The State of the Southwest Montana Fisheries

Like storm clouds hanging over the western Montana mountains, the prospect, after a mild, dry El Niño winter, of a warm, dry summer, with diminished stream flows, again threatens the blue ribbon trout streams of southwestern Montana.

That was a common theme among Montana Fish, Wildlife &Parks area fisheries biologists when they made their annual State of the Fishery report to the annual meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited on April 22, 2010.

Jim Olsen, the biologist in charge of the Big Hole River, reported on the Pennington Bridge stretch of the river, the area from the Pennington Bridge Fishing Access Site, downstream to the river’s confluence with the Beaverhead River to form the Jefferson River. This is an area where the river has been channelized, with riprap on stream banks, and with frequent de-watering in dry years.

In electrofishing surveys, Olsen said he found relatively low numbers of brown trout and rainbow trout, though with the low numbers of fish, there are relatively good growth rates with the fish that are there.

Olson also reported on a study he’d made on mountain whitefish, the first such study in at least 20 years or more. Whitefish, he found, migrate long distances upriver for spawning. Then the fingerlings migrate back downstream where they grow faster in the relatively warmer water of the downstream reaches.

FWP has begun a fish-tagging survey on the Big Hole River. During electrofishing surveys, biologists tagged trout of 12 inches or more last fall. They have placed kiosks at fishing access sites from East Bank to Pennington Bridge where anglers can pick up reporting cards to carry with them on the stream. The tags are placed next to the fish’s dorsal fin, and after a short time in the water get covered with algae. Anglers who catch a tagged fish can wipe off the algae and then record the tag number and other data, such as where the fish was caught, species and size of fish, and drop the card at the kiosk at the end of the outing.

Olsen says FWP hopes to get data on effects of drought conditions, importance of tributaries, migration, and other such information from the tag study.

Jefferson River biologist Ron Spoon reported on some Future Fisheries grant-funded projects on Willow Creek and Parsons Slough, Waterloo-area spring creeks, where FWP has made a number of modifications to the streams to improve rainbow and brown trout spawning and rearing conditions. He reports that the project has dramatically improved fish numbers on that stretch of the Jefferson River.

“It’s the only reason there is a fishery there,” echoed veteran fishing guide Tony Schoonen who frequently works the upper Jefferson River.

Both Spoon and Olsen reported on projects to shift mountain lake stocking from Yellowstone cutthroat trout to westslope cutthroat trout, as westslope trout grow faster. Olsen also reported on an upcoming project on a Big Hole tributary, Cherry Creek, near Melrose, where they will install a fish barrier on the stream and then replace brook trout and rainbow trout with pure westslope cutthroat trout.

Jason Lindstrom reported on the upper Clark Fork River, basically from Butte to Gold Creek. Lindstrom said he’s been trying to find reasons for a steep decline in fish numbers in the Clark Fork downstream from the Warm Springs Ponds. Fish numbers are just a fraction of what they were in 1987, though further downstream, in the Galen area, fish numbers are still consistent with what they were in 1987.

The stream is almost exclusively a brown trout fishery, with some westslope cutthroat trout and, rarely, rainbow trout, which, primarily, came out of the Warm Springs Ponds.
Lindstrom is cautious about pointing fingers at the cause of the decline of fish numbers, saying, “I am still trying to do more work on the issue and get things wrapped up.” On the other hand, he says there has been a decline in water quality on the Warm Springs Ponds, with arsenic levels much higher than in years past. He says, “I can’t prove the fish decline is due to water quality, but my gut says it is.”

A View of Earth Day 40 Years Later

The annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America will be held, this coming June, in Rochester, Minnesota. Assuming I go, it’ll be a trip back home, as Rochester is about 30 miles from my hometown of Zumbrota, a small town that got its name from the Zumbro River, which wanders through southeastern Minnesota on its way to the Mississippi River.

A part of the conference program that caught my eye was trips to trout streams of the area, plus smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro River. Previously, I’d also heard from others about great smallmouth fishing on the Zumbro.

The reason I have to do a double-take about smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro is that when I was a kid there weren’t, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, any sport fish on our local river, and certainly nobody was doing guided trips on the Zumbro. Nobody went fishing on the Zumbro, except for rough fish, such as carp or suckers.

Why wasn’t there sport fishing on my hometown stream? That’s an easy one. Pollution.
Just for starters, my hometown and neighboring communities all dumped raw sewage in the river. There’s a local cheese factory in town where most of the local dairy farmers sell their milk and cream. My dad made trips to town every few days to fill old oil drums with whey, the watery part of milk that gets separated in the cheese-making process. The cheese factory gave it to any farmer, free for the taking, and my dad fed it to the pigs on our farm. What the cheese factory couldn’t give away went straight into the river, which was, conveniently, just a block away, and the cheese factory had a direct sewer line that fed into the river.

The town also had a dump right on the banks of the river, and no, it didn’t rate being called a sanitary landfill, and you’d better believe a lot of what went to the dump ended up in the river.

In the context of the times, there was nothing particularly unusual or newsworthy about this pollution. In 1969, Time magazine reported on the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, Ohio, “Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.’ It is also — literally — a fire hazard.” In fact, over a hundred year period, the river caught on fire a number of times, including 1969.

Closer to home, the Yellowstone River is considered one of Montana’s premier recreational rivers and is celebrated for a premier trout fishery in the upper river. In the lower river, downstream from Billings, there’s a thriving fishery for paddlefish, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger.

Yet, as many people will recall, at one time the community of Gardner dumped raw sewage into the Yellowstone, as did the city of Livingston. My wife grew up in Glendive in eastern Montana, and when she was a kid nobody fished on the river—because of the pollution.

What happened to restore these rivers and fisheries? We can look directly at Earth Day, which happened the first time on April 22, 1970, just 40 years ago this past week, and a grass roots movement that led to the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the framework to create wilderness areas, as well as creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—all achievements of a Republican administration.

Last week, public television broadcast a documentary on the history of Earth Day, with a narrator noting that while President Nixon “didn’t have an environmental bone in his body,” he certainly had a fine sense of how political winds were blowing. And that’s how the bi-partisan legislation that has done so much to restore America’s rivers happened.

From today’s perspective of perpetual congressional deadlock, it seems even more amazing.