What is "Rest and Rotation" and Why Is It a Bad Idea for the Madison River

Floating the Madison River

A Madison River Recreation Plan is currently in development. A high quality recreation plan is important for preserving the quality of experience that all users currently enjoy on the river. As the popularity of river based recreation increases nationally and as Montana’s population increases, so has use of the river. A recreation plan will help to safeguard the river for years to come. The most important (and most challenging) aspect of a good plan will be to set some limits on use for all users. The Madison River is most famous for its legendary trout fishing opportunities, but it is also popular in its lower reaches for tubing and canoeing. 

We support a plan that:

  1. Sets limitations now for commercially guided fishing trips at current use levels. We propose allowing all current fishing businesses to be limited by their current use to prevent future growth. Members of the public that hire a fishing guide make up 13% of all anglers on the river.

  2. Sets limits for commercial non fishing tours on the river (such as tubing and livery services, river tours, etc). 

  3. Establishes a Fishing Access Ambassador program where employees of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks will help river users at access points with entering and exiting the river.

  4. Initiate a system that will allow for future limitations on all floating use for members of the public in private watercraft. Only limiting anglers hiring fishing guides is not enough to future proof the river since 87% of current use is non-guided. There are similar programs in other states that have been used for decades such as Oregon and Michigan where boater pass systems are used.

What is Rest and Rotation?

Rest and Rotation is a concept that would bar some users on some days from certain zones of the river. An example of this would be on Saturday non-residents or guided anglers would not be permitted from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge and on Sundays non-residents or guided anglers would not be permitted from Ennis bridge to Ennis Lake.

Rest and Rotation was implemented on the Big Hole and Beaverhead river a few decades ago. Times are different and the Madison is not the Big Hole. Rest and rotation sounds pretty good for someone with Montana residency that is not hiring a guide - a place to go with less people right? We need to think carefully about this management tool as it would have numerous unintended consequences on the Madison River.

Here is an example of one proposal of a "Rest and Rotation" map for the Madison River. It would group users into zones of use. This does not actually decrease the number of users on the river. Rather than encouraging all users to organically spread out throughout the river system it concentrates users

Why is Rest and Rotation a Bad Idea

We do not recommend any form of “rest and rotation”. Rest and rotation does not reduce the number of river users and only exacerbates a sense of crowding on the river. In the world of pollution remediation the old saying is “dilution is the solution to pollution”. On the river the solution to crowding is to spread everyone out as best as possible. Rest and rotation exacerbates concerns of future crowding on the river by not allowing river users to organically spread out. There are several negative consequences of rest and rotation:

    1. Rest and rotation does not decrease the number of river users which is the issue at hand. It would in fact have the opposite effect of forcing clusters of anglers. Grouping people into smaller zones is not a solution that protects against future crowding.

    2. As noted above Rest and Rotation attempts to micro-manage daily use activity. Putting limits on users combined with organic spreading is the best management tool. Rest and Rotation concentrates users at some launches and then renders other launches irrelevant.  

    3. Commercial free rest and rotation unfairly discriminates against any member of the public that chooses to hire the services of a fishing guide. Going fishing with a guide is not a “different use” than going fishing without a guide. 

    4. Non-resident Rest and Rotation sends a negative message to those visiting our state. Montana’s largest economy is tourism based around outdoor recreation (over $7 billion). A large percentage of access sites on the river are federal land owned by all citizens of the US. The Madison River is a world treasure - we should not discriminate against any user based on where they are from

    5. Rest and Rotation exacerbates a sense of crowding both on the river and at boat ramps by creating artificial “start and end” points that synchronize users into clusters while also concentrating more people into smaller spaces.

    6. Rest and Rotation creates safety concerns if important float fishing areas are barred from use by placing boaters into very small areas or into windy reaches of the river.

    7. Rest and Rotation implements excessive daily micro management which is time consuming and expensive to manage enforcement agencies.

    8. Often the zones that would ban guided fishing or non-residents can be areas that are not fishing well; or too windy. In these scenarios it is very important to retain the ability for all users to organically move through the system to better enjoy a safer and better experience.

    9. We have many other river systems that also need management plans. The Yellowstone, Stillwater and Boulder system for an example. Rest and rotation will always be contentious simply because it is such a bad idea. We need a good plan for the Madison that solves the big issues which can then be used as a template for other rivers that also need recreation plans. We don’t need rest and rotation -  lets focus on the real solution which is to set carrying capacities on use. Let’s keep this simple and come away with a great template that we can use on other rivers in the state.

The float fishing zones on the Madison River are actually quite small. The Upper Madison float fishing zone is only 37.6 miles long. It extends from Lyons Bridge to Ennis Bridge. In this reach the river is swift and long floats are common. Common full day floats are typically 13-18 miles in length (longer at high spring flows). Examples of common floats include Lyons Bridge to McAtee Bridge (16.7 miles); Windy Point to Story (13.2 miles); Palisades to Story (11.1 miles) Ruby Creek to Varney (14.7miles), McAtee Bridge to 8-mile (17miles). Note that these are just a few examples of floats AND all of these floats have overlap. What is most important on the Upper Float zone is that users can spread out at different boat ramps and also spread out which ramps they take out at.

On the Upper Float zone any form of rest and rotation either forces or encourages users to synchronize their use; essentially launching and taking out in clusters. This will dramatically exacerbate issues at boat ramps.

Examples of Negative Consequences in specific scenarios:

What would Rest and Rotation look like if guided fishing or non residences were not permitted in specific zones?:

Rest and Rotation day from Lyons to Palisades

Lyons bridge has the largest capacity for launches on the river. With two boat ramps and a large parking area it is an important “starting area” for many floats. Anglers arrive to Lyons bridge at different times depending on where they originate which helps spread use. Boaters also tend to take out at a variety of take outs with no limitations. If rest and rotation would exclude guided anglers or non-residents from this zone it would displace a large number of users to significantly crowd other launch areas. Lyons bridge is also the farthest launch from population centers such as Bozeman. Resident boaters tend to prefer floats further downriver such as McAtee and Varnee bridge FAS sites. By removing the upper floating zone from non-residents or guided anglers we will see a dramatic increase in crowding in the reaches upstream of Ennis. Furthermore the central reaches from Ruby Creek to Varney Bridge can be extremely windy any time weather is on its way in. On “big wind days” most boaters avoid the middle reach and either launch at Lyons or Windy Point on the upstream side or at Varney bridge. On these big wind days if the Upper reaches are blocked to guided anglers or non-residents the lower reaches will be exceedingly busier than they need to be.

Rest and Rotation day anywhere in the “middle” of the upper float zone such as Palisades to McAtee or McAtee to Varney

Any non-commercial or non-resident zone in the middle of the upper float zone would be extremely detrimental to all users. On the upstream side the “no enter” rest and rotation zones create an artificial stopping point. In order to still get a full day float you would need to avoid any access sites that are too close to the upper boundary of the zone. For example if you can’t pass McAtee Bridge all non-residents and guided anglers would be compressed to only using Lyons or Windy upstream thus producing huge wads of users all floating in a cluster. Non-guided anglers, which make up 87% of users, would be attracted to put in at McAtee resulting in a similar “wad” of anglers. Even worse would Rest and Rotation day between Palisades and McAtee. Any non-resident or guided anglers launching at Lyons would be forced to do a double float to get a full day of fishing and thus double the use at Lyons bridge. It would also make Windy Point FAS nearly useless on these days. So again we are back to compressing humans into smaller spaces rather than encouraging everyone to spread out.

Rest and Rotation day from Varney To Ennis

Any non-commercial or non-resident zone in reach from Varney bridge to Ennis would again cause significant issues. At higher flows the Wolf Creek bridge, which is very low, can be dangerous or unpassable. When we remove the lower reaches of the Upper Madison from use all non residents and guided anglers would be forced into the middle of the river - often a dangerous reach during windy days. It again forces anglers into “clusters” by encouraging extra use at some access points but rendering other access points useless. For example few boaters will use Story Ditch and less will use McAtee bridge if you must stop at Varney bridge. On the other hand, Ruby Creek will receive much higher use as a result. 

Rest and Rotation day from Warm Springs to Grey Cliff (aka Lower Madison)

The “Lower Madison” is a terrific fishery in the spring, early summer and fall. There is basically only one normal “float” which is either Warm Springs to Blacks Ford or Warm Springs to Grey Cliff. This is an important float in the spring when other rivers are still high and dirty such as the Yellowstone River. If anglers are displaced from the Lower Madison on a rest and rotation day the only option is for them to travel to the Upper Madison and thus concentrate anglers there. At other times the “Lower Madison” is too warm to fish; we do not want to encourage resident non-guided anglers to this zone when conditions are not safe for trout.

What solutions should we be focusing on?

Rivers like the Madison are in finite supply. We cannot manufacture more amazing wild trout rivers. Luckily the fishery is thriving and fish counts are healthy and stable. At issue is the quality of the “experience” which is a social issue. How many people having fun on the river is too many people enjoying being outside on our public waters? That is a difficult question to answer but many agree that we are either there now or will be in the near future. So if we feel like we are at a social carrying capacity now then concepts like banning boats or orchestrating who goes where are not solutions. The only solution is to set limits on the number of humans recreating on the river. Limiting users that hire guides is a good place to start and we support zero growth on the number of guided trips and permits that set caps for each business. We also support investigating options on other rivers such as in Michigan (Pere Marquette and Pine Rivers) and Oregon (Deschutes and John Day Rivers) where private boaters obtain boater passes. 


Rest and Rotation is simply not a tool that solves any issues, but rather one that only compounds issues. Rest and rotation forces users into concentrated groups rather than encouraging organic spreading throughout the river. What we really need to do in a good management plan is to focus on the 800lb gorilla: setting some carrying capacities for the number of users on the river.

We encourage everyone that is concerned about developing a high quality Madison River Recreation Plan to share their voice. We need to focus on setting limits on the number of users on the river and avoid management practices like Rest and Rotation that simply concentrate use. Please email your comments to: [email protected] (most important). There is also a survey available on the planning process: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/RDWKFXW

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