November 30, 2021
UPDATE: As of about midnight Thursday morning, Northwestern Energy says that Hebgen Dam's gate is open and outflows to the Madison River are restored and the issue is resolved. The full fishing closure is lifted as of Friday, Dec. 3, per FWP.
A malfunction at Hebgen Dam on Montana’s Madison River that caused the flows to drop from about 675 cfs to about 180 cfs early Tuesday morning has led Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to issue a full fishing closure on the upper Madison until further notice. Northwestern Energy, which owns Hebgen Dam, is currently working to restore flow to the river, according to a spokeperson.
The extent of the damage to the fishery will likely be unknown for some time.
A press release by FWP Tuesday evening stated: "This closure will remain in place until the issue at the dam is resolved and flows are fully restored to the river. The impacts to the fishery are still unclear. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks staff and volunteers will be on the river Wednesday moving stranded fish back into the river channel, and NorthWestern Energy staff have advised that it is safe to do so. Because flows are unable to be restored immediately, it’s likely that cold temperatures will have a greater impact on spawning redds than foot traffic." FWP had initially stated that they wanted to individuals to stay away due to the potential damage to brown trout redds and the hazardous nature of the situation.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the flow issue appeared to mostly be contained to the stretch between Hebgen Dam and Quake Lake, but Quake Lake's water level had visibily fallen. A crew of divers from NWE continued work on the dam and a spokesperson from Montana Trout Unlimited said there was hope that the issue could be resolved on Wednesday. There were more volunteers than could be utilized (though more could be needed if the section downstream of Quake Lake starts to sees more effects), and most of the trout in the dewatered side channels had been recovered (a few sculpins were still being found late Wednesday).
FWP Region 3's Facebook page stated Wednesday night: "Thanks to everyone's help, salvage work is largely complete for now, and FWP staff advise visitors once again to avoid walking in the river to protect trout redds that are still viable. A full fishing closure remains in effect from Ennis Lake upstream to Hebgen Dam."
This flow interruption could be particularly detrimental due to the timing, as brown trout eggs have likely been deposited on their redds, which happens in shallow water. If the lack of flow reaches certain critical areas on the river, it could have grave implications to an already beleaguered population of Madison River brown trout.
Multiple eateries were present Wednesday and offering free food and drink, and some area restaurants were comping entrees and/or beers. This community largely depends on the health of the Madison River, and its appreciation of volunteers was evident.
Joshua Bergan is Fly Fisherman's digital editor.