A long time ago a news reporter asked Willie Sutton “Why do you rob banks?”… “Because that’s where the money is” said Willie as they cuffed him up and hauled him away.

Willie Sutton

So folks want to know…why is the Madison so crowded? Because that’s where all the fish are. Here’s 38 years of proof:

During the “Heyday” of the Upper Madison in the 1980s, at the peak of the highly successful, wild trout/catch and release regulations envisioned by Dick Vincent and his believers, rainbow trout numbers exploded in the Pine Butte survey section of the river (the three miles from Lyons Bridge upstream) reaching 5000 bows per mile at its peak. Fishing was unbelievably good. You can see the numbers remained very good until the Whirling Disease crash in the early 1990s, when they plummeted to 300 fish per mile. The rainbows almost got wiped out (one of the rumors was some “tourists” brought in some large hatchery trout from Idaho and dumped them in the river at the West Fork and that’s how Whirling Disease got started). A front page article in the Wall Street Journal pronounced the Madison DOA. The river became a dead zone. Tourism died.

The rainbows then started an incredible comeback and have reached a peak of 3600 fish per mile in the last couple of years.

The brown trout success story is even better:

During the 1980s the browns in the Pine Butte stretch peaked at around 2300 fish per mile ( six inches and up). In the last couple of years the browns have reached an all-time high of 3400 per mile. You can also see an increase in numbers of larger fish, fifteen inches and up. So if you total the fish per mile numbers from the 1980s and compare them to 2017-2018 you see 7300 fish per mile then, 7100 fish per mile now, showing the incredible resiliency of the Madison River to thrive despite the onslaught of disease and angler pressure.

Here are the numbers for the Varney stretch:

source: MT FWP

The Varney survey section is from the Varney Bridge to the Eight Mile Ford take-out, roughly five miles. Rainbows are averaging around 2000 per mile, while browns are vacillating between 1500-3000. There is some concern about the brown trout. Anecdotally from my own fishing experience, I am seeing less brown trout in the river the closer you get to Ennis Lake and in the lake itself browns are getting scarce.

These population surveys only cover 8 of the 50 miles we fish. 42 miles of river are basically unknown other than spot studies.

So “the good old days” are now. We have a river full of fish. The question is, where do we go from here?

“That’s the thing about living on the earth – we humans can make all sorts of decisions and plans, but at the end of the day, the earth always gets the last word.”
Heidi Barr

The next 38 years should be interesting.