Save Wild Trout roils Big Hole debate

SWT Sonde Big Hole 034

In this file photo from August, Save Wild Trout’s lead scientist Kyle Flynn, Ph.D., carries a portable water-quality monitor out of the Big Hole River at Jerry Creek Fishing Access Site. Scientists hope to nail down the factors driving declines in trout populations in rivers in the Jefferson Basin. 

  • Joseph Scheller

Brown trout

Past sampling by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks suggests that populations of brown trout are at historic lows in sections of the Big Hole and other rivers in the Jefferson River Basin. 

  • PAUL SIDDOWAY

Wade Fellin, a fishing outfitter on the Big Hole River, is one of the founders of Save Wild Trout. The nonprofit said late last week that scientific research about trout populations in the Big Hole and other rivers in southwest Montana is more likely than anecdotal reports to accurately identify issues driving reported population declines.

Pedro Marques characterized concerns last summer about declining trout populations in the Big Hole River as “hysteria.”

Marques, executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, offered this take in the organization’s fall newsletter.

“By most accounts, 2023 was a banner year for fishing,” he wrote.

How could that be true, given reports last spring from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks of an ongoing and troubling decline in trout populations in portions of the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby and Jefferson rivers? In some river sections, populations of brown trout were said to be at historic lows.

“For reasons that are not entirely clear, the brown trout population has been declining for the past seven years,” FWP reported in a recent overview of the Big Hole River drainage.

Four fishing outfitter/guides told The Montana Standard that fishing in 2023 was generally comparable to immediately preceding years.

Shaun Jeszenka, owner of Frontier Anglers in Dillon, offered an especially upbeat look back at 2023. He described the fishing as excellent.

“We had good conditions on the Big Hole and good fishing last summer,” he said.

The good conditions in 2023 were said to include decent snowpack, generally positive flows and cold-water temperatures through much of the peak fishing season and reduced angling pressure, with the last likely related in part to regional and national publicity about the declining populations.

Jeszenka blamed Save Wild Trout for creating an unduly negative impression of fishing conditions in the Jefferson River Basin. The nonprofit organization had emerged in crisis mode in June, citing government inaction about declining trout populations.

“The negative publicity facilitated by Save Wild Trout has had a detrimental effect upon the fishing industry of southwest Montana,” Jeszenka said. “We take several calls a week from anglers concerned that most of our trout might be dead.”

Yet Save Wild Trout insists its focus is working collaboratively with FWP, the Big Hole River Foundation, the Big Hole Watershed Committee, the fishing community and others, along with a scientist hired by Save Wild Trout, to get a better understanding of the variables driving a decline in trout populations. That outcome should benefit everyone who cares about the Big Hole River and depends economically on its health, said Wade Fellin, a fishing outfitter and guide, a co-owner of the Big Hole Lodge near Wise River and one of the founders of Save Wild Trout.

“People should know we’re still catching fish and the fishing is still good,” he said. “However, anecdotal evidence is no substitute for expert scientific analysis.

“Most in the angling and fly-fishing community understand that cold-water fisheries require physical, chemical and biological health for wild trout to thrive, and how science must guide our management decisions,” Fellin added.

Fellin and his father, Craig, helped organize a May 30 letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte that described a “dire, emergency situation occurring within the rivers of southwest Montana” and sought Gianforte’s immediate assistance. Jeszenka was among a host of other outfitters and guides who signed that letter.

Two months later, Gianforte convened a roundtable discussion in Wise River. Most people who attended had ties to the ranching community, which pulls water from the Big Hole and other rivers to irrigate hay.

Meanwhile, what happens when anecdotal reports conflict with census numbers garnered by fisheries biologists during field surveys — conducted through electrofishing and tagging and crunched with probability-based statistical methods?

Save Wild Trout posed the question like this: “So, how can trout fishing be good and fish continue to be caught in robust numbers while a population is simultaneously declining?”

Anecdotal reports can mislead, according to Save Wild Trout.

Outfitters and guides know from experience where trout hang out. They know how to help their clients catch those trout. They know how to match hatches, how to add a dropper to a fly, where to float and where to wade and on and on.

Save Wild Trout suggests catch rates are often deceiving.

“Research suggests that [catch] can remain sufficiently high and stable long enough to forge a false narrative, until fish populations suddenly collapse,” the organization says.

“While anecdotal fishing reports certainly have value for trout population managers, empirical stock assessment and ultimate fisheries management decisions must be based upon proven scientific methodology,” Save Wild Trout asserts.

The fishing outfitters or guides interviewed for this article included Travis Thompson, who is a guide for both Great Divide Outfitters in Divide and the Big Hole Lodge. Thompson said he believes there is value in netting as much information as possible, whether anecdotal or empirical.

“I want to look at all the evidence and not just cherry-pick,” he said.  

Thompson said bookings this year seem to be a bit off for the annual salmon fly hatch but are otherwise on par.

Ryan Barba, a co-owner of the Sunrise Fly Shop in Melrose, said fishing conditions for much of the season in 2023 were generally good enough to reduce stress on trout.

“There wasn’t a noticeable difference in fishing last year compared to the previous year,” Barba said. “People are still coming to fish. In spite of the gloom and doom you see in the media, there are fish to be caught and released.”

He said he was encouraged in 2023 to encounter a lot of juvenile fish later in the season.

“That’s a good sign,” Barba said.

Marques also highlighted evidence in 2023 of young fish transitioning to an older, larger life stage — a process called “recruitment.” He noted that FWP fisheries biologist Jim Olsen has been out on the Big Hole River recently collecting new population data.

“We’re hopeful that the recruitment class of fish we all saw on the river last year shows up in Jim’s numbers this year and that our fishery begins a slow climb out of danger,” Marques said. “And we look forward to making meaningful contributions to the water resources of the Big Hole.”

The Big Hole Watershed Committee emerged in 1995 when ranchers in the upper Big Hole Valley believed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might add the river’s population of Arctic grayling to the Endangered Species List — an outcome they feared would lead the federal government to bird dog their irrigation practices.

Since then, the Big Hole Watershed Committee, or BHWC, has shepherded a host of projects designed to improve riparian habitats, streambank health, increase the efficiency of irrigation and more.

“BHWC is not skeptical of the science behind the trout declines or that they are declining,” Marques said. “We have worked closely with fisheries biologists and managers since our founding almost 30 years ago and trust in their work.

“We’re very supportive of the science-based approach FWP is taking to understand fish declines and have been at the center of science-based management of the river for decades,” Marques added.

He said it is helpful for Save Wild Trout to add to the state’s data sets tracking water quality.

“But without turning that data into meaningful projects, it’s just data. We’re experts at turning data and ideas into meaningful projects,” Marques said.

He said the Big Hole Watershed Committee focuses on long-term solutions, not short-term attention.

“A lot of time and attention was given to getting the word out nationally about declining fish numbers — the ‘hair-on-fire’ attention led to [fishing trip] cancellations and, by some accounts, 10% to 15% drops in revenue for local businesses,” Marques said. “The hype also seemed to implicate irrigation as the cause of fish declines, another push in that decades-old — and tired — argument against ranching. 

“Definitely begs the question, who benefits from all that negative attention?” he said.

Save Wild Trout, which is affiliated with Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, suggests the goal is using science to benefit the river, its fish populations, along with anglers and the fishing community that serves them.  

The organization said its lead scientist, Kyle Flynn, Ph.D., will perform basin-wide water quality monitoring this summer to understand river health conditions. That work will happen in collaboration with state fishery managers, said Save Wild Trout.

“The absolute worst outcome for southwest Montana’s wild trout — and anglers alike — is for wild trout populations to collapse without a roadmap to recovery, which is precisely why trained scientific experts must communicate the extent of the problem and manage our fisheries using science, not anecdotal evidence,” observed Save Wild Trout.

Fellin said it will be important to have buy-in from people on the river for the scientific evidence and anecdotal reports to yield a valid portrait of the relative health of the rivers in the Jefferson River Basin.

The extent of that buy-in is unclear.