Fishing is still good on other waters, according to outfitters

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

SOUTHWEST MONTANA – Even though some waterways around the state and in Yellowstone National Park have fishing closures or restrictions, area outfitters say business is still good.

As of Aug. 1, the Gibbon River below Gibbon Falls, the Firehole River below Keppler Cascades and the Madison River were all closed to fishing. Hot air temperatures, limited rainfall, runoff from thermal features, and below average stream flows resulted in high water temperatures in these sections of river.

Temperatures this warm can be stressful and even fatal for trout, according to Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.

Those rivers don’t typically fish well in the summer anyway, said fishing guide Ennion Williams, from Grizzly Outfitters in Big Sky.

“It’s fairly typical for [them] to slow down this time of year because they get hot,” Williams said. “It’s not like we’re losing a major resource by those rivers being closed. We wouldn’t be fishing there now anyway.”

Starting July 27, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had restrictions on several waterways including parts of the Dearborn River, the Smith River and the Sun River, all in central Montana. Fishing there was closed from 2 p.m. to midnight, which is when it’s the warmest.

The Gallatin and Lamar rivers in Yellowstone have continued fishing well, Williams said, as have the upper Madison from Earthquake Lake to Ennis Lake, the Beaverhead and the Missouri.

If the weather stays hot and dry, FWP may also post restrictions on a number of rivers in southwest Montana. Certain triggers cause the restrictions to go into affect, said FWP fisheries biologist Travis Horton. These include water temperatures above 73 degrees F for more than three days and decreased flow.

The restrictions “limit the additive impact of angling mortality during the stressful conditions created by drought,” according to the FWP’s Drought Fishing Closure Policy.

The last time this happened was in 2007. Prior to that, several successive drought years in the early to mid 2000s led to depleted groundwater and four other years with significant restrictions, Horton said.

“One difference [this year] right out of the gates, relative to 2007 and before that when we closed those rivers, is that we have a lot more base flow than those years. The flows aren’t getting as low as they were in the mid 2000s when we did a lot of fishing closures.

Implementation of drought closures and restrictions was a philosophical policy decision in the mid 2000s, “as far as to react to those criteria consistently across the state,” Horton said. Three Montana rivers, the Jefferson, the Big Hole and the Blackfoot, have individual drought management plans.

As of Aug. 6, FWP was closely monitoring the Jefferson, the Big Hole, the lower Madison, the lower Beaverhead, the lower Ruby, the Shields and the lower Gallatin, Horton said.

While the agency had been prepared for the possibility of closing several of these waterways on July 28, the flows stabilized over the weekend.

Fishing outfitter Craig Mathews, who owns Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, says the restrictions, when implemented, are the right decision. “We need to consider the whole picture and protect the resource.”

West Yellowstone, he said, is blessed because it’s at the headwaters of many of these rivers, where the water remains cooler regardless of air temperature. The fishing there this summer has in fact been “incredible,” Mathews said, and he has quite a few clients returning for the fall.

“With over 2,000 miles of trout stream so near West, we’re not in the same boat as those other communities and businesses downstream. We also have so many lakes that fish well—literally hundreds nearby that get no fishing pressure.”

Getting anglers to “secondary” water more off the beaten track can be challenging, he said, “but they all hold beautiful water and are open to the public.”

When fishing warmer rivers like the Yellowstone, there are a few things anglers can do to ease the stress on the fish, says Paul Bloch, a guide with George Anderson’s in Livingston. He suggests using barbless hooks, not taking the fish out of the water, and releasing them into slow water.

“We want people to go out fishing and have a good time, but we also want to ensure that the resource is there down the road,” Bloch said.

He and Mathews both pointed to over-crowding as one potential issue caused by restrictions. The Madison River below Earthquake Lake, already a popular area, is particularly at risk for this.

Though the evenings are cooler now than in July, the extended forecast calls for continued hot and dry weather—conditions that contribute to continued low stream flows and high water temperatures.

“Shorter days are helping a little, but by themselves, not quite enough,” Nash said, adding that the rivers in Yellowstone aren’t likely to reopen at least until late August.

For updated information on Montana rivers, visit fwp.mt.gov, scroll down to “river restrictions, closures and reopenings.”