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The Boulder River (mis)

The Boulder River, which flows from the Beartooth and Absaroka mountains through Sweet Grass County before joining the Yellowstone River, has seen an increase in angling pressure over the years. The rise has prompted a Big Timber fishing outfitter to petition Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to enact regulations on the stream to reduce use.

BILLINGS – Concerns over angler congestion on the narrow banks of the Boulder River south of Big Timber has prompted a local outfitter to petition the Fish and Wildlife Commission to restrict outfitted use of the stream.

Last week Adam Wagner, owner of Sweetcast Angler in Big Timber, submitted the petition with about 60 signatures asking the commission to limit the number of boats floating the Boulder River.

“This could be accomplished by prohibiting use of commercial floating on specific days of the week and after the date on which the water historically drops below 400 (cubic feet per second),” the petition suggests.

“It makes it so the rafts aren’t hurting the wade fishing opportunities,” Wagner clarified in a phone interview.

Although an outfitter suggesting that all outfitters’ use be limited may sound strange, Wagner explained in an email, “I don’t want to restrict outfitting; I do wade trips when the water gets too low to float. My feeling is that wade fishermen on small rivers, at low water, should not have reduced fishing experiences due to floaters that often have to wrestle boats over shallow riffles and pools that are being fished. I want to limit floaters when, due to low water, floating ruins other anglers’ experiences just by the act of floating through the only channel available. Outfitters can sell wade trips when small rivers get too low and float the bigger rivers.”

Changing river

Wagner said that since high water in 2011 scoured the Boulder River channel, boats have been able to negotiate the small stream — with some dragging through shallow spots — almost year-round. Prior to the flood, floaters ignored the river after flows dropped below about 400 cfs, he said.

“What we’ve always done here is at 700 cfs we quit floating it,” Wagner said. “But now there’s a narrow channel you can get through. Plus there are a lot more boats.”

Wagner’s petition specifically noted that there has been “a dramatic and rapid increase in the number of commercial and recreational floaters” between the confluence of the West and Main Boulder rivers and Big Timber.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ angler surveys show an increase from roughly 16,000 angler days in the 2005-06 season to 19,000 in 2010-11 on the Boulder River, although the margin of error for the small sample size is more than plus or minus 1,000. The increase in pressure on the Boulder came despite a decline in fishing license sales from 2005 to 2011.

The survey also showed the river’s rating for angler pressure rise from nine in the region to third. No. 1 would be the most-pressured water in the region.

Rising tempers

The increase in use exploded into a confrontation last year between a landowner and anglers at the Boulder Forks fishing access site. Landowner Shawn Titeca pleaded no contest to an amended charge of careless driving in Sweet Grass County District Court in February after he was cited for ramming his vehicle into anglers Scott and Jaci Hagfelt’s car last summer. Titeca was fined $100, along with a $35 surcharge, and is required to pay more than $670 in restitution to the Hagfelts.

Attention about the incident has prompted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to divert money from other projects to build a new boat launch at the access site along with a new parking area.

Historical perspective

Gideon Wolf lives near a bridge on Highway 298 that often serves as a take-out point for anglers who launched at the Boulder Forks FAS. At age 74, Wolf has fished the river for 50 years and has seen a steady increase in the number of anglers and floaters.

“I don’t have any problems with people fishing and floating,” he said. “I just don’t like some of the nonsense that goes with it.”

That “nonsense” has included an increase in traffic, speeding, litter, dead fish floating past his house and even some arguments with “arrogant” anglers. Most of that activity is compressed into about a month-and-a-half timeframe when the water is high enough to float boats, he said. During weekdays, Wolf estimated 70 to 80 percent of the traffic is outfitters and their clients. Once the river drops, so does the traffic at the bridge takeout, he said.

“Years ago there wasn’t much pressure at all,” Wolf said. “You could fish all day and not see another fisherman.”

A similar increase in angling pressure on the Yellowstone River has driven him away from that resource, as well. “I don’t even like to float the Paradise Valley anymore because it’s so busy,” he said of the Yellowstone River’s upper stretch. “I quit floating the Madison for the same reason. It seemed like every time we floated we’d get in an argument with a guide.”

Biologically OK

Wagner’s petition says that “left unchecked the Boulder River fishery is in grave danger” from the crowding. The river used to see two to three boats a day, and now it’s more like 15 to 25, he said.

In response to local concerns, FWP fisheries biologist Jason Rhoten said his crew have increased fish sampling on the river.

“Fishing pressure is one thing we’re looking at,” he said. “We ramped up the sampling efforts last year to see if there’s a biological change in the sample size, but we haven’t seen much change.” 

Rhoten said there’s no doubt that catchability could be affected by an increase in angling pressure, “but abundance-wise we’re hanging right in there.”

In 2001 regulations took effect on the Beaverhead and Big Hole riversin southwestern Montana that limited when commercial and nonresident anglers could fish the stream to lessen crowding, so there is precedence for a request like Wagner’s. Some outfitters initially protested the regulations, but they are still in effect. Similar rules have been enacted on the Smith and Blackfoot rivers, the Clark Fork River’s Alberton Gorge and Rock Creek near Missoula to reduce commercial crowding.

“All of the examples we’re talking about resolve social conflicts,” said Charlie Sperry, a former river recreation specialist for FWP. “Restricting use is the most intensive management tool we have.”

Such intensive measures are needed on the Boulder River, Wagner maintained.

“It’s one of those things: Is it unlimited opportunity or the best opportunity?” he questioned. “There needs to be a balance between unlimited quantity versus quality. I don’t know how crowding helps anybody.”

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