Imposing cliffs

Steep cliffs rise sharply from Holter Reservoir in the Gates of the Mountain section. Anglers at the bottom right were casting to shore in hopes of hooking into a trout.

BRETT FRENCH, Gazette Staff

A Lewistown man who saw his proposal to hold a walleye fishing tournament on Holter Reservoir denied by the state is taking his case before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday.

Don Pyrah proposed that the Holter Thaw Walleye Tournament take place on April 14. The tournament would be limited to about 30 teams, and in April to give anglers that fish the Montana Walleye Circuit an early season tournament, he said.

Pyrah has been involved with organizing tournaments for years, both through the circuit and formerly as president of the Crooked Creek tournament on Fort Peck.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks denied Pyrah’s Holter proposal, saying it runs counter to the reservoir’s management plan for walleyes. The plan calls for prohibition of walleye tournaments as long as slot limits for walleye are in place. A slot limit is a length restriction for keeping fish, typically aimed at bolstering size or reproduction.

From 2000 to 2013, Holter had a 20- to 28-inch slot limit prohibiting keeping fish in that size range. Since 2014, the limit changed to allow only one fish over 25 inches to be kept.

“It’s a little bit different management on Holter than on Canyon Ferry and Hauser where the main focus is just on harvest,” said FWP fisheries management bureau chief Eric Roberts. “With Holter, there’s a history of management for really large trophy fish … and in our mind the length restriction is essentially a slot limit.”

FWP says the management plans came in part through citizen working groups. The agency notes that a catch-and-release fishing tournament would likely have a minimal impact biologically on the fishery, and the size restriction is in place essentially for social reasons in growing bigger walleyes.

“Biologically it makes no sense to deny a catch-and-release tournament because we’re not taking any fish,” Pyrah said. “We’d have less impact on that fishery than just turning 60 guys (keeping fish) loose for a weekend.”

FWP recommends the commission uphold the denial, but goes on to say that the management plan comes up for review this year, and changes could come under consideration through public comment.

Pyrah points out similar size restrictions are in place for upstream reservoirs Hauser and Canyon Ferry that are allowed to host tournaments, adding that the denial “seems like an inconsistency.” The tournament’s early date would also have minimal conflict with others using the reservoir, he said.

While he plans to see the appeal through, Pyrah recognizes the slot limit provisions in the management plan and says that if denied, he will engage FWP going forward to try to get a future tournament approved.

Walleye numbers have declined in Holter in recent years, Roberts said, but remain within management targets. The decline has occurred as the perch population has exploded, leading to high limits on perch and a noted difficulty in getting walleye to bite with so many forage fish available.

“Walleye numbers have been low, which is surprising as we’d expect higher numbers with all the perch,” Roberts said. “We are still seeing really good growth – there are still quite a few trophy fish out there.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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