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.

​Reach the Missoulian newsroom at @missoulian, at newsdesk@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5240

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(10) comments


If the fish are so important why in the world don't the FWP get off of their duffs and go speak to the people draining Lolo cr, it is dry from the confluence to around the bridge in Lolo, thousands of fish are dying, westslope cuts, brown, rainbows and the ever precious bull trout laying in pools that are running out of oxygen or ran out, some people have been trying to save these fish on a daily basis but FWP and DNRC and others won't shut the instigators down to get stream flow again. Once again nobody with authority wants to do anything about it, people please complain so we can save thousands of established fish and minnows, not to mention the crustaceans. People aren't returning calls, they are not doing their job.

Objective observer

Thanks for reporting this Gary. I wonder if anybody from the Lolo Watershed Group is aware of this? They are not a government authority but maybe they can help. I emailed your information about the dewatered stream to them.


Thank you objective observer, they were aware of it, and I am sure they were talking to the land owners responsible, I have since received a call from Jed Whitely at the Clark Fork Coalition, he has a few monitoring stations on Lolo cr, Jed is a good guy. I hope with all the recent interest that we don't have problems in the future but if we do and the community notices an issue get a hold of Jed or FWP. Again I have to thank Randy Arnold the regional supervisor for FWP for returning my call. Randy is concerned with the situation and advised people inside of the FWP to take notice. Thanks everyone for seeing our plight and helping out. I would have to say that one way to help mitigate the problem in the future is if an owner with first water rights demanded the water from upstream users or the Clark Fork Coalition or FWP acquired or leased some first water rights near the confluence of Lolo cr and the Bitteroot.

Objective observer

The Lolo Creek Watershed group mentioned that they would like to have a drought emergency plan like the Blackfoot but don't have the money to put one together.


Update: Calls to the FWP were returned, the irrigater got the picture and lessened the amount of diverted water to allow Lolo cr to start refilling, this will save a lot of fish but we have already lost a great deal of them. Lets act quicker in the future to keep this from happening again, people need to be more responsible when they are using the resources.

Objective observer

Way to go, Gary. Thanks for helping to make this happen!

Rez Kid

Eat MORE Bull Trout. Another "threatened Species" that is having a huge negative economic impact on Montana. It is used to stop timber harvest, reduce or stop irrigation, and so on. The Bull trout must reign supreme in the eyes of a few. PUKE


I say eat all of the elk so we don't have to worry about everyone whining about their numbers. Fair trade?

Objective observer

I say we try to make comments that use a little common sense.


I agree with you Objective observer! The least these children could to is to try to be more creative, if it's just attention they seek.

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