Rumor has it, if you wanted to tempt a hefty brown trout, you’d drive south on U.S. Highway 93 to the pass named for Nez Perce Chief Joseph. There, make a left turn to drop out of the Beaverhead Mountains into the high, wide valley formed by the Big Hole River.
Although fed by snows along the Continental Divide, the meandering Big Hole River stays relatively tame, so it’s a favorite for area anglers looking for fishable water when the Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers are still running cloudy and high. Or at least it used to be about seven or eight years ago, before the brown trout began to dwindle.
Now, in an effort to rescue brown trout populations, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has changed the fishing regulations twice in the past six months, but some question the recent hasty change.
On Monday, in a meeting that was announced just seven days prior, the FWP commission voted 6-1 to shift the season dates for brown trout by one month in both the spring and fall in a lower stretch of river where it winds along U.S. Interstate 15 from Maiden Rock Road to Brownes Bridge fishing access site. FWP Region 3 Commissioner Pat Byorth cast the lone opposing vote.
Anglers may now begin fishing the Big Hole River for brown trout on April 1 but will have to stop fishing on September 30. Commissioner KC Walsh said the commission would also be considering closure of an upper stretch of river from Dickie Bridge to Jerry Creek.
The change comes just four months after the commission voted to set the brown trout season to run from the third weekend in May until Oct. 31. That was approved instead of another proposal that would have closed a longer section of the Big Hole River from Dickie Bridge to the confluence of the Jefferson River from Oct. 1 through March 31.
FWP Fisheries Management Bureau Chief Eric Roberts said the earlier date of April 1 wasn’t highly controversial because the higher, colder flows of spring are a good environment for fish compared to the warm, low flows of summer that prompt hoot-owl fishing closures.
“It’s the other end of the season (that’s critical),” Roberts said. “By closing on Sept. 30 rather than Oct. 31, that reduces a stressor during peak spawning season for brown trout, especially in this section.”
An FWP-organized working group met in August to come up with ways to try to save Montana’s brown trout, a favorite with anglers even though it’s nonnative. Survival of juvenile brown trout is critical, and the recent summer heat and drought is probably the biggest problem as it leaves rivers parched and warm.
Working group member Paul Sideway told the commission the group unanimously agreed that a number of rivers needed to be closed during the brown trout spawning season if the populations were to recover from a six-year catastrophic decline.
“This is the perfect opportunity to practice this idea of protecting the resource,” Sideway said.
While the end date appeared to be an easy call, some people questioned the need for an earlier season start and ultimately whether the commission should be making another season change with minimal public input.
Byorth, a fisheries biologist, praised the fall closure but pointed out possible problems with moving the opening date to April 1. Trout, being cold-blooded, don’t move or eat as much during the winter when water temperatures are cold. So April is when they finally start to feed more as the water warms.
“By pushing it back to April 1, we’re just pushing it smack into the time when brown trout, coming out of the hard winter, are starting to feed heavily and they’re not in very good shape,” Byorth said. “We also have rainbow trout spawning at that time. So are we just shifting pressure onto the spawners and post-winter brown trout to accommodate more opportunity? I’m not sure that’s biologically warranted.”
Roberts admitted the working group hadn’t approved the dates. Because the working group met for one day to discuss several options on several rivers, no decision was made for the Big Hole River. So the date changes are “just more capturing the general discussion,” Roberts said. Also because fishing pressure can be lower in April, “largely, our staff is comfortable with opening on April 1,” Roberts said.
Montana Trout Unlimited spokesman Clayton Elliot suggested the commission give tentative instead of final approval to the earlier dates. Then send it out for public comment, because the commission already approved the fishing season as the third weekend in May through the end of October.
“We would like to see this start in the fall of 2022. I understand it’s not in the motion. But that gives us a chance to look at this season, where we did have a functional closure of that section of the river because of the drought management plan, and then look into the existing closure,” Elliot said. “I would reiterate not to rush and that we should think about doing this as a tentative.”
The commission didn’t consider the later starting date.
Earlier in the meeting, the commission voted to override some changes approved by last year’s commission related to the Madison River. Those concerned about overuse of the Blackfoot River should take note.
In an attempt to decrease overuse of the Madison River, a Bullock-appointed commission had approved two rules that would have gone into effect on Jan. 1. One identified two Madison River stretches that would be wade-fishing only, and the other established a rest-and-rotation system for outfitters and guides that make money off Montana’s trout. Under rest-and-rotation, commercial boats couldn’t use a specific stretch of river on Saturdays and a lower stretch on Sundays.
On Monday, the commission kept the wade-in areas but repealed the rest-and-rotation regulation, saying a recently appointed working group, including commissioner KC Walsh, should be allowed to come up with a solution. Byorth was the only commissioner who dissented to the repeal.
“The goal is to cap traffic. My belief is rest and rotation would increase traffic in certain sections,” Walsh said. “Commercial use is not just the guide. There are two members of the public fishing in those boats. Many of those people are resident anglers from the state of Montana. So we’re trying to do our best to accommodate resident and nonresident anglers.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.