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Bridges of the Ruby River

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver1.jpgFor several reasons I watched David Letterman’s final show on May 20th signifying the end of his iconic twenty-two year career as host of the CBS “Late Show” and another ten on NBC’s “Late Night” starting in 1982. For one, his zany humor was always enjoyable. For another, not only are we the same age, but his career spanned about the same number of years that I lived in Montana. In fact, when I first moved to Twin Bridges in 1983 there was no cable or dish TV. On a good night and with the use of “rabbit ears” we might get the signal of two channels bouncing over the mountains from Butte resulting in varying stages of fuzzy static that offered a paltry choice of programs, so often Letterman’s was the only show available to those of us who claim to be night owls.

And after landing a job as a rod wrapper with Winston Rods in 1984 his late night program would be my entertainment as I wrapped guides on as many rods as possible into the wee morning hours in order to be free to fish as much as I could during the daytime. At that time I was fascinated with the nearby Ruby River and went there with regularity wherever I could gain permission to fish on private land or find a public access point - which were sketchy. But maybe the main reason I watched the show was that it was the neighborly thing to do, since Letterman, in a noteworthy twist, bought a ranch on the Upper Ruby River just a few years before I retired. Consequently, as the show that night neared its end, nostalgia set in. Not only did his retirement mark the end of an era for many a Baby Boomer, it was also a formal reminder of the three wonderful decades I lived in Montana that are now over for me as well. More importantly, his sentimental departure prompted a reflection back to those early days on the Ruby. But little did I realize then the impact that the unassuming Ruby River would have on the history of Montana.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver2.jpgNot much was known about the Ruby by the general angling public in the 80s. There was always a “best-kept-secret” aspect of this tailwater gem as it flowed out of the reservoir through forty-some miles of private ranch land until it entered the Beaverhead River near Twin Bridges. The same could be said about the river above the reservoir. After its headwaters pass through National Forest land much of the Upper Ruby winds its way through the mountains and then into a beautiful corridor of willows and private lands and pastures, including Ted Turner’s, until emptying into the reservoir. Back then it was mostly locals who fished the entire river after gaining access from angler friendly landowners, and the excellent fishing reports were intriguing. As it turned out, however, many of the old time Montana ranchers would grant permission to anyone who would kindly ask, local or not. But as these ranchers died or sold out, this kind of access to the Ruby started to fade away. Also there was a growing resentment from longstanding Montanans as a result of the passage of a stream access law in 1985. Although ranchers legally own the water in the river the law allowed for citizens to utilize river corridors by foot or by boat between high water marks for recreational purposes. This law rankled the ranching community because the ranchers deemed this to be a violation of their property rights. But in Montana fish and wildlife constitutionally belong to the public and the court recognized the right of the public to fairly access fish. Subsequently, conflicts arose.

But it wasn’t until the mid-90s that several critical issues on the Ruby came to light, and from that time forward this obscure Montana river would be cast into the national limelight forever. Undoubtedly, after the movie “A River Runs Through It” was released in 1991, a new age of fly anglers was unleashed upon every river flowing through the entire Big Sky State, and the Ruby was no exception. At that same time the entire state was still subject to an unabated drought that had begun in 1985. As a result, the dwindling water supply and the increased number of anglers desiring fishing access created a new age tension between ranchers and sportsmen that had actually started when a section of the Jefferson River was dewatered in 1988. And since the Ruby River is a tributary to the Jefferson watershed it followed that there was a closer scrutiny of water usage throughout the entire drainage with reports that sections of the Ruby were regularly drying up during that period as well, especially in the early spring.

Then, in the fall of 1994 one last push of water from the already depleted Ruby Reservoir resulted in a release of silt that threatened to suffocate trout and bury miles of river below the impoundment in a slug of muck. Sportsmen groups, state agencies, and even concerned ranchers rescued many fish, but emotions between ranchers and sportsmen erupted to an unprecedented level in an on-going battle of finger pointing. And that catastrophe drew the attention of national media. To assuage the situation then Governor Marc Racicot appointed a task force made up of sportsmen, ranchers, and citizens to resolve the water flow crisis on the Ruby, and the result was historic. A watershed council was formed and an agreement was eventually reached with the landowners along the entire river to replace archaic head gates with more efficient water delivery systems partially paid for by the public to allow more water to stay in the river while providing sufficient enough flow for ranching operations. Although this win-win eased the conflict between the ranching and sportsmen communities, that task force revealed another issue simmering and ready to explode as well.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver5.jpgAt the time there was an out-of-state land development corporation openly planning to buy and/or lease as much property and river access along the Ruby as possible. In its brochures this company boasted exclusive members-only access to the entire river that it ultimately intended to privatize. To make matters worse the association’s representative was the modern day equivalent of a snake oil salesman from the Wild West. Since access to the Ruby was already limited, once again sportsmen were outraged, this time by out-of-state “interlopers”. So in 1996 the Governor once again appointed a task force to address this conundrum on the Ruby, and it was my privilege to serve on that committee. The public argued that since it was funding a portion of the new water delivery system, it had the reasonable expectation to access the river. In the end the effort of the task force resulted in a developed access site directly below the reservoir as well as another bought and paid for by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) with fishing license funds a mile below that. Then FWP negotiated several lease agreements for developed public access sites with three local ranchers to be renewed every five years. The important final component of this resolution, though, was the decision of the Attorney General at the time to issue a legally binding opinion that the public had the right to access any river at every bridge crossing below the high water mark throughout the entire state. In 2009 this opinion became law to the objection of many new age landowners, and once again the Ruby River stood out in the middle of the hard fought process.

Over time there have been several legal challenges to the stream access law in general, but none have been more contentious than the attempts to overturn access at the bridges. The latest challenge that went down to defeat in the Montana Supreme Court in 2014 was launched by wealthy out-of-state landowner Jim Kennedy. His Ruby River property is bookended by two bridges just south of Twin Bridges. Ignoring the fact that most of his stream and property improvements were made possible only by the efforts of public funding to maintain a viable in-stream year round flow, Kennedy has made it clear that the public has no right to access the river at the bridges bordering his property. In sharp contrast a few years back out-of-state landowner Craig Woodson bequeathed his reclaimed section of land and river to the Ruby River Habitat Foundation that allows for managed fishing access on the property. In fact, Craig believed that the Ruby is too precious not to share in some way with the public. Indeed, the tale of two neighbors.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver3.jpgThe story of the Ruby River should never be forgotten. It has been the lightening rod for in-stream flow and the beacon for unprecedented public access that serves as an example for the rest of the Western states. Thanks to the tireless efforts of FWP, Public Lands and Water Access Association (PLWAA), Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU), the Lewis and Clark and George Grant Chapters of TU, various watershed, ranching and sportsman groups, the Ruby thrives today as both an ecosystem and a blue ribbon fishery.

And as the “Late Show” tribute concluded on May 20th who would have thought as I was wrapping rods watching David Letterman when his career began in the mid-80s that he would one day become another page in Ruby River lore. In my reverie I could only hope that he truly does appreciate the significance of the river that proudly flows under the bridges of time and through his piece of Montana.

Legacy
CARP-E DIEM
 

Comments 1

Guest - Bill on Friday, 19 August 2016 19:41

Hi Jerry, excellent piece here about the trials and tribulations of the Ruby River. Just heard from my new neighbor (we just moved to Alder), that you have relocated to the east coast. Bummer for me as I was hoping to finally meet you in person one day and see if you would sign my (your) books which I have enjoyed very much. My wife and I just took a drive around Judy Lane and noted the new (to me anyway) yellow gates which I'm told signify Mr. Letterman's property. I also noted the many signs around the bridge that were not there too many years ago. I certainly hope David will not follow Mr. Cox-Kennedy in attempting to keep the public off the river so long as it is legally accessed. Regards and good luck back east!

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Hi Jerry, excellent piece here about the trials and tribulations of the Ruby River. Just heard from my new neighbor (we just moved to Alder), that you have relocated to the east coast. Bummer for me as I was hoping to finally meet you in person one day and see if you would sign my (your) books which I have enjoyed very much. My wife and I just took a drive around Judy Lane and noted the new (to me anyway) yellow gates which I'm told signify Mr. Letterman's property. I also noted the many signs around the bridge that were not there too many years ago. I certainly hope David will not follow Mr. Cox-Kennedy in attempting to keep the public off the river so long as it is legally accessed. Regards and good luck back east!



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