, climate change and increased fishing pressure are taking a toll. Based on several studies, FWP anticipates catch-and-release mortality rates June 1 - September 1 will be 8 percent for rainbows, 2 percent for browns, and 28 percent for whitefish. By the numbers, this means losing about 32,000 rainbows, 4,700 brown trout and 3,700 whitefish – some 40,400 fish killed incidentally during peak season -- a significant number when added to natural mortality. This figure could increase as more anglers, especially new anglers, ply the river.

• Also, selection pressures and behavioral changes from decades of intense fishing pressure could also increase natural fish mortality.


Madison problems

The survey asked, “What do you think are the major problems (if any) with fishing on the Upper Madison River?” 

Some 25 percent of the anglers surveyed flagged crowding as an issue, up from a 1995 survey where 14 percent of those surveyed flagged crowding. “The number of anglers dissatisfied with their overall fishing experience is clearly dependent on the perception of overcrowding relative to past experiences,” the report says.

Other comments included, concerns about the dam and top releases due to repairs (3.4 percent), Idaho guides and guides in general (2.5percent) and use of boats in wade sections (2 percent).

These concerns are nothing new.

A spring 2012 FWP online survey of 915 people – skewed by a 71 percent Montana resident response  – asked what they liked most and least about Madison River recreation, also what management changes FWP should make to address river issues. 

• Crowding was discussed by 306 responders, with 88 percent of these people saying it was a problem. 

• More than 140 people addressed access site crowding in particular, with 96 percent feeling like it was a problem. 

• Commercial river use was discussed by 92 people: 86 percent said there was too much commercial use; 74 percent said commercial use should be limited. 

• More than half – 60 percent – of those responding to this survey said changes were needed on the river.

Meanwhile, FWP has been trying to reduce “angler conflicts and crowding” on the Madison for nearly 60 years. These efforts have included closing float fishing in certain portions of the river, closing segments of the river to all fishing and taking trout, a one-year moratorium on new outfitters, meeting with landowners along the river, special recreation permits via Bureau of Land Management, and other efforts.

The angler surveys are also nothing new. In 1983, a survey on wade fishing vs. boat fishing conflicts took place. In 2008, a survey of resident anglers about the river was conducted. In 2009, visitors were surveyed.

In 2011, FWP began the process of “Madison River recreation management planning,” that included a “scoping process of four public meetings,” an online survey and the formation of the Madison Citizen Advisory Committee (MCAC) in 2012.

This committee offered its recommendations to FWP in 2013, but this effort got cut short due to “agency-wide funding concerns” in 2014, FWP says.

FWP kicked public engagement in the planning process back into action in 2016, culminating in the 2017 surveys for the new report. 

An Environmental Assessment, a draft Madison River Recreation Management Plan and proposed administrative rules were sent to the Fish and Wildlife Commission but the commission refused to share these documents for public comment. Instead, it directed FWP to initiate a “negotiated rule making process” to address Madison River recreation issues.


Proposed rulemaking 

FWP is currently undertaking a negotiated rule-making process to address “recreation management” on the Madison. The Fish & Wildlife Commission appointed eight people to a committee at their December 10 meeting, including:

• Michael Bias, Twin Bridges, fishing outfitter and executive director of Fishing Outfitters of Montana

• Julie Eaton, Bozeman, fishing outfitter

• Scott Vollmer, Gallatin Gateway, fishing outfitter

• Melissa Glaser, Ennis, Madison River scenic tour operator

• Jim Slatterly, West Yellowstone, Campfire Lodge owner

• Mark Odegard, Ennis, Madison River wade angler

• Charlotte Cleveland, Bozeman, Madison River float angler

• Lauren Wittorp, Ennis, executive director of Madison River Foundation

• Don Skaar, Helena, FWP, Fisheries Division

• Tim Aldrich, Missoula, Fish and Wildlife Commission

FWP Regional Fisheries biologist Travis Horton and FWP Madison/Gallatin fisheries biologist Dave Moser explained how this will work:  The committee will review the information gathered during the creel survey and other information and by March of 2019 – Horton hoped, although he noted there is no official timeline – come up with some potential suggestions for changing river regulations. Any ideas for regulation changes must be in place by summer, so the commission can vote on them and get them into the angler handbooks for 2020, he said. This follows a path for fish and wildlife regulations cut by the legislature, and requires public hearings, a review by the Montana Secretary of State, and other input, Horton said.

The purpose of this technique is to “…establish a framework for the conduct of “ such rulemaking and allow citizens to participate in the procedure,” according to the state code.

Why did the commission choose this path, instead of releasing the environmental assessment and the recommendations of the 2013 MCAC to the public?

“It was a commission decision,” Horton said, noting that Madison River regulations have been a political hot potato for more than half a century, “I can’t speak for it.”

State statutes say negotiated rulemaking is used “to resolve controversial issues” prior to the formal rulemaking process and that it’s “no substitute for the public notification and participation requirements.” Also, “a consensus agreement by a negotiated rulemaking committee may be modified by an agency as a result of the subsequent rulemaking process.”

The goal of the committee is to make recommendations to the commission on what, if any, regulations should be imposed.

The 2013 recommendations and the environmental assessment, Horton said, included these ideas:

• Maintaining the Greycliff FAS and downstream area as “primitive.”

• No glass containers permitted on the river.

• Establishing a threshold for angler use. When this threshold of use hit the limit, the regulations could change. For example, Horton said, what was once 140,000 angler days (an angler fishing one hour or more) of fishing on the river has now become 207,000 angler days of use. The threshold would be established after several years of research.

• A Madison River use stamp.

• Barring boats from the wade section, where boat use has increased by 300 percent. Boaters often float into the wade section, then wade fish. Such a ban was done during the 1990s, Horton said, and it “polarized” anglers.

• Changes to Lyons Bridge area, and other boat ramps, where there is significant congestion.

• Limitations on commercial use of the river, such as no commercial use after 2 p.m. during the summer, a time when catch-and-release fish are more highly stressed 

Horton said FWP is interested in what the public has to say about what the committee will bring forward and that these suggestions will have to go through a formal FWP rule-making process where public comment is invited. 

Horton hoped this would happen in April, followed by a 60-day comment period, after which FWP could approve or shoot down any regulation changes.

“We’ve scoped the public on this Madison eight times in the last decade,” he said, mentioning 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The committee will begin meeting in January.


Too crowded or not?

MADISON RIVER  – Crowding – both during the summer and increasingly during “shoulder” seasons – and the “acceptability” of crowding, which includes the number of people using access points and the number of float anglers, earned “poor” marks among Madison anglers.

“Very Unacceptable” and “Unacceptable” ratings for the number of float anglers downstream of Lyons Bridge popped up in more than half of the responses. Also crowding popped up in the comments of a quarter of the 2017 anglers surveyed, including first time Madison fishermen, despite FWP’s theory that new angler expectations are lower than more experienced fishermen and this skews the results.

“Given the iconic qualities of the Madison River, consistent fishing quality, a rapidly increasing Gallatin County population, and an ever-expanding pool of potential recreationists, crowding will continue to be a problem, especially for those with an historical perspective of conditions on the Madison River,” the report says. 

“Clearly some percentage of this angling demographic will return given good catch rates and expectations relative to the current conditions and their river experience,” says the 2017 survey. “The number of anglers dissatisfied with their overall fishing experience is clearly dependent on perception of overcrowding relative to past experiences.”

“Shoulder” seasons and early morning and late evening fish can beat the crowds, FWP says. Still FWP notes many long-time upper Madison anglers have likely left the river. ”If catch rates are good, and new anglers increase in number and decrease in experience, we see no reason crowding would reverse or correct,” FWP says.

The potential impacts of crowding may change that theory, however.

Based on all mortality factors (including catch-and-release), no more than 30,000 rainbow trout should be killed to maintain the fishery. Yet catch-and-release fishing alone is anticipated to take out 32,000 rainbows during the summer months, according to FWP numbers. This, combined with more anglers, a warming climate “is of great concern to FWP.”

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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