Crisis on Montana’s Madison River highlights how far humans will go to rescue fish

Courtesy The Slide Inn

Editor’s Note: I wanted to run this because it shows what extraordinary lengths people will go to in trying to protect fish. This story is from the famous Galloup’s Slide Inn on Montana’s Madison River.

By now many of you are aware of the events that transpired over the last several days, but we will give you a short summary just in case you missed it. In the early morning hours of Nov.30, flows out of Hebgen Dam dropped from 640 cfs to under 200 cfs in a matter of a few minutes. This gave the fish populations inhabiting the stretch between the Dam and Earthquake Lake very little time to search out deeper water, and many became stranded in channels and small puddles among the larger rocks.

We did not become aware of the situation until it was brought up by one of our customers around 9 a.m. and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks was contacted immediately in order to get in touch with NorthWestern Energy. Other Fly Shops and friends were contacted shortly thereafter in order to get the word out, and we headed upstream to investigate. What we found was heart breaking, as there were trout, whitefish and sculpin trapped in small areas throughout that entire system. There were a handful of fish that had died as well, but the biggest area of concern were the large spawning areas that were now completely out of the water.

We continued to pick up as many fish as we could, and got them back into the main river. By now word was getting around and we would soon have people from West Yellowstone and Ennis coming to help relocate these stranded fish. By 1 p.m. Montana FWP, Northwestern Energy and more volunteers were on the scene. NorthWestern Energy would later announce that the drop in water was due to a damaged gate component, and that repair crews would be working through the night until they were able to raise the gates up. Later that afternoon they were able to increase the flows to 248 cfs by releasing water over the emergency spillway, but all we could do was watch the USGS gauge above the West Fork continue to drop. At around 4 p.m. MT FWP stopped by the shop to bring us up to speed, and to tell us we were now in recovery mode — Meaning that they needed volunteers to walk the banks starting the morning of Dec. 1 to help relocate any stranded fish.
It was a long night for many of us, as we hoped that the water would stay high enough to cover the primary spawning areas between the Slide Area and Ennis Lake. There was a very real possibility that many of these areas would be exposed to cold air and suffer a similar fate to the areas between the lakes. We woke in the morning and got out to the river. The areas between Lyon’s Bridge and Ennis were far better than expected, and while it was obviously extremely shallow, there was still plenty of water running from bank to bank.

It became apparent to most of the volunteers that day that the areas that needed the most attention were upstream from Lyon’s Bridge. Many people split into teams and walked the banks up and downstream from the major access sites such as Raynold’s Bridge, Three Dollar, Pine Butte and the West Fork.
Courtesy The Slide Inn

Our crew went downstream from Three Dollar to Pine Butte on both sides of the river, and we were actually pleasantly surprised at the conditions. About 95% of the prime spawning areas were still underwater, and there were very few stranded fish in the channels. There were a lot of sculpin that needed a hand to get back into the main river, but we did not encounter any dead fish. The two areas that were hit the hardest in this stretch were two channels located approximately one mile above Pine Butte as you can see in the pictures below.

The Channels from the West Fork up to Eagles Nest on the other side of the river also faced similar conditions but we did not encounter many stranded trout there. The channels from the Slide Inn down to Raynold’s Bridge did have stranded fish and thanks to all of the people out there yesterday, many of them were returned to the main channel. Unfortunately we did lose a lot eggs in this stretch, as most of the channels were dry and there were a lot of sculpin that needed to be rescued from underneath dry rocks.

Courtesy The Slide Inn
As the sun started to dip behind the horizon, we all headed back to our trucks after a long day on the river. The amount of people who showed up to help was absolutely incredible. Not only did the locals show up in force but we had folks from every corner of the state willing to lend a hand … it was just incredible to see.

Once we got to the shop, we heard that NorthWestern Energy had a new gate component en route from Anaconda and that the flow could be restored shortly if the installation was successful. I know a lot of us were still nervous, as the water levels continued to drop ever so slightly at the Kirby gauge above the West Fork. If the river dropped below 300 cfs a lot of the spawning gravel in the Three Dollar Bridge area would be exposed, so we really needed the dam to return to normal flows as soon as possible.

As fate would have it, we all woke up early to check on the progress and when the numbers 640 appeared on the Hebgen gauge, there was a giant sigh of relief. Water levels had also stayed above 300 cfs at the Kirby gauge throughout the night and we did not have a hard frost. Upon further investigation, NorthWestern Energy had repaired the dam just before midnight and water levels were already starting to come up around Raynold’s Bridge by 8 a.m.
In summary, a very large percentage of our spawning beds are safe and sound from Quake Lake all the way down to Ennis Lake. The areas that suffered the highest mortality of fish, eggs, and bug life were Between the Lakes, The Slide Area down to Raynold’s Bridge, and a few channels between the West Fork and Eagle’s Nest. It will take a few years to see what kind of impact the last 48 hours has had on this fishery, but at least we can all breath a little easier today.

Lastly, thank you to EVERYONE for their help. You have no idea how much it meant to see all of you lining the banks and helping out the Upper Madison when it needed it the most.

— The Slide Inn

One thought on “Crisis on Montana’s Madison River highlights how far humans will go to rescue fish”

  1. Jim, Thanks for forwarding this to me. I didn’t know of the problem, but thank goodness a lot of fine people did, and showed the best side of mankind. All the best, Jack

    On Fri, Dec 3, 2021 at 2:12 PM lariverflyfishing wrote:

    > Jim Burns posted: ” Courtesy The Slide Inn Editor’s Note: I wanted to run > this because it shows what extraordinary lengths people will go to in > trying to protect fish. This story is from the famous Galloup’s Slide Inn > on Montana’s Madison River. By now many of you ar” >

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