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Madison River Group Grapples with How to Reduce Crowding

Two adopted rules are facing repeal as the group works through this delicate issue.

Madison River Group Grapples with How to Reduce Crowding

Angling pressure has dramatically increased in the past several years on the Madison River (shown here at the old Varney Bridge), but finding an agreeable solution has not been easy. (Joshua Bergan photo)

Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will hold a public hearing via ZOOM to consider a proposed repeal of new rules pertaining to the new rules regarding rest-rotation and walk/wade sections of Montana’s upper Madison River, on December 15, 2021 at 10 a.m. The rules were adopted by a 12-member working group in 2021 in an effort to find agreeable solutions to reduce crowding, improve the recreational experience, and address social issues on the Madison. But pushback on two of the rules led the group to vote to recommend that the Commission repeal them.

The “rest-rotation” rule in question would prohibit guides and outfitters from guiding the section from Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Site to Palisades Day Use Area on Sundays from June 15 to September 30, and from Raynolds Pass Fishing Access Site to Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Site on Saturdays at that time.

The “walk/wade” rule would allow fishing from a boat on Saturdays and Sundays from Raynolds Pass Fishing Access Site to Lyons Bridge Fishing Access Site from June 15 to September 30. Fishing from a boat is currently prohibited every day year-round on this stretch, as well as from the outlet of Quake Lake to Raynolds Pass Fishing Access Site and from Ennis Bridge to Ennis Reservoir.

Madison River Group Struggles with how to Reduce Crowding
Current boat-fishing restrictions on the Madison River (Map courtesy of Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks)

Brian McGeehan, a member of the 12-person Madison River Work Group and owner of Montana Angler fly shop and outfitter in downtown Bozeman, supports recommending repeal of these two rules.


“What needs to happen on the Madison is a robust, well-thought-out recreation plan,” McGeehan said. “We want to make sure that whatever plan (the group and commission adopts) has enough chops that in 50 or 100 years, people will look back in time and are so thankful that we did something.”



The Madison River Work Group is comprised of 12 representatives from a variety of backgrounds that have interests in Madison River management that make informed recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which has the power to make rules. It includes three commercial outfitters with a current Madison River Special Recreational Use Permit, three non-commercial Madison River users, two individuals with a Madison Valley business interest not connected to commercial outfitting, one member trained in natural resources management and not currently working for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, one representative from the Fish and Wildlife Commission, one representative from the Bureau of Land Management, and one at-large member whose selected qualities are largely outside the above descriptions for other work group members.

A similar "rulemaking" committee disbanded in 2019 after failing to find consensus. 

Madison River Group Struggles with how to Reduce Crowding
The Madison River near $3 Bridge during an August baetis hatch. (Joshua Bergan photo)

The Madison River Work Group adopted several new rules (laws) regarding angler and recreational use on the Madison River (mostly for the section from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake known as the upper Madison). Some other rules were adopted at the same time of the two up for repeal are slated to be implemented. These include:

  • New reporting requirements for all persons recreating on the river, including non-commercial anglers and non-fishing floaters, to gather important usage data not previously available (the method for data collection is yet to be determined)
  • Capped outfitter days based on the higher number of reported trips in 2019 or 2020 to go into effect in 2023.
  • Any new FWP accesses downstream of Grey Cliff Fishing Access Site on the lower Madison (the section downstream of Ennis Dam) must not have boat launches to maintain the pristine nature of this section

One rule McGeehan hopes to see on the Madison is a permit system for all users, including non-guided anglers and non-fishing recreationalists. 




“Generally … you start with finding a capacity. We’re worried about social experience, but we’re also worried about our resource as a fishery, fishing access sites, river banks. And so in order to protect those things, when it’s a people-driven issue, we set out to define how much is too much. Those are the conversations we have as a work group. Most likely we’re going to have to set limits on using the river, and exactly what that looks will be determined in conversations to come.”

An access-site river ambassador program to act as a liaison to the public, manage flow and conflicts, and answer questions is also being discussed. 

Traffic on the Madison River has grown substantially in recent decades as interest in both fly fishing and tourism in Montana flourished. According to FWP documents, a total of about 118,000 angler-days were recorded on the Madison on 1989. In 2019, nearly 264,000 angler-days were recorded, mostly due to an uptick in non-resident anglers.


There are precedents for limiting public access to rivers in Montana. The Smith River canyon has been limited to a permit-only system since 1993, and similar outfitting restrictions have been in place on the nearby Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers for many years. McGeehan thinks this style of permitting river access is likely to be the way of the future statewide as Montana’s population continues to grow. Some estimates have nearby Gallatin County’s (home of fast-growing Bozeman) population growing by a half million residents in the coming decades.

Madison River Group Struggles with how to Reduce Crowding
Especially during the tourist season, the Madison has gotten uncomfortably crowded at times. (Joshua Bergan photo)

“One thing the pandemic brought is that it really opened everybody’s eyes that it’s no longer an option to passively sit by and not guide it in some direction,” he said. “But I’m really encouraged because I feel like this is the first time where the majority of guides and outfitters are willing to limit our own business.”

Comments on the repeals must be received no later than December 17, 2021.

Click here to see additional information and documents about this issue. For more information about attending the meeting via Zoom, click here.

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