In Lieu of Mandatory Restrictions, FWP Urges Anglers to Minimize Stress on Flathead River Trout

Northwest Montana rivers and streams are historically low, prompting agency officials to ask anglers to take voluntary steps to reduce stress on native cold-water trout species, or else face the prospect of closures

By Tristan Scott
An angler fishes a stream in the Marion area on June 11, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Rivers and streams in northwest Montana are running at or near historic lows for late July, prompting Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to urge local anglers to reduce stress on native cold-water trout for the remainder of the summer, or else face the prospect of restrictions or closures.

Although stopping short of implementing “hoot owl” fishing restrictions on any of the local waters — a step the agency has never before taken on the Flathead system — FWP biologists are “closely monitoring rivers and streams and could propose measures to minimize impacts from fishing,” according to a Friday morning announcement from the agency’s regional office.

This summer, FWP has enacted “hoot owl” fishing restrictions in other sections of rivers across the state, including parts of the Beaverhead, Bitterroot, Jefferson, Lower Madison, and Sun rivers. Hoot owl restrictions prohibit fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight on drought-impacted streams until conditions improve.

An angler catch and releases a rainbow trout from a stream in the Marion area on June 11, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Based upon current conditions and a set of four administrative criteria, “FWP is not yet requesting any fishing restrictions or closures anywhere in northwest Montana,” the agency’s announcement states. “But FWP is encouraging anglers to voluntarily limit their fishing to the morning hours when water is coolest and fish are less stressed.”

“If conditions on some waters continue to deteriorate, full fishing closures could be implemented,” the agency warned.

In northwest Montana, fisheries biologists are most concerned about heat-induced stress in Montana’s wild trout populations in the following rivers and adjacent tributaries: the North Fork Flathead River, the Middle Fork Flathead River, the South Fork Flathead River, the mainstem of the Flathead River upstream of the Old Steel Bridge in Evergreen, the Swan River, and the Thompson River.

The Flathead River basin is experiencing severe drought conditions due to below-average winter snowpack, early runoff and above-average hot, dry summer conditions. Flows in the North, South, and Middle forks of the Flathead River are roughly one-third of average for this time of year. Water temperatures are already hitting stressful levels for trout, particularly westslope cutthroat and bull trout.

“The main goal of this announcement is to start a conversation and help manage expectations, and also to let people know that we have been fortunate in the Flathead that this has never really been a persistent issue,” Dillon Tabish, FWP’s information and education program manager, said Friday. “We’ve never really had to worry about hoot owl, but one of the factors we look at when considering a potential closure or restriction is angling pressure. So, if we can try and get our anglers to self regulate a little bit and not fish during the heat of the day, that’s going to help us avoid checking that box. I liken it to fire restrictions, and these are the steps we can take to avoid starting fires.”

FWP has administrative rules (ARM) in place that provide for angling adjustments during periods of drought. Specifically, ARM 12.5.507 identifies different temperature criteria for different species of native trout. The temperature criterion for westslope cutthroat trout is triggered when water temperatures reach or exceed 66 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive days. The criterion for bull trout is 60 degrees, also for three consecutive days.

Mike Hensler, FWP’s regional fisheries manager in northwest Montana, said water temperatures on the three forks of the Flathead have been bumping up against those thresholds in recent weeks, and emphasized that other stressors have caused biologists to urge caution.

“We just looked at the North Fork in Columbia Falls and it’s exceeded 66 degrees a couple times, but the criterion calls for three consecutive days,” Hensler said. “It’s more than just water temperature, though. It’s what kind of fishing pressure we see out there and whether our staff who monitor the rivers observe any dead fish.”

Mike Hensler, regional fisheries manger for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, untangles crossed fishing lines at Columbia Falls’ new family fishing pond in River’s Edge Park on June 18, 2019. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks stocked the pond with about 1,000 cutthroat trout for the new fishing spot’s opening day. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Although the Flathead system doesn’t receive the same degree of angling pressure as other Montana rivers, its fisheries aren’t as productive, Hensler said, and they’re strongholds for threatened species that are more dependent on cold, clear and connected watersheds.

“Sure, there’s nowhere near as many anglers up here on the Flathead as there are on the Madison or the Missouri,” Hensler said. “But there’s nowhere near the number of [native] westslope cutthroat trout per mile in these rivers as there are [non-native] rainbow trout per mile in those other rivers. So in that context, both in terms of population numbers and our native fish species, the pressure is actually very similar on the Flathead.”

Despite the extreme conditions affecting the Flathead this summer, Hensler said the watershed is fortunate that it’s fed by higher-elevation tributaries that “come out of the mountains and stay cold even at lower flows.”

“This year may test the extreme end of that, but in general they tend to stay very cold,” Hensler said. “But the lower the flows, the warmer the water. And right now, the flows are low.”

FWP’s administrative rules describe the following criteria FWP biologists consider for requesting restrictions or closures for fish: whether species of interest are present in significant numbers; whether temperature criterion has been met for three consecutive days; whether fishing pressure is high; and whether stream-flow conditions are deteriorating. Based on that criteria, FWP may request the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission restrict or close fishing.

“These restrictions are designed to protect cold-water species like trout that are more susceptible to disease, predation, and other mortalities, including catch-and-release angling during times of drought,” according to the department’s news release.

Jason Lanier, owner of Bigfork Anglers, said his fly-fishing guides generally adhere to “hoot owl” parameters during the summer months, in large part because that’s when the fishing is most productive.

“We always try to go earlier and be done early,” Lanier said Friday morning. “We have been recommending half-day trips to our clients, where we start at six or seven in the morning and we’re done by noon, primarily because the fishing’s just better in the morning. In that regard, we have been following hoot owl for weeks.”

Although Lanier said his guides take care to reduce stress on wild trout populations on the main stem of the Flathead River, which is the section he’s permitted to guide, hybrid trout account for most of the creel counts his clients report.

A westslope cutthroat trout on the South Fork Flathead River on June 25, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In addition, the release states, anglers can minimize stress to fish by:

  • Landing the fish quickly.
  • Keeping the fish in water as much as possible, limit or even avoid taking photos.
  • Removing the hook gently. Using artificial lures with single barbless hooks can make hook removal faster and easier.
  • Remembering single-pointed hooks are required in the Flathead drainage upstream of Teakettle Fishing Access Site on the mainstem Flathead River.
  • Letting the fish recover so it can swim away.

“If high temperatures and extremely low flows persist, anglers may want to consider fishing areas with less stressful temperatures and conditions, such as larger lakes or reservoirs, or higher elevation waterbodies,” the release states.

For further information and updates, visit https://fwp.mt.gov/news/current-closures-restrictions/waterbody-closures or contact the FWP Region 1 office at (406) 752-5501. This summer, FWP launched a new web portal to collect information from members of the public who see sick or dead fish. The new portal, sickfish.mt.gov, enables Montanans and visitors to our state to report a description of sick or dead fish, including details on the location.