BY DOUG HAACKE AND DAN SHORT
Ask anyone in America where they are dreaming about going fishing this summer, and I would bet that Montana makes the short list. On our world-class trout waters, most anglers find their own “River Runs Through It” story to take back home and share with friends and family.
For those of us lucky enough to live here, we watch the calendar, counting the days until the season opener on our favorite stream, float stretch, or lake. What most visitors and many Montanans might not see is that consistently great trout fishing doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the work of our state’s management agencies and watershed advocates.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) built the model for other states in terms of managing a sustainable and productive wild and native coldwater fishery that is that special to anglers from around the world. FWP revises fishing regulations annually to continue providing the best opportunities, while keeping the resource healthy for future generations.
Last winter, the Fish and Wildlife Commission finalized important regulation revisions, including a number aimed at protecting and conserving the wild and native fish populations that make Montana the envy of the West. Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU) worked closely with staff and Commissioners to address a number of the key challenges facing our fishery resources today. I applaud their work.
The introduction of non-native and invasive species and pathogens continues to be one of the biggest threats to Montana’s wild and native fish species. Nearly every Montanan agrees that it is time to get aggressive in battling these invaders if we want to protect our fish – and the ecosystems that they depend on – into the future.
Recently we have seen these threats statewide, including illegal walleye and pike introductions in northwest Montana, New Zealand mud snails in the Bitterroot drainage, and zebra mussel scares in Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs. FWP and the Commission responded with regulation changes to fight back and reduce or eliminate the ecological and economic threats invasives pose to the state.
Montana anglers are unfortunately becoming more alarmed by warming waters as we reach the peak of summer. Climate change is decreasing snowpack, causing earlier and faster snowmelt, and consequently, lower late summer stream flows. High water temperatures can be lethal to our native and wild trout species, especially those subjected to the stress of catch-and-release angling. MTU works diligently with the Department to protect our fisheries and we support their leadership in recognizing “hoot owl” restrictions as a necessary – and in some cases – mandatory tool for protecting trout during critical periods.
The new protections for the Lower Madison add clarity to these rules by instituting a permanent, mandatory thirty-day hoot owl. Additionally, these warmer water temperatures are forcing managers and anglers to respond to new threats like the recent proliferative kidney disease (PKD) outbreak that wreaked havoc on the Yellowstone River. Warm water events like these are likely a sign of times to come.
Montana’s streams, rivers, and lakes are popular here and around the world. Here too, FWP and the Commission have prioritized reducing conflict and high fishing pressure on vital stretches during certain times of the year for sensitive fish populations. For example, new protections on the Smith River’s tributaries in the spring will work to protect spawning fish during their annual migrations. In the Flathead drainage, new single point hook gear restrictions aim to reduce hooking mortality and scarring on native species like Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat. These changes will be beneficial for conserving these fish populations.
Lastly, the start of a new fishing season is always a chance to say thank you to the dedicated public employees within FWP. They often make hard choices when it comes to managing our state’s vast and diverse fisheries and rarely get recognized for their service. From fisheries biologists to enforcement officials and everyone in between, the hard work and commitment to the integrity of our public resource helps all of us enjoy these world-class fisheries today and helps preserve them for future generations. The credit is more than deserved.
Learn more about Montana Trout Unlimited and our work to conserve, protect, and restore Montana’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds at www.montanatu.org.
Doug Haacke, Billings, and Dan Short, Kalispell, are both past Chairs of the Montana Trout Unlimited State Council.