Trout in trouble : How this year's drought has impacted Montana's treasured cold-water fisheries, and the outfitters and anglers who rely on them
August 25, 2021
On July 12, Florence-based fly-fishing outfitter Jay Dixon took a look at the forecast calling for several days of near triple-digit heat and decided to temporarily close his business during one of the busiest times of the year in what was shaping up to be his busiest season in his 30 years in the business.
He'd been watching streamflows plummet, water temperatures rise and angling pressure increase, so he decided to park his drift boat to give the wild trout he's built his business and lifestyle around a break. At that point, many of the rivers he fishes regularly, including the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork, were still open or only partially closed to fishing, but he said he didn't feel good about catching fish in the morning knowing they'd have a hot, oxygen-starved afternoon ahead of them.
Since Dixon made that decision, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks fully or partially closed more than a dozen other rivers to fishing due to high water temperatures, low flows, or concerns about angling pressure. As of Aug. 19, restrictions were in place on 17 Montana rivers, mostly "hoot owl" closures that prohibit fishing after 2 p.m., when stream temperatures are warmest and trout are under the most physiological stress. FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said the number of closures initiated by FWP this season is "exceptionally high."
On Aug. 11, Dixon said he hadn't cast a fly for a wild Montana trout in nearly a month, and he doesn't expect to start taking clients again until late August or early September. He estimated the decision will cost him between $7,000 and $10,000 in revenue, but said he doesn't regret it.
"I don't like to go out when the conditions are this way," he said. "We're supposed to be stewards of the river, [but] that's starting to trend into a more complicated balance, because not only are the conditions tough, but this industry is growing."
He said he's seen outfitting companies file into fishing access sites with 10 boats queued up, and 50-space parking lots on the Blackfoot so packed that overflow spills onto nearby highways.
"River recreation has exponentially gone up - it's insane," Dixon said. "Some of the shuttle [operators] on the Blackfoot are doing 70 shuttles a day, and that started last year."
Nationally, fly-fishing is a small portion of the overall fishing economy, but it recently enjoyed the highest rate of three-year growth in the industry, according to a 2019 report released by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. In 2017, Montana's fishing outfitters pulled in $76 million in revenue, largely from out-of-state clients, according to a University of Montana economic analysis. That study found that outfitting for hunting and fishing combined is the top source of nonresident visitor spending in Montana behind food, fuel and lodging, and an important component of the state's $7.6 billion outdoor recreation economy.
Mike Bias, Twin Bridges-based fly-fishing outfitter and executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, said he supports the closures, but he also knows they've put a pinch on many FOAM members' bottom lines. There's a range of opinions in the outfitting community on the merit and necessity of the closures, he said. Some outfitters stopped taking new bookings in late June of their own accord; others are frustrated by the closures and eager to see them lifted. (On Aug. 16, FWP said it expected to lift many of those restrictions this week as a cold front moves into the state that's expected to drop daily highs by 30 degrees or more.)
Bias said he knows some anglers decided to take their dollars to Idaho, where drought is also pervasive but rivers and streams are stocked with trout and fishery managers tend to be more permissive. But Bias takes a long view. By protecting Montana's wild fisheries today, he said, the state is helping ensure a viable fishery in the coming years.
"If we're doing everything right, even if this is a bad year, we should be able to come back," he said.
Bias has seen lots of low flows since he started working Montana's rivers in 1986, but "nothing on the scale that we've seen through July," he said. And to have such poor environmental conditions coincide with growing interest in the sport only complicates the situation.
"People are coming here in droves," he said. "It begs all sorts of questions: Is this use sustainable? Are we loving it to death?"
ASKING FOR ACTION
In addition to implementing seasonally common restrictions on smaller-volume rivers like the Big Hole and Jefferson (both of which experienced record low flows in late June), FWP has enacted closures along higher-volume arterial rivers where such measures are rare. A 176-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River was closed to fishing after 2 p.m. on July 21, triggered by three consecutive days of 73-plus degree water temperatures and flows falling below the 5th percentile. A similar closure was enacted on a 36-mile stretch of the Missouri River due to concerns about angling pressure and flows dropping below the 10th percentile.
The same day FWP initiated hoot owl closures on the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, Bozeman-based environmental nonprofit Upper Missouri Waterkeeper sent a letter to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte asking him to convene a cold-water fisheries task force to facilitate information sharing and develop science-based policies to protect the fisheries and the economy they support.
Upper Missouri Waterkeeper Executive Director Guy Alsentzer said it makes sense to gather experts in water quantity (the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation), water quality (the Department of Environmental Quality) and fisheries management (FWP) with experts from federal agencies, industry representatives and members of the public. He said assembling experts already working for state and federal agencies would be "low-hanging fruit" for the governor.
"We're asking the governor to take a very common-sense approach," Alsentzer said. "Nip this in the bud. This is an apolitical issue."
On Aug. 13, he said he had received acknowledgement of the letter's receipt from one of the governor's spokespersons, but "no substantive response" to its request. He also said the issue is front-of-mind with this summer's drought - 98.7% of the state is in severe drought - but the need for a task force won't subside once flows rebound. Recurring issues such as nutrient pollution and overallocated water basins that contribute to noxious algal blooms and degrade trout habitat will still need attention once Montana emerges from the current drought. Climate change's long-term impact on cold-water fisheries also needs a more serious response from Montana's elected officials, he said.
Though concerns about streamflows have been fairly widespread since the summer's start, several major basins east and west of the Continental Divide, like the upper Yellowstone and upper Clark Fork, were right in line with the 30-year median for snowpack heading into spring, according to forecasts produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Then scant March and April moisture paired with unusually high and in some places record-setting June temperatures sent mountain snowpack downstream earlier than normal. By mid-June, both rivers were running well below average.
Earlier snowmelt and peak flows are climate change impacts that have been well documented, and the trend is expected to accelerate in the coming decades as more springtime precipitation falls as rain rather than snow and a general pattern of aridity bakes the West with hot, dry, moisture-sucking air.
One of the interesting complexities of climate change is that much of the planet, including central and eastern North America, is predicted to become considerably wetter in the coming decades. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and that's part of the dynamic driving an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, flooding and landslides in certain regions of the U.S. But in much of the American West, the future is looking both hotter and drier, a combination that poses problems for all kinds of flora and fauna, from New Mexico's ponderosa pine forests to Montana's native bull trout.
"The net result of these more frequent and hot-dry events translates into a climate that can manifest increasing aridity and extreme event impacts, particularly in summer," according to an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences last June. The article references Montana's 2017 "flash drought," which helped fuel a wildfire season so intense that it quickly drained the state's coffers, prompting then-Gov. Steve Bullock to call a special session of the Legislature to rework its biennial budget.
Pat Byorth, who helps direct state policy as a member of Montana's Fish and Wildlife Commission and works on streamflow initiatives and water rights procurement for Trout Unlimited, said climate change is a big deal for Montana's cold-water fisheries.
"There's no way to separate fish from water, and there's no way to separate water from precipitation, and there's no way to separate precipitation from climate," Byorth said. "We can't just continue on as if [we'll sustain] the luxury of great flows we've always had. Things are changing, and we better step up our policies to adapt."
Byorth said that could mean reworking the process governing the transfer of water rights from one use, like crop irrigation, to another, like in-stream flows to protect aquatic ecosystems. That process could be much faster, cheaper and more straightforward, he said. The exempt groundwater well rule, which spares builders from obtaining water permits for wells so long as they withdraw fewer than 10 acre feet of water annually, is also worth revisiting, he said. Since rivers and groundwater are dynamic, connected systems, a profusion of wells in booming and sprawling population centers like the Gallatin Valley spells trouble for its namesake blue-ribbon trout stream.
Bias said adjustments anglers might make in the face of climate change include shifting the timing and location of their outings - things they're probably already doing to accommodate closures and the timing of insect hatches, which are driven by water temperature.
Anglers are in a unique position to appreciate climate impacts because they're intimately and professionally familiar with the connections between snowfall and streamflows and temperature changes and insect populations, said Fly Fishing Climate Alliance founder Rick Crawford. The sense of urgency around the issue "has increased dramatically" among many businesses working in the space, he said. Whereas two years ago the alliance had 15 members, its roster now numbers more than 50.
If there's a silver lining coming out of such a tough season, it's that there's been a big drive to educate anglers on responsible fishing. Bill Pfeiffer, an outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited's Montana chapter, said guides and outfitters are "soul searching" about their impact on the resource, which has led to some heated debates in person and on social media. But at the same time, he's been encouraged to see widespread compliance with river closures and consensus developing around best practices for anglers.
Many guides keep thermometers hanging from their boats and check them obsessively, he said. They'll call it a day when the water temperature exceeds 67 degrees and tell their clients to set down their rods and enjoy a pleasure float instead. Anglers are also often instructed to land their catch quickly and consider switching to barbless hooks, which are less likely to injure trout, and heavier tippets, which reduce the likelihood that a hooked fish will break free with the hook embedded. If they land a trout, they might wet their hands before grabbing the netted fish and keep it in the water rather than pulling it into the boat for the standard grip-and-grin photo.
Those measures can help a hooked trout survive low flows and high temperatures, which wreak havoc on their metabolism and ability to oxygenate their cells, physiological responses to warmer water that lead to an increase in fishing-related mortality and make them more susceptible to infection and diseases like proliferative kidney disease, or PKD. From mid-August to mid-September of 2016, thousands of upper Yellowstone whitefish and trout succumbed to PKD, leading to a strict river closure that spanned 183 miles and led to significant economic losses.
Though that particular outbreak has been in the rearview mirror for several years, other concerns are emerging this season. Brown trout, which tend to be more resilient to temperature swings and less sensitive to angling pressure, aren't doing well, and biologists aren't sure why. In 2014, FWP counted 1,400 brown trout per mile on the Big Hole's most popular fishing section, but this season's count was 400, the lowest in 50 years of surveys.
Bias hypothesizes that the decline is related to flow. Unlike rainbow and cutthroat trout, brown trout spawn in the fall, when streams are running especially low. One common theory about the brown trout decline - which has been documented on several Montana rivers - is that low flows at the start of the fish's life cycle are resulting in poor juvenile fish survival, he said.
EiIeen Ryce, FWP's fisheries division administrator, said she also suspects studies conducted in coming years will indicate that flow plays a role in the decline. Ryce said the department will know more about this hot, dry summer's influence on trout numbers once FWP conducts population surveys next year.
MONTANA'S WILD TROUT
Montana's cold-water fisheries are largely wild. Although FWP stocks some lakes and reservoirs, its river and stream stocking program effectively ended in 1974. That, and the state's liberal stream access laws, set Montana apart from neighboring states.
"We have our intact fish and wildlife populations that we've re-established over the last half-century," said Byorth, who has a master's degree in fish and wildlife management from Montana State University. "We have open trout fisheries where just about any stream you cross, if it's cold and clean and high-enough elevation, it's got wild trout in it. ... There's no place on the planet like this."
Both Bias and Byorth are proponents of the Madison River Work Group, an effort to establish a multi-user-group management framework for southwestern Montana's Madison River, the most popular fishery in the state. They're hopeful that process will generate a plan to guide management on the Madison as well as a blueprint for adopting management strategies for other state waterways straining under rising recreational and commercial traffic.
Two years ago, a similar group, the Madison River Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, dissolved without developing a path forward for the river. Bias said that group operated under a framework that required unanimous approval before proposals to manage user traffic could advance. Consensus eluded the committee, but Bias said he's hopeful that the work group, which has a different membership and process, will find greater success. The group's first meeting is scheduled for Sept. 8.
By that time, longer evenings, cooler water temperatures and fewer anglers plying Montana's rivers should offer trout some respite from a very tough summer. Flows in some of Montana's trout streams might even rise as autumn rain falls, evaporation slackens and irrigators close their headgates.
Dixon, the Florence fishing guide who closed up shop more than a month ago, should be guiding again by then. Byorth, who also hasn't fished a Montana river for a month, plans to pull his waders back on. It might afford him the opportunity to reconnect with why he's worked in this arena for the past three and a half decades.
Byorth said what he likes so much about fly-fishing is the interaction between anglers, the water they're fishing and the trout they're pursuing. A successful fly-fisher will read the current, search for fishy pockets of water, try to match their offering to the insects trout are feeding on, and masterfully present their fly to a waiting fish.
"It's a very intimate experience with the wild, and most states can't match that," he said. "Colorado's got it, but it's hard to access. Wyoming's got it but, boy, it's really hard to find a piece of public water. We have it in spades, and it would be so much to lose."
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Montana Free Press. For more information, please visit http://www.montanafreepress.org.