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FWP approves new Bitterroot River fishing regulations

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A wader on the West Fork moves from one area of the Bitterroot River to another after catching a cutthroat trout.

HAMILTON — After clarifying what constitutes a “float,” the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted new regulations for the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, a world-renowned cutthroat trout fishery.

The regulations divide the river into four stretches. Outfitters and guides are limited to two floats per section per outfitter each day.

Pat Saffel, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 fisheries manager, said defining the meaning of “float” versus “launch” was needed to make it clear that if an outfitter or guide puts a boat in the water in one stretch, then floats through a second stretch, that would constitute one boat for each stretch.

It also means the commercial permit holder can’t launch at one site, then float through another stretch that should be off-limits on that day.

“'Float’ means to visit an occupied surface water in that section, no matter where it was launched, i.e. if a boat is on the water in a section, you are floating it,” Saffel told the commission.

The new regulations are expected to spread use out on the river, easing crowding issues, according to a memo from Region 2 to the commission.

They allow:

• non-commercial users one day per section to use the river without commercial entities.

• wade anglers one section per week for use without floaters.

• collection of important use information moving forward.

The new regulations are designed to keep commercial growth in check on the upper stretch of the Bitterroot River and West Fork.

Saffel said he will complete annual reports on the impacts of the new regulations, and they’ll also undergo a mandatory five-year review.

Commissioner Shane Colton said he was sympathetic to the outfitters, but voted to go forward with the plan as proposed by the 16-member citizen advisory committee.

“I don’t know if we are in a situation to fiddle with it,” Colton added.

Commissioner Dan Vermillion agreed, saying that he expects they’ll hear anecdotal evidence from the public and outfitters during the upcoming fishing season and noting the public can petition for a review of the regulation.

He also urged Region 2 officials to closely monitor the use of the Bitterroot River below the regulated area to see whether the changes have impacts elsewhere.

“My sense is the Bitterroot is going to get busier, not just up above but down below,” Vermillion said.

The new regulations break the West Fork and upper Bitterroot River into four sections. The first three are on the West Fork: Section 1 between Painted Rocks Dam and the Applebury Forest Service site; Section 2 between Applebury and the Trapper Creek Job Corps site; Section 3 between Trapper Creek and the Hannon Memorial Fishing Access site. Section 4 is on the main stem of the Bitterroot River between Hannon and the Wally Crawford Fishing Access site.

Bitterroot River commercial use permit holders will be restricted to two floats per section, per day, in those areas between June 1 and Sept. 15. In addition, commercial fishing and floating of any kind are prohibited from June 1 to Sept. 15 on Fridays on the 11-mile stretch between Painted Rocks Dam and Applebury; on Saturdays on the 8-mile stretch between Applebury and Trapper Creek; on Sundays on the 8-mile stretch between Trapper Creek and Hannon; and on Mondays on the 9-mile stretch between Hannon and Wally Crawford.

No floating will be allowed on Fridays from the dam to Applebury from July 1 to Sept. 15.

FWP will also limit the number of fishing outfitters and float operators on the West Fork and upper Bitterroot by requiring them to obtain a permit. Those would be issued only to outfitters who can prove they’ve had commercial operations on those designated sections between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2016.

While the permits will be free, the permit holders will have to submit an annual report on their use, and any permit without three consecutive years of activity will be considered abandoned and can be given to someone else.

Generally, those in support of the plan or who wanted to see further restrictions said that the overcrowding on the river has reached critical proportions and the number of float boats has gotten too high.

Those opposing the plan said the limits would create economic hardships for local outfitters, and would restrict public access on Fridays, which is a relatively high-use day for residents. Also, some stretches are inaccessible to waders due to private lands, and closing those sections to float access effectively locks out the public.

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