By Montana Grant

Posted: June 10, 2023

The Bighole River is in trouble. It has been in trouble, and there is no plan in place to save the fishery. The same is true for the Madison, Bighorn, and other famous rivers. Fish populations are at record lows. Trout populations, especially browns, are down nearly 70%!

Back in the day, eastern limestone streams were amazing fisheries. The Falling Springs, Letort, Big Springs and many other waters were hard fishing but amazing fisheries. Today, they are ruined, occasionally stocked, and heavily fished. The same is happening to Big Sky Country fisheries.

The similarities can’t be ignored. More than 30 outfitters and guides have appealed to Gov. Gianforte to take action to help save these fisheries. His response has been that he “is aware and trusts the FWP to fix it.”

Some folks simply blame everything on Climate Change. It is true that water temperatures have increased and that drought conditions are common across the west. These are not new issues and have occurred for generations.

As a Teacher and Biologist, I would give the Bighole River a grade of ‘D’. Here’s why.

D   Diseases    Viruses and disease impact fish when the environment adds stress to the fishery. Fungus grows on fish that have been Caught and Released improperly. Warmer waters invite diseases like PKD, Proliferative Kidney Disease, to persist.

D   Dewatering    Agriculture irrigation and over development are removing too much water from the river. Less water means less habitat, warmer temps, and more stress on the fishery. Stressed fish get diseases more easily, preyed upon, and at risk.

D   Destruction of habitat     Farming and mowing lawns right up to the bank of the watershed decreases shade, habitat, and food sources for fish. Recent floods have destroyed and eroded shorelines. A 50–100-foot buffer, and more plantings, need to be enacted. More shade means cooler water.

D    Deliberate overfishing     Fishermen have been pounding the Big Sky fisheries. The number of guides, outfitters, and fishermen has exploded in the last 20 years.

D   Destroying the fishery.    It’s never just one thing that destroys fisheries. It’s several. Over development, overfishing, exploitation, damage to the ecosystem, less and warmer waters, etc. A fish can only be caught and released so many times. After many long minutes of cell phone pictures, improper netting and handling, vulnerability to predators, fish will become ill or die more easily. Brown trout are not native to the Bighole. Perhaps the conditions of the river will no longer sustain these genetically stocked /wild fish. Nature knows best.

D   Damage is Done    There is no easy or quick fix. New regulations would cause more closures, limit fishing pressure, cost farmers irrigation issues, and take years or decades to repair. Every landowner wants a home/lodge next to the water. They water their lawns from the rivers. Shrubs and trees are removed to improve their views. Management of the land impacts the water.

If the MT. Fish and Wildlife do not act, the same will happen to all of trout fishing rivers. Sadly, the Madison River has the same problems. Last year’s Hegben Dam failure did not help. New regulations, restrictions, and management have not been improved enough. Too many groups have too many agendas. The eastern Limestone fisheries have never recovered from these same problems.

The reality is that Big Sky Fisheries mean Big Bucks! Money talks and the fish are paying the bills.

Montana Grant

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