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2016: A challenging year for fly fishing in southwest Montana

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Rewind and reflect on an interesting year

By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

Snow is piling up. Fresh presents are landing under the tree each day. Kids are out of school for their winter break and the holiday bum-rush is reaching its peak. Thoughts of standing in the Gallatin River casting to rising fish are distant for many of us—and with the cold temperatures of late, not that practical either. But even if we cannot fish, we can think about fishing.

Here are some reflections on angling year 2016 if you have time to put your feet up or have someone read to you in between shopping stops—or, if you’re blessed, en route to the mountain or river.

Yellowstone River closure. For a week leading up to Aug. 19 anglers witnessed thousands of whitefish dead or dying on the Yellowstone River. On Aug. 19 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued an immediate closure to all water-based activities on 183 miles of the Yellowstone River from the Yellowstone National Park boundary downstream to Laurel, Montana.

According to FWP, test results on whitefish collected from the main stem of the Yellowstone indicated the catalyst for the fish kill was Proliferative Kidney Disease, or PKD. The disease was previously documented in two isolated locations in central Montana during the past 20 years. More recently, outbreaks have occurred in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The number of trout found dead due to the disease paled in comparison to the thousands of whitefish that succumbed to PKD. Fortunately, trout were relatively unharmed.

Very low in-stream flows and high air temperatures created stressful conditions for fish. On Sept. 1, conditions improved and FWP opened some of the Yellowstone and its tributaries to water based recreation, but kept other sections closed. On Sept. 22, the entire river was reopened.

Fortunately, the fall fishing for trout on the Yellowstone was as good as it’s been in past years. The impacts of PKD on the Yellowstone will continue to be studied and it’s important to never lose sight of the value of a vital resource such as the Yellowstone. Gov. Steve Bullock said it well: “I want to thank all Montanans and visitors for their ongoing support as we protect Montana jobs and the health of the Yellowstone River, one of the last, great, free-flowing rivers in the United States.”

Effluent pond failure. On March 3, residents of Big Sky witnessed something they’d never seen before: the West Fork of the Gallatin River running high and muddy in the winter. The cause: a sewage treatment pond pipe failed, sending the contents of the pond into the Gallatin watershed. Local and state officials reacted quickly to inform the public. By March 7, the effluent flow stopped and clean-up and restoration could begin. The Gallatin River Task Force provided valuable information from their multiple test sites. They concluded that few trout were killed and the long-term health of the Gallatin River and its tributaries is still viable—and anglers who fished this summer can attest the river is in good shape.

The pond failure, although inexcusable, is call for continued responsible development in our environmentally sensitive location. If we don’t have healthy rivers and water, the reasons to live here are diminished.

Fall election results mean we must advocate for habitat and access. This past year proved anything is possible in an election year. With forthcoming changes in many federal offices and the new make-up of the Montana State Land Board, we must be proactive to protect the progress made in habitat protection, access to public fishing and hunting, and ensuring clean water remains in our rivers. This upcoming year is an important time to be involved in representative government. Leave nothing to chance and ensure we’re not caught reminiscing about how great things used to be.

As of this writing, 2016 is nearly in the books. While enjoying time with family and friends the next few weeks, toast or pause to appreciate our good angling fortune here in southwest Montana. And as you enjoy the season, remember now it’s as important as ever to be vigilant about protecting and preserving the resources that make our lifestyle possible.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana on the Fly,” and “Everything you Always Wanted to know about Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides and he operates the Montana Fishing Guide School and the Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School.

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