HELENA – Restrictions aren't needed along a stretch of the Boulder River near Big Timber, state fisheries officials said, despite residents' and anglers' protests that the river is being degraded by too many commercial floaters.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are recommending that the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday reject a petition calling for a prohibition on commercial floating on certain days of the week and when the water drops below a particular level.
The commission will consider the petition and the recommendation at its meeting in Helena.
The Boulder River flows north from the Absaroka Mountains to where it meets the Yellowstone River at Big Timber. The stretch of river at issue runs from the small community of McLeod, about 16 road miles from Big Timber, to the confluence of the Yellowstone. That part of the river, which is largely surrounded by private land, had seen relatively little fishing pressure until 2011.
The 66 petitioners say since that year, the number of guided fishing trips has increased and has lasted longer through the season. The petition estimates that areas that had seen two or three boats a week are now crowded with up to 25 boats a day.
That leaves the fish with nowhere to hide when the river levels fall, and floaters jockeying with wade anglers for the few holes where the fish are, according to the petition.
"Left unchecked, the Boulder River fishery is in grave danger," the petition says.
An FWP investigation into the petition's claims finds that angler use has increased, but is still low compared to other streams in the region. Further, populations of brown and rainbow trout are stable, and the average size of the brown trout last year was the largest recorded in 20 years.
"There is no indication that trout numbers are being impacted by increased angling pressure," the FWP analysis accompanying its recommendation said.
Commercial guides are reluctant to speak on the issue for fear of escalating the tension. Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana Executive Director Robin Cunningham said outfitters are always looking for new waters, and the Boulder River has become a more popular destination in recent years.
However, the relatively difficult public access restricts use already, he said.
"It's a relatively narrow stream and access is very limited for boats," he said. "The few spots where access is available, there isn't much space for parking. So it's self-limiting there."
Adam Wagner, the author of the petition, is himself a commercial guide as owner of Sweetcast Angler in Big Timber. He said Wednesday that he doesn't doubt the FWP analysis of the fishery. To him, the bigger problem is the potential for conflict between floaters and wading fishermen in the late season when the water levels fall.
Rafts float or are dragged through narrow channels where other fishermen are already working the water, scaring the fish and ruining the anglers' experience, he said.
"It's really an etiquette thing as much as anything," Wagner said.
The FWP analysis said most of the issues on the river have involved private landowners "who have had relatively exclusive use of the river." Instead of imposing restrictions, FWP officials recommended those involved, including commercial outfitters, work out a solution on their own.