The fish in the Madison River are doing just fine, according Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
It's the people who are causing the problems, as hundreds of thousands of fishermen, floaters, outfitters, and others head each year for a river that flows through a state with a population of just over a million.
And now officials are considering measures designed to ease the social conflicts that have erupted on and around the Madison's pristine waters, where the dream of being on a stream where an eagle is the only witness and the water is the only sound is being increasingly interrupted.
There have been previous attempts — including one by a group that met for a year in 2012 — to try to come up with some rules for the river, but those attempts failed to get anywhere, and the Madison River currently does not have any usage regulations.
But beginning Monday and Tuesday in Bozeman and at a series of follow-up meetings in the coming months, a committee of 10 will begin working to change that.
Members of the group, the Madison River Negotiated Rule Making Committee, hope they can find enough common ground to arrive at a set of rules that people with different perspectives can live with.
But the fate of the Madison River is about as murky as mud.
Before the committee has even held its first meeting, some are pessimistic about what it can accomplish in what they say is too short a time frame.
Some blame the problem on outfitters who use the Madison. It’s a world-class trout fly fishery, and there is nothing to prevent outfitters and guides from taking clients out to all the best fishing holes as often as they want.
No individual outfitter The Montana Standard reached out to over a three-day period would respond on the record for comment to this story. Some say previous newspaper stories have been unfair and that outfitters who did speak to the press in the past were misquoted or had their comments taken out of context.
Some outfitters also say the group itself does not have a united front on the issue and that no one wants to appear to speak for all. Young anglers just trying to break into the business have different ideas about regulating the river than the old-timers who have been guiding rafts along the waterway for years and even decades.
An attempt to reach the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association was unsuccessful. But Mike Bias, executive director of Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, did talk to the Standard. He is also an outfitter and sits on the committee of ten that is charged with charting the river’s fate.
He went right to the heart of the matter.
“Social issues are a challenge," he said. "It’s hard to measure."
Despite the pessimism that some are expressing, he says he remains optimistic.
“There is a lot of pessimism. It’s driven by the enormity of the task we have to do,” he said.
How many is too many?
Pretty much everyone agrees the Madison is overcrowded. FWP has the data to prove it.
According to FWP, there were 207,000 angler days on the Madison River in 2017.
Tony Schoonen, a long-time Butte angler, remembers the old days on the Madison. Now in his late 80s, he used to love to fish the Madison in a different era, but he hasn’t been there in a while.
“A few years back, it was so crowded I had to wait in line,” he said. “There were 10, 12 outfitters. The experience isn’t like it used to be in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s so totally different. It’s overrun by outfitters.”
But some outfitters say the numbers don’t hold up to that criticism. Of those who used the Madison in 2017, somewhere between 11 and 13 percent were outfitters.
Some point to Bozeman as well as Big Sky — both of which are near the Madison and both of which are experiencing urban growth — as the problem. Bias said there is a stretch of the Madison where the Bureau of Land Management estimates around 400,000 user days a year see inner-tube users floating along a 20-mile stretch from Warm Springs to Black's Ford. (Because of the government shutdown, the Standard could not reach BLM officials and verify those numbers.)
“In that section, we’re there in less than 3,000 (boats)," Bias said. "We are very small down there.”
FWP has other data to show the numbers of outfitters on the river. Travis Horton, FWP fish biologist said a camera placed at Lyon’s Bridge in the upper Madison documented that over the entire year, 65 percent of the boaters were outfitters. On certain days, the number of boats that passed Lyon’s Bridge were 100 percent outfitters.
Bias knows those numbers, too. He said there are 175 outfitters on the Madison. Of those, 80 percent are taking 68 trips or less. He said that in 2011, outfitters were taking about the same number of clients out — 65 trips or fewer that year.
“There’s a small percentage of outfitters generating a lot of trips on the Madison,” he said.
Some say outfitters don’t want to destroy the very resource their livelihood depends on and that most recognize some kind of regulation is coming. Some outfitters say that if new rules forbid boating in certain sections, a lack of access could, for all intents and purposes, privatize parts of the river where landowners have homes and the only way in is by boat.
There are concerns about details such as how capping the numbers of outfitters will allow new people to break into the business. There’s also a theory that capping boaters on the Madison could send anglers to other rivers, which could shift the problem elsewhere.
“What’s the number you want to get to?" Bias asked. "A reasonable outfitter number — that would be the crux of this plan. How do we determine that number if there is no biological effect? How many is too many?”
The tipping point
Outfitters aren’t the only ones who have their eye on Monday’s meeting.
Horton said the Madison is the number-one river in the state for angler pressure. The department hears dissatisfaction from anglers that the river is just too crowded.
Because most fly fishing is treated as catch-and-release only, even when the river rules don’t dictate that, the numbers of trout in the Madison have held steady despite the overwhelming numbers of people hitting the water.
Horton said the catch rates don’t appear to have changed either.
“But we don’t know how big the fish are. In some areas of the river, they are very finicky. They’re tough to bite because they’ve been educated (by being caught before),” he said.
While fish populations appear basically OK for now and Horton says the habitat is in great shape, FWP doesn’t know when a tipping point might come. And if it does — and FWP does nothing to prevent it — that could mean trouble for the department.
“It’s our job to prevent declines in the river; it’s a failure on our part if it gets to that,” he said.
Lauren Wittorp, the Ennis-based executive director of the Madison River Foundation, loves to fish the Madison. The organization she runs is a conservation-minded nonprofit that is specifically oriented to fly fishing the Madison watershed.
Wittorp will also be on the rule-making committee.
She said her main concern is in the upper stretch, from Hebgen Dam to Ennis Lake, and that her group is in support of putting caps and regulations on the river to ensure all the Madison's many good qualities don't succumb to problems that result from overcrowding.
“Our biggest concern is not reaching the tipping point,” Wittorp said.