LOLO – The Great Fish Drive of 2016 got off to a great start when a team of three wranglers caught 200 trout in 20 minutes under a single-lane bridge.

In what may be a record for catch-and-release ethics, Ladd Knotek, Will Schreck and Glenn Grandjen pulled 2,143 rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout out of the Lolo-Maclay Ditch in one day and returned them to Lolo Creek. Unlike the Mack Days tournament on Flathead Lake, the two Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists and one retired volunteer got to use nets and an electro-shock device to corral fish in less than a foot of water.

“There are about 300 catchable fish per mile on the upper Clark Fork River,” said Knotek, who led the effort to clear two miles of the five-mile-long private canal. “These cutthroats and browns are the bread and butter of our fishery – they’re a huge economic driver in the Bitterroot. And we’re dependent on these fish making it to the streams.”

They don’t because the irrigation ditch draws so much water from Lolo Creek that the streambed often runs dry by the time it reaches the community of Lolo and its confluence with the Bitterroot River. Trout out-migrating from their spawning waters in the upper end of the Lolo drainage follow the flow, and until last week, the ditch seemed like the way to go.

Except the headgate got shut off on Monday, and thousands of trout suddenly found themselves trapped in shrinking pools, miles from the river. The scenario plays the same all over western Montana, where many irrigation systems lack tools to keep fish out of farm fields.

“Most of the water rights run through November 1, and right after that we start getting frantic calls,” Knotek said. “There are people with buckets trying to rescue fish all along Spurgin Road (by the FWP Region 2 headquarters). We have thousands of these fish dying in the ditches every year.”

Irrigation projects are some of the oldest community endeavors in Montana. The Missoula Irrigation District, which runs water from the Clark Fork all the way to Orchard Homes, predates statehood.

Those ditches were designed to water apple trees and cornfields, stock tanks and residential lawns, miles away from natural channels. They typically start with a diversion dam or weir that shunts water from a river or creek into a ditch headgate. The whitewater playground of Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula is a modification to a weir that pushes water into ditches just east of the Orange Street Bridge.

Unfortunately, no one was thinking about fish when those agricultural projects were built more than a century ago. That causes three problems. In addition to fish getting stranded in drained ditches, they can be blocked out of spawning grounds by poorly designed diversion dams or imperiled by low instream flows as water rights are claimed by irrigation owners.

Lolo Creek has solved one of those problems with a fish ladder that helps trout swim upstream past the diversion dam near Fort Fizzle picnic area. A group of landowners, fishing organizations and conservation groups are negotiating ways to keep more water in Lolo Creek. The remaining challenge is keeping fish out of the Lolo-Maclay Ditch.

Knotek said he understands ditch owners' reluctantce to confront the issue. A fish screen that would keep fish out of the irrigation canals must be custom-designed for each system. They can cost $100,000 or more to build. And they must be maintained; kept clear of debris and ice.

Oregon and Washington fisheries have lots of experience with fish screens, thanks to extensive efforts to revive Pacific salmon and steelhead migration runs. While Montana doesn’t have the same legal urgency to boost cutthroat and rainbow trout, Knotek said it can benefit from the other regions’ groundwork.

“There’s lots of funding sources available to screen this ditch,” Knotek said. “The owners could take all of Lolo Creek with the water rights they have, but they’ve been willing to work with us. The challenge is that at base flows, there’s not enough water to supply all the diversion needs and keep enough water for fish.”

That’s a problem for another day. Right now, the job is rescue, not reconstruction. That was a thrill for Norma and Warren Dexter as they drove past the Balsamroot Road bridge activity last Tuesday.

“This is usually our job,” Warren said. “We’d get all the fish we could and haul them down to the creek. Sometimes we’d get 30 buckets full, and we’d have hold them in the creek to flush all the sediment out of their gills.”

“You guys made my day,” Norma added.

A pair of osprey were less pleased with the loss of a smorgasbord of stranded trout. They chirped in frustration as Knotek, Schreck and Grandjen prepared to clear the bridge.

“It’s going to be a bit of a rodeo for a minute,” Schreck said as he adjusted the power setting on Knotek’s backpack electro-shocker. He stood ready with a dipping net on one side of the bridge pool while Grandjen swept the other end with his own net. Then Knotek zapped the water.

“Oh wow – it’s chock-full of fish,” Grandjen said as dozens of large and small bodies suddenly rushed out from under the one-lane bridge toward Schreck. The electric current temporarily paralyzed fish close enough to the field, and stampeded everything that could still swim.

The two men used quick stabbing motions to swish stunned fish into their nets. Then they’d dump them into buckets of fresh water to recover from the electricity. In barely 50 yards of ditch, they recovered 200 trout between 3 and 15 inches long.

Grandjen, a retired Washington, D.C., sheriff’s deputy-turned-Montana angler, also caught something unexpected: a water bug as big as a business card.

“You don’t want one of those falling down your waders,” Grandjen said. “These guys catch and eat fish. If they were any bigger, you’d never go swimming.”

Once the fish were counted, cataloged and carried back to Lolo Creek, the crew moved to another stranded reach of the ditch. Grandjen saw a 17-inch rainbow trout zip out from a moss mat, heading toward the headgate. Enough water remained in that portion of the canal that big fish might be able to find their own way back to the creek. A few hundred feet farther, however, water levels were so low that the first November cold snap will likely freeze them solid.

The crew got in position again, this time joined by Ryan Neely, an employee of the ditch company.

“I’ve seen big black bears hop out of the ditch around here,” Neely said. “They all come down to feed when the water goes off.”

Grandjen said when he used to live along Lost Horse Creek in the Bitterroot Valley, he’d see footprints of virtually every predator in western Montana rimming the irrigation ditch there when the water stopped flowing. Magpies, hawks and eagles would join the scrum, all aiming for a binge session before winter sets in.

“I’ve volunteered for this five times on the Blackfoot, and this is my first time on the Lolo,” Grandjen said. “One time on the Blackfoot, a property owner set up a game camera. He recorded a sow grizzly, a boar and a sow and three cubs coming for the fish.”

Knotek said the fish populations in the ditch closely mirror what lives in the natural stream – huge percentages of trout with a tiny fraction of whitefish and suckers. Montana hasn’t artificially stocked streams and rivers with hatchery trout since the 1970s, so those wild fish are the foundation of the state’s river-angling industry.

“We’re trying to get the biggest bang for our buck,” Knotek said of the ditch-rescuing effort. “You could have crews all fall doing this. Sometimes it feels like trying to mow a football field with a set of hand-clippers.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.