West Madison Ditch
Like many rivers in the west, the Madison is a valued resource for both recreation and irrigation. People love to float and fish the river, and farmers and ranchers have long diverted water from the river to irrigate their land per their water rights. There are 4 main irrigation diversions, “ditches”, in the Madison Valley between Quake Lake and Ennis. Agriculture and recreation have shared Madison River water for over 100 years. If anyone is interested in more detail on our ditches and their history I suggest reviewing this water resources survey published by the Montana state engineers office in 1954, reprinted in 1965, located here: http://dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/water/water-rights/docs/survey-books/madisonwrs_1965.pdf
The Madison ditches are all open, there is nothing to prevent fish from leaving the river and entering the ditches, and many do for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to crowding and the search for food. They live in the ditches through the summer but often meet their demise in the fall when the headgates are closed and the ditches dry up. Some escape the drying ditches back to the river, but many do not.
For the last few years MRF and others have organized a fish rescue for one of the ditches. Volunteers net fish from the drying ditch and return them to the river, a very gratifying and fun project. Thousands of fish have been saved for the cost of a nice barbecue for the volunteers. But is there a better way to save the fish?