Montana Standard, Butte, Mt.

Paul Siddoway: Crunch time for Big Hole Fisheries Management Plan

  • Sep 9, 2022

Dr. Paul Siddoway

Dr. Paul Siddoway

brown trout


“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers but of the human heart” – Shozo Tanaka

I am grateful to have the Big Hole as my home waters and continue to draw strength from her life force for all the ups and downs of human existence. In the last year, much has been written and discussed regarding the decline in our wild trout populations and continued suboptimal streamflows in late summer and early fall. Despite an exceptional moisture pattern in May and June, we are below 200cfs on large sections of the Big Hole as we enter the critical spawning period for our beloved brown trout.

Despite all the environmental factors that are keeping the river ecosystem from better overall health, many organizations and individuals are working diligently towards solutions. The Big Hole Watershed Committee drought management plan has continued to be extremely helpful and they continue to look for both volunteer and fund driven projects to improve streamflows. I strongly believe that off-stream storage, both structural and non-structural , needs to be further developed in the near future. We need to at least partially contain the millions of gallons of water that leave the drainage every year.

While we are waiting for more solutions to our late season streamflow problems, we can make an impact on angling mortality with the approval of a monumental new fisheries management and regulation plan to be voted on in October by the Montana FWP Commission. There are some times when FWP gets the chance to lead the argument or decision making process, and this is one of them. The new management plan, with regulations based on trout abundance and biology , will be as critical as the decision to stop planting trout in Montana rivers in the 1970s.

In the early 1970s, fisheries manager Art Whitney and fisheries biologist Dick Vincent met to discuss starting a multi-year research project to prove that planted fish increased competition and this would not allow wild fish to reach their full potential. Dick Vincent told Art that the proposal makes “perfect biological sense”. As a result of this landmark study, Art Whitney was able to convince the FWP commission to stop stocking trout on the Montana rivers that had the capacity to generate and sustain wild trout. If the theory was incorrect, Mr. Whitney would step down from his position. Both Dick and Art indicated that fishing would not only get better, it would become more challenging and more sporting and eventually bigger trout would come back.

They turned out to be right on all counts. Wild trout once more ruled the rivers of Montana. Almost 50 years has passed since this monumental change took place, and for unknown reasons our wild brown trout populations are barely holding their own, as evidenced by the catastrophic drop in numbers on the Big Hole and other rivers in Southwest Montana.

Like a breath of fresh air across Montana, our fisheries biologists Jim Olsen and Matt Jaeger, have come up with a new plan that makes “perfect biological sense”. It is based on a mathematical formula that takes into account both natural and angling morality. The formula will be used to calculate how changes in fishing regulations can drive populations.

The Big Hole would be divided into 3 sections and Dickie Bridge and Browns Bridge would be the dividing points. Population estimates would occur in May and changes to the fishing regulations by June 1, if necessary. To simplify, if fish counts are considered at management goals, then harvest of fish could occur. If numbers are low, like they have been for the past few years, then catch and release and spawning closures would take place. The department believes spawning closures are appropriate for both rainbow and brown trout due to low abundance of both species in several sections. When fish population numbers increase to near long term average, this restriction would be re- assessed and less restrictive regulations would be started.

The proposed management and regulation changes have been well supported by multiple conservation groups and during all public meetings. The common theme was that the management strategies addressed their concerns (i.e. regulations would be based on trout abundances and biology). Any concern regarding loss of some opportunity due to spawning closures, was far outweighed by the ultimate goal of protecting the resource for the future.

Congratulations to our fisheries biologists and all members of the FWP fisheries division for supporting and recommending that these changes occur as soon as possible. This should be a ” slam dunk” unanimous decision for the FWP commission at the October meeting. I believe it will have a tremendous impact on the survival of our fragile and blessed wild trout populations, much like the decision to stop planting trout in the 1970s.

Please take the time to send comments to FWP in support of the new management and regulation plan for the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers through Sept. 22.

Dr. Paul Siddoway is a Butte physician, avid fly fisherman and adamant supporter of conservation measures on the Big Hole River.