More than 15 volunteers braved gusty winds and intimidating clouds to rescue trout stranded in the West Madison ditch on Thursday, Nov. 7. Madison River Foundation (MRF) Director Richard Lessner led the annual trout rescue, dividing volunteers into three groups to cover sections of the 16-mile ditch.
“We have to do this annually after [Valley Garden Ranch] closes the head gate,” Lessner explained. “It’s difficult for a lot of folks to make it out to help because it’s a weekday, but we’re hostage to when the gates are closed so we just ask everyone who can to make it.”
Lessner went on to explain that the foundation has a principal group of very involved volunteers, but that some years many people are unable to assist.
MRF President David Bricker led a group onto the Madison Meadows Golf Course; wielding buckets and nets, the crew climbed down the steep bank and waded into the ditch.
“In years past we’ve gotten up to 2,500 fish—maybe even 3,000,” Bricker said.
According to Bricker, the volume of fish remaining in the ditch depends on the fall weather, and when and how the ditch company decides to close the head gate. When the water in the ditch is reduced incrementally over time, many of the fish escape back upstream to the Madison River, but if the water is closed off rapidly, many trout of substantial size get stranded in standing pools of water.
“I think the biggest we ever netted was a 26-inch brown,” Bricker said.
Madison River Foundation volunteers are the core of the effort, but each year brings new faces to the cause. Holly Rainey traveled from Bozeman with her children—Nicolas and Isabel—to assist this year.
“We spend all summer on the water,” Rainey said. “It’s all about teaching the kids to appreciate and conserve the nature they enjoy.”
As part of the group that concentrated their efforts in the part of the ditch running through the golf course, Rainey and her children used nets to catch the fish and deposited them in five-gallon buckets so they could be transported to the Madison River.
After a long day in the ditch, Lessner was pleased with the amount of success.
“On the really positive side, we continue to see a reduction of the number of fish in the ditch,” Lessner said. “In the last few years the ditch managers have gradually reduced the flow of water in the ditch over a couple weeks…we’d just as soon not have to rescue any fish!”
Since there was still substantial water in some sections of the ditch, catching fish was difficult. Regardless, the volunteers were able to catch and release several hundred fish in just one afternoon.