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Fishing near Ennis

An angler wets a line on the Madison River near Ennis.

Proposed changes to fishing regulations include annual “hoot owl” restrictions on certain stretches of the Madison River, ice spearing for northern pike, and gear limits on the middle, north and south forks of the Flathead River.

Eric Roberts, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries management bureau chief, said in total 44 proposals are part of 57 changes under consideration for the 2019 FWP fishing regulations booklet.

His department already has received 849 comments to the proposed changes, and FWP is seeking additional input from the public before final regulations are considered at the October Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting.

“Many of the proposals were modified based on the comments we received, and some were not advanced at all based on those,” Roberts told the commission during its monthly meeting in Missoula Thursday.

Closing the Madison from the Warm Springs Day Use Area to its confluence with the Jefferson River would involve no fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight every year from July 15 to Aug. 15. Roberts noted that thermal data from 1997 to the present shows the median maximum daily water temperatures were between 75 and 78 degrees during that time period.

“Those extreme temperatures in this reach exceed the criteria for drought and temperature-related fishing restrictions on an annual basis,” he said. “This regulation prevents fishing during the hottest part of the day. Having a consistent closure better serves the public because otherwise it might be confusing.”

Roberts added that initially the annual hoot owl closures were proposed for July 1 through Aug. 31 on more stretches of the popular fishery, but that was modified based on the comments.

The proposal got mixed reviews from Clayton Elliot, the conservation and government affairs director for Montana Trout Unlimited. He ticked off about a dozen other Montana streams that have fallen under hoot owl restrictions in recent years, adding that the only river so far this year is the Big Hole.

“On rivers where there are three or more days with these above-average water temperatures, I think the hoot owl conversation is important. But a blanket closure may or may not be,” Elliott told the commission. “But warmer water temperatures are becoming the norm, and we need to have the conversation on how we will deal with it.”

Roberts said they’re starting with this proposal on the Madison since they have a lot of quantifiable data on that river.

Anglers on all three branches of the Flathead River, as well as some tributaries, would be prohibited from using treble or double hooks on lures under a different proposal. Roberts said that an average of 43% of westslope cutthroat trout longer than 12 inches show some sign of hook-related scarring, which indicates they’re repeatedly being caught and released.

Estimates show angling pressure is steadily increasing while the westslope cutthroat populations are relatively low.

“… the high incidents of multiple catch-and-release events per fish could be leading to increased mortality,” Roberts wrote in the proposed rule change document. Restricting gear to single-pointed hooks only is expected to reduce handling stress and hook-related injury to westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout. This proposal provides the greatest amount of protection with the least impactful amount of regulation.”

Jim Vashro, a former FWP fisheries manager and president of the sportsmen’s group Flathead Wildlife Inc., said the single-hook proposal “needs a little more work.”

“No one has shown that hooking scars really affect fish survival or function,” Vashro said. “Biologists will tell you the populations in the Flathead are not declining. I appreciate being proactive … but studies show no difference in singles and trebles. So the department has not adapted the restrictions by and large.”

He added that one study he read showed anglers using treble hooks can release fish quicker than those using single hooks.

“So there’s no science saying the single hook will be easier on the fish,” Vashro said. “Educate before you regulate.”

Roberts said that during the public scoping survey, almost 69% of those who provided an opinion support the proposal, saying it’s easier on the fish. Those opposed stated that guides and outfitters are to blame, or were concerned the regulation is prejudiced against bait fishing and spin fishing.

Another significant change would allow spearing northern pike in Canyon Ferry and above the Toston Dam on the Missouri River during the ice fishing season, as part of the effort to reduce the population of the illegally introduced non-native species.

Roberts said anglers have requested the opportunity for pike, whose population FWP is trying to minimize. In the survey, commenters also wanted to allow adding other waters for spear fishing, and mandatory harvest of pike, but others voiced concerns about safety with the larger holes cut in the ice and that people would spear other species.

Other proposed changes include changing the limits for bass and cutthroat trout on the Clark Fork River from the mouth of the Flathead River to the Idaho border to standardize the way they are managed on the three lower Clark Fork River reservoirs and the river.

Public comments on the proposals are being taken through Sept. 15, and people also can fill out an online survey. Meetings will be held throughout Montana from Aug. 20-29, including one in Missoula Aug. 29. The location for that meeting hasn’t been decided. 

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