Drake Magazine Back Issue Content Summer 2019Policy/Politics/LawsThe Put InPAYOFF ON THE MADISON, JUST UPSTREAM FROM ENNIS.

A winter of discontent in Ennis

If your summer plans include a tailwater weekend along Montana’s Madison River, you won’t be alone. In early April 2018, after years of surveys, public meetings, and citizen advisory committees, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) released its draft Recreational Management Plan for the Madison, which included some alarming data. From 2013 to 2017, the number of angler days on the upper Madison doubled, from 88,000 to 179,000. Data also showed that commercial outfitter use had increased 72 percent from 2008 to 2017.

Several of FWP’s preferred management strategies were aimed at limiting that commercial use, including capping the number of outfitter permits and closing the lowest section of river to commercial guiding. But two weeks after the plan was released, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission rejected those recommendations. And since no state agency wants to be responsible for deciding such a highly divisive issue (see: river access in Colorado), the solution was… Form a public committee!

The 10-member “Negotiated Rulemaking Committee” (NRC) was selected by the Commission from a cross-section of river users, some that were commercial, some not. The NRC held eight public meetings over the winter, but the Ennis gatherings held March 6 and 7 drew the most vocal and contentious crowd, with many speaking out against the proposed restrictions. “Bozeman is huge and has other resources, and West Yellowstone has the Park and snowmobiling,” said Ennis resident Matt Smith.

“But Ennis is the Madison River; the river is our economy.”

One of the biggest controversies erupted over the 12.6-mile wading section from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge. Fishing from a boat or float tube isn’t allowed there, but both are used to access hard-to-reach spots. FWP was proposing this stretch be changed to walk/wade only, with boats or tubes no longer allowed.

This idea wasn’t popular in Ennis, but the debate frequently felt like it was less about the management suggestions than about who was supporting them. The 10 members of the NRC included Lauren Wittorp, then executive director of the nonprofit Madison River Foundation (MRF). Both Wittorp and the MRF faced heavy criticism—some justified, some not—for supporting the FWP’s plan, eventually leading to Wittorp’s resignation from both the Foundation and the rulemaking committee.

It’s doubtful Ennis anglers were mad at no longer being able to haul their float tubes 30 miles up to Lyon’s Bridge and kick across to their honey holes. But Wittorp was suspected of serving as a mouthpiece for riverside property owners/MRF funders, especially around the Big Bend area below Reynolds Pass. And that was probably unfair to her, as she was mostly just defending FWP’s own suggestions, which were “based on years of data collection, surveys, public meetings, working groups, field observation, commercial use reports and Madison Citizen Advisory Committee recommendations”, according to the draft management plan.

Nevertheless, give Ennis props for the fight, especially those few who dug deep, like guide Randy Brown, and Chi Wulff’s Mark McGlothlin. On May 2, the NRC disbanded without a solution, placing the matter back in the lap of the Commission. “Regulating commercial outfitting is very complicated,” says new commissioner Pat Byorth, who replaced Dan Vermillion in April. “So we don’t want to rush into it.” They meet next on Aug. 15.

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Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.


  1. Selfishness and greed are destroying the Madison. Like the timber companies and loggers who would clear cut till the last tree was gone, users of the Madison will go on till the last fish has been caught.

  2. The biologists say NO significant impact on the fish or the resource. A highly charged social issue. If every user paid to utilize the resource- it would be a level playing field. Commercial use pays, non commercial does not in a significant way. Facilities and access have been completely improved and paid by mostly commercial use and non-resident anglers- the data is there.

  3. Regulating commercial usage on the Madison river in Montana is inevitable, and it should be managed in a fashion similar to the Henry’s Fork not 10 miles away in Idaho. Allowing an infinite number of guide boats on the Madison, as is the case today, is not sustainable despite what the fish counts state. If not addressed, FWP biologists say the river will hit a tipping point, at which point everyone loses.

  4. The Madison needs some level of protection as the number of folks fishing it has become unsustainable. Obviously, there are already protections in place like catch and release only and single hook artificial. so why not refine those existing regulations to only a single fly, no bobbers (yes, you can call it an indicator, but it is still a bobber) to eliminate a large segment of the current population of “fly fisherman” who are not really fly fishing they are simply flipping a two fly rig with a neon colored float out of a boat and waiting for the magic. That is not fly fishing. The Madison built its reputation as one of the finest fly fishing rivers in the country, let’s give it the respect of at least using it for fly fishing.

  5. I’m sorry to tell you outfitters, but the quality of the fly fishing experience on the Madison has deteriorated to the point, where it is not longer an enjoyable experience. As somebody that has to fly out west and spend big bucks for a day on the river, I won’t return to the Madison. You guys need to figure it out and stop the overcrowding situation. In the meantime, I’m going to spend my money elsewhere. Good luck.

  6. Peter,

    Please spend your time and money elsewhere. Last thing we need to do is accommodate another out of stater. The guides and yourself are the problem. We need similar regulations as the Big Hole. Limit commercial use and have regulations implemented that limit what days out of staters can float.

  7. This is not just about the Madison. Every outdoor enthusiast is complaining about the same thing: too many people. I encourage you to spend some time on ANY outdoor forum. Mountain bikers, climbers, campers, rafters, hunters, hikers . . . all the same. Resources are overtaxed. Social media makes the problem worse. As users of the outdoors, we need to face the cause not the symptom. There are too many people.

  8. The Madison, which I have fished many times for years, is sadly now but a shell of its formal self. The same for the Beaverhead. Go elsewhere.

  9. Do what British Columbia does, charge Auslanders $20 a day to fish. Locals only on weekends. It doesn’t really work to limit crowds, but it sure brings in a lot of money that then disappears.

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