High Water Hurting Montana Fly Fishing Industry

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Disappointed anglers are putting off their vacations this year with Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams running higher and dirtier than they have in recent memory.

The murky water is the result of spring flooding and a torrential runoff still pouring off the mountains from a record winter snowpack. Water flows for many of the major rivers are at twice their normal rates or higher, churning up muck and mud that have made the water nearly opaque in some streams.

That’s muddied the outlook for a major tourism draw for Montana, with cancellations running as high as 80 percent in parts of the state so far this year. Some fly shops are reporting that their business is off between 38 and 50 percent.

“If you want to fish a blue-ribbon trout stream right now it’s going to be pretty tough,” said Eric Swedman, manager of the Madison River Fishing Company in Ennis. “Right now, we should be floating and throwing salmon flies around, but it ain’t happening.”

Fishermen have been calling in to Swedman’s shop, asking about the water’s clarity and the amount of snow that’s still in the mountains.

All Swedman can tell them is, “It’s pretty daunting. It’s going to be a while.”

Fishing is big business in Montana, particularly after the sport was popularized by the 1992 Robert Redford film “A River Runs Through It.” Last summer, 16 percent of out-of-state travelers to Montana fished, or roughly 808,000 people, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

Those visitors who come to fish spend more per day and stay longer than vacationers coming for any of the other top attractions, including Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, according to the institute. Visitors spent $34.2 million on guided fishing trips alone in 2005, the most recent data available, and that doesn’t include what they spent on gear, licenses and hotels.

But this year is looking different. President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster for 31 Montana counties and four Indian reservations after weeks of flooding in May and June. The snow is still coming down from the mountains, keeping most of the state’s waterways at high levels far longer into the season than has been seen in years.

That news has caused out-of-state anglers to delay or cancel their trips to Montana, while locals are forsaking the big water to crowd the few clear streams and lakes they can find at higher elevations.

About this time of year, visitors usually are flocking to the Bighorn River in southeastern Montana, a waterway frequented by the likes of former Vice-President Dick Cheney and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

But with swollen flows from the Yellowtail Dam causing the river to run at about twice its regular speed, there is an 80 percent cancellation rate for fishing trips going into the July 4 weekend, Friends of the Bighorn’s Doug Haacke said.

“The people who make their living on the river this year are just getting killed,” he said.

The irony? The fishing on the Bighorn now is excellent, even with the high water.

“That’s the sad part about this whole thing, it’s fishing great and it’s an easy river to float even at 15,000 (cubic feet per second),” Haacke said. “The fishing is super but there are a lot of people who don’t want to fish that at those levels.”

The fishing is not so super at the Yellowstone River near Livingston. At the Sweetwater Fly Shop, the high, muddy water has not only put off Dan Vermillion’s business by 38 percent in June, but it is also threatening his shop: floodwaters crept to within 20 feet of his doors last week, and he is keeping 1,500 sandbags at the ready in case it rises again.

It’s so bad that the water has invaded his dreams.

“The water’s been weighing on our minds and I’ve been having dreams about water conditions,” he said. “My sense is, it’s going to drop pretty quickly. It’s going to be two weeks before we know.”

The lost business is mostly is from regional anglers who are eschewing the blue-ribbon streams and searching for the few clear rivers with relatively slack water, he said. There is good fishing to be had at the state’s lakes and in higher drainages, but the locals itching to hit the streams are crowding those spots, he said.

“There’s plenty of fishing around right now but you need to be a little more creative in where you go,” Vermillion said.

Guides and outfitters are watching the water levels drop bit by bit each day. Barring more rain, their hope now is that the extra water will mean a later fishing season this fall to help them make up their losses.

“I think our late season is going to be really good,” Swedman said. “There’s going to be more fishing opportunities once everything is done.”