The general fishing season opens this weekend, but it promises to be a short one without more rain
The best advice for western Montana anglers preparing for the opening of the general fishing season this Saturday may not be where to go, or what to use, but just to take advantage of the opportunity now, because it might not last long.
With drought conditions bearing down on us for the second year in a row, expected low stream flows could mean fishing restrictions or even closures as early as July, according to Ladd Knotek, acting regional fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Missoula.
Last year, in late July, FWP officials asked western Montana anglers to voluntarily restrict their fishing activities to ease pressure on fish stressed by low flows and high water temperatures that deprive fish of oxygen.
The voluntary restrictions included a request by FWP for anglers to limit their fishing to only the early morning hours when water temperatures are coolest, encouraging anglers to reduce or stop their harvest of fish in cool-water areas where fish congregate, and encouraging fishing in lakes and cooler headwater streams.
As drought conditions worsened last summer, FWP started a process to establish criteria for the closure of streams for fishing. The criteria agency biologists came up with were based on records of each stream's 20-year-low flows on a particular date, coupled with water temperatures exceeding 73 degrees for three consecutive days.
But early in August, just as FWP officials were preparing to put fishing closures into effect, former Gov. Marc Racicot issued an emergency order shutting down most outdoor activities on public lands and waters across the state because of extreme fire danger.
This year, FWP is working on plans to adopt a statewide plan for stream fishing restrictions based on the criteria that was developed for western Montana rivers last year, according to Knotek. The plans this year probably will be very similar to last year's models for the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork, he said, and should be completed this week.
FWP's plan has three levels, Knotek said.
"When water temperatures approach 70 degrees," he said, "and conditions start being stressful for fish, we're going to ask for voluntary hoot-owl restrictions, or morning fishing only. At the second level, when streams hit the low-flow and temperature thresholds, we'll consider mandatory closures and restrictions. And at a third level, in special areas or situations, like bull trout spawning streams or large concentrations of fish at the mouths of tributaries where the water is cold, we'll think about special restrictions for those areas or situations."
All indications point to a worse drought this year than last, Knotek added.
Water conservation will be extremely important this year, he said.
"It's going to take a lot of effort and sacrifice if we're going to keep water in the streams, especially the smaller streams," he said.
As it did last summer, FWP plans to work with water users with "junior" water rights to conserve water on selected streams in the state.
Statewide streamflows are projected to be between 24 percent and 69 percent of average this summer, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Some watershed groups like the Blackfoot Challenge and the Big Hole Watershed Committee have drought response plans that are triggered when extremely dry weather conditions occur.
Drought concerns extend beyond streams to lake fisheries, especially reservoirs, many of which are already at low levels after extensive drawdowns last summer.
In western Montana, FWP biologists have been worried about the possibility of severe winter kills at several popular fishing lakes, according to Knotek. But as the ice cover recedes, officials are now cautiously optimistic, he said.
Georgetown Lake has received the most attention about those concerns. The lake was drawn down drastically by irrigation withdrawals from Flint Creek Dam last summer. Oxygen levels were dangerously low in the lake this winter.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, FWP biologist Wayne Hadley and other agency personnel planned to patrol the entire shoreline of Georgetown, looking for evidence of a major fish kill.
Ice-out occurred somewhat earlier than normal at Georgetown this year, helping relieve the situation, Hadley said.
After his last oxygen tests at Georgetown on May 1, Hadley said in a news release, "At this moment, there appears to be cause for guarded optimism that a major fish kill will not occur. Post ice-out mortalities from low oxygen stress and the effects of parasites and disease could occur as late as June."
FWP personnel will continue to monitor Georgetown for problems through the spring and summer, Hadley said.
An agreement for water releases from Georgetown should help prevent future threats to the fisheries, according to officials of Trout Unlimited, which helped negotiate the agreement with irrigators of the Flint Creek Valley this month.
The agreement meets the needs of trout and irrigators, according to Laura Ziemer, attorney for the George Grant Chapter of TU.
"What started as a showdown, ended with both sides meeting halfway," Ziemer said. "Although both sides had to give up some of what they wanted, I think this agreement is going to get us through this drought year."
Upsata and Browns lakes in the Ovando area were also considered prime candidates for winter fish kills because of drought conditions, according to Knotek. FWP biologists will be checking both lakes soon to determine if kills occurred, he said. But so far, he added, there have been no reports of kills. Early reports from anglers at Browns indicate the fish there survived.
As the general fishing season opens, FWP officials also are concerned that the public understand and follow the fishing regulations, Knotek said.
One body of water near Missoula - Milltown Reservoir - always elicits a lot of questions from the public about regulations, he said. Milltown Reservoir is governed by the stream fishing regulations of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. The pike-infested reservoir is open for bait fishing starting Saturday, Knotek said, and anglers can catch and keep as many pike as they want.
Many anglers are not aware, he said, that all tributaries of the Blackfoot River have catch-and-release restrictions for native cutthroat trout. So do many other streams in western Montana, including Fish Creek and Petty Creek in the lower Clark Fork drainage.
Anglers keeping cutthroats on those streams, said Knotek, "is one of the biggest violations we see."
Two additional "chronic" fishing problems, he said, are people failing to take time to properly identify trout, resulting in anglers killing numerous bull trout, a protected native species; and anglers not using sufficient care in handling and releasing trout that are caught under catch-and-release restrictions.
Besides enjoying it while they can, added Knotek, perhaps the only other word of advice to offer anglers this season could be: "Pray for rain."
Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.