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50 Years of Wild Trout Management

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

Prior to the 1880's, Montana rivers and lakes were all filled with native fish. If we could teleport with our drift boats back to the 1800's on the upper Madison, we'd find Arctic Grayling, Westslope Cutthroat, and Mountain Whitefish. Only the Whitefish remain common today among those species. That's because in 1889, Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, and Brook Trout, all non-native, began being introduced into virtually every body of water which could be reached. Mostly Rainbows. Why Rainbows? Three major reasons: Rainbows are far more hardy in a wider variety of habitat and water conditions than native Cutthroat and Grayling, they were much easier to propagate in hatcheries, and probably most importantly they were viewed as a sportier fish to catch. And because at the time, all trout were thought to be interchangeable, nobody gave a second thought to whether a stream had Rainbows or Westslopes. If a trout's a trout, they thought, why not have the one that jumps more? Interestingly, the Madison was the first stream in Montana to receive Brown Trout in 1889. And surprisingly, Yellowstone National Park tried introducing Largemouth Bass into the Gibbon River in 1893 and 1896!

And if bodies of water couldn't be reached on wheels or trains for stocking, they used horses to do it. And if horses couldn't get there, eventually airplanes would do the trick. It was a mission to fill all water possible with fish. What's crazy is, over 95% of high country lakes across the west were naturally fishless before we started introductions.

As trout fishing became more popular and accessible, western states realized the abundance of streams they had which could be stocked to lure an ever growing tourism base. And thus the culture of trout was established in the Rockies. Hundreds of millions of Rainbows and Browns were distributed across Montana for almost a century. Sadly, this led to the demise of our native fishery. An often forgotten footnote in today's trout culture. By the time folks like Aldo Leopold started drawing attention to the consequences of this stocking culture, it was too late. Fish like the Yellowfin Cutthroat near Leadville, Colorado were already extinct by 1920. On the one hand I'm thankful to have any trout to fish for, but on the other, casting dries to native Cutthroat and Grayling would be even more special. The culture and industry of fishing in the early 20th century, however, placed higher value of non-native Rainbows and Browns over native fisheries throughout the Rockies. And although Yellowstone National Park has led the way regionally for a rebirth of native fisheries management, most regional economies still rely on the abundance of non-native Rainbows and Browns. This includes yours truly. In the case of the Grayling, perhaps the habitat isn't hospitable to them anymore, but I digress. An interesting topic.


But what that heavy stocking also led to, was an unsustainable fishery, even after catch and release became more popular. Every year, rivers would need to be resupplied. Recruitment was very poor among stocked trout. Turns out, surviving in the wild is a lot more difficult than a hatchery. For the longest time, anglers statewide thought the way forward was more stocking and an ever expanding hatchery system. The only thing better than one trout, was one more. And another. People could visibly SEE more fish being added to a river. So this had to be good, right? But what was happening when those fish entered a world in which they've never known was a different story. And for a while, that story wasn't very well understood in fisheries management. However, there were enough signs that something wasn't right that as early as 1960, local fishing guide Dick McGuire complained to Montana FWP that the only explanation for poor fishing on the upper Madison was the stocking program.


Another fella named Dick Vincent in the 60s (who grew up in Norris), became a fisheries biologist on the Madison, and he brought an analytical eye to the field. A real pioneer. He used data to drive management. He, as McGuire, was also concerned for the fishery. And at one point, Vincent approached the power companies who controlled flows out of the dams on the upper Madison and requested that flows not be dropped seasonally to extreme levels. He suggested a voluntary minimum flow to benefit trout recruitment. Thankfully, the power companies obliged. What they found, as an accident, changed the course of fisheries management in Montana forever.

The following year, (the following year!) populations of trout in the Norris section skyrocketed. However, the Varney reach of river on the upper Madison showed no change. Why would the Varney reach, a much superior quality habitat, show no response? Dick was puzzled. The difference was so stark, there had to be an explanation they were missing. Meanwhile stocking trucks kept coming and kept pouring in Rainbows in the Varney reach. He quickly discovered that the only difference in management between the two sections was that Norris wasn't stocked, and Varney was. With A LOT of trout, as it turned out. To the tune of 100,000-120,000 a year.


And that's when Dick made the now famous (then infamous) decision to test his hypothesis that introducing stocked fish, who were ill prepared for a life in the wild, constantly stunted any ability of a population to grow and maintain itself. With the support from allies in the department, he got approved to conduct a study to test this hypothesis. But not before getting yelled and screamed at in the big meeting to make a decision on the matter (held in Ennis). For the 6 years of his study, he was kicked out of bars, told to leave restaurants, and had vehicles and property damaged. Even an inside stocking job to try and sabotage his study. An unpopular man with a wild idea. He persisted thankfully.


When the study concluded in 74, the data was so convincing that not only did the state immediately stop stocking the Madison, they stopped stocking the whole damn state. In the section of river where stocking was stopped in his study, mortality rates plummeted and populations jumped compared to the stocked sections. More fish were surviving and growing. Clearly stocking was having an adverse impact on the entire fishery. And they never turned back.

But Dick wasn't quite done pioneering new ideas. A few years later after noticing elevated summertime mortality rates in the Pine Butte reach of the upper Madison, in a time when bag limits were 10 fish or 10 pounds, he suggested closing a small stretch to no fishing to study what happens to wild trout when you leave them alone and don't take any. Talk about a bold idea with some pissed off anglers. But again the Department trusted him, and boy were they glad they did. Trout populations again skyrocketed. More trout. Bigger trout. And that's how catch and release regulations began on the Madison and within the state.


Suddenly though, 20 years after going wild trout, the Madison was struck by the horrific whirling disease. Rainbow populations went from nearly 2,000 per mile in some reaches, to 200 in one stretch! Bad times. Apocalyptic. And nothing could be done about it but wait and watch. Slowly, populations rebounded. But why? Most other streams infected with this disease did not recover as dramatically as the Madison.

Dick suspects that the reason the Madison both received and recovered from whirling disease was via stocked trout. How about that for a wild twist? FWP technicians were electroshocking near the west fork after seeing some alarming survey data indicating crashing populations of Rainbows. They discovered early on two giant hatchery fish up at the West Fork. Clearly stocked illegally. And that's where whirling disease spread from. But he also suspects that the genetics of a particular strain of stocked Rainbows that were in Harrison Lake (of unknown origin to Dick...), which were used to stock lakes in the valley (including Cliff, Wade, Hebgen, and Quake...) were responsible for the eventual natural recovery of all Rainbows in the Madison. That's because that strain had a remarkably convenient (some might say lucky) genetic trait of 50% natural resistance to whirling disease. All it took was a little slide down the spillways for those genetics to reach the mainstem of the Madison. And even though it took a decade, those stocker genes may have just saved the Madison. These theories were never tested, but Dick seems convinced, and if he's convinced, I'm convinced.


This year, we celebrate the boldness of Dick Vincent's decision to try something radical 50 years ago. Just let the fish do fish things on their own. What that decision also did, was place even more importance on habitat work, which is vitally important and has taken a major role in the management of all fisheries since.


I suppose if we can't have our native Cutthroat and Grayling back, at least we're not chasing our tails every year catching 10" stockers with no fins. Here's to you, Dick.


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