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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fishing reg changes made as part of Montana trout study

The Ruby River in southwestern Montana.  (Brett French/Billings Gazette)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Altering fishing regulations for southwest Montana rivers as trout populations crash seems perilous, two members of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission said earlier this month.

“It just strikes me as wrong to be testing methods of take on a troubled fishery,” said commissioner KC Walsh, of Martinsdale.

Walsh also advocated for a study on hook scarring of fish on the Madison River. After a brief timeout for discussion, he made a proposal that barbless hooks be required on the Madison River downstream from Varney Bridge to Ennis Lake.

Angling and conservation groups voiced support for the fishing proposals, citing the need for science-based information. Jeff Lukas of the Montana Wildlife Federation, however, expressed his group’s concern that some members of the public may feel left out of the regulatory process, citing a short window for online comments as one example.

Despite concerns, the commission voted to authorize all 42 angling changes during the group’s October meeting.


The southwest regulations will affect the upper Jefferson River’s tributaries, including the Ruby, Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers. A five-year study is being conducted by Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Montana State University’s Cooperative Fishery Research Unit on the streams. The study will also examine the Madison River to understand the amount of adult fish mortality and the causes.

In addition to gathering information on adult fish mortality, the research is designed to reveal what is driving, or impeding, fish recruitment and to develop a method to estimate total river use by anglers and other recreationists. The upper Yellowstone River will be included in the recreational-use study.

Low streamflows and high water temperatures will also be included in the research, with the Madison serving as a comparison because streamflows are steadier and cooler than the Jefferson tributaries.


As an example of the fishing regulation changes, on the Big Hole River from Dickie Bridge to Brownes Bridge fishing access site, regulations would be changed to allow artificial lures only. Gone will be restrictions banning treble or double hooks. From Brownes downstream there would be no gear restrictions. Both sections would restrict the season from April 1 through Sept. 30 and be catch-and-release only.

The seasonal closure is an attempt to protect spawning brown trout from anglers, as well as the eggs they lay.

As FWP noted in its regulation proposals, brown trout populations are at an all-time low on the Big Hole and rainbow trout numbers have also fallen. Combined, the “total trout abundance is the lowest since records began in 1969.”


Commission vice-chairman Pat Tabor said he liked the idea of “going to school” to learn more about how different angling methods may affect fish mortality.

“I think the project is outstanding, and we need that information, because there is so much conflict in the literature as to how effective some of these equipment modifications are or are not,” he said. “But at the same time, it feels risky if we’re doing it in a population area where we already know that we’re at risk.”

Justin Gude, Fish, Wildlife & Parks Research and Technical Service Section chief, told the commission that based on existing literature it’s easy to hypothesize researchers will see a “big difference” in fish mortality between areas where there are no restrictions versus those areas with artificial lures.

“We would hypothesize that beyond that we might see minimal differences,” he said. “But you’re right, we don’t know under these kinds of stressful conditions.”

Should the researchers see high mortality rates as a result of the regulation changes, Gude said the commission would be consulted.

Mortality will be measured by tagging fish and recapturing them, as is done on other streams to estimate fish populations, said Eileen Ryce, fisheries division chief.


Following the angling considerations, the commission moved on to two petitions by northwestern Montana landowners regarding boating restrictions. FWP recommended the commission deny both because the agency couldn’t identify the existing conditions as harming the habitat or resources or causing any safety concerns.

The first involved a request from Emmett Quigley to have a no-wake zone implemented on Half Moon Slough along the lower Flathead River. Quigley said the shoreline around the 32-acre waterway is being eroded by boats not slowing down.

A 10-person working group endorsed a no-wake zone, as well as a seasonal closure from March 1 to April 15 to be consistent with a nearby closure on Church Slough to protect migrating waterfowl.

Commissioner Brian Cebull was the one to initiate the idea of using a working group to develop proposals for the commission’s consideration on previously proposed boating restrictions on the Boulder River in Sweet Grass County. Yet he said he worries the groups are coming up with a “hodgepodge of regulations” across the state.

Commissioner Jeff Burrows, of Hamilton, agreed. He said he would rather see a standard set of rules instead of a “shotgun approach.”

FWP director Dustin Temple said his wardens are concerned about the ability to enforce different regulations across the many sloughs on the Flathead River. Temple added he didn’t know of a one-size-fits-all solution.

Lukas, of the Montana Wildlife Federation, expressed concern the department would form local working groups of volunteers only to ignore their suggestions.

“We need these to thrive,” he said.

After a 3-3 tie vote on a proposal to adopt the petition, commission chairwoman Lesley Robinson stepped in to break the tie in favor of the landowner. She had previously announced the petitioner was a family friend and normally she wouldn’t be required to vote. Quigley said he had not talked to Robinson about his petition.

Lake Five

The commission then moved on to a similar situation where a working group had proposed a regulation to prohibit wake boating and wake surfing on Lake Five until July 1. Upon that date, wake boats and wake surfing would be limited to the hours from noon to 6 p.m. The restrictions were requested to lessen shoreline erosion and to protect a nesting loon.

Wake boater David Wilde called the proposal “absolutely shameful” and said it had nothing to do with erosion or loon nesting. Lake Five landowner Dan Simonson suggested continued use, even if restricted, would not have an impact.

Suzy Boylan, who said her family had been at the lake for 70 years, argued the compromise supports multiple use.

The 150-acre Y-shaped lake is located in Flathead County, about 31 miles northeast of Kalispell near the west side of Glacier National Park. Paddleboarder Susie Frederick argued the lake was too small for the larger boats.

Despite the disagreement over the petition, the commission approved the measure in a unanimous vote.

The Half Moon Slough and Lake Five petitions will advance through FWP’s rulemaking process where the advisory groups will draft the rules’ language for presentation to the commission.