Water levels on the Blackfoot River dropped so low over the Labor Day weekend that state officials have closed much of the drainage to fishing starting Thursday.
A faulty gauge misled Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks river monitors last week before it was reset. FWP Region 2 fisheries manager Pat Saffel said the U.S. Geological Survey gauge read 520 cubic feet per second at midweek, then abruptly sunk to 480 cfs.
“It looked like we were going to slide through with the Blackfoot this year,” Saffel said of the water flows. But on Tuesday, the level had dropped to 467 cfs.
A drought response plan among farming irrigators, landowners, anglers, outfitters and government fisheries managers calls for 24-hour-a-day closure of the river and its tributaries when it dips below 500 cfs. That affects Morrell, Gold, Belmont, Cottonwood, Copper and Monture creeks, as well as the main stem, North Fork and Landers Fork of the Blackfoot.
The plan calls for reduced water use on land, as well as the angling ban through a “shared sacrifice” agreement, according to Big Blackfoot Trout Unlimited chapter president Scott Gordon.
“The water level concentrates fish in deep pools,” Gordon said. “It gets to be like shooting fish in a barrel. Most of the irrigators had already shut down or limited their draws when we reached the 700 cfs mark in early July. That’s the voluntary shutdown trigger, and a significant part of why we haven’t hit 500 long before now.”
September typically sees a lighter guided fishing load on the Blackfoot than July and August, but many anglers like to visit there in fall. This year some pressure may be absorbed by the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers, which only recently cooled down enough to be released from hoot-owl fishing restrictions. The hoot-owl rule closes rivers to fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight, when the water’s warmest and fish are in danger of overheating.
FWP spokeswoman Vivica Crowser said in 80 years of recordkeeping on the Blackfoot, September streamflows had remained above 500 cfs a robust 88 percent of the time.
River monitors will check flows daily and lift the fishing closure as soon as conditions improve. Anglers can check for details on fishing restrictions or closures on the FWP homepage at fwp.mt.gov. Select Drought & Fire under the Hot Topics heading, or check the FWP online fishing guide.