From the field Conservation

Update from the Madison River: Anglers rally to save trout

Long-term effects of dam failure still TBD

When my colleague Bill Pfeiffer and I pulled into Ennis, we were met with some familiar sights. The grocery store parking lot was overflowing with people grabbing a couple of sandwiches to take with them to the river. As we drove upriver 287 nearly every pullout, boat ramp, and access site had a couple of rigs parked in it. The unmistakable silhouettes of people in waders looking for their next good spot moved up and down the riverbanks. It’s a scene anyone who’s been to the Madison during the summer months has almost certainly seen countless times.

I can say confidently it’s the first time I’ve seen it in December.

It was a tough summer to be a trout here in Montana. Hot and dry conditions caused many of our rivers to be placed under ‘hoot-owl’ restrictions (limiting fishing to the cooler parts of the day) or closed to fishing altogether. Fortunately for our fish, time presses onward. The days grew shorter, the crowds of anglers thinned, and cooler temperatures returned to the Northern Rockies. It seemed that our trout were out of the proverbial frying pan. But when I picked up my phone the morning of November 30th, it seemed our finned friends in the Madison had found themselves thrown into the proverbial fire. 

In the early hours of November 30th Hebgen Dam (the source of the Upper Madison) had malfunctioned, resulting a 70% drop in flows. In just 15 minutes the river had plummeted from around 650 cubic feet per second (cfs) to just over 200. This sudden drop in flows resulted in countless fish stranded in side channels that had become little more than puddles, and Brown Trout spawning redds were suddenly exposed to the air and potentially freezing temperatures. At the end of an already difficult year, our fish were faced with yet another challenge to their survival.

Bill Pfeiffer/Montana TU photo.

When I left Missoula early on December 1st for the Madison, I didn’t think that I would head home with a big fat stupid smile plastered on my face. But I did. The call to help Madison River fish went out, and was answered with a roar. By the time we arrived at the river, hundreds of volunteers from all over the state (and beyond) had gone to work moving stranded fish back into the main channel and dousing redds with buckets of water in the hopes of keeping the eggs buried in the gravel viable. Just as I can’t tell you how many people were there, I can only guess just how many fish were saved by their efforts.

This isn’t the first time the Madison fishery has faced adversity. In the 1990’s whirling disease swept through the river, decimating trout populations. But like all of our rivers here in Montana, every trout in the Madison is a wild fish, and wild fish are extremely resilient. Time will tell how the dam malfunction will impact the Madison, but the river’s track record of adapting to dramatic events speaks for itself. If we simply allow the fishery some time to heal, it seems very likely that it will pull through as it always has.

The conversation on next steps for Hebgen Dam is ongoing. Montana Trout Unlimited is working hard with government officials to request that the dam’s owner provides more information to the public and engages the community in a dialogue regarding these events, and takes the necessary measures to ensure an event like this doesn’t occur in the future.

Hundreds of volunteers turned out to rescue fish on the Madison. Bill Pfeiffer/Montana TU photo.

Anglers speak in cliches. We’re all guilty of it. I often roll my eyes at some of them, and certain cliches are actually forbidden in my boat (if you’ve fished with me you know exactly which one I’m talking about). But despite my misgivings, I’ll concede that oftentimes they’re used because they often sum things up so succinctly they’re impossible to avoid.

That day on the Madison I had one phrase echoing through my head that I couldn’t escape:

When things are at their worst, sometimes people are at their very best.

As Bill and I drove back to Missoula we both laughed and smiled far more than I could’ve expected. While much can be said about what comes next for the Madison and the wild trout that make it so special, one thing is for certain. Our rivers have many friends. And when they are in need, those friends are there to give back at the drop of a hat.

It’s often difficult to stay optimistic about the future of our fragile natural treasures, but any time I see just how many people are willing to answer the call to protect a place they love, it’s even more difficult to not be overwhelmingly filled with hope.