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Barbless On The Upper Madison?

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

A buck Brown Trout from Varney with signs of hooking scars. A gangster with river cred.

Back at the October Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting, the department updated the Commission on a slate of new fishing regulations and the new Statewide Fisheries Management Plan which drives management objectives for all regions and directs various projects for all river basins in the state through 2026. Of particular concern were declines in trout populations on the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby rivers, as well as fish health concerns on those streams. These concerns have prompted a multifaceted research project that FWP will conduct to learn what's causing these issues. One of those research projects will also involve the Madison River to determine the amount of adult mortality and the causes of mortality. Fish will be tagged and re-captured as part of that effort on a pretty extensive basis. This will be very interesting to watch and learn from. Personally, I'm excited to see what comes of it.

But an interesting observation I had from watching the meeting was this sort of whimsical last second amendment made by Commissioner KC Walsh. Being "very concerned about hook scarring on the Madison," he wanted to see "single hook, barbless" restrictions on the upper Madison between Varney Bridge and Ennis Lake. So for example, a classic "hopper dropper" rig is still allowed. A double articulated streamer with two hooks is not. Neither is a spinner with treble hooks, but a spinner with a single barbless hook is good. But again, only between Varney and Ennis Lake.

It was puzzling because it wasn't part of FWP staff's original plan for research. It very much sounded like a personal desire to see this regulation instituted. After a brief recess where Commissioners discussed the amendment with staff, it was approved unanimously for a single section of river. There was no discussion or comment provided by the public on the topic. It was a curious addition. Especially considering it didn't come from Department biologists or managers, but rather a Commissioner.

In Walsh's comments, he did mention concern for hook scarring (like you see above on the Brown trout), and wanted to see a study done to look into that. But how this relates to the broader research questions being asked was unclear given the lack of correlation in the literature between scarring and mortality. Also unclear was why Varney to Ennis Lake? What is the ultimate intention behind this change?

While I can't answer those questions and it seems like it may be questions without answers, I guess I have no objection to the idea of going barbless and single hook. I just question what the goal and intention is and the idea that we should enact significant regulation changes on a whim and without noticing the public. Long ago this idea of whether or not hook type affected mortality was looked at on the Madison by Dick Vincent's crew (among other researchers). They found no significant difference. They did suggest mortality rates likely increase in fish that were played too long, especially in temps over 65 degrees. Will the new regulation help with hooking scars? I have no idea. I would suspect a barbless hook scars fish as well. And I wonder why hooking scars matter if mortality is unaffected. Maybe he just wants prettier fish? I have no idea what the basis was. But, okay, I'm down I guess. I've been crimping barbs forever, mostly for my own hook scarring concerns...

As far as the single hook restriction, I don't see this being a huge change. Most flies being cast on any given day are already single hooked. Save for the occasional fly bro with his dank double articulated Sex Dungeon. He's now gotta cut one of those hooks off. He'll probably be just as dank though. I won't hold it against him.

It will significantly impact spinner fishers. As an outfitter who does a fair amount of spinner trips on the upper Madison, I've always crimped my barbs on treble hooks and found that playing time and release of fish caught on barbless trebles was most of the time was actually quicker and easier on the fish than being overplayed on a fly by a beginner angler. But I understand the optics and am happy to oblige. So this past Fall on some of my spinner trips I actually replaced the trebles with single barbless hooks in order to test out what I saw as a possible regulation change coming anyway. The single hook is actually bigger in size than the trebles and what I found surprised me. My catch rates went up. Playing and handling time remained quick with no difference, but I saw more strikes converted to netted fish. Maybe because the size of the hook was bigger? Maybe it doesn't pivot on the mouth during a strike like a treble? I don't know, but it was noticeable. So that was cool to see.

It will be interesting to see what changes are made after a year of this regulation change. Will the regulation go river wide? Will it go away? Will it be something that remains forever and people never understand why it was started to begin with? The latter is where my money goes. I guess we'll find out, but in the meantime for 2024 - no barbs and single hooks only from Varney to Ennis Lake.


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