How You Can Help Maintain Access For All on the Madison River

Madison River at Three Dollar Bridge

The Madison River has long been an iconic fishery in the world of wild trout rivers. The fish counts, size of the fish, and spectacular scenery have attracted anglers from far and wide for many decades. The popularity of the sport of fly fishing as well as population growth in Western Montana has resulted in a steady increase in recreational use on the river.

This trend is not unique to the Madison. The popularity of fishing, skiing, boating, hiking, etc have increased in Montana and around the world. Interest in outdoor recreation has never been higher. On the Madison River recreational use has been on a steady rise. As more people enjoy river based recreation, concerns have surfaced that the trend of increased recreational use will erode the quality of experience that we seek on the Madison and other famed rivers across the state. Fortunately the health of the fishery has never been better, wild trout numbers are at an all-time high.

In an effort to address concerns related to increased recreational use on the river, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks drafted a commercial recreational use plan for the Madison River in April of 2018. The plan took the first step in attempting to structure use on the river, although it only applied to commercial use (primarily guided fishing). Several concerns were raised with the initial plan as it was proposed and it was rejected. These concerns included a lack of an effective cap on future commercial use of the river, a decrease in public access to the river due to river closures in several areas, a lack of planning that would guide recreation among users that are not guided, and discrimination of how members of the public that choose to hire guides could use the river.

To incorporate the voice of different stakeholders that are concerned about recreational use on the river, a 10 person committee was assembled to recommend rules for guiding recreation on the river. This structured “Negotiated Rulemaking Committee” has been meeting on a regular basis with a goal of presenting guidance for a new plan that would be implemented in 2020.

We applaud Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks for taking important steps to help craft a recreation plan that will help to preserve the amazing experience that this unique river systems offers. We are also thankful that Montana FWP has made efforts to incorporate the many voices that care about the recreational experience on the river as well as recognizing the important economic impact that recreating on the river brings to our local economy.

Not everyone is in agreement on how the river should best be managed for recreational use. As you can imagine, those of us that have built our lives around the river and the recreational opportunities that it provides are hopeful that a plan that helps to guide future recreation while minimizing unnecessary layers of management is developed. Recently we have become concerned that some proposed ideas for the new plan would undermine public access to the river and unfairly discriminate against members of the public that choose to hire the services of fishing guides. During the next few weeks we encourage anyone that is concerned about future access on the river to provide public comment. At the end of this post we will provide some guidance on how to do this.

The Madison River is a National Treasure and all members of the public deserve equal access to recreate on it

Should the number of guided fishing trips be capped on the Madison River?

Yes. Currently about 5% of all angler days on the entire Madison River are on commercially guided fishing trips. On the more famous “Upper Madison” river between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake, about 10% of all angler days are part of a commercially guided trip. In the past decade, fishing recreation has increased by about 65% (and commercially guided trips have increased proportionally). Growth in angling recreation on the Madison has been on the increase for decades (as it has for trout fishing rivers around the world). The “rate of increase” of angling recreation has increased in the last decade. Many of us are concerned that if angling use continues to increase unchecked that the high quality experience that we currently enjoy will erode. On average, only 5-10% of the angling public choose to hire guides. Although restricting the number of commercial trips in the future is not the only solution to slowing growth of recreation, it will be a start. Since guided fishing trips are easy to regulate, this is an obvious starting point. Whether the number of trips should be capped at current use or allow for some growth will be up to the NRC committee and Montana FWP. We do not see any need to reduce commercial use from current levels which would cause dramatic negative economic consequences to numerous businesses.

This graph was provided by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Angler user days have increased at a rapid rate in the last decade. Interestingly the number of anglers on the upper river that hire guides is less than 20,000 user days and would not fit on this graph's axis since the number is too small

Should members of the public not hiring guides be capped?

Possibly but proceed with extreme caution. The only way to truly keep numbers of angling days to current rates is to cap all users. While there are many management tools that can be used to place limits on the general public that chooses to hire a guide, restricting anglers that do not hire guides is significantly more challenging. On other rivers, restricting the un-guided public is generally only attempted on multi-day camping rivers such as the Colorado, Smith, Selway, Salmon, etc. Capping angling use on a day use river such as the Madison River for the unguided public would be a daunting task. We do not recommend this at the moment, but instead recommend that FWP consider some options that would help gather use data and raise funds from all users to help manage the river (currently commercially guided members of the public do pay a fee that helps to support recreation management on the river). If an a plan is to incorporate restrictions on the un-guided public we recommend a trial period to test the management tools as there are likely to be unintended consequences. Limiting public use is certainly a thorny issue and there are no easy solutions. We should not ignore this issue and some of the concepts that have been proposed including fee stations at parking areas, Madison recreation stamps, etc are all worthy of discussion. Finding tools that can curb growth of the un-guided public use on the river is a complicated task and one that should be explored, albeit with caution and careful consideration.

Is the increase of use on the Madison River due to fishing guides?

No. Fishing guides provide a service. As noted about 5-10% of the angling public chooses to hire a fishing guide when the recreate on the river. The number of commercial trips has increased steadily over the last decade in direct proportion to the increased interest in angling recreation on the river.

Are fishing guides bad for the recreational experience on the Madison River?

No. Fishing guides and outfitters are subject to higher standards than the general public. All guides carry safety equipment such as throw-able flotation devices, extra oars and first aid kits. Guides are also required to have first aid training although most have higher levels of first responder training vs. the minimum requirements. Fishing guides offer a deep knowledge related to the river, the fishery and the sport. Guided trips also provide opportunity for those recreating to access the river. Much of the Madison River is only accessible by boat - for casual anglers or anglers visiting from different regions it is much more affordable to hire a guide for a day or two than to purchase their own boat. Guides and outfitters are often the first responders on the river when emergencies arrive. All of us whose livelihoods depend on the river feel that it is our obligation to also be a steward of the river. It is often guides and outfitters that report illegal activities on the river or bring attention to water quality or fisheries issues. When the PKD parasite produced a fish kill on the Yellowstone River in the whitefish population it was first reported to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks by fishing guides.

Should all river users pay a small recreation fee to use the Madison River?

Maybe. Nearly everyone we have talked with that enjoys recreating on the Madison felt that paying a small fee to use the river would help to provide funding for FWP to better manage the resource. Current state laws may complicate this option. If a recreation fee could be applied we would recommend that it be limited to floating users only. A sticker or tag that is displayed on the watercraft is easy to manage and enforce. Similar stickers are used in neighboring states. As noted commercial users already use a similar system and pay a fee for each day. Non guided users could either buy a season floating pass or day stickers. Wading anglers could be exempt from a fee. These funds would help to maintain boat ramps, purchase new public access, etc. Current state law may not allow this option, but it should be investigated as a possible tool for the future even if a change in legislation is required.

Should any section of the Madison River be closed to recreational use?

No. Closing any portion of the river to any group of users at any time would not reduce a sense of “crowding”. The best way to spread people out is to increase access to the river, not restrict it. Currently there have been some recommendations to close the lower river from Grey Cliffs to the Missouri River to members of the public that have hired guides. There have also been discussions about closing different zones of the river on different days. These restrictions would create artificial “start and stop” locations on the river that would result in clusters of users that are forced to start and stop at the same locations. During higher flows it would also force users into unsafe areas where there are low bridges or result in “double launches” which would increase activity at boat ramps. Other unintended consequences would result on windy days when the windier zones of the river may be the only option. The float zone of the Upper Madison is only 37 miles long and any type of closures in this area will result in significant issues. Currently floating users organically spread through the river. Boats and watercraft are our best tool for spreading use and also accessing areas of the river bound by private land. Any restrictions or micro-management efforts will have negative consequences on the user experience and would increase a “sense of crowding”.

Should members of the public that hire guides be discriminated against in terms of where they can access the river?

No. While we agree that a cap on the total number of guided trips would help safeguard the river against unchecked growth; once an individual choose to hire a guide they should enjoy the same rights to access the river as any other member of the public. We strongly disagree that any member of the public should be discriminated against in how they use the river simply because they chose to hire a fishing guide or outfitter. As previously noted guides provide an important service by increasing the level of safety of the experience, providing educational opportunities related to the river and the sport, and provide an opportunity for many to experience the river that do not own their own boat.

Should non residents be treated differently than residents?

No. Currently 70% of angling recreation is conducted by non-residents. A huge percentage of the public lands along the Madison River are owned by the citizens of the United States of America. The majority of public lands are National Forest Lands or Bureau of Land Management lands. The largest landowner on the river is essentially the US public. The Madison River is a national and world treasure and everyone should have an equal opportunity to enjoy it and have equal access to it. Non residents spending also drives the economy of towns like West Yellowstone and Ennis. Discriminating against non residents would result in damaging economic effects to our important outdoor recreation based economy.

Should boats be banned from the “wade fishing only” zones of the river?

No. Currently the reaches of the river that would be under a recreation plan from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge as well as the reach from the town of Ennis to Ennis Lake are managed for wade fishing only. Boats are permitted as a tool for accessing the river although anglers are not allowed to fish from boats. These two sections of the river amount to about 18 miles of river. 55% of the land in these areas is private land. A handful of individuals have expressed a desire to remove boats from these sections of the river based on two primary motivations:

1)    Frustration that sometimes a boat parks down river of where someone is wade fishing. Anglers cannot fish from boats in these areas but someone walking down the river could be passed by a boat, and then anglers get out of the boat to wade fish.

2)    Private land owners in the wade zones are frustrated that individuals can float to the sections of the river in front of their property and then get out to fish inside of the high water mark while using Montana’s Stream Access Law.

It is always frustrating when you are eyeing up a nice run and see another angler get to it before you. This can happen when someone hikes by you and it can happen when someone floats by you. On a publicly accessed river this is an unavoidable frustration. We encourage all anglers to have tolerance and enjoy a culture of acceptance and sharing our waters. Eliminating boats in the wade areas will not eliminate the feeling that someone got to your hole before you as the same scenario can play out with someone hiking in. Remember that someone that uses a boat as a tool to spread out and access the river still must get out to wade fish.

The reality is that the Madison is a very large historically navigable river. The current is swift and strong. The high water mark on the Madison does not produce a large window for legally hiking down the bank when accessing areas of the areas of the river bound by private land. In many areas heavy willows make it impossible to exit the river. Walking down the river in the heavy current for long distances is neither safe nor practical. If boats are eliminated as a tool for accessing the river in the wade areas we will lose 55% of the public access in these reaches which amounts to 8-9 miles of total water. A small group of individuals supported primarily by land owners has proposed eliminating boats from the upper wade area and eliminating drift boats and larger watercraft from the lower wade area or “channels”. In the lower wade area you must cross Ennis Lake after exiting the river - a large body of water that often experiences heavy winds and large waves. Crossing the lake in personal watercraft is neither safe or advisable.

Current Montana Law also defines the uses that are guaranteed to the public on all Montana navigable waters. Montana state law clearly defines that the general public can both navigate (i.e. float) and fish on historically navigable waters

Montana Rule 36.25.1101:  "Public use" means activities on navigable waters that are guaranteed by law to the general public to use navigable waters to fish, hunt, trap, navigate, camp, install docks and wharves, and recreate; provided that no physical occupation by a boat positioned, moored, or anchored in a specific location is made for any longer than fourteen days in any thirty-day period"

Montana Rule 36.25.1102: "(a) ensure the public's right to fully use and enjoy this resource for commerce, navigation, fishing, hunting, recreation and other public trust values; and (b) generate income from navigable rivers for the public trust in a manner consistent with these rules and other laws."

Montana Code 87-2-305: "Navigable waters subject to fishing rights. Navigable rivers, sloughs, or streams between the lines of ordinary high water thereof of the state of Montana and all rivers, sloughs, and streams flowing through any public lands of the state shall hereafter be public waters for the purpose of angling, and any rights of title to such streams or the land between the high water flow lines or within the meander lines of navigable streams shall be subject to the right of any person owning an angler's license of this state who desires to angle therein or along their banks to go upon the same for such purpose."

Removing watercraft as an access tool would essentially privatize large sections of the Madison River and would be a violation of Montana state law. Reaches of the river bound by private land would realistically only be accessible by a small number of land owners. It would also increase crowding in other areas by concentrating anglers that would have otherwise spread out in boats. Finally it would intensify walking traffic on banks in the public land reaches of the wade area increasing stream bank erosion.

This section of the Madison, including the state land shaded blue, would essentially become privatized if boats are banned from the upper river. Huge no trespassing signs are encountered just below $3 bridge. From that point on an angler on foot would require super human wading skills to remain inside the razor thin high water mark and would need to navigate heavy currents and large slippery boulders. This is not a realistic option for normal citizens

Summary of consequences of not allowing boats (or multi-person watercraft in the channels):

  • 55% of the wade area (about 17 miles of banks; the Madison is tough to wade across) would be extremely difficult or impossible to legally access. Not allowing float in access would essentially privatize large portions of the Madison River.
  • Public lands along the river that are surrounded by private land would become landlocked and no longer accessible to the public.
  • The small stretches of public lands in the wade areas would become more crowded. Currently large billboards discourage trespassing on the edges of these public lands and using the Montana Stream Access law in these areas requires rigorous wading in heavy currents with large boulders. Boats help anglers spread out and fully access these wade areas, without the ability to use boats to spread out crowding intensifies.
  • Stream side vegetation in the public areas of the wade section would suffer as more anglers are forced to walk the banks vs. using watercraft to get from spot to spot.

Boats are an important tool for accessing this large navigable river. If boats are banned in the wade areas as a method of accessing the river for fishing we will lose a significant amount of public access to the river. Although this photo is from the float fishing reach - take a look at the banks on both sides. If you were fishing this on foot you would have to frequently walk above the high water mark, or inside the river to move up or downstream. If this were private land (this reach is public), you wouldn't be able to walk around the big rocks or the clusters of bushes and would be foreced to wade through the water most of the time - not an easy task!

What you can do to help preserve access to the Madison River:

1)    Make public comment online to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

We encourage everyone that would like to participate in the public discussion on how to manage recreation on the Madison River to comment to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Please be respectful and articulate your views with sound reasons. We encourage you to weigh in on concerns and consider:

  • Encourage FWP to continue to allow boats in the wade sections to avoid a loss of public access to large portions of the river bounded by private land.
  • Encourage FWP not to close any portions of the river to any user groups
  • Encourage FWP to adopt rules that would not discriminate in how any user group would be able to access the river including members of the public that choose to hire a guide or members of the public that are not Montana residents

Provide Public Comment to Montana FWP

2)    Sign a petition to counter proposals that would reduce public access by closing river sections and removing boat access:

Sign the Petition to Preserve Public Access

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