By Montana Grant

Posted: August 21, 2021

This term refers to the current conditions of our once iconic Montana watersheds. I saw this term used by a writer in the Mountain Journal. Spring, Summer, and Falls have a dramatic increase in fishing pressure and watershed use. You will find traffic jams, crowds, and gunwale to Gunwale drift boats in these already stressed rivers.

Water temperatures are so low and warm, that fish are dying off, tubers, boaters, are finding the waters comfortable for swimming. Spring runoffs are less, irrigation is more, and crowds have filled the banks of the warm, depleted rivers.  Swimmers are filling the floats and access sites. Camping is next to impossible without a reservation.

Most trout shops now carry twice the stable of guides from just a few decades ago. There are more shops, more outfitters, and more fishermen anxious to catch more trout in Big Sky Country.

Guides are hired to row, transport, provide lunch, entertainment, and hook the clients up with fish. It is not always about teaching fly fishing, it is about fish catching, and Grip and Grin Picts. Watch the river parade of guide boats and look at how every boat is rigged, and fishing. Almost all the boats will be nymphing with strike indicators. The majority sport Guide stickers. This form of nymph fishing is effective, requires minimal casting, can be done with strong tippets, and is rigged, and positioned by the Guide. Client’s flop and drop their rigs and wait for the bobber to go under. Not Norman MacLean’s primary way to catch trout.

Like it or not, Climate Change is an issue. We are hitting record temperatures and drought conditions, along with increased population, more fishing pressure, better gear and equipment, and more stress than ever on the waters. Forest fires, which are mainly caused by humans, are destroying shade, habitat, and watersheds. Erosion is filling tributaries with silt and spawning areas are lost. A few decades of drought are not uncommon in an ecosystem. like it or not, it is never one thing!

The current Rivergeddon Cycle could change in a few trout generations. Precipitation can increase, temperatures can drop, fly fishing can be less crowded when the fishing is terrible. People will move away when Winters get back to normal, their mountain paradises burn up, fisheries plummet, and folks go back to work. Fly fishing will become less popular.

Landowners are also fighting over water rights, new developments need more ponds, which end up as solar collectors that allow water to evaporate, rather than flow. Gallatin County is a major pond builder and water waster in Montana. Potatoes, tourism, and lawns are often more important than trout.

“Wild fish” are being eradicated to be replaced with “Native” trout that lived in a different, colder environment. Warm water species are encroaching on cold water fisheries. Smallmouth Bass are abundant in much of the Yellowstone River. Yellowstone Park fishing is on the brink, due to invasive species, hotter geothermal conditions, and eradication of wild fish.

Brown trout are the heartiest of all wild trout. They are a result of stocking, over a century ago, and now naturally reproduce in our rivers. They can withstand the warmest and harshest conditions. Brown Trout numbers are not at historic lows. If these hearty Brown trout are declining, and suffering, so is every other trout in the watershed. The collapse of a watershed is soon followed by the failing ecosystem.

What is the answer? How do we protect the resources? Whose water needs are most important? This is where the contention is the hottest. It ultimately comes down to money! What has the most value or importance? Irrigation, drinking water, hydroelectric, outfitters, shuttle drivers, family recreation, trout or…? Trout are way down the list.

Here are some creative ways to help save the Blue-Ribbon trout fisheries.

Redefine Guides. These trips should be for education, and instruction, from experienced, and qualified, fishing Mentors. Not ripping lips days. Some of the best fishing waters are reserved for this purpose.

Establish a “Catch Limit”. Guided and private outings. Once you have caught 10 fish, caught, and released, twice a creel limit, put the rod away.

Reduce, or eliminate, creel limits, in challenged watersheds

                Close devastated fisheries, or seasonally challenged fisheries, when at risk.

Require Catch and Release training/ certification. Just like a Hunter Safety program. Require fish friendly nets, forceps, and gear, before you can purchase a license.

Require access permits, at all fishing and boating access sites, to raise funds for watershed, maintenance, and fishery improvements. Much of the damage and vandalism is from non-fishermen, but fishermen pay the bill.

Increase Hoot owl regulations, as necessary.

Reduce fish fighting time, and Grip and Grin picture time. Not sure how, but this kills a lot of fish.

Increase stocking/ create more recreational fishing holes / put and take areas, and other fishing locations for education, recreation, tourists, and instruction.

Restrict/ balance/ evaluate water rights, pond building, landscaping. Keep the water flowing.

Require a natural buffer, 100 feet or more, on all watersheds, that cannot be developed, will promote access, and develop shaded areas.

Improve spawning areas in tributaries and watersheds. Always a great idea.

Improve irrigation ditches/ headgates, to limit water loss, evaporation, and drainage.

Focus on healthy Wild Trout programs and not just Native Programs. Wild trout are the “New Natives”, like pheasants.

Direct / collect funding to support the public fishery, and watershed recreation protection programs

Some of these suggestions are common sense. Some are essential, others are a long time coming. All these ideas will help all fishermen, Guides, and fisheries survive. Since Montana is the Last Best Place, it has become a destination for everyone living in Not So Best places.

I do not know everything about anything but, it does not take a genius to figure out we need some positive change to save our amazing fisheries. Whether it is trout, salmon, rockfish, tuna, or… every fishing place is need of positive change.

The generation of fly fishermen that has participated in this sport for 60-80 years is slowly fading away. We saw and enjoyed the superb fishing that Montana, and so many other destinations, once boasted.

 Fly fishermen led the way toward a different way to fish. We have witnessed, and can boast about, how the trout fisheries have changed. Great fishermen understand what great fishing is.  No one likes to change but…

 Once upon a time, “A River Ran Through It!”

Montana Grant

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