should Montana become a smallmouth fishing destination
Al's Point of View

Should Montana Become a Smallmouth Fishing Destination?

Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), has documented a steady decline of trout numbers in its famous southwest streams since 2011. Hardest hit are the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby rivers, which have reached historic lows, especially of brown trout. While studies are ongoing, no readily reversible causes have thus far been identified.

Having watched this unfold, I would suggest there are at least three significant contributing factors- climate change, reduced food, and fishing pressure. Let’s look at each of these, and their potential role in the decline in trout numbers.

Climate Change

The streams of Montana, like many in the western states, chronically face problems with low flows and warming in the latter part of summer due to irrigation demands. But global warming adds an additional stress. How much? Well, this year, due to a heavy snowpack, runoff did not end until the 4th of July weekend. Normally this would portend a good flow of cool water for most, if not all, summer. But in just 2-3 weeks, FWP placed a dozen streams under “hoot owl” restrictions, that is, no fishing from 2 pm to midnight. This is done when streams warm to 73 degrees, which increases trout’s metabolic rate. The warmer water itself carries less oxygen, further stressing them.  This will likely continue until October, when cool weather normally arrives.

Looking ahead, the effects of global warming will persist, and more likely, get worse. Of the 195 parties to the Paris Climate Accords, at the 5 year check-up in 2021, only 1 nation, Gambia, achieved its goals to limit global warming to 3.6 degrees F since pre-industrial levels. Continued population growth, with its attendant energy and water demands, will only make it more difficult to reach the laudable goals of the Accord.  Thus, trout streams will continue to face the ill effects of global warming for the foreseeable future.

The Firehole River and its resident trout do give some hope. The mean temperature of the Firehole, due to the inflow of hot springs, is 73 degrees Fahrenheit. It reaches the low 80’s in the summer, yet the trout thrive. But these fish have had eons of time to adapt to their environment. Will there be sufficient time for trout in other streams to evolve? Perhaps.

Food

Climate change and the warming of streams affects more than their resident trout. The pictures below were taken in the same section of the Madison River, in the month of July. The first was taken 6-7 years ago. It reveals a rock covered with cased caddis larvae.

wade-fishing & the decline of the Madison River fishery

The picture below, taken last year, shows a markedly reduced number of caddis and a few mayfly nymphs.

is wade-fishing harming the Madison River Fishery

These streambed photos reveal a change in both biomass and bug speciation. This results not only in the amount of food available, but when it’s available. Mayflies tend to peak in spring and early summer, while caddis peak in mid to late summer. I’m not sure what the complete affect is on the trout, but as they try to fatten up in the latter part of summer for the bleak Montana winter, there may be a food shortage.

Fishing Pressure

Trout have only 4-5 months to vigorously feed, grow and gain weight. But with the increased interest in fly fishing, trout in the popular Montana streams are pounded all day long, 7 days a week, during these very months. When do they have a chance to feed and grow?

This is a particularly controversial issue to address, as so much of the Montana economy has become dependent upon fly fishing. Outfitters and the hospitality industry all depend upon a robust influx of trout-anglers over the summer. But perhaps it is time to discuss measures to provide the trout some relief. Limiting fishing days is especially controversial, but perhaps sections of streams could be off- limits to fishing, i.e. refuge waters. Montana’s FWP is holding discussions r.e. measures to address this issue.

? The Future of Sport Fishing in Montana

Reading FWP’s 2023 newsletter, it highlights efforts to restore remnant populations of grayling, and preserve dwindling populations of trout. This is done at the altar of biodiversity. Meanwhile, non-native fish, like smallmouth bass, which have found their way into historically trout streams, are extirpated. These efforts strike me as looking at the past, rather than looking into the future. Global warming is going to continue, and cold-water fisheries will continue to be challenged. Our streamside efforts may slow the transition of cold-water to warm-water fisheries, but ultimately, planet earth and its human imprint are most likely to prevail.

Given a chance, I think the fish will figure it out on their own. Smallmouth bass like water a bit warmer than trout, and tolerate much warmer water. Thus they are better suited for the streams of a warming planet. And despite some of FWP’s concerns, they can coexist with trout. An example is the famous John Day River in eastern Oregon. It boasts superb smallmouth fishing, as well as redband trout, bull trout, steelhead, and summer salmon runs. Each occupies portions of the watershed best suited to its specie.

So, will Montana become a destination for smallmouth fishing, as well as trout fishing? If the state wishes to maximize its potential for sport fishing, I think it should be given some consideration!

written by Al Simpson, 9/2023

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