Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Seventy



Madison Fishery Remains Healthy Despite Parasite

By Richard Wesnick, Billings Gazette Editor Emeritus


Special to Fly Anglers OnLine
A harsh southwest wind ripped off the hills, gaining speed as it tumbled down the ravines and raked across the river. It was sending us a clear message that the short days of autumn were being whisked away by the none-too-stealthy approach of winter.

The sun played hide and seek with us as it darted between banks of clouds, glistening off the snow that had already covered the Spanish Peaks.

We were afloat on the "dead river" -- the mighty Madison which, if you believe the doomsday prophets, had fallen victim to a tiny parasite known as Myxobolus cerebralis which causes the deadly whirling disease.

In a day of hard fishing under somewhat less-than-ideal conditions, we proved that the Madison was still among the best in the West.

Fish stories

Rumors concerning the death of the Madison River could be the first chapter in a book called "Great American Fish Stories."

After whirling disease struck the Madison in late 1994, the rainbow trout population crashed and burned, leaving public relations skid marks that stretched all the way across the nation.

The mystique and magic that earned the Madison its reputation as one of the world's finest trout streams took a nose dive with reports that as many as 90 percent of the rainbows were lost to the disease.

The reports from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks were true, but they didn't tell the whole story of the Madison River fishery.

Although FWP fish biologists and others tried to defend the Madison and its place among the nation's blue ribbon trout streams, many anglers -- particularly those from outside Montana -- turned tail and headed for the Bighorn, the San Juan and other safe havens. Or at least they thought they were safe.

Town impacted

The town of Ennis, a once-bustling mecca for anglers heading for the Madison and the Jefferson, buckled under the weight of the rumors. Nearly all of the town's fly shops and outfitters were hard-hit. At one point a couple of years ago, all but one or two had gone out of business.

Ennis was impacted so severely that a University of Montana professor made it the focal point of a study of the socio-economic impacts of whirling disease.

Now, nearly six years from the day that whirling disease was first discovered in the Madison, the parasite has been found in trout in nearly 90 Montana rivers and streams and has turned up in almost two dozen other states. It has also surfaced in Yellowstone National Park.

The Madison, in spite of the public relations bashing it suffered, remains one of the state's best trout streams and it still ranks among the most heavily fished, according to creel census reports from Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

More river to fish

A 1997 creel census showed the Madison had 114,848 angler days, compared to 93,181 for the Bighorn which has a reputation of being stacked elbow to elbow with fly fishermen guides and drift boats.

The reason for the seeming disparity in angler days between the Bighorn and the Madison may be due to the fact that the Madison offers much more river to fish, while the Bighorn crams the crowds into a 13-mile stretch of water with only one exit point -- at the 3 Mile Access -- along the way.

On our most recent trip to the Madison, we drifted the nine-mile stretch between the Norris or Bear Trap Bridge to Greycliff and didn't see another boat all day. We passed maybe a half-dozen anglers who had waded in from shore after walking down from the road that runs parallel to the river.

But there was no jockeying for position to get into the favorite holes, no frustration at seeing guide boats playing leap frog from hole to hole, and no displays of screaming, shouting temper tantrums that have made the Bighorn notorious in recent years.

Billings architect Gary Levine and I put ourselves in the hands of guide Jordan Gage who has worked out of Gallatin Riverguides at Big Sky for the past seven years.

Gallatin Riverguides has been owned and operated by Steve and Betsey French since 1984 and is now housed in a large, new log building/fly shop that is crammed full of the type of gear that causes a fly fisherman to break out in a cold sweat and begin foaming at the mouth. Lust for material goods is not a virtuous thing, but I'm sure there are exceptions for anglers.

Gage is a tall, muscular young man whose weathered face and hands tell of long days at the oars, guiding on the Madison, the Gallatin or wherever reports of fishing action take him and his clients.

Originally from Vermont, Gage moved to Bozeman to finish his degree in fisheries and wildlife at MSU, but he ended up focusing entirely on fisheries. He puts his technical and biological know-how to work in the best possible way: Doing what he loves most.

After the fishing season draws down during Montana winters, he has taken to heading toward warmer climates. He has spent the past two Montana winters guiding in Chile, then fishing for a month in Argentina on his way back to Bozeman.

Gage met us with his sights set on monster brown trout. He first inspected our rigs and after taking a look at my 9-foot 4X tippet, he broke off several feet and re-rigged it with a 12-pound leader and an 8-pound tippet.

"We don't want anything to break off with this light gear," he explained.

I hadn't fished with anything that heavy on a 5-weight fly rod since going after chinook and coho salmon on Lake Michigan years ago.

While Levine and I hooked and landed well over two dozen browns and rainbows, we didn't tie into anything that threatened the integrity of the heavyweight lines. Our largest catch was a 17-inch brown.

Not that I'm complaining. I never, ever complain about a day on the water, even when I come up empty-handed, especially when the day is spent with friends and a guide who understands that the experience is far more important than the fish count.

My only gripe is that someone put the Madison River so far from my front door. ~ Dick Wesnick

About Dick

Dick Wesnick is the retired editor of The Billings Gazette. He served on the Montana Governor's Task Force on Whirling Disease. You can find more of his articles on Montana FlyLine.com. or he can be reached at rivrsrun@aol.com -- when he isn't fishing.


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