The "Red Line"

Updated: Mar 1

On angling pressure, water temperatures, monitoring, and stewardship.

2020 was a tumultuous year, for a variety of reasons notwithstanding a global pandemic. But within the context of the Upper Madison river, recreation management and the often-contentious, years long debate on how to proceed finally ended (for now) with the state publication of new rules (which begin to take effect in 2022). Those new rules can be found HERE. Prompting this discussion was an overall rise in popularity of river recreation (even prior to the surge of 2020) in the face of changing global climatic conditions (for the worse) and the concern that the combination of these two events could have on a widely cherished and robust fisheries resource currently boasted by the Upper Madison river and the experience of users.

The resulting rules will have marginal influence on the overall surge in recreational use pressure, as they completely omit addressing the burgeoning public use sector (over 85% of annual use) and instead solely restrict commercial use (less than 15% of annual use).

We heard throughout the debate about a feared “red line” with regards to a dreaded decline in fisheries health due to angling pressure. The thought being, though all indications are the fishery is robust and strong right now, we should start managing recreational use now before we notice declines in the health of the fishery. That, if we wait for signs of decline, by then it may be too late.

The assumption was, there has to be a point at which angling use impacts the fishery, even if it’s virtually all catch and release. But where is this red line, what does it look like, and how does is correlate to angling pressure? How does pressure affect fish? How much pressure is acceptable and unacceptable to the resource? I was disappointed to see the lack of science and these questions on angling pressure in a warming climate go largely unaddressed during the rules process.

Although this idea may seem simple (we like to catch fish, fish don’t like to be caught, and they sometimes respond poorly), there are a variety of dynamics that play a role in determining how fish respond. Some more obvious than others. In the context of a rapidly warming climate and a rising popularity in angling, however, there is one factor that seems very tangible and easily understood insofar as its role in how well fish respond to pressure: water quality and temperature. Water is everything to our fish and our sport. We have gauges on the Upper Madison for flows, stage, and water temperature, but we have nothing (that I’m aware of) in the vein of widely distributed or available data on water quality (e.g., nitrogen etc). We need this information desperately given the context of a rapidly changing climate. Instead of making assumptions one way or the other, data collection will help us make informed decisions. And certainly, we need to do better as a nation to reduce non-point source pollution and other behaviors that neg