As I write to you today in the first week of 2022, I find myself thinking familiar winter thoughts looking forward to another year guiding on the Madison River and hitting the reset button. Especially after, well, a very noteworthy year for the Madison River. I think 10 or 15 years down the road we’re all going to look back on 2021 as a pivotal year for the future of recreation management on the Madison River.
The lowlight reel of 2021 is substantial. Growth of recreation has been documented the world over since the dawn of COVID, and the Madison is no exception. Complicating things on the upper Madison was a significant drought that continued into 2021, with intensity. A lackluster year of hopper fishing, preceded by several years of epic terrestrial activity, was seemingly long overdue. The years long saga of commercial use regulation discussions continued, with no end in sight. And the cherry on top of 2021, right at the buzzer, was the day the river nearly turned off, when a coupling on a gate stem at Hebgen Dam failed, quickly reducing flows by nearly 70% and subsequently drying up dozens of side channel spawning gravel stretches actively incubating recently laid brown trout eggs, and outright killing untold amounts of adult trout left high and dry.
That’s the unvarnished truth of it. All fishing reports can’t be rainbows and unicorns, and neither can year end reviews. If they are, approach with caution and a giant grain of salt. Thankfully, interspersed between the seemingly unending barrage of bad news, were many smiling faces of guests new and familiar, enjoying great days on the water. I'm truly thankful to live in such a spectacularly beautiful place, doing something I love and sharing that with guests every day.
So as we head into 2022, we as anglers are eternally optimistic. I see silver linings in a tumultuous year on the upper Madison. Although 2021 was a tough one for the Madison, lessons were learned and I think a more knowledgeable and experienced discussion will prevail and lead to informed decisions on a range of topics from water management to people management, and the growing importance of stewardship of a national treasure in the Madison River. Unlike the continual production of new and flashy gear, flies, boats etc., we only have one Madison River, and they don’t make new ones. So, let’s take care of the one we have. Cheers to a fresh start and a new year!
Coming off the 4th driest year on record, one would think we couldn’t possibly do worse than last year for moisture, right? Well, so far, so good according to the snotel sites scattered around the Madison Valley. As of January 3, 2022, the Madison Basin is sitting (uncomfortably?) at 105% of normal for the 30-year average of snow water equivalent (SWE). Other regional basins are as follows: Upper Yellowstone – 88% of normal, Gallatin – 92% of normal, Jefferson – 91% of normal. While certain parts of the west are getting overserved with snow (Looking at you, Utah. Sharing is caring, you know?), it’s mostly missing southwest Montana, but the short-term forecast looks promising for significant snowfalls. And with roughly 110 days left before median peak for SWE in the Madison Basin, there's reason for optimism! This winter is the black line in the graph below. Median is the green line.
Related to the regional climate is our weather, and we’re so fortunate to have long time Ennis resident and local weather historian Tom DiMeola keeping track of weather trends. For nearly 20 years, he’s kept meticulous care of an extremely rich dataset of all sorts of weather metrics for Ennis. Recently he shared with us a summary for the year. Here are some highlights of what he found:
188 days with wind gusts over 30 mph which broke the previous high year in 2020 which had 176 days with gusts over 30 mph. That's better than every other day, folks...
10.04 inches of precipitation which was 1.40 inches below the 19-year average of 11.44 inches.
70 precipitation days vs the 19-year average of 96.84 days
The Mean Average temperature of 45.18 degrees was 0.85 degrees above the 19-year average of 44.33.
The Mean Low temperature of 32.53 degrees was 0.77 degrees above the 19-year average of 31.76.
The Mean High temperature of 57.82 degrees was 0.94 degrees above the 19-year average of 56.88.
33 days above 90 degrees vs the 19-year average of 19.05.
9 days below zero vs the 19-year average of 11.84 days.
98 day Growing Season vs the 19-year average of 108.95
OH NO, NOT AGAIN!
Built in 1915, Hebgen Dam is no stranger to momentous circumstance. And when you consider that it holds back 477 million cubic meters of water that serves as source for a word famous trout stream and the economy and livelihood of a county the size of Rhode Island, it’s integrity and function is kind of a big deal.
There’s been a few major events in its history, with the most important one being the 7.2 magnitude quake of 1959, that sent a mountain sliding into its riffles, killing 28 and creating an entirely new natural lake appropriately named Quake Lake. Hell, writing this newsletter a couple evenings ago I felt what was reported to be a 2.6 shake in the region. We’re no stranger to frequent seismic activity in the Yellowstone region. But even with a massive quake like in 1959, Hebgen still stands. Panic and anxiety was rampant in the immediate aftermath of that deadly day, down valley. Was a wall of water coming to Ennis? Thankfully not, but the experience of 1959 is still deeply rooted in local concern for the dam. That brings us next to 2008, when one late summer morning, problems with the operations of the near century old dam’s outflow created a gaping leak and sent springtime runoff level flows down the Madison in a matter of hours. Again, rumors spread rapidly that a wall of water was headed for Ennis. Business owners frantically started moving supplies out of storefronts, residents started evacuating themselves until finally nerves were settled as word reached town that Ennis would not, in fact, be washed away. The ensuing decade long debacle of repairing the dam irritated local anglers and guides as year after year repair completion was delayed and water continued to be diverted over the top of the dam (where it’s warmer) than the bottom where it’s supposed to come from (colder). And cold water is better for trout than warm water. Bumper stickers were commonplace around the valley denouncing dam owners with “Fix Hebgen Dammit!.” Finally, in 2018, with dam repairs complete, water was restored to bottom release.
Anglers and conservationists rejoiced. And until November 30 of 2021, all was well across the concrete canyon wall, until a gate stem coupler (engineer speak for very important part) broke and this time instead of a giant hole being created, a tiny one instead. Within 15 minutes, one of the world’s most prolific trout streams was reduced by nearly 60% in flows and within 24 hours, by nearly 70%. The river essentially was set to “pilot light” mode. A reasonable person might be thinking to themselves that if such an incident occurred that dam operators would be notified instantaneously via some sort of simple technological warning light or buzzer or, I don’t know, an email, pager, or perhaps a fax? But nope. Seems as though when they completed the multi million dollar repairs to the dam, they neglected to figure alarm bells into the budget. In both recent dam failures, it was anglers (!) that first reported the incidents. And this time around, it was nearly 12 hours later that dam operators were finally notified.
Turns out in addition to there being no warning notification system for drastic changes in flow, there’s also no “hotline” to call when something fishy is observed. Anglers and fly shop staff were frantically trying to notify Northwestern Energy, until finally they succeeded. Nothing like listening to elevator music on hold with a phone operator while an entire river is drying up. "No really, it's ok, take your time." Sorry, sometimes I just can't help my sarcasm. No wonder dam removal projects are gaining in popularity…
Anyhow, you’ve probably all seen by now that the infamous coupler was fixed and replaced, and flows were restored about 3 days later, but not before dozens of side channels were cut off from flowing water in the main channel, exposing spawning beds and stranding who knows how many fish. The volunteer response effort, however, was massive. FWP came out with their shockers and anglers and guides from across the tri-state region brought buckets and nets and cooperatively dumped thousands of fish and sculpins back into whatever flowing water was left. Thankfully, overnight temps were very mild otherwise stagnant water in those side channels could have frozen leaving even more fish to perish. Lucky break. It will take time to study the impacts, short and long, to this tragedy, but consensus among local biologists is that we dodged a major bullet (again), and that the fishery will likely be ok, a nod to the resiliency of the natural system. But dammit, can we make it a decade without another dam failure please? On a side note, I’m happy to report, federal regulators are now asking Northwestern Energy (dam owners) to put in some beeping lights or something.
WATER QUALITY MONITORING
Water quantity and quality are both vital to the conservation of our valued fisheries. Being a fishing outfitter on one of the world's most renowned rivers for trout is a privilege that I don't take lightly. The upper Madison is the lifeblood to this valley, economically and ecologically. As someone who is so intimately tied to this river, I feel a strong sense of responsibility toward the natural resources that I love and depend on. And that's why I volunteer to sample several locations on the upper Madison every month in partnership with Science on the Fly.
Founded by the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Fishpond, Science on the Fly seeks to further our understanding of changing watersheds around the world through long term, world-class river science. With a growing list of partners and supporters, we aim to bridge the gap between science and public policy, and to activate and inspire a broad community of river stewards to take ownership of that process.
Pictured here are months worth of frozen water samples collected and being prepared for overnight shipment to Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. Together, along with a growing list of partners, we strive for cold water, clean rivers, healthy watersheds, abundant fish, and a bright future. We follow our passion and we give a damn.
Interactive maps and publicly available data gathered so far on Nitrates, Phosphates, Dissolved Oxygen among other variables are available HERE.
MADISON RIVER RECREATION MANAGEMENT RULES
I get asked a lot, “What’s the status of rules on the Madison?” And, historically, a bit of background is needed to provide context to whatever update I answer with. In a long line of examples of clashes, it almost seems irrelevant what the background is anymore. It’s ultimately the same old story told time and again, year after year: make rules, reject rules, start over, create special committees, consider new rules, decide those rules aren’t good, receive petitions for other rules, consider those, develop compromise rules, welcome new administration's commissioners, decide those recently written rules aren’t good, create another work group, work on making new rules again. Repeating the same process over and over, each time expecting a different result. Isn’t that essentially the definition of insanity?
The creation of fair and equitable while also meaningful and impactful regulations regarding overall recreation management rules for the Madison River remains elusive. The Madison is a place that is special to many and elicits strong emotions. If you haven’t been keeping track of every minute of Commission meetings and work group sessions, you may be thoroughly confused about where we are at this hour, but alas, here’s the long and short of it.
The rule capping the total number of fishing outfitting and guided trips per individual outfitter and guide is at the number of trips reported in 2019 or 2020, whichever is higher, still remains. Details on how that allocation will be accomplished will be ironed out by the recently created “Madison River Work Group” (more on this group in a moment). I anxiously await this, as the "devil is in the details." This commercial cap will be implemented January 1, 2023.
The rules mostly pertaining to where boat fishing is allowed or not and when and where guides and outfitters are allowed, which was reached as a compromise between two competing petitions last year are now gone. Repealed last month. No new rules exist anymore in that department. Status quo currently. Beyond the general framework for commercial use caps, we are essentially back at square one with a blank slate in front of the current Madison River Work Group just waiting to be scribbled on (in pencil, not ink?). Nothing’s off the table. Your guess as to what the next rules will be is as good as mine.
Presently, in accordance with the Madison River recreation administrative rule, which was adopted last year by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, a 12-person work group has been convened and is represented by three commercial outfitters with current Madison River Special User Permits, three non-commercial river users, two people with Madison Valley business interests that are not connected to commercial outfitting, one person trained in natural resource management not employed by FWP, one at large person, a Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, and a representative from the Bureau of Land Management. The group is tasked with developing recommendations to present to the FWP Commission for approval. Ultimately, it’s up to the Commission to approve, deny, or modify whatever the group comes up with. With its first meeting in September of 2021, the group has met 4 times and is scheduled to meet again in Bozeman on January 24th at FWP headquarters at 6PM. Thus far, much of the substance of the initial meetings have focused on hearing from experts, gathering and compiling all available data on recreational use patterns, fisheries trends, etc. Although the group has agreed to place "river ambassadors" at a few boat launches this year to test out a new program aimed at making boat launches more efficient, no significant debate has taken place yet on some of the big elephants in the room. Everyone seems to be holding their cards closely. Hopefully, that’s a sign of thoughtful digestion of appropriate data to make informed decisions. Should we expect a different result from this group this time? Time will tell, but I’m inclined to think that this group seems more motivated than previous ones, to accomplish reasonable and effective rules. Thus far, emotions have been kept in check and momentum is on their side.
As a small outfitter, however, I’m more than concerned that among the members of this group, there are no local small outfitters represented. In fact, 4 of the largest outfitters in the land are represented by either themselves or other members. Are they open to creating fair and equitable rules for all outfitters, large and small? I can’t tell yet. Why weren’t any local small outfitters accepted into the group? We certainly applied. That’s a question I haven’t gotten answers to from FWP, the ones who selected membership. So right now, small outfitters like myself don’t have a seat at the table and are anxiously awaiting to see how potential new commercial use controls will affect us. In theory, the cap has already been established, but it wouldn’t shock me to see some tweaking before it’s all said and done.
And the public can expect some control mechanisms for noncommercial use as well. General use from the public seems to be a major target for growth control mechanisms that the work group is interested in, now that commercial use has been mostly dealt with. It’s hard for them to stare at the data which describe over 80% of recreational use annually being attributed to the general public and NOT address that sector of growth. I’ll be anxiously awaiting their ideas on this as well, because believe it or not, I like to fish myself from time to time.
Every year it seems like the calendar fills up sooner than the previous year and this year is no different. If you have any interest in booking a date for summer 2022, please reach out ASAP. While there are still a fair number of openings for peak season dates (June-August), they won’t last long. If you would consider a trip in the spring from March through May, I highly recommend it. Less people, more wildlife, healthy water conditions, hungry trout after a long winter, and most importantly – fresh and eager guides! It baffles me more people don’t want to come fish in the spring. Don’t let that nasty weather intimidate you. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, and attitudes. I love springtime fishing. And you should too.