Montana will never again be as it was in the '70s and '80s, or the '90s or even the '00s.
There isn't really a problem beyond a population that wants to experience some connection to the natural world and its beauty and the northern Rockies has that in spades. It was inevitable that with continued population growth that the region would need to adapt in multiple ways to the changes that are occurring and the desire of people to experience all that the region has to offer.
Southwest Montana is experiencing unprecedented growth and has been growing since I moved here in the '80s. Bozeman's growth is off the charts. It's still a desirable place to live due to it's natural beauty and recreational opportunities and now it has the added benefit (or curse) of being a location in Montana where you can actually make money with a booming local economy.
With that growth and money has come a dramatic increase in river use by the locals. Everyone seems to have a drift boat or raft in the yard or garage. Even if we didn't have more people coming from the rest of the nation, and the world, that are serviced by the commercial use permit holders (outfitters and guides) there would still be a dramatic increase in traffic and use of the rivers.
It's interesting to note that guided trips make up something like less than 20% of the user day figures for the upper Madison, though guided trips do make up something like half of the user days on the float/fish section from Lyons to Ennis.
I'm tossing out these figures off the top of my head, anyone who knows or wants to look up the actual figures from FWP feel free to correct me.
Until recently I mostly blamed outfitters and guides for the crowding and was somewhat surprised at the actual numbers. Out of state fisherman make up the majority of the users on upper Madison.
Here's a link to the FWP survey and report for 2017.
This article discusses commercial use numbers, it's not quite what you would expect given the finger pointing at outfitters of which I've been guilty of in the past though clearly commercial use plays a significant role in fishing pressure on the Madison.
It should be noted that, so far, there hasn't been a decline in the overall fishery beyond the whirling disease issue. The river still fishes very well and the numbers of fish are still very good compared to historical numbers since records started being kept. The fishery isn't, at this point, in danger of some sudden collapse due to fishing pressure. It's remarkable really, how well it still fishes.
If you like fishing the upper and weren't here this summer you missed out, the hopper fishing was the best I've seen in a very long time. It was way, way, WAY better than the salmon fly hatch or any other hatch for that matter.
I personally stopped fishing the upper Madison years ago because I felt it wasn't the kind of experience I used to enjoy but it's been interesting watching younger people embrace the local fishing culture and seemingly enjoy it just as much as I did. They don't have my frame of reference and there's really no reason they should. Things change, I have to rein in the "back in the day" talk to avoid being too annoying.
The river and fishing is how it is now. The fishery is healthy. The pressure is high. While there's no going back I do think that some steps can be taken to control the ever increasing pressure though I do wonder if we are also seeing somewhat of a bubble related to the economy.
I'm not sure that pointing the finger at commercial users as the main source of pressure is accurate though. As I noted above they/we only account for less than 20%.
I started guiding this year. After going through a whole lot of stages of anger, annoyance and denial with how things aren't like they were back in the day I've come around to acceptance that this is now how it's going to be and pretty much has to be.
It was interesting to experience again the upper Madison on a regular, often daily routine. It fished great. I was often never out of sight of five other boats but if you launched after the guide rush you could be surprisingly alone.
What I was most impressed by was how much people enjoyed just being out there. The never-ever's were the most enthralled with the experience. From there point of view there was no crowding, they had nothing to compare it to. It was refreshing and actually really fun to see the river through their eyes and not my own jaded ones.
The one issue regarding regulation on the upper that I think everyone needs to be aware of is that if you close off the walk/wade sections to boats you effectively create private access to the upper Madison. This would appear to be the goal of the Madison River Foundation.
If the walk wade section around Reynolds pass is closed to boats land owners will have exclusive access to the Madison. You can't walk that whole stretch without trespassing. The same goes for the stretch between Ennis and the lake, commonly called Valley Garden. There are lodges and private holdings within those stretches. You can guess how they would like to see the river regulated.
This, in my view, is the single most important issue facing users of the upper Madison right now. NOT creating exclusive access by closing sections to navigation by watercraft. It may seem annoying to be at Three Dollar bridge and see a raft go by but those boats are spreading out the pressure and accessing water you can't get to on foot. If the walk wade section is closed to boats, keep in mind you can't fish from the boat, then the Madison will suddenly have water that only private land owners can access AND this will concentrate MORE pressure in the walk/wade stretch that can be accessed on foot.
This is not how we do things in Montana and never has been and never will be if I can help it.
It's important to understand that while it sounds like eliminating boats in the walk/wade sections means no annoying boats dropping into water near you it actually means creating private water in navigable streams in Montana which is in direct opposition to our state constitution.