Carol Northcut | Wednesday, 12 July 2023

Southwest Montana has been trout fishing mecca for many years, but that is changing. The normal number of fish per used to be 1,800 to 2,000, according to Guy Alsentzer, executive director of the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. Now is it is 400 to 500. This week, the Montana FWP (Fish, Wildlife & Parks) started studies to look into the reasons for the decline. It is a multi-factorial problem: Over fishing, insecticides used on crops in the surrounding farmlands (including those sprayed on seeds like nicotinamides that only wash off and do nothing for the plant), nutrient pollution, more intense heat, lower snow packs, and “understudied diseases.” Alsentzer said, “The big notable issue this year is the idea that we have no recruitment of what are call young of the year. Which is to say the spawning class of the young fish. If we don’t have population recruitment, it means we’re going to have a crashing population number.”

The Central District of Montana, where the most famous rivers are: Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby, Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, Missouri and large parts of the Yellowstone River, have been open year-round for fishing. There is some talk of changing this regulation, which will force reduction in angling pressure, especially during the spawning months.  

Science has shown that stress, of which catch and release is a part, reduces the fitness of fish. Fitness refers to the ability to reproduce. When fish are caught and released, the fish experiences high levels of stress chemicals which can take several days to resolve. If the fish is caught before the stress is resolved, the stress chemicals rise even higher. One can extrapolate that, with the high fishing pressure, some fish may not regain any level of normalcy for months, thereby significantly reducing their fitness. Couple that with hotter water temperatures and you have a very stressed population overall. As anglers, the only thing we can really control is our own impact on angling pressure by limiting the number of fish we catch.

The State of Montana, via the FWP, has asked the public to report when finding diseased and dead/dying fish.

We are in Northwest Montana, which, as previously mentioned, is in moderate to severe drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. We’ve had a bad water year, and water levels are very low in Glacier National Park and surrounding areas. That was evidenced by our time fishing on the Middle Fork Saturday. It’s a beautiful river with Westslope Cutties and bull trout. We caught a couple of fish where one of many creeks enters the river and then left to hike.

It’s hard not to want to fish, especially when it’s one of the fun things we enjoy as a couple. We used to mountain bike daily, and often went on trips just to ride and camp. When we moved to Colorado, we were introduced to fly fishing. We fished a lot, but still rode a lot too, that is, until we got Bodie, our dog. I’d had dreams that he’d run behind us on shorter rides and be a great streamside dog. But as he got older, he developed an extremely strong chase instinct and couldn’t be let off leash. If I tried to ride with him on leash, he’d pull me off the trail or spin the other direction and I’d crash. Despite lots of time training, the instinct remained. Consequently, I rode a lot less and walked a lot more. We fished with him, but he hated swimming, was always on leash and we’d have to tie him in very close sight. It was a lot of work, but we loved him dearly, or at least I did.

Now we don’t have a dog but have a lot of places to explore and fish, which we do, but limit ourselves to a couple/three hours of fishing. That may change when we finally get a Watermaster and can fish lakes.