No changes yet on Madison but why not? I have always questioned opening up the Madison to year-round fishing. If brown trout are in trouble, why not shut down during the fall spawn? It didn’t matter years ago when pressure was light. Nowadays, pressure is heavy. Giving the fish a break during spawning season makes sense to me.

Regulations changed to protect brown trout on Big Hole, Beaverhead

  • MICHAEL CAST…Montana Standard
  • 10 hrs ago
Brown trout (copy)
The entire Beaverhead as well as the Big Hole from the mouth to Dickie Bridge are now restricted to catch-and-release fishing for brown trout, and only single hooks on artificial flies and lures may be used. Thom Bridge,


In a whirlwind meeting Friday morning, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission made big changes to fishing regulations for the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers in response to the brown trout decline. The changes went into effect immediately.

The entire Beaverhead and the Big Hole from the mouth to Dickie Bridge are now restricted to catch-and-release fishing for brown trout, and only single hooks on artificial flies and lures may be used.

This means harvesting brown trout, bait fishing, and treble hooks are now prohibited on those water bodies.

The commission also adopted seasonal closures to protect brown trout spawning habitat for sections of the two rivers.

Starting this fall, the Beaverhead will be fully closed to fishing from Nov. 1 to the third Saturday in May from Clark Canyon Dam to Pipe Organ Bridge. A seasonal closure for spawning was already in place for the section below the dam.

The Big Hole will be fully closed to fishing from Nov. 1 to the third Saturday in May from BLM Maiden Rock to Brownes Bridge fishing access site, a short, popular section of the river.

The motion by Commissioner K.C. Walsh was carried unanimously.

Last-minute change

The emergency regulation changes passed in swift manner, with modifications being made to the motion along the way.

The rule changes were the culmination of a major public outreach effort started after FWP biologists sounded the alarm that survival rate of juvenile brown trout and total brown trout numbers were down in a number of southwest Montana rivers. These included the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Madison, Ruby, Jefferson, upper Yellowstone, Shields and upper Stillwater. The decline has been underway for around five years in most of those rivers.

While FWP believes flow rather than fishing is driving the decline, changes in regulations were considered to limit the impact of fishing while scientists address the larger issues.

FWP held public meetings in the affected areas, formed a focus group, and distributed a survey to anglers. From there, FWP generated alternatives the agency felt could make an impact.

The agency posted its original alternatives when the meeting agenda was posted, but changed them the day before the meeting.

The original material didn’t list a specific proposal, but the alternative that “could be the most beneficial regulation change on the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers” would have closed the Beaverhead section on Sep. 30 instead of Nov. 1. A longer section of the Big Hole would have been closed, from Dickie Bridge to the mouth, Oct. 1 to March 31.

“After several phone calls this week with anglers, outfitters and commissioners, we decided to make changes to the brown trout regulation proposals,” FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon said.

“We believe it’s still a good balance between providing protection for wild trout while also providing angling opportunity,” he added.

The revised documents did include an actual recommended proposal to close just the shorter section of the Big Hole and use the Nov. 1 through late May closure dates for the sections of both rivers.

The commission adopted the final proposal as part of its motion.

During public comment on the motion, two members of the angling community called in to recommend an earlier closure during spawning, as did many members of the public during the scoping period.

In the final FWP documents, the agency recognized the concerns that a seasonal closure will limit fishing opportunity and that “implementing the fishing closure Nov. 1 could be after peak brown trout spawn, making adult fish more vulnerable to angling.”

In scoping, many in the public also supported closing more of the Big Hole to protect trout during spawning.

Ryan Barba, co-owner of Sunrise Fly shop in Melrose, called in during public comment.

“If we just close BLM Maiden Rock to Brownes Bridge, we are leaving major spawning areas that can get trampled from the road … there are known places where people fish and harvest fish and trample spawning beds … we really need to take into consideration a different type of closure. And I’m all for marking these zones, these major spawning zones and having closures in those areas,” Barba said.

Pedro Marques, executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, in an interview following the meeting, said the section chosen was well-known spawning ground and would give the agency a good scientific perspective on whether the closure was effective.

Members of the public and FWP biologists have stressed the importance of adjusting regulations in a way that scientists could learn from and Marques said he believes the closure will do so.


The FWP proposal did not recommend the switch to catch-and-release or changes in gear restrictions, though agency did present catch-and-release options in one of its listed alternative actions.

The commissioners decided catch-and-release should be included.

“The majority of the feedback advocated for catch-and-release regulations on brown trout,” Walsh said.

FWP fisheries manager Eileen Ryce said on most of the rivers few anglers keep fish, and that FWP didn’t want to take away the opportunity from the few who do so unnecessarily.

Throughout the scoping process, members of the public raised the catch-and-release issue, as on-the-ground creel surveys haven’t been conducted for most of the rivers in many years while angler pressure has increased significantly.

Though Region 3 fisheries manager Travis Horton said known data doesn’t suggest catch-and-release would make a big difference, he said it couldn’t hurt the population.

“I think that catch release is an option that you guys certainly have to consider. And I think that we are in a dire situation with these brown trout, in particular with this year. It certainly would not hurt the situation to encourage those juvenile fish to be able to grow up,” he said.

Ryce said catch-and-release fishing puts a lot of stress on the fish, and that FWP felt the best approach was spawning closures.

“We’re not talking about catch-and-release or fishing closure. I am advocating for the adoption of both,” Walsh said, and added it to his motion.

Commissioner Patrick Tabor added his two cents on catch-and-release.

“Just about every other place where we are really worried about fish we do this, and I don’t know why there’s a resistance to doing that here,” he said.

Walsh in his motion originally applied catch-and-release to the entire Big Hole and Beaverhead, but Jim Olsen, FWP fisheries biologist for the Big Hole, said brown trout are not in decline but actually more prevalent in the upper Big Hole of late, and are considered a threat to arctic grayling.

The motion was revised not to include the upper river above Dickie Bridge.

Walsh also added gear restrictions to his motion — single hooks on artificial lures and flies for both rivers year-round. Ryce and commissioners concurrently decided it didn’t make sense to restrict gear by species and it was decided to ban bait and treble hooks altogether.

There were no changes to gear restrictions for the Big Hole above Dickie Bridge.

Other rivers

The public scoping period addressed several other southwest Montana rivers, but FWP only recommended changes on the Beaverhead and Big Hole.

Jon Malovich, executive director of the Madison River Foundation, and a member of the focus group during scoping, called during public comment to recommend the Madison be included.

“There was also proposed regulation changes or adjustments for those three-year periods to be put in place on the Madison River … the biologists had commented about fish die-offs a lot … there’s no question we’re losing our brown trout in the state of Montana. And so I would propose with this motion we would also include the Madison River,” he said.

Ultimately, the commissioners chose not to make any motions related to the other rivers.

In the packet FWP provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting, the agency addressed each river individually.

For the Ruby and Jefferson, the agency cited poor flows from the drought as the primary limiting factor and said changing regulations would not likely have a population-scale effect.

The agency noted there is less angling pressure on the Boulder and Shields rivers compared to the Beaverhead and Big Hole.

Restrictions wouldn’t be as effective on the Yellowstone due to spawning locations and the fact a high percentage of anglers practice catch-and-release, the agency said.

On the Madison, FWP said seasonal closures, catch-and-release and gear restrictions would not be expected to substantially help the species.

Marques with the Big Hole Watershed Committee said he was pleased to see FWP and the commission take bold action Friday.

Commissioner Patrick Byorth, a fisheries biologist himself, ultimately voted for the motion, but questioned the decision to go beyond FWP’s direct recommendations.

“Our focus has always been on habitat and flow, and that’s really where, in our wild trout fisheries, rubber meets the road. And we often get distracted by these regulations. And for many years, across the state, we get into these conversations about special regulations when they often are either irrelevant or have a very minor effect. And I just don’t want us to get sidetracked,” Byorth said.

“This is not the time to try and micromanage our fisheries,” he added.